It was when they approached the footman who would announce them that he saw her, her simple presence outstand¬ing amidst a multitude of inbred and odd-looking individuals gushing and fawning over each other. Wearing an outmoded, drab gown meant for someone much larger and much, much older, she was tenderly patting stray locks of a young girl’s hair, adjusting the bow on the back of the girl’s dress, in short, fussing about the girl like a mother hen with her lone chick. He was thunderstruck. Even without the feathers, paint, lace, and jewelry, she far outshone the posturing aristocratic ladies surrounding her, who competed in vain for attention.
At this distance, the youth she tended to appeared to Fitzwilliam as little more than an infant—small, frightened, and frail. However, it was not the anxious-looking girl who was causing him concern, drawing his offense. It was the activity surrounding the two that began to fuel his indignation, the admiration of the many men milling about ogling his Beauty, commenting upon her shimmering blonde hair. Fellow soldiers gaping and drooling over his Beauty’s eyes as they sparkled with amusement within a perfect, heart-shaped face, long, dark lashes lowered now to her task and shadowing his Beauty’s cheeks.
It was a testament to her good looks that those who circled overlooked the other grander, more-opulently gowned women, to be drawn instead by a loveliness that appeared both alien and delicate at once.
The young girl nervously whispered something, and the Brown-Eyed Beauty laughed gently, her face softening as it tilted to the side, lighting up with open joy, her eyes twinkling in devilish delight. Deadly dimples suddenly appeared.
Instead of being charmed, Fitzwilliam was furious.
“Why do you look as if you’ve just gotten your foot caught in your stirrups?” As he followed Richard’s rapt gaze, looking across the ballroom in the same general direction, Darcy discovered the object of his interest. “Ah. Well, well, well…” he muttered.
“What?” Fitzwilliam turned momentarily toward his cousin.
“I take it that is the woman about whom all your fuss has been?”
After one or two tense moments, Richard responded. “Yes, Darcy,” he bit back icily. “That is the woman about whom, as you so haughtily say, all my fuss has been. What of it?!”
“Nothing. Nothing at all.” Still he hesitated, staring.
Seeing Darcy’s reaction, Fitzwilliam bristled. “You wish to make some sort of observation, brat? Yes, that is the woman, and please do not stare at her like some sort of bedlamite.”
“Well, pardon me, Your Worship. She’s just not what I had expected.”
“What do you mean by that?” Fitzwilliam glared. “She is the most beautiful woman in this room, if not the whole city.”
“Jesu, calm yourself, Richard. I didn’t say she wasn’t. It’s just that she’s so… so…”
“Well…” Darcy’s eyes made a quick appraisal of the woman in the distance. “Well, for one thing, she is rather plainly dressed for such a grand assembly, and she does appear rather foreign-looking with those cheekbones. Here’s an aside. Whatever happened to your dream of a deathly pale, full-bodied, and terminally ill English Rose due to inherit an estate the size of Kent? Hmm? In case you had not noticed, this young woman is very healthy and quite slender and apparently poor. At the very least, you must admit that she doesn’t have the usual voluptuousness of which you are known to be so fond.” Without even looking at his cousin, he could feel his eyes boring into him. He sighed.
“She is not that slender,” Fitzwilliam said coolly. “And you are still staring at her. I don’t like it, I tell you.”
Darcy rolled his eyes in exasperation. “Please try and behave as an adult. I’m sure you’ve seen them about—emulate.” The air crackled between them. “All I am saying is that she has a leaner frame than the average woman you prefer. She is tall and slim and, well, frankly, she appears small-busted.” Darcy eyed her critically and then turned to look at a furious Fitzwilliam. “Maybe it is just that the dress is so huge. Stop scowling at me!”
He sipped calmly from a glass of wine he had just been handed by a footman. “Merciful heaven, aren’t you suddenly the sensitive one! I have nothing against the woman at all. She is quite as lovely as you say, perhaps more so.” Fitzwilliam’s green-eyed rage was turning boiling red from his struggle for control. “And she is definitely not your type.”
Fitzwilliam stiffened. “Aside from your previous gibberish, what is it about her, exactly, that you do not consider my type?”
Darcy hesitated for a few tension-filled moments before proceeding at his peril. “Truthfully? All right. Well, she’s not at all fussy or overly made-up. She’s naïve-looking, soft, elegant, and pleasant. None of those are your usual requirements—in fact, quite the opposite.” Darcy and Fitzwilliam stood glaring at each other before Darcy finally broke rank and turned back. He then gestured toward the woman under discussion. “I mean, she really is quite beautiful, to be sure. Oh, and my goodness, what an exquisite smile she has, such luscious, full lips. And dimples, too? Good God!” He chuckled and shook his head. “No, she’s definitely not your type at all.”
“All right, that does it. I should call you out.”
“Well, think about it. You could actually grow to love this woman, then where would you be?”
“Never mind about all that. I don’t care for the way you are looking at her, brat, with your insolent eyes. And how dare you comment upon her lips, goddamn it. You’re almost drooling.”
Darcy turned to coolly assess his cousin. “You should be medicated.”
“You were leering at her.”
“I was not leering, you apelike menace! I was asked my opinion.”
“Aha! Well…you are the demented one—you were never asked for your opinion, and I, above all people, know a leer when I see one, and I certainly don’t need your approval. I was merely pointing her out to you.”
“What’s going on, gentlemen?” Georgiana returned to their side after freshening herself. The carriage ride had been long and blustery, a frigid winter storm approaching with snow and sleet threatening to descend upon London at any moment.
“Oh, Fitzwilliam has finally lost what little was left of his mind. He is annoyed with me for glancing at his newest obses¬sion,” Darcy whispered loudly. “He is also exceedingly upset because I have been pointing out to him the many ways in which she would not suit him at all.”
“Really? What fun! May I take a stab? Where is she?” Darcy indicated the far corner where the beauty was standing.
Fitzwilliam threw up his hands and turned his back on them. “I am leaving you both. I know neither of you. Good-bye.”
“Oh, how charming she is and how different are her features! Truly a paragon!” Georgiana gushed. A slightly mol¬lified Fitzwilliam waited. “And not your type at all, Richard. Definitely not!” Georgiana’s clear assessing gaze darted from the beauty to Fitzwilliam and then back to the beauty. He turned slowly around and faced her.
“Et tu, Judas?” He crossed his arms over his chest.
“Heavens, Richard, just look at the color in your face! Are you feeling all right?” She regarded him with great concern.