London, England 1720
“Mowbray! Been a while since you bothered with the season. What brings
you to town?”
Lord Adrian Montfort, the earl of Mowbray shifted his gaze away from the couples
whirling past on the dance floor and to the man who had approached. Tall, fair,
imminently good looking; Reginald Greville. Adrian and Greville, his cousin, had
once been the best of friends. However, time and distance had weakened the bond…with
a little help from the war with Spain, Adrian thought bitterly. Ignoring Reginald’s
question, he offered a somewhat rusty smile in greeting, then turned his gaze
back to the men and women swinging elegantly about the dance floor as he asked,
“Enjoying the season, Greville?”
“Certainly, certainly. Fresh blood. Fresh faces.”
“Fresh victims,” Mowbray added dryly, and Reginald laughed.
“That too.” Reginald was well known for his success in seducing
young innocents. Only his title and money kept him from being forced out of town.
Shaking his head, Adrian gave that rusty smile again. “I wonder you never
tire of the chase, Reg. They all look sadly the same to me. I would swear these
were the very same young women who were entering their first season the last time
I attended....and the time before that, and the time before that.”
His cousin smiled easily, but shook his head. “It has been ten years
since you bothered to come to town, Adrian. Those women are all married and bearing
fruit, or well on their way to spinsterhood.”
“Different faces, same ladies,” Adrian said with an indifferent
“Such cynicism,” Reg chided. “You sound old, old man.”
“Older,” Adrian corrected. “Older and wiser.”
“No. Just old!” Reg insisted with a laugh, his own gaze turning
to the mass of moving people before them. “Besides, there are a couple of
real lovelies this year. That blonde for instance, or that brunette with Chalmsly.”
“Hmmm.” Adrian looked them over. “Correct me if I’m
wrong, but my guess is that the brunette -- lovely as she is -- doesn’t
have a thought in her head. Rather like the Lady Penelope you seduced when last
I was here.”
Reg's eyes widened in surprise at the observation.
“And the blonde,” Adrian continued, his gaze raking over the woman
in question, and taking in her calculating look. “Born of parents in trade,
lots of money and looking for a title to go with it. Rather like Lily Ainsley.
Another of your conquests.”
“Dead on,” Reginald admitted, looking a bit incredulous. His gaze
moved between the two women and then he gave a harsh laugh. “Now you have
quite ruined it for me. I was considering favoring either, or both, of them with
my attentions. But, now you have made them quite boring.” He frowned for
a moment and then perked up. “Ah, I know one woman you can not size up so
Grabbing Adrian's arm, he began tugging him around the room, pausing once they’d
reached the opposite side.
“There!” he said with satisfaction. “The girl in the yellow
muslin gown. Lady Clarissa Crambray. I defy you to find someone from the last
season you were here to compare her to.”
Adrian looked over the girl in question. Tiny, delicate looking in fact, and
lovely as a newly blooming rose. She had dark, chestnut hair, a heart-shaped face,
large, wide eyes, full lips, and looked about as miserable as he’d ever
seen a young woman look. A state he suspected had something to do with the older
woman at her side. Well-rounded with dark hair, she was still pretty despite the
bloom of youth being gone…or she would be if she weren’t wearing a
pursed, dissatisfied expression as she surveyed the activity in the ballroom,
Adrian thought and glanced back to the girl.
“First season?” he queried, his curiosity peaked...
“Yes.” Reg was looking amused.
“Why is no one dancing with her?” A beauty such as she should have
had a full card.
“No one dares ask her to dance and you will not either if you value your
Adrian's eyebrows rose, his gaze turning reluctantly from the young woman to
the man at his side.
“She is blind as a bat and dangerous to boot,” Reg announced, nodding
when Adrian looked disbelieving. “Truly, she cannot dance a step without
stomping on your feet and falling about. She cannot even walk without bumping
into things.” He paused, cocking one eyebrow at Adrian's expression. “I
know you do not believe it. I did not either… Much to my own folly.”
