“Get out!” Sebastian’s drunk bellow wasn’t as terrifying as he had meant it to be, which was a blasted shame.
“You ruined me, Your Grace!” the girl, Lady something or other, cried with a hint of a swoon that would’ve earned her a contract at Drury Lane.
Not again, Sebastian bitterly thought.
The harlot disguised in gentlewoman’s clothes had sought an introduction as soon as he set foot at the Derringer’s ball. Her brassy conduct should have been the first signal to stay away from the horrid creature, but today was the anniversary of his parents’ and sister’s deaths, and Sebastian had started drinking earlier in the afternoon at White’s and never stopped. By the time he arrived at the ball, he was three sheets to the wind and in a darker mood than usual.
Dallying with a pretty piece of muslin had sounded fun at first. Even though the flirting had taken place under the vigilant, and rather avaricious, eyes of the chit’s mother, a dowager whose name Sebastian hadn’t bothered memorize—he seldom did.
The mother’s slyness at cornering him should’ve been another warning, but again, drunkards rarely had full cognition of their condition, and Sebastian always thought himself cleverer than most. Clearly a gross misjudgment on his part. Especially after the unfortunate debacle of the previous Season when several debutantes had tried their worst to be ruined by him.
Sebastian should have learned his lesson and acted with a modicum of intelligence. After all, his friend Percy had found himself shackled, victim of a particularly determined mama who had wanted to trap a duke and caught an earl in her web instead. Whereas Percy had spirited his bride to the country and— according to his letters—seemed to relish the married life, Sebastian had no intention to follow suit.
And yet, here he was, once again having to extricate himself from a most compromising position.
Without knowing exactly how the chit and her title-hunter mother had contrived so—he remembered the matron hailing the servants carrying the Champagne flutes more than once—Sebastian had been led to a shadowy place, pressed against a wall by a girl whose hands roamed freely upon him.
“Stop this nonsense at once,” he ordered. Needless to say, his command was a waste of breath for all it achieved.
“I’ve always loved you,” the debutante proclaimed, throwing both hands around his neck.
“Don’t you dare use that word.” Her touch irritated him. What would a bird-witted girl know about love? The ones who had experienced the sentiment would never talk about it with such disregard.
“It is the truth!” She blinked her long lashes in what she must have thought was a powerful weapon in her seduction arsenal. “I love you,” she repeated. It was a mistake.
“I don’t even know your name,” he scoffed. “And I doubt you care a fig about me. My title is what you’re after.”
While being a duke had numerous advantages, it came also with the unwanted headache of attracting sycophants and reckless mamas, who would go to considerable lengths to see their daughters snatch anything above a baron.
Case in point, hurried steps and excited voices carried inside their corner.
“You’ll have to marry me.” A note of triumph colored the girl’s voice.
Very few antidotes to drunkenness worked fast but being faced with sudden marriage was one of them. In possession of his wits once again, Sebastian took the girl’s hands and gently but surely unhooked them, then put as much room between their bodies as he could muster in the narrow space.
“Listen to me,” he said, using his clipped tone he reserved for special circumstances. “And listen well. I am the Duke of Wentworth and nobody will ever dream to go against me in society. When your mother and whatever witness she has enlisted in this pathetic scheme of yours find us here, the only thing that’s going to happen is that I’ll tell everyone what you did.”
“You’re bound to do the gentlemanly thing and offer for me,” the girl spluttered. Gone were her malicious grin and aura of victory.
“See, that’s where you and your mother are wrong. I viscerally despise extortion and won’t fall prey to yours.” Evidently, they had thought he was too top-heavy and that she would succeed where the other debutantes had failed. The presumption of those greedy hussies had no limits.
The steps resonated closer. The matron’s voice filtered loud and clear as the woman steered her companions toward the rendezvous point.
“I’ll be ruined,” the girl whispered, her eyes widening in horror.
“You should’ve considered that possible outcome beforehand.” Sebastian stepped away from her, heading out to meet the group of witnesses to his planned downfall. A smile formed of its own volition on his face.
Before he could reveal himself, another set of steps, louder and heavier, entered the scene.
“Good evening, my ladies,” the low baritone of Hawk, the Earl of Hawkshead, interrupted the feminine gaggle. “Lady Derringer.”
So, the dowager had managed to involve the hostess to give credit to the charade. Sebastian couldn’t help but chuckle at the woman’s audacity and at his friend’s timely intervention.
“I hope I won’t disrupt your stroll much, but may I ask you to accompany me back to the ballroom?” Hawk asked. “I must confess I am in need of guidance navigating this beautiful and very large home, Lady Derringer.”
Sebastian repressed a snort. What a bag of moonshine. An army of footmen patrolled the halls, and they were more than capable of giving directions.
Apparently, Lady Derringer didn’t find the notion ridiculous. The earl’s handsome features and general amiability might have been the reason for her, “Not at all,” uttered with a flirtatious tone.
“But I thought I saw my daughter heading that way,” the matron hurried to say.
“Oh, but I saw Lady Carola hastily walking toward the gardens when I was leaving the ballroom,” Hawk said. “Perhaps we should go and see that she is well, Lady Winslet.”
Sebastian could barely suppress the laughter bubbling inside his chest. His friend was a genius if he had ever met one. He waited for the group to leave before addressing the girl, who was now silently sniffing. “I would count your blessings if I were you. Your reputation is safe, Lady Carola, and make sure never to follow your mother’s schemes again. Nothing but regret will come of it.” He rounded the corner to verify that anyone was about and left.
Instead of joining the throng of guests crowding the place, Sebastian went directly to the entrance hall to ask for his coach to be brought around. Hawk was already there.
“That was a close call,” his friend commented, eyes shining with mirth.
“I owe you one.” Sebastian ruefully smiled. In truth, Lady Carola owed the earl even more for having saved her from the social ruin that had marked at least two debutantes last year and sent them to exile in the country.
“The silly chit should’ve known better, but your title made her forgetful.” Hawk looked over his shoulder in the general direction of the party. “How many attempts had you this month alone?”
“This was the third.” Being a duke was trying.
“You should guard your virtue better. Husband Hunting Season has just started, after all.”
Sebastian couldn’t help but laugh out loud, drawing the other guests’ attention. “The most dangerous time of the year for the titled bachelor.”
“Indeed, Your Grace,” Hawk mocked him.
It was done in friendship, but it reminded Sebastian, once again, that he had never wanted to acquire the title so young in the first place. If only there had been an older brother, he would have been spared the trials and tribulations associated with being the heir. Not only was there no family left, but also both his parents were only children with no relatives alive. No doting grandparents to lighten his burden with soothing embraces. No cousins or meddling aunts to share holidays. No uncles to teach him the ways of life. If it weren’t for his closest friend, Sebastian would have been all alone in a world where everyone wanted something from him.
A maudlin melancholy possessed Sebastian.
“Let’s go back to White’s and have a drink.” It turned out that he had sobered up too much for his liking.
“Are you sure that’s a good idea?” Hawk asked.
“I don’t want to dream tonight.” Sebastian didn’t need to explain further. His friend knew about Sebastian’s nightmares.
Hawk opened his arm to the side. “Lead the way.”