Authors: Virginia Henley
“Brilliantly devious, sir,” said Ruark, flashing white teeth.
Charles said seriously, “One learns to be devious when dealing with women.” The two men were walking across St. James Park toward Whitehall when the King got another brilliant idea.
“Auntie Lil!” he said, stopping in his tracks.
“I beg your pardon?” said Ruark.
“We’ll call on Auntie Lil … she’s right here in Cockspur Street. I’ve a mind to be introduced to some pretty young thing, and what better place than Auntie Lil’s?”
Ruark demurred. “I was introduced to a young woman at Auntie Lil’s once … before I was done, she cost me a fortune and wasn’t even virgin.”
Charles laughed. “Virginity isn’t all its cracked up to be—just thinking of all the necessary breaking in fatigues me.”
Ruark knew he was thinking of Queen Catherine.
“You know, Ru, in my experience, which is rumored to be extensive, women are all the same.”
Ruark silently disagreed with him. If he could meet an attractive lady who hadn’t slept with the King and half his court, he’d probably consider marrying her.
The King continued, “On the surface Catherine and Barbara seem worlds apart, yet underneath both use sexual favors to get their own way. Then if they don’t get their own way, they withhold those favors.”
“Well,” said Ruark, “there’s not much point in my going to Lil’s
with you, Sire. I’m for Cornwall in a week’s time and the last thing I need is a female entanglement. I’ve only just managed to extract myself from one.”
“Helford, you swore an oath to support your monarch in any undertaking. As your superior, I command you attend me.”
Ruark lifted one brow, dark as a raven’s wing. “I have no superior, Sire.”
Charles looked at him with admiration. “’Sdeath, I do believe you speak the truth.” Charles’s face was transformed by a lazy, charming smile. “As my friend, come and give me moral support.”
The white Persian cat had chosen to sleep in Summer’s chamber, but by the door scratching it was now doing, it obviously needed to go outside. She threw back the covers, hesitated a moment over going downstairs in the snowy nightgown so exquisitely trimmed in ribbon and lace, then she scooped up the small ball of white fluff and ran downstairs. She reasoned that before six in the morning none would be about.
She was startled by a knock on the front door just as she was about to open it and fell back in wonder as two tall, dark gentlemen stepped confidently into the foyer. The cat, alarmed, scratched her and jumped from her arms. “Oh, you little hellcat,” she murmured as her eyes went wide over the magnificently garbed pair of gentlemen callers. One was dressed in purple velvet with gold braid, the other in black velvet with a powder blue ostrich feather sweeping from his wide-brimmed hat. Powder blue, begod! She’d never seen anything like it in her life.
Her eyes began at their thigh-high cavalier boots and traveled upward to their black, shoulder-length hair and frankly assessing eyes. One of the men held her gaze for what seemed a lifetime as panic rose within her at her state of undress. Relief swept through her as one of her aunt’s footmen stepped into the foyer and she fled upstairs, her black cloud of hair in wild disarray and her cheeks stained crimson.
Ruark Helford stared up the stairs long after she had gone. The girl’s looks had almost bowled him over. Her darkly dramatic features were exotic, unusual, almost mysterious, and she was physically exciting in the extreme.
The pristine nightgown she wore with the little bows all up the front sent his imagination soaring. Today’s fashions were so voluminous a man couldn’t gauge a female’s figure accurately until he
actually stripped her of her whalebone and padding, but the prim white garment had fallen about her in soft folds which hinted at the delicious swell of high-pointed breasts and round bottom. When she ran up the stairs, he’d actually glimpsed bare feet and slender ankles and he prayed that the limbs above the ankles were lithe and slim.
He had already made up his mind about one thing. The first time she came to his bed he wanted her in that white thing with its row of ribbon fastenings. The thought of opening them one by one made his throat go dry. There was that about her which suggested a man might find unmatched, pleasurable fulfillment if she would ever deign to bestow her favors.
Though he knew he had never laid eyes on her before, she reminded him of something or someone. He imagined himself deep inside her and he was instantly swollen with lust.
