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"I want you to seduce my husband," declared the petite blond dressed in palest blue silk jaconet. She nervously fiddled with the lace trim of her gown while she waited anxiously for a reply to her outrageous request.
The only sound in the lovely white-and-gold drawing room was the automatic clink of a silver spoon as it was stirred around and around in a Wedgwood teacup. Shocked silence reigned as Caroline Beauchamp stared, utterly aghast, at her dearest friend.
The Viscountess Stanhope did not appear in the least put out by Caroline's reaction to the highly improper proposal placed before her. Indeed, she seemed timidly frightened, Caroline thought, as she gave Mary a considering look. The teaspoon was carefully placed on the saucer, then the delicate cup, the tea untasted, was set on the Pembroke table close to where Caroline perched on the gold-and-white striped cushion of a Sheraton chair. She said with the greatest of care, "Did I hear you correctly, Mary?"
"You did," replied the viscountess with a charming smile slipping across her pleasant face.
"I cannot credit what you just asked me to do," answered Caroline, her brunette curls bouncing as she shook her head and gave a sigh. The emerald eyes that usually danced with mischief or happiness now appeared warily thoughtful.
"You do recall that you owe me a favor," reminded Mary, her voice a gentle reprimand.
"I have not forgotten. Having your husband investigate my aunt's affairs was a very great favor. I saw to it that her thieving steward was promptly fired. Indeed, I am forever in your Hugh's debt. Now, if only I can prevent my sweet aunt from embarking on another gambling spree, all will be well."Caroline gave a reflective sigh, then turned once again to the matter at hand. "But this? I am not at all certain I ought to do such a thing." The stubborn expression that settled over Caroline's pretty countenance was all too well known by her friend.
The smile left Mary's face as she gave Caroline a worried look, then--accompanied by a frown and a brave sniff--a single tear traced its way down her pale cheek, followed by another. "You cannot know what it has been like these past weeks, seeing my Hugh with that ... that woman. Diana Ingleby cannot possibly care for him as I do. Yet he hovers around her like a bee about its hive. Oh, Caroline, I simply do not know what else to do if you will not help me. You know how I love that wretched man."
At this last wail Mary burst into earnest tears, groping for an already crumpled handkerchief beside her on the gold damask sofa. Her face buried in the soft linen folds, she could not see, only sense, the hoped-for response.
Distressed to find her friend so strongly affected, Caroline jumped up and rushed to Mary's side. "Pray do not cry. Of course I will do what you ask. Somehow. I have never tried such a thing before. But I venture to wager I will find a way if only you will cease your tears.'' She gave Mary a comforting pat on her arm, then watched anxiously for the tears to subside. Caroline had never been able to resist a soft and gentle creature, and Mary seemed so helpless and fragile.
Blotting her eyes with dainty little dabs, Mary gave Caroline a truly grateful smile. "You will not regret this, I promise. Only think how you will be saving my marriage. After all, being my only attendant when I married that man, you have a sort of responsibility, if you follow me."
Caroline gave her a wry look. "Fancy that. I had not realized I was assuming such vast duties when I walked down that aisle before you. Well, this task ought to serve to keep me from being bored to flinders. But how do you propose I accomplish this deed?"
"It should not be so very difficult. After all, I have seen you flirt with any number of men. You do it most charmingly." Mary peeped at Caroline, as though to judge the success of her coaxing.
"They were not my best friend's husband," said Caroline repressively, studying her now recovered friend.
"Yes, well, that is true, to be sure," murmured Mary, unflinchingly meeting that direct gaze. "But you will try, will you not? Tonight? At Lady Bentley's ball? Please, Caroline?"
"Very well, I shall try my best. Do you realize, dearest, how difficult it will be for a mere green girl like myself to lure that handsome husband of yours away from such a noted beauty as Mrs. Ingleby?" Caroline momentarily forgot she was to cheer, not depress, her friend.
"The widow is certainly that, although from what I have heard and seen, she is rather proud, and certainly contemptuous of others, especially young girls just coming out in society. She can laugh very prettily, though," said Mary with a wistful air, "and has a fine pair of eyes."
