Sweet Madness A Veiled Seduction Novel
Author:Heather Snow

Prologue

Leeds, June 1817

Yellow suited her. Gabriel Devereaux’s gaze followed the young woman’s lithe form as she floated around the dance floor in her partner’s arms. Her flowing skirts of lemon, shot with some sort of white embroidered flowers he couldn’t name, barely brushed the ground as she twirled in the moves of the waltz.

He’d never liked blondes who wore yellow. They faded into their ensemble, like a monochrome painting that failed to draw the eye. Not so Lady Penelope. No, she seemed to glow, brightening everything and everyone around her like a ray of early-summer sunshine. Having known her but a few days, Gabriel had a feeling Lady Penelope was the type who refused to fade into anything.

He was glad of it, for her sake. Michael had a tendency to overshadow most ordinary people.

“Lusting after our cousin’s new bride, are you?”

Gabriel’s jaw clenched with indignation as his gaze snapped to the man who’d sidled up to him. He bit his tongue against a stinging retort, however. The most scathingly witty rejoinder would be lost on Edward, anyway, even were his brother sober enough to comprehend it.

“Don’t be ridiculous,” Gabriel drawled lazily. Of course he wasn’t lusting after Lady Penelope, even if his skin tingled with inconvenient awareness as the happy couple twirled by. He fought the strange need to follow them with his eyes and instead turned toward his youngest sibling.

Edward’s bulbous nose shone bright with the redness of drink. Gabriel frowned. When had the man become such a sot? The night was much too young to be so far gone. But even foxed as Edward was, his eyes glinted with a knowing look.

Hell. Edward might have become a drunkard in the years Gabriel had been away, but his brother also knew him better than perhaps anyone. Edward must have seen something in his expression to speak as he had, and Gabriel feared he knew what it was.

Jealousy.

His gaze strayed back to the dancers as he lost the battle not to look. This time, however, he forced himself to focus on his cousin Michael, 3rd Baron Manton, whose teeth were bared in a beatific smile. And why wouldn’t he be in raptures? Michael, it seemed, had found love.

And that was what Gabriel envied. Not the lady in specific, but the idea of her. Could finding the right wife bring back his smile?

Not that I deserve that.

Gabriel forced his gaze away.

“Well, it’s too late now”—Edward sniffed, taking a healthy swig of what must have been some rather potent punch—“for both of us.”

Gabriel glanced sharply at Edward, drawn by the hollow anger in the man’s voice. Surely he wasn’t saying . . . But Edward wasn’t looking anywhere near the dance floor or the newlyweds. Instead he stared toward the west corner of the ballroom.

Gabriel followed his line of sight, wincing as he recognized his brother’s wife, Amelia, flirting shamelessly with a well-known rake.

Edward tossed back the remains of his punch with a low growl, then wiped his mouth against the inside of his cuff. “Excuse me, brother,” he said curtly before stalking off.

Hell and hell again. Gabriel made to follow. He was head of the family now, much as he didn’t relish the role. It was his duty to head off any potential scene that might spoil his cousin’s wedding ball.

Gabriel slowed as Edward made an abrupt turn, in the opposite direction from his wife, and pushed out of a set of French doors into the night instead.

He watched his brother’s departure with frustrated sadness. How things had changed, for all of them.

“Lord Bromwich?”

Gabriel jerked as a gloved hand slid over his forearm and gripped him lightly. He fisted his own hands before he even realized what he was doing.

“Oh—I—” A nervous laugh bubbled from Lady Penelope’s lips, making her seem younger than her twenty years. Her pale green eyes widened at whatever she saw upon his face, and her hand fell away from his arm.

Wariness swept over her expression, darkening her eyes much as a quick-moving storm cloud shaded spring grass into a deeper hue.

And that made him feel much older than his own seven and twenty.

He forced a smile, even as he forced muscles tensed to strike into relaxation. “Lady Penelope, forgive me. I—” What could he say? I’m sorry that I nearly just planted you a facer? Since the wars, he didn’t do well with the unexpected. “I was deep in thought and . . . didn’t hear your approach.”

