Read Scandal Wears Satin Online

Authors: Loretta Chase

Tags: #Fiction, #Romance, #Historical, #General

Scandal Wears Satin

Scandal Wears Satin

Loretta Chase

 

Prologue

 

Observe his fierce, fighting-cock air; his coal-black gipsy curls; his aristocratic (not to call it arrogant) expression of countenance—never laid aside, whether he is smiling on a fair dame or frowning on a fawning dun.

—The Court Magazine,

“Sketches from Real Life,” 1835

 

London

Thursday 21 May 1835, early morning

 

T
he trollops knew how to throw a party.

On Wednesday nights, after dancing or playing cards with Society’s crème de la crème at Almack’s, London’s wilder set continued more eagerly to a very different assembly at the house of Carlotta O’Neill. On offer was a roulette table, along with other games of chance, as well as spicier games with the demireps who played ladies-in-waiting to London’s current queen of courtesans.

Harry Fairfax, Earl of Longmore, was on the scene, naturally.

Carlotta’s wasn’t the sort of place his father, the Marquess of Warford, would wish his twenty-seven-year-old son and heir to frequent, but heeding his parents’ wishes, Longmore had decided a long time ago, was the fast and easy route to murderous boredom.

He was nothing like his parents, on any count. He’d inherited not only his great-uncle Lord Nicholas Fairfax’s piratical looks—black hair, black eyes, and a tall, muscular physique usually associated with buccaneers—but Great-Uncle Nicholas’s talent for Doing What He Was Not Supposed To.

And so Lord Longmore was at Carlotta’s.

And she was draped over him, wafting waves of scent. And talking, unfortunately.

“But you’re intimately acquainted with them,” she was saying. “You must tell us what the new Duchess of Clevedon is really like.”

“Brunette,” he said, watching the roulette wheel spin. “Pretty. Says she’s English but acts French.”

“My dear, we could have found that out from the
Spectacle.

Foxe’s Morning Spectacle
was London’s premier scandal sheet. The high-principled Marquess of Warford called it disgusting tripe, but he read it, as did everyone else, from London’s bawds and pimps on up to the Royal Family. Every detail it published regarding the Duke of Clevedon’s new bride had, Longmore knew, been artfully crafted by the bride’s fair-haired sister Sophia Noirot, evil dressmaker by day and Tom Foxe’s premier spy by night.

Longmore wondered where she was this night. He hadn’t spotted her at Almack’s. Milliners—especially slightly French ones—had as much chance of receiving vouchers to Almack’s as he had of turning invisible at will. But Sophia Noirot had her own mode of invisibility, and she was perfectly capable of inserting her elegantly curved body anywhere she pleased, in the guise of a temporary servant. That was how she dug up so much dirt for Foxe’s scandal sheet.

The roulette wheel stopped spinning, one of the fellows at the table swore, and the wench acting as croupier raked a pile of counters in Longmore’s direction.

He scooped them up and handed them to Carlotta.

“Your winnings?” she said. “Do you want me to keep them safe for you?”

He laughed. “Yes, m’dear, keep them safe. Buy yourself a bauble or some such.”

Her well-groomed eyebrows went up.

Until a moment ago, when visions of Sophy Noirot sashayed into his mind, he’d assumed what Carlotta had assumed: that he’d soon disappear with her into her bedroom. She was supposed to be in Lord Gorrell’s keeping, but he, while rich enough, wasn’t quite lively enough to keep Carlotta fully amused.

Dependent on an allowance and gambling winnings, Longmore probably wasn’t rich enough. But while he didn’t doubt he possessed the necessary stamina and inventiveness to hold her interest, it occurred to him now that she wasn’t likely to hold his for more than five minutes. Even by his careless standards, that hardly justified a large financial investment and the subsequent tedium of listening to his father rant about overspent allowances.

In other words, Longmore was tired of her already.

Not too long after abandoning his winnings, he took his leave, along with two of his friends and two of Carlotta’s maids of honor. They found a hackney and after a short discussion, set out for a gaming hell with a very bad reputation, in the neighborhood of St. James’s. There, Longmore could count on a brawl.