Caroline shook her head in puzzlement. "I simply do not understand marriage. You are his wife, he ought to be attending you, not that woman."
"Caroline! It would not do to have us living in each other's pockets. You know that! How the ton would laugh and scorn. Besides," she added in a low, confiding voice, "he does not know I have fallen so madly in love with him. I would be so embarrassed if he were to find that out. Ours was a contracted marriage, and I am so very plain, you see. It is not to be wondered at if he is attracted to a lovely face and form."
"There is nothing wrong with your figure, and your face is very sweet," declared Caroline stoutly. "And," she added in significant tones, "you have the loveliest manners and such a delightful laugh. He is a fool and totally in the wrong."
"Mama always said the only time a man was right was when he admitted he was wrong," said Mary, her delightful smile creeping back into place on her nice face.
At that remark Caroline chuckled, then settled more comfortably on the sofa. "Do you have any suggestions as to how I am to snare your husband? Dear me, but that does sound strange." Her grin contained more than a hint of deviltry, promising Hugh a spirited time.
"Well, he has remarked on your lively expression any number of times, not to forget those speaking eyes you possess. How I envy them. My ordinary blue eyes seem so drab by comparison." Mary made this statement without a sign of resentment. It was merely a wishful sort of remark.
"Silly, do you never look in a mirror? You are so dainty you make me feel a giantess with my five feet and six inches. And I think your eyes are lovely."
"Thank you," said Mary in her gentle voice. After a moment she said, "I think it will be best if you merely act your normal self. With those sparkling eyes and your ability to dance and flirt, you shouldn't find the task difficult in the least."
"Do you know, I am not at all certain I like the image you present me. Perhaps I ought to mend my ways," replied Caroline in an odd little voice.
"If you intend to change that delightful manner of yours, do so after his seduction is finished," declared Mary with a firm tone.
Startled, Caroline said thoughtfully, "I am merely to lure him away from the Ingleby. Correct? Nothing beyond that, surely." Her hesitance was emphasized by a diffident tapping of her gloves against her knee.
Now it was Mary's turn to be shocked. "Most certainly not! I am resigned to harmless flirts, and that is what you are to be. After all, Hugh is very handsome and attractive to women. But I do not think the widow Ingleby is in the least harmless."
"I believe you have the right of it there. My aunt declares her a wicked woman. Expensive, too. Mind you, I do not know for a certainty, but I suspect gentlemen are quite happy to pay for her favors," said a pensive Caroline, recalling conversations she had overheard in her aunt's drawing room.
Caroline rose in a graceful, fluid motion and began to walk toward the door, pulling on her gloves as she went. Patting her bonnet as she paused by a tall looking glass, she saw reflected the hopeful expression on Mary's face. Turning, she sought to reassure her friend. "I shall do my best for you. What society will say, I cannot imagine. Shall we pretend to be on the outs for a week or however long it takes?"
"Oh dear, I had not considered that in my plans. I refuse to give you the cut direct, for it would look too, too shabby of me. I shall have to find a flirt of my own. Perhaps I shall attach that nice Earl of Rutledge. Giles has always been a favorite of mine, and I believe he confines his attentions to married ladies. Indeed, I once held hopes my papa would select him as my husband. I am sure he is all that is amiable."
"Only you would see him in that light, my dear," said Caroline dryly, thinking of the tall, black-haired man with stormy dark gray eyes that had caught her notice more than once. Nice was hardly the correct appellation. Intimidating, perhaps? Irresistibly devastating, assuredly. He was prodigiously handsome with a fortune to match--hardly the sort of man a girl with only modest prospects and from a large family might look to as a suitor. Yet her heart had sighed over him.
Mary fluttered after Caroline into the hall, then walked with her down the stairs to the front entry. "Now, do not forget your promise," she urged. "And pray, do not reveal my plans to Hugh, come what may!"
"I won't," replied Caroline with a deal of patience. "How could I forget something so utterly outrageous?" Then, mindful of the listening ears of the nearby servants, she gave Mary a significant look before her departure.
Pennyfeather, the elderly and impressive butler of the Stanhope residence, opened the door for Caroline, assisting her to the waiting hackney her aunt preferred. Living with a lady who hated horses was a new experience for Caroline.
