"Miss Dale, you appear flushed. Are you coming down with a fever? That will never do, not here at Miss Timmons's engagement ball!" Lady Essex Marshom declared, turning to her recently employed hired companion, Miss Manx. "Where is my vinaigrette?"
While the beleaguered young woman dug through a reticule the size of valise to find one of the many items Lady Essex insisted Miss Manx have on hand at all times, Daphne did her best to wave the dear old spinster off.
"I am most well, Lady Essex," she told her, sending a look of horror over at her best friend, Miss Tabitha Timmons. The last time Lady Essex had pressed her infamous vinaigrette into use, Daphne hadn't been able to smell a thing for a week.
"You do look a bit pink," Tabitha agreed, a mischievous light flitting in her brown eyes.
Daphne bit back the response that came to mind, for ever since Tabitha had gotten herself engaged to the Duke of Preston, she'd become as cheeky as a fishwife, displaying none of her previous sensible nature.
This is what came of marrying a Seldon.
Daphne tried not to shudder right down to her Dale toes, for here she was in the very heart of Seldon territory—at their London house on Harley Street where Tabitha and Preston's engagement ball was being held.
But Daphne couldn't begrudge Tabitha her happiness—there was no arguing that Preston had her glowing with joy. And the engagement had brought them all back to London. Where all Daphne's hopes lay.
Ones that rested upon a certain gentleman. And tonight, Daphne carried high expectations she would be . . . would be . . . She glanced over at her dear friend, and whispered a secret prayer that when she found her true love, she might be as happy.
And how could she not with Mr. Dishforth somewhere in this room?
Yes, Mr. Dishforth. She, Daphne Dale, the most sensible of all the ladies of Kempton was engaged in torrid correspondence with a complete stranger.
And tonight she would come face to face with him.
Oh, she would have stared down an entire regiment of Seldons tonight if only to attend this ball. To find her dear Mr. Dishforth.
"Who looks a bit pink?" Miss Harriet Hathaway asked, having just arrived from the dance floor, looking altogether pink and flushed.
Meanwhile, Lady Essex was growing impatient. "Miss Manx, how many times do I have to remind you how imperative it is to keep one's vinaigrette close at hand?"
Harriet cringed and asked in an aside, "Who is the intended victim?"
Tabitha pointed at Daphne, who in turn mouthed two simple words.
And being the dearest friend alive, Harriet did. "It is just Daphne's gown, Lady Essex. The pink satin is giving her a definite glow. A becoming one, don't you think?"
Bless Harriet right down to her slippers, she'd tried.
"She's flushed, I say," Lady Essex averred. Then again, Lady Essex also like any opportunity to bring out her vinaigrette, and had even now taken the reticule from Miss Manx and was searching its depths herself. "I won't have you fainting, Daphne Dale. It is nigh on impossible to maintain a lady-like demeanor when one is passed out on the floor."
Tabitha shrugged. It was hard to argue that fact.
Yet Harriet was ever the intrepid soul and refused to give up. "I've always found, Lady Essex, that a turn about the room is a much better means of restoring one's vitality." She paused and slanted a wink at Daphne and Tabitha while the lady was still engrossed in her search. "Besides, while I was dancing with Lord Fieldgate, I swore I saw Lady Jersey on the other side of the room."
"Lady Jersey, you say?" Lady Essex perked up, immediately diverted. Better still, she failed to remember that she should probably be chastising Harriet for dancing with the roguish viscount in the first place.
"Yes, I am quite certain of it." Then Harriet did one better and looped her arm into the spinster's, handed the hated reticule back to Miss Manx and steered the old girl into the crowd. "Weren't you saying earlier today that if you could but have a word with her, you'd have our vouchers for next Season?"
Just like that, the hated vinaigrette was utterly forgotten and so was Daphne's flushed countenance.
A Lady Jersey sighting trumped all.
With Harriet and Lady Essex sailing ahead, Daphne and Tabitha followed, albeit at a safe distance so they could talk.
