To Capture a Duke's Heart(5)

By: Jennifer McNare

She stood there now, eyeing the magnificent creation in utter delight, noting with a sense of satisfaction that the fabric’s delicate peach hue was an ideal complement to the auburn tresses her stepmother took such pleasure in disparaging.

When a light knock sounded upon her door a few minutes later, Penny was ready. Stepping out into the hall she felt a renewed sense of confidence as she met her father’s gaze, for she could see the surprise, as well as the pride and admiration in his eyes as he surveyed her appearance.

“Dearest, you look absolutely breathtaking.”

“Thank you, Papa,” she replied with a warm smile.

“How is it that the little girl I used to bounce upon my knee has grown into such a beautiful young woman?” he uttered, shaking his head as if he couldn’t quite believe what he was seeing.

“Yes, Penelope is quite the lovely young lady now,” Maryanne acknowledged, though the words were clearly forced.

The earl didn’t seem to notice, however, and smiled proudly. “Indeed she is,” he agreed.

“Yes, well, come along, then,” Maryanne urged, effectively shattering the special moment between Penny and her father. “We wouldn’t want to be late arriving downstairs.”

Chapter 2

Standing at her father’s side in the Gilchrist’s crowded drawing room, Penny’s gaze followed the Duke of Ainsworth’s progress as he advanced in their direction. Entering the room a short while ago she’d spotted him at once where he’d stood conversing with Lord Gilchrist on the far side of the room. Since then she’d kept a surreptitious eye on his movements as he’d made his way throughout the room, noting with an increasing sense of anticipation as he’d stopped to chat briefly with Lord and Lady Hatton, the Newtons and then the Beckworths, drawing ever closer to where she stood at her father’s side until suddenly he was before her.

“Good evening, Ainsworth,” her father greeted as the duke approached.

“Beckford,” he responded with a pleasant smile. “It’s good to see you.”

“And you, Your Grace,” the earl replied affably. “It’s been too long. In fact, I believe it’s been several months since I saw you last, at White’s if memory serves.”

The duke nodded. “Yes, indeed it was. I remember the evening well, in fact, for Percy Blackwood’s good fortune at the faro table cost me a tidy sum that night.”

The earl chuckled. “Not even you can win every time, Ainsworth, though you do seem to have the devil’s own luck on the majority of occasions.”

“True,” the duke agreed good-naturedly.

“You know my wife, Lady Beckford, of course,” the earl said then, nodding toward the countess.

“Indeed. Delightful to see you again, Lady Beckford,” he responded with a polite nod.

“And you, Your Grace,” she replied, the words dripping like syrup from her rouged lips as she rose from her curtsey, eyeing him from beneath the veil of her thick lashes like she might a select cut of meat.

“And this lovely young lady,” the earl said then, smiling proudly as he glanced between Penny and the duke, “is my daughter Penelope. Penelope, it is my honor to introduce you to His Grace, the Duke of Ainsworth.”

As the duke’s gaze swung in her direction Penny offered a silent prayer that he wouldn’t recognize her as the person who’d been gawking at him through the window upon his arrival, but the hint of recognition reflected upon his expression as they faced one another suggested otherwise. Drat! “How do you do, Your Grace?” she said, dipping into a flawless curtsey despite the sudden weakness in her knees, for in addition to her utter mortification at having been recognized, it was clear that she had been correct in her earlier assumption; beholding the duke’s striking good looks up close did have a much greater effect than from afar, remarkably so. And though it seemed an impossibility, if there was in fact anything about the man’s face that could be deemed a natural human flaw in even the smallest sense of the word, she certainly couldn’t detect it.

“Lady Penelope, it is a pleasure to make your acquaintance,” he said, the deep, rich timbre of his voice sending an odd little shiver racing along her spine as she rose from her curtsey.

Meeting his gaze, she managed a slight smile. But then, Heaven help her, he smiled back, the effect utterly dazzling upon her already scattered senses and for a moment she stood spellbound. Then, realizing that she was gaping at him like a complete ninnyhammer, much as she had been earlier that afternoon as she’d looked down upon him from the upstairs window, she forced her muddled thoughts together and compelled herself to blink.