It does not signify, Lady Iris Colburn insisted, but her jaw remained clamped shut as she watched Dominick lead a tall girl with shining brunette locks out onto the floor for a country dance.
Lady Lettice Morgan, Iris’ best friend, stiffened beside her. Lettie had enough sense not to comment, but Iris knew the thoughts running through Lettie’s mind. The same ones plagued Iris’. Dominick had danced with this unknown girl twice now. Why was he singling her out when everyone knew he would propose to Iris?
Iris shook her head slightly. It does not signify, because everyone knew. Everyone had known for years that Dominick, the Viscount Dersingham, would marry Lady Iris. Their mothers were dear friends. Their fathers were at Oxford together. Their families — in addition to the esteemed Morgans — had socialized intimately their entire lives. Nobody doubted it. Now that Iris was out, Dominick would propose.
And fortunately, though in her well-brought-up mind it hardly mattered, she loved him. It was a great match. She had dreamed of it for a long time and waited impatiently.
Two dances meant nothing. Not in the face of everything else. Besides, she reminded herself, the next dance was hers.
She watched Dominick and the tall girl through the dance, thinking that perhaps the musicians had slowed. Still, she smiled calmly when the music did end and waited for Dominick to come and claim her hand.
He did not appear. The first waltz began without her. Iris' mother, Lady Wrottessley, stepped to Iris’ side. “Dear, what are you doing still standing here. You are to dance to with Dersingham.”
Dominick’s figure appeared amidst the dancers already on the floor, twirling Miss Ivison. Iris stood in stunned silence.
“Pardon me, Lady Iris.” Lord Morgan, Lettie’s older brother, stepped away from his sister. “Has there been a misunderstanding?”
Iris forced a composed smile. “I believe so.”
“If you are not already engaged to dance, will you do me the honor?” He held out his arm. Iris despised the look of pity that crossed his features, but she did not let it show.
“Lady Iris Colburn!”
A satisfied smirk settled across Iris’s lips when more than a few heads turned at the announcement of her name. She trailed behind her mother and father until a welcome face appeared through the crush of guests in Mrs. Dobley’s music room.
“Iree.” Lettie grasped Iris’ elbow.
Her eyes alight, Iris leaned in to kiss her dear friend on the cheek. She did not enjoy the social life in Paris as much as she could have if Lettie had been by her side. They had shared in each other’s romantic ups and downs since long before—
Iris cut off the thought. She did not need thoughts of Dersingham marring her first evening back in London.
They broke apart but embraced again. Lettie’s gaze flew to Iris’ gown. Her smile widened as Lettie also admired the gauzy, pristine white dress with a flowery, embroidered hemline. Iris stepped back to allow her friend a better view. She hoped a certain gentleman—not Dersingham—was as impressed as Lettie seemed. Iris had enough time alone with her thoughts of late to regret her rash decision before leaving England two months before. If only she could rectify it tonight, right away. She could breathe easier.
“Your shawl is divine.” Lettie sighed.
Iris shrugged to allow the beads to catch the candlelight. “Thank you. I brought you presents,” she said with a pout. “If you had called this afternoon...”
Lettie linked arms with Iris and guided her out of the path of several gentlemen. “Don’t be angry, Iree. Would you believe that Mr. Dryden had the audacity to call and stay three — quarters of an hour? Probably hoping to encounter Lady Iris Colburn, since everyone was saying she had returned from the Continent. And would Mama set him down?”
Iris laughed. “He is very rich.”
Lettie scowled. “So I have heard.”
“You are forgiven.” Iris’ eyes swept the room. No Dersingham, thank heavens. But she did not see Mr. Everard either, unfortunately. She brought her gaze back to Lettie. “Did anyone miss me?”
Laughing, Lettie said, “My dear, everyone missed you.”
Iris locked gazes with Lettie. “Everyone?”
Lettie’s smile wavered, alerting Iris right away that her friend held something back. “Of course!” Lettie flushed under Iris’ scrutiny and tugged her friend closer.
Iris waited for an explanation. Did “everyone” not include Mr. Everard? Iris let the suspicion go. It was unlikely Lettie would share private concerns in such a crowd.
“Well, where is he?” Iris asked.
Lettie shrugged “I wouldn’t know, Iree. I have not seen him yet. Now hurry. Tell me everything quickly since every gentleman in the room is making his way over here.”
Iris grinned. “Paris was divine.”
“And how many men proposed?” Lettie giggled.
“At least a dozen.”
“So many broken hearts.”
Iris tried to resist the urge to scrutinize the room again. Someone would notice. Someone might see her searching for Mr. Everard among the guests. Someone might — heaven forbid — think she was looking for Dersingham.
But she had to. She saw Mr. Everard before Lettie did, so she indulged in the pleasure the sight of him sent through her.