"You are taking a terrible risk," Tabitha whispered to Daphne. "If Lady Essex were to find out--"
"Sssh!" Daphne tapped her finger to her lips. "Don't even utter it aloud. She can hear everything."
It was a miracle as it was that the old girl hadn't discovered Daphne's deepest, darkest secret—that she'd answered an advertisement in the paper from a gentleman seeking a wife.
There it was. And the gentleman had answered her. And then she had replied in kind. And so the exchange had gone on for the last month, all anonymous and mysterious and most likely beyond the pale and ruinous if anyone discovered the truth.
Certainly, if Lady Essex found out that such a scandalous correspondence had been carried out right under her nose, then the only notes Daphne would be composing would answering the messages of condolences for Lady Essex's fatal heart ailment.
"Do you think he's here yet?" Tabitha asked, looking around the room.
Daphne shook her head, glancing as well at the crush of guests. "I have no idea. But he's here, I just know it."
Her own Mr. Dishforth. Daphne felt that telltale heat of a blush rising in her cheeks. At first their letters had been tentative and skeptical, but now their correspondence, which was carried out in a daily flurry of letters and notes, had suddenly taken a very intimate turn.
I would write more but I have obligations this evening at an engagement party. Dare I hope my plans might intersect with yours?
Daphne pressed her fingers to her lips. An engagement party. Which could only mean, he was here.
At Tabitha and Preston's ball. Her Mr. Dishforth.
Wear pink if your plans take you to such a festivity and I will find you.
So she'd donned her brand new pink satin gown and come with breathless anticipation of finally putting the mystery of Mr. Dishforth's identity to rest.
Which would also stop Tabitha and Harriet from worrying over the entire situation. When they'd discovered what she'd done, rather was doing, they'd been shocked.
"Daphne! How could you? An advertisement? In the paper?" Tabitha had said, clearly taken aback. "You have no idea who this Dishforth might be."
Harriet had been more to the point. "This bounder could be exactly like that horrible man in Reading last year who advertised for a wife when he already had one in Leeds. Why he could be one and the same!"
Daphne cringed, for her Cousin Philomena, who was intercepting the letters being sent by Mr. Dishforth and passing them along to Daphne, had made the very same argument. Twice.
"You won't tell Lady Essex, will you?" she'd begged. Lady Essex did not take her role as their chaperone in London lightly. If she caught wind of this illicit correspondence—given the spinster's strict notions of suitable partis and proper courtship—Daphne's chance to discover Mr. Dishforth's identity would be lost.
But luckily for Daphne, her friends, who were more like sisters to her, had agreed to keep her secret, as long as she allowed them to have the final say in Mr. Dishforth's suitability before Daphne did anything rash.
As if she, a proper and respectable Dale, of the Kempton Dales, would do anything less. Still, Daphne shivered slightly as she recalled that last line from Mr. Dishforth's recent missive. The one she hadn't read aloud to her friends.
I will be the most insensible gentleman in the room. Insensible with desire for you.
Smiling to herself, she stole another glance around the room, hoping beyond hopes to find some way to distinguish the man she sought from the press of handsome lords and gentleman who filled out the distinguished guest list.
"Daphne, don't look now, but there is a gentleman ahead who is paying you close heed," Tabitha whispered.
Indeed there was. Daphne tried to be subtle as she looked up, well aware that any gentleman in this room could be him.
But immediately she shook her head. "Oh, heavens no!"
"Why not?" Tabitha asked.
"Look at the cut of that coat. It is not Weston," Daphne said. No, complained. For if any of the three of them knew fashion, it was Daphne. "My Mr. Dishforth—" for he was her Dishforth "—would never use that much lace. And look at the overdone falls of that cravat." She shuddered. "Why with all those wrinkles it looks as if it has been tied by a stevedore."
Tabitha laughed, for she was well used to Daphne's discerning and mostly biting opinions on fashion. "No, no, you are correct," she agreed as the rake sidled past them, casting an appreciative glance at Daphne's décolletage.