Bored with the conversation inside the coach, he turned to gaze out of the window at the passing scene. The sun rose early at this time of year, and though the window was dirty, he could see well enough. A drably dressed female carrying a shabby basket was hurrying along the street. Her pace and dress, along with the basket, made it clear she wasn’t one of London’s numerous streetwalkers but an ordinary female on her way to work at about the time her betters in the beau monde were going home from their parties.

She moved at a fast clip, but it wasn’t fast enough. A figure darted out of an alley, grabbed her basket, and knocked her into the street.

Longmore stood, put down the window, opened the carriage door, and jumped out of the moving carriage, deaf to his companions’ shrieks and shouts. After the first stumble, he quickly gained his balance, and charged after the thief. His prey was fast, darting this way and that. At a busier time of day, he would have soon shed any pursuer. But the hour was early, and hardly anybody stood in Longmore’s way. He wasn’t thinking, only running, in a blind fury. When the fellow sprang into a narrow court, Longmore never thought of ambush or danger—not that he’d care, had he thought about it.

The fellow was making for a door, and it opened a crack, its inhabitants expecting him, no doubt. Longmore got to him first. He grabbed the thief and dragged him backward. The door banged shut.

Longmore slammed him against the nearest wall. The man instantly crumpled and slid to the ground, dropping the basket. Though he couldn’t be much damaged—these villains didn’t break easily—he stayed where he was, eyes closed.

“I shouldn’t get up again in a hurry, if I were you,” Longmore said. “Filthy coward. Attacking
women.
” Longmore collected the basket and cast a glance round the court. With any luck, dangerous accomplices would hurry to their friend’s rescue.

But no luck. The area was quiet, though Longmore was well aware he was being watched. He sauntered out into Piccadilly.

He found the girl minutes later. She stood slumped against a shop front, weeping. “Never mind the bawling,” he said. “Here’s your precious goods.” He fished some coins from a pocket and thrust those and the shabby basket into her hands. “What in blazes was in your mind, rushing on blindly without minding your surroundings?”

“W-work,” she said. “I had to get to work . . . your lordship.”

He didn’t ask how she knew he was a lord.

Everybody knew the Earl of Longmore.

“Thieves and drunken aristocrats roaming the streets, looking for trouble, and you without a weapon,” he said. “What’s wrong with women these days?”

“I d-don’t know.”

She was shaking like a leaf. She was bruised and dirty from her fall in the street. She was lucky that none of the scores of drunken louts on their way home from their debauches had run her over.

“Come with me,” he said.

Whether too shaken to think or simply intimidated—he often had that effect, even on his peers—she followed him across the street to the hackney. His friends could have continued on: They were drunk enough. But they’d stopped to watch the fun.

“Everybody out,” Longmore said.

They made noises of protest but they staggered out of the vehicle, all staring at the drab female. “Not your type, Longmore,” Hempton said.

Crawford shook his head. “Standards dropping, I’m afraid to say.”

Longmore ignored them. “Where were you going?” he said to the girl.

She stared at him, then at his friends, then at the tarts.

“Never mind them,” he said. “Nobody’s interested in your doings. We only want to get on to the next party. Where do you want the driver to take you?”

She swallowed. “Please, your lordship, I was on my way to the Milliners’ Society for the Education of Indigent Females,” she said.

“There’s a mouthful,” Crawford said.

“I work there,” the girl said. “I’m going to be late.”

She gave Longmore the direction, which he relayed to the driver, with strict orders to take the girl to her destination in half the usual time, or Longmore would find him and give him an excellent excuse for moving slowly.

He helped the girl up into the coach, slammed the door on her, and waved the driver away.

He thought about milliners.

One milliner, actually, a blonde one.

Leaving his companions to find another hackney, he continued on foot, on his own, the short distance to St. James’s Street. To get to Crockford’s, he had to pass White’s Club on one side of the street, and a very little way farther down, Maison Noirot, lair of French dressmakers.

