Oliver York, Earl of Carlisle, marched into the ballroom. He clearly wouldn’t be curing his best friend tonight. Perhaps the one most in need of wine, women, and dancing was Oliver himself.
Except the ratafia was warm, the wine bitter, the music off-pace. The debutantes were only attracted to his ignominiously gained title. The men only approached him to hear gore-splattered war stories Oliver had no inclination to retell, much less relive.
Ballroom Waterloo. The deafening orchestra, the cloying perfume, the swirls of satin and lace—it was as much a hell as the battlefield he’d escaped.
Anybody who fantasized about war was an imbecile. Anyone who fantasized about inheriting a title was an even bigger imbecile. This whole ballroom was chock full of imbeciles, and Oliver was the biggest of them all for thinking Xavier was a soldier he could save, this soirée a skirmish he could win. He didn’t know these people anymore. He wasn’t certain he even wished to. He curled his hands into fists.
Look at them planning their attacks. Sharpening their rapier wits. All of them, pawns in the same war, playing the parts they were born to play. He could no more have escaped inheriting his earldom than a wallflower could avoid being labeled a—
Oliver frowned. Brow furrowed, he squinted through the swirl of dancing couples and frowned again.
There was a girl. Across the room. Pressed into the wallpaper. A pretty girl who didn’t know her part.
Not a wallflower, this young woman, despite her back-to-the-wall stance. True wallflowers dressed in drab colors and did their best to blend with the shadows. This one wore a gown with enough silk and lace to befit an empress. The colors could blind a peacock. Her cleavage would tempt the Prince of Wales himself.
And yet, something about her gave the impression that her come-hither bodice and opulent trappings was nothing more than costuming. The true her—whoever that might be—was hidden from the naked eye. Oliver narrowed his own. Something in the set of her jaw, the stiffness in her spine, the softness of those ripe, full lips . . .
Even as he watched, she trapped her plump lower lip beneath a row of straight white teeth. Dark hair. Pale skin. Voluptuous curves. He shifted his weight.
This Snow White belonged to a different type of bedtime story. What man wouldn’t want those soft red lips on every part of his body? She must’ve infatuated half of London by now. The virginal lace at her bosom, the way those thick black lashes blinked a few more times than strictly necessary . . .
Oliver’s intrigued half-smile died on his face as he realized the truth. This wasn’t coquetry. His enticing wallflower was uncomfortable. Nervous. His fingers curled into fists. Where the devil was her chaperone? Her friends? Hell, her suitors? She was utterly alone. Someone this beautiful, with skin that fair and hair that dark couldn’t have any difficulty attracting a man.
“Got your eye on the new one, Carlisle?” came a sly whisper from behind Oliver’s shoulder. “Better dip your wick now, before all the others have their way. Miss Macaroni won’t be looking half as nubile once she’s had a mouthful of—”
“Macaroni?” Oliver interrupted, barely managing to tamp down his impulse to plug his fist into the speaker’s face, sight unseen. He wouldn’t be able to resist the temptation for long. War did that to a man.
The voice chuckled. “Eh, she’s a Yank. Best thing for anyone to do is keep a hand over her mouth, because you can’t understand a single word coming out of it.”
Oh, mother-loving shite. That was Phineas Mapleton talking. The ton’s worst gossip.
“Not that anyone’d want her for conversation anyway,” Mapleton continued. “Every female worth her salt has already given her the cut direct. The only creatures putting themselves in her path now are the profligates planning to give her a tumble or two. Dirty money, dirty gel. Not much else a chit like that can hope for. Old man Jarvis already put his name down in White’s as being the first to tup her. Got fifty quid on it, myself. Want to add your name to the pot?”
His lip curled in disgust. Ballrooms were treacherous indeed. This jackanapes had an innocent American in his sights. One who didn’t even seem to have a duenna, much less friends to keep away wolves like Mapleton.
Oliver’s temple began to throb as he forced his fists to unclench. This was a different type of combat, he reminded himself. The worst thing to do would be to make a scene with Mapleton. The scandal would be horrific.
Yet he couldn’t walk away. Not when the wallflower needed rescuing. His goddamn Achilles heel, no matter how disastrous the outcome tended to be. He wished his heroics would work out for once.
He kept his eyes trained on the pretty black-haired American, every muscle tensed for action. An eternity ticked by. No one approached her. She had no one to dance with, to talk to. She looked . . . lost. Hauntingly lonely. Frightened and defiant all at the same time.
’Twould be better for them both if he turned around right now. Never met her eye. Never exchanged a single word. Left her to her fate and him to his.
It was already too late.