A Spring Deception (Seasons Book 2)(6)

By: Jess Michaels

Celia pursed her lips. Her friends had kindly danced around that subject since her return to London a week before, but here it was. She found herself searching through the ballroom and found the tall, stern figure of the Earl of Stenfax. He was standing in the corner, talking to his sister, Felicity. When they saw her looking their way, both raised their hands in a friendly hello, which she returned before she sighed. Stenfax was very handsome, of course, but he had never moved her, nor had she moved him.

“I do not regret it,” she said, and meant it. “Things have worked out exactly right.” She cleared her throat and looked around. The women who were not dancing were all gathered in clumps, it seemed, and there was a crackling electricity in the air that made no sense to Celia. “Why is everyone so odd tonight?” she asked, hoping for a change in subject since the topic of her former fiancé was uncomfortable to say the least.

Honora grasped her arm in both hands, her face lighting up in excited pleasure. “You mean you haven’t heard?”

“Heard what?” Celia asked, shaking her head. “What is there to hear that would inspire that expression?”

Both women leaned in and Honora whispered, “The Duke of Clairemont is making a return to Society tonight.”

Celia wrinkled her brow. “The Duke of Clairemont. I vaguely recognize the title, but why does that matter? We’ve a room full of stuffy old men as it is. One more boring duke is hardly any matter.”

“Oh my Lord, she doesn’t know!” Tabitha squealed, and now Celia was being held by both her arms, one for each friend. She rather hoped they didn’t try for a tug of war.

Honora all but bounced. “His Grace is not an old man,” she said, trying for a whisper but not really accomplishing it in her excitement. “He is barely above thirty and rich as Midas, himself!”

Tabitha tugged on Celia’s arm none too gently. “His father died a decade ago and he took the title, but since then he has been a recluse, hiding away in his country estate, Kinghill Castle. No one has seen him in years and years.”

“There are so many rumors about why he hid so long, Celia,” Honora continued, pulling Celia back to her side. “Some say he was scarred in an accident—”

“A fire!” Tabitha said. “I heard it was a fire.”

“Whatever it was.” Honora shrugged. “Or that he was driven mad over his father’s death.”

“Oh there are a dozen stories or more,” Tabitha said. “Whatever the truth is, everyone is agog over his return. He is quite the catch.”

“Despite being horribly disfigured or mad? Or both?” Celia asked mildly.

Honora let out a huff of breath. “He’s titled and rich—did you not hear that part?”

Celia held back a sigh. She hated to be mercenary, especially after all she’d gone through breaking her engagement to Stenfax, but the idea of this duke’s title did appeal to her. Since Gray had had little luck in finding out her father’s identity, she couldn’t help but wonder if her grandfather might consider honoring his original bargain with her.

Marry a title to satisfy him and receive the information that was so well-hidden. Rosalinde would hate that. She wouldn’t want Celia anywhere near the old man.

But Rosalinde didn’t need the truth as much as Celia felt she did. It didn’t eat at her at night, it didn’t haunt her every time she looked in the mirror and wondered if she had her father’s nose or chin.

“Are you well, my dear?” Tabitha asked, tilting her face to get a closer look at Celia. “You have gotten very pale.”

Celia shook her head. These were not thoughts she should entertain. Likely when this mysterious duke arrived he would not be interested in her at all. He would probably be a boring, fat aristocrat who already knew exactly what family he would merge his own with. There was no use getting one’s hopes up over a mirage.

“I’m fine, I was woolgathering,” she said with a smile to reassure her friends.

Tabitha didn’t look certain, but before she could follow up with more questions or concerns, the crowd in the room began to titter and shift. It seemed everyone in the room turned toward the door at once as the servant there made some muffled announcement.

Celia turned with them, lifting on her tiptoes to see who had caused the commotion.

“It must be him,” Honora breathed, her hand coming up to fluff her hair. “It must be!”

Celia supposed her friend must be correct, for this mysterious duke was the only addition to Society that would cause such a stir. The crowd began to part, splitting apart like a torn seam, and then the few people before her stepped aside and she caught her breath.

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