Darcy Burke

Excerpt: One Night of Passion

Book 3: Wicked Dukes Club

19 March, 1817

Almack’s Assembly Rooms

London, England

 

Thaddeus Middleton, plain old “mister” in an endless line of plain old misters, considered himself the luckiest of men.

“The first set?” gushed a wide-eyed debutante, gripping her blank dance card in trembling fingers. “Truly?”

“I cannot conceive of a greater start to the evening,” Thad assured her and signed his name with a flourish.

She clutched the card to her bosom and all but ran off squealing.

He grinned to himself. Now that she had one name, more would surely follow. Perhaps both of them would find the match of a lifetime tonight.

The first hour inside Almack’s Assembly Rooms was always one of the best. He could greet all his old friends, make a dozen new ones, and set the tone for the evening. Like everyone else, Thad was looking for more than a dance partner. He wanted a wife. As for why he was so lucky?

When it came to love, Thad possessed one thing the snobs and the lordlings and the new money hopefuls did not:

Choice.

“Middleton!” A light-pocketed dandy clapped a hand to Thad’s shoulder and lowered his voice. “You’re not after the Wakefield heiress, are you?”

“For nothing more than a country dance,” Thad assured him. “She’s yours if she wants you.”

The dandy adjusted his cravat. “Then I’ll see if there’s still room on her card.”

Thad returned his gaze to the bustling ballroom before him. Large mirrors between the gilded pilasters along the walls reflected the high energy and sweeping elegance of the crème de la crème of high society. A man could not ask for better odds than this.

Technically, he did not yet have a list of potential brides from whence to choose. Or even a single name lightly penciled in on a sheet labeled “…Perhaps?”

But all of that was about to change. Soon. He just had to keep looking.

As far as Thad could tell, the moral of most fairy-tales was to be in the right place at the right time, and not to overlook anyone. One never knew when one’s right time and right place would be, so Thad endeavored to be everywhere.

Tonight, he was in the perfect spot for running into Princess Charming. For twelve consecutive weeks during the height of the London season, these hallowed walls housed what was colloquially known as the Marriage Mart. Eligible ladies and gentlemen flocked here every Wednesday in search of The One.

“Do say you’ll complete our quadrille,” one of his favorite bluestockings said as she swept past. “One tires of discussing the weather with every dance partner, and you always have an interesting book you’ve just finished.”

“This time as well,” Thad said solemnly as he signed his name upon her card. “It’s about the history of English weather.”

Laughing, she smacked him with her fan. “Find another book and meet me for the third set.”

“But… the rain,” he called after her with faux innocence. “We could discuss it for hours!”

Not that he had hours. He was on a mission. If Almack’s was the Marriage Mart, Thad had a very specific shopping list: True love. What else mattered?

Surely he’d recognize love when he saw it. Love was impossible to miss. Love felt like the singing of angels and the thunder of fireworks. It was intimate confessions and breathless kisses and riding white horses into the sunset. Love meant waking every morning next to someone as delighted to see him as he was to see her. A fairy-tale come to life.

Or it would be. But first, he needed to find The One.

“Middleton!” Another friendly hand clapped Thad’s shoulder. “First Colehaven, then Eastleigh… Must be our turn to shine at last, eh?”

“So I pray,” Thad agreed fervently.

Colehaven and Eastleigh weren’t just co-owners of the popular and semi-reputable Wicked Duke tavern. They were actual dukes. Moneyed, handsome, eligible ones. Every marriageable young lady in London swooned in their paths.

At least, they had done so until this season, when they’d both tied the parson’s knot. Love matches, proving it could be done! For handsome dukes, anyway. Now that they were off the market, Thad’s chances had risen overnight.

He glanced about the ballroom at the other men on the hunt. There were elderly but titled roués, feather-witted but deep-pocketed youths, well-mannered fortune-hunters, second and third sons…

And Thad.

No title, but Thad considered not being chained to the House of Lords an advantage. He wasn’t astonishingly wealthy, but his annuity would keep a family comfortable for generations to come. Besides, he didn’t want to marry some chit so desperate to increase her standing that she’d marry a sack of potatoes if it meant access to a title or fortune.

Label him a romantic if one must, but Thad refused to settle for anything less than happy ever after.

“See my future countess anywhere?” sighed a familiar voice from behind Thad’s shoulder.

He turned to give a crooked smile to a friend whose earldom could barely afford to maintain its unentailed properties—which happened to adjoin those of a young lady whose dowry would increase the earl’s land and his coffers. A neat solution, if only the parties in question had any interest in each other.

“Good luck,” Thad said with feeling. Sometimes luck was all one had.

The earl was far from unusual. In most cases, qualifications for “the one” were determined by societal connections, advantageous political alliances, acquisition of wealth, control of property, and countless other practical concerns. And, in most cases, Almack’s assembly rooms were the perfect place to solve those problems.

All the familiar faces sailing past came from good families; ladies of good breeding, respectable gentlemen. One needn’t fear distressing surprises in that regard, because the patronesses seated upon the dais at the upper end of the ballroom had personally approved every single person in possession of an admittance voucher.

The Marriage Mart was a convenient method of displaying both one’s availability and eligibility to interested parties. Indeed, Almack’s had been a London institution since 1765. Thad’s parents had met within these very walls.

“Card room in half an hour,” another friend said to Thad as he passed. “Three card loo. Mortram is hoping to win back the phaeton he lost last night.”

