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October 1888

I watched him as he circled the periphery of the crowded ballroom, moving gracefully as a stalking panther would its prey. He was on his fourth glass of sherry, continuously downing each one with the flick of a wrist. His dark waistcoat and crisp black cravat contrasted with the stark white of his linen shirt. His unruly hair was longer than was in fashion, but he had such an air of authority and poise that no young lady would dare to mention his lack of fashion sense.

I tore my eyes away from this Adonis and concentrated my sights on the dancing couples before me, absent-mindedly tapping my toes to the melody of the jaunty reel.

Lady Mayfield had outdone herself tonight. Vases of white hothouse roses scattered the ballroom floor, leaving their lingering scent on those who ventured by. Elongated white beeswax candles occupied each candelabrum, casting a romantic glow onto the intricately gilded designs of the rosewood wall panels. The refreshment table presented a generous variety of hors d’oeuvres and punch for the ladies, while the gentlemen indulged in port and sherry from the card room. Lady Mayfield ensured there was at least one eligible gentleman present for each young lady looking for a partner.

The marriage-minded mommas were indeed in heaven to elicit an invite to such a country party.

However, not all eligible gentlemen were in need of a young malleable wife, as such was the case of the gentleman occupying my current thoughts. At least, that is what I heard amongst the hordes of simpering misses throughout the season. He attended the soirees and dinners for the sole benefit of his mother’s happiness, yet pointedly defied his father’s wish for him to find a young English bride.

I held my breath as I watched him leisurely walk through the open French doors out onto the terrace, and into the cool darkness of the night. He left behind the grandiosity of the ballroom without a backward glance.

I excused myself from the company of my fellow wallflowers and followed him. They hardly spared my departure a glance, too occupied staring starry-eyed at the gentlemen standing languorously across the row of dancing couples. I paid them no heed, for there was only one gentleman in my sights tonight. I walked as quickly as possible in my kid slippers and abundant fabric that was my petticoats. The corset stays impeded the ability of my lungs to expand as I felt my breath quicken with each urgent step. I had begged Mama to allow me to go without them tonight, but she had adamantly refused.

“No proper young lady would ever attend such an event without a corset,” she admonished, while my lady’s maid helped me dress. I rolled my eyes at her lecture of proper lady’s attire. I detested the ghastly contrivances that gentlemen invented to torture ladies. I believed the sole purpose of ladies’ fashion was to impede an expedient departure should an unsavory man make any untoward advances.

That was neither here, nor there. I would be the dutiful daughter and finally snare a husband, for this upcoming season was the last my father would allow. Although I possessed a meager dowry, both Mama and Father expected my striking looks to catch the attention of a peer. However, after two unsuccessful Seasons, they quickly became worried that they would forever have a spinster daughter.

While I was grateful for my provisions, all of the ball gowns walking dresses and hats, I was a true romantic at heart. I wished and hoped to find my true love during my time in society, someone who would truly love me, my faults included. I did not want to give up on my dream that someone truly great would come and sweep me off my feet.

Before I slid through the doors to escape the overheated ballroom, I glanced about to ensure that none of the matronly chaperones would notice my clandestine departure. They were all too busy matchmaking and chattering amongst themselves, gossiping about the columns of the Times. I darted through the open doors and took in a deep cool breath as my eyes fluttered closed.

The cool night air of the country was bliss compared to the sludge of London. I could not imagine a better way to spend the evening than out in the air of the night. Feeling refreshed, as if I had just taken a sip of cool lemonade, I opened my eyes.

He was off to my right, staring up at the starless sky, glass of sherry in hand, his profile illuminated by the moonlight. The sight of him made my heart flutter, just as it had when I first laid eyes upon him during my first Season.

“My lord,” I said quietly, walking closer over the uneven stone. The stone felt like ice through my slippers, but I cared not. I was finally alone in his company.

He spun around to face me, the look of surprise on his face slowly fading to one of recognition. “Good evening, Miss Langdon. To what do I owe the pleasure of your company?” he greeted with a bow.

I smiled. He remembered my name. “Just coming out to enjoy the night air and get away from the stifling ballroom.”

“Ah, yes. It is quite unbearable. I suppose you did not think to bring a chaperone with you. It is indeed improper for a young lady to go about without one. Or are you trying to find yourself compromised?”

I shrugged. “Ah, and shrugging one’s shoulders is unbecoming of a lady,” he admonished with a slight grin.

“And mentioning a body part in front of a lady is ungentlemanly,” I countered cheekily.

He barked with laughter. “It must be that American blood of yours that makes you so bold. So how may I be of service, Miss Langdon?”

I was only half by virtue of my American father’s blood. However, it was enough to enforce my headstrong demeanor despite the multitude of governesses Mama had employed. I preferred to think of myself as unconventional and exotic.

I pondered thoughtfully, “I would like a dance, if you please.”

He quirked his brow, “Is it not the gentleman’s priority to ask a lady for her hand to dance?”

“It is indeed, but you were taking far too long in the matter.”

He chuckled softly as he took a step towards me; my heart skipped a beat and my knees began to melt. He continued his advance, and my feet remained frozen in place.

We were inches apart when he finally stopped, his eyes silver eyes staring straight into the depths of my soul. That was when I knew. This was him, the man I was waiting for to sweep my off my feet, my true love.

Lord Sutherland.

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