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“What about Lord Fortenbury?” Cecily, Duchess of Winterson, asked her cousin Lady Madeline Essex, her voice low so that the other attendees of the Wexford Ball wouldn’t hear them.
As on so many previous occasions, Cecily, Maddie, and their cousin Juliet, now Lady Deveril, looked out at the dancers at a ton gathering without taking to the floor themselves. But this time it was from choice rather than a lack of partners—at least for the two married cousins. Both Cecily and Juliet had just released their husbands to find their way to the card room so that they could chat with Maddie, who had thus far been unable to remove herself from the ranks of the wallflowers.
It wasn’t for want of a fashionable gown, she mused. The creation from Madame Celeste that she wore tonight might be a bit unusual, with its high waist and unembellished state, but there was no mistaking that the ocean-blue silk displayed her generous curves and ample bosom to advantage. And the color went well with her fair hair and coloring. It was a far cry from the sort of overembellished frocks and muted colors she’d worn at the beginning of the season. Although she’d never been one to mince words or back down from a challenge, her new wardrobe nevertheless gave Maddie a renewed sense of confidence when it came to the opposite sex. A confidence that would never allow her to grasp at the first gentleman who crossed her path.
“Lord Fortenbury is like a particularly eager puppy,” she said, impatience furrowing her brow. “I like puppies, but I don’t wish to be married to one.”
Ever since her cousins had married, they had encouraged Maddie to make use of the dance card Cecily had “borrowed” from Miss Amelia Snowe, this season’s unrivaled diamond. Shaped like a fan, the dance card’s ivory petals marked with the penciled-in names of the ton’s most eligible bachelors could be easily “adapted” to conform to each new entertainment. For both Cecily and Juliet, the card had proven to be a good-luck token as well as a means of meeting eligibles, for soon after they acquired it they had each found their husbands. And while she was pleased for her cousins, she did not feel quite ready to follow them into matrimony. She had things to accomplish before she allowed herself to become enthralled by a husband and family. Like finishing her novel.
“Have you even used the dance card?” Juliet demanded, her auburn brows furrowed with suspicion. “I haven’t seen you dance above three times this week. And twice were with Deveril and Winterson so they don’t even count.”
“You might try the ‘smile–bat–tilt’ method,” Cecily suggested, referring to Amelia’s penciled mantra on the back of the fan petals. “It worked for me when I was trying to find a gentleman to get me into the Egyptian Club.”
Maddie refrained from pointing out that Amelia’s advice had not in fact been what drew Winterson to Cecily. “I do appreciate your concern,” she assured both of her cousins, “but I do not wish to—”
She was saved from further discussion by the arrival of Winterson, Deveril, and their friend Colonel Lord Christian Monteith. Only now he was the Earl of Gresham, she corrected herself, thinking of Christian’s recent elevation to the title upon the death of his uncle. It was difficult to think of him as Gresham rather than Monteith.
“I thought you were headed for the card room,” Juliet said to her angelically handsome husband, Lord Deveril, who was dressed in the first stare of fashion, a ruby pin nestled in the folds of his pristine neck cloth.
“We were,” Deveril said with a shrug, his golden curls glinting in the chandelier lights as he slipped a hand down to squeeze Juliet’s, “but we ran into Gresham on the way there and lost interest.”
“I do seem to have that effect on people,” Monteith—or Gresham—said with a flash of white teeth.
As usual, his evening attire was more practical than fashionable, but his broad shoulders and strong thighs filled his coat and breeches impressively. Not that Maddie noticed such things. No, indeed.
“They are so overtaken by my charismatic personality that they can think of little else.”
“Don’t flatter yourself, old son,” said Winterson, who had gravitated to his wife’s side like a magnet to iron. “We came back,” he told the cousins, “because we saw Amelia Snowe headed this way.”
“And you came to protect us?” Cecily asked with deceptive sweetness. “It was gallant of you, darling. But you know that we are perfectly capable of handling her ourselves. We’ve done so for years now. Without assistance, I might add.”
“I would trust you lot to dispatch with any number of villains on your own, my dear,” Winterson said, unruffled. “However, she has a friend of ours in tow, who is perhaps not so handy at defeating her as you are. And we thought we might linger nearby lest he needs a helping hand.”
Before she could ask which friend was ensnared in Amelia’s web, Maddie heard Amelia herself from somewhere behind them.
“You say the most wondrous things, Lord Fortenbury,” the beauty, her voice as sugary-sweet as a confection from Gunters, cooed. “I have never heard my eyes compared to stars before.”
