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“If you can’t leave her alone, you can’t keep her as a mistress, and you won’t marry her, the only option is to send her away.”

“The most sensible option,” Leo agreed darkly. “Also my least favorite.”

“Has Miss Marks indicated what she wants?”

Leo shook his head. “She’s terrified to face that. Because, God help her, she may possibly want me.”

Chapter Fourteen

For the next two days, the Hathaway household was a hive of activity. Vast quantities of food and flowers were brought in, furniture was temporarily stored, doors were taken off their hinges, rugs were rolled up, and the floors were waxed and polished.

Guests from Hampshire and surrounding counties would attend the ball, as well as families of distinction from London. To Leo’s disgruntlement, the ball invitations had been eagerly accepted by a multitude of peers with daughters in marriageable circumstances. And as the lord of the manor, his duty was to act as host and dance with as many women as possible.

“This is the worst thing you’ve ever done to me,” he told Amelia.

“Oh, not at all, I’m sure I’ve done worse things to you.”

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Leo considered that, running through a long list of remembered offenses in his mind. “Never mind, you’re right. But to be clear … I’m only tolerating this to humor you.”

“Yes, I know. I do hope you’ll humor me further, and find someone to marry so you can produce an heir before Vanessa Darvin and her mother take possession of our home.”

He gave his sister a narrow-eyed glance. “One could almost infer that the house means more to you than my future happiness.”

“Not at all. Your future happiness means at least as much to me as the house.”

“Thank you,” he said dryly.

“But I also happen to believe that you’ll be much happier when you fall in love and get married.”

“If I ever fell in love with someone,” he retorted, “I certainly wouldn’t ruin it by marrying her.”

The guests began to arrive early in the evening. Women were dressed in silk or taffeta, jeweled brooches glittering at low rounded necklines, hands covered with wrist-length white gloves. Many feminine arms were adorned with matching bracelets in the new fashion.

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Gentlemen, by contrast, were dressed with severe simplicity in black coats and matching creaseless trousers, and cravats in either white or black. The clothes were tailored with a touch of welcome looseness, making natural movement far easier than it had been in the constricting garments of the recent past.

Music floated through rooms abundantly dressed with flowers. Tables draped in gold satin nearly creaked beneath pyramids of fruit, cheese dishes, roast vegetables, sweetbreads, puddings, joints of meat, smoked fish, and roast fowl. Footmen moved through the circuit of public rooms, bringing cigars and liquor to men in the library, or wine and champagne to the card rooms.

The drawing room was crowded, with clusters of people all around the sides and couples dancing in the center. Leo had to admit, there was an uncommon number of attractive young women present. They all looked pleasant, normal, and fresh-faced. They all looked the same. But he proceeded to dance with as many of them as possible, taking care to include wallflowers, and he even persuaded a dowager or two to take a turn with him.

And all the while he hunted for glimpses of Catherine Marks.

She was wearing a lavender gown, the same one she’d worn at Poppy’s wedding. Her hair was caught in a smooth, tight chignon at the back of her neck. She watched over Beatrix while remaining discreetly in the background.

Leo had seen Catherine do the same thing countless times before, stand quietly among the dowagers and chaperones as girls only a little younger than herself flirted and laughed and danced. It was absurd that Catherine should not be noticed. She was the equal of any woman there, background be damned.

Somehow Catherine must have felt his gaze on her. She turned and glanced at him, and she couldn’t seem to look away any more than he could.

A dowager captured Catherine’s attention, asking a question about something, and she turned to the dratted woman.

At the same time, Amelia came up to Leo’s side and caught at his sleeve.

“My lord,” she said tensely. “We have a situation. Not a good one.”

Glancing at his sister with instant concern, Leo saw that she wore a false smile for the benefit of anyone who might be watching. “I had despaired of anything interesting happening this evening,” he said. “What is it?”

“Miss Darvin and Countess Ramsay are here.”

Leo’s face went blank. “Here? Now?”

“Cam, Win, and Merripen are talking to them in the entrance hall.”

“Who the devil invited them?”

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“No one. They prevailed on mutual acquaintances—the Ulsters—to bring them as guests. And we can’t turn them away.”

“Why not? They’re not wanted.”

“As improper as they’ve been in coming without invitations, it would be even worse for us to reject them. It would make us appear exceedingly ungracious, and to say the least, it wouldn’t be good manners.”

“Far too often,” Leo reflected aloud, “good manners stand in direct opposition to what I want to do.”

“I know that feeling well.”

They shared a grim smile.

“What do you suppose they want?” Amelia asked.

“Let’s find out,” Leo said curtly. Offering her his arm, he escorted her out of the drawing room to the entrance hall.

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