A Hoyden To Hold by Eva Devon
Lady Amelia Stanton was excessively tired of waiting for her life to begin.
She desperately needed it to. . . Before it was over. And marriage to Percy Trent, Baron Ashby, would certainly be an end to it.
Amelia swung her gaze to the hall, her cup of punch in hand, and dreamed of escaping from the hot ballroom and the machinations of her mother and father, who had arranged her marriage to a man she could barely tolerate.
She took a step back. And then another, until her slippers were leading her out to the said quiet hall.
She whirled from the ballroom, unable to breathe, the reality of her situation crushing her. Without thinking, she wound her way through the maze of halls in the castle nestled at the bottom of first rolling bens climbing to the vast Scottish Highlands.
According to the exclusive hoard of the ton, her life had begun in earnest already. She had had her first presentation at the palace of St. James some time ago. She had been most admired by the aristocrats who had attended. Even the Queen had nodded her approval.
She had then gone on to be considered a belle of balls, routs, and card parties.
Perhaps she was not the diamond of the year, but she was certainly considered to be a diamond. A small one.
She had a fortune. She had fairly good looks. She had everything a young lady was supposed to have in order to make a successful marriage. For her own pedigree went back hundreds of years. There was nothing to suggest her life had not begun or that nothing was happening in it.
If anything, she was exceptionally busy, always going here and there.
She attended balls aplenty. Graced countless salons, teas, and musicals. She rode in the park daily, and she was continually surrounded by the most important people in society.
In theory, her life was abuzz with pleasure, amusement, and good fortune.
The problem, of course, was that the most important people of society had nothing to say and did little of real import. In fact, the vast majority of the gilded ladies and gentlemen did the exact same things day in and day out. They said the same things. They thought the same thoughts. . .
At twenty years of age, she felt at a loss as to what to do with herself, which was, she felt, rather silly, for she knew the fortune of her own life. Still, there was no denying that she felt as if she was standing at a fork in the road, waiting. . . Waiting to see what path she would choose. Or which she’d be forced upon.
Amelia stormed through the shadowy corridors outside the ballroom and rushed to the quiet back hall, which led onto the terrace. The cool Scottish night was silent. Still.
Which she was most grateful for. She sucked in the damp air of the lowlands just below Stirling.
It was slightly tinged with smoke from the fires, but she did not care. She stared out at the vast, sprawling garden that wound its way up to the rolling hills that led to the great Munos of the Highlands.
The house belonged to a duke. And the family was at least 700 years of age, surviving the turmoil of the rebellions.
They had maintained their power no matter how many times they had had to turn their coat. Of course, she kept that thought to herself as their guest.
Once, the Scottish family had been a warrior clan. Her own family had come from warriors who’d crossed with Henry Tudor and, before that, had been part of the Norman invasion.
She gripped her punch cup too tightly, willing her discomfort to evaporate. It did not.
It was the same story over and over. Aristocrats, descended from military might and adventurers, diluted down to prancing lords and ladies who feared to get their feet wet or be bored.
When had the great men and women of England become so well. . . boring? There really was no other word for it.
Certainly, her own life revolved around who would ask her to dance, what gowns she might wear, the turn of her riding coat, and the curl of her own hair.
Her friends, dear friends, for she had but three. . . they too had felt the strange note of dissatisfaction that their monotonous if shimmering life created.
Amelia had declared most firmly that they would go out and make choices and live their lives in the most interesting ways. Ways usually not given to young ladies.
There was one deciding dilemma. Lady Amelia clutched harder at the punch cup, still in her hands, wishing its sweetness would mitigate the frustration she felt.
She did not know what she wanted except that she wanted something different.
She had been given no opportunities for any particular study. Of course, she loved to read. She loved to ride. She loved to dance. She loved good discourse.
All of this was true, but she did not have the dedication of single purpose that her friends had. Her parents did not believe ladies needed skills beyond a bit of watercolor and the ability to dance every night whilst looking splendid in their silk.
