Authors: Elaine Golden
Book three of the Fortney Follies series
Under intense pressure to secure a marriage contract, Miss Lizzie Talbot doesn't dare hope that handsome Oliver Fortney, Duke of Wainsborough, would ever be interested in her. Though she longs to know his taste and touch, he is far above her station.
So Lizzie is shocked when Oliver promises to show her pleasure she never imaginedâ¦. Yet she doesn't expect more than a brief dalliance. For Oliver is destined for a match of importance and wealth, neither of which Lizzie can offerâ¦.
Book three of the Fortney Follies series.
Since the very first book of the Fortney Follies series, readers have been asking for Ollie's story. And ever since Oliver Fortney told us how passionately he hated the idea of marrying Miss Milligrew all of those years ago, wellâ¦ I just knew Roberta played a role in his eventual happily-ever-after. A woman scorned, and all that. Heh.
He was right, too. Roberta was not the right woman for him. You see it's Roberta's niece, Lizzie Talbotâor Miss
Talbot, as her aunt prefersâwho blunders into Ollie's heart and takes it for her own. Quite literally, for Lizzie is not known for her graceful ways.
But Roberta is not about to make things easy for Ollie. At all. In fact, she'll go to great lengths to pay him back for spurning her.
I'm delighted to bring you this new Undone! short story, A COMPROMISED INNOCENT, the third book in the Fortney Follies series, how Ollie and Lizzie find love and happiness together.
I hope that you enjoy their story and I would love to hear from you! Please visit my website at www.elainegolden.com or email me at [email protected]
To Rodney. Always.
“Stop slouching, Elspeth. Chin up and smile. You don't want to embarrass us, do you?”
“My name is Lizzie,” she muttered just loudly enough to ensure her aunt, but no one else, could hear her.
“I've told you I won't use that awful name,
Whatever your father was thinking to call you that, I don't know.”
Lizzie Talbotâor Miss Elspeth Talbot, as her aunt preferredâdidn't bother to correct her aunt this time. Reminding Aunt Roberta that Lizzie was the nickname her mother, Roberta's older sister, gave her was pointless. She'd believe whatever she chose to as usual.
Sometimes it was hard to think of Aunt Roberta in a maternal way. Despite being Lizzie's guardian, Roberta was only a dozen or so years older than her.
“And what have you done with your hair since we left? It looks like you've been fidgeting with it again.” When her aunt jerked at a loose curl more forcefully than was necessary, Lizzie stifled a grimace. As they neared the end of the reception line, she held as still as possible and let her aunt fuss.
You can do this. Just don't rush and all will be well.
This might be her third Season, but she still wasn't used to large gatherings, had never managed to get comfortable enough to exhibit the grace her aunt would have her show in public.
“Whatever was Lady Delcourt thinking to allow her daughter to purchase such a dress? She looks ready to tread the boards.” The daughter, Lady Cecilia, stood beside her parents as she greeted their guests. The dress in question was a bright turquoise silk, which Lizzie thought did
lovely things with the woman's pale complexion. The feathers, however, wereâ¦excessive. They covered the bodice and hem and had even been pinned into her coiffure. She looked like an exotic parrot.
Lizzie trailed her aunt and uncle and smiled as they introduced her to their hosts. Lord and Lady Delcourt greeted her so politely that she almost forgot to be nervous, especially when she executed her curtsies under her aunt's critical eye.
This was not the place to rush and prove herself clumsy. Her aunt would never forgive her the embarrassment.
Lizzie released a sigh of relief when the greetings were completed without incident, though she nearly trod upon her uncle's heels when her aunt paused at the ballroom threshold for dramatic effect. Lizzie barely stepped to the side quickly enough to avoid disaster.
The room was alight with movement from the swirl of dancers and the glow of candlelight. Fans fluttered, jewels glittered and the heat of so many bodies pressed in on them.
Lizzie was excited and scared at the same time. Even after years of being out in society, the room seemed full of strangersâinfluential and intimidating strangers. She'd always been nervous meeting people, but now her anxiety was multiplied by the growing urgency to secure a marriage contract before she was considered to be on the shelf and passed over entirely.