Not that such a glance wasn't to be expected. The gown was a bit scandalous and Daphne had ordered it in a moment of passion—wondering what Dishforth would think of her, so elegantly and daringly attired.
Lady Essex came to a stop to gossip with an old friend and Harriet drifted back toward them. "Now quickly, who is on your list, Daphne? Let's find your Dishforth."
Daphne plucked the list from her reticule. For the moment she'd learned that Mr. Dishforth was attending Tabitha's engagement ball, the trio had scoured the invitation list for possible suspects.
"Lord Burstow," Tabitha read over her shoulder.
The three of them glanced over at the man, and discovered their information hadn't been entirely correct.
"However did we get him so wrong?" Harriet whispered.
"He is well over eighty," Tabitha said, making a tsk, tsk sound.
"And the way he shakes, well, he'd never be able to compose a legible note, let alone a letter," Harriet pointed out.
They all agreed and struck him from their list, and once again went back to their investigation.
"Tell us again what you do know," Tabitha prodded.
Daphne, with Harriet's help, had assembled a thick dossier on everything she knew about Dishforth.
A compilation that would have rivaled the best produced by Harriet's brother, Chaunce, who worked for the Home Office.
"First and foremost, he is a gentleman," Daphne said. "He went to Eaton—" a point he had mentioned in passing. "And his handwriting, spelling and composition all speak of a well-educated man."
That fit most of the men in the room.
Daphne continued on. "He lives in London proper. Most likely Mayfair, given the regularity of his posts."
"Or at the very least," Harriet added, "has been in London since the appearance of his advertisement."
"Nor did he quit Town at the end of the Season," Tabitha pointed out.
Daphne suspected he might be a full-time resident of the city. "His letters are all delivered by a footman in a plain livery."
"Sneaky fellow," Harriet said. "Livery would be so helpful."
Oh, yes, Mr. Dishforth was a wily adversary to track down. The address his letters were sent to had turned out to be a rented house situated quite nicely at Cumberland Place—something the trio had discovered while they'd been purportedly walking in the park.
"It is too bad we have yet to meet Lady Taft," Tabitha mused, glancing around the room, referring to the current occupant at that address. They had been able to learn—with the help of Lady Essex's well-thumbed edition of Debrett's—that her ladyship had two daughters and no sons. Sad luck that, for it meant that Dishforth most likely resided elsewhere. Then again, Daphne was using her Great-Aunt Damaris's address for her letters to avoid Lady Essex discovering the truth.
"If we do not find Dishforth tonight," Harriet said, "then tomorrow we knock on Lady Taft's door and interview her butler as to why her ladyship acts as Dishforth's intermediary."
"Or who her landlord might be," Tabitha suggested.
"No!" Daphne exclaimed, for she held a secret hope for a much more romantic venue of their first meeting. And storming the portals of Lady Taft's rented house did not fit into that scenario.
Of course, all of what Daphne knew about the man assumed that he was being completely honest with her. That his letters were not as fictional as his name.
Certainly she'd been honest with him.
Mostly so. Certainly not her name. For she had replied to as Miss Spooner, the name of her first governess. It had seemed the perfect pseudonym at the time. Hadn't her own Miss Spooner eloped one night with a dashing naval captain?
Still it wasn't only her name which wasn't true. Daphne shifted uncomfortably, for she hadn't been been completely honest with Mr. Dishforth. She hadn't mentioned her lack of finishing school. Or how she loathed London.
But some things were best not admitted in a letter.
And good heavens, if everyone was completely honest in courtship, no one would ever get married.
Woolgathering as she was, Daphne hadn't noticed that Lady Essex had returned.
"Miss Dale, you appear undone." The old girl studied her with those piercing blue eyes of hers.
"Positively flushed, I say. Miss Manx, my vinaigrette—"
"I am quite well," she rushed to reassure her.
"It is most likely the heat in this room," Lady Essex declared. "A ball in July—I never! Do you suppose this Owle Park of Preston's will be so stifling?"
