Stepping forward in time to the music, Juliette Matthews held her dance partner’s hand as delicately as she’d been instructed. Overhead, two massive chandeliers cast a brilliant glow across the Hawthorne House ballroom, the light from a thousand candles bouncing off gemstones and beadwork. It was a crush, the first ball of the Season, with footmen balancing trays of champagne and little iced cakes that looked a lot better than they actually tasted.

Ladies paraded about like birds showing off their colorful plumage while gentlemen stood in small groups discussing political issues or whatever it was men liked to talk about. Juliette wasn’t entirely sure, except for the fact that this appeared to be the subject of recent conversations between her brother, Raphe, the Duke of Huntley, and her sister Amelia’s husband, the Duke of Coventry.

Skipping along the line of dancers while executing the complicated steps she’d been taught, Juliette considered how different her life was now from what it had been only one year earlier. Having spent most of her life in the slums of St. Giles, she wondered if she appreciated her good fortune more than her peers. After all, she knew what it was to go hungry, to live in squalor with not enough money for firewood in the winter or to pay a physician’s fee whenever she’d been sick.

“You look enchanting this evening,” the Earl of Yates declared while leading her in a series of tight little circles. His eyes sparkled with deep appreciation.

Juliette liked him and always enjoyed his company, so she smiled at him warmly while saying, “And you look as dashing as usual, my lord.”

His hand closed more firmly around hers and his gaze dropped ever so slightly. Enough to replace the contentment she found in his company with something she instantly recognized as deep discomfort.

“Perhaps we ought to discuss how wonderful we both look while taking a tour of the room,” he said when the dance was over and he was leading her away from the dance floor. His smile hadn’t changed and yet, the brief consideration he’d given her mouth, the tightening of his hand and the way his gaze had seemed to darken, urged Juliette to decline the invitation.

Because as much as she favored his company, she didn’t want more than friendship from him, and she was becoming increasingly worried he might not feel the same way.

“You are always so attentive toward me, which I appreciate,” she began, hoping to let him down easy, “but I would like to visit the ladies’ retiring room. If you don’t mind.”

His smile faded and the glow in his eyes dimmed. “Of course not.” He guided her toward the periphery of the room, stepped back and gave a curt, yet respectful bow. “I thank you for the dance, Lady Juliette.” Glancing over her shoulder, he said with a touch of dry humor, “It looks as though your friend is here to save you.”

Turning, Juliette looked in the direction Yates indicated and found her good friend, Miss Vivien Saunders, coming toward them.

“Did I chase his lordship away?” Vivien asked when she was within speaking distance. Her aunt’s marriage to a baron was what ensured her entry into society, even though said baron had long since died and his widow was in financial straits. As for Vivien herself, she had few prospects and little hope of marrying a man with a title.

Juliette returned her attention to Yates only to see his retreating back disappearing into the crowd. She sighed as she linked her arm with Vivien’s. Together, they headed toward the door leading out into the hallway where the ladies’ retiring room was located. “I’m afraid I upset him.”

“I sincerely doubt that, Julie. You’re always kind and considerate toward others.”

Juliette scrunched her nose. “I may have made up an excuse not to walk with him after our dance.”


“Oh?” Juliette glanced across at her friend. “What on earth does that mean?”

“Well…the man obviously likes you. A lot. And you do seem to like him as well, considering how much you smile and laugh when you are together.”

Juliette thought about that for a second. “Am I supposed to pretend not to like dancing with a gentleman simply to avoid making him think I might be encouraging a courtship?”

Vivien squeezed the right side of her face together as if it required great effort to answer that question. “Pretty much. I think. Although I’m really no expert.”

They entered the retiring room where two other young women were fixing their hair in front of a mirror. “Why can’t a man and a woman be friends without either expecting more?” Juliette whispered to Vivien while one of the other women in the room giggled in response to something her friend had said.

“Perhaps because it’s called the marriage mart,” Vivien suggested, moving to a screened off seating area and lowering herself to a comfy looking settee.

Juliette remained standing, too agitated to stay still. She crossed her arms and eyed her friend. “Well it’s a shame.” She held Vivien’s gaze before throwing up her hands and dropping onto the vacant spot beside her. “Not only did I fabricate an excuse to avoid spending time with a man whom I genuinely like, but now I have to sit in here for a good ten minutes or more so it doesn’t look like I lied to him. Even though he probably knows I did.”

