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With a flourish, someone pulled back the blue damask curtain from the alcove of Almack's card room, as if it were the stage at Drury Lane. The scene it revealed might have come from any of a hundred sentimental playsa pair of lovers stealing a passionate kiss. But instead of sighs and murmurs of approval that might have greeted such a sight at the playhouse, this one provoked scandalised gasps followed by brittle, breath-baited silence.
They were as handsome a pair as any actors, the man well built with a full head of auburn hair and fashionable attire that might have won the approval of Beau Brummell himself. The lady wore a silvery-blue gown of the finest silk. Though her face was turned away from the audience for that first instant, her beauty was as obvious to them as her identity. Golden curls were swept up off her long, graceful neck, adorned with the famous Sterling sapphires.
Everyone who caught a glimpse of her must have immediately recognised Caroline Maitland, Countess of Sterling, one of the most celebrated toasts of the ton. They must also have recognised that the man with his arms around the countess, and his lips upon hers, was not her husband.
Surrounded by several of the most voluble gossips in all of London, Bennett Maitland, sixth Earl of Sterling, stared into the alcove, fighting a rising tide of rage and humiliation that threatened to demolish his iron self-control.
He had stubbornly refused to heed Fitz Astley's sly barbs about his wife's fidelity, just as he had once tried to deny another of his enemy's sordid revelations. A revelation that had brought his whole world crashing down. Scoundrel though Astley was, he had not been lying then. Nor was he now. The evidence of Caroline's promiscuity was presently on display for all to see!
Catching his wife engaged in such wanton intimacy with his bitterest foe was like a jagged knife thrust deep into Bennett's chest. The once-passionate physical connection between him and Caroline was the only thing that had held their crumbling marriage together. Now she had thrown it in his face and made him question how many other lovers she might have taken, making him the secret laughing stock of London. Yet he would rather have died in jaw-clenched agony than give the man he loathed, and the woman he had come to despise, the satisfaction of knowing how grievously they'd mortified him.
By the time the horrified silence shattered into poison-tipped shards of whisper, Bennett had clamped his gaping mouth into a rigid line. Battling back a suffocating wave of humiliation, he forced himself forwards to seize control of the situation.
By this time, his wife and her paramour had realised they were discovered. Though it was far too late to save her tattered reputation, Caroline pulled away from the scoundrel's embrace and shrank back, as if hoping she might somehow hide from her husband's righteous wrath. Fitzgerald Astley had no such scruples. He continued to stand there in a lounging, insolent pose, his mouth twisted in a gloating smirk that Bennett longed to thrash off his face.
'Bennett, I'm so sorry,' Caroline murmured as he stalked towards them. 'I can explain if you'll only listen. Please don't make it any worse.'
Her face had paled to a hue of alabaster puritymost ironic, that. Her pallor might have given his wife a deceptively innocent look, except that it made her lips appear even larger and redder than usual, swollen perhaps from the kisses of that despicable cad!
Bennett wished the sight would quench the last stubborn embers of desire he felt for her. Instead he was doubly betrayed by the traitorous stirring of lust in his loins. Part of him longed to seize his errant countess and sear away any memory of Astley's kisses with the legitimate demands of his own lips.
He managed to resist the temptation.
'Nothing I do,' he growled, 'could make this any worse.'
That was not quite true, but he had no intention of acting as if nothing had happened, simply to spare her the shame she had brought upon both of them.
Astley's smirk curled into an outright sneer, making his too-handsome countenance as loathsome as Bennett had long regarded it. 'I suppose you will want to call me out, then, Sterling? Where shall we duel, then? St. James's Park? Hyde? I do think it rather unjust that I should be singled out when you have turned a complaisant eye upon all your lady's previous amours'
'What are you talking about?' Caroline cried. 'I have never been unfaithful to my husband! I didn't even mean to You took me by surprise. I only wanted '
Astley chuckled and wagged his finger at her. 'I sympathise with your desire to salvage your reputation, Lady Sterling, but I fear our secret is out. I doubt anyone who saw us kissing just now would ever believe you were unwilling. Quite the contrary. Another minute and I vow you would have had the buttons of my breeches undone.'
'Viper!' A shriek of tormented rage burst from Caroline as she hurled herself at Astley.
Bennett would have loved to see her scratch the scoundrel's eyes. But such a spectacle would besmirch his cause even worse than it had been already. Perhaps irreparably.
