Innocent in the Prince's Bed

By: Bronwyn Scott

CHAPTER ONE

London—May 1823

So this was how dreams died—ignobly. Expeditiously dispatched to the hereafter in a mere two hours after eighteen years in the making, bludgeoned to death in Lady Burton’s ballroom by what passed for Strom Percivale’s, the very eligible future Duke of Ormond, wit. Lady Dove Sanford-Wallis watched her court of gentlemen nod sagely as Percivale expounded on fire-building techniques he’d seen demonstrated on his latest diplomatic excursion: ‘It takes two sticks and a beastly amount of rubbing to get a spark.’ The group laughed, a poignant reminder that it was unfair to place all the blame on Percivale. Like Brutus stabbing Caesar, he had help.

Dove leaned forward, one white-gloved hand gently resting on Percivale’s dark sleeve to forestall any further comment. She smiled at the circle of gentlemen. ‘It’s probably easier when one of the sticks is a match.’

On her right, young Lord Fredericks’s fair brow knit in confusion, not grasping her remark, and her long-nurtured dream of a London debut breathed its last.

‘A match would allow you to light the other one,’ she explained patiently.

‘Oh, I do see! A match.’ He chortled, overloud and over-exuberant. ‘Quite so, quite so.’ Lord Fredericks’s brow relaxed. ‘You’re a wit, you are, Lady Dove.’

She was also quite disgusted and it was only her first formal outing of the Season. Disgusted. Disappointed. Devastated even. Her dream had betrayed her. Neither her debut nor London were remotely like she thought they would be and yet the source of that betrayal was hard to pinpoint.

Dove surveyed her godmother’s famed ballroom, searching for the cause of her antipathy amid the surreal swirl of pale silks and dark evening clothes, finding it everywhere and nowhere. She was surrounded by bland perfection on all sides, which made it that much harder to fault the evening, and to explain her sense of dissatisfaction.

The ballroom itself was architectural excellence with its twin colonnades parading down the left and right sides of the dance floor, columns draped in expensive but simple swathes of oyster satin bunting and ivory roses bred in her godmother’s private Richmond hothouses, brought to town especially for the ball. Pairs of imported chandeliers crafted from Austrian crystal glittered overhead, a gift from Metternich himself to her godfather. Every inch of the room was decorated to emphasise the three essential ‘E’s’ of tonnish entertainment: elegance, excellence and expense.

There was no doubting the elegance of the decoration, just the creativity of it. Beneath it there was a strong note of uniformity—or was that conformity? Minus the Metternich chandeliers, Dove suspected other ballrooms in London looked exactly the same as this one—virginal and uninspired, a setting worthy, unfortunately, of the guest list. Where was the colour she’d dreamed of? Where was the life? How could the ‘happy ever after’ she’d spent her girlhood imagining occur in such a sterile environment?

Several girls had made their official curtsy at the royal drawing room today, but only the crème de la crème was present with her at her debut, and none of them was as highly anticipated as she. It was not arrogance that drove her to that conclusion. Lady Dove Sanford-Wallis knew her own worth. She was the pampered, well-loved only child of the Duke of Redruth. She came with a dowry valued at fifteen thousand pounds annually, plus an initial bridal portion of twenty thousand and three coal-producing properties in the West Country. She would have been the most anticipated debutante of the Season even if she’d had the face of a horse. That she didn’t was a pleasant bonus for this year’s crop of marrying gentlemen.

And yet, knowing this had not made her a cynic; not before tonight anyway. She’d approached the year leading up to her Season with excitement. Excitement over leaving the isolated West—she’d never left the environs of Cornwall in eighteen years—excitement over the prospect of planning her wardrobe in London with the finest drapers in the business—up until now she had worn only proper muslins and gabardines in the spring, dark wools in the winter, as befitted a young girl—and excitement over visiting London with its entertainments.

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