Maddie shot a speaking glance at Cecily and Juliet. This is the man you wish me to marry? She’d remain a spinster before she subjected herself to such empty flattery on a daily basis. As someone who cherished language and words, she found his lack of imagination especially painful.
“Good God,” Gresham muttered to them sotto voce, his expression pained. “I thought Fort had more imagination than that. Eyes like stars, indeed. I am surprised that Miss Snowe doesn’t skewer him for such an affront.”
But Amelia must be of the opinion that any compliment was better than none at all, and poor Lord Fortenbury blundered on. “Miss Snowe, I could compose an ode to your eyes and a ballad to your br … eathtaking lips.”
At the pause, all of Maddie’s party groaned—albeit quietly.
“I feel ill,” Cecily said, lifting a hand to her midsection, “and it has nothing to do with my interesting condition. How can he degrade himself like that? It’s appalling.”
“A man will do a great deal to impress a beautiful woman,” Winterson said, taking Cecily’s arm and surreptitiously holding her hand.
Maddie averted her eyes and tried to stifle the pang of longing Winterson and Cecily’s closeness made her feel. It wasn’t that she was jealous of her cousin’s happiness. But at times like this she was forcibly reminded that she still remained very much alone. Even Amelia, who was by far the most annoying young lady of her acquaintance, had managed to ensnare poor Lord Fortenbury. Not that Maddie wanted him for herself, but even so she wished for someone she could call her own.
Further conversation was forestalled when Lord Fortenbury, with Miss Snowe on his arm, approached them.
Maddie watched the pair with curiosity. Amelia was just as lovely as ever, though Maddie had long ago ceased to see her outer beauty as anything other than an empty shell. The real Amelia, if it were ever to manifest itself physically, would resemble a hideous gargoyle.
Fortenbury exchanged greetings with the gentlemen, while the ladies offered chilly acknowledgments to one another. It was evident to Maddie that none of them were particularly comfortable with the situation.
“Lady Madeline,” Amelia said, breaking the silence first, her voice silky as it often was before she delivered a cutting barb. “What an interesting gown. I don’t believe I’ve seen a waist like that since I was a girl. Never say that is one of Madame Celeste’s creations. She is usually so au courant.”
Since Maddie knew full well that Amelia frequented the modiste, she knew the remark had little to do with Madame Celeste, and everything to do with the woman wearing the gown. “Indeed it is, Amelia,” she returned, not letting a hint of her annoyance show in her face. “Madame Celeste is so talented that I simply put myself in her hands without trying to second-guess her sense of fashion. She is the expert, after all.”
Before Amelia could respond, Maddie was startled to hear Gresham speak up.
“I think Lady Madeline has never looked finer,” the earl drawled, removing a quizzing glass, which Maddie had never once seen him use, from a hidden pocket in his waistcoat and surveying her from top to toes. Against her will she felt a blush rise from her neck into her cheeks. She would make him pay for this later. She could fight her own battles, thank you very much.
“You are too kind, Lord Gresham,” Maddie said through her teeth, glaring at him. But Gresham, ignoring her pique, merely winked at her from behind the glass.
Amelia, who had never been one to argue with an eligible bachelor—even one who was friendly with her mortal enemies—simpered. It was not pretty. “I fear you misunderstand me, my lord,” Amelia gushed. “I was trying to tell Lady Madeline how interesting her gown is. I feel sure that Madame Celeste has anticipated what will be the trend before much time has passed.” Just in case her backhanded apology did not hit its mark, she extended her lower lip in a very pretty pout. As if she felt quite sad at having been so misunderstood.
“I’m sure Gresham understands his mistake, Miss Snowe,” Lord Fortenbury soothed the beauty. “He’s not at all the sort to hold a grudge.” He turned to the other man with what on someone else would be a glare and asked with as much menace as a puppy could master, “Are you, old fellow?”
Maddie barely stopped herself from rolling her eyes at Fortenbury’s protective display. What was it about Miss Snowe that turned men into fools in her presence? Except for Gresham, she mentally amended. He was never one to follow the trend.
“Indeed I am not,” Gresham replied to Fortenbury, though he made no move to step away from Maddie’s side, for which she was surprisingly grateful. “I do hope, however, that Miss Snowe will attempt to make herself understood from now on. I should hate to hear of some young lady of lesser mettle than Lady Madeline having her feelings wounded by an unguarded word.”
