Read Nicola Cornick Online

Authors: True Colours

Nicola Cornick (23 page)

Caroline shrugged. ‘I’m not sure, really…It just seems an odd coincidence that you should be the recipient of so many proposals at once!’ She gave her friend a look of amused raillery. ‘I know you reject them by the dozen, Alicia, but three in one month!’

Now it was Alicia’s turn to frown. ‘It does seem a little excessive, I know…But surely there can be no connection between the three! The idea’s absurd!’

Caroline agreed, but she continued to frown. ‘You do know that Christopher is in debt, don’t you, Alicia? I’m not wishing to suggest that his affection for you is insincere, but…’ Her voice trailed away unhappily.

Alicia had not known, and felt vaguely surprised. There was nothing in Westwood’s demeanour or dress which suggested straitened circumstances, but that in itself was hardly unexpected. Often those with the smallest means put on the greatest show in the society in which they lived. She wondered suddenly whether a man like Westwood would borrow from the same sources as her cousin Josiah, for example. It was an odd thought, for there was such a fastidious, finicky element to Westwood’s nature that she could not imagine him seeking out a money-lender in the backstreets of London…

Yet when she considered it there
similarities between her cousin’s case and that of Christopher Westwood: the lack of visible means of financial support, the enjoyment of expensive living and the love of deep play…At the back of her mind a thought stirred briefly, but Caroline was pulling her arm, drawing her attention to the light, grey drizzle and the mist that was descending again on the moorland behind the house. Alicia forgot her thoughts as the two girls slipped in at the back gate of Chartley Chase and made their way up the damp path. Marcus Kilgaren and Christopher Westwood could be seen through the games-room window playing at billiards, and Alicia sighed unconsciously at the thought of returning to the drawing-room and the barbed observations of Georgiana Stapleford. Caroline gave her arm a comforting squeeze.

‘Only a few days until we all leave you in peace!’ she whispered irrepressibly. ‘Then all we need to worry about is the Season, and how on earth we engineer your first public meeting with James!’

Chapter Eight

t was the most perfect dress that Alicia had ever seen. Her maid, Gibley, brought it forward into the light almost reverently and the dress fell like a golden waterfall over her arm, rustling softly as she moved.

The first major social event of the new Season—a ball at the home of fashionable hostess Mrs Laetitia Bingley—was taking place that evening. It was also to be the first meeting of Alicia and James before the
. Dealing with a handful of former acquaintances in a Somerset churchyard was one thing, Alicia reflected; could James achieve a similar success under the critical, fickle gaze of his peers? Alicia knew that the two of them would be a cynosure for all eyes and the thought was a daunting one, even to one as accustomed as she to the whims and ways of Society. In addition, she had had to cope with her own rising sense of anticipation at the thought of seeing James again. Hence the gold dress—she needed to give herself confidence. Such an outrageous gown, she thought comfortingly, could not fail.

Like all of Alicia’s clothes it was very simple and elegant. Slashed low across her breasts, it revealed a dizzying amount of bare skin and hinted at other delights only just concealed beneath its sinuous, flowing silk. To match the style, Gibley painstakingly swept Alicia’s hair back in a simple Grecian knot, restraining the copper curls with a small gold circlet that added a regal touch.

Alicia studied her reflection thoughtfully. She looked cool, untouchable, and almost impossibly tantalising, a far cry from the nervous turmoil that shook her inside. You’re a fool to yourself, Alicia Carberry, she told her mirror image astringently. You have had any number of offers from the most eligible
in Town, and yet you persist in
pining for the love of the one man who is beyond your reach. The girl in the mirror looked back at her with the faintest hint of a compassionate smile on her lips. No matter. Tonight her feelings would not be on view for public consumption. She intended to dazzle and deflect the barbs of the curious. And as an additional aim she would show the Marquis of Mullineaux that she was not about to fall into his arms again. The memory of the scene at Chartley Church was with her still. She raised her chin. Damn his impertinence!

Gibley smiled slightly, standing back like her mistress to admire her handiwork.

‘You’ll set the Town by the ears tonight, my lady,’ she opined. ‘Do you wish to wear any jewellery?’

Alicia’s eyes met hers in the mirror. ‘Just the green star,’ she said softly.

Gibley was surprised and showed it. In her opinion, Lady Carberry had many pieces of beautiful jewellery and the fact that she seldom chose to wear any of them was a great pity. The green star, an enormous emerald, had been brought back from India by George Carberry and set for him in a barbaric and vulgar gold necklace. Alicia had immediately had the emerald reset when she had inherited it, but she had never shown any inclination to wear it—until now.

