"Our family has never had much luck with dukes," Elizabeth Bumgarten declared, smoothing her already impeccable skirts and staring out the window of the darkened carriage into the chilled September night.
"He's not a duke." Sarah Bumgarten countered her mother's observation, sitting straighter so as not to crumple her costly blue satin. "He's an earl. A new one at that...three months...mostly spent in Italy garnering family support and alliances." She smiled, thinking of his handsome face and irreverent wit. "But he's finally home."
"I am only saying, he could have found time in his busy schedule to call on you." Her mother sniffed. "In London for days and not even a word."
"He is now responsible for his family's businesses." Sarah thought of his previous devil-may-care attitude toward those weighty concerns. No doubt it was a huge adjustment for him to have to contend constantly with directors, ledgers, and lawyers. "I'm certain that after tonight you'll be complaining that his lordship is always underfoot."
She glanced down at her smartly gloved hands and the package they held.
She couldn't wait to see him open the birthday present she had chosen.
"At least he's not a duke," her mother muttered. "One in the family is quite enough."
Sarah expected her mother to recount again the unfortunate way that her son-in-law had become the Duke of Meridian...his older brother, Arthur, had died abroad under unknown circumstances. It was just one of several unfortunate happenings involving their family and men of ducal rank. It was almost enough to put Elizabeth off noblemen altogether. Except, of course, that she had one more daughter to see married. And for once, Sarah found herself in sympathy with her mother's fondest hopes.
For the early part of the season Terrence Tyrell had talked and teased, walked and waltzed with her under the gaze of London society, raising both eyebrows and expectations. She was hardly the most eligible young woman in the marriage hunt, despite her considerable wealth. Always with her nose in a book, dogging some ghastly physician's footsteps, picking up stray animals, or riding hellbent on her demon horse through London's outer boroughs. She made him laugh, he said when questioned by his cohorts. But in private he called her "pretty" and gently touched her hair.
Then, just over three months ago, he'd inherited the title of Earl of Kelling and was whisked away to Italy by the family elders. Now he was back and was undoubtedly expected to settle down, take a wife, and produce an heir. What better time than the final grand ball of the season to take the next prescribed step in the life of a nobleman?
Before he left London he had dropped hints that the family council would meet in Florence, and he made references to the exquisite ring that every earl's bride had worn. Tonight could be the night. If he proposed, by next Monday the Times would share the news with all of England, and her mother would be over the moon with delight.
The grand Palladian-style mansion glowed with candlelight reflected by gilt furnishings, French satin, and family jewels. No garish gaslight would intrude on this grand gathering. They paused in the doorway as their names were announced, and Sarah took a deep breath. Her mother's hand on her elbow reminded her of decorum's demands, but she couldn't help scanning the faces, looking for him as they moved forward.
She had to greet their host and hostess, the Earl of Sunderland and his countess, Lady Maribel, and then to acknowledge sundry others of rank and precedence before she would be free to join him. It was the final major event of an unusually long season and, coincidentally, his birthday. She held the flat, ribbon-wrapped box at her side, now wishing she had waited to give it to him...or at least had chosen less conspicuous wrappings.
Smiles, continental kisses, and handshakes distracted her as she paid duty to all the proper people. Mercifully, her mother absorbed most of the attention, answering queries about married daughters and a forthcoming grandchild. She managed to steal away and enter the ballroom proper, smoothing her rich blue gown and her long kidskin gloves.
Heads turned and whispers began as she made her way around the room, scanning the glittering crowd until she spotted him.