His damned boots were too tight.
Simon Watterly tried, discreetly, to move his tightly-bound toes. Nothing. Tomorrow the boots would have to go back to the boot maker. One more delay he didn't want, didn't need. But a soldier required a well-fitted pair of boots, and as of today, despite the Duke of Kerstone's vehement objections, Simon was an officer in His Majesty's service, bound for India. Too bad there was no good war on presently. He could only hope to find one soon.
He glanced around the crowded ballroom, his teeth clenched with the effort it took to project a bored yet pleasant facade. He had been raised to know his duty to the family name, the family blood, and would not dishonor it by making a scene. He had promised the duke. And Simon Watterly had been bred to make certain he always kept his promises and did his duty. Wouldn't want to tarnish the hallowed blood of the former Dukes and Duchesses of Kerstone. The true blood he did not share.
What a farce. It was truly bitter solace to realize that tonight was the last time he need pretend to be what these people thought him...what he had thought himself, until last night, when he had overheard his mother's words to his dying father—no, to the Duke of Kerstone, no relation to himself—and his life had shattered in an instant.
If the dying man had not extracted a promise from him not to destroy the family reputation ... but that was irre1evant. The duke had been frail and pitiful as he begged, pale blue eyes flowing with tears, his fingers a faint yet bony pressure on Simon's wrist. Simon could not withhold his promise to the man he had called father — but he would find a way to get around it — if a blood-soaked battlefield didn't see to it for him, as it had for the older brother Simon had never known. His legitimate older brother, blown up by a cannon blast in France while Simon was still a babe-in-arms.
An overly friendly blow to his arm made him spit out the bitter truth, "Bastard." He turned to glare at the offender.
"Take it easy there, Cousin, I merely wanted your attention." Giles Grimthorpe discreetly cocked his head in the direction of the crush of dancing figures. "I wondered if you would care to engage in a small wager to add piquancy to this dull evening?"
"What kind of wager?"
"A matter of a successful seduction, Cousin."
Simon grimaced at his cousin's expectant grin. No doubt the cad waited for a lecture. But today he would be surprised. An hour before, Simon had adjusted his cravat in the curved looking-glass in the foyer of his parents' town house and promised himself that he would do everything in his power to destroy the image of fairness and propriety that had given those who knew him cause to call him Saint Simon. And a good start to accomplish this aim would be to wager with his cousin. For Grimthorpe was a worse gossip than any of the bored dowagers seated about the room.
He lifted his shoulders as if mildly intrigued with the idea. "My ring if you succeed."
Grimthorpe's eyes narrowed in shock; then he eyed the large ruby and silver ring on Simon's left little finger. "Good thing you're to be the next Duke of Kerstone — and wealthy, as well, if you are to suddenly take up gambling on that scale."
Nettled, Simon lifted his hand so that the ruby glinted in the lights. He knew how much it irritated Grimthorpe that his branch of the family had fallen in society as Simon's had risen. For a moment he considered confiding the truth, but dismissed the idea. His cousin wouldn't appreciate the irony, but he would indeed cause a scandal. "Perhaps I don't expect to lose it."
A confident sneer appeared on Grimthorpe's foxish face. "The girl is odd — and plain besides. I have been showering her with attention these past weeks and now that she is ripe, I intend for her to fall into my arms."
"Indeed? And who is the lucky young woman, or are you keeping that secret to yourself?" He truly did not care. Any female who let Grimthorpe within two feet of her deserved any trouble that she might receive.
"The young miss who cannot seem to stop spouting fairytales, of course. Miss Miranda Fenster."
For a moment, Simon thought he would not manage to master the rage and pain that twisted inside him. His cousin had no reason to know how his words struck at Simon's heart. In supreme irony, Grimthorpe had chosen to seduce the very woman Simon had planned to offer for – if he had not learned the truth of his birth. Rather than an engagement present, he had purchased a commission.