4. Intelligent.

He scratched his head with the end of his pen lost in thought. The list seemed rather short, was there something else he should add to it? His mouth curved - of course.

5. Tall

6. Prefers country life.

7. Loves children.

There … that should do it. If he found a young woman who fulfilled all his criteria he would offer for her immediately. The sooner he produced the required heir the better, then he could continue his rackety lifestyle without having the family lawyers constantly complaining. He had no intention of living with his wife once his duty was done, his mistress provided him with everything he needed apart from a son. A fleeting image of the lovely, russet haired girl he’d encountered in Norfolk flickered into his head. His enquiries had not produced her name or whereabouts, and he’s been obliged to return to Town a few days later on urgent business matters and had all but forgotten the encounter. He pushed the picture away— she was safely in Norfolk and he must find himself a bride.

*   *   *

Isobel stood beside her cousin waiting to greet the monstrous crush of people invited to their come-out ball. She must remember to bite her tongue and keep any sharp comments to herself even if seriously provoked.

Petunia, a diminutive, fair-haired girl, as pretty as a cherub and with a sweet nature to match, would have no such difficulty. Isobel felt like an ungainly beanpole at her side. With her hair piled up in this ridiculous fashion on top of her head it added a further few inches. Good grief! Even her evening slippers had heels upon them. She would be staring over the heads of most of the gentlemen present and that would surely be enough to put them off before they’d even spoken to her.

“Isobel, my love, please do not scowl so, it is your come out. You are supposed to be enjoying yourself, not looking as if you are about to have a tooth pulled.”

Her dear aunt’s kindly reminder caused Isobel to relax. “I beg your pardon, Aunt Laura, you are right to chide me. It’s just that I feel over large and I was wishing I were a foot and a half shorter tonight.”

Petunia stretched up to kiss her cheek. “You are the most beautiful woman here, like a goddess, so tall and elegant. With your lovely red-gold curls and huge green eyes I’m certain you shall be the talk of the town.”

“You are dear to say so, cousin, and I love you for it. However I can’t tell you how unpleasant it is to be staring at the top of a gentleman’s head all night.”

Her companions were still laughing when the first guests were announced. Uncle Benjamin, who had been absent from the line, hurried to join them, brushing cigar ash from his person as he did so. He’d been blowing a cloud in the billiard room and no doubt downing a steadying brandy or two.

He beamed at her. “My dears, I shall be the proudest man in London tonight. I expect to be beating off your many suitors with a stick before the evening is finished.” He winked at her as he took his place beside his wife. He knew how she felt and appreciated, as no other person did, what a sacrifice she was making in order to save her family from disaster.

“I think you are a trifle premature, Uncle. However there are a prodigious amount of people invited, it would be churlish of me not to find someone to make me an offer when there is so much choice.” His laughter made several heads turn in their direction. “I am deeply grateful for the opportunity you have given me, my lord. Tonight I shall make an effort to simper and flutter my eyelids in exactly the way Pet has shown me.”

She loved her relatives; if she was honest she preferred them to her own family. Whatever the outcome of this venture she was determined to enjoy her stay in Town. She would attend all the soirees and at homes with good grace, but when everyone else was still abed she would ride in the park and visit the sights. Her lips curved at the thought of her trip to Hatchards that morning when she had been able to purchase several promising novels.

Her smile froze as a tall gentleman dressed entirely in black caught her attention. Her knees almost buckled. He was the one gentleman she didn’t want to meet. Her enquiries had assured her Lord Bentley did not attend balls or parties, was a dissolute aristocrat, more interested in gaming and drinking than finding a wife. There was a sudden flurry of movement and the crowd parted like the Red Sea to let him through. He was staring directly at her.

Had he recognized her as the young lady who had tipped him into a ditch? That strange heat flickered through her, her cheeks coloured and her chest tightened. She couldn’t look away, was held by the gaze of his blue-black eyes and the arrogant thrust of his chin. This time he was smiling and she could not help responding. The master of ceremonies announced his name with due aplomb.

“His grace, The Duke of Rochester, Lord Bentley.” She dipped in a deep curtsy wondering if he knew who she was. Presumably his invitation card would have stated her name. Her cousin was the image of Aunt Laura so it must be immediately obvious she was Lady Isobel Drummond and not Miss Petunia Illingworth. She straightened, raising her head to discover him watching her. His smile made her toes curl.

“Lady Isobel, I am enchanted to make your acquaintance. I hope you will honour me with a dance or two.” This was not a question but a bald statement of fact.

Almost too late she found her tongue. “Thank you, your grace, it is I who shall be honoured.” He nodded and was gone. Someone touched her hand and she looked down to see her cousin staring at her round eyed.

“Do you realize who that was?”

Isobel smiled. “He was announced, he’s The Duke of Rochester.”

“No, silly, he’s the most eligible parti in the world and he has singled you out. Whatever happens next, your season will be successful.”

Now was not the time to tell Pet she had already made his acquaintance. She shivered. Was he planning some sort of revenge for her mistreatment? Would he lead her out and then abandon her on the dance floor and make her a laughing stock? Did one man have the power to do that? Her cousin was prone to exaggerate, no doubt this was another of those instances.

“I think he was an objectionable man, so top lofty I cannot imagine how he does not fall over his own feet. He did not stay to greet any of you; even a duke should have good manners.”

Aunt Laura looked scandalized and Petunia giggled. Her uncle winked and the moment of excitement was over. Having jumped the queue in his superior fashion, Rochester strolled off into the ballroom. As the remainder of the guests was introduced Isobel curtsied and smiled until her face ached.

An hour later she was finally free to join the throng milling about the place. Whoever arrived at her side first, if she liked them, then she would dance. Then, when she became bored with the evening, she could absent herself without giving offence to anyone.

Petunia was to lead the first set. No doubt some gentleman would invite her also. To her astonishment Rochester appeared neatly cutting out a small queue of hopefuls.

“I believe this is my dance, Lady Isobel.”

She was tempted to refuse, to say she was promised to another, but something in his eyes made her accept and she curtsied and stepped forward. Just the touch of his hand sent tremors rushing round her body.

“I believe I owe you an apology, my lady.”

Her eyes flew up. His expression was suitably solemn, but his eyes twinkled. “It is I who must apologize …”

His smile made her lose her feet and she stumbled, he steadied her. “I should have called on you, but was recalled on business matters. Without your intervention things might have been far worse.”

Her gurgle of laughter attracted the attention of the other couples in the set. “Shall we agree to forget the incident, your grace?”

He nodded. “As you wish. May I say that I almost didn’t recognize you this evening?”

With wide eyes she replied. “And I you, your grace. Mud is an excellent disguise, is it not?”

This time his shout of mirth caused the unfortunate young lady to her left to step on her hem and tear the flounce clean off. The dagger look Isobel received almost made her lose her composure. He whirled her away in the promenade and she struggled with her giggles; he not assisting her efforts by winking down at her.

The remainder of the ball whirled past far quicker than she’d anticipated. In spite of her reservations she was not bored, in fact had never felt so invigorated in her life. She had danced with a variety of gentlemen both young

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