Thad inclined his head. He wouldn’t be gambling. He wouldn’t risk what little he had to offer.

During her come-out year, Thad’s mother had been reasonably sought after, and soon had the choice between a penniless baron and plain old mister with two thousand per year. Neither was a love match. She chose the man with deeper pockets.

Thad wouldn’t blame any woman for choosing the man with money. Marrying well was virtually the only manner in which a young lady could influence her future. But Thad’s mother never forgave her husband for not being a lord, and Thad’s father never forgave his beautiful young wife for not staying eighteen and perfect forever.

Neither paid much attention to their son… but Thad had been watching closely.

Theirs was not the sort of match he intended to replicate. Most ton marriages might be political or financial or social, but he didn’t need those things. All he’d ever wanted was love.

Despite his parents’ unhappy marriage, Thad still believed in romance. And he’d witnessed happy-ever-after… well, secondhand. His cousin Diana had just married for love, following in the footsteps of her parents before her, who had likewise been head-over-heels for each other from the first reading of the banns until the night a fever claimed them, a quarter century later.

That was what Thad longed for. Not just “until death do us part” but “in love from now till death, and forever after.” He’d been searching for it for as long as he could remember.

“Did you sample tonight’s refreshments?” another friend murmured at his shoulder.

Thad shook his head. “It’s always watered-down orgeat and day-old bread.”

Week-old by the taste of it,” his friend lamented with a sigh. “When will I learn?”

An excellent point. One could not do the same as always and expect different results.

Earlier this year, Thad had realized he’d been placing all his attention on the same pool of ladies. The outgoing ones, the flirtatious ones, the ones who had known him for so long that every one of his dances was promised within moments of stepping foot in a ballroom. Such evenings were fun, but got him no closer to his goal. Worse, he might have spent the past decade skipping over all the most interesting women.

Thad had immediately declared this season the Year of the Wallflower.

By dedicating at least half of each evening to ladies he’d never danced with before, he’d met countless new friends… and no potential brides. But just because there had been no fireworks so far didn’t mean he was on the wrong track. In fact, the season had barely begun, and he’d already witnessed two unlikely love matches. Didn’t fortune come in threes?

He turned a slow circle, paying close attention to those in the margins. Although gentlemen carried no dance cards, Thad kept careful track. He still had a handful of unclaimed sets. Some young lady here tonight might be the one to spark the fireworks he sought.

There.

An excited tingle of anticipation rushed through him. Dark brown curls, gorgeous brown eyes, dusky pink lips, an enticing combination of soft skin and lush curves wrapped in a gauzy roses-and-cream evening gown.

He knew her name: Miss Priscilla Weatherby. They had been formally presented during her come-out four or five years ago, but hadn’t spoken since.

Although a reasonably familiar face at society gatherings, Miss Weatherby rarely stood up for more than a quadrille or two and tended to guard her company. As such, her name had never been linked to gossip—or bandied about much at all. She was almost as much a fixture as the gilded columns and crimson ropes partitioning the ballroom.

Not today. He rolled back his shoulders in determination. After being on the shelf for five years, Miss Weatherby had likely tired of being overlooked by unimaginative lordlings. If she had never danced a waltz, why, Thad would be honored to be the first to ask.

He strode in her direction with confidence and good cheer. Even if no spark marked the occasion, at least they would get a dance out of it, and possibly a few laughs. Miss Weatherby might well become the most memorable set of the entire night.

When he reached the pilaster whose shadow half-concealed her from view, Thad swept a glorious bow. “How do you do this evening, Miss Weatherby? Dare I hope room remains on your card for a dance?”

She gazed back at him with a fathomless expression. “Why?”

He blinked. “Er, because this is a ballroom. For dancing. The food might be wretched, but the orchestra is lovely. Unfortunately, it is impossible to dance a quadrille by oneself, so I wondered—”

“I know what dancing is,” she interrupted, her dark eyes locked on his with amusement and heat. “Why would you want to do it with me?

Thad moved closer with interest. Now that the conversation had taken such an unprecedented turn, he wasn’t certain he wished to waste a thirty-minute set marking out the steps of a quadrille. Conversing with Miss Weatherby would be leagues more diverting.

“We needn’t dance,” he said at once, and gave her a full smile. “I’m happy to promenade, if you prefer.”

There was no sense hiding how intrigued he’d just become. Thad did not believe in playing games. Part of being in the right place at the right time meant not ruining the moment by feigning indifference.

She tilted her head. “Did I do something to make you think I’d be interested in perambulating about a ballroom on your elbow?”

“Er,” Thad said brightly. “That is…”

“Or did you come here because you judged me to be a wallflower, and therefore desperate for the attention of some impossibly handsome gentleman with courtly manners and a contagious smile?”

Impossibly handsome and courtly manners sounded wildly complimentary.

Thad suspected it was not.

“Er,” he said again. “Only a fool would believe all wallflowers—”

“Only a fool,” she interrupted, “would assume a woman not dancing must be heartbroken over a lack of suitors. Perhaps the woman received plenty of offers and simply said, ‘No.’ Just like this.”

Miss Weatherby stepped away from the pilaster and into the light, her upturned chin and plump lips suddenly close to his own. “No.”

With a flutter of eyelashes, she turned and walked off.

Thad stared after her, thunderstruck. Their encounter had been more sledgehammer than spark, but one thing was certain:

Only a fool would overlook a woman like Miss Weatherby.

Return to One Night of Passion

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