Once Upon a Tower Page 1

Author: Eloisa James

Series: Fairy Tales #5

Genres: Romance , Historical

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One


May 2, 1824


No. 20 Curzon Street, London


The Earl of Gilchrist’s town house


Whenever possible, Gowan Stoughton of Craigievar, Duke of Kinross, Chief of Clan MacAulay, avoided rooms crowded with Englishmen. They were all babbling gossips with more earwax than brains, as his father was wont to say.


Though Shakespeare had got there first.


Yet here he was, nonetheless, entering a ballroom in the heart of London, rather than casting a line into a Highland stream, as he would have preferred. It was a disagreeable but inescapable fact of life—or of his life, at any rate—that fishing for a bride had taken precedence over fishing for salmon.


The moment he was announced, a flock of young women swiveled toward him, each face flaunting a gleaming array of teeth. To his mind they all looked constipated, though more likely the smiles were an automatic response to his title. He was, after all, an unmarried nobleman in possession of all his limbs. Hair, too; he had more hair than most Englishmen. Not to mention a castle.


His hosts, the Earl of Gilchrist and Lady Gilchrist, were waiting at the bottom of the steps, so the young ladies did not instantly pounce. Gowan liked Gilchrist—he was stern but fair, and had a brooding gaze that was almost Scottish. They were both interested in financial affairs, unlike most gentlemen, and the earl was a damned fine investor. Because Gowan was a governor of the Bank of Scotland and Gilchrist held a similar post at the Bank of England, they’d exchanged a good deal of correspondence over the last couple of years, though they’d rarely met.


“Your Grace, may I introduce my countess?” Gilchrist asked, drawing his lady forward. To Gowan’s surprise, the countess was significantly younger than her husband, perhaps in her late twenties. What’s more, she had sensual, full lips, and her lush breasts were framed by a bodice made of a twist of rosy silk. By all appearances, she was one of those aristocratic women who emulated the attire and manner of an opera dancer.


Gilchrist, on the other hand, bought to mind nothing so much as a stern churchwarden. It could not be a harmonious pairing. A man and wife ought to be complementary in age and interests.


The countess was telling him about her stepdaughter, Edith, so Gowan bowed and expressed his ineffable pleasure at the idea of meeting the young lady.


Edith. What an awful name.


A long-tongued woman would have that name. A fusty nut, a flap-eared . . . Englishwoman.


Without warning, Lady Gilchrist slid her arm through his so he might accompany her to the adjacent reception chamber; he scarcely managed to suppress a flinch. In his youth, servants had always hovered around him, adjusting his clothing, touching his neck, wiping his mouth. But in the years since he turned fourteen, he had suffered no such familiarities unless absolutely required.


Because he had very little time alone, he preferred to maintain a barrier between himself and the world. He did not lament his lack of privacy; he felt it would be a waste of time to dress, for example, without simultaneously hearing his secretary’s report. If there was anything that Gowan hated, it was wasting time.


Time wasted itself, in his opinion. All too soon, and out of the blue, you toppled over and died, and all your moments were gone.


It would be rank foolishness to pretend that those moments were infinite and endless, which—in his opinion—was precisely what people were doing when they dawdled in the bath or spent hours lazing about reading poetry. It was his inclination and his habit to do as many things at once as possible.


Indeed, this ball was a case in point: before he traveled to meet a group of bankers in Brighton on the morrow, he wanted to ask Gilchrist’s opinion about a knotty point regarding issuance of the one-pound note. Gilchrist was giving a ball, which young ladies would attend. Gowan had an acute—not desperate, but acute—need for a spouse.


Ergo, two birds with one stone. He preferred three or four birds with a single stone, but sometimes one had to settle for less.


The only problem was that the room was filled with English ladies, and he had determined that it would be a bad idea to marry one of those. It was true that a Scottish nobleman always had good reason to tie himself to one of the great houses of England.


But it was also true that an English lass was, perforce, English.


Theirs was an indolent race, as everyone knew. Their gentlewomen sat about doing naught but quaffing endless cups of tea and reading novels, while their Scottish counterparts to the north thought nothing of running an estate with a thousand sheep while raising four children.


His own grandmother had worked from morn to dusk without complaint. If reading was to be done, she had always said it should be for improvement of the mind. The Bible and Shakespeare, with Montaigne’s essays for light reading. His late fiancée was, by all accounts, cast in the same mold, which made sense given that his grandmother had arranged the marriage herself. Miss Rosaline Partridge had died from a fever she caught while paying visits to the poor . . . virtue, in her case, proving less than rewarding.


Gowan rather thought diligence was his primary requirement in a bride (other than the obvious—that she be beautiful, maidenly, and well-bred). The future Duchess of Kinross could not be a time waster.


Lady Gilchrist had towed him through the ballroom, and they now entered a smaller chamber. A quick reconnaissance of the room told him that in matters of wealth or title, no unmarried man present matched him. In any case, there were likely only three contenders in all London.


So, strictly speaking, he needn’t waste time courting a wife once he’d chosen her. Marriage was a market like any other; when he found the right lady, he would simply outbid his rivals.


The countess drew him to one side of the chamber and stopped before a young woman, whom she introduced as her stepdaughter.


It was the sort of moment that cleaves past from present, and changes the future forever.


Lady Edith did not belong in an overheated English ballroom. There was something otherworldly about her, as if she were dreaming of her home under a fairy hill. Her eyes were green pools, as deep and dark as a loch on a stormy day.


She was delightfully curved, and had hair that gleamed like the golden apples of the sun. It was pulled up in ringlets and curls, and all he wanted was to unwind it and make love to her on a bed of heather.


But it was her eyes that truly beguiled him: they met his with courteous disinterest, a dreamy peacefulness that showed none of the feverish enthusiasm with which unmarried young ladies generally regarded him.


Gowan did not consider himself a man given to carnality. A duke, to his mind, had no right to succumb to lust.


He had watched with bemusement as men of his acquaintance fell at the feet of women with saucy smiles and round bottoms. He had felt pity, as he did now for the earl with his lush wife.


But in the moment, looking down at Lady Edith, love and its attendant poetry made sense. A line came to him as if it had been written for that moment: I never saw true beauty till this night . . .


Perhaps Shakespeare was useful for something after all.


Lady Edith’s rosy mouth curved into a smile. She dropped into a deep curtsy, inclining her head. “Your Grace, it is a pleasure to meet you.”


To Gowan, it was as if the countess had ceased to exist; indeed, a roomful of people faded into the wallpaper. “The pleasure is entirely mine,” he said, meaning every word. “May I have the honor of your hand for this dance?” He extended his hand.

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