Amelia did enjoy teasing and making merry. She had nothing truly to complain about; she knew it well. And yet. . . A deep melancholy welled up inside her.
She studied the beautiful garden. The green leaves were waxy in the dim light. Scotland seemed almost always covered in a slight cloud. Even so, the silver tinge of moonlight came down and bathed her and the glorious landscape.
She tilted her head back, wishing she could see stars, but she did not.
No, much like her own desire, the stars were hidden. It wasn’t fair.
She blew out a breath. What a silly thing to think. Her life was beyond fairness. She had never known a day of want.
She had never known what it was to be abused, to be hurt. She was lucky beyond compare, and she loathed herself for feeling such silly discontent.
To want more?
What need she want more for? She had servants. She had clothes and food. Parents who wished her settled well. Perhaps they wished it too much now. . . For that was why they’d come to Scotland, after all. To see Percy Trent, Baron Ashby.
The man her parents had arranged for her to marry, since she had not chosen for herself.
Her throat tightened. She would not marry him. No, she’d find a solution. And she refused to feel pity for herself.
And yet, as she placed one gloved hand on the granite railing, she drew in a long breath and wished. How she wished that, for once, things were different for her.
That she were a man, perhaps.
No, she had no desire to be a man.
A man was a most ungainly thing.
Her secret wish was that she be a woman who could do whatever she pleased. But she could not be. As a matter of fact, her mother had been making it dangerously clear that the time for choices was over. She needed to get off the shelf and make room for her younger sisters, and her parents would no longer tolerate her prevaricating.
Oh, no, the matter was no longer in her hands. She was but a pawn to be passed off, will she or nill she.
After all, what was a young lady’s purpose in this life if not to marry?
She scowled and threw the punch over the ledge and onto the groomed grass. For it had done nothing to lift her spirits.
“That bad, is it?” a voice drawled from the darkness.
She jumped and turned towards that rich rough sound.
She pressed the now-empty cup to her bosom as if it were a shield. Her eyes searched the shadows, looking for the origin of those words.
Her skin tingled with awareness, and everything suddenly felt heightened, given her surprise at being caught so deep in thought.
It was a voice that felt as if it had rumbled out of the very depths of hell, and yet, like the devil, no doubt, it was delicious.
The deep notes did the strangest things to her skin. She was a young lady alone in the dark, far away from where she was meant to be. And yet. . . she was not afraid.
Quite the contrary. She felt as if she knew that voice. It seemed to speak to a deep part of her, like an echo or a memory. And rather than fear, she felt anticipation.
“Reveal yourself, sir,” she ordered. “Or you are no gentleman.”
A long, low rumble of a laugh slipped through the darkness. And then she caught sight of him.
A veritable giant of a man, he sat languidly, tucked against the wall, much farther down the vast terrace. One of his boots was propped up as he lounged by the granite balustrade which led down into the garden.
Oh so carelessly, he smoked a cheroot.
How had she not seen it before? Her lips parted.
Thatwas what she had smelled. Not the fires of the castle, but the fiery notes of his cheroot.
As it drifted up through the sky in wafting tendrils, he cocked his dark head to the side. Those thick locks glistened blue in the silvery light.
She could barely make out his hard features.
His cheeks were chiseled, his eyes dark shadows, his entire body a promise of power.
The only thing that truly stood out was the white of his cravat and linen shirt. He had shrugged off his coat and laid it beside him. The silver of his embroidered waistcoat sparkled ever so slightly. She was surprised she had not noticed him before, but she had been so focused on her own thoughts that she had not made note of him.
“You laugh at me, sir?” she queried.
“Indeed, I do.” He sighed. “But not out of mockery. You see, I laugh at the strangeness of the situation for, it seems, we both have attempted to find a moment of solitude, and we both have failed.”
She blinked, astonished by his honesty. “Forgive me,” she said. “It was not my intention to invade your private thoughts, sir.”
