Claudia had met Viscount Ravensberg and his wife before—at two weddings, in fact. Anne Jewell had married the viscount’s brother, and Susanna had married the viscountess’s cousin. It had been something of a relief to see familiar faces, especially as they had recognized her and come to speak with her in the ballroom. Frances and Lucius had gone to the music room to be quiet for a while and prepare for the performance, and Susanna and Peter were busy greeting guests at the ballroom doors. It was not a comfortable thing to be alone in a crowd, knowing no one and trying to pretend that one was actually enjoying one’s lone state. She took an instant liking to Viscountess Ravensberg’s aunt and uncle, who were with them, despite their elevated rank. They were courteous, amiable people and made an effort to include her in the conversation. The same could be said of the Earl and Countess of Kilbourne after they had arrived and joined the group. It was not even entirely disagreeable to see the Marquess of Attingsborough again. His was, after all, another familiar face when she had convinced herself that she would know no one at all. Of course, he was looking more gorgeous than ever in evening clothes of dark blue and silver with white linen. She did spare herself a moment of private amusement as she stood with the group. Not a single one of them was without a title—and there was she in their midst and even rather enjoying their company. She would make much of this particular part of the evening when she was telling Eleanor about it after her return home. She would even laugh merrily at her own expense. But amusement turned to sudden embarrassment when the Duchess of Portfrey suggested that they take their seats and the marquess asked her if she wished to sit beside him. Really he had no choice but to make the offer since she had stood there within their family group instead of moving off elsewhere after the initial pleasantries had been exchanged as she ought to have done. Goodness, they would think her gauche and ill-mannered in the extreme. And so she made that hasty excuse about having to go and attend to something. She would make it the truth, of course. She would find Edna and Flora and make sure that they found space at the back of the ballroom once all the invited guests had been seated. And she would remain with them after all despite the dire consequences Peter had promised. Edna had once sung in the junior choir that Frances had conducted and had been beside herself with excitement all day at the prospect of hearing her old, revered teacher sing in a real concert. Flora had been more animated at the prospect of seeing so many rich and important people gathered in one place and all dressed up in their best evening finery. But Claudia did not get far on her self-appointed mission. Because it was not in her nature to cower even when she felt self-conscious, she deliberately looked about at the audience as she moved away from where she had been standing, almost at the front of the ballroom, wondering idly if she would recognize anyone else. She very much doubted she would. But then she did. There, halfway back and to the left of the center aisle in which Claudia stood, sat Lady Freyja Bedwyn, now the Marchioness of Hallmere, in animated conversation with Lord Aidan Bedwyn, her brother, beside her and Lady Aidan beyond him—Claudia had met them too at Anne’s wedding breakfast in Bath. The Marquess of Hallmere sat on the other side of his wife. Claudia bristled with instant animosity. She had seen Lady Hallmere a number of times since walking out of the schoolroom at Lindsey Hall itself on that memorable afternoon long ago—most notably when, still as Lady Freyja Bedwyn, she had turned up at the school one morning, quite out of the blue, looking haughty and condescending and asking if there was anything Claudia needed that she might supply. Claudia’s temperature could still soar at the memory. Seeing the woman again now, though, would not in itself have caused her to retrace the few steps she had taken and drop hastily into the empty seat beside Lord Attingsborough. After all, if she had thought about it, she would have expected that at least some of the Bedwyns would be in town for the Season and that any who were here might very well put in an appearance at tonight’s concert. No, if they had been the only faces she had recognized, she would merely have stiffened her backbone, pressed her lips more tightly together, lifted her chin, and proceeded on her way undaunted. But a mere second after Claudia noticed Lady Hallmere, her eyes were drawn to the gentleman sitting directly in front of her—the one who was looking very intently at her. Her knees threatened to turn to jelly, and her heart jumped right up into her throat—or so it seemed from the uncomfortable beating there. How she recognized him when she had not set eyes upon him for half her lifetime she did not know, but she did—instantly. Charlie! There was no thought—there was no time for thought. She acted purely from craven instinct, aided by the fact that Lord Attingsborough got to his feet and asked her if she was unwell. She ducked into the seat beside him with ungainly haste and was scarcely aware of what he said to her as she clasped her hands in her lap and tried to impose calm on herself. Fortunately, the concert began shortly after that and she was able gradually to still the erratic beating of her heart and to feel somewhat embarrassed that after all she was