Daisy, Caroline's maid, scrambled onto her seat before the carriage set off on its short journey.
On her drive to where she resided with her Aunt Fanny, Caroline considered the dreadful vow she had just made. Had she actually pledged to lure Mary's husband away from that beautiful Mrs. Ingleby? If Mary had not been so tearfully in earnest, Caroline would have laughed. But she knew the truth of it, that her dear, quiet little friend adored her handsome husband far more than she ought, given the standards of the day. He was free to flirt where he wished and Mary could do nothing, for, especially in an arranged marriage such as hers, affairs seemed the rule rather than the exception.
Then Caroline considered a vexing little point of her own. Secretly she had hoped she might attract the interest of the Earl of Rutledge. Giles, Mary had called him. Lovely name, Caroline mused dreamily.
And, she abruptly realized, he would be far beyond her when he observed her flirting with her dearest friend's husband. "Oh, blast and drat," she fumed to no one in particular.
Daisy, sitting on the far side of the carriage, glanced at her mistress with mild curiosity, but as the exclamation was not all that unusual, she directed her gaze out the window once again.
The vehicle turned from South Audley to the quiet sedateness of South Street. They passed the chapel and stopped a few doors beyond before number 7, the neat house her aunt owned. Fanny, Lady Winnington, had been widowed donkey's years ago, and now lived in placid contentment, barring her infrequent lapses into gambling. She had expressed delight at the chance to present her beloved sister's daughter to London society. Somehow, Caroline was never quite sure, she had even managed vouchers for Almack's.
And now Caroline risked a great deal to help her friend, Mary. Then, just as Caroline was having dire thoughts about backing off her promise, she remembered the widow, Mrs. Diana Ingleby. Beautiful--if you fancied a woman a bit overblown--and witty--if you did not mind a slightly loud laugh that went with her sallies--she presented a potential death blow to Mary's future happiness.
A footman appeared to assist her from the carriage, then pay the jarvey. Marching up the steps to the front door, Caroline nodded to Simpkins, inquiring as she divested herself of her pelisse, "Where is my aunt, please?"
Bowing faintly in the direction of the room that Lady Winnington preferred to use during the day, he intoned in his lofty manner, "Her ladyship is in her morning room, miss."
Hurrying down the hall and around the corner, Caroline bustled into the room, giving scant attention to the scene before her. "I must seek your advice, dear aunt. I fear I have got myself into a horrid predicament." Then what was before her really sank into her brain. "Good heavens!"
"Hullo to you, too," said her brother Edmund, grinning to see his elder sister so taken aback.
"The same from me," added his twin Adrian, who bowed with nearly the stiff punctiliousness of Simpkins. This was followed by a sly look that told he suspected the source of his sister's dismay.
"What's the to-do, sister dear? Into a bit of a pickle, are you? Seems we have arrived at just the right moment, Adrian. Told Papa you might have need of us. Convinced him to permit us a few weeks on the town," stated Edmund with the assurance of a very young man most definitely not about town.
"Oh," groaned Caroline at the mental image of her brothers attending any of the rather elegant entertainments that were her milieu at present. "How ... kind of you. Isn't it kind, Aunt Fanny? A few weeks, did you say?" They could scarcely get into terribly much trouble in that short a time. Then she remembered the past and shook her head. Oh, yes, they most certainly might take a notion to get up to every rig and row from one end of London to the other. At least Edmund might. Adrian was different, but as likely in his own strange way to cause problems as his twin.
Caroline plumped herself onto a chair and absently began to fan her face with her handkerchief. This was a fine kettle of fish. Simply frightful!
"I daresay you boys would like to get settled in your room," said Lady Winnington with placid practicality. "Your papa has sent a generous arrangement for finances, and you will assuredly want to seek out a good London tailor immediately."
"That is true," hastily inserted Caroline with relief. If they had no proper clothes, they would be out of the eye of the ton for a merciful few days. Then she could begin to worry.
"I say, that's a jolly good idea. We'll be off to Bond Street in no time," said Edmund enthusiastically, with Adrian nodding his head in his usual vague way.
