The Perfect Duchess
May 11th, 1813
Andrew Macalister, the Duke of Bradstone, hated his birthday.
And he hated the Macalister Birthday Ball.
Well, perhaps not entirely, as it was difficult to hate something that had been so beloved by his mother. The Macalister Birthday Ball was an annual event carried on in her memory, but hosting five hundred masked members of London society’s haute ton was the exact opposite of what Andrew wanted to be doing on his twenty-ninth birthday.
Andrew nodded pleasantly at two simpering ladies as they strolled past. Or rather not exactly pleasantly, as he was scowling at the ladies, but they did not seem to notice—or care—and he was fairly certain one winked at him in return.
Repressing an exasperated sigh, his gaze slid to the man standing beside him, eyes narrowing into a glare. His younger brother, Lord Luke Macalister, averted Andrew’s hard gaze, his shoulders trembling with suppressed laughter.
“It is not my fault if the ladies of the ton are a little more forthcoming this evening,” Luke said with a shrug. The top half of his face was hidden behind a black mask, but his lavender eyes twinkled with glee. Andrew wished the masks were better at concealing identities, but he knew hiding from the hordes of society was never truly an option. He was forever known to the masses; he would only ever be the Duke of Bradstone.
His own black half-mask was one of two things that made the evening marginally tolerable. Thankfully, this was not a traditional masked ball, and Andrew was grateful for the absence of elaborate costumes. His older sister Sarah, the widowed Marchioness of Radcliff, had what she claimed was an “ingenious idea:” send a simple black half-mask with every invitation.
“Happy Birthday, your g-g-grace!” a well-wisher tried to say. Andrew turned to regard him, but the poor gentleman lost his nerve. Why he had this effect on people, he had no idea. Twelve years ago, he had just been the plain Lord Andrew Macalister, and in his own mind, he still was. His title had changed, not him, and it irked him that everyone felt his acquisition of a dukedom required a change in how they treated him. It was not that he was not appreciative of his current circumstances, just the conditions that prompted it. One moment he was a lowly second son with little in the way of prospects, and the next, a highly sought after duke who wanted nothing more than to hide in the attic. That hadn’t been a possibility at the time, or any time since, and it certainly was not an option now.
So he stood in a foul mood turning darker with each tick of the grandfather clock. The only thing that kept him from running from the room—the only thing, besides the lack of costumes, that had the ability to make this evening tolerable—was the lovely Lady Clara Masson.
Lady Clara was a bright spot on an evening that had the potential to be utterly miserable. He had known Lady Clara since she was a child, and despite their complicated history, it seemed fitting that this particular woman would be the one to catch his eye—again.
The crowd parted a fraction, and Andrew had a clear line of sight to the object of his attention dancing a lively country dance. She was breathtaking, laughing in the arms of her partner, her blonde curls bobbing as a few unruly ones fell rebelliously out of her coiffeur. She was average in height and in possession of elegant curves Andrew could discreetly appreciate.
Lady Clara turned away from her dance partner, separated by the steps in the dance. As she moved along the line, her eyes scanned the crowd and fell onto Andrew’s.
For a second Andrew could scarcely breathe. The top half of Clara’s face was hidden beneath the damned black domino, but he could see that her dark eyes had an unusual sparkle. They widened a fraction as she focused on him before turning back into the dance with choreographed steps.
The momentary glance had lasted barely a second, but Andrew felt his mouth go dry and his heartbeat increase. It would seem she recognized him as well. It would not do well to be caught staring again. The Duke of Bradstone did not stare. The Duke of Bradstone was never infatuated. And the Duke of Bradstone would most certainly not be interested in this particular lady.
Andrew tore his eyes away, lest the ton observe his interest. He shuddered to think what would happen if he appeared to be even remotely interested in any young lady, much less this one. His well-crafted barrier managed to keep the marriage-minded females away, and he was usually avoided at most functions, even his own, mainly due to the scowling, brooding expression he plastered on his face. It was not that he was unusually unhappy or perpetually ill-tempered, though everyone thought him so. It was simply difficult to carry on a conversation when people, particularly women, were either too intimidated to utter an intelligible sentence or were drowning him in ridiculous flattery. People only wanted him because he was a duke.