imposing on the company of this aristocratic family group. She willed herself to listen to the music. So Charlie was here in London and here tonight. So what? Doubtless he would disappear as soon as the concert was over. He must be as reluctant as she that they come face-to-face. Or else he would remain and ignore her out of sheer indifference. Eighteen years was a long time, after all. She had been seventeen the last time she saw him, he one year older. Goodness, they had been little more than children! Quite possibly he had not even recognized her but had merely been resting his eyes idly upon her because she was one of the last persons standing. She schooled herself to concentrate when Frances was announced and took her place on the low dais. This was what she had looked forward to most even before leaving Bath, and she was not going to allow Charlie of all people to deprive her of appreciating the performance to the full. After a few moments, of course, she no longer had to use willpower in order to concentrate. Frances was purely magnificent. Claudia rose with everyone else at the end of the recital to applaud. By the time the encore was over, she was aware of nothing else but a glow of pleasure in the entertainment and of pride in Frances and happiness for herself that she was here tonight for what might well be her friend’s final public appearance for a long while, maybe forever. She turned again as the applause finally died down and Peter announced that refreshments would be served in the supper room. She blinked away the tears that had filled her eyes. She wanted to find Susanna, and she wanted to see that Edna and Flora had indeed been able to come inside to listen. She wanted to move away before Lord Attingsborough or Lady Ravensberg or someone else in the group felt obliged to invite her to join them for refreshments. How mortifying that would be! And she wanted to assure herself that Charlie really had gone away. He had not. He was walking purposefully down the center aisle toward her though everyone else was moving in the opposite direction. His eyes were fixed on her, and he was smiling. Claudia was no more ready to deal with the shock of this unexpected encounter now than she had been when she first spotted him earlier. She grabbed the marquess’s arm without thinking and gabbled something to him. His hand covered hers on his arm—a large, warm hand that felt enormously comforting. She felt almost safe. It was a measure of the confusion of her mind that she did not even question the uncharacteristic abjectness of her reactions. And then Charlie was there, standing a mere foot or two in front of her, still smiling, his brown eyes alight with pleasure. He definitely looked older. His fair hair had thinned and receded though he was not yet bald. His face was still round and pleasant rather than handsome, but there were lines at the corners of his eyes and beside his mouth that had not been there when he was a boy. He was more solid in build now though he was not by any means fat. He had not grown taller after the age of eighteen. His eyes were still on a level with her own. He was dressed with quiet elegance, unlike the careless way he had used to dress. “Claudia! It is you!” he said, stretching out both hands toward her. “Charlie.” She could scarcely persuade her lips to move. They felt stiff and beyond her control. “But what a delightful surprise!” he said. “I could hardly believe my—” “Good evening to you, McLeith,” the Marquess of Attingsborough said, his voice firm and pleasant. “A fine concert, was it not?” Charlie looked at him as if he had only just noticed him standing there beside her, holding her hand on his arm. His own arms fell to his sides. “Ah, Attingsborough,” he said. “Good evening. Yes, indeed, we have been royally entertained.” The marquess inclined his head courteously. “You will excuse us?” he said. “Our group is already halfway to the supper room. We would not wish to lose our places with them.” And he drew Claudia’s hand right through his arm and kept his hand over hers. “But where are you living, Claudia?” Charlie asked, returning his attention to her. “Where may I call on you?” “Your shawl has slipped from your shoulder,” the marquess said almost simultaneously, his voice full of solicitous concern as he replaced it with his free hand, half turning in front of her as he did so. “Good night, McLeith. Good to see you.” And they were on their way up the aisle with a crowd of other guests, leaving Charlie behind. “He is trouble?” the marquess asked when they were out of earshot, bending his head closer to hers. “Was,” she said. “A long time ago. A lifetime ago.” Her heart was beating up into her throat again, almost deafening her. She was also returning to herself and an embarrassing realization that she had been behaving without any of her usual firmness of character. Goodness, she had even grabbed the marquess’s arm and begged for his help and protection—after what she had said to him in Marlborough about independence. How very humiliating! Suddenly her nostrils were assailed by the smell of his cologne—the same one she had noticed at the school and in the carriage. Why did masculine colognes always smell more enticing than female perfumes? “I do beg your pardon,” she said. “That was very foolish of me. It would have been much better—and far more like me—to have conversed civilly with him for a few minutes.” He had actually been delighted to see her. He had wanted to take both her hands in his. He had wanted to know where she was living so that he could call on her. Distress turned to anger. She straightened her spine, which was in no way slouching to start with. “You really do not need to take me any farther,” she said, slipping her hand free of the marquess’s arm. “I have imposed enough upon your time and good nature, and for that I apologize. Do go and join your family before it is too late.” “And leave you alone?” he said, smiling down at her. “I could not be so unmannerly. Allow me to distract your mind by introducing you to a few more people.” And he cupped her elbow and turned her, and there, almost face-to-face with her, were Lord and Lady Aidan Bedwyn, the Marquess and Marchioness of Hallmere, and—gracious heaven!