Her grudging gratitude to Gresham growing, Maddie watched as Amelia’s eyes narrowed for a fraction of a second before she masked the annoyance with more simpering. Before there could be any more conflict, the sound of the orchestra tuning up for the next dance broke through the tension. Apparently deciding that they’d done their conversational duty, Lord Fortenbury and Miss Snowe left them to take their places in the sets forming on the ballroom floor.
“You are a very bad man,” Maddie told her champion as the whole group burst into laughter. “I am perfectly capable of routing Miss Amelia Snowe, thank you very much. Even if you did raise her ire, I have managed quite well with Amelia these past few years and do not need a gentleman to ride to my rescue.”
“No one said you did,” Christian said with a small shrug, not contrite in the least. “I simply thought Miss Snowe might be more willing to take a dressing-down from a gentleman than from another lady. And it would appear that I was correct.”
“She did listen,” Maddie admitted grudingly, “but do not think that she will forget it. You will be on her black list forever now. I’m not sure she is someone you wish to have as an enemy, my lord.”
“I’m not afraid,” Gresham said with a grin. “Are you, Lady Madeline?”
Mentally cursing him, Maddie shook her head. “It will take more than Amelia Snowe and her sharp tongue to frighten me. I may not have spent the last decade fighting Bonaparte, but I have a certain amount of skill when it comes to fighting drawing room battles.”
The approval that shone in Gresham’s blue eyes, or rather her stomach’s flip in reaction to it, confused Maddie and she was grateful when Juliet broke in, saying, “I am tired of speaking of Amelia. We spend far too much time worrying about her and how she will affect things.”
“She is certainly not my favorite topic of conversation,” Deveril agreed, touching his wife lightly on the arm. “I think we should talk of something much more interesting.” Turning to Madeline he said, “Juliet tells me that you are writing a novel.”
Feeling the flush return to her cheeks, Maddie nodded. “I am, indeed, my lord. Though I pray you will tell no one else about it. I do not wish it to be generally known until I am finished with it and am able to sell it to a publisher.”
“What is it about?” Winterson asked, his eyes alight with mischief. “Is it a roman à clef like Caro Lamb’s Glenarvon? I should like very much to see certain people lampooned in novel form as she did with Byron.”
They all laughed, though Maddie shook her head. “I’m afraid not, your grace. I do not think that I would wish to spend any more time thinking about Amelia than I already must. No, this is to be in the vein of Madame d’Arblay or Miss Austen.”
“A love story, then?” Gresham teased, his green eyes alight with mischief. “I would not have taken you for a romantic, Lady Madeline.”
“There will be a love story as part of the tale, yes,” Maddie said, attempting to maintain her dignity even as his question sent an unfamiliar thrill through her belly. Perhaps she was coming down with something. Daring not meet Gresham’s eye, she continued to the others, “The story itself will deal with a young man’s inability to extricate himself from the ever more dangerous world of gambling and reckless life on the town.”
“I beg your pardon, Maddie.” Lord Deveril’s blue eyes clouded with confusion. “How will a gently bred young lady be able to write of such things? I cannot imagine that you have ever visited a gambling hell or a house of … that is to say…”
“She knows what you’re trying to say, dearest,” Juliet said to her husband with a smile. “And I must admit, Maddie, to having wondered the same thing. Though I suppose you could use your imagination. Or ask someone—your brother for instance—for a description.”
For a moment, Maddie debated whether to ask what she’d been intending to ask. After all, she did not wish to impose upon her friendship with her cousins’ husbands. And yet, she did indeed need firsthand experience of a London gaming hell. Nothing ventured, nothing gained, she decided. “I don’t suppose one of you would condescend to—” she began.
But before she could even complete the sentence, all three men nipped the idea in the bud.
“Never in a million years.”
“Not for the wide world.”
This last from Gresham, whose scowl reinforced his words. Looking from one to the other she saw that they meant what they said. “Very well,” she said with a shrug. “You cannot blame me for asking. I did not think any of you would consider it, but I had to try. It is not a whim, but a necessary part of researching my novel.”
“It’s not that we do not wish to help you, Madeline,” Winterson said kindly. “But it would be unconscionable for one of us to escort you to such a place. Even a gaming hell, which is the least objectionable of the establishments you named.”
“Said like a man who hasn’t spent much time in gaming hells of late,” Gresham said with a frown. “Depending on the place they can be more dangerous than a br … house of ill repute. Mrs. Bailey’s hell, for instance, is supposed to host an exclusive party tomorrow night that promises to include some very deep pockets. And you know how fraught things get when there is a great deal of money to be won and lost.”
