Lady Anna Fleet moved slowly down the stairs, taking as much time as possible. Lady Jersey could not be refused, but it would take all of Anna's self-control not to cut her off. As she gracefully entered the room, she caught sight of a handsome young man next to her. However, barely allowing herself to glance at him, she said warmly,
"Lady Jersey, what a pleasure!"
Lady Jersey smiled at the twenty-five year old lady. For six years now she had introduced all manners of men to the beautiful woman. She was one of the greatest matrimonial prizes, daughter of the Earl of I'ver with a large dowry. Not to mention her lovely person. Her large blue eyes were expressive and set in a perfect oval face framed by her golden hair. Her slim figure and lovely countenance were the envy of London and she had an air of fragility that appealed to the chivalric instincts in men. Yet Anna was anything, but fragile. She had strength of character and fearlessness. If pushed to do anything she disliked, she would decline politely, but firmly and thus six seasons since she first came out, Lady Jersey was still introducing eligible bachelors to the blonde Beauty.
"My dear Lady Anna, how do you do? May I present Gervase Alastair, Duke of St. Ives?"
Anna held out a hand, smiling, but at the same time surreptitiously studying him. She was not displeased with what she saw. Without being a dandy he was well-dressed and was obviously at the height of fashion without being extravagant. His necktie, though clearly styled by an expert, was tastefully tied and his hair was brushed à la Brutus. She had no doubt he could drive to an inch and could sense that he would look even better on a horse. He had a humorous countenance that right now showed appreciation of the work of Nature in front of him. He bowed over her hand and lightly brushed his lips across them. It was undoubtedly chaste, yet it seemed to leave a brand on her hand. With immense self-control, born of years spent in the ton, she showed no sign of discomfort. She had no doubt that he would be another Suitor who had a promising start, but failed miserably to live up to expectations. Nevertheless she bestowed a warm glance at him and proceeded to talk with him. He had a pleasant voice, a quick mind and a lively wit, making a pleasant companion. Lady Jersey watched complacently as she caught the flirtatious looks between the two. Yet she was troubled as the pair of them were well-known throughout London for their ability to show appreciation for the opposite sex, but always managing to avoid matrimony. Gervase had doggedly preserved his bachelorhood, avoiding all social functions where young ladies were bound to be. Although he did not flaunt his bits of muslin, they were famous in London. His latest inamorata had been a high-flyer who was so expensive that almost all other men would have been ruined. But not St. Ives. He always knew when to stop as well as being fabulously wealthy. Anna, despite being older than many married ladies, still had an abundance of admirers who never failed to wait on her when she made an appearance. Suddenly Lady Jersey was aware that St. Ives had risen and was not taking his leave of Lady Anna.
"I hope to see you at the Seftons' ball tonight, my lady."
"Indeed, I believe you will. It was a pleasure, your Grace and I look forward to seeing you again."
He bowed and turned to Lady Jersey.
"Lady Jersey, I believe that I must thank you for my introduction to Lady Anna. She is just as beautiful as you said she would be." Throwing a glance at said lady, he added, "Much more in fact."
He looked surreptitiously at Anna, but although she smiled at him, no blush graced her cheeks at this compliment. Lady Jersey's eyes danced as she took note of the duke's momentary irritation and she said,
"I must be taking my leave of Anna as well, but you may accompany me to my carriage, Gervase."
He bowed and waited patiently as the two ladies exchanged farewells. As soon as they were out of the house Lady Jersey tapped him sharply with her fan, saying,
"If you want to catch Anna Fleet, you will have to woo her more subtly. She knows every trick and every compliment in the book and has avoided even more matrimonial traps than you!"
He grimaced, but she had already entered her carriage, leaving him alone in the street. Suddenly his friend Mr Charles Dashwood came into sight. He exclaimed,
"Gervase, what the devil are you doing here? I thought you were going to White's!"
The Duke shook his hand briskly.
"I was, Charles, but then Silence caught me and forced me to accompany her to call on a lady."
Mr Dashwood laughed when he heard that not even a duke could escape the machinations of Lady Jersey, especially when that duke was Gervase Alastair.
"May I ask which lady had the pleasure of your company?"
"Lady Anna Fleet. Do you know her?" he asked as Mr Dashwood gave a low whistle.
