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February 1815, London
Jacqueline Walters barely suppressed a sigh as she looked around the ballroom. She knew that Sabre had picked the name Haberdasher because it sounded daring. When Jack had learned that haberdashery was the term for men's accessories, hats and gloves and the like, she had argued that they needed to change it. Now she could admit that Sabre, or more precisely Miss Sabrina Bittlesworth, was nothing short of prescient in selecting the name. Ten years later it seemed that Jack's entire family was bent on making her some man's accessory.
"Oh, Jackie, isn't it quite the thing?" Her younger sister Samantha squeezed her arm. This was Sam's first formal ball and Jack was sure that her sister would walk around gawking at the decorations if she didn't think it would mark her as a complete unsophisticate.
"It's lovely, though I hate to think of how many peacocks are roaming around completely naked in service of it." The ballroom was grandly done in bright blues with peacock feathers displayed to excess. There were also quite a few trees from the orangery, the bright fruits making complementary splashes of color in the room. “Lady Wynders certainly knows how to make an impression."
Sam continued to gush. "I think it's the most amazing thing I've ever seen. I want to pinch myself to make sure I'm not dreaming."
Jack smiled down at her little sister. "Surely if it were your dream there would be at least one kitten."
"Oh, don't be such a goose, Jack!" Sam said with a nervous laugh.
"I'm just saying that your love of kittens is renowned," Jack continued. "Why, when you are Lady Such-and-such and throw your first ball I shall expect to see kittens there."
"Don't tease me so, Jackie," Sam admonished. "I shan't aspire to a title."
How like Sam to disparage the idea that she might snag a titled husband. However, if one of the Walters girls were to elevate her station it would undoubtedly be the petite, golden, and sweet-natured Samantha. Tall, serious Jack had been on the marriage mart for two years now and had been marked as a bluestocking, too intelligent and outspoken to be a good Society wife. She had slowly faded into the background as a wallflower, accepting that she would most likely be firmly on the shelf in another year. In the meantime she could be a chaperone for her sweet sister in the hopes of helping Sam make a worthy match. Perhaps, she thought, someone that she could stand since she would most likely be living with them as a helpful maiden aunt one day. Of course Mama and Papa still expected Jack to make a stunning match, but she was sure that as Sam blossomed in her first Season the pressure regarding Jack's own marriage potential would wane.
“You know,” Sam said, tapping her fan on Jack’s arm to get her attention. “Men would be much more interested in you if you didn’t look at them all like they were Lord Lucifer.”
Jack frowned. “Don’t be ridiculous, I don’t look at them like that.”
“You were, just now. Staring at that poor little man over there as though he were a disciple of the devil himself.”
Jack’s gaze swept the room. “What little man? I was thinking about something else entirely, I assure you.”
Sam gave a delicate sigh. “Yes. You always are.”
A handsome young man of Jack's barest acquaintance approached them for an introduction to Sam and Jack knew that it had begun. Four introductions and two glasses of punch later Jack was certain that her sweet little sister was already beginning to take in a way that Jack never had herself. Did she look at men as though they were that reprobate Lord Lucifer? Certainly not. To the best of her knowledge she didn’t look at men at all. Few of them took the opportunity to speak to her and fewer still asked for a dance. Not that she was surprised since she matched the height of most of them and towered over others. As such she spent most of her time at these events lingering along the wall and thinking.
During one particularly long country reel that Sam had been invited to dance and Jack had not she took the opportunity to find Lord Wynder's famed classics library. Even level-headed Jack had to admit that being ignored for two years to then be sought out as a conduit of introduction to a debutante had a certain sting to it, one that she was certain could be relieved with a quick peek at a rare book. Perhaps he would even have some tomes on weaponry. She was quite sure that Lord Wynder wouldn’t mind. Too much. Especially since he would never find out.
After perusing the shelves Jack finally chose a book, setting the lamp on a shelf high enough to shine its light down onto the pages. Greek was difficult to read in the best of conditions and the combination of dim light and cramped writing in this particular text almost made her give up entirely. An arm sliding around her waist from behind interrupted her focus on the text. She stiffened as she felt the warmth of another person pressing up behind her, accompanied by a smell that was a mix of mint, cloves, and leather.
"And here you are," a deep voice murmured in her ear. "You're early."
It was one of Jack's peculiarities that she wasn't the type to jump and scream. Both Sabre's and George's brothers had made it their mission over the years to get a girlish, squeamish reaction out of her to no avail. In this particular instance she was frozen like a statue while her heart sped into an erratic beat in her chest. Who was this man? Who did he think she was? She felt his breath on her neck as he nuzzled closer to her, his fingers tracing lazy patterns on her stomach.
"What are you reading?" he asked, voice low and husky at the side of her neck.
"Thucydides," she managed in a strangled whisper.
He chuckled, his breath stirring the strands of hair at her nape. "Planning a war instead of a seduction? What am I saying, you probably consider seduction to be a war."