Maddie, who had been listening with half an ear as she tried to think who else might be persuaded to take her to a hell, stood straighter at the mention of Mrs. Bailey’s. She had heard her brother speaking of a Mrs. Bailey last week, but she had assumed he meant a friend or acquaintance.
“Mrs. Bailey’s?” she asked, careful not to sound too eager. “You wouldn’t happen to know where her establishment is located, would you?”
But it was too good to hope that Gresham would not guess the reason for her question.
“No,” he said baldly. “I will not put my neck at risk from your father and your brother by telling you how to get to Bailey’s. Or any other hell for that matter.”
“Very well,” she said, lifting her head in a display of pride. “I will simply be forced to find another way to get there.” Turning to Cecily and Juliet she asked, “Would you like to accompany me to the retiring room? If I cannot persuade these gentlemen to help me get to Mrs. Bailey’s, I should at least ensure that my hair is still tidy and then see about making use of the dance card.”
As the three of them wended their way through the crowded ballroom toward the ladies’ withdrawing room, Maddie reflected that she would have to change her tactics. She would approach her brother about escorting her to Mrs. Bailey’s. He, too, would protest, but having known him a great deal longer than Winterson, Deveril, or Gresham, she knew exactly how to persuade him. Her mind settled on a plan, she vowed to enjoy the rest of the evening. Because if she was lucky, she would begin researching tomorrow night.
* * *
“Never a dull moment with those three around,” Gresham muttered to his comrades as they headed once again toward the card room. The glittering Wexford ballroom was filled to capacity, and it was with a sigh of relief that he stepped into the hallway leading to the parlor where tables had been set up. He’d never been one for crowds, and since the war he’d found them even less comfortable than before.
“They do add a certain spark to life,” Winterson agreed. “Though I don’t suppose you are required to take part in the festivities as we are, Gresham. I sometimes wonder if you do so out of loyalty or some other reason.”
“A tendre for a certain golden-haired lady, perchance?” Deveril teased, elbowing Christian in the ribs. “She might take a bit of persuading, but I can think of worse matches for a newly minted earl.”
Christian fought the impulse to turn tail and run. He knew it was inevitable for people to begin matching him and Maddie together simply because they were so often in company. But it was less about attraction than proximity.
At least, that’s what he told himself, remembering how an errant curl of golden hair had brushed against her neckline as she walked away. He could not deny that she was an attractive young lady. And he admired her spirit—among other things. But he was not quite ready to enter into the matrimonial stakes. Perhaps when he was, he would consider her, but for now, he was content to look without touching, so to speak.
To his friends, he said, deliberately misunderstanding their hints, “Do you really think Amelia might be persuaded to have me? She is such a shy thing. I wouldn’t want to frighten her with my strong feelings.”
Deveril’s snort was gratifying. It seemed that the earldom hadn’t destroyed his comic timing, at least. Winterson, on the other hand was not put off the scent. “Prevaricate all you like, man, but I saw how you jumped to her defense earlier. Not many would be willing to lay their neck on the line for Maddie. Especially since she is more than capable of fending for herself.”
Damn it. He had known it was foolish to protect Maddie from Amelia’s taunts, but he had never been one to step aside while a bully was hurting one of his friends. And that, he supposed, was the operative word: “friends.” What he and Maddie shared was friendship and it would be foolish to jeopardize that for something as fleeting as physical attraction. Or worse, marriage.
He kept an eye out for her because she needed someone to do so. Her brother, Viscount Linton, had shown little enough interest in protecting her from herself. And if Maddie reminded Christian of a certain other young lady, whose brother had also failed to protect her from the censure of the world, then he could hardly fault himself for feeling a certain responsibility toward her. He’d done little enough to shelter his own sister. If he were able, somehow, to see to it that Linton’s sister didn’t come to harm, perhaps he’d be able to forgive himself someday.
Aloud he said, “I was simply helping a friend. Either of you might have done the same thing if I hadn’t done it.”
“Not likely,” Deveril said with a laugh. “I enjoy my bollocks right where they are, thank you very much.”
“As do I,” Winterson agreed. “Though I found it very interesting that Madeline did not protest your assistance overmuch. In fact, I’d almost say that she welcomed the assistance.”
“Could it be that our Maddie is just as sweet on Gresham as he is on her?” Deveril asked in a bright falsetto.