Lizzie didn't think she deluded herself when she chalked up the reason for a lack of offers to something other than her appearance. She was atleast passable, and her dowry was not
attractive. Rather, it seemed fairly certain that her discomfort around strangers and tendency toward bumbling to be the culprit. Even her dance partners managed to disappear after she tramped on their toes once too often.
Thankfully, few took notice of their arrival. It helped to settle her nerves a bit, though she was grateful when they finally made it across the room so her aunt could join her friends and her uncle could make his escape from his wife's side. That left Lizzie to stand alone on the perimeter, hoping for anonymity. At this point, her biggest desire was to make it through the evening without embarrassment.
She took a deep breath and scanned the room for a familiar face, but recognized few. Now that Angelica Fortneyâoh, but it was Lady Vinedale now, wasn't it?âwas back in town from her wedding trip, Lizzie had hoped to find her at the event. As luck was not her strong suit, her friend didn't appear to be present.
She knew better than to expect to find Angelica's older brother in attendance. Wainsborough did not go to events that included scheming mothers.
Ever since she had met him earlier in the week, ever so briefly on the square outside Gunter's Tea Shop, Lizzie had been unable to forget the tall, somber man that made her heart race and mouth go dry. Had even imagined those light green eyes of his, alight with interest as he looked at her.
Futile dreams. Oliver Fortney was the sixth Duke of Wainsborough, as far from her reach as the moon.
“I would like to make known to you my niece, Miss Elspeth Talbot, who is woolgathering as usual.” Lizzie straightened and forced a polite smile. “Elspeth, this is my dearest friend Lady Wrothton, and her son, the Honorable Francis Layton.”
“My lady. Sir.”
Mr. Layton had kindly eyes and his smile seemed more than polite as he bowed over her hand. Was he interested, perhaps? It would be nice to have a beau. Her first.
Lizzie smiled, this time with what she hoped was an appropriate amount of encouragement. Mr. Layton's eyes twinkled in response.
“Mr. Layton is only recently come to London, Lizzie.” Roberta looked on, an expectant matchmaker.
“Oh? Have you been traveling, sir?”
He puffed his chest a bit, as a chaffinch would to attract the ladies then proceeded to regale her with tales of his travels across Egypt in search of antiquities.
“I'd be delighted to show you some of my more choice finds.” Mr. Layton's smile revealed a row of neat white teeth. “For now, Miss Talbot, may I have this dance?”
When Aunt Roberta nodded her approval, Lizzie accepted and selected a place in the line of dancers beside Lady Cecilia, who was now copiously molting feathers from her bright gown.
The musicians struck up a country dance and Lizzie lost herself in the music and snatches of conversation she could exchange with Mr. Layton as they passed each other. Lizzie felt good, almost as if she fit in. She felt lighter than she had in a long time and began to dance with pure abandon.
In other words, she forgot to pay attention.
She wasn't watching her footing as she neared the end of the dance line, skipping across the polished wood parquet. So, when her soft-soled shoe landed just so on one of Lady Cecilia's wayward feathers, she lost her footing and went sliding higgledy-piggledy across the herringbone patterned floor.
Time slowed as if to make certain she would recall every excruciating moment in finite detail, and she skidded toward the throng of people bordering the dancing area. No one moved as Lizzie hurtled like a human ball toward a line of pins. Little wonder bowls was still illegal on public lawns.
Lizzie closed her eyes and braced for the worst.
She should have known better. Lizzie Talbot was an impending disaster, even on her most diligent days.
Tonight she would prove herself a pariah.
Oliver Fortney, Duke of Wainsborough, was bored witless.
The only reason he was at the Delcourts' ball this evening was to offer moral support to his brother, William. Wills had only just returned from the continent and their mother had managed to browbeat him to attend. Oliver figured that if he made an appearance, as well, he could help Wills escape all the sooner.
So, here he was at another dreadful ball, talking with the same people and having the same dull conversation.
When had he acquired this ennui? He needed to find something more in life, something to appreciate. Hell, something to
look forward to.
Something other than the utter sameness society strove for, as if they'd all been pressed from the same butter stamp.