“A very Happy Birthday to you, your grace!” came another well-wisher, and Andrew nodded politely to the gentleman before him. The red-headed man grinned widely, and Andrew scowled, recognizing one of his oldest friends behind the black half-mask, Lord Rheneas Warren, the Earl of Bexley.
Grumbling, Andrew muttered, “Bexley, please, not you as well.”
“His graceness is in a mood this evening,” Luke warned, and Andrew shot another glare at his brother. “Graceness” was an adaptation of “grace,” which his siblings used to poke fun at him. Unfortunately, the teasing name had caught on and was used more and more often.
“It would appear so,” Bexley observed.
Glancing at Andrew, Luke noted his disgruntled mood. “You do appear awfully distracted, old man.”
Andrew shrugged nonchalantly, and Luke laughed.
“Next year it is your birthday that will be plagued with this dreadful event,” Andrew vowed. “It would be reasonable to argue that since this ball is in celebration of all our birthdays, we should share the blessed event. Having it on my actual birthday makes it my birthday ball. And I would prefer to not have such an event fall on the date of my birth.”
“What would you wish instead?” Luke asked, turning his inquisitive eyes onto his elder brother. Andrew stared at him for a moment, aware that Luke’s question had an uncharacteristically somber undertone. His brother may have been a rogue and a flirt, but occasionally he carried a remarkably serious current about him. Andrew opened his mouth to reply, to tell his brother to sod off and let him be in his foul mood, but he stopped himself. There was no reason to take his frustrations out on his younger brother. Luke was merely being Luke: poking about where he did not belong and asking the wrong questions.
Andrew shrugged again, turning back to the dancing couples, his eyes searching for a certain blonde dressed in pink. “Something that did not involve the ton.”
The dance floor was a blur of black, pink, gold, and the ever-present debutante white. Everyone was dressed fashionably and extravagantly, adorned with crystals, sapphires, rubies, ostrich plumes, and delicate beadwork. Each of his guests wore the same simple, black mask, and for a brief moment, Andrew saw the beauty in the simplicity of Sarah’s idea. With all the extravagance and elegance, the flaunting of one’s wealth and position, on this one fact they were all forced to be the same, equal.
He spotted Lady Clara again, smiling brightly at her dance partner as the last strings of the country dance came to an end. In the past five years, she had been the only one to catch his attention, to demand his notice. His mind wandered, intrigued by the idea that he could just walk up to her and ask her to dance with him. After all, he was the host, and technically, they had already been introduced.
Luke eyed Andrew for a moment more, his perceptive eyes taking in more than just the duke’s irritable mood, before breaking out in a brilliant grin. “How can we cheer you up then? It is your birthday, after all.”
“There are a number of lovely widows in attendance,” Bexley suggested.
“Do not get any ideas,” Andrew warned, looking away from the dancing couples, away from Lady Clara. “My only desire is to endure the rest of the evening.”
“We are merely suggesting someone to keep you company as you brave the remaining evening hour and, possibly, the early morning as well,” Luke replied.
A pair of vaguely familiar girls draped in their debutante whites stepped past the gentlemen, drawing Andrew’s attention away from his brother. The room was nearly bursting at its seams, and the occupants were forced to stand almost improperly close to one another. The two girls took advantage of this, pressing a bit too close as they passed, giggling as they mumbled their apologies with heavily-lidded eyes and slow, seductive smiles.
“Happy Birthday, your grace,” one young lady purred, and for the life of him Andrew could not remember her name. Not that her name mattered; the debutantes were all the same. They stared at the pair of Macalister brothers like ravenous men before a feast.
Not wanting to give the silly girls any invitation to linger, Andrew nodded, and, luckily, the pair moved to stand a few steps away, sipping their champagne. Andrew breathed a sigh of relief.
Luke raised an eyebrow at him and sighed. “Your loss.”
The music was starting again, and Andrew searched the edges of the dance floor for Lady Clara. He spotted her in the corner nearest him. His height gave him a slight advantage over the rest of the ballroom, and he peered at her as discreetly as he could. She seemed to be in conversation with a young woman Andrew recognized as a friend of one of his sisters.
