* * *
Mr and Mrs Malthouse, together with Cassie, stood at the head of the stairs to greet their guests as they arrived. Cassie was in a demure white silk gown embroidered with dainty pastel-coloured flowers. Ribbons of matching colours encircled the high waist and finished in a large bow at the back. She came forward to kiss Sophie when she arrived.
‘You look lovely,’ Sophie told her.
‘And so do you. I didn’t think you would dare wear that gown.’
‘Why not? I said I would.’
‘They are all here, you know.’
‘Sir Reginald, Mr Fanshawe and Lord Gorange, all dressed to kill.’
‘Oh, no, why did you invite them?’
‘Why not? I want you to be as happy as I am tonight. You must surely choose one of them.’
‘Why? I have said I will not.’
‘Sophie, let us move on,’ her aunt said, accepting Sophie’s dance card from a footman who had a pile of them in his hand and handing it to Sophie. ‘We are holding up those behind us.’
They moved into the ballroom, standing just inside to get their bearings and find a place to sit.
Mr and Mrs Malthouse had not spared any expense. The ballroom consisted of two reception rooms normally joined by an archway and wooden partitions. The partitions had been removed to make one very large room. The carpets and all the furniture, except chairs arranged round the perimeter for the chaperones, had been removed and the floor polished until it gleamed. A dais had been erected at one end on which a full orchestra played. There were swathes of glittering material hung between the long windows and stands of exotic flowers everywhere. And it seemed half the beau monde was there.
Sophie, not unaware of the stares of the young men and the disapproval of the matrons, stood up straight and smiled. No one, tonight, was going to guess that inside she was nursing a broken heart.
Lady Cartrose spotted Lord and Lady Martindale and swept off to join them. Sophie followed. Lucy was in a country dance set partnered by Vincent. Sophie did not have time to sit down before her swains were upon her.
Reggie reached her first. Apart from a white shirt, he was dressed all in green, even down to his cravat. ‘Miss Cavenhurst, may I have the honour of the next dance?’
Silently she handed him her dance card. He wrote his name and gave it back, then stood aside to allow Richard, in a black suit relieved by a white waistcoat and cravat, to ask for a dance and put his name on her card. They were followed by Lord Gorange, dressed in old-fashioned breeches, stockings and buckled shoes. Then all three stood beside her waiting for the dance then in progress to finish.
‘Tell me, gentlemen,’ she said. ‘Why do you all go about together? I never see one of you but the others are in attendance.’
‘Well, I for one cannot allow the other two to steal a march on me,’ Reggie said. ‘I was the first to ask you for your hand and...’
She laughed aloud, attracting those nearby to look round at her and make tutting noises at her behaviour. ‘So it’s first come first served, is it?’
‘No, it is not.’ Lord Gorange was the one to answer. ‘There are other considerations. What I have to offer...’
‘Is a dead wife’s shoes and two motherless children,’ she finished for him.
‘That is not all, it is far from all,’ he said, miffed. ‘You would want for nothing if you became the second Lady Gorange.’
‘And what about you, Mr Fanshawe?’ she asked sweetly.
‘It goes without saying you would want for nothing. I have a town house and a country estate, both of which are in superb condition, which you would see if you would only consent to visit them. I have never been married and do not have children, at least, not that I know of. You would not be burdened by past encumbrances.’
‘That is a consideration,’ she murmured. ‘But not the only one.’
‘Dash it, Sophie, how can you say that?’ Reggie put in. ‘I have known you since we were children and I have always adored you. Teddy knows that.’
‘What has Teddy to do with it?’ she asked, looking from one to the other. They were all looking sheepish.
‘Nothing,’ they murmured.
She had been right when she said something smoky was going on, she decided. ‘Do you know where he is?’ she asked.
‘No,’ Reggie said. ‘But it is strange that Viscount Kimberley asked the same question a few days ago. And come to think of it, I haven’t seen Teddy for nearly a week.’