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When the woman who deserted him after his return home from the Napoleonic Wars comes back into his life, eager to revive their engagement, Viscount Ponsonby instead proposes to Agnes Keeping, an enchanting young woman, to avenge his former love. (romance). Simultaneous.
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Mary Balogh is the "New York Times" bestselling author of numerous books, including the acclaimed Slightly and Simply novels, the Mistress trilogy, and the five titles in her Huxtable series: "First Comes Marriage," " Then Comes Seduction," " At Last Comes Love," " Seducing an Angel," and "A Secret Affair."Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
At the age of twenty-six, Agnes Keeping had never been in love or ever expected to be—or even wished to be. She rather chose to be in control of her own emotions and her own life, such as it was.
At the age of eighteen she had chosen to marry William Keeping, a neighboring gentleman of sober address and steady habits and modest means, after he had very properly called upon her father to make his offer and had then made her a very civil marriage proposal in the presence of her father’s second wife. Agnes had been fond of her husband and comfortable with him for almost five years before he died of one of his frequent winter chills. She had mourned him with an empty sort of desolation for longer than the requisite year of wearing her black widow’s weeds and still sadly missed him.
She had not been in love with him, however, or he with her. The very idea seemed absurd, suggestive as it was of a wild, unbridled sort of passion.
She smiled at her image in the glass as she tried to imagine poor William in an unbridled passion, romantic or otherwise. But then her eyes focused upon herself, and it occurred to her that she had better admire her splendor now while she had the chance, for once she arrived at the ball, it would be instantly apparent that in reality she did not look very magnificent at all.
She was wearing her green silk evening gown, which she loved despite the fact that it was far from new—indeed, she had had it when William was still alive—and had not been in the height of fashion even when it was. It was high waisted with a moderately low neckline and short puffy sleeves and was embroidered with silver thread about the hem and the edges of the sleeves. It was not shabby despite its age. One did not, after all, wear one’s best evening gown very often, unless one moved in far more elevated social circles than Agnes did. She had been living for several months now in a modest cottage in the village of Inglebrook in Gloucestershire with her elder sister, Dora.
Agnes had never attended a ball before. She had been to assemblies, of course, and it could be argued that a ball was the same thing by another name. But really there was a world of difference. Assemblies were held in public halls, usually above an inn. Balls were private entertainments hosted by those rich and socially prominent enough to inhabit a house with a ballroom. Such people and such houses did not abound in the English countryside.
There was one close by, however.
Middlebury Park, a mere mile from Inglebrook, was a stately mansion belonging to Viscount Darleigh, husband of Agnes’s new and dear friend, Sophia. The long wing east of the massive central block housed the state apartments, which were dazzlingly magnificent—or so they had appeared to Agnes when Sophia had given her a tour one afternoon not long after they first met. They included a spacious ballroom.
The viscount had succeeded to his title when his uncle and cousin died a sudden and violent death together, and it was only now, four years later, that Middlebury Park had again become the social center of the neighborhood. Lord Darleigh had been blinded at the age of seventeen when he was an artillery officer in the Peninsular Wars, two years before the title and property and fortune became his. He had lived a retired life at Middlebury until he met and married Sophia in London in the late spring of this year, just before Agnes herself moved to the neighborhood. His marriage and perhaps a growing maturity had instilled in the viscount a confidence he had apparently lacked before, and Sophia herself had set about the task of assisting him and at the same time making a new life for herself as mistress of a large home and estate.
Hence the ball.
The two of them were reviving the old tradition of a harvest ball, which had always been held early in October. It was being spoken of in the village, however, as more of a wedding dance and reception than a harvest celebration, for the viscount and his wife had married quietly in London a mere week after they met, and there had been no public celebration of their nuptials. Even their families had not been in attendance. Sophia had promised soon after she arrived at Middlebury that a reception would be held at some time in the foreseeable future, and this ball was it, despite the fact that Sophia was already increasing, a condition that could no longer be quite hidden despite the current fashion for dresses with loosely flowing skirts. Everyone in the neighborhood knew, even though no official announcement had been made.
It was no exclusive honor to have been invited to the ball, for almost everyone else from the village and the surrounding countryside had been invited too. And Dora had quite a close connection with the viscount and his wife, since she gave both of them pianoforte lessons as well as instruction in the violin and harp to Lord Darleigh. Agnes had been Sophia’s friend ever since they had discovered a mutual passion for art, Agnes as a watercolorist, Sophia as a very clever caricaturist and illustrator of children’s stories.
