Beneath glistening chandeliers, the dancers spun to the strains of a Handel waltz. Strathairn smiled down at his partner, her slim waist beneath his hand as they danced. Lady Sibella Winborne looked like a delicate flower in a gauzy pale gown covered in amber blossom. White ostrich feather plumes adorned her luxuriant dark locks. He enjoyed looking at her. Her serene oval face lifted and she smiled at him, her mouth wide and full. Too wide for beauty some might say, but made for kissing. She had inherited her mother’s famous eyes, a delectable mix of blue and green, but her nature was quieter, lacking the vivacity of her mother in her youth, who was said to have had men falling at her feet. He admired Sibella’s calm beauty, but she was oh, so much more: practical, poised and intelligent. Yet still unmarried, which surprised him.
“You arrived late tonight. I wasn’t sure you’d come,” she said.
“I was tied up with business.”
She tilted her head. “Your horses, then?”
He grinned at her blatant curiosity. “No.”
“You won’t tell me.”
Sibella laughed with good humor. “Very well. Might I find you riding in Hyde Park tomorrow?”
“I hope to.”
Her delicate brows rose. “If business doesn’t keep you.”
He laughed. “Precisely.”
The music faded away. Strathairn escorted her back to her chair where her mother, the Dowager Marchioness of Brandreth, sat fanning herself among the other dowagers. He bowed, planning to slip into the rooms set aside for gambling. As much as he might wish to dance with Sibella again, it would place them under scrutiny, and faro was an effective release from the tension he always carried with him.
“Don’t rush off, Strathairn,” her sharp-eyed mother said. “We have seen little of you of late. You rarely frequent these affairs.” She waved her fan in an arc to encompass the ballroom. “Where have you been hiding?”
“Not hiding, my lady, merely visiting my estates.”
Lady Brandreth adjusted the silk shawl over her shoulders. “Did you include that pile of yours in Yorkshire? I enjoyed the hunt ball, but it’s cold as charity in winter up in those parts.”
“Not this time, but I miss it. There’s a wild beauty to the dales in winter, quite unlike southern England.”
“I daresay.” Her purple turban wobbled as she nodded. “You are a fine figure of a man, Strathairn. What are you now? Six and thirty? You should marry. You should be setting up your nursery.” She gestured toward her daughter sitting beside her. “Sibella will bear you healthy children. The Brandreths come of good stock, and the Wederells even better.”
“Mama, please!” He caught Sibella’s apologetic gaze and suppressed a wry smile. Her plea would have little effect; the marchioness was known to be one of the most colorful and outspoken members of the ton.
The dowager batted her daughter’s protest away with her fan. “I am merely speaking the truth, Sibella.”
“Your daughter is a credit to you, my lady,” he said with a smile. “She has inherited both your beauty and intelligence.”
“Now you are toad eating.” A roguish smile lit Lady Brandreth’s face. “You always were a charmer. Sibella is intelligent. Walk with her on the terrace to discover it for yourself.”
“I should be delighted.”