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The Countess

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It was only after the major-domo announced her that Lady Dana Scully gave any thought to the state of her dress. The entire ballroom had turned to get a look at the newest Lady debuting into Society, and the dress she was wearing -- borrowed from her sister -- wouldn’t do at all. For one thing, it was cut entirely too low. The color was a rich cerulean blue and complemented both her eyes and her coloring, but the looks she was getting -- raised eyebrows from the ladies and downright leers from the men -- were enough to make her want to sink into her shoes: also borrowed, also too low. By the time she reached the bottom of the steps, the looks from Society hadn’t stopped, but she was too short to see anything

“Lady Dana!” she heard from somewhere in the crowd, and from her left -- shoving through the amassed crowd like the prow of a ship through water -- came her brother-in-law, Sir Michael Willoughby and his wife, her sister Melissa, who would be her chaperones for the evening until her mother arrived later. 

“Michael, Missy!” 

Michael nodded to her and Missy swept her up into a tight hug. 

“You look radiant!” Missy said, holding out her hands so she could get a look at her in the borrowed dress.

“I’m showing entirely too much décolletage,” Dana muttered, looking about her at the feathered and bejeweled masses of polite London Society. She wished she’d been permitted a fichu, but alas, her mother had helped her dress and insisted she go without. She brought a hand to her coiffure self-consciously and wondered if anyone could tell that her family no longer employed a lady’s maid. 

“Nonsense,” Melissa said, “why we’ll have you betrothed to a Duke by midnight!” 

Melissa had of course only been trying to make her feel better, and what was a ball if not a market where young ladies were on display for the careful selection of the gathered unmarried men, but at mention of the word “duke,” Dana’s stomach lurched and she could feel the color rising to her cheeks. She snapped out her fan and began waving it in front of her face to cover it.

“My dear, you look flushed,” said Michael kindly. “Can I get you some lemonade?” 

“Please,” Dana said, and when Michael turned away to get refreshments, she said,  “I’ll go with you!” Anything to get away from the constant quizzical glares of hundreds of eyes in the ballroom. 

Melissa grabbed her arm and they followed Michael to a room just off the main hall that held refreshments of every kind, and more food -- all of it decadent and rich -- than Dana had seen in one place in years. 

“Where’s Mother?” Melissa said quietly into her ear, still holding onto Dana’s arm tightly as they each sipped lemonade. 

“She’ll be along,” Dana said, “she insisted I come early, no doubt to meet as many eligible gentlemen as possible.”

“You’d think she’d want to be by your side, introducing you to as many and more,” Melissa murmured. 

Dana would have laughed if the situation weren’t as serious as it was. 

“She got a letter from Father as we were leaving,” Dana said, looking at her sister earnestly. “She sent me along in the carriage and ran into the house to read it.”

Melissa’s face looked pained. 

Their family was in trouble. Their father, William Scully, the Marquess of Sunderland, had made several bad investments since his retirement from the Royal Navy, and the debtors had all come calling at once. Their fortune had been all but spent when it came time for Dana’s debut into society, and the last of the family’s money had been used to purchase her older brother Bill’s commission into the Navy.

Initially, their mother and father had thought that perhaps an advantageous marriage for Melissa might save them, but Missy, impetuous as always, had run off to Gretna Green to elope with their childhood friend Michael (a gentleman himself, but a poor one with only a small estate in Cumberland -- what little income he had could not be spared to help save his new in-laws), and so now all of the family’s hope was resting on Dana’s shoulders. Their father was only months away from losing his estate, and the family’s reputation along with it. If Dana didn’t marry well -- and soon -- they would all be ruined. 

Melissa downed the rest of her lemonade and gave her glass to a passing waiter. 

“Dana-” she started to say. 

“Do not apologize, again,” Dana said, “not one more word. You married for love and I do not begrudge you your happiness.”

In truth, she did begrudge her sister. At least a little. And then felt all the more guilty for it. She would not tell her sister that her mother had spoken -- on more than one occasion -- with the Duke of Ashbury, and she knew she was the subject of their discussion. The Duke was old -- somewhere in his sixties -- and fat. And ugly. And from what little interaction Dana had had with him, she had also found him to be unkind, dismissive and a bigot. His wife had died a little more than a year ago and left him childless. He was in want of a new Duchess and an heir and was richer than Croesus. On paper, it seemed a perfect match.

But as much as Dana wanted to save her family, the thought of becoming that man’s wife, of… of laying with him and mothering his children, filled her with dread. Even the promise of years of being a wealthy widow (how the man had not keeled over dead already was a mystery to her) and a Duchess to boot held very little appeal. 

