|"Surely it's not true. Imagine the scandal. He'd never be able to show his face again. He'd be ruined."
The scandalised whisper crept around the edges of the potted plants to reach the interested ear of Mr James Devon. He straightened from his lean against one of the pillars edging the small country ballroom and strained to hear more of the conversation.
"Of course it's not true," snapped a matron's deeper tones. "He's a duke. And imminently eligible. Such gossip does not become you, girls."
There was only one duke in attendance tonight, and indeed he was the only peer to grace the ball with his presence. The fact that he lived a mere stone's throw away (if one had a very decent throwing arm) was neither here nor there. Tonight's ball commemorating Saint Valentine's Day hadn't even drawn a baron, but the attendance of the Duke of Wiltshire had certainly sealed the host's social status among the gentry.
James felt a sudden chill despite the warmth of the overcrowded room. Society did not take kindly to anyone who deviated from their expectations of what was proper, and they were so careful to maintain appearances. For a man, being ostracised from society would be difficult and inconvenient, but it was the young women like the sister who had dragged James to tonight's function who would truly suffer the consequences. Her chances of finding of a good husband would be utterly destroyed if scandal broke out and James was at the center of it.
"How can they even tell?" The young lady's voice was breathless with curiosity. "It's not like someone caught him kissing another man." A gasp, and then, "Or did they?"
James narrowed his eyes and swept his gaze across the ballroom. Taking only cursory note of where his younger sister was dancing decorously with another member of the local gentry, he searched for the duke. Tuning out the sound of the matron berating her charges for their indiscreet comments, he watched the duke do the rounds of the ballroom, sending all the other guests aflutter with every dip of his head and polite smile. Unlike the matron, he knew rank and privilege were no guarantee of a man's preference.
There were no affectations in Wiltshire's mannerisms, no hint of effeminacy. He wore stark black formal wear, relieved only by the blinding white of his starched shirt and a single violet in his boutonnière. Of course, the same could be said for any of the men in the room, although to a man they all wore red roses to match the ludicrous abundance of draped red silk and velveteen hearts that passed for decoration. James looked down at himself, where he wore the twin to the duke's boutonnière. It was also a convenient match to the pastel-shaded gown his sister wore.
James monitored the duke's progress, careful to avoid being too obvious. The last thing he needed was to fan the flames of gossip. He even made a point of taking his sister out on the floor for a dance when the duke's circuit of the ballroom brought him near. It wouldn't do for anyone to put two and two together and make four.
It was nearly 11pm when James tapped his sister on the shoulder as she stood in line at the refreshments table, and indicated he was going outside for a smoke. At her nod of understanding, he strolled out into the crisp air. Spring had yet to really show herself this season, and the chill was a marked contrast to the stuffy heat of the overcrowded ballroom.
James withdrew a cheroot from his waistcoat pocket and held it to his lips as he lit it, the brief light of the flame flaring bright in the darkness. The smoke trailed gracefully into the still night, delicate wisps against the vast array of stars strewn across the sky. James enjoyed the view for a moment, glad he didn't live in London where the smog was so thick one never saw the stars of an evening.
James ambled round to the stables, stopping to pet a horse here and there. The duke's curricle was ridiculously easy to identify; no one else at the ball could afford such an exquisitely matched pair of horses. He nodded at the groom who had been given the tasks of overseeing them for the duration of the ball, and reached out to rub each horse between the ears.
"Beautiful, aren't they?"
The deep voice came from behind him as James ran his hand down one horse's long, velvety nose. He spun to see the duke standing behind him. James withdrew his cheroot and smiled.
"Your Grace." James bowed in deference to the duke's status, mindful of the groom who was listening intently. "What a splendid matched pair. I don't believe I've ever seen the like."
The gas lamps weren't sufficient to clearly see the expression in the duke's eyes, but James fancied that there was a relaxed warmth to his smile that had been missing all night.
The duke gave a light chuckle as he stepped forward. "I saw them at Tattersalls, and had to have them. Cost a pretty penny, but they are a joy to drive. I often take them out myself, much to my coachman's disgust."
James brushed his hand down the neck of the nearest horse in long strokes. He heard the crunch of gravel as the duke moved, then he felt the heat of the duke's body as they stood shoulder to shoulder. The duke reached out and stroked the horse, his hand sliding over James' hand which was frozen in place. James hardly dared to breathe. Then, as if nothing had happened, the duke stepped back, and the cold crept back in.
"Perhaps you might like to come and view my stables, Mr Devon. I recently purchased a rather magnificent stallion which I hope will see some new foals born of my mares next year." The duke turned away, tugging on one cuff and speaking casually over his shoulder. "Would tomorrow afternoon suit?"
James couldn't help the smile that lifted his lips. "Tomorrow afternoon would be splendid, Your Grace. I shall look forward to it."
The duke turned back to face him, and lifted an eyebrow. "Perhaps your sister would care to accompany you? The Dowager is frightfully bored these days, and would love some company."
James knew that was for the benefit of listening ears, as the duke knew very well that his sister was otherwise occupied the following afternoon. "Unfortunately, she and my mother are attending an afternoon tea. I know she'll be sorry to have missed the opportunity." In truth it was his mother who would be heartbroken to know that her daughter had come so close to dining with the dowager duchess at the ducal estate. That would certainly have been a social coup.
"Never mind, another time perhaps. Still, you should come and see the horses. Come prepared for a good, hard ride. It's been too long since I've had one, and I'd enjoy the company." The duke made eye contact, and James couldn't resist a smirk at the double entendre, relieved the horses' large heads hid his expression from the groom. It was rare for the duke's clever wit to come out in public, and James was delighted to know that he was enjoying himself despite the game of cloak and daggers they were forced to play.
As James took his leave, and the duke made preparations to depart, there was nothing to suggest that anything untoward had taken place. By tomorrow the conversation would have travelled on gossip's swift feet, and ladies all over the region would be hearing it from their maids as they dressed for their afternoon calls. All would be assured that the Duke of Wiltshire and Mr James Devon had behaved with the utmost decorum, and the proprieties had been observed. Indeed, the duke had invited the man's sister to dine with the dowager duchess, and surely he wouldn't have done that if there had been any hint of inappropriateness about the meeting.
James returned to the ballroom and his duty as chaperone for his sister, relieved to see that she was still mingling with the other guests despite his absence. Nothing in the ballroom had changed in the few minutes he'd been gone, but somehow the music seemed livelier and the candlelight seemed brighter. Dresses sparkled and laughter caused his own lips to lift. Even the profusion of red roses and the ostentatious pink champagne didn't offend to the same degree. Like a child with a secret, the wait for tomorrow afternoon would be both interminable and full of wondering delight. In the meantime, he would daydream of violets and one particular duke.