"Caused quite a stir," Rhone interjected with a true grin. "Lady Wellingham took to her bed after making the vow she wasn't going to get up until her emeralds were recovered. An odd reaction, to my way of thinking, when you consider how much thieving her husband does at the gambling tables. The man's a flagrant cheat."
"I understand Jack only robbed the Wellinghams. Is it true he left the guests alone?"
Rhone nodded. "Yes. The man obviously was in a hurry."
"Seems to me he's aching to get caught," Lyon said.
"I don't agree," Rhone answered. "Thus far, he's only stolen from those who I think needed a good set down. I actually admire the man."
When Lyon gave him a puzzling look, Rhone hastened to change the topic. "The ladies would approach us if you'd smile. Then you might begin to enjoy yourself."
"I think you've finally lost your mind. How can you pretend to enjoy this farce?"
"There are those who think you've lost your mind, Lyon. It's a fact you've been secluded from the ton too long."
"And it's a fact you've endured one too many seasons," Lyon answered. "Your mind has turned to mush."
"Nonsense. My mind turned to mush years ago when we drank sour gin in school together. I really do enjoy myself, though. You would, too, if you'd only remember this is all just a game."
"I don't play games," Lyon said. "And war is a better description for this scene."
Rhone laughed, loud enough to draw curious stares. "Tell me this, friend. Are we pitted against the ladies, then?"
"And what is their quest? What do they hope to gain if they conquer us?"
"Marriage, of course."
"Ah," Rhone replied, dragging out the sound. "I suppose they use their bodies as their weapons. Is it their battle plan to make us so glazed with lust we'll offer anything?"
"It's all they have to offer," Lyon answered.
"Good Lord, you are as jaded as everyone says. I worry that your attitude will rub off on me."
Rhone shuddered as he spoke, but the effect was ruined by his grin.
"You don't appear to be too concerned," Lyon remarked dryly.
"These ladies are only after marriage, not our lives," Rhone said. "You don't have to play the game if you don't want to. Besides, I'm only an insignificant earl. You, on the other hand, must certainly marry again if the line is to continue forward."
"You know damn well I'm never going to marry again."
Lyon answered. His voice had turned as hard as the marble he was leaning against. "Drop this subject, Rhone. I've no sense of humor when it comes to the issue of marriage."
"You've no sense of humor at all," Rhone pronounced in such a cheerful tone of voice Lyon couldn't help but grin.
Rhone was about to continue his list of Lyon's other faults when a rather attractive redheaded lady happened to catch his concentration. He gave her his full attention until he spotted Lyon's little sister making her way over to them.
"Better get rid of your frown," Rhone advised. "Diana's coming over. Lord, she just elbowed the Countess Seringham."
Lyon sighed, then forced a smile.
When Diana came to an abrupt stop in front of her brother, her short-cropped brown curls continued to float around her cherublike face. Her brown eyes sparkled with excitement. "Oh, Lyon, I'm so happy to see you smiling. Why, I do believe you're enjoying yourself."
She didn't wait for her brother to reply to her observation but turned to curtsy in front of Rhone. "It's so good to see you again," she said, sounding quite breathless.
Rhone inclined his head in greeting.
"Isn't it remarkable I was able to plead Lyon into coming this evening? He really doesn't like parties very much, Rhone."
"He doesn't?" Rhone asked, sounding so disbelieving Lyon actually laughed.
"Don't jest with her," Lyon said. "Are you enjoying yourself, Diana?" he asked his sister.
"Oh, yes," Diana answered. "Mama will be pleased. I do hope she's still awake when we get home so I can tell her all about tonight. I've just learned Princess Christina will be making an appearance, too. I confess I'm most curious to meet her. Why, I've heard the most wonderful stories about her."
"Who is Princess Christina?" Lyon asked.
It was Rhone who hastened to answer his question. "You've been secluded too long, Lyon, or you surely would have heard of her. Though I haven't actually met the lady, I've been told she's very beautiful. There's an air of mystery surrounding her, too. Her father was ruler of some little principality near Austria's border. He was unseated during a rather nasty revolution," Rhone continued. "Lady Christina, if we use the title she gained from her mother, has traveled all over the world. Brummel met her and was immediately infatuated. He was the first to call her Princess. The woman neither accepted nor rejected that title."