Gibley unlocked the case and brought the necklace across gingerly, almost as though she expected it to bite her. There was no denying that the single jewel was very effective, set as it was now on a plain gold chain. Around Alicia’s neck, it suddenly took fire from her eyes and reflected the intense green light back again. Under any circumstances it would have drawn all eyes, but Gibley could not even begin to imagine what effect it would have that night in combination with the dress and Lady Carberry’s luminous beauty.

Alicia moved slightly and the light struck the carved surfaces of the emerald, scintillating deep within its depths. A faint, satisfied smile touched her lips, and Gibley watched her curiously. Lord Charles Oxley was her ladyship’s escort to the ball that night, but Gibley doubted profoundly that all this finery was for Lord Charles’s benefit. He and Alicia had been friends for many years without her betraying even the slightest
for him. Whereas the Marquis of Mullineaux would also be at the ball, and Gibley rather suspected that Lady Carberry’s feelings for him were another matter. There was no doubt that her ladyship was playing a deep game—a game designed to fool the
, but possibly to deceive the Marquis as well.

Alicia stood up and the pale gold skirts shimmered around her. Lost in admiration, Gibley passed her the matching gold reticule and fan, and the gossamer-light scarf for her shoulders.

It was as Alicia was about to go downstairs to join Lord Charles and Miss Frensham that Gibley suddenly realised what was missing.

‘Your bracelet, madam! Are you not wearing it tonight?’

Alicia paused in the doorway and smiled. ‘Not tonight, thank you, Gibley. It does not suit the occasion.’

There was a whisper of silk, and she was gone.


When Charles Oxley saw Alicia he experienced serious misgivings about the decision he had made only the previous day to propose marriage to the debutante daughter of Lord and Lady Mountjoy. Compared with the wanton beauty before him, the youthful charms of Sarah Mountjoy paled into insignificance. A moment later, he recalled that he had already asked Alicia to marry him twice in the past, and she had turned him down and always would. He suddenly realised that he had been gaping like a fish ever since she had entered the room and tried to pull himself together.

‘I say, you do look splendid tonight, Alicia!’ Lord Charles considered the gold dress in more detail and felt his collar become rather constricting. He was almost certain that he had turned bright red. ‘Splendid!’ he repeated, finding it almost impossible to drag his gaze away from the green star, where it shone so seductively in the hollow between Alicia’s breasts.

Miss Frensham, conservative in her usual lavender muslim, was also struck by the dress, but in a rather different way.

‘Lady Carberry! Why, you
wear that style!’

‘No. Does it not make a delightful change?’ Alicia seemed blissfully unaware of her disapproval. ‘I like it so much that I think I will place an order for several more with Madame Celeste!’

Miss Frensham murmured something fortunately inaudible, although Charles Oxley thought that he had heard the word ‘
’ mentioned. He hurried forward with Alicia’s velvet cloak, clumsy in his efforts to get something more substantial around her body. Alicia gave him a melting smile over her shoulder which raised his blood pressure even higher. He had always agreed with those who had categorised the lovely Lady Carberry as sexually cold, but it seemed he had been in grave error. Either that, or something extraordinary had happened to her since the last time they had met.

Miss Frensham was tutting in a worried sort of a way. The guardian of Alicia’s reputation ever since her unfortunate marriage, Miss Frensham had a lowering feeling that matters were slipping from her rather tenuous grasp. First there had been that distressing episode at Ottery, although Lady Carberry had been all that was proper in quashing
scandal! Now, however, it seemed she was set on creating a whole new set of rumours of her own accord! Never had Miss Frensham seen her ladyship in so—she boggled at the word, but it was applicable—wanton a mood. It did not augur well for the rest of the evening.

The road outside the Bingleys’ town house was already crowded with carriages as they arrived. Flaring torches lit the steps to the door and a multitude of people appeared to be going in. It was very early in the evening for such a crush and Miss Frensham could not help but wonder whether Alicia’s meeting with Lord Mullineaux was the sole reason for all this interest. To judge by the avid glances cast their way, this was very much the case. Miss Frensham’s timid heart sank even further, particularly as she caught sight of the wicked sparkle in Alicia’s green eyes, a look which her long-suffering companion could not help but mistrust. With a slight moan, Miss Frensham excused herself and dashed into a side room where she administered herself a large dose of sal volatile and waited for her nerves to calm a little.