The conversation did not look to be a friendly one. Lady Clara tilted her head up slightly in defense, and he wished he knew what was being said. The unknown lady stood directly in front of her, blocking Lady Clara’s only exit from the ballroom. Andrew realized her only other option was to turn completely around, walk back across the dance floor, and leave out a side door. Clara was stuck, forced to endure or interrupt the gathering couples on the dance floor. Her escape seemed impossible.
“Oh look, the trollup is finally being put in her place,” said one of the girls to his right, dramatically conspiring with her friend. Andrew glanced at the girls who had passed moments earlier and saw they had also noticed the exchange.
The second girl giggled. “Serves her right for showing her hussy face here. When will she learn she’s not wanted?”
“She’s already been ousted from Almack’s,” the first girl replied. “If I had my vouchers revoked I doubt I’d ever show my face again, much less at such a public event.”
“What is Lady Laura saying to her?” the second girl asked, and Andrew looked back at the confrontation.
Ah, Lady Laura. Norah’s friend, Andrew remembered.
“As a dear, personal friend to the Macalister family, Lady Laura was horrified she showed her face here,” the first girl explained. “I’m sure she felt it was her place to say something to Lady Clara. It is not as though she was invited. I am shocked Lady Clara was not denied at the door.”
The girls giggled again, and Andrew stepped away from his brother and friend and the safe haven of a certain exit. He leveled a dark glare at the two girls before striding off towards the corner of the dance floor.
Lady Clara Masson was doing her best not to plant her fist in Lady Laura’s pretty blue eye.
Realizing their encounter was starting to draw more notice, Lady Laura’s voice was steadily growing louder with spite. Clara wanted to escape back to when she was dancing and laughing and no one cared to be rude to her, when no one wanted to acknowledge her presence. She was tolerated because of her beauty and because her brother was the Earl of Morton, although her brother despised her and made no secret of it. The ton, it seemed, did not know what to do with her. Her brother had made her a social pariah by refusing to associate with her, but her scandalous reputation was built mostly on rumors. For the most part, people pretended she did not exist. One moment she was sought after and the next she was avoided, though the reason was not a secret. She knew everyone thought she’d been involved in her sister’s disappearance, or that she was responsible, and it did not help that her brother treated her like she was an illness. Until this moment, Clara hadn’t really minded her position on the edges of society. She was a part of the beau monde by birth, but she was not welcome. She had survived without vouchers to Almack’s and an abundance of friends doting over her. Clara merely wanted what every other marriageable-aged woman wanted—a means to escape her own family.
Her brother, Lord Jonathan Masson, the Earl of Morton, was not in attendance tonight, though Clara was certain his absence had more to do with their host than her. She glanced about the room again, trying to keep her wounded pride out of her eyes, hoping no one would flat-out tell her to leave. That might be the final crushing blow, and she was not sure how much longer her spirit would hold out.
Sensing Clara’s resolve starting to crumble, Lady Laura smirked, fanning her face with her lace fan, her pale blonde curls moving with the breeze.
“Darling Lady Clara, how did you get on the guest list?” she inquired. “I did not realize prostitutes were invited to society functions.”
“Only the good ones,” Clara replied cheekily with a sweet smile. “Isn’t that why you are here?”
Lady Laura’s eyes glowed murderously, and her grin thinned to a sneer. “It is so nice to have you returned to London after your adventures on the Continent. Tell me, was it an Italian lord who paid your way? Did you repay him on your back?”
Clara balled her first, her nails digging little crescents into her palm through her white gloves.
Lady Laura tilted her head forward to whisper loudly, “I doubt Bradstone would be happy to see you here making such an inappropriate scene. I imagine you were turned away at the door. Pity you had to sneak in through the servant’s entrance.” She popped her bottom lip into a pretty pout. “Poor dear, no family who wants her. No friends to speak of. Whatever shall become of you?”
