Chapter One One
There was no place like a ball for a good, old-fashioned wager, Diana always said.
Or, rather, she was going to begin saying now, effective this evening, in the wake of having made just such a wager.
It was July, and they were inching toward the end of the London Season, Diana’s sixth in total and her third since the death of her husband, Viscount Templeton. She was in a crowded ballroom at the home of Lord and Lady Rocheford, whose end-of-Season soiree was one of the most coveted invitations among the ton, for reasons that frankly escaped Diana at the moment, as she was sweltering in the heat of tightly pressed bodies and an incalculable number of candles burning above and around her.
Diana was, in truth, finding the entire evening rather tedious. She’d been experiencing this sensation more and more often of late, which was a bit unsettling in its novelty. She had been so eager to escape her aunt and uncle’s home when she had debuted, flinging herself into the social whirl of London the instant she had made her curtsey before the queen, not letting up in the slightest upon her marriage to Templeton. His death two and a half years later had slowed her considerably, of course, but she had been eager enough to rejoin society when her mourning period was over, once again immersing herself in the relentless cycle of balls and dinner parties, Venetian breakfasts and nights at the theater, musicales and outings to Vauxhall Gardens.
Lately, however, she had felt something… missing. She had, seemingly, everything she had once dreamed of acquiring: a wealthy, titled husband who had seen fit to conveniently expire, leaving her a wealthy, titled widow; a London town house filled with servants to attend to her every whim, and as many painting supplies as she could possibly dream of; dear friends to liven up her days; any number of handsome gentlemen to flirt with of an evening.
And yet, this evening, as she chatted idly with her friends, watching her friend Emily twirl about the dance floor in the arms of the slightly scandalous Lord Julian Belfry, she found herself feeling vaguely… dissatisfied.
Which was why it was so convenient that the Marquess of Willingham chose that moment to open his mouth—a decision that was for him, as it was for so many men, often a mistake—to offer her the following warning:
“You’re making a mistake if you think to match Belfry with Lady Emily. A less likely man to marry I’ve never seen. Have you heard nothing of his reputation?”
Diana turned slowly to face him, arching an eyebrow. “Mmm, yes,” she agreed, giving Willingham a sweet smile. “But I didn’t think it was any worse than yours, my lord.”
Willingham’s mouth quirked in that infuriating half smirk he favored; his was an exceptionally handsome face, all blue eyes and cheekbones and strong jaw, and that smirk somehow, unfairly, made it more attractive rather than less so. “Touché. And yet I’ve no intention of marrying either, so my point remains.”
“So you say,” Diana said with great skepticism. “But need I remind you that you are a marquess? At some point, you’ll have to produce an heir.”
Willingham shrugged. “I’ve a cousin who I’ve no doubt would be quite pleased to inherit. He has a very fertile wife, if I recall.”
Diana tossed her head impatiently. “Don’t be absurd. Of course you’ll marry.” She was dimly aware that their friends were beginning to take notice of this conversation; she could sense their attention focusing on her and Willingham, even as she did not look away from Willingham’s face. The friends in question were their closest ones—Diana’s friend Violet, along with her husband, Lord James Audley; Diana’s brother, Penvale; and Lady Fitzwilliam Bridewell, a new friend of Violet’s and, until very recently, Willingham’s lover.
Willingham shrugged again, the gesture so irritating that Diana promptly forgot about their audience once more. “If you say so,” he said. “I’ve yet to meet a debutante I didn’t find insufferable, so you’ll forgive me for remaining unconvinced.”
“You knew me when I was a debutante,” Diana said through gritted teeth.
“Did I?” Willingham asked, his surprise so patently false that, had he been anyone else, she would have been tempted to laugh. “Oh, I do believe you’re right.”
She could hardly miss his rather marked failure to apologize.
Diana took a breath, attempting to calm herself. Willingham possessed the infuriating ability to rile her without even trying to, and so it was perhaps not entirely surprising that the next words out of her mouth were spoken before she had time to even properly consider them. “I’ll wager you’ll be married within the year. I could find you a bride in three snaps.”
Willingham laughed out loud at that. “That would be money in my pocket, Lady Templeton.”
“Then you’ll take the wager?” Diana pressed. “And you’ll allow me to send a parade of marriageable misses in your direction?”
“Why not?” Willingham asked with the misplaced confidence so typical of his sex. “I somehow think I’ll be able to resist the temptation. What shall we make the bet?”
Diana paused, considering; if she was going to do the thing, she might as well go all in, so to speak. “One hundred pounds.” She stared directly into Willingham’s eyes as she spoke, daring him to balk at such an exorbitant sum; he paused for the merest fraction of a second.
“Done,” he said briskly, then extended his hand. “Shall we shake on it?”
Considering that she had just bet the man a sum that would pay a good number of her servants’ annual salaries, it was slightly absurd that now was the moment she hesitated, but she was not used to shaking a man’s hand like an equal; she was more accustomed to men hovering over her hand in excessive displays of gallantry, attempting to catch a glimpse of her bosom. Nevertheless, she extended her hand and shook his firmly. His grip was strong and surprisingly reassuring; the latter was not generally an adjective she would have applied to anything about Willingham.
And so it was settled: Willingham would be married within a year, or Diana would pay him one hundred pounds. Diana would freely admit that agreeing to this wager had not, perhaps, been her most well-considered decision. Now that she’d challenged him before their friends, she could hardly admit that she thought the idea of Willingham marrying in the next twelve months to be unlikely in the extreme. Nevertheless, it might be good for a laugh, introducing Willingham to every unmarried lady of her acquaintance at every social event for the next year. That alone would be worth the loss of one hundred pounds.