There were to be other, more illustrious guests at the ball than just the people from the neighborhood, however. Lord Darleigh’s sisters and their husbands were coming, as well as Viscount Ponsonby, one of the viscount’s friends. Sophia had explained that the two men were part of a group of seven persons who had spent several years together in Cornwall recovering from various war wounds. Most of them had been military officers. They called themselves the Survivors’ Club and spent a few weeks of each year in company with one another.
Sophia had family members coming too: her uncle Sir Terrence Fry, a senior government diplomat, and another uncle and aunt—Sir Clarence and Lady March—with their daughter.
It all sounded very imposing and had Agnes looking forward to it with something bordering on excitement. She had never thought of herself as a person who coveted social splendor, just as she did not think of herself as someone who would ever fall in love. But she was eagerly anticipating this ball, perhaps because Sophia herself was, and Agnes had grown very fond of her young friend. She earnestly wanted the ball to be a great success for Sophia’s sake.
She looked critically at her hair, which she had dressed herself. She had managed to coax some height out of her curls and had left a few tendrils to wave along her neck and over her ears. The style could hardly be called elaborate, nonetheless. And there was nothing remarkable about the hair itself, a nondescript midbrown color, though it did have a healthy shine to it. There was nothing particularly remarkable about the face beneath the hair either, she thought, smiling ruefully at her image. She was not ugly, it was true. Perhaps she was not even quite plain. But she was no ravishing beauty. And, good heavens, had she ever wanted to be? This going-to-a-ball business was turning her head and making her giddy.
She and Dora arrived early, as most of the outside guests did. Being late was fashionable with the ton during the Season in London, Dora had commented when they set out ten minutes earlier than the early start they had planned. Or so she had heard. But in the country people tended to have better manners. So they were early.
Agnes was feeling rather breathless by the time they reached the doors of the ballroom. The state apartments looked somehow different and far more magnificent with banks of flowers and hanging baskets everywhere and candles blazing from every wall sconce.
Sophia was standing just inside the double doors, receiving her guests with Lord Darleigh beside her, and Agnes instantly relaxed and smiled with genuine warmth. Although she did not expect to fall in love herself, she could not deny that such a state existed and that it could be beautiful to behold when it did. Lord and Lady Darleigh positively glowed with a romantic affection for each other, though they never openly demonstrated their feelings in public.
Sophia looked gorgeous in a turquoise gown that perfectly complemented her auburn hair. That hair had been boyishly short when she was first married. She had been growing it ever since. It was still not long, but her maid had done something clever with it to make it look sleek and elegant, and for the first time it struck Agnes that her friend was more than just pretty in an elfin kind of way. She beamed at Dora and Agnes and hugged them both, and Lord Darleigh, blind though he was, seemed to look directly at them with his very blue eyes as he smiled and shook them by the hand.
“Mrs. Keeping, Miss Debbins,” he said, “how very kind of you to come to make our evening perfect.”
As though his guests were the ones doing him a favor. He was looking elegant and handsome in black and white.
It was not difficult to pick out the strangers in the ballroom. One result of living in the country, even when one had been here for only a few months, was that one tended to see the same people wherever one went. And the strangers had brought high fashion with them and quite cast Agnes’s best green gown into the shade, as she had fully expected. They outshone everyone else too, except one another.
Mrs. Hunt, the viscount’s mother, kindly undertook to take Dora and Agnes about to introduce them, first to Sir Clarence and Lady March and Miss March, all of whom were looking very distinguished indeed, even if the height of Lady March’s hair plumes was rather startling. They nodded with stiff condescension—the plumes too—and Agnes followed Dora’s lead and curtsied. Then there were Sir Terrence Fry and Mr. Sebastian Maycock, his stepson, both of whom were smartly but not ostentatiously clad. The former bowed politely to them and remarked upon the prettiness of the village. The latter, a tall, handsome, personable-looking young gentleman, flashed his teeth at them and pronounced himself to be delighted. He hoped to engage them in some dancing later in the evening, though he did not make any definite appointment with either of them.
A charmer, Agnes decided, but more enamored of his own charms than other people’s. And she really ought not to indulge in such unkind snap judgments when she had almost nothing upon which to base them.
