PrologueMonsieur Henre watched his favorite pupil twirl, her arms curved into a perfect oval above her head. “I’ve been practicing,” she said, spinning to a stop in front of the dance instructor. “Don’t you see, Monsieur Henre?”He offered an indulgent smile. The teaching contracts helped fund his true love: dance theater. In Daphne, though, he’d found a star. A pity her talents would be wasted. “You know I see how hard you work. You have the grace of a swan. Lord Scarborough will be proud.”She frowned. “My father doesn’t care what I do.” Her lower lip jutted out past her chin, making her look much younger than her seventeen years.With a laugh, Monsieur Henre finished packing his things back into the carpet bag he used. “He cares enough to recognize you love to dance. Most fathers would have stopped your practice sessions with me long ago. Most only want their daughters to glide across the dance floor so they can catch the eye of some rich nobleman.”Her pout vanished as the young woman spun again, this time ending with her arms wrapped around her budding body. “He gives me this, you’re right. My sister is the one to marry well. She’s prettier and the eldest. All I want to do is dance.”“And dance you do, with a skill that rivals some of the professionals I work with. It’s good that your father lets you have this luxury.” Monsieur Henre picked up his bag and walked to the door, believing the conversation over.A slim hand clutched his arm, halting him. “Then let me come with you. If I’m so good, let me dance for a true audience. I would make you proud.”He looked down into her pleading face and saw only what trouble such a gift would cause. “Lady Daphne, your father indulges you only so far. Think of the scandal if one of your position would dance for all comers. The Earl, your father, would never stand for it.”She laughed, the bitter tinge obvious to her teacher. “I don’t care about scandal. And my position’s a joke. Our title’s old, granted, but we live like paupers. My father should be proud that I want to help support the family.”Monsieur Henre put out a hand to stop her outburst, shaking his head. “But we both know he would not. You’ll need to tend to your other studies if you want to help the family coffers. Become a governess. That’s a worthy occupation for one of your standing. You know nothing of true poverty if you think fine houses and dance instructors mark a pauper’s life.”Daphne twisted her toe against the thick carpet. “I don’t want to be a governess. I want to dance.” She glared at him, ignoring his caution, her slender body trembling with the force of her passion.“You would have made a magnificent dancer with all that fire,” he murmured to himself. “You’ll find happiness easier if you let this go,” he said in a stronger voice. “It is something you can never have, and you’ll break your heart in crying after it.”“I won’t give it up,” she said fiercely. “I won’t give it up for anything.”He reached out and patted her cheek to calm her. “Lady Daphne, I just hope you never have to.” Sweeping a low bow, he opened the door and moved through it, leaving her troubles behind as his own rose to take their place. The dance hall failed to bring in enough of an audience again the previous night. Their contract would be cancelled if he couldn’t provide the bored nobles and tradesfolk with something new, something extraordinary.
Chapter One“So? Which one is it?”Jasper turned toward his friend and shot Aubrey a heated look. “I think Baker’s boy has the best whip hand I’ve seen for a while. Thatcher, though, can take corners with no regard for the innocent traffic. That alone will shave minutes from his time.”Aubrey jerked the monocle out of Jasper’s hand. “You know full well that’s not what I’m talking about. Your mother gave you a month to choose a bride, and today’s your last day. Who have you chosen?”Pushing to his feet, Jasper tossed down enough to cover their light lunch, suddenly having lost interest in seeing the end of the cart race. “What does it matter? They’re all much the same. Not a single real thought to spare among them. The same teachers, the same dressmakers…they are block prints on the fabric of my life.”Aubrey wisely kept silent as they strode through the streets of London, passing the places frequented by their mothers and heading for those where they’d best not be identified by any of the female persuasion.Finally, Jasper stopped outside a pub catering mostly to sailors fresh off the naval boats. “I couldn’t choose,” he said, the irritation clear in his voice. “I couldn’t debase myself further by actually considering any of them.”“You’re letting your mother choose a wife?” Aubrey asked, horrified. “This is the woman you’ll spend the rest of your life with. Can’t you find the slightest interest?”Jasper reached out to clasp his friend’s shoulder. “If I do this to please my mother, let her be pleased. If I chose one of them and she turned out to be a hag, I’d have no one to blame but myself.”A surprised laugh burst from Aubrey as he shook his head. “You’re an original, Jasper. Never would have thought it out that way, but you’re right. She turns out horrible, and you’ll be able to wind your mother around your little pinkie. I can see you now, ‘I did it all for you, Mother, and see what I’m left with?'”Pivoting Aubrey so he could push his friend through the door, Jasper grinned. “It’s not like I’ll see much of her anyway. I’ll just whelp a child or two on her and spend my days here in London while she lords over one of my grand properties. We may not have the fancy titles, but my family is loaded.”