Emma Montford was not in a happy frame of mind. Despite the fact that she was in the ballroom, surrounded by a great many people who were all talking, drinking, and dancing, she was very much out of spirits and thinking highly uncharitable thoughts about every gentleman in the vicinity. She looked on the proceedings with the dispassionate eye of someone who had seen the very same scene too many times and was mortally tired of it.
“Emma! Goodness! You astonish me!” exclaimed her friend Julia Stapleton, who appeared out of breath as she swept past.
Losing track of the stream of abuse that she had been silently aiming at a certain gentleman noteworthy for his absence at today’s gathering, Emma watched her friend move across the dance floor, laughing at something her partner had whispered a moment before into her eager ear. Emma could not quite keep the mixture of derision and envy at the sight of them off her face. But, all the same, she smiled graciously enough for her friend’s benefit when she caught her eye next.
Julia Stapleton’s parents were responsible for today’s evening of questionable pleasure. As it happened, there was nothing or, rather, no one to make it worthwhile for Emma. Soon Julia disengaged herself from her dance partner and took a glass of wine he obligingly presented to her. When he regretfully bowed away after her dismissal, she joined Emma in high spirits.
“What on earth is the matter with you? I declare you have spent half of the evening standing by the window! And I wish you would not wear that sour expression all the time; it rather scares off your potential dance partners. Have you not seen anyone handsome enough to dance with?” Her tone clearly suggested her disbelief. “Perhaps another glass of wine will make you more amenable to present company.”
“You are very kind,” replied Emma. “But truly no amount of wine or men will be of any use, for nothing can tempt me now.”
Julia stared in great astonishment at her friend. Then she scoffed.
“What nonsense you talk! Nothing to tempt you? Upon my word.” Julia extended her glass-free hand to indicate the breadth and fullness of the room. “We’ve Bradley and Heywood tonight, and there is Wilcox—he is engaged at present, but he doesn’t dance more than one set with the same girl, so that’s fine. Mortlock! Anthony! Aren’t they the finest fellows in London this season? Pick anyone you want. One smile from you and they will be at your feet.”
“I do not want any of them,” replied Emma scornfully. “They have nothing that can possibly interest me.”
“I suppose by ‘nothing’ you mean the last name of Chadderton?” asked Julia slyly. “But, Emma, this is ridiculous! The man is not here at present; you might as well enjoy yourself while you can, for when you do become his wife—”
“Oh! But how can I when he has clearly shown that he does not wish to marry me?” asked Emma.
“Well then, isn’t that as good an incentive as any to claim as many partners as you can fit onto your card?” Julia replied earnestly.
It was Emma’s turn to stare at her friend.
“Just imagine that you have come to town with the prospect of becoming Mrs. Henry Chadderton. Do you think you could possibly settle for anything less after that?”
Julia laughed at the vehemence of Emma’s words.
“Emma, dear, you are speaking of him as if he were a matrimonial catch! But you should hear the rumors flying around about his odd humors. I admit that he is vastly handsome, and coupled with that fortune of his—well, his wife will never have to wear the same bejeweled necklace twice, and those carriages of his and houses all over the countryside will be everyone’s envy—but still! Why not have a bit of fun before it all becomes yours?”
“But that’s just it—it won’t! He won’t! Odious, odious man! And he was so cordial at our first meeting, even to Edward! I wish Charles had been here with me instead. He would have made Chadderton marry me at once! But it’s too late now.”
Julia put a comforting arm around Emma’s waist, grateful for the loudness of music and their comparative distance from the crowd of busy-bodies that saved them both the embarrassment of being overheard.
“I dare say your chances of becoming Mrs. Henry Chadderton are now higher than ever,” she said. The authority in her voice struck Emma.
“How so?” she asked in utter bewilderment. “You of all people cannot have missed the fact that he has snubbed me at every party and refused to dine with us when Edward issued the invitation. More than once!”
Julia gave her friend a look of utmost pity, sighed, and shook her head.
“You have always spoken of your brother Edward as a slow sort of fellow, but I begin to think it is rather a family trait. After all, you are twins.” She giggled at her own joke but continued before Emma had the chance to retaliate. “But speaking of Edward, are the rumors true? Has he indeed rescued Chadderton from being shot to death by a highwayman?”
“Oh, yes! What a dreadful thing to occur! I cannot tell you how frightened I was. Just imagine that I could have lost both my brother and my—I mean—Mr. Chadderton! And to think that Edward—our Edward—was the one to come to his aid and stop the attack before it was too late. Who would have thought he had it in him?” Emma declared, lapsing into a moment’s marveling silence. “But what does Edward’s unexpected display of bravery have to do with Chadderton changing his mind and marrying me?”
“Emma!” Julia exclaimed, then lowered her voice to an urgent whisper. “It has everything to do with it! Everything! Has it never crossed your mind that by rescuing Chadderton, your brother has ensured that Chadderton is now indebted to him? And that the best way of paying back such a debt is to take you as his wife and improve your family’s situation?”
Julia shook her head at her friend’s inability to grasp this simple fact of life.
“I wager that when he has recovered enough to return to town he will be at your feet, begging forgiveness for his tardiness and asking for your hand. Honestly, it is as plain as day! I do think that you should stop thinking of nothing but Chadderton, for your brainpower is at its worst when you do it, and I’ve heard that Chadderton will not tolerate a silly wife.”
Emma dropped her eyes to the floor, bit her lip, and didn’t speak. The prospect was a very tempting one, but Emma had in her possession a more accurate account of the affair, and it failed to inspire her with her friend’s complacency. After a tense pause, Julia glanced up and nodded in the direction of the door, through which a gentleman had just entered.
“Upon my word, if it is not Jude Hartley!” she cried excitedly.
Emma pursed her lips, looking disinterestedly at the new arrival.
“I told you that I have no wish to dance,” she said, annoyed.
“That is a pity,” Julia mused, “for Hartley is a very close friend of Chadderton’s. I am sure he has news of his friend’s health.”
Now much more interested, Emma gave Hartley her full attention.
He was certainly good-looking, not quite as striking as Chadderton, of course, but handsome nevertheless. He was tall, but not terribly so, with dark hair fashionably disordered and an elegance of attire that attracted many a stare his way. A line of excited girls, all sparkling in satin and silk, had already formed along the wall, poised expectantly to accept his offer to dance at a moment’s notice.
Yes, Emma could clearly see herself walking with him across the dance floor and twirling about a set or two. It would be no hardship at all. As if aware of her thoughtful scrutiny, Hartley turned around and caught her eye, returning her gaze with interest and holding it for a long moment. He bowed in acknowledgement when she smiled at him. Then, with a determined step, he walked up to the ladies and asked Julia to oblige him and introduce him to her fair friend.
A quarter of an hour later, Emma and Hartley were successfully introduced to each other, and once the dancing recommenced, they joined the others for a spot of fun, Julia’s parting directions still ringing in Emma’s ears:
“Engage him. Charm him. After all, there is nothing like jealousy to spark passion, and he will not fail to mention your name to Chadderton when they meet again. You are entitled to have your bit of revenge like any other snubbed lady in your position. Flirt with him. Make sure that Chadderton knows exactly what he is missing!”