Chapter 2

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[RECAP: After inheriting a fortune, the formerly impoverished St Clair sisters are off to Bath to enter society and find husbands...]

The Duke of Eastleigh's attention was briefly captured by the young woman across the room. His first impression was of gleaming gold hair and a startlingly pure line of feature. But this was quickly overwhelmed as he took in the wider scene.

The Duke was not a man of fashion but he was a man of refinement. Having been struck by her beauty, he was now struck by the vulgarity of her gown, both in colour and style. He must have been mistaken in his first impression of her being of young age, for no debutante would be permitted to wear such a garment.

The two women she stood with were little better. Worse, in fact. But what pained the Duke the most was that his young cousin Frederick stood with them, engaged in quite ostentatious flirtation. Had he no better sense than to associate with vulgar chits such as these?

Not wishing to approach any closer, he spoke to the man who accompanied him. "Retrieve my cousin if you would, Monty. Inform him that if he is not ready to leave this rout within five minutes, I shall not instruct Ayrdale to sell him those two black stallions."

Confident that this threat would do the trick, with the stallions holding more appeal than the society of silly women, the Duke watched his friend cross the floor towards the group. Montague Chalmers, a far more amiable person than his nobler friend, was used to this kind of request. Eastleigh frequently chose not to engage directly with people but sent Monty, or whoever else was available, to carry his message.

Or rather, his commands, Monty thought. He did not however resent the Duke's high handed approach. Over the years he had become accustomed to it and judged that it stemmed from uncertainty as much as reserve. He had known Eastleigh for many years and considered him a generous and steadfast friend, despite his austere and frequently autocratic demeanour.

James Beresford, Duke of Eastleigh had reached the age of seven-and-thirty still unencumbered by a wife. This might have been remarkable given his title, wealth and noble bearing. But the Duke had determined to marry by his fortieth birthday and not too long beforehand. He viewed marriage and the subsequent begetting of an heir as one of the many duties required by his position. It should be with a woman of impeccable character and lineage, appropriate for the role of Duchess of Eastleigh.

He had several candidates vaguely in mind. None of them held much personal interest for him, but all came from families that would represent a favourable political alliance.

At the top of this list was a Lady Jane Hampton, daughter of John Hampton, Earl Amberforth. Lady Jane was known to be very devout. The Duke was not overly religious himself, but he considered it a potentially desirable quality in a spouse.

It was on this marital mission that he had found himself in Bath. There were details to go over with Amberforth, who had indicated he was not opposed to the union. The presence of the Duke's wayward nephew was not a welcome complication. He had promised his sister to look out for the boy. Yet as he watched his nephew revelling in the society of vulgarly dressed young women, the Duke was already regretting his promise.

* * *

Approaching the group, Montague Chalmers bowed to the three women addressed them and them Hon. Frederick Fulham. "I beg your pardon for interrupting. I bear a message from your cousin. I have not yet the pleasure of your acquaintance?" he said, having turned to the St Clair sisters.

The Hon. Frederick looked over his shoulder where the Duke was standing towards the back of the room. His countenance was impassive, though Frederick knew his cousin well enough to detect some irritation. He made the appropriate introductions, after which he picked up the previous thread of conversation. "As I was saying, at the Beaumonts' ball last month..."

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