“Don’t worry.” Vivien patted her hand. “It will all work itself out in the end.”

“Will it?” Juliette wasn’t so sure. She’d suffered the hurtful remarks other young ladies had whispered behind her back, endured the most exasperating lessons in etiquette and tried to fit in as best as she could, but there were days when she wondered about the point of it all.

“—I mean, to think we could be so lucky is almost too much,” one of the women on the other side of the screen was saying. “Our debuts looked positively dismal with no chance to snatch up a duke.”

“Until now, that is,” the other woman said in a dreamy voice that made Juliette roll her eyes. She glanced at Vivien and had to force down a laugh.

“Can you believe our good fortune?” The first woman said.

“Well, he’s not a duke yet. Is he?”

Juliette straightened and tilted her head. They were obviously talking about Florian, the physician Raphe had sent for when she’d been sick with the measles the previous year. News of his recent change in status had been the subject of great discussion at Huntley House the previous evening when Raphe had returned home with the announcement.

Juliette still wasn’t sure she understood how the title or the inheritance had come about, but it did look as though Florian would one day outrank his older brother, Mr. Lowell, who was set to become Viscount Armswell one day.

“Either way, I could easily get used to the idea of marrying Florian,” one of the women was saying. “He’s ever so handsome.”

Both women burst into giggles. Muted whispers followed and then the sound of the door opening and closing plunged the room into silence. Juliette looked at Vivien and grinned. “Well, I wish them luck. In truth I don’t believe I’ve ever met a man more unapproachable than Florian.”

“He does look rather starched,” Vivien muttered. She stood and adjusted her gown. “Mind you, I’ve only seen him once or twice, so I could be wrong.”

“No. I don’t believe you are. In fact, my impression of him is not much different. He’s an excellent physician who seems to take his work very seriously. One cannot fault him for that, though I do wonder what it might be like to see him smile.”

“Do you now,” Vivien asked with a smirk as the two returned to the hallway and started making their way back toward the ballroom.

Juliette nudged her friend with her shoulder. “Oh, you know what I mean, Viv!”

“All I know is that you wondering what it might be like to see him smile will likely pester you until you find a way to make it happen.” They entered the ballroom. “Of all the people I have ever known, none are as determined as you when you set your mind to something.”

“Well I—” A wave of chatter cut Juliette’s thought process short. She glanced around, aware of the agitation rolling through the ballroom like tremors threatening to toss all the guests up into the air. “What on earth is going on?”

“Look,” someone said as Juliette pushed her way between a few people, pulling Vivien along by her hand.

“There he is,” another voice muttered.

Shouldering her way past a cluster of women who craned their heads and stared toward the ballroom entrance, Juliette caught a sudden and very unexpected glimpse of the man she and Vivien had just been discussing.


Her breath caught and her heart slammed hard against her chest. Because there he was and dear God if he didn’t look superb! Dressed in evening black, his copper streaked hair was neatly combed, though a single stray lock slashed roguishly across his brow. She’d never seen him like this before. The last time they’d met at a ball he’d been wearing an unremarkable suit cut from brown wool, if memory served. Now, however, he looked like the dukely title would fit him as well as the perfectly tailored jacket and trousers he wore. They seemed to accentuate his masculine physique in a way she’d never considered. It was almost as if his shoulders were broader, his build a little taller and…

Juliette blinked. No. She would not be like all the other silly girls swarming toward him and vying for his attention. He was just a man, after all, even if he was capable of saving the sick and putting a broken body back together again, which was admittedly something to be admired. But that didn’t mean she would ever be able to look past his stern demeanor or want anything from him besides medical advice and friendship.

No thank you. Of all the men she’d met, Florian was not the sort of man with whom she intended to form an attachment, even if he was going to be a duke one day. Especially since she felt there were already enough dukes in her family. They hardly needed a third!

And yet, while she thought of all this, Florian’s head turned in her direction and his gaze locked with hers. The moment was fleeting, no more than a second perhaps, but it was exactly the right length of time required for Juliette’s pulse to leap and for an unfamiliar flutter to fill her stomach.

Discomfited by it, she sucked in a breath and deliberately turned away. Fresh air was what she needed, that was all. The stuffy heat in the ballroom had obviously affected her senses. So with this in mind, she maneuvered her way toward the French doors and slipped out onto the terrace, breathing a sigh of relief as the cool night air embraced her and cleared her head.


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