Authors: Tiffany Clare
Tags: #Fiction, #Romance, #Regency, #Historical
“Are we sure this is wise?” Hayden interjected as the door opened and Jez took the footman’s hand to be let down.
Tristan ducked his head and exited. “Should we hide behind our mothers’ apron strings?”
Leo laughed and slapped Hayden on the shoulder as he stepped down from the carriage. “Come on, Hayden. It’s meant to be a night of celebration now that the old scalawag has kicked the bucket.”
“I’m willing to do just about anything to cheer you up, Jez.” Tristan offered his arm. “I’ll see you to your townhouse.”
With a pointed glare aimed at Hayden, Jez batted her lashes at Tristan. “I couldn’t ask for a better or more willing companion.”
“What have you planned for the evening, Jez?” Leo asked, trailing behind Jez and Tristan up the steps to her townhouse.
“This particular ball is full of debutantes … ripe for plucking. I do believe Mr. Warren has his eye on one of the ladies in attendance. There was something he said at the reading of the will to indicate such.”
Not sure how he should interpret this tidbit of information, Leo only quirked one brow. No one knew how to exact revenge quite like Jez. That was what had set her apart from most women of his acquaintance: she thought and acted as ruthless and as cunning as a man.
It brought a smile to his face when he remembered the first time he’d met her. It had been gentlemen’s night at Hastley’s and she’d been smoking a cigar and playing cards at a table with ten other men.
“What do you have in mind?” Leo asked, intrigued.
“I’m only thinking of the girl,” she said with a sweet pout tilting her mouth down. “I wouldn’t wish the life I had on anyone. She mustn’t marry Mr. Warren.”
Though a host may turn away any guest without an invite, it would be bad judgment to refuse the Duke of A
entry anywhere, even with friends considered to have the lowest of morals in tow.
The Mayfair Chronicles, May 26, 1846
“You’re to stay by my side this evening, as your grandmother instructed. I will not be impressed if I have to search for you in the gardens with your newest beau,” Genevieve Camden scolded her cousin.
Her younger cousin, Charlotte, had debuted in society this past spring and all had gone swimmingly well between them for months. Everything had changed with Charlotte’s father’s insistence that his daughter be courted and married to a man of his choice come fall—one Mr. Warren.
So far, Charlotte had only disappeared twice into a garden and dark alcove with gentlemen this past week. Still, the suddenness of her impending marriage—to a man neither knew well—did not mean that Charlotte could eschew proper conduct.
And, really, it could be far worse for her cousin.
Genny guessed Mr. Warren to be in his early to mid-thirties. He was handsome enough with his lithe, strong-looking frame. More importantly, he had a full head of hair and was in possession of all his teeth. There were far too many bald-headed, gum-grinding gentlemen for Genny’s liking. All in all, she thought her uncle had chosen well.
“Pooh.” Charlotte pouted. “You really aren’t any fun at all.”
“That is why your father asked me to accompany you around Town,” Genny retorted before she could rein in her frustration. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to be so harsh.”
“Yes you did.” Hurt was etched in her cousin’s face. “You should never have sided with my father.”
“What else could I do?” Genny couldn’t stand up to her uncle, else he’d have her removed from the house and cut off his support.
“You could have made excuses on my behalf. Instead you just stood beside me and nodded in agreement with everything my father said.”
“It won’t matter how often I apologize, you’ll never forgive me, will you?”
“This isn’t the place for this.” Charlotte looked around the room before turning back to Genny with a forced smile. “We are at a ball, and I should be dancing the night away.”
Genny did sympathize with her younger cousin’s plight. But that didn’t mean Charlotte should risk damaging either of their reputations, especially since Genny relied upon the generosity of her extended family to keep her clothed, fed, and comfortable now that she was firmly considered an unmarriageable spinster without an income to sustain a life of independence. It wasn’t so terrible having to rely upon family. Genny did have more freedom now than she had when she was a debutante.