He passed the dressmakers’ shop, walking slowly. Then he paused and looked back, up at the upper storeys where, for reasons that eluded him, two of the three Noirot sisters still lived.

He continued to Crockford’s, where he proceeded to lose large sums for quite an interesting while before he started to win large sums.

When, after an hour or so of increasing boredom, he left Crockford’s, it was still prodigious early by Fashionable Society’s standards. Nonetheless, London was coming to life. People going up and down St. James’s Street: a few vehicles but mainly pedestrians. The shops hadn’t yet opened.

Maison Noirot, he knew, did not open until ten o’clock, though the seamstresses—a great parade of them these days—all marched in at nine.

Still, over the past few weeks he had acquired a general notion of Sophia Noirot’s habits.

He waited.

Chapter One

 

For the last week, the whole of the fashionable world has been in a state of ferment, on account of the elopement of Sir Colquhoun Grant’s daughter with Mr. Brinsley Sheridan . . . On Friday afternoon, about five o’clock, the young couple borrowed the carriage of a friend; and . . . set off full speed for the North.


The Court Journal
, Saturday 23 May 1835

 

London

Thursday 21 May 1835

 

W
aving a copy of
Foxe’s Morning Spectacle
, Sophy Noirot burst in upon the Duke and Duchess of Clevedon while they were breakfasting in, appropriately enough, the breakfast room of Clevedon House.

“Have you seen this?” she said, throwing down the paper on the table between her sister and new brother-in-law. “The ton is in a frenzy—and isn’t it hilarious? They’re blaming Sheridan’s three sisters. Three sisters plotting wicked plots—and it isn’t
us!
Oh, my love, when I saw this, I thought I’d die laughing.”

Certain members of Society had more than once in recent days compared the three proprietresses of Maison Noirot—which Sophy would make London’s foremost dressmaking establishment if it killed her—to the three witches in
Macbeth.
Had they not bewitched the Duke of Clevedon, rumor said, he would never have married a
shopkeeper
.

Their Graces’ dark heads bent over the barely dry newspaper.

Rumors about the Sheridan-Grant elopement were already traveling the beau monde grapevine, but the
Spectacle
, as usual, was the first to put confirmation in print.

Marcelline looked up. “They say Miss Grant’s papa will bring a suit against Sheridan in Chancery,” she said. “Exciting stuff, indeed.”

At that moment, a footman entered. “Lord Longmore, Your Grace,” he said.

Not now, dammit
, Sophy thought. Her sister had the beau monde in an uproar, she’d made a deadly enemy of one of its most powerful women—who happened to be Longmore’s mother—customers were deserting in droves, and Sophy had no idea how to repair the damage.

Now
him
.

The Earl of Longmore strolled into the breakfast room, a newspaper under his arm.

Sophy’s pulse rate accelerated. It couldn’t help itself.

Black hair and glittering black eyes . . . the noble nose that ought to have been broken a dozen times yet remained stubbornly straight and arrogant . . . the hard, cynical mouth . . . the six-foot-plus frame.

All that manly beauty.

If only he had a brain.

No, better not. In the first place, brains in a man were inconvenient. In the second, and far more important, she didn’t have time for him or any man. She had a shop to rescue from Impending Doom.

“I brought you the latest
Spectacle
,” he said to the pair at the table. “But I wasn’t quick enough off the mark, I see.”

“Sophy brought it,” said Marcelline.

Longmore’s dark gaze came to Sophy. She gave him a cool nod and sauntered to the sideboard. She looked into the chafing dishes and concentrated on filling her plate.

“Miss Noirot,” he said. “Up and about early, I see. You weren’t at Almack’s last night.”

“Certainly not,” Sophy said. “The Spanish Inquisition couldn’t make the patronesses give me a voucher.”

“Since when do you wait for permission? I was so disappointed. I was on pins and needles to see what disguise you’d adopt. My favorite so far is the Lancashire maidservant.”

That was Sophy’s favorite, too.

However, her intrusions at fashionable events to collect gossip for Foxe were supposed to be a deep, dark secret. No one noticed servant girls, and she was a Noirot, as skilled at making herself invisible as she was at getting attention.

