Authors: Edith Layton
Tags: #Regency Romance
The Duke’s Wager
By Edith Layton
Copyright 2014 by Estate of Edith Felber
Cover Copyright 2014 by Untreed Reads Publishing
Cover Design by Ginny Glass
The author is hereby established as the sole holder of the copyright. Either the publisher (Untreed Reads) or author may enforce copyrights to the fullest extent.
Previously published in print, 1983.
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This is a work of fiction. The characters, dialogue and events in this book are wholly fictional, and any resemblance to companies and actual persons, living or dead, is coincidental.
The Duke’s Wager
For Orson, my constant companion.
It was not a fashionable night to be seen in the streets of London. Oh, the moon shone as brightly as ever an autumn moon did, and the air carried the light crisp taste of autumn windfall apples; the freshening breeze carried away the usual stale stenches of the city, and the woodsmoke from many fires added to the clear tang of the night. But then the month of September was never a slave to the fashions of men, so she could be excused for putting on such a show on a night when no other lady of good taste or family would dare to parade the streets of town. But she was obviously only a baggage, so she displayed her charms generously and spread her gifts lavishly and never seemed to mind that no female of repute would savor them this night. No matter, if she was not a female of discretion, why then, neither were any of the other ladies abroad this night.
But that was not to imply that there were no others in the streets. London was no ghost town, bereft of pedestrians and coaches, riders and lackeys, strollers and theatergoers. No, the city was as crowded as ever, the fashionable made up only one facet of its usual throngs. And if the ladies of the town were safely at home, or snugged at several respectable house parties, the gentlemen of their class suffered no such inhibitions. They were free to enjoy the night as they chose.
As were the beggars, warming themselves over scant alley-edge fires, waiting for some more substantial citizens to cross their paths so they could ply their practiced pathetic pleas; as were the sharpers, eyeing the passing crowds for any hint of possible gain; as were the street women, in readiness now that evening had come, to sell their flowers, chestnuts, or bodies at reasonable fair-trade prices. So if the ladies of immaculate breeding were not abroad, it hardly mattered, for the several enjoyments offered this evening were not for them anyway.
Even the Opera, where so many of the select disported themselves on proper evenings, was filling to capacity this evening. For if the finer ladies would not grace their seats, why then, there were an assortment of other members of the gender who would gladly do so. But if these were not ladies who were prime articles on the marriage mart, even the most dispassionate observers would have to admit that they were prime articles of their species. Still, there were few dispassionate observers in their company; it was not, alas, an evening notable for opera lovers, although lovers there were, in great numbers.
The beggars and loiterers and running boys and flower ladies who congregated in front of the Opera did not mind the lack of Society’s finest females, rather they knew there would be many young blades with free fingers to toss loose coins to impress their latest conquest. For the street people knew, with their survivor’s instincts, that a night such as this, a night of the demimonde, was far more of a profitable time than a night when a gentleman had to properly escort his lawful wife or dutiful daughters. And they watched as the colorful, blatantly beautiful ladies, peacocked in with their gentlemen.
The street girls would have to be content with waiting in the shadows for the final curtain to fall, so that they could have the chance to accommodate those men of fashion who had not brought their own ladies, and who were either too inept or too luckless to have encountered a friend to invite them to a revel, introduce them to an unattached beauty, or take themselves off with them to a fashionable house of delights. These disappointed blades would be available to invitation for a few moments of less exalted play. The girls were not impressed with the high-flown style of the young women giggling into the Opera house. Some had been in their places at one time, some dreamed of it, all knew that without a masterstroke of luck, these same ladies would be standing at their side in the shadows one day, waiting for the last “Bravo,” to compete with them for the stragglers.
Each new carriage that approached was greeted by the assembled crowd, avidly plying their separate industries, with great anticipation. The war, though far off, was still on, there was a scarcity of the young military men who were so free with their pay, and money was hard to come by. But when the magnificent carriage bearing the insignia of St. John Basil St. Charles, Marquis of Bessacarr drew up to the curb and a large gentleman alighted, sweeping his impassive stare over them, even the hungriest among them did not press any further forward. Here was a knowing one, they thought, and a hard one, who would not need to dazzle his ladybird with careless largesse to strangers. When the flame-haired woman alighted and preened herself for a moment, allowing the crowd to admire her finery and letting their eyes linger on the dazzling necklace which peeped through the open cape, as did the equally dazzling expanse of bosom she exposed to the September breeze, they looked for only one moment and then waited for the next carriage to discharge its passengers. There was money here, but not for them.