Reginald turned to glare at the girl as he continued. “I was warned,
but ignored it and took her in to dinner...” He glanced back at Adrian.
“I was wearing dark brown trousers that night...unfortunately. She mistook
my lap for a table and set her tea on me...Or rather, tried to. It over set and...”
Reg paused, shifting uncomfortably at the memory. “Damn me if she did not
burn my piffle.”
Adrian stared at the man and then burst into laughter.
Reginald looked startled, then smiled wryly. “Yes. Laugh. But, if I never
sire another child – legitimate -- or not, I shall blame it solely on Lady
Shaking his head, Adrian laughed harder, and it felt so good. It had been many
years since he’d found anything in the least bit funny. But, the image of
the delicate little flower along the wall, mistaking Reg's lap for a table, and
oversetting a cup of tea on him was priceless.
“What did you do?” he got out at last.
Reg shook his head and raised his hands helplessly. “What could I do?
I pretended it had not happened, stayed where I was, and tried not to cry with
the pain. ‘A gentleman never deigns to notice, or draw attention in
any way, to a lady's public faux pas,’” he quoted dryly, then
glanced back at the girl with a sigh. “And truth to tell, I do not think
she even realized what she had done. Rumor has it she can see fine with spectacles,
but is too vain to wear them.”
Still smiling, Adrian followed Reg's gaze to the girl, carefully taking in
her wretched expression before shaking his head.
“No. Not vain,” he announced, watching as the older woman beside
Lady Clarissa murmured something, stood, and moved away.
“Well,” Reg began, but paused when - ignoring him - Adrian moved
toward the girl. Shaking his head, he muttered, “I warned you.”
“Refrain from squinting, please.”
Despite the inclusion of the word 'please', it was not a request, but an order,
and one Clarissa was heartily sick of hearing her stepmother give. If the woman
would simply allow her to wear her spectacles, she would have no need to squint.
She would also not be constantly bumping into things and people. But no, of course,
she must not wear her spectacles. That would put off suitors.
As if her clumsiness did not, Clarissa thought wearily, and grimaced
inwardly over some of the little 'accidents' she’d had since arriving in
London. Aside from upending tea trays and missing tables with her plates, she’d
taken a terrible tumble down the stairs. Fortunately, she hadn’t hurt herself
over much, suffering bruises and stiffness, but nothing broken. Then there was
the little incident of falling out in front of a moving carriage, not to mention
her having set Lord Prudhomme's wig on fire.
Another sigh slid from her lips as Clarissa recalled Lydia’s lecture
after the last accident. Her stepmother had decided that -- as she was so blind
and clumsy without her spectacles -- there was only one way for her to go on.
Clarissa was to sit quietly in future when in the presence of others. She was
not to touch candles, cups, plates, or....well....basically anything. She was
no longer to eat in company, but was to claim she was not hungry...whether she
was or not. Neither was she to drink. Walking was even out without her maid to
Clarissa had burst into this lecture several times with “But, if you
would only allow me to wear my spectacles-” And, each time, Lydia had responded
with a grim, “Never!” And then continued on with all the other things
she was never to do.
By the time Lydia had finished, all Clarissa was supposed to do in the presence
of others was sit at her stepmother's side, looking serene…which meant,
Sighing, Clarissa turned her gaze away from the blur of people swinging past
on the dance floor and stared wearily at the pale pink blur of her own hands in
the yellow haze of her lap. It was going to be another boring night.
“May I have this dance?”
Clarissa heard the request, but didn't bother to look up. Why should she? It
wasn't as if she could see anything anyway. Instead, she waited unhappily for
her stepmother to speak, wondering the whole while who the stranger was that he
had not heard of her. Anyone who had heard the tales of her clumsiness, surely
would not approach.
Realizing that Lydia hadn’t yet politely demurred the request on her
behalf by saying she was too tired, or whatever excuse she chose, Clarissa glanced
to her side with a frown to find that the pink blur that was Lydia was no longer
there. When a black blur suddenly moved into the seat, Clarissa sat back with
A frown forming on her face, she turned blindly, searching the haze of color
around her for her stepmother’s bright pink blur.