But
he
noticed.

He must have developed unusually keen powers of hearing and vision to make up for his very small brain.

She carried her plate to the table and sat next to her sister. “I’m devastated to have spoiled your fun,” she said.

“That’s all right,” he said. “I found something to do later.”

“So it seems,” Clevedon said, looking him over. “It must have been quite a party. Since you’re never up and about this early, I can only conclude you stopped here on your way home.”

Like most of his kind, Lord Longmore rarely rose before noon. His rumpled black hair, limp neckcloth, and wrinkled coat, waistcoat, and trousers told Sophy he hadn’t yet been to bed—not his own, at any rate.

Her imagination promptly set about picturing his big body naked among tangled sheets. She had never seen him naked, and had better not; but along with owning a superior imagination, she’d seen statues, pictures, and—years ago—certain boastful Parisian boys’ personal possessions.

She firmly wiped her mind clean.

One day, she’d marry a respectable man who would not get in the way of her work.

Not only was Longmore far from respectable, but he was a great thickhead who constantly got in one’s way—and who happened to be the eldest son of a woman who wanted the Noirot sisters wiped off the face of the earth.

Only a self-destructive moron would get involved with him.

Sophy directed her attention to his clothes. As far as tailoring went, his attire was flawless, the snug fit outlining every muscled inch from his big shoulders and broad chest and his lean waist and narrow hips down, down, down his long, powerful legs . . .

She scrubbed her mind again, reminded herself that clothing was her life, and regarded his attire objectively, as one professional considering the work of another.

She knew that he usually started an evening elegantly turned out. His valet, Olney, saw to it. But Longmore did not always behave elegantly, and what happened after he left the house Olney could not control.

By the looks of him, a great deal had happened after Olney released his master yesterday.

“You always were the intellectual giant of the family,” Longmore said to the duke. “You’ve deduced correctly. I stopped at Crockford’s. And elsewhere. I needed something to drive out the memory of those dreary hours at Almack’s.”

“You loathe those assemblies,” Clevedon said. “One can only assume that a woman lured you there.”

“My sister,” Longmore said. “She’s an idiot about men. My parents complain about it endlessly. Even I noticed what a sorry lot they are, her beaux. A pack of lechers and bankrupts. To discourage them, I hang about Clara and look threatening.”

Sophy could easily picture it. No one could loom as menacingly as he, gazing down on the world through half-closed eyes like a great, dark bird of prey.

“How unusually brotherly of you,” said Clevedon.

“That numskull Adderley was trying to press his suit with her.” Longmore helped himself to coffee and sat down next to Clevedon, opposite Marcelline. “She thinks he’s charming. I think he’s charmed by her dowry.”

“Rumor says he’s traveling up the River Tick on a fast current,” Clevedon said.

“I don’t like his smirk,” Longmore said. “And I don’t think he even likes Clara much. My parents loathe him on a dozen counts.” He waved his coffee cup at the newspaper. “They won’t find this coup of Sheridan’s reassuring. Still, it’s deuced convenient for you, I daresay. An excellent way to divert attention from your exciting nuptials.”

His dark gaze moved lazily to Sophy. “The timing couldn’t have been better. I don’t suppose you had anything to do with this, Miss Noirot?”

“If I had, I should be demanding a bottle of the duke’s best champagne and a toast to myself,” said Sophy. “I only wish I could have managed something so
perfect
.”

Though the three Noirot sisters were equally talented dressmakers, each had special skills. Dark-haired Marcelline, the eldest, was a gifted artist and designer. Redheaded Leonie, the youngest, was the financial genius. Sophy, the blonde, was the saleswoman. She could soften stony hearts and pry large sums from tight fists. She could make people believe black was white. Her sisters often said that Sophy could sell sand to Bedouins.