“Annabelle!” came the gentleman’s amused voice. “Shall I have to rent a stage for you to display both my and nature’s gifts? Or would you prefer to accompany me now?” Simpering, she raised her rosy face to his and, taking his arm, allowed herself to be borne off to the theater. “As I once was,” thought a drab who peeked out from the side of the wall where she patiently waited. “As I shall be,” vowed the young girl who stood beside her.
The Marquis looked neither to the left nor to the right as he escorted his lady up the winding staircase to his private box. Yet he knew exactly how his companion disported herself as she clung to his arm. He knew, without having to watch, how she swung her hips, as no lady he would escort on a more fashionable night would, how she alternately smiled or snubbed the other women she encountered, how she let her eyes promise or deny the young blades who eyed her flamboyant beauty. As no proper young woman would dare, he thought, but then, he smiled to himself, no proper young woman would have earned that necklace she wore in quite the way that Annabelle had. And, he admitted, she had certainly earned it.
Once settled in the ornate box, the Marquis allowed himself to glance over the program of the night’s promised delights. But he was not a lover of Opera, and the delights he had promised himself would only come after the performance upon the stage. Annabelle fanned herself and looked out over the audience with great interest, noting old rivals, new contenders, and the vast possibilities of future protectors she might have to beguile should the languid gentleman next to her tire of her. For her, it was both good business and a good diversion to be seen tonight at the theater.
The Marquis, watching Annabelle coolly scrutinizing the murmuring crowd, felt a vast impatience with himself this evening. In truth, it had gone on too long. But, he had to admit, he was growing lazy in the pursuit of his pleasures. It was perhaps simpler to visit those special houses of assignation on a hit or miss basis than it was to fund, feed, and entertain a female such as Annabelle. But it was also more chancy. There was always both the possibility of finding a female who was deft and accomplished, or discovering that one had given up an evening to an unknown who was unacceptable or, at best, marginal. At least Annabelle was a known quantity and, on the whole, reliable.
But there was this necessity of taking her out every so often and showing her off to the town. Or else, she would sulk and whine, and accuse him of being unsatisfied with her services. At first, he remembered—was it only two months ago, then?—he had been well pleased with her. But as the novelty of her talents, and the familiarity of her face and form, had increased, he found himself noticing her personality, her intellect, and her habits—none of which pleased him. For though she could be said to have that most agreeable of traits, “a good heart,” it was undeniable that she was ignorant, avaricious, and common. He sighed, if only women could be folded up into a closet until one took them out for the natural pleasure they provided. No, it would not be long until the Marquis of Bessacarr would be hunting a new companion.
He would not find one among his social equals. He would not find one among the dewy misses so dutifully served up at such fashionable places as Almack’s, or the diverse watering spas or house parties where the fashionable amused themselves. No, those young women were, firstly, seldom as beautiful as Annabelle, and more importantly, never as accessible. They were there only for a titled gentleman such as himself to choose a wife from. Someone who would dutifully lie down, in a most civilized fashion, upon a duly sanctified and sanitized marriage couch, for the sole purpose of producing another being to carry on his exalted name. They were never, the Marquis thought, even to be considered in the same context as Annabelle. They were not, he thought with real amusement, even to be precisely considered as “female” in the same sense that she was. Certainly that was not what they, or he, had been brought up to expect. In fact, he often wondered if many of them precisely knew what sort of marital horrors their noble husbands would eventually require of them.
And those other ladies of his class, those who were not quite so newly-sprung, who had already presented their husbands with the required number of descendants and who had been given indirectly to understand that they might discreetly pursue their pleasure where they may, were little better in his eyes. For after all the courting, all the poetic flights, and subtle hand pressures, and interminable weeks of light flirtation and secret messages, and painstaking arrangements for a site acceptable for dalliance, still he inevitably found them disappointing. It stood to reason: They had once been those same demure little debutantes, they had once had the self-same expectations. The infrequent and required usage by their noble husbands had not prepared them for a life of erotic delight. Even the most willful and passionate among them, the Marquis thought, could not hold a candle to Annabelle’s practice of the art. She was born to it, he smiled, bred to it and accomplished at it. But still, she was becoming a bore.
As for other women of his class, the ones who had found happiness, who lived in accord with their husbands, who found their enjoyments with them alone and sought no others, why, the Marquis had no experience with them. The life he led was that of a hedonist, as so many of his fellows were. As his was expected to be. He was eight and twenty, wealthy and fashionable, and not at all interested in perpetuating his line at the moment, however much that fact must disappoint the general run of young women available to him this season. They must pass on the torch to their younger sisters, he was not in the market for a wife this season. But looking at Annabelle inflating her already considerably inflated chest so that his spider’s net of diamonds could be seen by an acquaintance of hers seated in the orchestra, whose expression of exquisite envy could be read even from this distance, he knew that he was definitely in the market for a new companion.