Dancing with the Duke

By: Suzanna Medeiros

Prequel to the Landing a Lord series



Chapter One



1806





The Duke of Clarington cursed his luck at finding himself at the most hated of places during the most hated of times — Almack’s at the start the London Season. The ballroom was filled to capacity, and he could almost feel the weight of the assembled guests’ speculative glances pressing in on him, threatening to suffocate him. It took no small amount of effort to hold his ground.

He’d tried to convince two of his closest friends to accompany him that evening, but the Marquess of Overlea and the Earl of Kerrick had manufactured reasons to be elsewhere. He couldn’t blame them. If he could have managed the feat, he would have been anywhere else as well.

He distracted himself by listening in on the conversation of two young ladies who were only a few steps away. Their loud whispers, dissecting every man present, were impossible to ignore. When they paused, he glanced their way to see who was to be their next victim, and, as if on cue, they turned to look at him. As one, the pair lifted their fans to titter behind them.

He was going to kill Lucy for this. It was, after all, his sister’s fault he was there that evening. He’d always made it a point to stay well away from Almack’s, the hunting grounds of the single female of marriageable age. But at Lucy’s request, their mother had undertaken to sponsor her childhood friend’s introduction to society. At two and twenty, Charlotte would be older than most of the other girls taking their first steps into society, so his sister had argued that the full backing of the Clarington family was needed to make her debut a successful one.

From there, it took little effort for Lucy to convince their mother it was vital he be seen dancing with her friend. She’d reasoned that once others saw Alexander Thompson, the elusive Duke of Clarington, dancing with their charge, men would flock to her side, anxious to discover her charms.

He suppressed a shudder. Charlotte Grant had no charms. The last time he’d seen her she’d been a gangly, long-limbed adolescent of fifteen who’d taken to following him everywhere. She’d also had a terrible habit of blushing and stammering whenever he spoke to her. He had a suspicion that Lucy had taken it into her head to try to arrange a match between the two of them. She’d often voiced how Charlotte was just like a sister to her.

He had no intention of obliging her, however. He would invite Charlotte to dance, as he’d promised his mother, and then he would be free to depart. That moment could not come soon enough.

He took out his pocket watch and wondered, for what felt like the hundredth time, what was taking them so long. His mother and sister had left before him to fetch Charlotte and should have already been there. It was now twenty minutes past the time of their intended arrival, and his need to escape was growing with each passing minute.

Movement at the entrance to the ballroom caught his attention, and Alexander turned to see his mother and sister enter the room and wait to be announced. He frowned when he didn’t see Charlotte. With her flaming red hair and her great height, she would be hard to miss.

He saw her, then, as she moved into the doorway and had to stop himself from allowing his jaw to drop. Good God, surely this couldn’t be the same girl he’d known.

He was staring, but he couldn’t help it. She was even taller than when he’d last seen her seven years ago, just before he’d left for the continent on his tour, and her red hair had darkened. Not by much, but enough that the color now complemented her creamy complexion instead of warring with it. And instead of hiding the color of her hair, which he suspected had always made her feel self-conscious, she’d chosen to wear a green and gold gown that accentuated it.

He gave himself a mental shake and approached the group as they moved further into the room. The sooner he got this over with, the sooner he could leave.

“I am so glad you are here, Alex,” Lucy said when he reached them. “I wasn’t sure you would come.”

He was tempted to reply that she had left him with no choice after involving their mother in her schemes, but he had to be on his best behavior. He was almost out the door and then he could enjoy the feel of the fresh air after the stifling constraints of the filled-to-overflowing ballroom.

Alex dropped a kiss on his mother’s cheek. “I was beginning to think you had changed your minds and decided to leave me here, undefended, against the wolves.”

His mother laughed. “I’ll never understand you. Most men would love to have such attention showered on them. In fact,” she said, gazing about the room, “most of them seem to be engaged already and enjoying the dancing. The time would have passed more quickly if you had done the same yourself instead of standing in a corner, shooting daggers at anyone who looked your way.”

He shrugged. This was an argument they’d had often. “I am not one for dancing.” Bracing himself to face Charlotte’s blushes and stammers, he turned his attention to her. “You’re looking lovely, Charlotte,” he said, surprised to find that he meant it. “It has been a few years.”

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