—the Duke and Duchess of Bewcastle. “Joseph,” the duchess said, all warm smiles. “We could see you sitting with Lauren and Kit. Was this evening not perfectly delightful? And—yes, it is! Oh, do pardon my manners, Miss Martin. How are you?” Claudia—another measure of her distraction—dipped into a curtsy and the gentlemen bowed, the duke with a mere half tilt of his head. Lady Aidan and Lord Hallmere smiled and Lady Hallmere looked haughty. “Miss Martin,” Lord Aidan said. “The owner of the school in Bath where Sydnam Butler’s wife once taught, I believe? We met at their wedding breakfast. How do you do, ma’am?” “I see that introductions are not needed after all,” Lord Attingsborough said. “I had the pleasure of escorting Miss Martin and two of her pupils up from Bath last week.” “I trust you left the school in good hands, Miss Martin,” Lady Hallmere said, looking along the length of her rather prominent nose. Claudia bristled. “Of course I did,” she retorted. “It is hardly likely I would leave it in poor hands, is it?” Too late she realized that she had spoken sharply and without any forethought and had been remarkably rude as a result. If one of her girls had done such a thing in her hearing, she would have taken the girl aside and lectured her for five minutes without stopping to draw breath. Lady Hallmere’s eyebrows arched upward. The duke’s right hand curled about the handle of his jeweled quizzing glass. Lord Hallmere grinned. The duchess laughed. “You will offend me if you quiz Miss Martin on that score any further, Freyja,” she said. “She has left Eleanor in charge, and I am quite confident that my sister is very competent indeed. She is also delighted, I might add, Miss Martin, that you have shown such trust in her.” And there spoke the genuine lady, Claudia thought ruefully, smoothing over a potentially awkward moment with charm and grace. The Marquess of Attingsborough cupped Claudia’s elbow again. “Lauren and Kit and the Portfreys and Kilbournes will be keeping places at their table for us,” he said. “We must go and join them.” “I do beg your pardon—yet again,” Claudia said as they made their way toward the door. “I teach my girls that courtesy must take precedence over almost any personal feeling at all times, yet I have just ignored my own teachings in rather spectacular fashion.” “I believe,” he said, and she could see that he was actually amused, “Lady Hallmere intended her question as a mere polite conversational overture.” “Oh, not that woman,” she said, forgetting her contrition. “Not Lady Freyja Bedwyn.” “You knew her before her marriage?” he asked. “She was the pupil I told you about,” she said. “No!” His hand closed more tightly about her elbow, drawing her to a halt beyond the ballroom doors but just outside the supper room. He was grinning openly now. “And Bewcastle was the one who so ruthlessly directed you to fend for yourself? You thumbed your nose at Bewcastle? And strode off down the driveway of Lindsey Hall?” “It was not funny,” she said, frowning. “There was nothing remotely amusing about it.” “And so,” he said, his eyes alight with merriment, “I took you from the frying pan into the fire when I led you straight from McLeith to the Bedwyns, did I not?” She regarded him with a deepening frown. “I believe, Miss Martin,” he said, “you must have led a very interesting life.” Her spine stiffened and she pressed her lips tightly together before replying. “I have not—” she began. And then saw the last ten minutes or so as they must have appeared through his eyes. Her lips twitched. “Well,” she conceded, “in a way I suppose I have.” And for some inexplicable reason they both found her admission enormously tickling and dissolved into laughter. “I do beg your pardon,” he said when he could. “And I yours,” she replied. “And to think,” he said, taking her elbow again and leading her into the supper room, “that I might have gone to Lady Fleming’s soiree this evening instead of coming here.” The Duchess of Portfrey was smiling and beckoning from one of the tables and the Earl of Kilbourne was standing to draw out a chair for Claudia. It was unclear to Claudia if the marquess regretted the choice he had made. But she was very glad he had come. He had somehow restored her disordered spirits—even if he had been the unwitting cause of some of them. She could not remember when she had last laughed so hard. She was in grave danger, she thought severely as she took her seat, of revising her opinion of him and actually liking him. And here she was in the midst of a family group she ought to have left a few hour s ago. And she had no one to blame for her renewed discomfort but herself. When had she ever before clung to a man for support and protection? It was really quite lowering.