“Of course not,” he said easily, contemplating her, his gaze traveling along her frame. “But a lady searching such privacy seems a very odd thing. Are you waiting for company?”
Her chin jerked back. “How dare you, sir! Of course I am not. I do not meet men out in the dark.”
She cleared her throat and shifted on her slippers. “Are you waiting company?”
He laughed again, a delicious low rumble of a sound. “Of course I am not meeting anyone. I just told you I was here for a moment of silence. And a young lady meeting me in the dark would not result in silence, but in very specific sounds altogether.”
“You are preposterous,” she sputtered.
“I agree,” he replied as he pushed himself up and turned towards her. He swept up his coat and strode, with shocking confidence, towards her.
Much to her surprise, in the face of much male energy, she took a step back, but then she stopped herself and squared her shoulders.
She would not be intimidated, nor would she retreat. She knew the wise thing to do was to immediately turn about and go into the ball. But she was tired of being terribly wise. She wanted a moment of. . . She did not know. Perhaps something to shake the strangeness and sameness of all her days. And her impending marriage would ensure the sameness of her life until she died.
He was certainly different.
“So, it is not the lack of fondness for your punch that has driven you outside to fling it upon the poor, blameless grass,” he said in that low rumble of his.
“No,” she affirmed. “It is not. I could not stand another moment inside, if I am honest.”
“Could you not?” he asked, his dark brows rising. “Is it not a young lady’s dearest dream to be inside a ballroom, dancing every dance?”
She narrowed her eyes. She couldn’t tell if he was being serious or making use of sarcasm. “Good sir,” she began. “I have attended so many I cannot count. I have often danced every dance. And I can tell you that after a passing of time, they’re all exceedingly tiresome.”
He cocked his head to the side, a habit he seemed to have. His lips quirked in a smile. “Tiresome,” he echoed.
“Yes,” she confirmed.
“You are rather young to have ennui,” he observed.
She rolled her eyes. “And what are you? Methuselah?”
He laughed again. “No, I confess I am not so ancient, but I think I know a good deal more than you about the world, dear lady. I feel concerned if the world offers you so little joy.”
Her throat tightened at his apt words. How did he do that? How did he see she was no silly miss, but genuinely feeling a loss. “You are correct. I am young and I have little experience, but I find myself rather disappointed in my fate.”
He shook his head. “Your fate?” He paused, his face growing quite serious. “You have not met your fate yet, my dear. There is much before you. And as a daughter of the ton, you have more opportunities than most.”
There was a slightly hard note in his voice, as if he knew well the cost of suffering.
She fidgeted with her punch cup, struggling to find the right words to explain herself. She was astonished she felt compelled to explain herself at all. But she did want him to understand her. It felt unreasonably important that he did.
“You are right, of course,” she began. “But is there not more than this never-ending play? This performance of blue bloods for each other? There must be more.”
To her shock, tears stung her eyes, and she blinked rapidly. He had said nothing more than what she’d thought herself. And yet, she felt as if she was drowning, accepting her future. “Goodnight, sir. I do not wish to trouble you further. This meeting has proved most. . . interesting. And that is more than I have experienced in some time.”
“You are distressed. I beg of you to stay. I did not mean to upset you. Forgive me.” He peered down at her, attempting to make sense of her. Or so it seemed.
And at his behest, she lingered. As if a ribbon had been tied from him to her without either of them realizing, she found she could not go. Moreover, she wished to stay.
“Interesting,” he repeated softly, distracting her from the darkness of her thoughts. “Do you mean it as a compliment or an insult? For I know a good many people who use that word in a derogatory way.”
She frowned, perplexed by the way he spoke and how he made her feel. . . Seen. “A compliment.”
“I’m very glad,” he murmured with a slight bow. “Yet. . . I fear for you if this is the most interesting thing that has occurred to you in some months.” His penetrating gaze swept over her visage. “You do have the strangest look on your face just now.”
“Do I?” she breathed, amazed by the irregularity and honesty of their meeting.