"What happened to her mother?" Diana asked.
She looked quite spellbound by the story about the princess. Rhone smiled at her eagerness. "A tragedy, I'm told. The mother was weakheaded, and she—"
"What do you mean by weakheaded?" Diana interrupted to ask.
"Insane," Rhone explained. "When the mother learned she was going to have a child, she ran off. Until three months ago, everyone believed both mother and babe were dead."
"What happened to Princess Christina's father?" Diana asked.
"He left England shortly after his wife disappeared. No one has heard of him since. Probably dead by now," Rhone ended with a shrug.
"Oh, the poor Princess," Diana whispered. "Does she have anyone to call family now, or is she all alone?"
"For God's sake, Diana, you don't even know the woman and you look ready to weep for her," Lyon said.
"Well, it is such a sad story," Diana said, defending herself. She turned back to Rhone and added, "I remember how unbearable it was for all of us when James died. Mother still hasn't recovered. She stays hidden in her room pretending all sorts of ills, when it's truly grief that keeps her there."
Rhone took one look at Lyon's cold expression and immediately hastened to turn the topic around. "Yes, well, we all miss James," he lied, his tone brisk. "I'm anxious to meet Princess Christina, too, Diana. No one has been able to glean a scrap of information about her past. That does make for a mystery to be solved, now doesn't it?"
When Rhone gave Diana a wink, she blushed. Lyon's sister was still such an innocent. She was fetching enough, too, now that Rhone paused to really take a good look at her. Diana had filled out nicely since he'd last seen her. That realization actually irritated Rhone, though for the life of him he couldn't understand why. "Brat," he suddenly blurted out, "you do look pretty tonight." Rhone grimaced over the roughness he'd heard in his own voice.
Diana didn't seem to notice. She smiled over his compliment, affected another curtsy, and said, "Thank you, Rhone. It is kind of you to notice."
Rhone frowned at Lyon. "Her gown is cut entirely too low. What could you have been thinking of to allow her in public this way? You'd better keep a close eye on her."
"If I keep my eye on you, Diana will be safe enough," Lyon answered.
"All the same, I really think…" The sentence trailed off, for Rhone had just glanced toward the entrance of the salon. He let out a low whistle. Diana quickly turned around to see what held Rhone so enthralled.
"Princess Christina." Diana whispered the obvious, her voice filled with awe.
Lyon was the last to react. When he saw the vision standing across the room, he literally jerked away from the mantel. His body instinctively assumed a battle stance, his muscles tensed, ready.
He was slow to regain control. He realized his hands were actually fisted at his sides and his legs were braced apart for a fight, and he forced himself to relax. The abrupt movement made his knee start throbbing again. Lyon couldn't do anything about the pain now, or the furious pounding in his chest.
And no matter how valiantly he tried, he couldn't seem to take his gaze away from the Princess.
She really was lovely. She was dressed in silver from head to toe. The color belonged to an angel and highlighted the paler threads of her blond hair.
Without a doubt, she was the most beautiful woman he'd ever seen. Her skin appeared to be flawless, and even from the distance separating them Lyon could see the color of her eyes. They were the most startling shade of blue.
Princess Christina neither smiled nor frowned. Her expression showed only mild curiosity. The woman obviously understood her own appeal, Lyon concluded, hoping his cynical nature would save him from heart failure. He wasn't at all pleased about the way his body continued to respond to her.
"Brummel was right," Rhone announced. "The lady is enchanting."
"Oh, I do hope I'll be able to meet her," Diana said. She whispered as though they were in church. "Just look at everyone, Rhone. They are all taken with her. Do you think the Princess will be agreeable to an introduction?"
"Hush, Diana," Rhone said. "Princess Christina wouldn't dare ignore you. You seem to forget just who your brother is."
Diana gave Rhone a timid nod. "Sweetling, straighten your shoulders and quit wringing your hands. You'll give yourself spots. We'll find someone to give us a proper introduction."