Ruark Helford said to the King, “I feel it only sporting to let you know I’m in the running after all.”
“Not a chance, Helford! Gad, I believe that’s the first unpainted face I’ve seen in two years.”
“Fifty pounds say I taste her first,” wagered Ruark.
“You are ordered to Cornwall, Helford, and I see no possible reason for delay.”
Summer’s auntie Lil was about to descend the staircase as the breathless girl flew past her. Lil’s eyes narrowed with speculation as she saw Charles Stuart larger than life in her foyer. At the foot of the staircase she swept into a deep curtsy and drawled in her plummy, provocative voice, “Your Majesty, you honor me by your visit but must it be before six in the morning, Sire?”
“Lady Richwood, your humble servant, madame,” Charles said, smoothly raising her jeweled fingers to his lips. “We are such intimate friends I believed I should be welcomed at any hour.”
She slid her eyes over the King’s companion. “Lord Helford, I believe you near frightened my niece to death with your dangerous good looks,” she drawled suggestively.
“Your, er … niece,” said the King delicately, “has caught my eye and I beg an introduction.”
Lady Richwood stiffened instantly, and to show the King of England he had committed an almost unforgivable faux pas she dropped the drawl and spoke crisply. “Gentlemen, that really is my niece, Lady Summer St. Catherine. I summoned her to London
because of her father’s health. Sadly he passed away yesterday. We are in mourning.”
It was an age of loosest morals, but strictest manners.
“Lady Richwood, forgive us for clumsy fools. My deepest condolences, madame, on the loss of your brother. Helford, your suggestion to come here today was most ill timed.”
Lil Richwood’s voice softened immediately as she drawled, “You are quite forgiven…. I’m particularly partial to tall, dark cavaliers.”
Both men bowed formally and very deeply before they departed.
untie Lil swept up the staircase, her eyes narrowed in speculation. She reassessed her niece with shrewd eyes before she answered the question that had burst from her lips. “It was His Majesty the King, darling, and he was definitely interested in you. But if I arrange a liaison, you will have to be a very clever girl to hold his interest more than briefly. Your competition would be formidable. However, it would be a way out of your financial difficulties.”
A little maid brought a breakfast tray with fruit and croissants and chocolate to drink. Lil grimaced at Summer’s healthy appetite. Slowly, between bites, Summer asked, “Do you mean share the King’s bed … for money?”
Lil watched her face carefully as she explained, “An alcove, a bathing chamber, a carriage, or wherever else he decided to have you, not just in bed. When your tail’s for sale, you might as well sell to the highest bidder.”
Summer shuddered. Then slowly she licked the honey from her fingers and asked, “Who was the other man?” She knew she could never land such a big fish as the King, at least not yet She was willing to start smaller.
“Ah, darling, I don’t think you’d be Ruark Helford’s type. His current mistress, Ann Ashley, is like a porcelain doll.”
“Helford?” repeated Summer with great interest.
“Yes, Lord Helford owns that great estate next to yours in Cornwall, though he’s not been near the place in years, I’ll warrant you.”
“Hell and furies, so that’s Lord Helford?” mused Summer in disbelief. “I pictured him a fat, old swine.” She laughed. “’Tis not a week since I wished him a miserable night.” Her eyes narrowed. “When I think of the wealth of the bloody Helfords, it makes my blood run cold. Spider and I have gone hungry for years while the lowest of his servants has lived off the fat of the land.” Silently she told herself he wasn’t actually repulsive, not for a rich man.
“Darling, wouldn’t it be divine justice if you could get your hands on Helford’s money? If you successfully pursued him, it would even the score!”
Summer wasn’t convinced. She said doubtfully, “He looked at me very strangely.”
“How?” asked Lil.
“Like he wanted to devour me,” she said.
“That’s exactly what he might do, darling; he’s dangerous.” Lil could see her grudging reluctance and knew she could only convince her if she presented him as a challenge. “You need a man you can lead by the nose, and though you got only one glance at him, I think you know Ruark Helford couldn’t be led by a woman. Perhaps an older man would be easier to control, someone who wasn’t blessed with Helford’s devastating looks.”