When the two young men had been safely seen off in the directions of their room, Caroline blew out a sigh of frustration. "I suspect all young men of nineteen ought to be kept somewhere safe until they have reached the point where their common sense outweighs their desire for mischief."
Lady Winnington gave her dearest niece a commiserating look, then replied, "Surely they are not that bad?"
"Oh, Adrian is quiet enough, only he will join Edmund in his follies. Edmund finds a great deal of follies. Papa may well have shipped them into town out of sheer desperation. Odd that I am but a year older and have never had the urge to get myself into such briars as they do."
"And what was it you wished to seek my advice about, child?" murmured Lady Winnington.
"Oh, dear," moaned Caroline, "I fear that after this you will think me no better than that harum-scarum pair now upstairs."
"Out with it, and not in half-crown words, if you please." Lady Winnington studied the manner in which her niece shifted about on her chair with increasing interest. Really, London was becoming livelier by the moment.
Taking in a deep breath, Caroline bravely met the faintly amused eyes of her Aunt Fanny, then blurted out,"I have just promised to seduce Mary's husband."
"My, my," softly declared her aunt. The lace at her wrist fluttered delicately as Lady Winnington placed one hand against her cheek in consternation. "I trust she has good reason for such a request?"
"Diana Ingleby" was the most adequate reply.
"I see. And she feels you can compete with the widow Ingleby? My, my," she said once again, then fell into a musing silence.
"It is to save her marriage. What a pity she cannot simply tell her Hugh how much she loves him and be done with all this silly nonsense.'' Caroline twitched her skirts into place with an annoyed hand. Had she really allowed herself to be placed in such a situation as this? Defending Mary now was a bit different from their schooldays, when Caroline had taken the fragile girl beneath her wing, so to speak.
"It isn't done, my dear, at least not in many marriages," said Lady Winnington, nodding her head earnestly.
"I was going to say no, yet when I thought of that scheming Ingleby woman, I could not deny what help I can give Mary. Would you have had me refuse my assistance?"
Her aunt reflected a few moments before shaking her head. "No, I believe good women must aid one another. There is the sanctity of marriage to consider as well. I shall understand and try to deflect gossip, for it is bound to crop up, you know. I am glad you informed me of this, for I would have been utterly at sea had you not said something of the plan. How shall you proceed?"
Caroline thought her aunt might have protested a bit more, yet she knew in her heart that she would do all she could to oblige Mary. Anyone as kind and good as Mary deserved better than to have her husband ensnared by the shapely widow Ingleby.
"I shall wear that new pale green silk lutestring this evening. You know, the one you thought a bit daring? If I am to attract his attention, I can hardly do so in an insipid white muslin gown." Caroline fingered the white muslin of the gown she wore, most appropriate for a young lady of twenty summers.
"Hmpf! Well, I expect you have the right of it. Perhaps if you tuck a silk rose in the dip of that neckline, it will not seem quite so scandalous. I vow that if the necklines get any lower or the waistlines any higher, there will be nothing left of the top of a gown at all!" declared her aunt, shaking her head in dismay. "In my day, there was a good deal more to a dress."
"At least it has a bit of sleeve. And it is vastly becoming, I believe," replied Caroline with all due modesty. Actually, the gown in question was of softest silk and clung most prettily to her excellent figure. Long ivory satin ribands hung from the center of the high waist, and an ivory rose would add the perfect touch. The miniscule sleeves had dainty fluting around the hem. She was quite pleased with the gown, all in all.
Since Caroline had attained the blessing of the patronesses of Almack's, she looked forward to discreet flirting with Lord Stanhope during a waltz. If only she could maintain a perfect balance between a light flirtation and anything unseemly. A good reputation was utterly necessary to attain what she had come to London for--a marriage, the higher, the better.
The sound of her brothers on the stairway brought a frown to her usually serene brow. They were a complication she had not anticipated. If only they behaved themselves with reasonable decorum.
It was to be expected that they would purchase an outrageous walking stick with which to make an impression, not to mention those odious spurs the young men adored.
Fortunately Adrian possessed an excellent notion of how to dress, so she might be spared the humiliation of brothers rigged out in the more ridiculous of the male fashions--collars so high they couldn't move their heads and waistcoats fit to rival Joseph's coat of many colors.