“There is the Honorable Mr. Findlay Everard,” Iris whispered, squeezing Lettie’s arm. A frown crossed Lettie’s face. “Oh, dear,” Iris said with a laugh. “Do you disapprove of Mr. Everard, Lettie? You didn’t seem to last fall.”
The frown disappeared. “No, I do not disapprove of him entirely.”
“You have to admit some of his ... troubles are disconcerting.”
“Lettie, I’m surprised at you. Mr. Everard comes from an excellent family and if his lack of fortune does not distress my father, I see no reason for you to concern yourself with it.”
“You are right, of course.” Lettie laughed, though it sounded shrill and nervous. “You are quite maddening. It is a wonder you have any suitors at all.”
Iris studied Lettie, raising an eyebrow. “Is it really?”
Lettie twisted her fingers together and looked conflicted. Her gaze darted between Mr. Everard, too far across the room for Iris’ taste, and Iris. Concern dominated Lettie’s expression. Iris wanted to bolt with Lettie for the nearest unused room and wring out of her the reason her nervousness.
Iris lowered her voice to a barely audible level and stared hard at Lettie. “I am not the first girl to turn down a proposal.” Hopefully that was what Lettie meant by the absurd possibility that suitors might desert her, Iris Colburn. Lettie could not think that Dersingham’s reckless behavior would taint Iris ... could she?
Iris hated the wobbly smile on Lettie’s face as she patted Iris’ hand. “No. Of course you are not. You know very well that I refused Edmund Kellet,” Lettie said.
Iris burst into quiet laughter, the tension in her chest easing. “When you were fourteen. That hardly counts.”
“Well, you are very beautiful and richer than a nabob, so I suppose your refusal hardly counts either.” Lettie beamed, her smile turning genuine and melting away the rest of Iris’ concern.
“Well, that is a relief.”
As Lettie predicted, Iris’ admirers couldn’t stay away for long — not after such a prolonged absence from their company. She caught glimpses of Mr. Everard and wondered why he did not at least attempt to say hello. Had she hurt him so badly? Perhaps she had ruined everything. I am such a fool.
Her opportunity to speak with Mr. Everard did not arise until after three young ladies of Mrs. Dobley’s acquaintance had performed, when Mr. D’Amery escorted Iris to get some refreshments. Mr. Everard was leading a young lady in that direction as well. Their paths would intercept. Iris could ascertain the damage her ill-thought-out decision had caused and what it would take to repair.
Lettie seemed to materialize at her side.
“Lettie?” Iris stopped up a gasp of surprise. “What do you mean by appearing so suddenly?” she whispered. “I thought Mr. Hawley intended to accompany you?” Iris looked over her friend’s shoulder for the young man.
“Yes. He is right here,” Lettie excused. Iris could always spot a false smile on Lettie Morgan’s face, but Mr. Hawley came up beside Lettie, although a bit out of breath.
What was Lettie up to? Uncertainty curled up in Iris’ stomach. Lettie’s “reassuring” smile did nothing to dispel it.
Iris quirked an eyebrow but refrained from commenting. Lettie reached for Mr. Hawley’s arm — he supplied it readily — and followed Iris and Mr. D’Amery. Mr. Everard met them just outside the door with a slender, fair-haired girl on his arm.
He stopped and bowed. “Lady Iris, Lady Lettice, Mr. Hawley, Mr. D’Amery.”
They returned the greetings. Mr. Everard presented his companion. “Lady Iris, may I introduce you to my fiancée, Miss Theodosia Wyndham?”
Iris’ knees nearly buckled. Lettie reached out to grasp Iris’ elbow, but Iris turned a fiery glare on her and snatched her arm away.
Iris curtseyed. “What a pleasure.” No hitch in her voice, despite the fact that she thought she might topple over. Fiancée? In so short a time?
“I trust your time in Paris was well spent?” Mr. Everard asked. At least he had the decency to look pained; though really, didn’t she deserve an outcome like this? I have been a fool.
Still, she would never let anyone, least of all Findlay Everard, know she cared that much. Not in public.
“Yes.” Iris bobbed her head. “Please excuse us. We were just going for some refreshment. I hope you enjoy your evening, Miss Wyndham.” The ice Iris managed pleased her, even if it caused Mr. Everard to flinch. Iris strode forward, almost forgetting to keep hold of Mr. D’Amery’s arm. She refused to meet Lettie’s gaze, even when her friend stared at her pleadingly. How dare she let Iris go a full two hours without breathing a word that Mr. Everard was engaged?
Lady Iris Colburn had fought her share of social battles, ones more devastating and more painful than anything Mr. Everard’s lost affection could produce. She refused to wilt. She weathered every whisper the night Dersingham turned his affections. She danced right through it. Had she fainted? No. Had she secluded herself? Absolutely not. That is what every girl who could not command a gentleman’s attention the way Iris could wished for. To see her weak. She would never give them the satisfaction. Not even now.No one, not even Lettie, would know what this cost her.
Buy on Amazon.
Buy on Smashwords.
Check it out on Goodreads.