Still, nothing terribly serious might have come of it had she not, less than an hour later, encountered Willingham’s grandmother.
The Dowager Marchioness of Willingham was something of a legend among the ton. Widowed for decades, she lived in London year-round and was admired and feared in almost equal measure. Her sharp tongue had skewered more than one reputation, and she had somehow performed the magic trick of saying whatever she liked to whomever she chose, without losing an ounce of her social power.
Naturally, Diana adored her—though she could not say she was entirely pleased to see her at the moment. Diana had just returned from a trip to the retiring room with Violet and Emily; Violet had vanished in search of her husband, and Emily had promised a dance to a blushing, stammering young buck just down from Oxford and clearly terrified to be dancing with one of the most beautiful ladies of the ton. Diana consulted her own dance card, realizing that she had promised this dance to Audley. Given the determined expression on Violet’s face when she had gone off in search of him, Diana hardly thought it likely that he would be appearing to claim this dance.
Instead, she made her way around the room, stopping to chat with several ladies of her acquaintance and to gaze flirtatiously at several gentlemen. Henry Cavendish, who was the second son of an earl and a thoroughly disreputable rake, had caught her eye and just begun to make his way through the crowd toward her, a promising smile playing at the corners of his mouth, when she felt her elbow seized in a strong grip.
“Lady Templeton, I’d advise you to reconsider that one.”
Diana turned, recognizing the voice even before she caught sight of its owner. “Lady Willingham,” she said, giving a curtsey. “I cannot imagine what you possibly mean.”
Jeremy’s grandmother was dressed in a demure evening gown of lilac silk, her diminutive figure held in rigidly proper posture. Her white hair was swept smoothly back in an elegant coiffure, a few curls framing her face, and she was in possession of a fan that Diana personally felt to be doing more work to allow its owner to gossip freely than as a cooling instrument.
“Don’t play coy with me, my dear girl,” the dowager marchioness said severely. “Young Cavendish is trouble, mark my words—his father must have counted his blessings many a time that that idiot was born the younger twin by a few minutes. Always felt twins a bit unnatural,” she added, shaking her head in disapproval at the very notion. “Too many babies at once, if you ask me.”
“It is a pity our heavenly father did not think to consult you before coming up with such an arrangement,” Diana agreed.
“That’s quite enough of that, now,” the dowager marchioness said, frowning. “You’re as bad as my grandson.”
“Did mine ears detect the sound of my name?” came Willingham’s voice from somewhere to Diana’s left. Stifling an internal groan, she turned, watching as he sauntered toward them, placing a kiss on his grandmother’s cheek that one could only accurately describe as smug. “About to describe my many charms?” he asked sunnily, a brief nod of his head his only acknowledgment of Diana’s presence.
“It would make for a rather short conversation,” Diana said sweetly.
“Lady Templeton likes to flatter me,” Willingham confided to his grandmother in conspiratorial tones.
“Over before it even had a chance to begin,” Diana continued, tapping her chin thoughtfully.
“If you’re finding it so difficult to describe my many charming qualities, I wonder that you were so confident that I’d be married this time next year.”
Like a hunting dog detecting a scent, the dowager marchioness’s attention—which had wandered slightly toward a number of couples in close proximity to them—snapped onto her grandson, razor-sharp.
“I beg your pardon?” she asked in tones of barely concealed glee.
“Er,” Willingham said, clearly intelligent enough—just—to sense danger.
“I wagered Lord Willingham that he’d be married within a year,” Diana explained cheerfully. It was worth every penny she stood to lose, just to see Willingham squirming under his grandmother’s piercing gaze.
“Did you, now?” the dowager marchioness asked slowly, a speculative gleam coming to her eye. “What a positively delightful notion.”
“I should note,” Willingham said, seeming to feel the need to exert some sort of control over the direction the conversation had taken, “that I was quite happy to take that bet. Not considering myself in any great danger, you understand.”
“Yes, dear,” his grandmother said absently, patting his shoulder as one might pat a dog begging for attention. “That is what men always say.”
“Yes, Willingham,” Diana agreed innocently. “Surely you wouldn’t presume to contradict your grandmother, who of course is so much wiser in the ways of the heart than you are yourself.”
“You are laying it on a touch thick, Lady Templeton, but I do applaud the general sentiment.” The dowager marchioness’s fan increased its rate of flapping, seemingly in time with the pace at which the cogs in its owner’s brain were turning. “Jeremy,” she said suddenly, turning to her grandson, “did you receive a reply from my secretary to your invitation to your house party?”
“I did indeed, Grandmama,” Willingham said mournfully, his blue eyes impossibly wide. “It naturally struck at the soft parts of my heart to read yet another crushing refusal from you, but I trust I will eventually be able to recover from the disappointment.”
“Enough, Jeremy, you’re not half so charming as Lady Templeton is.” Diana quirked a single, self-satisfied brow at Willingham in response to this in a show of restraint that she frankly felt worthy of a saint.
“I think I have changed my mind, however,” the dowager marchioness continued. “I really ought to thank you, Lady Templeton,” she added, turning her attention—and the breeze generated by her fan’s vigorous flapping—in Diana’s direction. “You have made me see that I’ve allowed matters to go on quite long enough. It’s time to take charge of things myself.”
“Yes,” Diana said uncertainly, not entirely understanding to what she was agreeing.
“Excellent,” the dowager marchioness said briskly, her gaze flicking between Diana and Willingham. “I shall look forward to this house party immensely. I anticipate it will be most productive.”
Diana was too busy cackling internally at the look of alarm on Willingham’s face to take much notice of the scrutinizing look the dowager marchioness cast her way. She would soon have cause to reflect on, and regret, her mistake.