The Stranger at the Soiree

London, England

April 3rd, 1813

"Aidenn, my dear, I don't understand why you wish to postpone our nuptials! This is the third time you have done so!"

Lady Aidenn Stanhope looked at the verdant gardens which surrounded Wrexham Hall. The evening sky was ablaze with brilliant stars and the crescent moon, a sliver of silver etched into the night. If only the blasted man would leave her alone, she could appreciate the beauty of the night. Taking a deep breath and steeling herself, she spun around to face the dull, pretentious visage of Baron Courtenay.

"I deeply regret this Ashton, but it must be done. I'm simply torn between joining a convent and marrying you."

"A convent, Aidenn, really," he began dryly. "A woman of your...er-" he paused to skim over Aidenn's black-haired, blue-eyed countenance and shapely form, "passion," he continued, "does not belong in a nunnery."

Aidenn smiled testily, "I've informed you Ashton and I would think it wise for you to accept my decision."

"Your father will not be pleased."

"My father will understand. I cannot marry you right now."

The pompous baron arched an icy brow at her firm declaration and finally nodded.

"As you wish, Aidenn. Shall we go back in?" He mechanically offered a proprietary arm for their return into the gilded ballroom. Aidenn accepted the stiff arm of her despicable fiancé and prayed for the night to end.

------------------

Philip Eaton, Earl of Wellesley scanned the room with deep emerald eyes. He had come a long way in search of the vile Viscount Stanhope.

"There," his dancing partner whispered, "by the Pallas bust."

Philip's eyes focused on a round, be-spectacled man, with a jovial face. He seemed to be the sort who was perpetually confused and incessantly cheerful.

"Surely he is not the Viscount!" he murmured to Comtesse Marielle Charbonneau, his contact in London and his eternal friend. Marielle was the wife of the deceased Comte Michel Charbonneau, long deceased, and his primary link in the western world.

Philip watched as Viscount Stanhope was joined by a man with a pinched face and an especially striking woman.

"That is his daughter, Lady Stanhope. She rides horses, reads Mary Wollstonecraft, hates corsets and wants to join a nunnery."

"How intriguing." He watched the girl now, dressed in an icy blue ball gown with a single white sash just below her breasts. Exceptional breasts, he noted, irritated by his observation. She was exquisite, a vision of ebony curls and cool blue eyes, the very kind he hated. The kind that carelessly teased and cruelly taunted, the kind that derided a man to humiliation, the kind that was aware of her own enchanting beauty.  

"Quite something, isn't she?"

Philip didn't answer, forcing himself to scrutinize the Viscount. He still could not fathom how a man so jolly and ebullient could be so evil and malicious. But sometimes appearances could be deceiving. All Philip could think of was the havoc Stanhope had wrought upon his land. Yes, he remembered it all: the plunder of the tribal gold, the rape of their women, the slaughter of their soldiers and the screaming of the children.

"Have you a plan yet, Phillip?" Marielle's voice broke into his thoughts.

Philip mouth twisted cruelly as he once again gazed upon the lovely Lady Stanhope, "Yes, Marielle, I believe I do."