Someone like Angelica's friend, Miss Elspeth Talbot. A fine-looking woman who could take the social horror of a stained gown at Gunter's and maintain her dignity as she'd been introduced to him, someone whose consequence made most men stammer. She had glowed with a joy that Oliver wasn't sure he'd ever personally known.
And now he found himself unsettled at the memory of her, with the temptation to seek her out. To see if she could show him just a taste of such delight in life.
Had it only been a few days since they had met? It felt like an eternity.
Oliver was not here to see
though this was the type of place such an unmarried woman was to be found. He hadn't even looked for her, at least after he skimmed the room upon their arrival. The ball was a bit of a crush, so it was possible she was there. Somewhere.
His pulse began to pound at that thought.
Just then, Wills peered over Oliver's shoulder with the oddest expression then he reached out in warning. “Move!”
Oliver pivoted in time to see a mass of white muslin skid to a stop at his feet. A young woman, eyes wide and ankles exposed where her gown had rucked up, peered up at him.
Well, well. Miss Elspeth Talbot was at the ball, after all.
The silence of the ballroom was deafening. The musicians had ceased their play, couples had halted their dance and conversation evaporated as all eyes focused on Miss Talbot. Even the man who appeared to be her erstwhile dance partner was frozen in place as if trying to assimilate what had happened.
Oliver frowned at the fellowâWrothton's boy, if he wasn't mistakenâand tried to stifle a twinge ofâ¦what? The man should help her immediately; she shouldn't be left in an undignified heap on the floor.
Then the oddest thing happened. Miss Talbot, pretty and pink-cheeked from the dancing or embarrassment or both, tilted her head back and laughed. No dainty giggle of a laugh either, but a howl of amusement, the type that accompanied the abandon of children at play.
The room quieted even more, if that were possible. The exception being the racket from Miss Talbot, though that dwindled to a chuckle.
Here was a woman who could laugh at herself and steal the judgmental power from those who might laugh at her behind gloved hands. Oliver's heart gave a little lurch.
He noticed that her dance partner had disappeared, leaving Miss Talbot to fend for herself. He wondered who her chaperon was and why they weren't rushing to aid her. So, Oliver took the initiative and offered Miss Talbot a hand to help her rise.
“I beg your pardon, Your Grace. I'm ever so clumsy!” she said. Her hair listed to the side and her gloves were discolored from contact with the floor, but her eyes sparkled enchantingly.
With her white muslin gown and fresh-faced innocence, she was the type of girl he avoided lest an overexcitable mother set her aspirations on him. But something was different about Miss Talbot, something fundamental that signified she was unique.
The first murmur of censure decided him. Being a duke ought to have some benefits, and halting the tide on cankerous gossip had best be one of them.
With as much finesse as he could muster, Oliver bowed. “At your service, miss.”
“Oh!” It was a soft exclamation and probably carried no farther than his ears, even in the quiet room. Then she extended her dusty, glove-clad hand. “Pleased to see you again, Your Grace. Is your sister, Lady Vinedale, here, as well?” Her voice was bright as a bell, but she'd begun to glance about as she realized they were the center of attention. The color began to leech from her face.
“Not this evening, no. May I reserve a dance, Miss Talbot?”
A little furrow appeared between her brows. “Do you jest?”
“No, indeed. May I?” he repeated, then scrutinized her dance card and scribbled his name. He was fairly certain this incident would cost her any and all future dance partners unless he did something. It had
to do with a desire to see what she felt like in his arms. William stepped forward in a show of solidarity and begged an introduction and dance of his own.
Oliver then offered his arm. “I recommend a retreat so you can collect yourself. Nothing swift as to suggest embarrassment; a leisured stroll, head held high,” he said in a low voice.
After a moment of hesitation, Miss Talbot smiled and accepted, her hand light and warm where it rested on his forearm. He liked that she was taller than most and he suspected her head would fit perfectly on his shoulder.
The musicians rumbled back into play, but curious eyes stayed fixed on them as they moved a circuitous route around the ballroom and out the door, no doubt wondering about his interest.
He didn't know what to make of it, either.