"Do I know her? Of course I do! Don't you? She's turned down more proposals than most ladies will receive. No one knows why when she has the most eligible men at her feet. I've even proposed to her!"
Gervase laughed as he digested this piece of news. He had no wish to marry Anna Fleet, but he was intrigued not only by her, but by the obvious way she completely disregarded the comments that would normally cause a young lady to blush and flutter.
"Who's her father? Surely he would want her married off by now. She must be at least four-and-twenty."
Mr Dashwood tutted at the Duke's lack of knowledge.
"She's I'ver's daughter, of course! Really Ger, one would think that you've only just arrived in London, rather than having spent part of the year every single year."
The Duke answered in a bored voice,
"Charles, when have I been known to frequent balls and rout-parties and Almack's?"
Although St. Ives may not have known about the Earl of I'ver's daughter, she knew all about him. His reputation was well-known in the fashionable world and the mystery of his actual person was enhanced by his perpetual absence from the evenings hosted by various ladies. Of course this mean that few young ladies ever met him as he steadfastly refused to call on any such young ladies. Anna determined that she would catch him, not marry him; she had no intention of marrying a rake, but catch him she would. With this object in mind, she straightway began to prepare for the ball. She chose a deep blue gown that was the exact colour of her eyes and wound a wreath of flowers into her hair, choosing a necklace of sapphires to go around her white throat. She looked a vision and although she knew that she was very beautiful, she did not realize that she was accounted as a diamond of the first water.
Gerwase was made much of when he stepped into the ballroom, making an appearance in a ballroom for the first time in years. Many young ladies felt faint as they looked on his handsome face. Yet the attention was soon shifted from him when Lady Anna walked in. Many gentlemen felt as if their neckties were uncomfortably tight and as if the ballroom was too hot. Gervase mentally applauded her style as he took in how she had managed to enhance her already considerable beauty. Lady Sefton sailed towards him with Anna in tow.
"St. Ives, have you met dear Lady Anna?"
Anna replied in the affirmative in her sweet lilting voice. Lady Sefton looked as if she might clap her hands, but instead contented herself with leaving the two people to make conversation. Anna said dryly,
"It seems that all the matrons would have us meet."
"Well then since they have gone to all this trouble, shall we humour them? May I have this waltz?"
As the first strains of music were heard, Anna nodded graciously. He led her onto the floor and pulled her in closely. Her breath hitched slightly yet she gave no other signs of surprise or of discomfort. Both remained oblivious of the many looks they attracted, of approval and humour from the matrons and of envy from the young ladies and gentlemen. After a few revolutions, Anna said,
"You are quite the best dancer of my acquaintance, your Grace."
Gervase looked down at her, a smile tugging at the corners of his mouth.
"Why thank you. May I say the same to you?"
Anna laughed lightly and continued to flirt unashamedly. Gervase responded, a glint in his eye betraying that he knew exactly what she was doing. At the end of the dance, once they had parted ways, the Honourable George Deverel joked to him,
"Most of the men in here are willing to plant you a facer! Damme if I don't as well!"
"You could try and so could they. I highly doubt they would be able to. In any case the Lady Anna's heart is unlikely to be touched. She is willing to flirt with me, but nothing more, I assure you."
Mr Deverel looked consideringly at the Beauty.
"You know we call her the Incomparable? She has no rival; not even the nineteen year old chits are anything more than candles to her sun."
"Indeed?" Gervase's tone was unencouraging. "George, you of all people know that those young chits and the Incomparable don't interest me at all."
Mr Deverel looked at his friend meditatively before seeming to reach a decision.
"St. Ives, even you won't be able to capture her heart. I'll lay you a wager."
This got the duke's attention.
"No, that is too easy. No, really, Deverel, I could not deprive you of your money so easily."
"Nonsense. If you do not win her heart, then I'll win. Shall we say £50?"
Gervase thought for a little while.
"No. I might capture her heart, but I think that it would harder to get her to agree to marry me. I bet you £100 that I can win the fair Lady Anna's heart…and hand."
His friend's jaw dropped.
"You're willing to walk into parson's mousetrap for a bet? Are you mad, St. Ives?"
"I'm growing older. I must marry soon and I might as well have the best lady out there, thus the Lady Anna."
Mr Deverel shook hands with his friend with qualms in his heart, but then reflected happily that the lady in question was not one of those who would consider it a privilege that his Grace's handkerchief was being dropped in her lap.