"No, Lady Essex, not in the least," Tabitha assured her. "Owle Park is most delightful. Large airy rooms and a wonderful view of the river."
"A river? That is promising, as long as it isn't spoiled with all the heat," she said. "Young ladies are not to their best advantage when they are damp with the heat. Ruins good silk." She shot Daphne a significant glance, for earlier the lady had declared her pink silk too hot—which had been Lady Essex's polite way of saying, "utterly improper," and had suggested a more modest muslin for such a warm evening.
But Daphne had been determined. She was going to wear pink, and when both Tabitha and Harriet remarked how pretty and engaging Daphne appeared in her new gown, the old girl had relented.
For if there was one thing Lady Essex wanted for Harriet and Daphne, it was for them to show well. She was taking great delight in claiming full credit for Tabitha's engagement to Preston, and now had her sights set on a triple play, but only if she gained excellent matches for Daphne and Harriet.
"I hope you will be attentive to the right gentlemen, Daphne Dale. No more of this missish and particular behavior you've displayed of late," Lady Essex said in no uncertain terms and probably loudly enough for half the ballroom to hear. "And bother your lack of dowry. Men tend to ignore those things when a lady is as fetching as you are. If I had but possessed your hair and fine eyes, I would have been a duchess."
"Is that why you turned down the earl, Lady Essex?" Tabitha teased. "You were holding out for a duke?"
"Not all of us can be as lucky as you, Miss Timmons!" the lady declared. "A duchess, indeed! And Preston's bride, no less. The Seldons must be in alt over Preston getting married. And to think we all shall be there."
Daphne shuddered as she always did when she heard that name. There was nothing that set a Dale's teeth to rattling like that one single name.
How it was that the rest of English society didn't see them in the same light as every Dale did, was beyond Daphne.
"Miss Dale, would you please find a way to smile over Miss Timmons's happiness," Lady Essex chided.
"Oh, just say it," Tabitha told her."You wish I wasn't marrying a Seldon."
"I know I would never marry thusly," she said diplomatically, because she had resigned herself to the notion that her dearest friend was wildly in love with Preston, and he with her. If only...he wasn't a Seldon.
"Daphne," Lady Essex scolded, "that feud has dragged on for how long? A century?"ĚThree actually, but Daphne was going to correct her.
"I would think the Dales and the Seldons could forgive and forget!" Lady Essex said. "It is all very tiresome. Besides, Tabitha is far better off marrying Preston than that odious Barkworth her uncle thought to force her to marry."
Tiresome feud, indeed! Daphne was only glad her mother wasn't here to hear such a thing. More so, that she wasn't here to see her only daughter attending a Seldon ball—against her mother's express wishes.
"Never fear, Lady Essex," Tabitha said, looping her arm into Daphne's and continuing their stroll around the room, "when I am married, Daphne will have no choice but to fall in love with the Seldons as well."
"How right you are," Lady Essex agreed. "Once she has attended the house party at Owle Park and seen your happiness in marriage, all this nonsense between the Seldons and the Dales will be forgotten. For by then, she will have found a husband as well."
Owle Park. Daphne glanced away, the very mention leaving her at odds. The Duke of Preston's country home. The Seldon family seat. A house as marked to the Dales as if it were an annex to Sodom and Gomorrah. "You are coming to the house party?" Tabitha pressed. What she really meant to ask was, Are you coming to my wedding?
Daphne stilled. Her parents, while delighted that Tabitha was making such an advantageous match, remained dead set against spending a fortnight in enemy territory.
In a Seldon house.
In such a place, her mother had said with a deep shudder.
Though they hadn't been so ill-mannered to say it thusly in Tabitha's hearing.
"I have been discussing the matter with my mother," she told them. Discussing it was not quite the right way to describe the situation.
When Daphne had broached the subject, her mother had gone straight to her bed and spent two straight days encamped there, crying and wailing over the request, certain that taking her only daughter, her unwed daughter, to a Seldon house party was akin to consigning her to the nearest house of ill-repute.