“A caution, my friend. Your mother’s like as not to choose some impoverished earl or duke to bind to the family. I can see her now, going over huge lists to find the candidates who have more title than coin. Oh, and don’t forget, those without male line entitlements. If she can’t raise her own standing or yours, she’ll be sure to raise that of your get. Just imagine when your lady’s father passes away and your oldest son outranks you.”Jasper signaled the barkeep. “Two porter, my good man,” he called before answering Aubrey. “Does it matter? Her title means nothing once she’s my wife. I will have charge of her and all her doings. She’ll stay in the country as I will it, and the children with her.”Aubrey looked dubious, but said nothing further as their tankards arrived.“Just think,” Jasper added, laughter gleaming in his eyes, “You’re next for the marriage bed. I’m sure your mum could happily find some chit to slip between your sheets.”Choking on his stout, Aubrey glared at Jasper. “I’ll do the choosing,” he finally gasped out. “I’m not leaving my future to chance as you seem willing to do.”Jasper took a long draw of his beer then wiped the foam from his upper lip. “At least you have a year or two before your mission is proved foolhardy. I tell you, there are no women among that gaggle of girls. Enjoy what time you have of freedom.”The door slammed open and a group of seamen staggered through the entrance, this obviously not the first stop in their day’s revelry.“Come, let’s go find a more hospitable location to take our rest.” Jasper strolled to the bar to pay his bill, unwilling to keep a tab at every place he went like most of his class. The smell of sea salt only brought back memories of what he could have been had either of his brothers survived to sire an heir. He’d been promised the Royal Navy since he wore short pants, but fate had a way of changing things. “There’s a dance troupe not far from here,” Aubrey offered. “I’ve heard they’re solid if not exciting.”Jasper forced his mouth to smile. “Solid describes much of my sorry life now. I might as well add another to the mix. It’ll give us something to pass the time until we head to White’s to check the results and collect my winnings.”Aubrey punched Jasper in the shoulder. “You’re so sure of winning?”“I always do.”A wave of his hand and a hackney pulled up next to them. “Give him the directions, Aubrey, and we’ll go see these solid dancers of yours.”“He’s from a good family with a title even if you’ll bring in a stronger one. Lord Pendleton is a baron, not some tradesman buying his way into nobility.”Daphne slipped into the sitting room, wondering how to ask her mother to let her dance. She’d waited for the best moment to raise it, but Monsieur Henre was due back this very day, and she wanted to be able to tell him so. At least they seemed happy now with the question of Grace’s marriage resolved.“And money, dear, don’t forget his family properties are exceedingly well managed. The boy goes wherever he likes just so the men can badger him about husbandry and farming. I’ll be taking him around our properties myself.”Their mother laughed, gently stroking Grace’s arm. “She doesn’t care about husbandry, my love. She cares about the husband she’ll spend the rest of her life with.”“And titles make the man?” their father asked in a gruff voice.Rising from the settee, Lady Scarborough wrapped her arm through his. “Of course, my love. Titles are the icing on a delicious snack cake. If you hadn’t a title to speak of, my parents would never have let me meet you, much less marry, and see how that turned out.”He patted her on the cheek, his smile so full of love, Daphne almost envied them, but she had more important things to do with her life than marry well.“Exactly my point, dearest. We have to make sure the boy meets our criteria and then love will come in time.”“He’s a man, not a boy,” Grace muttered, her gaze modestly entangled with her twisting fingers.Both parents turned to stare at their eldest daughter, surprise painted on their faces.“How would you know?” her mother asked.Grace looked up, her smile a fragile thing to see. “I’ve seen him at the Mackeley’s ball. He didn’t seem all that interested in any of us. I wonder that he wants to marry at all.”“Oh posh, no young man wants to be married. They don’t understand just how wonderful it is until they experience the bliss themselves. Don’t give it a second thought.” Mother came to sit next to Grace again, pulling her eldest daughter’s hands into her lap. “They see all they’ll lose and none of what comes to them. Even my Thomas was reluctant at first, and see what we’ve become.” She sent their father a look.Daphne felt the tension between them as easily as she’d felt the love. Grace worried them. So much depended on her sister marrying well, but they wanted her to be happy.Her request no longer seemed favored, so Daphne rose, trying to slip out of the room while they hadn’t yet noticed her.“Daphne?”She froze as her father called her name.