Clara decided she might as well hit the lady and be done with it. It would be quite satisfying. She glanced around at the sea of faces, and it seemed like all were turned towards her. Everyone was watching, waiting for her to take a wrong step, to completely fall from their good graces. Until now, all they had were rumors and false leads, and Clara was not one who was easily chased away, especially when she hadn’t done anything wrong. Anyone else would have fled to the country, away from the stares and whispers, and the malice dripping from the polite smiles of the haute ton. And even if Clara had wanted to flee, she had nowhere to go.
The mass of people swam before her eyes as fury and tears threatened to spill over, and Clara swallowed down the crushing fear that surfaced when she was reminded of her deplorable options in life. He brother hated her, and her family avoided her for fear of her brother; everyone else was dead.
A face from her past was suddenly clear amongst the blur of the ballroom. He was tall, dark, and deliciously handsome, and he was heading straight towards her.
Clara recognized the Duke of Bradstone at once. His eyes were hard, his stride full of purpose, and for a split second, Clara thought he was coming to throw her out. A very public fall from grace, she knew that was what Lady Laura wanted and what everyone was expecting. Clara braced herself for the end, but then the duke turned his gaze onto her, and his face softened.
“Lady Clara,” he said, bowing over her hand, a gentle look in his blue eyes. “I believe this is my dance.”
“Yes, of course, your grace,” Clara replied smoothly, blinking away her shock as she smiled at Lady Laura. “It was nice to see you again, Lady Laura.”
Lady Laura’s eyes flamed in outrage, and Clara swallowed down the panic she felt seconds before.
The duke swung her into the waltz that had already begun, and they fell effortlessly into the steps, like they had danced them before. But they never had, despite having known each other since their childhoods. She eyed him expectantly, trying to assess his mood. The Duke of Bradstone was a stranger to her, but she knew Andrew Macalister very well.
“I apologize for my tardiness, my lady,” Andrew said. “It is quite difficult to move across the ballroom quickly.”
“Yes, well, do not let it happen again,” she replied brazenly with a shrug and a smile.
His lips twitched, and she was reminded of how handsome he was. Dark, curly hair, always meticulously cut, coiled behind his ears. His eyes were a deep, bright blue, like the sky reflected in the pools of the Lake District near her country home in Cumberland.
“I am quite pleased to see you,” he said. “It has been a long time.”
“I am not too afraid to show my face in public, you know,” she retorted, a little more venomously than she intended. “If they think they can chase me away, they are severely mistaken.”
“I never thought you the type to tuck tail and run,” Andrew replied.
“Yes, well, these rumors floating about have me a little on edge,” Clara admitted as they moved across the floor in time with the thirty other dancing couples. “You must know the things said about me are not true. I would hate for such things to lower your opinion of me.”
“It would take a lot more than some silly rumors for that to happen,” Andrew replied. “My opinion of you is not based on the opinions of others.”
“I wish the rest of the ton had your good sense, your grace,” Clara replied. “Regardless, I was given strict orders not to attend this ball. My brother does not know I am here.”
“You snuck out?” Andrew chided in mock outrage.
Clara laughed. “Did you really think I was going to miss this? Besides, it was a bit of a rebellion on my part, I will admit.
He explicitly said no one was to attend, ‘no one,’ of course, meaning me.”
“And you came anyway.”
Clara nodded. “Of course I did. When Jonathan issues such an order, it is like an invitation to disobey. It was fun, if not the tiniest bit dangerous.”
“Dangerous,” Andrew repeated to himself, grinning at her as he twirled the two of them in an unnecessary turn.
“What is the fun in life if there is no danger, no excitement?” she asked, returning his brilliant smile with one of her own, a little dizzy from the turn. “One ends up stodgy and boring and cranky, like my brother, who claims that masked balls are the very epitome of impropriety. If they are so inappropriate, then how is it that so many people flock to them each year?”
“Because people want some excitement and danger in their lives,” Andrew replied. “Secretly, of course, this is all done with the presumed anonymity of a mask. Not that these masks are any good at hiding anyone’s identity.” The music ended, the last strings of the waltz quivering in the air, and he held Clara for one breathless moment longer than necessary.
He looked at her and seemed to be taking in her entire face as if for the first time. An odd glint twinkled in his eyes before they stepped away from each other.