“I believe the lady who was sitting here a moment ago went off in search
of food,” the deep voice was so close to her ear that Clarissa felt his
breath on her delicate lobe.
Suppressing a shiver, she turned her attention quickly back to the man at her
side. He had a lovely, deep gravelly voice that she found pleasing and his blurred
form appeared quite large. For the millionth time Clarissa wished she had her
spectacles and could see.
“Did she not tell you where she was going?” he asked now. “I
thought I saw her speak to you before leaving.”
Clarissa blushed slightly, and quickly returned her gaze to the blur of colorful
movement that was the dance floor as she admitted, “She may have. I fear
I was distracted by my own thoughts and not paying attention.”
While she had a vague recollection of Lydia murmuring something to her, Clarissa
had been sunk too deep in her own misery to pay her much heed. It was humiliating
to sit here catching bits of conversation as people gossiped unkindly about her.
Her clumsiness was apparently quite the joke of the season. She’d earned
the moniker Clumsy Clarissa and everyone was wondering what she would do next
to entertain them.
“They say you are as blind as a bat, and too vain to wear spectacles.”
Clarissa blinked in surprise at this blurted announcement. If she was taken
aback by his bluntness, she suspected it was no more so than the speaker. She’d
heard a small gasp of breath as he finished, as if he’d just realized what
he’d said. A quick glance to the side showed that he’d raised his
hand as if to cover his mouth.
“I am sorry, I have obviously been too long out of society. I should
“Oh bother.” Clarissa waved his apology away and sank back in her
seat with a dejected sigh. “’Tis all right. I do know what people
are saying. They seem to think that I am deaf as well as clumsy, for they do not
worry about saying it in front of me -- or at least behind their fans -- loudly
enough for me to hear.” Making a face, she mimicked those she spoke of.
“Oh look, there she is, poor thing, Clumsy Clarissa.”
“I am sorry,” he said quietly.
Clarissa waved his words away again, only this time noting the way he dodged
as if to avoid a sound blow to the head. Frowning, she clasped her hands together
and settled them in her lap as she repeated, “There is no need to apologize.
At least you said it to my face.”
“Yes, well…” The man seemed to relax in his seat now that
her hands weren’t waving wildly around. “Actually, it was more a question.
I was wondering if you truly are?”
Clarissa smiled wryly. “Ah, well, I am not quite as blind as a bat. I
can see with spectacles. But, my stepmother has taken them away.” She threw
a dry smile in the general direction of his blurry shape and then shrugged. “Lydia
seems to think that I will have more luck setting a fire in some suitable man's
heart without them. Though the only thing as yet that I have set fire to is Lord
“Excuse me?” he asked with amazement. “Prudhomme's wig?”
“Hmm.” She leaned back in her chair and actually managed to chuckle
at the memory. “Yes. Though if you ask me, ‘twas not wholly my fault.
The man knew that I could not see without my spectacles. Why the deuce he asked
me to move the candle closer is beyond me.” Clarissa paused to squint in
her companion’s general direction. “He is bald as a cue ball without
his wig, is he not?”
She thought he nodded, though it was hard to say. The man was emitting small
choked sounds. It took her a moment to identify them. He was fighting desperately
not to laugh.
“Go ahead and laugh,” Clarissa said with a small smile. “I
did. Though, not right away.”
He relaxed somewhat then. She could actually feel the muscles in the arm and
leg pressed against her own, expand. But, he only expelled a small chuckle.
Clarissa squinted again, trying to bring his face into focus. She wanted very
much to see his face. She liked the sound of his laugh, and his voice when he
spoke was husky yet soft, it was really quite...attractive, she decided. And,
while Clarissa should have moved over rather than allow the intimate closeness
of his hip rubbing against hers with every move, she quite liked that too, so,
she pretended not to notice.
