Belvedere House, Fort William, Calcutta, India
Eric leaned against the door and pinched the bridge of his nose. The sun had set and the doors were open and it had made no difference. It was appallingly, swelteringly hot. He looked around the crowded ballroom in disgust. I’m not touching another person, dancing is completely out of the question, Eric decided as he avoided the hopeful eyes that stared in his direction. How do they stand it? I feel like I’m melting. He pulled at his shirt through his waistcoat, trying to peel it from his stomach. I’d kill everyone in this room for a cool bath.
It was his first evening in India and Eric Yardley, Lord Gasden, hated it. Loathed it with every fiber of his being. He’d regretted leaving England before the ship had even left the Thames. But his mother had driven him nearly demented. She was filling Gasden House with the worst of the English elite’s available young ladies. Everywhere he turned, there was at least two young things, blinking and blushing obnoxiously. His mother invited them to tea, to lunch, to garden parties, musicales… She was constantly shoving vacuous, tittering heaps of ruffles and ribbons at him. He saw through her, she kept choosing the worst of the worst, thinking it would eventually drive him to look for something more suitable.
Instead, he packed up his trunks and boarded a ship for India. All to prove that she couldn’t get the better of him. He snorted. I definitely won this round. Truthfully, Eric loved his mother. Until she became obsessed with his marrying, she had been his favorite person in the world. He even missed her. Something told him that if he didn’t put his foot down and make a stand, she’d meddle in every aspect of his life until the day he died. Eric laughed softly. He had no doubt that she’d outlive him. At eight and twenty, he knew he had many years ahead of him, he didn’t intend to spend them at her beck and call. So, India…
Ironically, as a guest of the Governor-General of India, The Marquess of Lister, Eric was the focus of nearly as many matchmaking mamas and precious debutants as he had been in any London ballroom. Between the numerous appraising, hungry glances and the oppressive humidity, the room started to feel too small and too crowded. Suddenly dizzy and nauseas, Eric looked to the nearest door. He kept his eyes fixed on it as he crossed the room. Once in the hall, he locked his eyes on the door at the far end. Whatever it was, it was the farthest from the ballroom.
Eric sighed in relief when he swung the door wide and saw that it was the library. It was heaven. It was like seeing a long lost friend, all those books on the shelves. The room was dark, quiet and cool. Eric closed the door and leaned against the panels as he tugged his cravat loose and let his shoulders relax. He stumbled forward as he undid the buttons of his waistcoat and reached for the first book his fingers could touch. Just as he was about to press his fingers to the spine, the hairs on the back of his neck stood. Eric turned and silently cursed. He wasn’t alone.
Stretched on a sofa was the sleeping form of a young lady. He frowned as he stepped closer, moving silently over the rug as he bent to get a better look. Eric recognized the peach ruffles and long, twig thin, knotty elbowed arms. They’d been introduced twice; when he arrived, and again at the beginning of the ball. Her name was Lila, Lana, Lena… Lily. The daughter of his host, the marquess. He nodded and stood to make his quick retreat when the door burst open and a pack of laughing girls spilled in. Eric froze. They froze.
The room was silent for several moments until the girl at the front started giggling.
“Her?” She said incredulously as she pointed at the sofa. Eric felt his brows pull together as he turned back to the sofa. Lily was just sitting up, groggily blinking, her hair lightly mussed and her dress a touch askew. He shook his head as he turned back toward the door and saw eyes darting over his body. This time, he cursed loudly. With his cravat pulled loose and his coat and waistcoat unbuttoned, in combination with Lily’s disheveled appearance, they were doomed.