Clara glanced around the ballroom, scanning the sea of faces. Everyone was seemingly uninterested in the dancing couples but obviously desperate to have firsthand knowledge of the night in order to have the best gossip tomorrow. She knew it had been reckless to come tonight, but her Great-Aunt Bridget had goaded her into it, claiming she would be there to chaperone. True to her erratic and eccentric disposition, Great-Aunt Bridget was nowhere to be found. Luckily, another aunt was in attendance and had agreed to act as Clara’s chaperone, if only in name, as long as she behaved herself. Aunt Lucinda did not want word of their associating to get back to her brother lest he peg her as an accomplice. Jonathan despised anything ‘Macalister’ almost as much as he despised Clara.
The music began again, and Andrew swept her into his arms for a second dance.
“Tell me, your grace, what is the most dangerous thing you have ever done?” she asked him, embracing the forwardness she was rumored to possess. She typically was not so presumptuous, but this man seemed to always draw out a side of her she often forgot existed.
“Probably rescuing you from the clutches of Lady Laura,” he replied, though she knew it was not the truth.
Clara nodded in agreement. “Yes, that was a most unfortunate encounter.”
“I was not certain if I was rescuing you from her or if she was the one in need of the rescue,” he commented, glancing down to her. “You looked ready to hit her.”
Clara laughed. “I wanted to. But even I am not that brash.”
“Other than Lady Laura, are you enjoying your evening?”
“Immensely so,” she replied and smiled up at him. “Are you?”
“My evening has taken a turn for the better,” he replied. His eyes twinkled again.
“All it takes is dancing to lift your spirits?”
“With the right partner. . .”
“How are you sure that partner is me?” Clara asked coyly. “Are you prone to entertain multiple partners in one evening?”
Andrew swallowed hard, blinking at her in brief amazement. A lovely blush raced up to her face, but she did not look away. She impressed herself with her composure.
“I danced twice earlier this evening,” he answered. “Once with one sister, and then again with another.”
“Prearranged, of course.”
“Of course,” he replied.
“Your sisters are very lucky to have you as their brother, your grace,” she added, annoyed at the wistfulness in her voice.
“Compared to your brother, I must appear a saint.”
“Indeed,” she replied.
“Will he be displeased when he discovers you attended tonight?”
Clara nodded. “I had hoped to slip away unnoticed with no hint of anyone discovering I was in attendance.” She sighed. “I was foolish to think that I could force society to accept me despite the horrid things said about me. I should have known they would choose my brother and the lies.” She watched as the blue of his eyes grew into a dark, stormy tempest. His face hardened, and he looked away.
“Oh dear, I’ve done it again,” she sighed. “My audacity has ruined yet another evening. Please forget I said anything, your grace. I should not want to ruin your birthday celebrations.”
“You are not ruining anything,” he practically growled at her. “I just—
Andrew clamped his mouth shut, and Clara took that as an end to the conversation. His behavior was baffling, though she had long given up on understanding him.
As Lord Andrew, he had laughed and teased and enjoyed life. As the Duke of Bradstone, he was cold and hard as stone, hence why the gossip rags dubbed him the “Stone Duke.” She had liked Lord Andrew—she did not know what to do with the Stone Duke.
Andrew did not look at her for an entire turn around the room, and she gave up on her attempt at forcing him into conversation. This was the last dance until supper, and she hoped she could make her escape without another incident.
The duke stepped away abruptly and bowed again, the dance set ending. As she dipped into her curtsy, Clara studied his hardened expression, taking in his handsome features. Andrew was a full head taller than her, and she had to tilt her head to meet his eyes. His shoulders were broader than she remembered; they fit perfectly into his flawlessly tailored evening coat. His cravat was expertly tied, and an elegant and expensively jeweled cravat pin winked at her in the candlelight.
Tilting his head to the side, he did not say anything as he studied her, almost as if he were seeing her for the first time. Clara did not want to break his gaze or the magic of that exact moment because she knew the real reason she had snuck out of her brother’s London residence was for a chance to see this man again.