He licked his lower lip then ventured, “Perhaps you are as frustrated as I by the entire relentlessness of these things. Though, I find that difficult to believe, given you are a beautiful young lady of society.”
She blew out a breath. “Beauty somehow means I should not see the banality of it all?”
He drew air in slowly, which increased the breadth of his shoulders. “Forgive me.”
And from the dark look of his gaze, the way his mouth parted ever so slightly, she was certain he spoke in earnest.
She couldn’t catch a full breath in his presence, and yet, she felt more at ease than she had in months. How was such a thing possible? How could it feel as if she knew him, as if she was recognizing a long-lost soul? It was utterly absurd, but nor could she deny the hum of hope she felt standing before him. And desire. She’d never felt that race of hunger before.
But here, before him, she did, and she couldn’t ignore it. The way it made her wish to lean towards him. To step into his arms. And feel his embrace despite the fact they were strangers.
Yet, he did not feel like a stranger.
“What has driven you out here on the terrace?” he asked at last, his voice gentle.
She swallowed, desperate to unburden herself. “That I must do as all young ladies must. And I feel desperately foolish for being ungrateful. I have so many blessings, but. . .”
She did not know what was causing her to speak truthfully to him. She shouldn’t. It was a mistake, but something about the moonlight and the darkness lent an intimacy to their exchange that she’d not known before.
And she felt herself pouring herself out in a way she’d never done. . . Because there was something undeniable about the way he listened so carefully to her, inviting her trust.
“You must marry,” he concluded, his voice rough.
“Indeed,” she said with a shrug. “I must.”
“And so must I,” he replied.
“How terribly taxing for you, good sir,” she teased.
He lifted his hand and gently stroked a lock of her hair back from her face. “Perhaps it doesn’t have to be, good miss.”
What ever did he mean? She leaned into that touch, a touch which felt like heaven and home.
“Alas, no miss,” she breathed. “Lady Amelia, at your service.”
Surely, at any moment, the spell would break. The strangeness and growing perfection of this moment would vanish.
He trailed his finger along the line of her jaw oh so gently. “How’d you do, Lady Amelia? I am Edmund Blackfield, Earl of Hastings.”
“The Earl of Hastings,” she exclaimed, startled. “Goodness! I have heard of you.”
“Yes,” he said, resigned and now slightly wary. His hand dropped to his side. “Most people have.”
“But you have only just returned home,” she said, trying to imagine the vast adventure that had been his life.
“Home?” The word seemed to pain him.
She wished to ease that pain, and so she ventured, “You have not been in England in many years. That’s what I understand.”
“It has been many years,” he agreed. “But it was time that I come back to do my duty, as all earls must.”
“I am glad to hear it,” she said, smiling. “London needs more interesting people.”
He laughed. “What makes you think I’m truly so very interesting?”
“The fact that you have traveled,” she said.
He shook his head, unconvinced. “Many men in London have traveled. Yet they are more interested in their dogs, their horses, and their cattle.”
She scowled. “You have just summarized my attempts to find a husband.”
He choked on a rueful laughter. “Oh dear, I’m terribly sorry for it. But your struggles are not very different than my own.”
“Truly?” she asked.
He winced. “I find that ladies are interested in horses, ribbons, dancing, and tickets to Almack’s, which is a horrible place.” He shuddered.
“I agree,” she rushed.
“You do?” he queried, his jaw dropping with surprise at her shocking admission.
She gave an unapologetic nod. “Almack’s is most tedious. And the ladies who control it, well. . . I understand their need for power, but really, once one is inside? The lemonade is watered down, and the company is really rather unstimulating.”
His boot brushed the hem of her skirt as he took a slight step forward and whispered, “And you require company that is stimulating?”
She sucked in a breath, stunned to find that his nearness was far more welcome than it should have been. “Well, yes. Doesn’t everyone?”
“No, lady Amelia,” he whispered. “You are quite wrong. Most people do not require such a thing at all.”