The Duke and the Spitfire
The Unwanted Dukes Book 4
Johanna Darby didn’t know when it was she fell in love.
This was likely because she was eight at the time, and had she been questioned directly about her feelings for him, she would have informed the inquisitor that Benedict Carver was singularly annoying.
He was still annoying. She knew this because only Benedict Carver would show up, newly widowed and titled, at the exact moment she had determined she must let her love for him go if she had any hope of happiness in her life, to say nothing of her sister Viv’s quest to see all the Darby sisters married.
The man was a damned nuisance.
He was like a magnet, drawing her eyes to him through the crowd of her ball as if he weren’t one of a hundred people crammed into the ballroom. It was as if it was only the two of them standing there with no one between them. No orchestra, no marrying mamas, no lecherous old bachelors.
They were young again, racing their horses across the fields of Yorkshire, the sun warm on their shoulders, the wind pulling her hair from its pins, her bonnet long forgotten as it bounced against her back, and Ben’s laugh as she pulled ahead. Ben had the best laugh. That she would never forget.
He wore all black as mourning would have dictated, and he stood to the periphery of the ballroom, a glass of something in his hand. His eyes were hooded. She could see that even from where she stood, and her heart clenched at the sight, her mind conjuring all of the terrible things that might have caused such guardedness.
“And that was exactly what I said to my tailor. I said I can’t possibly be seen in peach again this year. We all know the correct palette is far more muted.”
Johanna blinked, forcibly moving her eyes from Ben to the man who stood beside her with whom she was supposed to be conversing.
Lord Blevens was best described as a sock that had seen far too many washes. He was willowy and tall and robbed of all color as he abhorred daylight and exercise. He made up for his paleness with a jarring rainbow of clothing.
He smiled at her now, showing immense canine teeth, as if he expected a reply from her.
“Yes, I see,” she muttered, hoping that was the correct thing to say.
His smile got wider if that were possible, and she wondered if he were secretly a wolf in disguise. She took a small step back.
“I’m sure your modiste is far more skilled at deciphering the current trends than my tailor. Perhaps I should seek a new one.”
She nodded, her eyes drifting past the viscount to where she’d last seen Ben, but he had disappeared.
Disappointment swamped her, and she clasped her hands together in front of her, worrying them so, she feared for the delicate silk of her gloves. Her dance card bounced against her wrist, and she was reminded of how pitifully empty it was. Her sister Louisa had already come over to her once to remind her of the point of the evening, and Johanna had tried to accept more offers of dancing. But it was entirely too difficult when one’s heart was not in the matter.
But that was also how she had become trapped in conversation with a sock of a man.
“Do you find the latest fashions from Paris to your liking, Lady Johanna? I find I’m more inclined to the Italian school, but you know how difficult it can be to convince people of its merits.”
“Em, yes, quite so.”
Where had Ben gone?
He was probably seeking out her brother Andrew in the card rooms. Andrew and Ben had practically grown up together after all. Of course Ben should seek his company. She probably wasn’t an inkling in his mind as she was just the little sister of his best friend who had relentlessly tagged after them.
Her chest squeezed.
Come on, Jo. It’s been five years. You should be stronger than this.
It wasn’t as though she imagined he had thought of her in the five years he was in America. He had been married, of course. He should have been thinking of Minerva, his wife.
Her chest squeezed again, harder this time, and she pressed a hand there as if she could stop the pain.
She had gone to his wedding. All the Darbys were expected to attend, and it would have looked odd had she not been there.
It was the singularly most awful day of her life.
Lady Minerva Wallington had been beautiful, even more so as the captivating bride to the son of a duke. With her raven locks and voluptuous curves, her effervescent smile and polished wit, Johanna couldn’t imagine Ben would be disappointed in his marriage.
Johanna also couldn’t help but compare herself to Ben’s bride. It was almost impossible not to really. While Johanna was not plain by any stretch of the word, she was neither gorgeous the way Minerva had been. Johanna had never given a care to her looks before she’d seen Lady Wallington on her wedding day.
She felt a pang of regret at the loss of innocence but forced a smile as Lord Blevens picked up the topic of patterned waistcoats.
“So you can see why a pattern is far superior to a simple silk.”
“Mmm, yes,” Johanna muttered, her eyes scanning in the other direction.
Lord Blevens’s smile reached atmospheric proportions.
“Do you know I think everyone is wrong about you?” This got her attention, and her eyes came snapping back to his thin face as he continued. “You’re not at all disagreeable. I wonder why the ton should think so.”
She was disagreeable?
She opened her mouth to defend herself, but Blevens cut her off.
“Lady Johanna, would you care to—”
Someone touched her elbow, and she knew it was him before she even turned. A bolt of lightning shot through her at his touch, her toes curling in her slippers.