As Caroline sprang towards Astley, Bennett caught her by the wrist and pulled her back, flaying her with his blistering glare. 'If you cannot exercise a little discretion, madam, at least do me the courtesy of holding your tongue!'
His words appeared to quench her defiant anger with a deluge of shame. Her body went limp and her free hand flew to her mouth as if to stifle a sob.
Unable to abide any further contact after what she'd done, Bennett let go of his wife's arm with all the revulsion he might have dropped a wriggling rat. He turned his attention back to Astley, to address his enemy's assumption that they would duel.
'You expect me to risk my neck defending my wife's honour?' He infused his question with years of accumulated disdain for the pair of them. 'I would sooner call you out for implying I am such a fool. Even for that, I prefer to strike where it will do you greater injury.'
Though Astley arched a contemptuous eyebrow, Bennett had the trifling satisfaction of glimpsing a quiver of alarm in his enemy's pale-blue eyes. 'Indeed? And where might that be?'
'In your purse, of course.' Bennett kept his voice low and menacing, but loud enough to carry to the roomful of breath-bated onlookers. 'I hope this dalliance was worth the damages it will cost you.'
For a moment, the threat seemed to strike Astley dumb.
Instead it provoked a sound from Caroline. Her eyes widened in horror as if she had only now realised all she stood to lose. A whimper like a wounded animal's broke through the hand she still clamped over her mouth. Fortunately, his earlier warning kept her from trying to speak.
Astley found his voice at last. 'Sue me for crim con.? You wouldn't dare!'
Crim con meant a criminal conversation suit brought by a husband against his wife's lover for monetary damagesa necessary step toward obtaining a divorce. Bennett despised the vulgar colloquial term, which trivialized such a devastating betrayal.
Now it was his turn to sneer. 'Pray what is to stop me? Given what you just confessed in front of all these witnesses, I believe it would be an easy case to win.'
Leaving Astley to reflect on just how deep a hole he had dug for himself, Bennett turned and strode away through a crowd that parted before him like the Red Sea before Moses. He was not certain whether Caroline would follow or remain behind with her paramour. Indeed, he was not certain which he would prefer. But when he heard the faint rustle of silk and the soft patter of kid slippers behind him, the sounds stirred a flicker of satisfaction from deep within the bitter ashes of his humiliation.
Stalking down the grand staircase, he fixed his eyes straight ahead and set his mouth in a grim line to warn anyone he met against the folly of speaking to him.
He was aware of heads turning as he passed, furtive whispers dogging his footsteps.
Gossip travelled fast. By breakfast the tattle would be all over London. By the end of the week the scandal sheets would be lampooning him; the print-sellers' windows would be papered with vicious caricatures. Though he had striven to lead a blameless life of public service, he would now be pilloried alongside the likes of the Prince Regent and his disreputable brothers!
Was that what Caroline wanted?
Though Bennett could not deny their marriage was an egregious mismatch, they had been happy enough once. Gradually, however, their differences had multiplied and the gulf between them had widened. But when and why had his wife grown to hate him enough to do this? After all he had given her and how little he asked in return, did she not owe him a single scrap of gratitude or loyalty?
A raw April wind blew Bennett's hair about as he emerged on to the street. Damn! He had left his hat behind.
Well, no matter. He might send a footman to fetch it tomorrow or not. He had plenty of others, after all. And he'd be hanged if he would darken the door of Almack's again!
Striving to ignore his wife's presence, Bennett was relieved when his carriage appeared promptly, in spite of the early hour and their precipitous departure.
'Back to Sterling House, my lord?' the coachman called down from his perch.
Bennett gave a curt nod as the footman helped Caroline into the carriage box. 'Stop by my club first, Samuel. I will provide you with further instructions there.'
Before the coachman could reply, Bennett climbed in after his wife.
The vehicle had scarcely begun to move when Caroline's voice emerged from the shadow-wrapped depths of the seat opposite him. 'Please, Bennett, I know you must be as angry and embarrassed as I am by that dreadful scene, but surely you know I never had any intention of kissing Mr Astley.'
Clearly the woman had no idea of his feelings in the matter or she could never make such a ludicrous claim. Bennett leaned back in the carriage seat and crossed his arms over his chest. Did she truly expect him to believe she hadn't invited and enjoyed that kiss and how many others before it?