And then Mrs. Hunt presented them to Viscount Ponsonby, whose immaculately formal evening clothes, all black except for the pristine white of his linen and intricately tied neck cloth and the silver of his waistcoat, set every other man present into the shade except perhaps Viscount Darleigh himself. He was tall and well formed, a blond god of a man, though his hair was not the white blond or the yellow blond that never looked quite right on a man, in Agnes’s opinion. His features were classically perfect, his eyes decidedly green. There was a certain world-weariness to those eyes, and the suggestion of mockery in the set of his lips. One long-fingered hand held a silver-handled quizzing glass.
Agnes felt annoyingly aware of her own ordinariness. And though he did not raise his glass to his eye when Mrs. Hunt introduced them—he was, she sensed, far too well mannered to do any such thing—she felt nevertheless that she had been thoroughly inspected and dismissed, despite the fact that he bowed to both Dora and herself and asked them how they did and even paid attention to their less than scintillating answers.
He was the sort of man who always made Agnes uncomfortable, though she had not met many such, it was true. For such stunningly handsome and attractive men made her feel dull and plodding as well as very ordinary, and she always ended up despising herself. How did she want to appear to such men? As an empty-headed eyelid-flutterer? Or as sophisticated and witty, perhaps? What utter nonsense.
She could not get away from him quickly enough in order to feel like herself again as she spoke with Mr. and Mrs. Latchley and commiserated with the former, who had fallen off the roof of his barn only the week before and broken his leg. He could not sufficiently praise Lord and Lady Darleigh, who had paid him a personal visit and insisted upon sending their own carriage to bring him and his wife to the ball and had even coaxed them into staying the night before being conveyed back home on the morrow.
Agnes looked around with great enjoyment as they talked. The wooden floor had been polished to a high gloss. There were large pots of autumn-hued flowers everywhere. Three large chandeliers, all the candles alight, hung from a ceiling painted with scenes from mythology. They glinted off the gilded frieze above the wood paneling of the walls and reflected in the many long mirrors, which made the already spacious room look many times larger and many times fuller of flowers and guests. The members of the orchestra—yes, there was actually an eight-piece orchestra come all the way from Gloucester—had taken their places on the dais at one end of the room and were tuning their instruments.
Everyone, it seemed, had arrived. Lord Darleigh and Sophia had turned into the room, and Sir Terrence Fry was making his way toward them with the obvious intention of leading his niece out for the first set of country dances. Agnes smiled. It was also amusing to watch the Marches maneuver themselves closer to Viscount Ponsonby. It was very clear that they intended him to partner Miss March for the first set. It was doubly amusing to watch him stroll unhurriedly away from them without even glancing in their direction. He was clearly a gentleman accustomed to avoiding unwelcome advances. Oh, she must share this with Sophia when she next saw her after tonight. Sophia was wickedly good at sketching caricatures.
Agnes was so busy observing the look of chagrin on the faces of all three Marches that she did not notice at first that Viscount Ponsonby was moving in the direction of the sofa along which Mr. Latchley’s splinted leg was stretched. Except that he was not coming to commiserate or even to nod a greeting to the injured man. Instead he stopped and bowed to her.
“Mrs. Keeping,” he said, his voice languid, even a trifle bored, “one is expected to d-dance, I believe, at such gatherings. At least, that is what my friend Darleigh informed me this afternoon. And although he is quite b-blind and one might assume he would not see if I did not dance, I know him well enough to feel quite c-certain that he would see even if no one told him. What is the point of having a blind friend, I sometimes ask myself, if one cannot deceive him in such matters?”
Oh, he stuttered slightly—surely his only outward imperfection. His eyelids partly drooped over his eyes as he spoke to give him his slightly sleepy look, though the eyes themselves did not look sleepy at all.
Agnes laughed. She did not know what else to do. Was he asking her to dance? But he had not said so, had he?
“Ah,” he said, raising his quizzing glass almost but not quite to his eye. He had beautifully manicured nails, she saw, on a hand that was nevertheless quite unmistakably male. “Quite so. You s-sympathize with me, I see. But one must dance. Will you do me the honor, ma’am, of hoofing it about the floor with me?”
He was asking her to dance, and the opening set at that. She had been hoping quite fervently that someo...
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Book Description Thorndike Press, 2014. Hardcover. Condition: New. Never used!. Seller Inventory # P111410474941
Book Description Thorndike Press, 2014. Condition: New. book. Seller Inventory # M1410474941