The Young and the Ruined - Annabelle Anders

Chapter One

Spring, 1813

Redmond Hall, the country estate of the Duke and Duchess of Darnley

James Richardson, nephew to the Duke of Darnley, stood on the balcony above the ballroom of his uncle and aunt’s home observing the gaggle of beautifully dressed women below. Each wanted to make her claim as to why she would make him the perfect wife. He slowly released his pent-up breath. He had little doubt their real interests lie in the position that came with the marriage. One of them would be the future Duchess of Darnley since he was now his uncle’s only heir. He’d become the heir presumptive last year when an older second cousin had passed away from a short illness.

But bequeathing the title of future duchess to one of the eligible ladies below the balcony would happen if and only if they successfully garnered his favor. There was only one way to achieve that feat. They had to impress the love of his life, the poppet who stood beside him with a mop of black curls prettily arranged on her head—his six-year-old daughter, Valentina.

She was the only one who mattered in this mad, matchmaking house party.

James rested on his haunches next to his daughter then whispered in her ear. “What do you think, darling? See anyone who catches your interest?”

Valentina peeked through two of the carved cylindrical balusters of the marble balcony. “Oh, Papa, they’re all so beautiful.” Her emerald eyes flashed as she turned his way. “Do you think they’re all as nice as they are pretty?”

“We’ll have to wait and see.” James pressed a kiss to her flushed cheek. With her brilliant green eyes and shiny black hair, Valentina was an adorable child. Though he was partial, James predicted his daughter would grow up to be a stunning diamond of the first water. Men from every corner of the country would one day vie for her attentions.

Which meant that only a woman of the highest moral fiber and tenderest of hearts would be worthy of becoming Valentina’s new mother. His late wife Georgiana had died shortly after giving birth. Though it wasn’t a love match, James had felt great affection for her. She’d given him Valentina.

Now Valentina needed something from him—a new mother. After six years, his daughter had waited long enough for her father to remarry.

“Papa.” An excited whisper broke free. “Look over there. I found her. She’s the one.” Valentina’s gaze whipped to his. “Do you see her? She’s dressed in a red redingote with matching shoes. Valentina clasped her hands in front of her as a sweet giggle escaped. “She’s beautiful. Let’s meet her.”

James stood and took his daughter’s hand in his. He studied the assembly of women below who stood around his Aunt Evelyn, the Duchess of Darnley. Not a single woman had on a redingote or even had dressed in the garish color of red. “Darling, I’m not seeing her.”

“What are you two looking at?” James’s cousin, Harry Knollwood, stood on the other side of Valentina. Harry’s mother and James’s mother had been siblings. “All the potential brides for your father?” Harry gently pulled one of her curls as his gaze swept across the entry.

“Cousin, she’s here,” Valentina exclaimed. “My new mum.”

“Now wait, darling, before you get your hopes up,” James gently cautioned.

“Where?” Harry asked completely ignoring James.

Valentina pointed toward the door. “See her in the redingote?”

Harry sucked in a breath. “I do.”

The wonder in Harry’s voice left James feeling a little left out. What in the deuce did these two see that he didn’t? An ocean of pastel silk and satin moved in waves below them. It was striking but an ordinary sight. It certainly wasn’t anything that would steal a person’s breath.

“She’s in a yellow one,” Harry said.

“She’s in a red one,” Valentina said at the same time as Harry.

His daughter pointed toward Tipton, the duke and duchess’s butler. Through the ballroom’s open doorway, Tipton was assisting two ladies in the entry. By their looks, they’d just arrived from traveling since their bonnets and gowns were not in the manner of the ostentatious monstrosities the other guests were wearing.

Valentina pulled James hand, coaxing him to the stairs. “We must meet her, Papa. She must have come a long way to see us.”

“Oh-ho there, my fair Valentina,” Harry called out then laughed. “She’s mine.”

Valentina stopped on the landing and turned Harry’s way. The haughtiest look that James had ever seen appeared on his darling daughter’s face. “Sir, need I remind you that you have a mum?