“Of course,” she murmured, but she didn’t show offense. No, rather she looked at him in a thoughtful way that nearly made him squirm. “And I startled you,” she continued, nodding slowly, as if in understanding. “How insensitive of me. Forgive me, my lord. I shall endeavor not to take you by surprise again.”

Gabriel felt his brow knitting over the bridge of his nose. He didn’t know Lady Penelope well. Was she mocking him? Or was she simply being polite? Because she couldn’t possibly understand how the long years spent fighting on the battlefields of Europe had changed him, could she? He’d never spoken of it.

“Now, however,” she said brightly, and to Gabriel’s surprise, she placed her hand on his arm once again. Her bow-shaped lips spread in a smile that seemed to burst through any cloud that still lingered over them. “I do believe you are meant to stand up with me for this dance.”

Gabriel blinked rapidly at her sudden change in countenance. He couldn’t help but draw in a sharp, deep breath, quite dazzled by it. How could a simple smile dispel the remaining tension in his limbs? But it had, and more than that, it filled his chest with something . . . warm. Something pleasant. Something he was afraid to name.

He was saved from trying as Lady Penelope tugged at him. “The dancers are already lined up.” Her blond head, with ringlets adorned by yellow violas, tipped toward the top of the room as she looked up at him expectantly.

Of course. As head of his family, he was to partner his cousin’s bride as she led the next dance. That was why she’d approached him. Gabriel shook off the strange sense of connection he’d felt with her and hastened his step to follow.

Unease curdled in his stomach as they reached the head of the line. Since the wars, he didn’t do well in ballrooms, either. In fact, he hadn’t even attempted to approach one since he’d returned from the Continent. It was all too . . . close. Too many people jostling about for space. Too much noise. His chest tightened painfully.

But he hadn’t been able to refuse his place at a family wedding. As they took their place perpendicular to the split line of dancers, Lady Penelope slipped her hand in his and raised their joined arms. A fine sheen of sweat chilled the back of his neck.

Time to gird your loins, old man. All he had to do was make it through this one dance, and then he could retire for the evening.

He waited for the dizziness, prepared to fight off the vertigo that usually assailed him when he stepped onto a dance floor. But strangely, it stayed away.

The strains of violins filled the air first, joined almost immediately by the notes of a pianoforte in a lively tune he didn’t recognize. Gabriel did his best not to grimace, waiting to see what dance his partner would choose. He hadn’t danced in years and knew nothing of the current steps. He hoped she picked something simple that he could easily emulate without making an arse of himself.

A flute piped up in merry accompaniment, signaling the start of the dancing.

Lady Penelope squeezed his hand. “Never fear, my lord,” she whispered. “’Twill be over in a trice.”

Before Gabriel could reply, she flashed her smile at him once more and bent her torso away from him. Then she turned in a vaguely familiar step. When she grasped both of his hands and pulled him into the move, his body went easily, willingly, as if his muscles remembered the dance from long ago.

Only a few steps in and he realized that was because they did. Lady Penelope had chosen a simple country dance, popular in years past, and one that blessedly he knew. Relief washed over him, his cold sweat breaking into a warm one as she pulled him into the energetic skips and turns that left him unable to think of anything but the dance.

Like a battalion of soldiers following their commander, the next set of dancers fell in behind them as they made their way down the line in the progressive dance, one pair after another, until all were stepping lively.

All in all, the dance took nearly half an hour to complete. Gabriel would wager he smiled more in that thirty-minute span than he had in the previous month. But even more unusual—he hadn’t experienced the crushing fear he’d come to associate with ballrooms ever since that night on the Peninsula. Instead, blood coursed through his veins, exhilarating in a way he’d forgotten he could feel.

He glanced over at Lady Penelope as they stood across from each other, their part of the dance now finished. She grinned and clapped in time with the music, watching the other dancers finish their sets. But Gabriel couldn’t take his eyes from her.

Was it the dancing that made him feel so alive? Or the dancing partner?

