A Spring Deception (Seasons Book 2)(7)

By: Jess Michaels

An impeccably dressed man now stood not three feet from her. And he was utterly beautiful, with dark blond hair and steely gray eyes that swept over the room. He had an angled face with a strong jaw and a slightly imperfect nose, like he had broken it at some point during his life. But the imperfection only made the rest of his face that much more striking.

He shifted slightly, revealing some discomfort on his handsome face. And something else, too. Sadness. There was a sadness in his eyes that spoke to Celia in a visceral and immediate way.

“That’s him?” she breathed, unable to take her eyes off of him. Tabitha and Honora nodded mutely. “He certainly isn’t scarred.”

“Or fat,” Honora added. “Or hideous.”

“No,” Celia whispered as he turned away and smiled as their host and hostess, the Marquess and Marchioness Harrington, rushed to greet their coup of a guest. He was led off into the crowd and it felt like the air had been let back into the room. Celia sucked in a gulp of it with a shiver.

She had never had such a strong reaction to a stranger before. A man. It was like her whole body was tingling and her heart pounded so loudly in her ears that the rest of the sounds in the room were muffled by the rush of blood.

“I think he’ll be even more of a catch now that we’ve all seen him,” Tabitha said with a sigh. “The Diamonds of the First Water will wrestle for him and some lucky girl will land him before the summer, I can almost guarantee it!”

Celia blinked as those words sank in. Of course that was true. The mamas would swarm on their newcomer before he could settle in for five minutes, and he would be the focus of their manipulations until someone had landed him.

Someone who would almost certainly not be Celia Fitzgilbert. She turned away from where the duke had stood and took a few more deep breaths. It was foolish to be swept away by the appearance of a handsome face. And if she were smart, she’d just forget about the man.

Only she didn’t think that would be so easy to do.

Chapter Three

Dane stood with the Earl of Stalwood, staring out at the swirling crowd of dancers. It seemed every time a pair passed him, they whispered to each other and stared pointedly in his direction. He shifted with discomfort at the unexpected and utterly unwelcome attention.

“So Clairemont, what do you think?” Stalwood asked, breaking through the cloud of his thoughts.

Dane blinked a few times. Clairemont. He was Clairemont now, and he had to think of himself that way so he didn’t slip up in his duty.

“It seems a perfect place to find our marks,” he said slowly, speaking with the more formal accent he had been perfecting for two long months. It came naturally now, even if it still sounded foreign to his ears.

Stalwood nodded as he surveyed the crowd around them. Unlike Dane, there was no discomfort or feeling out of place for the earl. “Indeed. The duke might not have met with people in person during the past decade, but his correspondence included a great many of those in this room.” Stalwood’s tone grew hard. “Likely one or more of them were involved in his schemes. One may have even killed him.”

Dane…no, Clairemont—now more than ever he had to immerse himself in his role so that he never slipped—shifted with discomfort.

“My appearance here has created a great deal of attention,” he mused, trying not to chafe at the continued stares and whispers.

“More than we anticipated,” Stalwood agreed. “Though I suppose it shouldn’t be so surprising. There are only so many titles in our world. When one comes out of hiding, it is bound to cause a splash.”

“I’ve been accustomed to simply fitting in,” Clairemont explained. “To becoming invisible in whatever role I take in the organization. Blending in makes investigation smooth. But this focus will make my job all the harder.”

Stalwood nodded, his face suddenly grim. “That is likely true. Unfortunately, you’ll have to work around it, at least until the interest fades in a few weeks.”

“A few weeks?” he repeated, and his stomach roiled as he let his gaze slide around the room once more. The crowd with their finery and their foolishness did nothing for him. “These people,” he murmured. “How in the world shall I ever keep track of them?”

Stalwood arched a brow. “If you let you prejudice guide you, you won’t. So figure it out, Clairemont.” He stopped for a moment, his gaze shifting over Clairemont’s shoulder. “And do it quickly. Here come the mamas.”

Clairemont stiffened and slowly turned. Sure enough, there was what felt like a gaggle of middle-aged women moving across the floor to him. Some had young ladies in tow, others came alone. But all had the same predatory look in their eyes.

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