Rhone knew Lyon's little sister hadn't heard the last of his remarks. She'd already picked up her skirts and headed for the entrance. "Now what do we do?" he asked when Lyon grabbed hold of his arm to stop him from chasing after Diana.
"We wait and see," Lyon advised. His voice sounded with irritation.
"Your sister is too impetuous," Rhone muttered, shaking his head. "She's ignoring all her lessons in—"
"It's high time Diana learned the lesson of discretion."
"Let us hope it isn't too painful for her."
Lyon didn't remark on that hope. He continued to give his attention to the beautiful Princess. An elderly couple approached the woman just as Diana came barreling to a halt a bare inch or so in front of them.
Diana almost knocked Christina to her knees. Rhone let out a long groan. The elderly couple didn't even try to hide their displeasure when they were so rudely cut off. Both turned away, staring at each other in obvious embarrassment.
"Oh, God, Diana just cut in front of the Duke and Duchess," Rhone said.
Lyon was infuriated with his sister. He was about to go after her to save her from further humiliation when the Princess took matters into her own hands. Rather nicely, too. She greeted Lyon's sister with what appeared to be a sincere smile, then took hold of Diana's hands when she spoke to her. Lyon thought the Princess was deliberately giving the impression to all those watching that she and Diana were close friends.
He watched the way Christina motioned Diana over to her side so that both could greet the Duke and Duchess of Devenwood. The Princess included Diana in the brief conversation, too, effectively smoothing over the mistake his sister had made.
Rhone sighed with relief. "Well, what do you know? She's still holding Diana's hand, too. A clever ploy to keep Diana from accidentally belting her one, I would imagine."
Lyon rested his shoulder against the mantel again, smiling over Rhone's observation. "Diana does like to use her hands when she speaks," he admitted.
"The Princess has a good heart. God's truth, I believe I'm in love."
"You're always in love," Lyon answered.
He wasn't able to keep the irritation out of his voice. Odd, but for some reason Rhone's jest bothered him. He didn't particularly want Princess Christina added to Rhone's list of future conquests. It was a ridiculous notion, Lyon realized. Why did he care if his friend chased after the woman or not?
He sighed when he realized he didn't have a ready answer. He did care, however. Fiercely so. And that honest admission soured Lyon's mood all the more. Damn, he was too old and too tired for an infatuation.
Christina didn't have any idea of the stir she was causing. She patiently waited in the center of the doorway for her Aunt Patricia to finish her conversation with their host. An eager young lady stood beside her, chattering away at such an incredible pace Christina couldn't quite keep up with her. She pretended interest, smiled when it seemed appropriate, and nodded whenever the lady named Diana paused for breath.
Lady Diana announced she was going to fetch her friends for an introduction. Christina was left alone again. She turned to look at all the people openly gawking at her, a serene smile on her face.
She didn't think she was ever going to get used to them. The English were such a peculiar lot. Though she'd been living in London for almost three months now, she was still perplexed by the odd rituals these whites seemed so determined to endure.
The men were just as foolish as their women. They all looked alike, too, dressed as they were in identical black garb. Their white neck wraps were starched to the point of giving the impression they were being strangled to death, an impression strengthened by their red, ruddy cheeks. No, Christina silently amended, they weren't called neck wraps… cravats, she told herself. Yes, that was the proper name for a neck wrap. She mustn't forget again.
There was so much to remember. Christina had studied diligently since arriving on her Aunt Patricia's doorstep in Boston a year ago. She already spoke French and English. The missionary Black Wolf had captured years before had taught her very well.
Her lessons in Boston centered on the behavior expected of a gentle lady. Christina tried to please her aunt, and to ease some of her fears, too. The sour woman was Christina's only link with her mother's family. Later, however, when Christina had conquered the written word well enough to understand the meaning in her mother's diary, her motives had changed. Dramatically. It was now imperative Christina win a temporary place in this bizarre society. She couldn't make any mistakes until her promise was carried out.
"Are you ready, Christina?"
The question was issued by Aunt Patricia. The old woman came to Christina's side and grabbed hold of her arm in a clawlike grip.
"As ready as I shall ever be," Christina answered. She smiled at her guardian, then turned and walked into the throng of strangers.