“I am headed for the punch table,” Charlotte said, smoothly changing the topic when Genny made no response. “Can I bring you a refreshment?”
“I will pass, thank you. I have already partaken of the punch and it’s quite bland.” She took a deep breath and tried to summon a reasonable tone. “Please don’t leave this room without me, not under any circumstance, or your father will hear about it.”
Charlotte’s brows puckered closer together and she let out an annoyed huff. “You really are a spoilsport. I promise to do no more than converse with my friends and wait for gentlemen to fill in their names on our dance cards. You’ll see me directly across the room. Does that meet with your approval?”
“I wouldn’t have to scold you if you acted like a proper young lady.”
Charlotte looked affronted. “The best years of my life are going to be wasted in marriage. Why shouldn’t I experience what life has to offer before then?”
Before Genny could come up with a reasonable response, Charlotte was halfway across the ballroom, weaving through guests and dancers with sure footing. The heavy pleats in Charlotte’s green silk gown seamlessly flowed through the crowd instead of dragging behind her. Heads turned, but her cousin gave no notice to anyone until she reached her friend Ariel’s side. Ariel had on a blush silk gown with pearls sewn right into the fitted bodice, making her look almost like a fairy princess with all that opalescent shimmer and pale blonde hair to give her an ethereal quality men seemed to adore.
Genny looked down at the drab affair she wore with a slight shake of her head; it was better suited for a funeral than a ball. She felt too young to be a spinster and sometimes wished that life could be as easy for her as it was for her cousin.
Genny had been born to a modest family with an equally humble income. But she knew that wealth came with a few disadvantages of its own. She supposed she was lucky to have been sponsored at all and had at least experienced a debut at eighteen. She had not made good use of her great-aunt’s generosity and married well, though.
She blew out a frustrated breath and looked away from the small gathering of debutantes and young, marriageable gentlemen that surrounded Charlotte and Ariel.
envious. Well, maybe slightly since she had wanted to marry, just not to any of the men who had offered.
Taking a step back, Genny pressed her shoulder against the wall. Would it really hurt anyone’s sensibilities if a few chairs were placed in the ballroom? She didn’t wish to stand all evening.
Though it hadn’t been that long since she had debuted into society, she was no longer cut out for the late nights and early mornings. Not after playing the role of companion these last three years to her aunt Hilda, the very woman who had sponsored her. Her aunt was in her sixth decade and in bed before the evening clock struck eight once she’d retired from society.
Now, from luncheon to the latest hours of the night, Genny was at her cousin’s side. She swore by the time she closed her eyes to finally sleep that the girl’s grandmother, too aged to escort her granddaughter around Town herself, was ringing that dratted servants’ bell and demanding Genny’s attendance. Sometimes Genny was summoned before the sun even had a chance to rise—like today.
A commotion at the ballroom entrance had Genny standing taller and firmer where she’d perched herself against the wall. Unladylike, she knew, but she couldn’t find it in her to care at the moment. All she needed was one decent night of sleep and she’d be in top form for the remainder of the month.
The clamor came from a great many voices talking all at once. Newcomers to the ball, Genny concluded.
She scanned the candlelit room for Charlotte and spotted her still standing near the punch table. Charlotte leaned into Ariel, her fan flicking rapidly at her reddened cheeks as she whispered something next to her friend’s ear. Both girls laughed then turned their attention back to the gentlemen who surrounded them; two men actually blushed at whatever her cousin said.
Just as Genny turned back to the entrance of the ballroom, the Earl of Barrington appeared, arresting her attention.
Her breath hitched, her heart beat frantically in her chest, and a sound that was a mixture of hurt, anger, and longing welled in her throat. Stepping away from the wall, she clutched her hands in front of her, unsure what to do. Hiding seemed ideal, but not when she needed to keep a sharp eye on Charlotte.
She’d known it was possible that she might chance seeing him about Town now that she was back in society with her cousin.
Four years hadn’t changed him one whit. He was still as handsome and dapper as ever. It was probably better she hadn’t pursued a match with him; she’d look rather plain next to such a striking specimen of man.
