Holy hell. This was not what he needed right now.

He looked back down at the note. He had promised to dance with her if she lacked partners, had he? Well, that shouldn't be a problem. He'd simply make sure she had more partners than she knew what to do with. She'd be the bloody belle of the ball.

He supposed that as long as he had to attend this deuced party, he ought to go ahead and examine the young widows. With any luck, Miranda would see exactly where he planned to devote his attentions, and she'd realize that she ought to look elsewhere.

He winced. He didn't like the thought of upsetting her. Hell, he liked the chit. He always had.

He gave his head a shake. He wasn't going to upset her. Not much, anyway. And besides, he would make it up to her.

Belle of the ball, he reminded himself as he stepped into his carriage and steeled himself for what was certain to be a most trying evening.

Belle. Of. The. Ball.

* * *
Olivia spotted Turner the moment he entered. "Oh, look," she said, nudging Miranda with her elbow. "My brother is here."

"He is?" Miranda replied breathlessly.

"Mmm-hmm." Olivia straightened, her brows coming together. "I haven't seen him for ages, now that I think on it. Have you?"

Miranda shook her head absently as she craned her neck, trying to spot Turner.

"He's over there speaking with Duncan Abbott," Olivia informed her. "I wonder what they're talking about. Mr. Abbott is quite political."

"Is he?"

"Oh, yes. I should love to have a discussion with him, but he probably wouldn't care to discuss politics with a woman. Annoying, that."

Miranda was about to nod her agreement when Olivia furrowed her brow again and said in an irritated voice, "Now he's talking to Lord Westholme."

"Olivia, the man is allowed to speak with whomever he likes," Miranda said, but inside, she, too, was growing irritated that Turner was not making his way over to them.

"I know, but he ought to come and greet us first. We're family."

"Well, you are, at least."

"Don't be silly. You're family, too, Miranda." Olivia's mouth opened in an outraged little O. "Will you look at that? He's gone in quite the opposite direction."

"Who is that man he's talking to? I don't recognize him."

"The Duke of Ashbourne. Devilishly handsome fellow, don't you think? I think he's been abroad. Having a holiday with his wife. They're quite devoted to one another, I understand."

Miranda thought it a positive sign to hear that at least one ton marriage was happy. Still, Turner certainly wasn't about to ask for her hand if he couldn't be bothered to walk across a ballroom to say hello. She frowned.

"Excuse me, Lady Olivia. I believe this is my dance."

Olivia and Miranda looked up. A handsome young man whose name neither could recall was standing before them.

"Of course," Olivia said quickly. "How silly of me to have forgotten."

"I believe I will get a glass of lemonade," Miranda said with a smile. She knew that Olivia always felt awkward when she went off for a dance and left Miranda alone.

"Are you certain?"

"Go. Go."

Olivia floated out onto the dance floor, and Miranda started to make her way to a footman who was pouring lemonade. As usual, she had been claimed for only about half of the dances. And where was Turner, she might ask, after he had promised to dance with her if she lacked partners?

Horrid, horrid man.

Somehow, it felt good to malign him in her mind, even if she didn't quite believe it.

Miranda had made it about halfway to the lemonade when she felt a firm masculine hand on her elbow. Turner? She whirled around, but was disappointed to find a gentleman she did not know but whose face looked vaguely familiar.

"Miss Cheever?"

Miranda nodded.

"May I have the pleasure of this dance?"

"Why yes, of course, but I do not believe we have been introduced."

"Oh, forgive me, please. I am Westholme."

Lord Westholme? Wasn't he the gentleman Turner had been talking to just a few moments earlier? Miranda smiled at him, but her mind was frowning. She had never been a great believer in coincidences.

Lord Westholme proved to be an excellent dancer, and the pair whirled effortlessly around the floor. When the music drew to a close, he bowed elegantly and escorted her to the perimeter of the room.

"Thank you for a lovely dance, Lord Westholme," Miranda said graciously.

"It is I who should thank you, Miss Cheever. I hope that we may repeat this pleasure soon."

Miranda noticed that Lord Westholme had managed to deposit her as far away from the lemonade as possible. It had been a white lie when she told Olivia she was thirsty, but now she was really quite parched. With a sigh, she realized that she would have to wiggle her way back through the crowd. She had not taken two steps toward the refreshments when another elegant, eminently eligible young man stepped in front of her. She recognized this one immediately. It was Mr. Abbott, the politically minded gentlemen with whom Turner had also been conversing.

Within seconds, Miranda was back on the dance floor and growing very irritated, indeed.

Not that she could fault her partners. If Turner had found it necessary to bribe men into dancing with her, at least he'd chosen handsome, well-mannered ones. Nevertheless, when Mr. Abbott led her from the dance floor, and she saw the Duke of Ashbourne making his way toward her, Miranda beat a hasty retreat.

Did he think she had no pride? Did he think she would appreciate his cajoling his friends into asking her to dance? It was humiliating. And even worse was the implication that he was getting those men to dance with her because he couldn't be bothered to do so himself. Tears pricked her eyes, and Miranda, terrified that she would spill them in the ballroom in full view of the ton , darted out into a deserted corridor.

***

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