Had she been able to manufacture a scandal that would get Society’s shallow little mind off Marcelline and onto somebody else, Sophy would have done it. As much as she loved Marcelline and was happy she’d married a man who adored her, Sophy was still reeling from the disruption to their world, which had always revolved around their little family and their business. She wasn’t sure Marcelline and Clevedon truly understood the difficulties their recent marriage had created for Maison Noirot, or how much danger the shop was in.

But then, they were newlyweds, and love seemed to muddle the mind even worse than lust did. At present, Sophy couldn’t bear to mar their happiness by sharing her and Leonie’s anxieties.

The newlyweds exchanged looks. “What do you think?” Clevedon said. “Do you want to take advantage of the diversion and go back to work?”

“I must go back to work, diversion or not,” Marcelline said. She looked at Sophy. “Do let’s make a speedy departure,
ma chère sœur
. The aunts will be down to breakfast in the next hour or so.”

“The aunts,” Longmore said. “Still here?”

Clevedon House was large enough to accommodate several families comfortably. When the duke’s aunts came to Town on visits too short to warrant opening their own townhouses, they didn’t stay in hotels, but in the north wing.

Most recently they’d come to stop the marriage.

Originally, Marcelline and Clevedon had planned to wed the day after he’d talked—or seduced—her into marrying him. But Sophy and Leonie’s cooler heads had prevailed.

The wedding, they’d pointed out, was going to cause a spectacular uproar, very possibly fatal to business. But if some of Clevedon’s relatives were to attend the ceremony, signaling acceptance of the bride, it would subdue, to some extent, the outrage.

And so Clevedon had invited his aunts, who’d descended en masse to prevent the shocking misalliance. But no great lady, not even the Queen, was a match for three Noirot sisters and their secret weapon, Marcelline’s six-year-old daughter, Lucie Cordelia. The aunts had surrendered in a matter of hours.

Now they were trying to find a way to make Marcelline respectable. They actually believed they could present her to the Queen.

Sophy wasn’t at all sure that would do Maison Noirot any good. On the contrary, she suspected it would only fan the flames of Lady Warford’s hatred.

“Still here,” Clevedon said. “They can’t seem to tear themselves away.”

Marcelline rose, and the others did, too. “I’d better go before they come down,” she said. “They’re not at all reconciled to my continuing to work.”

“Meaning there’s a good deal more jawing than you like,” Longmore said. “How well I understand.” He gave her a wry smile, and bowed.

He was a man who could fill a doorway, and seemed to take over a room. He was disheveled, and disreputable besides, but he bowed with the easy grace of a dandy.

It was annoying of him to be so completely and gracefully at ease in that big brawler’s body of his. It was really annoying of him to ooze virility.

Sophy was a Noirot, a breed keenly tuned to animal excitement—and not possessing much in the way of moral principles.

If he ever found out how weak she was in this regard, she was doomed.

She sketched a curtsey and took her sister’s arm. “Yes, well, we’d better not dawdle, in any event. I promised Leonie I wouldn’t stay above half an hour.”

She hurried her sister out of the room.

L
ongmore watched them go. Actually, he watched Sophy go, a fetching bundle of energy and guile.

“The shop,” he said when they were out of earshot. “Meaning no disrespect to your duchess, but—are they insane?”

“That depends on one’s point of view,” Clevedon said.

“Apparently, I’m not unbalanced enough in the upper storey to understand it,” Longmore said. “They might close it and live here. It isn’t as though you’re short of room. Or money. Why should they want to go on bowing and scraping to women?”

“Passion,” Clevedon said. “Their work is their passion.”

Longmore wasn’t sure what, exactly, passion was. He was reasonably certain he’d never experienced it.

He hadn’t even had an infatuation since he was eighteen.

Since Clevedon, his nearest friend, would know this, Longmore said nothing. He only shook his head, and moved to the sideboard. He heaped his plate with eggs, great slabs of bacon and bread, and a thick glob of butter to make it all slide down smoothly. He carried it to the table and began to eat.

He’d always regarded Clevedon’s home as his own, and had been told he was to continue regarding it in the same way. The duchess seemed to like him well enough. Her blonde sister, on the other hand would just as soon shoot him, he knew—which made her much more interesting and entertaining.

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