Midnight Pleasures with a Scoundrel(Scoundrels of St. James,Book 4)(27) by Lorraine Heath
“Then the conversation about me must have been rather short,” Claybourne said with a grin.
“Frannie told us you were coming,” Lady Catherine said. “We didn’t think Jim would provide you with a chaperone so we shall serve in that role, if you’ve no objections. No sense in starting gossip straightaway.”
“I would be honored.”
“Let’s go, then, shall we?”
Nodding, she thought of the distant cousin with no real connections who’d brought Elisabeth to London. How different things might have been had a countess stood at her sister’s side.
“I daresay, you and Jim make a lovely couple,” the countess said quietly as she led the way up the sweeping stairs, with the gentlemen following.
Heat warmed her cheeks, and she could think of no adequate reply.
“I’m sorry if I’ve embarrassed you,” the countess said. “Jim is a dear friend. I’m most pleased to see him happy.”
“He’s unlike anyone I’ve ever met.”
“Most of these scoundrels are.”
She laughed lightly. “It’s how I think of my husband and his friends. They’ve become respectable, but a small bit of being a scoundrel remains to them. Don’t let it alarm you. It can come in quite handy at times.”
Halfway up, they turned onto a landing that ended at the large ballroom. People were waiting in line to be introduced.
Her heart pounded as she looked over the elegant ladies and handsome gentlemen. They all seemed so confident, so comfortable—smiling, talking, and laughing. Anticipating the night.
“You’re as good as any of them,” James murmured near her ear.
Turning to smile up at him, she nodded. “I can’t imagine an entire Season of this.”
“I think it would grow tedious rather quickly.”
She shook her head. “No, I think each night would be wonderful.”
As they approached the door, Catherine spoke to a man there. He nodded. Then his voice boomed out, “Lord and Lady Claybourne, Miss Eleanor Watkins, Mr. James Swindler!”
She looked out over the grand ballroom and thought she’d never seen anything so magnificent in her life. Coming from a small village, she thought it was almost like stepping into a dream. Little wonder Elisabeth had fallen for Rockberry’s charms. As she glided down the steps, she was grateful to have a woman of experience beside her. At the bottom of the stairs, Catherine greeted their host and hostess.
“Frannie, Sterling, I hope you’re pleased with everything.”
“Dear sister,” the duke said, “I never had any doubts you would provide us with a night to remember. And this must be Miss Watkins. My wife enjoyed visiting with you this afternoon. It’s a pleasure to have you in our home.”
She curtsied. “It’s a pleasure to be here, Your Grace.” She turned to the duchess. “Your Grace, thank you so much for the loan of the gown.”
“You’re welcome to keep it. I have far too many. And who knows? After tonight you might have need of it again.”
“You’re most generous.”
“Oh, I will.”
Looking back, she met James’s gaze and saw in his green eyes that this night was hers, all hers. As Catherine escorted her away, she suddenly found herself being introduced to one gentleman after another.
Unlike Elisabeth, she would not be a wallflower. In spite of the marvels and excitement that surrounded her, she felt a moment of sadness that her sister had not experienced anything near this much attention. Then all her sorrow floated away as the first gentleman escorted her to the dance area.
Swindler had yet to dance with Eleanor. From the moment she’d walked down the stairs into the grand salon, she’d captured everyone’s imagination and attention. Not that he could blame them for being fascinated by her. The gown she wore accentuated every curve. He desperately desired the opportunity to put his hands on her waist, draw her near. He snatched a flute of champagne from one of the passing footmen and downed it in one swallow.
“Preparing to go into battle?”
Giving Claybourne a sharp glare, he gratefully accepted the tumbler of scotch he offered and tossed it back as easily as he had the champagne.
“Easy there, Jim, you look as though you’re on the verge of killing someone. You’d best slow down. You know the liquor only serves to make you angrier.”
Swindler had always admired Claybourne the most of all of Feagan’s lads. Perhaps because his origins had been the upper crust of society, he’d never appeared to really belong with Feagan’s motley gang of thieves. “I’m not angry.”
“You’re giving a good imitation.”
Claybourne was almost as tall as Swindler, but he had a slender, aristocratic build. He was also the only person, other than Frannie, who Swindler truly trusted. “I didn’t expect all the gents to be fawning over her.”
“Why not? She’s a beautiful woman.”
Truer words were never spoken.
“Your anger is preventing you from seeing the situation clearly,” Claybourne said somberly, handing Swindler his own tumbler of scotch.
Swindler hurled the liquid to the back of his throat, relishing the slow burn that spread through his chest. “I said I’m not angry.”
Bloody hell. Swindler nodded. “Mayhaps.”
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