Berkeley Square, the first day of the 1812 Season…
Lady Dorothea Claremont stared at the bouquet with a sinking heart.
It wasn’t the beautiful hothouse flowers which disappointed her, nor was it the arrangement or the thoughtfulness which had gone into sourcing her favourite blooms in her favourite colours out of season. More her own lack of enthusiasm for the gentleman who had sent them. A lack of enthusiasm she was beyond guilty about when there was nothing wrong with him either.
Lord Peter Crawley, heir to the ancient dukedom of Leigh, was handsome, wealthy, affable and kind of heart. The latter two traits being the most important in her humble opinion, although her mama and papa adored that he came from similar stock to them.
Her parents, the Duke and Duchess of Warminster, were in the business of power and so were his. Both dukes lived and breathed parliament and both sat in the prime minister’s cabinet. They were well-respected elder statesmen who had dedicated their lives to serving their country, so by default their wives were considered patronesses of society. The subtle arbiters of taste and decorum who set the tone and eschewed the frivolity enjoyed by much of the aristocracy to shine as the twin beacons of how things should be done when one put duty before everything. Ladies to aspire to. The dictionary definition of ‘good ton’. That their husbands, the Dukes of Leigh and Warminster, had been the best of friends since birth cemented their joy that their two noble houses were finally destined to be joined by marriage.
Or so everyone had speculated since Dorothea and Peter had been in leading strings. A match made while they both played together at their mothers’ knees, such a foregone conclusion that neither had ever questioned the expectation. Which was why, in honour of the start of her second Season, the parameters of their lifelong friendship had seamlessly shifted to one of courtship. Peter hadn’t yet officially proposed, but their mothers were already planning their wedding, which was conveniently due to happen sometime during parliament’s long summer recess.
Neat and tidy.
Done and dusted.
The perfect fairy-tale match made in heaven.
And there, for Dorothea at least, was the rub. Because as much as she adored Peter and always had, she had never harboured a single romantic feeling towards him. Or at least not the sort she had read about or heard about from her friends, who all sighed over their beaus or potential beaus with a dreamy look on their faces.
To that end, she had never eyed him covetously with feminine interest. Never had butterflies in her tummy each time they collided. Her pulse had never quickened in his presence and neither had her flesh tingled at his touch. She knew this categorically because she had spent the last month expressly scrutinising her reactions to him, yet these were all the fundamental things which seemed to be commonplace in matters of love. She had certainly never felt any desire to kiss him, or any sort of desire for him at all for that matter. If anything, just the thought of experiencing passion with him made her uncomfortable. Surely that was a huge problem if they had a honeymoon looming imminently on the horizon?
That Peter also appeared to be in no hurry to make their lifelong friendship more physically affectionate did not fill her with confidence that theirs would be quite the match made in heaven that everyone else claimed it was. He hadn’t even tried to steal a single kiss. Not even when they were conveniently left alone to do just that.
‘Oh, those are beautiful!’ Her mother fingered the delicate petals of one of the oriental lilies, smiling. ‘And they smell divine. What a lucky girl you are to have such a thoughtful suitor.’
That Peter was her only suitor also depressed her. Dorothea understood why, of course, because why on earth would any other man express an interest when her troth had been so thoroughly plighted to another from time immemorial. Yet still, that nobody else had also felt significant. It sealed her fate and hammered another nail in her ill-fitting coffin.
She forced a smile for her mother’s sake. ‘Yes, I am.’
‘I hope one day that I have a fiancé as lovely as Peter.’ Beside her, her younger sister, Felicity, managed the dreamy sigh Dorothea couldn’t.
‘He is not my fiancé yet.’ The clarification came swiftly as, for now, that at least gave Dorothea the illusion of leeway and choice that she knew was futile but clung to regardless.
‘But he will be very soon, darling.’ Her mother tapped her nose, winking. ‘Mark my words.’ Then she and Dorothea’s father shared a knowing look. One which said that the families had it all worked out, just as they had dictated everything about her future so far. Almost as if Dorothea’s thoughts on the matter were of little consequence.
Her mother glanced at the clock. ‘Good heavens! It is almost five! We must get ready for the ball!’
‘But the carriage doesn’t arrive till eight!’ Three hours of primping and preening for a ball she also had no enthusiasm for would be a fate worse than death. ‘And it’s not as if I am being launched tonight.’ Dorothea had been given a year’s grace to enjoy her first Season, and to give Peter the chance to finish his studies at Cambridge and doubtless to sow his last wild oats.
‘Maybe so. But your father and I want you to look extra special tonight.’ A comment which, combined with a wiggle of her mother’s eyebrows, did not bode well. ‘Come along, Dorothea!’
She was shooed out of the drawing room and down the hallway, but as they reached the foot of the stairs, her brother, George, strode through the front door.
‘I told you I wouldn’t be late.’ He beamed at the pair of them as he shrugged out of his coat. ‘Even though the absolute last thing I wanted to do was leave the excitement of Brighton to pretend to be interested in a bunch of silly debutantes.’
Disgruntled at his flippant attitude while also relieved he had finally arrived home from his month-long jaunt to that scandalous party town on the coast, their mother bustled over to kiss his cheek. ‘You have managed to cut it fine, as always. And the least said about your comportment while away, the better.’ As usual, George’s escapades had made it to the newspapers. ‘I blame those ill-bred friends of yours for leading you astray.’ Because obviously her only son’s penchant for hedonism couldn’t possibly be his fault despite him never being a sheep.
With perfect timing, those two ill-bred friends also strode through the front door. The charming Jasper, Lord Beaufort, and the vexatious Lord Freddie Fitzroy were as unashamedly scandalous as her brother. Of the pair, her mother despaired of Freddie more, largely because despite all outward appearances to the contrary, his parents, the Duke and Duchess of Avondale, had always been their biggest rivals in society. Where the Claremonts were all about duty and service, the Fitzroys were all about sparkling sociability to such an extent that between them they had split the ton into two halves. You were either a respected supporter of the Claremonts or a frivolous friend of the Fitzroys and never the twain should meet.
In practice, and being neighbours on Berkeley Square, George and Freddie had been the best of friends as long as Dorothea and Peter had, although she had never felt quite as comfortable around Freddie. Probably because he was a few years older. And exceedingly arrogant and irritating.
‘Hello, Dot.’ The wretch had always called her that to annoy her. ‘I haven’t seen you in forever.’ Over a year in fact, because he, like the rest of the effervescent Fitzroys, had been at their estate where his sister was convalescing after a horrific accident. ‘You’ve grown up nicely.’ Then, and doubtless to vex her disapproving mother, he took Dorothea’s hand and kissed the back of it.
And the unthinkable happened.
Because instantly her flesh tingled and her pulse quickened in a way it never had before.
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