Nicholas - By Grace Burrowes
The English peerage had come to a sorry pass when the heir to an earldom had to duck up the footmen’s stairway to hide from the lovely young women seeking to become his countess.
Nicholas Haddonfield, Viscount Reston, took those steps two at a time.
He emerged on the first floor of the Winterthur mansion, the corridor lit by wall sconces and blessedly devoid of footmen, debutantes, mamas, or other aggravations.
Nick hurried to the first door and found it locked, suggesting the evening’s hosts, Lord and Lady Winterthur, were not entirely foolish. Well, no matter, the corridor was long, and there had to be an unlocked sitting room or parlor where a man could hide himself away for a few minutes of peace, quiet, and solitude.
He approached an intersection and froze as he heard a twittering female voice.
“He must have gone this way, Eulie.” The tone was indignant. “The gentlemen’s retiring room is on this floor, and he’s too big to go missing for long.”
“Really, Pamela…” The second woman’s voice floated around the corner. “I know he’ll be an earl, but you can’t seriously be thinking of marriage to Reston? I heard him tell Lady Lavinia Gregson he killed his mother.”
The voices were coming closer. Nick spotted a door on the left slightly ajar and sent up a prayer of thanks to whatever saint looked after beleaguered bachelors. He slipped inside, finding the room dark, save for weak illumination from a fire in the hearth.
“He’s likely hiding,” the first woman decided. “Playing hard to get. You know when he said he killed his mother, it was almost as if he were serious.”
Nick plastered himself against the wall behind the door while the ladies in the corridor continued their pursuit.
“Pamela, you cannot have thought what the wedding night with such a brute would involve.” Just outside the door, the lady’s voice dripped with distaste. “Earl or not, he’s simply… well, I would fear for you, my dear.”
“My mother says they all look the same in the dark.”
The door swung open. One of the various ladies who’d been watching Nick ever more closely as the supper waltz approached peered into the gloom, then pulled the door shut again. “Nothing in here. Perhaps he’s in the gentlemen’s retiring room.”
As her voice trailed off down the corridor, Nick considered the intensity of his relief.
Safe—for another hour he was safe, and so damned tired that a cozy, private parlor was inordinately appealing. He moved across the room, intent on stoking up the fire, when his peripheral vision caught a pale shadow to the right of the hearth.
“I beg your pardon,” he said. “I did not know the room was occupied.”
As his vision adjusted, Nick could make out the soft, billowy shape of a ball gown on a woman seated on a chest or bench along the wall.
“What if we each agree to be alone in here?” the apparition suggested in a voice that carried the slightest rasp.
“Suits me,” Nick said, going to the fireplace. “Are you hiding or merely enjoying a quiet respite?”
“Both, I think. And you?”
“Most definitely hiding.” Nick’s smile was rueful. “Lady Whoever and her faithful dog Lady Simper have that let-me-be-your-countess gleam in their eyes.”
“One of them sounded less than enthralled.” There was a touch of humor in her voice, though nothing mean.
“I’d wish I were a foot taller, if it would scare away more of the debutantes and their mamas. Do you mind if I sit, as we’re each so plainly alone?”
“Please.” The lady shifted slightly in her corner. “You are Reston?”
“At your service.” Nick bowed toward the shadowy corner. “And apparently tall enough to have no anonymity left whatsoever.”
“Or handsome enough. Maybe single enough?”
Nick scrubbed a hand over his face. “That too, for my sins.”
He satisfied himself the fire was going to throw off a little more heat, but resisted the urge to build it up to the point where the shadows were illuminated. Without knowing why, he didn’t want to intrude on his companion’s privacy. Something appealed about having a conversation with a woman whose features he could not clearly see.
He settled back on a sofa facing the hearth, crossed one foot over his knee, pulled off his gloves, and slipped off his dancing pump. His companion was no heavily chaperoned schoolgirl if she could find her way to this little oasis of solitude, and he doubted she’d take offense.
“My poor, lordly, single feet are expiring,” Nick muttered, massaging his arch.
“Bride hunting is work,” the lady said. “Almost as hard work as