“I wouldn’t call him handsome,” said Summer, tossing back her hair, “though I wouldn’t call him unattractive either.”
“It would take a great deal of cunning to outwit Helford. If you don’t think you could rise to such a challenge, let’s consider another.”
“No-o,” said Summer, narrowing her eyes in anticipation and acceptance, “I think Ruark Helford will fit my plans very nicely.”
“All right, darling, but don’t say I didn’t warn you! I’ll find out what’s going on in his life at the moment.”
“How will you do that?” asked Summer with keen interest.
“My servants will find out from his servants, of course. The household grapevine—a veritable cornucopia of invaluable trivia.”
“This morning I intend to see the man who holds the mortgage on Roseland. I must try to stop him from foreclosing. I will bargain with him for time, but, Lil, I know I would fare much better if I had something decent to wear.”
The maid returned for the tray. “My niece and I will be upstairs in the wardrobe and cannot be disturbed for any reason.” She took Summer’s hand. “Come, darling, I think it’s time you met Dora.”
To Summer’s amazement she discovered the top floor of the fashionable house in Cockspur Street was set aside for clothes. The two wardrobe rooms were presided over by Dora, who had been a wardrobe mistress at the Theatre Royal. She was a small round woman with cheeks like red apples.
Large windows ran across one wall and mirrors across another. No wonder Auntie Lil was always turned out immaculately. By way of explanation Lil drawled, “This inventory is my stock-in-trade, Summer. You’d be amazed that my well-bred young women who know exactly how to act and what to say in society haven’t the slightest idea how to dress. Dora is a treasure; a miracle worker. To keep expenses down she reuses the expensive furs over and over on different cloaks and capes and hoods. The same with the exquisite beadwork and lace panels. Ribbons are the latest fashion imported from France, so by using a few hundred yard of ribbon she’s transformed dozens of gowns.” Without seeming to take a breath, Lil said, “Now, Dora, what do you suggest?”
“Her coloring is so vivid she will look good in almost anything. But of course if it is a spectacular effect you wish, we must pay attention to every detail. If she were being presented at Court, she would be an overnight sensation in flame-colored silk with poppies in her hair.”
“Can’t be done, Dora my dove, technically she’s in mourning.”
“Ah, then we have to be more subtle. Her colors will have to be black and white, any shade of mauve, lavender, or purple … gray is good also. She may wear any color on the street if she is disguised with a black velvet vizard mask … we have many styles.”
Although Summer had never been exposed to fine clothes in her life, with unerring feminine instinct her hand fell on a pale gray velvet cloak edged in soft gray fox. Its lining was amethyst satin. “She has the eye for elegance,” approved Dora. “A gray fox muff goes with that cloak and we shall pin a spray of amethysts to it … just so.”
Summer gasped as the woman opened a many-tiered jewel box and extracted the amethyst pin.
“Glass beads, darling. The trick is to wear them with the confidence of an empress,” explained Lil. “We will keep the furs for
later, Dora. This morning we must go to visit the man who holds a mortgage on her estate. She must appear to be a well-bred lady in deepest mourning who has prospects. We must convey the illusion that she will redeem the mortgage if given a little time.”
Dora pursed her lips and nodded her head a dozen times as if she were acknowledging some invisible advice, then she pulled out a cream velvet walking suit with braided black frogs. She chose a high-crowned, cream-colored hat adorned with a black ostrich feather curling down the cheek and under the chin to match the suit exactly, and to finish off the outfit was a pair of black kid gloves, a black fur muff, a black enamel fan, and a black silk handkerchief for the tears.
“How in the name of God will I manage a mask, a muff, a fan, and a handkerchief?”
Lil ignored her. “Dora my dove, she’ll look like the King’s latest mistress. Ah well, I suppose that has its advantages. Summer, you’ll make me look a positive drab. I’m afraid it will have to be the black sable for me.” She caressed the luxurious fur lovingly. “I’m particularly partial to sable,” she cooed.