Lady Penelope’s face was flushed from exertion, her green eyes bright with merriment. Tiny ringlets of her blond hair had dampened with perspiration and now clung to her temples and nape. She was the quintessential picture of an English rose—all slight and pale and graceful, with delicate ankles and wrists, a patrician nose and dewy skin. Everything a young Englishwoman should be.

Everything he’d fought to preserve.

Why shouldn’t I seek my happiness? he thought. There was more than one Lady Penelope in the world. Perhaps it was time he ventured out from his self-imposed exile and found a wife of his own.

He’d need a lady a bit older than Michael’s bride, of course—and one more worldly. He’d make a terrible husband for an innocent young debutante. He’d seen more death and destruction in his years than anyone should be burdened with, and it had changed him. He’d also need to look for a woman who was not quite so . . . sunny. All that brightness might be a shock to his system, accustomed to living in darkness as he was. But the point remained.

A spot of applause broke out as the last of the dancers came to a breathless stop. Gabriel broke his gaze away from his cousin’s wife and joined in.

Michael bounded over from his place in the line as the clapping died down. “Gad. Haven’t danced that one in an age.”

Damn, but Michael seemed like such a young pup. It was hard to remember he was only two years Gabriel’s junior. Gabriel had often envied the seemingly inexhaustible energy Michael exuded. His cousin never tired. With his typical exuberance, he threw an arm around his bride and brushed a kiss on her temple. “Were you feeling nostalgic, dearling?”

Lady Penelope returned her husband’s squeeze with a fond smile. “Indeed I was,” she answered lightly, but her eyes met Gabriel’s.

And in that moment, Gabriel knew she’d chosen the dance specifically with him in mind. She’d sensed his distress, even though he’d fought to suppress it. She’d also interpreted at least part of it for what it was and picked a dance he was likely to know. He marveled at her intuitiveness. And at her consideration.

Just as he realized that she hadn’t been mocking him before. Somehow, she had understood. How, he couldn’t fathom. Perhaps someone else she knew suffered as he did. Her cousin had recently married the Earl of Stratford, a man who’d been grievously injured in the same battle Gabriel had been. Maybe Stratford experienced the same gnawing restlessness, the overvigilance, the insomnia . . . the nightmares. Reliving battles won and lost, night after night after night . . .

“Well, no more of that, my love,” Michael declared. “From this moment on, we only look forward.” He swiped a glass of champagne from the tray of a passing footman. The servant stopped, and thirsty dancers swarmed him for the rest of the libations as the poor man’s eyes widened comically.

Michael snagged a flute for his bride and another for Gabriel before raising his own in an impromptu toast. “To our future!” He touched his glass to Penelope’s, the crystal kiss ringing with a high-pitched ting.

“To your future,” Gabriel agreed. His gaze strayed once again to Lady Penelope. “I wish you every happiness.”

Michael gave him a hearty slap on the shoulder that tipped champagne over the rim of Gabe’s glass, splashing his hand and wrist with the frigidly sticky stuff. His cousin followed that up with a half squeeze that constituted affection amongst the males of the species, sloshing yet more liquor onto Gabriel’s shoes.

Lady Penelope simply murmured, “Thank you, Lord Bromwich.”

“Gabriel,” he insisted, kicking droplets of champagne from his feet. At the dip of her brow, he explained, “We’re family now.”

“Then thank you, Gabriel.”

“Yes, thank you, Gabriel,” Michael parroted before plucking the still full champagne flute from Lady Penelope’s fingers. “Now come, wife,” he said with an exaggerated waggle of his blond brows, as if he relished the word. Then his voice dropped to a low tone, infused with an intimacy that made Gabriel turn his head. “Let us away.”

“Let’s do,” Lady Penelope answered eagerly, and the happy couple hurried off together.

As he watched them depart, Gabriel was finally able to name that elusive feeling that had filled his chest when Lady Penelope had first smiled at him.

Hope.

Hope for his future.

Gabriel swallowed what little champagne remained in his glass, raising it in his own toast. “May it be as blissful as theirs.”