Dana wanted what Melissa had. Love. A husband whom she cared for, who cared for her. One she could talk with, read with, discuss science and literature, someone she looked at fondly who would look fondly at her in return. She wanted a great love. 

Instead she would get a Duke.

XxXxXxXxXxX

She saw the black and blue feathered plume of her mother’s fascinator long before she caught sight of the woman wearing it. It bobbed and weaved through the mass of society, pausing every now and then to speak to gathered groups. 

When her mother had finally broken free and was walking toward them, it was on the arm of her elder brother, who was looking exceedingly handsome in his new naval uniform. 

“Oh Dana, darling, I do hope you’re not being a wallflower,” her mother said to her as she leaned in to kiss her cheek.

“She has danced twice already, Mother,” Melissa said, leaning in for her own kiss. She winked at Dana as she did so.

“Good, good,” the Marchioness said, a little breathless, and then turned to her eldest son. “Look what I found on the doorstep.”

“Bill!” Dana said, wrapping her arms around her brother, “we were not expecting you!”

“It was meant to be a surprise,” he said, placing a kiss on her hairline.

Bill leaned in to exchange greetings with Melissa,then stepped off to the side to talk with Michael. The Marchioness stood next to Dana and turned to look at the crowd. 

“Have you seen the Duke?” she said quietly, looking at the gathering intently. 

“Which Duke?” Melissa said quickly, shooting a glance at Dana before peering curiously at their mother. 

“Ashbury,” their mother said, not taking her eyes off the mass of people. 

“And why should Dana be looking for the Duke of Ashbury?” Melissa asked cautiously.

The Marchioness gave Melissa a long look and then leaned in a conspiratorial way. 

“He plans to court Dana,” she said in a whisper. 

Melissa looked aghast. 

“But he’s old!” she all but shouted, “and by all accounts ghastly!”

“Hush, Melissa,” their mother hissed and looked around to see if they’d been overheard. “He’s also rich and in need of a wife,” she went on. 

Melissa threw a horrified look at Dana, who stared at her shoes. It wouldn’t do to start crying in the middle of a ball in Westminster, and if Melissa even showed her an ounce of sympathy right now, she knew she’d start tearing up immediately. 

Oh, how she wished she were at home in Cumberland with her books. She’d always found books to be far better company than people. 

Just then, a hush seemed to fall over the gathering as the major-domo declared another arrival. Dana couldn’t hear who’d been announced. After a moment of hushed whispers, the noise level seemed to return to normal. 

“Is it the Duke?” the Marchioness said hopefully, craning her neck to see over the crowd. Dana hoped not. 

“An Earl, I think,” said Michael distractedly from a few feet away, wiping the crumbs of a macaron from his ascot.

A moment later a man walked through the crowd toward and then past them, a full head taller than nearly everyone else. Everyone glanced curiously in his direction as he passed, as though a cloud of intrigue wafted in the air around him. 

It was a man Dana had never seen before. He had dark hair, thick and just growing over the sharp edge of his pristinely pressed collar. His shirt was billowy and brilliantly white, and his trousers clung to muscular legs that disappeared into expensive looking Hessians. He had a fine face, a chiseled jaw, and full lips. His eyes shone forest green over a strong nose and caught Dana’s own for a moment as he passed. She felt as though her head had been rung like a bell just looking at him. 

XxXxXxXxXxX

“He has a lot of nerve, showing himself here,” Bill practically spat from his position next to Michael. 

Dana shook her head to clear it. 

“Here?” she asked. 

“In polite society,” Bill clarified, his eyes following the man, his look withering. 

“He’s the richest Earl in the kingdom, Bill,” their mother said dismissively, “he can show himself in any society he wants.” With that she snapped out her fan and continued scanning the ballroom.

“Who is he?” Dana asked her sister quietly, so as not to let Bill overhear. 

“William Mulder,” she said on a whisper back, “the Ninth Earl of Wexford.”

“But I heard he’s-”

“A rake and a scoundrel?” Missy said into her ear, smiling, “That’s what they say. I even overheard the Viscountess Smith call him ‘The Fox.’”

“Whatever for?” Dana asked, 

“They say he keeps a fallen woman in a lavish apartment in Mayfair,” Missy said, “for his own personal use.”

“Missy!” she admonished, but her sister merely grabbed champagne from a passing waiter and smiled into the glass. 

“Come Dana,” her mother said, grabbing her elbow and pulling her along after her, “I think I see the Duke.”