“How did Lord Prudhomme take this little accident?”
Clarissa gave up trying to see his face and smiled good-naturedly. “Not
at all well. He thought it was all my fault. He called me quite a few nasty names
too. I think he would have hit me, but the servants wrestled him from the house,”
she admitted with a small frown, then sighed and added, “Of course, my stepmother
– Lydia -- then lectured me ad nauseam afterward about all that I must and
must not do from now on.”
“Pretty much everything is off limits,” Clarissa said cheerfully.
“Let’s see, no eating in public, no drinking in public... In fact,
I am not to touch anything in public; candles, flower vases, anything. I am not
even supposed to walk without someone to guide me.”
“But she did not say no dancing?”
“No. But then, she did not have to.” Clarissa’s smile faded.
She hesitated and then tried to explain. “Everything is a blur you see,
so, when I whirl about, all I see are blurs of color and light flashing around.
I lose my balance, and...” She paused and shrugged, but a blush was creeping
over her face as she remembered the last brave soul who had asked her to dance.
Clarissa had ended up tripping him up as well, so they had both ended on the floor.
“Then keep your eyes shut.”
“What?” Clarissa glanced blankly at the dark blur beside her.
“Keep your eyes closed and you will not lose your balance,” the
man explained, then she saw his hand move closer to her. He was offering her a
hand to rise.
Clarissa opened her mouth to refuse and then paused as his hand suddenly enclosed
hers, sending a shock of sensation racing up her arm. It was such an odd feeling,
like excitement, but alive, coursing across her flesh.
“I do not...” she began faintly with bewilderment, pausing when
his hand lifted her chin and he bent to stare into her eyes. Close enough to kiss,
she thought vaguely. Good, God, Clarissa realized, close enough to see! For one
brief second, she stared clearly into the most beautiful set of brown velvet eyes
she’d ever seen, then, he pulled back slightly, and out of focus.
“Trust me.” It was not so much a request, as an order. But, Clarissa
remembered those eyes, so dark, so kind, and she nodded her head. Then he was
tugging her out of her seat, and directing her through the crowd of dancers to
the middle of the dance floor.
“Now...” His voice was calm and soothing as he turned her to face
him. “Close your eyes,” he instructed, lifting her free hand to his
His voice was almost hypnotic, Clarissa thought vaguely.
“Follow me. I will not allow you to stumble.”
Despite having just met him, Clarissa believed him and knew he would not let
her stumble as he led her into the dance. With her eyes closed, she had only her
ears, and his touch to lead her. The music was loud and strong, drowning out all
conversation. His touch guided her; a squeeze of the hand, an urging pressure
at her waist. And the only other sensation was the air brushing past her as he
whirled her around and around, without once tripping, or stumbling. For the first
time in weeks -- since her arrival in London in fact -- Clarissa didn't feel like
a clumsy oaf. It was divine.
When it ended, he gave her hand a squeeze and then drew it through his arm
to promenade the room.
“You dance divinely, my lady,” he said quietly near her ear, gently
leading her with his arm, and pressure on her hand, past the gay colors of the
Clarissa flushed and smiled a bit proudly, then sighed and shook her head.
“No, my Lord,” she said demurely. “You give me too much credit.
I fear you are the one who dances divinely. I know it is not I, for I have been
able to do nothing but stumble and fall about when dancing with others.”
“Than the fault lies with those `others'. You are as light, and graceful
as a feather on the dance floor with me.”
Clarissa considered that briefly, then, with her innate sense of justice, nodded
her head. “I believe you may be right, my lord. After all, if it were me
alone, even your obvious skill could not have made it so easy. Perhaps my previous
partners were a bit nervous and awkward.”
She could hear the smile in his voice and raised her eyebrows in question.
“Your honesty. I am pleased by your lack of false modesty. It is something
that never really bothered me before, yet now seems as fake and unpleasant as
the airs everyone puts on when in the city. I find your honesty most refreshing.”