Then she wondered if her father had an ulterior motive for sending the boys to London at this time. Was there perhaps a need for Edmund to find a bride? As the eldest, he might be expected to assist the family coffers; was there a hope of his wedding an heiress? As far as she knew her family was comfortably well off. But there were four other children at home, and it would take a good deal of money to bring them all out in proper manner.
"You still here?" queried Edmund from the doorway. "I'd have thought you would be off to your room to rest. Your butler informed us that you have a social engagement this evening. Bentley, I believe? Wonder if that's good old Tom Bentley's family. Think we will give him a call-in."
Without waiting for any comment from his sister or aunt, the twins bid a hasty farewell and took themselves off for their first day in London. It was a heady prospect, to have the ordering of a proper wardrobe totally on their own, without anyone else offering his opinion. So, naturally, they promptly sought the company of one they knew to be aware of the very latest dictates on modish attire, good old Tom. A man had to be in style, don't y'know.
As it turned out, Simpkins had been quite correct. Not only were the Bentley s giving the ball that evening, they were also good old Tom's parents. Edmund and Adrian caught him just as he was about to leave his home.
"Oh, I say, this is quite famous," bubbled Edmund irrepressibly.
Whereupon Tom, in the manner reminiscent of the elegant Beau Brummell, replied in a distant air, "Manners, my dear Edmund. Manners." At Edmund's astounded expression Tom could not help but grin in his more familiar way.
Relieved that his old friend was only putting him on, Edmund explained their intent. Tom wisely decided he had best see to their proper attire. After all, there were a good many pitfalls to avoid to attain the dress of a true London beau.
Brummell had not only introduced the popularity of bathing, much to the grumbling of the older set, who considered it a lot of demmed nonsense and bound to give one the megrims or worse, he had also affected a revolution of sorts in gentlemen's dress. The peacock hues of years past were now forsaken by the inner circle. Today's man dressed more soberly, with a nicety of style and a superb cut to the coat. It had been Tom's highest delight when the Beau had once commented kindly on the arrangement of his neckcloth.
So it was that in a remarkably short time Edmund and Adrian were outfitted in modish coats of blue Bath cloth and pantaloons of dove gray, being of a size easily accommodated by a clever tailor. Quiet perfection was to be the aim, the twins were informed. Other items were ordered. A pair of black pantaloons were obtained for the evening.
Edmund, who thought that cutting a dash would be far more colorful, protested. "This ain't at all what I figured we would be wearing. I still say that puce waistcoat embroidered with gold lions would go nicely with this coat."
Tom shuddered at the very thought of the puce satin with the elegant blue coat. "Trust me" was all he could manage to say on the subject, then pointed out the elegance of cut in the snowy white waistcoat at hand.
Thus Caroline was spared the sight of her brothers rigged out in the latest dandy fashion, collars to the ears and a cravat with a waterfall to rival the highest in the land with a dozen fobs and seals dangling at the waist.
Once new boots had been ordered and evening shoes bespoke, they turned their attention to hats and young ladies, both equally important to a gentleman.
"M'mother's having a ball tonight. Don't see why you couldn't come, with careful attention to what you wear, mind you." Tom patiently advised on the purchase of linen, how to tie one's neckcloth, then other necessities, while offering other tips on how to get along in society.
When the twins left their friend and headed toward their aunt's house, they were both deep in thought, mulling over all they had heard and learned from their old friend.
Adrian summed it up for the both. "Dashed if I thought we would be trying to be the quietest, plainest, and most unpretentiously dressed men in town!"
After her brothers had departed, Caroline trailed up the stairs in absentminded confusion. In her room, she issued a request for the pale green lutestring to be readied for the evening, then settled on her bed for a brief nap. She must look her very best tonight, for her competition was indeed formidable.
Later, refreshed, she quickly dressed, then examined her reflection in the looking glass. Her hair was impossible, she decided, and was that not a spot emerging on her forehead? Perish the very thought of such. She frantically dabbed soothing lotion on the offending area while searching for other imperfections. Perhaps if she found enough of them she could cry off and stay in her room?