He was tall and imposing, at least a couple of inches above six feet. His deep brown hair curled like that of some Adonis of old. She recalled the soft silky texture of it as she’d run her fingers through the curly tresses and held him tightly in the midst of the most earth-shattering pleasure she’d ever experienced in her life.
His eyes were as dark a brown as the most decadent chocolate and his brows were perfectly trimmed, giving him that devil-may-care look. His nose was crooked; he had boasted that it had been broken not once but twice in his younger days. Why she had found it attractive at all was testament to how blinded she’d once been by his dashing looks and charming wit. However, such meaningless things could no longer sway her.
Hair grew down the side of his face along his jaw, which he kept clipped close to his skin. She well remembered the feel of his face rubbing over her bare thighs, her naked breasts …
She had to stop visualizing those memories.
He was a solidly built man. His frame wide, his arms had been well muscled and strong and still looked to be so. She had once traced the blue veins that stood out on his arms as they lay in bed together. She had grasped his wide shoulders tightly as he pushed her up against the headboard and did very wicked things to her.
Closing her eyes to gather her fast scattering imaginings, she mentally chastised herself and focused on the here and now. Though it was hard to forget the pleasure and the mind-numbing delight they had shared so long ago. Goodness, it was nearly impossible to forget
at all. And if she were honest with herself, which she did not want to be, her focus had strayed to memories of him far too many times to count over the years since she’d last seen him. Had things been different, maybe they would have married. She’d been foolish not to demand it of him after everything they had shared.
Three others of
set stepped down from the landing above the grand ballroom. The duchess, and hostess of the ball, emerged from the throng of matrons occupying her attention; a tight, somewhat forced smile formed on her face the moment she caught a glimpse of the Dowager Countess Fallon in a sapphire-blue dress, her red hair knotted back into an intricately braided bun with iridescent green feathers sticking elegantly out the top.
Did the dowager plan on making a scene? Hadn’t the funeral for her husband been held today? Genny wasn’t one to judge but it seemed odd that the dowager would attend a ball so soon after her husband’s passing.
Genny spun back in the direction of her charge. Charlotte was chattering with her friends, unaware of the tension that suddenly thickened the air and lulled the conversations around them.
Focusing again on the entryway, Genny wondered why
had come to a ball with mainly debutantes in attendance. She doubted any of them had marriage in mind—or, for that matter, good intentions.
The host of the ball crossed a short span of the ballroom and took the Duke of Alsborough’s hand in a familiar gesture. The duke had deceivingly angelic features with his blond hair and sharp blue eyes. He was tall and lean, but she could see the strength all but radiating from him.
The Marquess of Castleigh kissed the back of the duchess’s hand. The man wore black from head to toe, except for the stark white cravat about his neck that further sharpened his handsome features and dark slicked-back hair. He was a perfect contrast to the duke … sweet heaven and tempting hell.
And then there was the devil in the Earl of Barrington. Leo—as she had familiarly addressed him so long ago—also kissed the back of the duchess’s hand, offering some pleasantry that had the woman smiling coyly back.
Genny pressed back into the wall, wishing she could simply disappear from view. Not a possibility with her cousin half a room away and in need of an eagle eye to keep her from a danger she couldn’t possibly understand.
Even though a quadrille played in the background, the new guests seemed to capture the attention of most of the attendees milling about the room. Dancers abandoned the dance floor to discuss the turn of events.
With added bravery, Genny forced herself away from the wall and took a step in Charlotte’s direction. She doubted she had anything to worry about where her cousin and these men were concerned, but she remembered the temptation Barrington represented all too well. And since her father’s declaration, Charlotte seemed to smell a bad decision a mile away.
Hopefully, Barrington didn’t notice Genny as she made her way around the room.
Besides, it wasn’t as if Barrington would ever take stock of the colorless women that had found a comfortable spot along the edge of the room with only the odd wallflower to offer some color among them.