Clarissa felt herself blush, then the first strains of a new song hummed through
the air and her companion paused and turned her into his arms once more.
“Close your eyes,” he instructed and began to move her around the
room once more.
Clarissa closed her eyes and relaxed into his arms. She suspected they shouldn’t
really be dancing this closely, but feared if she insisted they reduce the closeness,
she may return to the clumsy stumbling she’d suffered before. Besides, she
quite liked being in his embrace. Between that and her closed eyes, she felt quite
coddled and safe.
“Why do you not disobey this stepmother of yours?”
Clarissa blinked her eyes open, tried in vain to see the face dancing before
her and then gave it up and raised a questioning eyebrow. “What do you mean?”
“I mean, why do you not simply wear the spectacles anyway?”
“Oh, I tried that the first day I was in London,” Clarissa admitted
with irritation. “I came downstairs dressed for Lord Findlay's ball wearing
them. Lydia was livid. She snatched them off my face and broke them right in front
of my eyes. Almost close enough that I could see what she was doing.”
“She broke them?” He was obviously shocked by the lengths her stepmother
would go to.
Clarissa gave a solemn nod. “Lydia does not care to be disobeyed.”
“But if she broke them, how do you see to get around at home?”
he asked with dismay.
“I do not.” Clarissa grimaced and then admitted with some vexation,
“I have to be led around by servants. It is quite tedious.”
“I imagine it would be,” he murmured.
“Hmm.” She briefly reflected on the humiliation of it all and then
said, “But the worst of it is that I can not do anything without my spectacles.
I can not embroider, or arrange flowers… or anything. And it is impossible
to read. Even if I move the books right up to my eyes, I can not read long before
the strain makes my head ache. ‘Tis quite boring. I have nothing to do but
sit about, twiddling my thumbs.”
Adrian murmured sympathetically despite the slight smile tugging at his mouth.
The pout on her lips -- unconscious though it was -- was quite endearing as he
gazed down on her. She was quite a lovely chit. Though, perhaps not in a traditional
way. Her lips were too big for any member of the season to think of her as lovely,
but he just thought they were quite seductive. And her nose was just a bit too
pert for today's standards, but he thought it cute.
Adrian was so preoccupied with taking in her features, that he hardly noticed
when the music changed, heeding it only enough to swing her into a waltz as he
continued to gaze down at her face while she went on to tell him the trials and
tribulations of not having her spectacles. There was quite a long list of them.
Dressing was difficult and she had to depend entirely on the good humor of
her lady's maid and hope that she was dressed appropriately. She never knew quite
what her hair looked like and there too had to depend on her maid, Clarissa explained
and hardly seemed to hear his assurances that her hair was perfection and her
The lady obviously wasn’t seeking compliments. Blushing furiously, she
waved his words away and continued to explain that she had to be led about the
house by the same maid, for fear of tumbling down stairs, or tripping over something
she had not seen. And apparently, mistaking people for others was a problem, though
she assured him she was getting quite good at recognizing voices. There was also
the irritating problem of spilling food down her front, albeit only when she was
alone with servants since she was not allowed to take refreshments or food in
company. She had taken to wearing a bib to save her gowns.
Adrian was biting his lip at the image of her in a bib, but it only got worse
as she went on to say she'd nearly set fire to the townhouse several times while
attempting to light candles and such. She'd tripped up the butler in her home
and several of the servants numerous times and was positive that because of this
they all hated her. She was sure they cringed away from her when she was near
and were beginning to murmur that she was a walking disaster.
Lady Clarissa was dreadfully cheerful as she admitted all this. Adrian had
great difficulty stifling his amusement as she spoke, but managed to withhold
his chuckles until she sensed his polite efforts and gave him leave to laugh.
The robust laughter that escaped him then surprised Adrian. It had been so long
since he'd even smiled that this laughter was a joy to partake of and he found
his eyes softening on the woman who had brought it about. She was a wonder. Adorable,
lovely and so cheerful about the disasters that followed her… Clarissa made
his soul feel light and his heart ache with longing.
