The Earl and the Reluctant Lady

By: Robyn DeHart

Chapter One

Agnes Watkins stepped into the ballroom alongside her mother. To outward appearances, she knew people saw the resemblance. Aside from Agnes’s unusual blue eyes, she and her mother shared nearly identical features and the same lush curves. That was where the similarities ended, though. Where her mother epitomized the charming beauty, Agnes was shy and awkward.

Her first two balls last Season were admittedly a disaster, but that was only because she hadn’t yet learned how to interact in public. Small gatherings had always been easier, especially if there were only ladies present. Men were an entirely different ordeal. Their deep voices hinted at things she didn’t quite understand, and if they stood too close or expressed too much interest, her mother would swoop in and take over.

Initially, Agnes had been appreciative, believing her mother was trying to ease her into the situations and prevent her from making a faux pas. But at the close of her first Season, it became clear that her mother was intentionally overshadowing Agnes, leaving her daughter to stand in a corner like a wallflower.

She had received one proposal at the end of her debut Season, but from an earl old enough to be her grandfather, and thankfully her mother had agreed with Agnes that it wasn’t a good match.

Tonight would be different. If for no other reason than she’d come to the conclusion earlier this year that she did not wish to marry. Choosing to remain single might be unorthodox for a viscount’s daughter, but for Agnes, it was the right choice. It meant no longer feeling as if she were competing with her mother for a gentleman’s attention. Also, it alleviated the burden built into these social gatherings. Now she knew what to expect from a ball, and without the added pressure of trying to lure the attentions of a suitor, she could be more confident, friendlier, and perhaps, in doing so, she wouldn’t have to work so hard to compensate for her lack of social skills.

“Agnes, stop frowning. Smile and roll your shoulders back. It enhances your décolletage,” her mother said as they stood waiting to be introduced into the ballroom.

Agnes fought the urge to roll her eyes. If her décolletage was enhanced any more, she’d be bare breasted. Instead, she glanced to the right side of the ballroom and caught sight of another group of mothers and daughters. The mothers stood together behind their daughters, smiling and talking to one another behind their fans. Men approached the younger women, seeking dances and introductions.

After she and her mother were announced, they made their way into the large room. The throng of people stifled the air and a bead of perspiration slid down Agnes’s back. She swallowed hard against the nerves and pasted a smile on her face.

The moment her mother stopped to establish their spot, the men began to arrive. Her mother effortlessly smiled and flirted, never once turning the men’s attention to Agnes, but began filling her own dance card. Agnes tightened her jaw in an effort to ward off the tears. Why did she even care? None of these men seemed remotely interested in her, and if they were, she’d likely say something odd or boring.

“Is this your daughter, Lady Darby?” one gentleman said. His leering gaze slid down Agnes as if she’d invited him to touch her.

Agnes repressed a shudder.

“Yes, this is Agnes,” her mother said.

“You look more like sisters than mother and daughter,” he said.

Agnes tried to think of something to say. Anything. But words failed her.

“She’s far too young for you, Lord Wilbanks.” Her mother winked saucily.

He gave Agnes one last look, then turned back to her mother. “I suppose you’re right. Shall we?” He held his elbow out to her mother and they walked to the dance floor.

Agnes released a pent-up breath, her shoulder nearly sagging in relief. He hadn’t seemed that old. Though admittedly he was older than Agnes, he was quite obviously younger than Mother. Without another thought, she worked her way around the room to the refreshment table. She secured a lemonade for herself, then moved into the shadows to walk back to where her mother had left her.

“She’s really so disgraceful,” a woman whispered.

“Who?” another responded.

“Lady Darby. Did you see how she shunned her own daughter to steal that man’s attention?”