Planning a seduction? Good gracious, who did he think she was? Why would anyone be planning a seduction in the library of all places? Her mind turned frantically like a moth trapped inside a jar. She had never done more than hold a man’s hand before, and that only briefly. This wasn’t only wrong, it was forbidden. Rather than panic her that thought relaxed her. She enjoyed doing forbidden things. Climbing trees, racing horses, practicing swords. Perhaps this forbidden activity would be just as invigorating.
Jack felt as though he were drawing her into a cocoon of his warmth and scent. His lips touched her neck and her own blush in reaction added to the sense of heat so that she almost felt she had walked into a fire. His other arm came around her and pulled the book from her fingers, laying it aside. He had eased her back against himself and her shoulders now rested on his chest while he continued his slow journey downward of touches and kisses. Her initial shock had worn off and her body was languidly surrendering. His nearness was new and thrilling and surprisingly relaxing. She melted back into him and was rewarded with another chuckle and a gentle nibble on her ear. She shivered in response and his arms tightened as his fingers became bolder in their exploration, one hand sweeping under her breasts while the other traveled down, pressing her back so that her derriere fit snugly against him. With that the sensations went from soothing to alarming and she tried to wriggle away.
He murmured in her ear again. "You are just as luscious as you look. More so. Let me taste you."
Becoming outraged she pushed away and turned to address him. “Sir! You - ”
He took her lips, covering her protest. Tasting, indeed. He sampled her lips with gentle suckling and licking. His errant hand had made its way to palm her breast and on her gasp he took the opportunity to plunder her mouth with his tongue. Jack shivered again. She had never felt anything like this before. Had never thought that it was even possible. Her body throbbed with hope and want and need but her mind was beginning to rebel even more at the outrage. She gave him a savage push and managed to lever away from him. The damnable man was the size of a house!
As her seducer drew back from the kiss and looked down at her face his own was illuminated by the lamp on the bookcase. She saw unfashionably long dark hair and dark, heavey-lidded eyes. The eyes widened with shock.
"Who in the bloody hell are you?" he choked out.
He was withdrawing his hands from her when the side door of the library opened and Jack heard a woman's voice, a throaty contralto, coming in from the hallway. "No, Lord Wynders, I don't need an escort but it is lovely of you to ask."
"Well, my dear, it wouldn't do for one of my guests to be left unattended at our soiree."
Jack turned toward the door and her seducer took a step back as the woman entered the room. Outlined by the light from the hall all Jack could see was a tall, curvaceous figure cutting a rather fashionable silhouette. It was apparent the woman had seen them because of her surprised but understated, "Oh."
Within a moment of that shock the woman began to withdraw but Lord Wynders had scented scandal and pushed the door open further. The light from the hallway spilled a feeble ray across the floor and dimly lit the occupants at the bookcase and Wynders drew himself up. "Harrington," he said shortly.
"Wynders," Jack's seducer replied with a brief nod.
"Miss Walters," Wynders said, with a nod in Jack's direction. Jack could feel the tension in the room rising as the four occupants eyed each other.
Jack dipped a quick curtsy. "Lord Wynders."
Another voice in the hallway, this one a woman with a higher and more patrician tone. "Darling, whatever are you doing in the library?"
Lord Wynders moved aside to allow his wife into the room. "I suspect..." he said.
Harrington grabbed Jack's hand and pulled her forward, cutting off Wynders. "Congratulating us on our upcoming nuptials." Jack looked at him in panic and he pulled her tight against him. "Although we would appreciate your discretion since the particulars haven't been worked out with her father yet."
They had drawn close enough to their unexpected audience for Jack to see their faces. Lord Wynders looked speculative, Lady Wynders looked delighted about this on dit, and the mystery woman looked sympathetic. Upon closer inspection Jack could see that she was the widow Lady... Spencer? Spinner? Undoubtedly the woman with whom Harrington had planned to rendezvous in the library this evening.
Lord Wynders broke the silence. "Miss Walters, perhaps you would like for me to fetch your father so that they can discuss this?"
Jack glanced up at Harrington and then back to her host. She mustered a smile that she hoped wasn’t too sickly. The year she had spent recovering from a broken arm after falling off her horse came rushing back to her. Sometimes things were forbidden because they were dangerous. “No thank you my Lord. Don’t worry Papa with it now.”
Returning to the main ballroom they made their way around the periphery in a slow stroll, absently nodding to acquaintances in a typical display of a potential couple. It maintained the fiction presented to the Wynders while not making a clear commitment to the other attendees. Jack was desperately trying to remember where she had heard the name Harrington before. He was an aristocrat, that was clear, but what kind? Younger son of a titled man? A baron himself perhaps? It was rare to find a man a full head taller than herself but she didn’t remember him from the soirees she had attended in her first two seasons. Perhaps he had only recently returned to Town. It was still quite early in the season so perhaps he only attended smaller affairs. Her mind churned through possibilities while he seemed content to maintain the silence between them.
Presently he stopped and spoke to someone Jack very much recognized, the Duke of Beloin. This was a surprise to her since the young duke was known to be a bit high in the instep. As the duke turned to address her escort with a friendly smile Jack remembered. Harrington. Bloody hell, it was the Earl of Harrington. She pasted a false smile on her face and began to wonder how on earth she would be getting out of this tangle.