No, not for her the path of a coward. Time was slipping toward the hour she must leave for the Bentleys' ball. Caroline braced herself for the evening ahead.
Her maid stood patiently to one side. "You look a treat, miss, and that's the truth!" At Caroline's startled glance of thanks, Daisy finished her ministrations, then saw her down the stairs.
At dinner, Lady Winnington and Caroline were treated to the sight of Edmund and Adrian in their temporary attire. While not perfection, it did remarkably well, thanks to two figures that were easy to fit with the stock coats kept for such emergencies. Both wore the plain blue Bath cloth coats and black pantaloons with cravats tied almost as well as Tom had taught them. The promised valet would undoubtedly provide practiced assistance in this matter.
Caroline took one look at the restrained elegance and sent up a prayer of thanks. "What do you plan this evening? You look prodigiously fine in such short order."
"Tom invited us to the ball," replied Edmund in all innocence. "He said this rig would do us."
Caroline had to be thumped on the back by Adrian when she choked on a piece of turbot. "You shall be there tonight? I trust you will behave with all propriety and not disgrace our papa by getting foxed."
Adrian gave her an affronted glare. "Tom said one must be able to hold one's wine."
"I believe it is something that is not learned in one evening, however," commented Lady Winnington in an aside that was heard quite distinctly by both young men.
"There is nothing that will turn away the interest of any young woman of refinement faster than the sight of a man in his cups,'' asserted Caroline earnestly, wondering again if Papa had sent the boys to town in search of a wife.
"Not to worry, sister dear. We shall behave," said Edmund, the twinkle in his eyes not reassuring in the least.
"Edmund, did Papa give you any instructions, any special instructions, before you left?" Caroline toyed with her fork while peeking at her brother to see his reaction to her question.
"Nothing out of the usual, like he did with you."
"I was told to find myself a good husband," she retorted.
"Well, if we were to find a filly that captured our hearts, we might consider it," Edmund replied with a grin.
"I suspect the only filly that will capture your heart is one to be found at Tattersall's auction yard," said Caroline with good grace.
"There is surely no rush for you boys, is there?" said Lady Winnington, giving them each considering looks.
"None in the least," assured Adrian in reply.
Caroline was still puzzled when she later descended the stairs to receive the enthusiastic praise of the twins.
"Nice," commented Edmund, his look approving.
"Better than I've seen you look before," added Adrian with rare consideration for his sister's feelings.
"However did I manage to leave the house in the past without such fulsome praise, I wonder?" Caroline laughed at their combined expressions. She gave a reassuring pat to the ivory silk rose tucked into the front of her gown, then permitted Simpkins to slip her cape over her shoulders.
At last they were off in the hackney Simpkins usually arranged for them. Hating horses as she did, Lady Winnington did not keep a carriage. It had been most fortunate that the butler had been able to find a jarvey who had recently bought a vehicle from a under-the-hatches peer.
The crush of carriages approaching the Bentley home promised a goodly sized crowd, Caroline informed her brothers. Once close to the house, they left the carriage and walked up the short flight of steps to the door, then on up to where Lord and Lady Bentley were receiving their guests.
From the pleased look adorning Lady Bentley's face, the party was a huge success. The addition of two agreeable young men only added to her joy.
Caroline wanted to tell the twins to behave, but knew better. She watched them disappear with feelings of misgiving. Yet she could not fail to note the heads that turned to watch their progress. Among them were several pretty heiresses.
"The boys must learn sometime, my dear," said Lady Winnington gently.
"But why tonight?" whispered Caroline as she espied the handsome figure of Lord Stanhope. Beside him was the laughing widow, Diana Ingleby.
Not far away stood the aloof and disdainful figure of the Earl of Rutledge, surrounded as usual by seductive ladies--all married. He looked bored to Caroline's surprised eyes. But, oh, he was handsome, dressed all in black save for his white linen and an exquisite white satin waistcoat. Such noble restraint, elegant simplicity! He bowed his head for a moment, and the candlelight caught sparkling lights in his raven hair.
Caroline took a fortifying breath, ordered her heart to behave, and stepped forward.