Everyone knew the Seldons practiced the worst sort of debauchery, but out in the country? Well away from the prying eyes of Society, who knew what sort of depravity they would witness, be subjected to...
We will all be ruined. Or worse, her mother had wailed and complained to her sympathetic husband.
What exactly "worse" implied, Daphne didn't know. She only hoped that Tabitha wouldn't soon regret her marriage into such a notorious family and especially to its infamous duke. And his equally notorious relations—whom Daphne had managed to avoid meeting thus far.
"Of course she is coming to your wedding," Lady Essex said, handing her fan to Miss Manx. "If your mother can see fit to allow you to attend the engagement ball, surely she will set aside her own prejudices and allow you to attend the duke's house party. Why half the ton is mad for an invitation, and the other half is just plain mad over not getting one. Your mother is no fool, Daphne Dale."
That might be true, Daphne wanted to tell Lady Essex, but her mother was a Dale through and through—both by marriage and birth. Her disdain of the Seldons was not born from a lifetime of distrust, but generations of enmity.
"At least you are here tonight," Tabitha said, smiling. "She didn't forbid you to come to my engagement ball."
Daphne pressed her lips together, for her mother had not exactly given her permission to attend.
Quite the opposite.
Certainly she had meant to keep her promise to her mother when she'd left Kempton and come to London with Tabitha that she would not spend a moment more than was necessary in the company of the Seldons.
Certainly tonight would suffice as 'necessary,' with the likelihood of meeting Mr. Dishforth so close at hand.
Even if it meant enduring a dance with Preston's uncle, Lord Henry Seldon. She couldn't help herself, she shuddered.
And apparently made a bit of a face.
"Your thinking about Lord Henry, aren't you?" Harriet said, giving her a nudge with her elbow.
"Please do not pull such a face when he comes to collect you," Tabitha added.
"I wasn't thinking of Lord Henry, nor am I pulling a face," she lied, forcing a smile onto her lips.
"You are and you were," Harriet said. Sometimes there was no getting anything past her.
"Traitor," Daphne whispered.
"Not my feud," Harriet replied with a shrug. Meanwhile, Tabitha stood there, arms crossed and slipper tapping impatiently.
"Oh, bother both of you!" Daphne said. "Yes, I promise I will appear the most gracious and contented lady in the room when I have to dance with him."
"I don't see what has you in such a state," Harriet said. "From what Roxley says, Preston's uncle is a most amiable fellow. A bit of a dullard, really."
"Tsk, tsk," Lady Essex clucked. "Whatever are you doing, Harriet, listening to that rapscallion nephew of mine? His opinions hardly hold any credit. And Miss Timmons is correct, Miss Dale, you cannot go to the supper dance pulling such a face. Just dance with Lord Henry and be done with the matter."
"How many times do I have to explain it?" Daphne huffed with a sigh of exasperation. "He's a Seldon.
If my family discovers I have danced with him, supped with him..."
She couldn't help herself. She shuddered.
Every time she thought of dancing with Lord Henry, she saw quite clearly every Dale bible across England being opened and her name being vehemently scratched out.
And in some cases gouged out.
Great-Aunt Damaris would waste no time in ordering a new one in which would be inscribed a reordered family lineage.
One that did not include Daphne.
"Daphne, I do not know what has come over you," Tabitha scolded. "I thought you'd come to like Preston."
"Oh, he seems to have come around," she admitted, "but I think that has more to do with your influence, Tabitha, and nothing to do with his inherent Seldon nature."
"Inherent Seldon nature?" Harriet's nose wrinkled. "Listen to you. You sound like the worst sort of snob."
Daphne took offense. "I am no snob, just well versed in the Seldon family history. Even Lady Essex will tell you that blood runs thick."
Lady Essex pressed her lips together, her brows deeply furrowed, for indeed she did believe thusly, but she could hardly admit such now. Instead, she made every appearance of searching the room for her previous quarry, Lady Jersey.
"Again, I have to ask, why must I dance with him?" Daphne grit her teeth and lips into a tight smile, if only to appear slightly amenable.