“I hadn’t seen you there. Do you have something to tell us?” Her father tugged out his gold pocket watch and checked the time before looking toward her again.Daphne squirmed a little, trying to come up with something else she could say instead of begging to be allowed to dance professionally.Father laughed. “Out with it, my girl. Ask any boon you want on this day. With Grace’s future secure, there’s little I’d withhold.”She moved to her father’s side, pulling him into a hug. “You are the best father in the world,” she whispered, meaning every word.He put his hands on her shoulders and pushed her far enough away so he could meet her gaze. “Now I know something important is dancing around in your little head. Come on and tell your dear father. I never did like to wait on surprises.”Daphne took a deep breath before speaking, dragging her courage about her. “Dancing is right. Monsieur Henre says I’m really good. I’m better than any of his other pupils.” The words burst out of her in a rush, then she paused, waiting to see their effect.Her father mussed her hair and smiled. “As it should be when you do something you love. I’m glad you enjoy dancing so much, but you have to remember there’s more to life than just that.”“Not for me,” she said, shaking her head. “I want to dance for always.” She twirled in a circle, showing them a bit of the routine she’d been practicing.Catching her outstretched hand, her father moved her through the complicated steps of a line dance until they both sank into chairs, exhausted.“She definitely gets the dancing from you, Thomas. I’ve never had quite the balance to pull it off.”Too tired to move, he waved to Mother with a limp hand. “You have grace in other ways that make up for the dancing.”“I had Grace some nineteen years ago. And now I’m planning to let her grow up.”They all laughed at the wordplay as Grace rose to ring the servant’s bell for drinks.Only when they’d sipped lemon tea and nibbled on cucumber sandwiches did Daphne remember her purpose in coming to this room. “Father,” she said, catching his attention. “I really am a fine dancer.”He smiled. “I’m sure you are. As your mother said, you come by it honestly.”“I could do so much more than be graceful at my sister’s wedding,” Daphne said, unsure how to ask.“Oh, dear.” Lady Scarborough put down her cup and rushed across the room. “You don’t think we won’t take care of you as well, do you? I know it’s all been about Grace this season, but you’re growing up as well. Don’t think we haven’t noticed. Once Grace is settled, she and I will give you the best coming out ever seen. Won’t we, Grace?”Her sister nodded, fingers tense around the handle of her teacup. “I’ll do whatever I can,” she murmured.“There. You see? Nothing to worry about. You just keep up with your lessons, and we’ll find a man worthy of your love as soon as Grace is settled.”Daphne clenched her fists, angry at their preoccupation. “I don’t want to marry,” she declared. “I want to perform.”The room fell silent. Even Grace seemed stunned by her pronouncement.Daphne wished the words unsaid, ashamed not of their content but of how she’d offered them. “Monsieur Henre says I’m good enough. He says I’m as good if not better than the dancers in his troupe.”She leapt out of her chair and went down on her knees before her father. “If you would just give your blessing, I could dance for real. I could become famous.”“Get up off the floor,” her mother demanded. “More like infamous. What do you think the ton would say if my daughter joined the performers?” The way she said the last word made it sound dirty.Daphne got up, but only to round on her mother. “They’re nothing more than hardworking artists. You wouldn’t condemn a poet for living for his art. Why keep me from mine?”“Daphne Louise, you will respect your mother and honor her word. You are not to make a spectacle of yourself in front of strangers. It’s not fitting.”She quailed a bit under her father’s firm stare, but tried to stand her ground.“I had no idea what foolish ideas that Frenchman instilled in her, Thomas. I’ll not have him in this house again.”Daphne turned to face her mother, horrified. “You can’t,” she wailed. “I’ll do anything.”Her father took hold of Daphne’s shoulders and turned her back to face him. “You’re a young woman now. Another year and your mind will be filled with thoughts of a husband and children. I take full responsibility for letting it go this far, but with delaying your coming out for Grace, and your mother being so busy, it seemed a fair exchange at the time. I should have paid more attention when I knew you mastered the formal dances, along with your other studies, long ago.” He sighed and shook his head. “It’s time to grow up, my dear. To take on adult interests. I know it seems harsh now, but you’ll come to understand once you’re out in society. Some things are just never done.”She raised trembling fingers to her mouth, water gathering in her eyes as her world tore apart. “I’ll never understand,” she cried. “Never.”Daphne pulled free of her father’s hold and raced through their townhouse until she reached the nursery that had been her home every time they’d come up to London. She threw herself down onto her bed and stared blind-eyed at the ceiling. Never before had she felt so angry, so lost.