Fortunately, Miss Frensham played no more than a peripheral part in the encounter which Caroline Kilgaren had orchestrated so carefully for her friends. According to plan, Alicia and Charles Oxley now progressed into the ballroom, which Mrs Bingley had decorated with an oriental theme. Oxley, a simple soul, was inclined to disparage the opulent draperies and colourful Chinese lanterns, and he shuddered visibly at the murals of rampaging elephants. Alicia, who was feeling ever more nervous beneath her confident façade, thought that Mrs Bingley had perhaps overdone the theme a little, and was assailed by a fit of the giggles. Ever since some ambitious hostess had held a ball complete with a troutstream running through the ballroom, the fashionable had outdone themselves and each other to come up with new and original ideas.

The ballroom was filling rapidly and Alicia was soon surrounded by her usual court of admirers who found to their annoyance that it was impossible to prise her away from Lord Charles. Since Caroline had specifically told her brother to stay with Alicia until after James Mullineaux had arrived this was not surprising, and Charles was sticking doggedly to his duty. Not even the twinkling smile of Sarah Mountjoy
could draw him across the ballroom, although he would have felt more comfortable next to her than in the orbit of Alicia’s bright, particular star. She was dazzling in a way which made him feel quite ill at ease that evening, and he did little other than watch her silently as she automatically parried the compliments of others more articulate than himself.

It was strange, Charles reflected, what a change could be wrought in a person, and it was not simply the dress which had effected the transformation. Alicia had always represented all that stood for restrained good taste, with the emphasis very much on the restraint. Her clothes were faultlessly elegant, but seldom so provocative, and she never wore jewellery. Not simply that, but there was something in her manner, some suppressed air of excitement, that was positively sensual. Watching her flashing smile, Charles once again tried to ease the tightness of his collar. How could he ever have imagined her to be cold? She was giving off so much heat that he was afraid of burning up. And he was not the only one who was looking at her with a mixture of fascination and puzzlement. Several of her oldest admirers, who flattered themselves that they knew Alicia extremely well, were looking completely confused.

The noise level in the room was growing, as was the excitement in the air. Alicia’s own tension levels were well ahead of the rest, however. She was barely able to prevent herself shaking visibly and found it incredibly difficult to concentrate on what anyone said to her. Lady Stansfield came in, fixed her granddaughter with a shrewd eye, and crossed the room to bestow on her a very public kiss of approval. Her arrival had the fortunate effect of removing some of the less respectable of Alicia’s admirers and making space for Caroline’s cousin Charlotte and her husband Perry Renwick.

Everything was happening at once now. Lady Stansfield drifted off to join the Staplefords and Christopher Westwood, then there was a ripple of excitement, and Alicia, turning with everyone else, saw that Caroline and Marcus had come in, accompanied by James Mullineaux.

‘The Earl and Countess of Kilgaren. The Marquis of Mullineaux.’

The stentorian tones of the Bingleys’ butler floated across the room, putting a stop to all conversations. Caroline and Marcus greeted their hostess and came down the steps into the ballroom first, Marcus resplendent in evening dress and Caroline ethereal in silver gauze. Meanwhile, Mrs Bingley was greeting James Mullineaux very warmly. To her natural pleasure at seeing him again was added the fact that his
presence had just about guaranteed the success of her ball. And he was, after all, a very attractive man. She let him go with obvious reluctance as another flurry of guests arrived and he joined Caroline and Marcus, who were chatting with Peter and Maria Weston. Peter seemed very pleased to see his old friend again and from Maria James got a shy smile, and a kiss on the cheek. All was going according to Caroline’s plan. She took James’s arm, and the whole group turned towards Alicia and Charles.

The years rolled back and Alicia could suddenly see the tall figure of James Mullineaux crossing the Stansfield House ballroom towards her, moving with that lithe grace which was peculiarly his own. Tonight he was dressed with elegant simplicity in black and white evening dress and in many ways he looked the same as he had done seven years before; the same tanned, classically handsome features, the same intensely dark and disturbing gaze, the same lazy assurance in his manner…

The murmur in the room died to almost total silence. Only the music of the string quartet still tinkled in the distance. Caroline, performing the introductions, did not bat an eyelid at finding herself the centre of attention. She had always had a flair for drama.

‘You remember my cousin Charlotte, don’t you, James? And this is her husband, Peregrine Renwick. Perry, may I make you known to James Mullineaux?’

The two men exchanged bows. Renwick was a spare, sandy-haired, humorous man, who had heard plenty about James Mullineaux even though he had never met him. He gave the Marquis a penetrating look, quite disposed to like what he saw. Charlotte was blushing in much the same way she had when James had greeted her at Stansfield House seven years ago. She had never quite grown out of her admiration for him, although she had equally never felt quite comfortable with him—there was something about such blatant masculinity that was too dangerously attractive. She murmured a few words of greeting, moving instinctively closer to Perry’s side, and James smiled at her and turned to Alicia.

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