Watching the lovely Lady Clara was something Andrew realized he could do for hours. He was mesmerized by the way the flecks of gold in her eyes reflected the candlelight. There was a touch of worry in those eyes, and it annoyed him that she had a reason to be worried. He caught a couple of inquisitive glances from his sisters as he moved Lady Clara off the dance floor. He ignored them, pretending he was not about to cause an uproar among the marriage-minded females in the room. Never had he danced with a woman who was not his sister, at least not in the last five years. The repercussions of his rescuing Clara from the likes of Lady Laura would be unfathomable, but he was choosing to pretend it was nothing.
I will figure this all out tomorrow. Tonight, I will just enjoy it.
The crowd had begun to count down to midnight, led by his brother Luke, half a room away clapping to the countdown, laughing with his cronies around him.
“Five, four, three, two, one!” There was a loud “Huzzah!” rousing laughter and applause as everyone took off their masks. Andrew pulled off his mask, pushing it back over his head as Clara fiddled with her ribbons, her fingers slipping on the knot. His gloved fingers moved over hers, and he untied the knot, the mask sliding to her hands.
Shyly, she trailed her gaze up to meet his, her dark lashes blinking hesitantly. Belatedly, a genuine smile spread across her face.
Gads, he had forgotten how beautiful she was. It nearly stole his breath away.
“I do not believe I have wished you a happy birthday, your grace,” she said sweetly, her voice soft and warm. At the sound of the words “Happy Birthday” people around them turned to see who was wishing who a happy birthday. This sparked another round of “Happy Birthday, your grace!” before they realized who had originally spoken the words and pointedly turned away, shooting disapproving glances her way. Clara’s eyes darted around the ballroom, and Andrew could see the hurt of rejection on her face, and it angered him. The light that had glittered in her eyes moments earlier had dimmed; the flicker of danger and excitement had faltered. While he was a largely accepted member of society, she was not.
Of course, after all these years it had to be Clara to make him break all his own rules. He chuckled at the absurdity of it, and a few glances darted their way.
“I’d appreciate it if you would not laugh at me, your grace,” she said sternly, her voice firm, and he looked down to her eyes practically spitting fire at him.
“I was not laughing at you, Lady Clara, just at the situation.”
“I fail to see what is so amusing,” she said crossing her arms across her chest, her black domino mask gripped tightly in her hand.
“Just that it was you under your mask and me under mine,” he admitted. “Of all the people in this entire ballroom, it was you and I in the end.”
“I still don’t see the humor,” she replied. “Now if you will excuse me—”
“You are not going to join me for supper?” he asked, halting her with his hand on her arm.
She looked down. “I don’t think that is such a good idea,” she answered, her gaze slowly trailing up to meet his, holding for a moment before glancing to the people surrounding them who were discreetly watching their interaction.
Shrugging, Andrew replied, “We danced the supper dance together, which grants me the courtesy of escorting you to supper. Unless, of course, you are eager to get home.”
He knew she was not. He knew she wanted more than anything to stay and be a part of the festivities. That was the problem: he knew Clara Anne Louise Masson, had known her for years. Andrew had once been the boon companion of her older brother, the Earl of Morton. Once, he had dared her to a diving contest at her Lake District home, once he had thrown toads at her and always celebrated when he bested her in a horse race. And once, five years ago, Andrew had been engaged to Clara’s twin sister.
Clara eyed him suspiciously as he offered her his arm.
“What harm can it do?” he asked softly.
Hesitantly, she accepted his arm. He looked down at her, drinking in her light. He noted her delicately arched eyebrows, one currently raised in either confusion or amusement. Her nose was a tad too full to be considered perfect, but it suited her face. Her rose-colored lips were pulled to the side as she chewed on the inside of her cheek.
“What has gotten into you this evening?” she wondered.
“I just feel like living a little dangerously tonight,” he shrugged.
Clara rolled her eyes in exasperation, and he released a loud bark of laughter for the first time ever as far as the ton could remember. It would be the talk of the town the next day, he could see the lines of the gossip rags practically writing themselves.
Before leading her into supper, the usually stoic
Stone Duke of B— uncharacteristically danced with, laughed with
and unmasked Lady C—, the slightly scandalous twin sister of the
woman who had jilted him at the altar five years earlier.
Could this indicate the Duke of B— is back on the marriage mart?
Faithful reader, we will wait and see . . .