An English House Party Ch. 01byAMY_Monaco©
Author's note: This is a build-up to the hot & heavy stuff, so bear with me on this one. Comments are much appreciated and happy reading!
Jason Cartwright, Marquess of Fords eyed the ballroom wearily. Every matchmaking mama and their daughters were staring at him like he was a sweetmeat to be bought in a shop. He arched his eyebrow at his father, the Duke of Delaford.
"You said this was a small affair."
The duke, a tall man with a full head of white hair cleared his throat. "This is a small affair."
"Of course, forgive me." Jason answered sarcastically. "Three hundred people is small for a London ball."
The resemblance between father and son was unmistakable. Both were well over six feet tall, athletically thin and possessed the same square jaw lines and straight, patrician noses. Jason's dark blond hair was slicked back and his dark blue eyes darted from one young woman to another, failing to notice that every female he made unintentional eye contact with threatened to faint from anticipation.
As the one to inherit the lofty title of duke when his father passes away, the Marquess also possessed unimaginable wealth. Every unwed female in the room was aware of this and several young debutantes flashed practiced smiled in his direction when he glanced at them. By god, he'd only been here five minutes and already they marked him as bait.
"I will only stay the length of time that's expected of me."
The duke turned to him. "You will stay long enough to meet your affianced and dance with her."
Ah, yes. His betrothed. Jason searched the room, expecting to see her among the groups of the other debutantes. How long had it been since he'd seen her? Nine -- no, ten years. She'd been a mere ten years old when he last saw her as a mere boy of twelve. His memories of her were vague, mostly of a scrawny little girl with raven black hair and an impish face.
"Pray, tell me she has grown into a tolerable young woman and not one of these simpering misses." Jason said in a low voice.
"She is an exceptional young woman with a quick mind and even temper." His father assured him. The music started, a flowing piece of violins and flutes that had couples joining on the dance floor. His father chuckled and clapped him on the back.
"You will be breaking hundreds of hearts when they all find out you are engaged."
"If only that were true. It will become common knowledge that our betrothal was made when we were children. Young ladies now are cleverer. They think such things can be broken if they make the men fall in love with them. Brandon had been betrothed. And look at him now." Jason was referring to one of his closest friends, who'd also been betrothed from childhood, only to find himself in love and married to his former upstairs maid.
"And he's happy, I suppose?"
"Yes. The bloody fool." Jason said fondly.
"My lord. Your grace. " A very robust woman with blond hair approached them. Her neck dripped with jewels, generous gifts from her doting husband. Jason bent to kiss his hostess's hand.
"Lady Carmichael. You look wonderful this evening. If I knew your husband wouldn't be glaring daggers at me, I would tell you exactly how wonderful you look."
The older women laughed behind her open fan, then closed it and swat it on Jason's arms playfully.
"You rascal." Then she came between him and his father and linked her arms with theirs, leading them further into the ballroom. "Come, I must introduce you to a particular young lady. Can you believe that she's enjoyed the entire Season without once seeing you? I am ecstatic that accepted my invitation, though it's the end of the Season. You wicked boy. You thought to avoid all these gatherings, did you?"
There was no going back when one was entangled in a conversation with Lady Carmichael, albeit a one-sided conversation, for the woman loved to talk.
"She's just over there, talking with her sister. Come, gels." The two young ladies, both raven haired, their violet-blue eyes sparkling in the ballroom candlelight stopped talking and turned to face them. "Jason, the Marquess of Fords, this is Miss Penelope Kingsley and her sister, Emma."
Penny curtsied deeply, as he sister did the same. As she lifted her head, her unwavering gaze met his. So this was her husband-to-be. A handsome fellow, she must admit. Tall, built, his wavy blond hair was a bit longer than what was considered fashionable, but it looked right on him. His piercing blue gaze reflected her own curiosity. He smiled, revealing straight, white teeth.
"May I have this dance?" He asked. Wordlessly, she accepted, taking his hand. It was a waltz and he swept her onto the floor, moving with a grace that surprised her. She didn't think he danced much on his travels abroad.
"You dance uncommonly well, my lord."
The corners of his lips lifted. "This surprises you? We took our dancing lessons together, remember?"
"Yes, I remember. And you used to step on my toes quite often."
Now his smile was full-on and it made him appear younger. What was he, two and thirty years? "Most of the time it was accidental, I promise you." He spun her by the hand before bringing her into his embrace again. "You weren't surprised to see me, were you?"
This time, it was Penny's turn to smile. "Lady Carmichael isn't subtle. She made it quite clear I was going to be meeting the eligible and utterly wonderful Marquess of Fords, who also happens to be my fiancé."
"And you're not upset by the fact you'll be shackled to me for life?"
She shrugged, such an unladylike gesture. He arched an eyebrow at her. "I pose that same question to you, my lord. Aren't you a little nervous to soon be losing all your freedom? I heard marriage is very confining."
Her candidness surprised him. Here he was, expecting her to be coy and shy, and bring up the weather. Instead, she looked him straight in the eye, asking questions that would be considered 'unfashionable' for young ladies.
"I'm not nervous. Our marriage is a part of my duty as the future Duke of Delaford."
"Ah. And our marriage is part of my duty as the future Duchess of Delaford."
She flashed a brilliant smile at him. The years had been kind to her. Her black hair was swept up and pinned to frame her pale and delicate face. In the years he'd spent away at school and on his travels around Europe, she'd developed into a woman of subtle curves and unmatched beauty. Her straightforward way of speaking only added to the intrigue.
"I should like you to attend my house party next weekend. Several of my close friends will be in attendance, and your sister is welcome to join. It will be a way for us to reacquaint ourselves with each other." He said it as-a-matter-of-factly, much like one would in a tone of a business transaction. Penny thought for a moment. She'd long ago accepted this marriage, for it was inevitable and bound by a solid contract drafter between their fathers.
Though her father, James Kingsley is a mere mister, he'd come from generations of wealth and her father and the duke had been great friends. They were even neighbors for many years, thus for a better part of her early childhood, Penny could remember Jason being a part of it.
"I'll be there. Who will some of the guests be?"
"My friends Brandon and his new wife, the Earl of Whittenhall and the Viscount Macey. Julian Dunsforth will be coming, as well." He ran off a small list of names, most of which she recognized, but it was Julian Dunsforth's name that held her attention. She looked away, hoping her fiancé hadn't noticed anything amiss. She'd spent the entire season getting to know Julian under a chaperone's attention. A house party would offer more freedom. The thought thrilled her.
"It sounds a lovely party, my lord."
"It's Jason, Penelope." He answered. "We're affianced, remember?"
She offered him another one of her smiles. "No one's let me forget that fact since the contract was drawn up."
"You speak very candidly for a young woman."
"It's been so years since we've seen each other. There are many things you don't know about me." In her words, there was a promise.
To be continued...