XxXxXxXxXxX

The Duke of Ashbury was even older, fatter and more unpleasant than Dana remembered. He prattled on and on about his wealth and estates and her mother practically simpered over every word he said, which turned Dana’s stomach even more. And the way he looked at her -- as though she were a pastry to be eaten -- her distaste for the man only grew.

When he finally asked her for a dance (lacking all conceivable charm and saying “Well, I suppose we should get on with it, let us go, my dear,”) Dana was so off-put that she couldn’t find any words at all. The next dance was a waltz, and the thought of the Duke’s rotund belly pressing into her own filled her with such revulsion that she then stammered:

“I -- I can’t. I’ve promised the next dance to someone else.”

“You have?” the Duke said, his face looking as though he were sucking a lemon, “...to whom ?”

Dana’s mother was glaring at her, anger and embarrassment turning her cheeks scarlet. 

“To me, your grace,” said a deep, droll voice from over her shoulder. She turned to see the Earl of Wexford standing close to her, his hand held out politely. “Shall we?”

“I -- yes,” Dana said shortly and put her hand in the Earl’s before she dug herself into any further trouble. She quickly curtsied to the Duke, and avoiding her mother’s eye, let the Earl lead her to the dance floor. 

He was even taller up close, and when he placed his hand behind her for the dance, it almost spanned the whole of her back. She held in a shiver as he pulled her close. 

“I thank you, Lord Wexford,” she said, as the orchestra began to play, “for the-” she wasn’t sure what to say. 

“Quick escape?” he filled in politely, then smiled down at her. “Ashbury may be rich, but he’s an utter clod on the dance floor. I would save any Lady’s poor feet given the opportunity. Particularly one so beautiful as yourself,” he added as almost an afterthought, looking anywhere but her eyes, as if embarrassed he’d said it. 

Dana could feel herself blush and looked down, then heard the sharp words of her dance tutor in her head and snapped her eyes back up. 

The Earl was once again looking at her. 

“I’m afraid you have me at a disadvantage,” he said and she squinted at him in question. “You know my name, but I’m afraid I don’t know yours.”

“I am Dana Scully,” she said. “My father is -”

“The Marquess of Sunderland,” he finished for her once again, “I had the honor of meeting your father at Court several years ago. He seems a decent man, and from what I hear, was a fine sailor.”

Dana was touched at his kind words. Everyone in London knew of her father’s bad investments and impending ruin. It had been a long time since anyone had spoken of him without sparing a pitying look toward his daughter. Dana felt grateful. 

“It’s a pleasure to meet you, Lady Dana,” he said, as they approached a corner of the dance floor. He turned her expertly, and pulled her in a bit closer. 

“We’re being watched quite closely,” Dana observed, finally noticing all the looks they were getting as they moved dreamily along. 

“All wondering how I managed to secure a dance with the most beautiful woman at the ball, no doubt,” he said easily. 

Dana smiled, charmed. 

“And here I thought it was because of your reputation.”

“Reputation?” he said, “I have a reputation?”

Dana laughed. 

“If I have learned anything in my twenty four years,” he went on, “it is that people are rarely exactly as their reputation describes them.”

“Oh?” Dana said, hoping he would go on. His voice wasn’t what one would call melodic, but it had a soothing quality to it and his words seemed intelligently selected. But rather than expanding on his statement, he instead chose to peer at her enigmatically and Dana felt a bit like a bug under one of those microscopes she coveted so much. 

“All that said,” he said a moment later, “I’d hate for my reputation to color yours. Is there anyone I can escort you back to after the dance has concluded? Another friend or chaperone? I’d hate to deliver you to the arms of the Duke, as I suspect it’s the last place you wish to be?”

Dana sighed. 

“You’re right on that front. But he’s meant to be courting me, and I suppose… I should let him.”

“It doesn’t seem a happy prospect,” he said, his eyes searching hers. 

“But the only one afforded me as a lady,” she replied sadly. 

“Do you wish to marry the man?” he asked. 

“I wish to keep my family from ruin,” she said, “and as our society stipulates that I may not work to amass a fortune, my only option left is to marry for one.”

“A practice I’ve always found to be cruel and outdated,” he muttered. 

“I heartily agree,” she said. 

“Is there no one else?” he asked, “But that... poltroon?”

Dana laughed at the word. 

“I’m afraid not, and I don’t have the time to find one, Lord Wexford.”

He gave her a queer look. 

“I-” he began to say, but the music had ended and neither of them had noticed. Dana jumped back from his arms and began clapping politely in the direction of the orchestra. 

Lord Wexford pulled himself up straight and did the same, and then offered her his arm. 

“To the Duke?” he asked her quietly. 

“To the Duke,” she said sadly. 

The heat of his arm under his coat almost burned her.