“You have a nice voice, my lord. A nice laugh too,” she announced
with a smile.
“Thank you, my lady,” he said after clearing his throat of the
laughter clogging it. “It is kind of you to say so, but I show my bad manners
in laughing at your misfortune. Prey, forgive me.”
“Oh ta ra,” Clarissa said lightly. “In retrospect I suppose
it is all rather funny, though I doubt that Lydia would agree.”
Adrian's humor ended there and he arched one eyebrow in displeasure though
she could not see it. “Forgive me for saying so, my lady, but your stepmother
sounds to me to be a rather nasty, old cow.”
“Oh,” Clarissa squinted up at him in dismay. “Oh you must
not say that....Ever.”
“Why not?” he asked with careless amusement. “I am not afraid
“No, but...She would be furious...And she would not like you were she
to hear you say such things about her.”
“I could not care less if she likes me or not--” Adrian began,
but she cut him off.
“Oh, but you must. If she does not like you, then she will not allow
me to dance with you anymore and...and...I do quite like it,” Clarissa ended
with some embarrassment.
The look of scorn on Adrian's face melted away at her confession and he softened
slightly. “Well, then, I shall have to be sure to treat her with the utmost
respect.” He watched her pink, embarrassed face for a moment, then added,
“Because, I quite like it too.”
Clarissa turned her face up and beamed brightly.
Adrian smiled gently back despite the fact that she could not see it and then
some instinct made him peer over her shoulder. He slowed his dancing somewhat
as he spotted the woman who had been seated next to the girl when Reginald had
first pointed her out. It seemed her stepmother had returned from stuffing herself
to find the seat where she’d left her charge empty. Lydia was now frowning
around the room in search of the errant girl. It did not take her long to spot
the chit in his arms.
As Adrian had expected, the woman looked less than pleased to see her dancing
with him. In fact, she looked quite horrified. When she immediately began to make
a bee-line toward them, he pretended not to see her and began to dance Clarissa
in the opposite direction, leading her away from her guardian.
Adrian had fully expected that the woman would stop and await her charge's
safe return when he moved away, but a glance over his shoulder showed the woman
pursuing the circle he was whirling around the dance floor and he frowned. It
appeared the stepmother was the persistent sort. Adrian supposed he should have
expected as much, she did rather resemble a bulldog, he thought uncharitably and
then glanced down at the girl in his arms. “Why is she so determined you
should not wear your spectacles?”
“She wishes me to make a good match. Father will be annoyed does she
not manage that, you see.”
“Ah.... Well, actually, no, I do not see,” Adrian muttered, changing
direction abruptly when he saw that they were in peril of being caught by the
stepmother. He was silent for a moment as he maneuvered them about the floor to
avoid her, then glanced down to comment, “Surely you would have a better
chance at making a good match were you able to see?”
Clarissa gave a deep, heartfelt sigh at that and nodded solemnly. “I
must confess, sir, that is my opinion as well.... However, Lydia does not see
it so. She says that I look quite unattractive in my spectacles and fears that
they, on top of my 'unfortunate past', would quite ruin any chance I have with
a respectable man of means.”
“Unfortunate past?” Adrian was so startled by the comment, he came
to an abrupt halt on the edge of the dance floor.
Her eyebrows lifted slightly as she squinted at his face. “You have not
heard about the scandal?”
Before Adrian could respond that ‘No he certainly had not heard of any
scandal,’ a rather large, dark shadow befell them both. Glancing to the
side, he frowned irritably at Clarissa's tenacious stepmother as she came to a
breathless pause beside them.
“Clarissa!” she snapped out at last and the girl in Adrian's arms
stiffened as if under the lick of a whip's lash, then jumped back guiltily from
the man holding her as she whirled to face her stepmother.
“Yes, Lydi-” Her words ended on a gasp of surprise as her arm was
seized and she was dragged unceremoniously away.
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