"It is Seldon tradition," Tabitha repeated for about the fourth time, "that whoever is standing up with the bride dances at the engagement ball with whoever is standing up with the groom."
Harriet chimed in quickly. "And you will do so because Tabitha is our dearest friend. And we will not have her happiness marred in any way whatsoever." Her words were both a reminder and a bit of scold.
"You could dance with him," Daphne pointed out. For wasn't Harriet as much Tabitha's friend as well?
"I told you, I already promised that dance to another," Harriet said, folding her arms across her chest. "And it is only one dance."
"It is not just one dance," Daphne pointed out. There was also the supper arrangements. She had to dine with him. "You both know that my mother would not approve."
"Your mother is in Kempton." Harriet pointed out. "And we are here in London."
"Gracious heavens, Harriet," Lady Essex declared, squinting at a spot across the way. "There is Lady Jersey! And here I thought you'd made it up to keep me from pressing my vinaigrette upon Miss Dale." She made a very pointed glance at the three of them, a warning to say that nothing, nothing, got past her, and then said, "Come now, Harriet, Miss Manx, we shall secure those vouchers for next Season—if they become necessary." Again the sharp glance that spoke quite pointedly to the fact that she would prefer Harriet and Daphne to get on with the business of finding suitable partis and stop dragging their heels.
Tabitha sighed. "I am ever so glad to have found Preston... Goodness, speaking of him, there he is being buttonholed by Lady Juniper. Probably over the seating arrangements. Again."
Daphne glanced in that direction and found Tabitha's soon-to-be groom indeed cornered by an elegantly clad lady in mauve—the aforementioned Lady Juniper. Preston's aunt and Lord Henry's sister.
Tabitha glanced back at Daphne, her desires clear.
"Yes, yes, go save him," Daphne told her friend. "I will be safe and sound right here."
"If you find him—" meaning Mr. Dishforth "—bring him to me immediately." Tabitha wagged a finger in warning. "Don't you dare fall in love at first sight and run away with him before I grant my approval."
"Tabitha, I am far too sensible for such a thing. I promise, when I find my Dishforth, I will not run away with him." She crossed her heart for good measure.
Satisfied, Tabitha hurried across the room to make her rescue while Daphne took a moment to study one and all filling the Seldon ballroom. She was probably the first ever Dale to cross into this unholy space.
So far, so good, she mused, considering she'd been here nearly an hour and had yet to be ruined. Or sold to an Eastern harem.
Oh, Tabitha could swear up and down that there was nothing out of the ordinary in the Duke of Preston's residence. Yes, the Red Room was a bit ostentatious, but only what one would expect of a ducal enclave.
And certainly, Daphne had to concede, there were no odd remnants of the Hell Fire Club or some other league dedicated to debauchery laying about in open view.
Those damning bits of evidence, she suspected, were kept in the basement. She made a cautionary note to herself: Do not go in the cellar.
Then again, considering she'd risked everything by coming here tonight, the cellar might be the least of her worries. Especially if her family found out what she'd done.
Not even that threat had deterred her. She was here.
Only because he was going to be here. Her Mr. Dishforth.
And after tonight, theirs would no longer be a love affair of merely letters.
Oh, she knew exactly what was going to happen. She was going to look up and their eyes would meet. He would smile at her. No, grin with delight that he'd discovered her.
In that so-very-magical moment they would know. Just know they had found their perfect partner. Dishforth would be dressed elegantly, but sensibly. No grand waterfall or scads of lace, just a well cut Weston coat, his sterling white cravat done in a simple, but precise, mail coach and he'd be handsome. Perhaps even as handsome as Preston.
Oh, she'd concede that much about a Seldon. Preston was a good-looking devil. But all the men in his family were reputed to be too well-put-together by any measure.
Daphne sighed. Still, if Mr. Dishforth was even half as grand... Then she glanced up, telling herself it was all naught but a ridiculous, fanciful dream.
And it was just that, a silly fancy, until she looked across the ballroom and it happened exactly as she thought it ought.