Graham, the Viscount Wharton, heir to the earldom of Grableton, pride of the Cambridge fencing team, coveted party guest, and generally well-liked member of both Brooke's and White's, was bored.
While the ball swirling around him held as much sparkle and elegance as ever, a dullness had taken the sheen off everything lately. The years he'd spent traveling the world after school had shown him the brilliance and variety of life, but since he'd been back in England, there'd been nothing but routine.
How long since he'd seen something new? Someone new? Three years? Four?
It wasn't so much that he wanted to chase adventure as he had in his youth—at a year past thirty he was more than ready to stay home—but was it too much to ask that his days have a little variety to them?
Everything and everyone simply looked the same.
"This year's young ladies seem to be lovelier than past years," Mr. Crispin Sherrington said, drawing Graham's thoughts away from his maudlin wanderings and back to the conversation he was having with two old acquaintances from school.
Lord Maddingly jabbed Mr. Sherrington with his elbow and chuckled. "The lighter your pockets, the prettier the partridges."
Even the conversations were the same, and they weren't any more interesting on their forty-second iteration than they were on their first. Different players and occasionally different motives, but Graham could say his lines by rote. "Are you looking to marry this year, Sherrington?"
Sherrington, a second son with limited prospects, slid a finger beneath his cravat and stretched his neck. "I don't have a choice. Pa's been ill, and when he's in the ground I'll have nothing. My brother Seymour is a little too thrilled at the idea of cutting me off when he inherits."
Maddingly grimaced. "At least your father didn't gamble it all away. You should see the mess I'm left with. I've got to build up the coffers if I hope to keep the roof over my head."
Graham resisted the urge to sigh. There were better ways for a man to further his fortune, but that opinion wasn't very popular among his peers. Instead of suggesting either man learn how to invest what funds they had or possibly even endeavor to save a bit, he continued on the conversation's normal course. "Who has the deepest dowry?"
Past experience told him that question was all that was required for him to seem like he cared. The others could hold a passionate debate about it without Graham's participation. Which was good, because he simply couldn't get excited about discussing how much money a man was willing to pay to get another man to marry his daughter.
It was all well and good to have a bit of support when starting a life together, but shouldn't the lady herself be a bit more of the enticement? She was, after all, the one a man was actually going to have to see for the rest of his life.
How had he ended up in a conversation with these two anyway? Graham's gaze wandered across the ballroom once more. Where were his friends? Granted, Mr. Aaron Whitworth probably wasn't in attendance, as he found socializing endlessly awkward, but Oliver, Lord Farnsworth, should be around somewhere.
The room fell into an unfocused blur until a flash of green near the terrace doors caught Graham's attention, making him blink furiously to bring everything into focus.
When he finally got the terrace doors to settle into their crisp lines of windowpanes and heavy drapery, no one was there. At least, no one wearing the shade of green he knew he'd seen a moment earlier.
The doors were closed, keeping the revelers sheltered from the unseasonably cold night, so where had the person come from? Had she gone outside? Was she coming back in?
"What is your opinion of her, Wharton?"
Graham pulled his gaze from the windowed doors lining the far wall and glanced at Sherrington's raised eyebrows. With a tilt of his head, Graham tried to appear deep in thought. And he was. Only he was trying to come up with a statement that wouldn't reveal he'd been ignoring the other two men, not considering the merits of any particular girl.
"Her family is good enough," he finally said. That should apply to every girl in the room. "She isn't likely to cause you much grief."
Unfortunately, there weren't many girls that second sentence didn't apply to either.