Monteith fought the impulse to bloody the other man’s nose. It was only for Juliet’s sake that he refrained. “You are both as full of gossip as a school for young ladies. I shouldn’t wonder if you took tea with the patronesses of Almack’s on a regular basis.”
“At least we’d be spending time with women, which is more than I can say for you,” Winterson said, raising one dark brow suggestively. “You know if you don’t use it, you’re in danger of losing it.”
“It,” growled Gresham in a tone that would have sent lesser men fleeing, “is in perfect working order, I assure you. I’ve simply been too busy with other things, as it happens.”
Remembering just what he’d been working on that was so important, he sobered. “Unfortunately, what I’ve been doing does affect Lady Madeline, but it’s not good news, I’m afraid.”
Sensing his shift in mood, Winterson and Deveril stopped abruptly. Gesturing for the other two to follow him, Monteith led them to an open terrace door. The small balcony was empty, and Monteith dug into his breast pocket for the cheroots he’d brought along for just such an emergency.
They went through the ritual of lighting and smoking for a few moments before Winterson said, “You may as well tell. You’ve piqued my curiosity, and no doubt Dev’s, too.”
Looking out over the Wexfords’ back garden, Monteith said, “I told you that I’ve been doing a bit of work for Lord Leighton in the Home Office.”
Leighton oversaw some of the government’s investigations into threats against the crown. But only those that came from within, on English soil. Both Winterson and Monteith had worked with Leighton on the Continent during the war, and were confident that he would be quite effective in his new position. The war might be over, but they both knew that it didn’t spell the end of attempts by those who were disappointed in the outcome to right the wrongs that occurred at Waterloo.
“Well, I’ve been charged to look into claims that Mr. John Tinker, and by association, Lord Linton, are involved in some capacity with the Citizen’s Liberation Society.”
Winterson whistled. “They were responsible for the assassaination attempt on the prime minister last year, weren’t they?”
“I don’t remember that,” Deveril said, puzzled. “And what the devil is the Citizen’s Liberation Society?”
“The authorities kept it quiet,” Winterson said, the end of his cheroot glowing red in the darkness. “The only reason I know is because I keep in contact with the Home secretary.”
“The CLS is a group of English citizens who adhere to the ideals of the revolution in France. They have been working underground in covert—and sometimes not so covert as in the case of the attempt on the prime minister—ways to bring about the overthrow of the monarchy.
Deveril blanched, “Are they unaware of the way the Revolution played out? Surely they don’t wish for England to devolve into the kind of chaos that has reigned in France for the past few decades.”
“They are convinced that their own attempts at egalitarianism will be more successful than those in France,” Monteith said with a twist of his lips. “A triumph of optimism over experience, if you ask me.”
“That’s an understatement,” Winterson said.
“So, Lady Madeline’s brother is thought to be involved in this treasonous activity?” Deveril asked. “His father is an earl. Why would he do such a thing?”
Monteith leaned back against the wall, not caring if his evening coat was smudged. “I can’t say whether Essex is involved in the society or not. I do know that Tinker is highly likely to be a member. He has always had leanings in that direction. His mother was French, and he lost a great deal of family in the war. But what I am supposed to discover is whether Linton has been persuaded by his friend to join the cause, or if he is simply maintaining a friendship that has stood him in good stead since university.”
“That whole group, including Linton, Tinker, Tretham, even Fielding’s widow,” Winterson said, exhaling a cloud of smoke, “has been involved in questionable ventures for years now. Wasn’t Linton blamed for Lord Fielding’s death in that godforsaken curricle race?”
“Yes,” Monteith said. “Though nothing has ever been proved.” He shook his head. “Now, the Home Office wonders whether Linton, who is quite often short of funds, might have been driven to join his friend Tinker in a bid for money.”
“Men have been driven to treason for less,” Winterson agreed.
“Poor Maddie,” Deveril said, tapping the ash from his cheroot. “She would be devastated to learn such a thing about her brother.”
“Which is why you can say nothing to her,” Monteith said sharply. “I mean it, Dev. No hint of what I’m doing, why I’m investigating Linton, can reach her ears. Not only would it endanger the investigation, but it might put her in danger. Lady Madeline might think she is perfectly able to take care of herself, but in this circumstance, I’d prefer that she not be required to.”
“Of course,” Deveril said. “I won’t even tell Juliet, though she will make me pay handsomely should she ever learn I kept it from her.”
“You have my word as well,” Winterson said. “Though I hope you will let us know if you need help at any point in your investigation. Maddie is family and we will do what we can to help her. And Linton for that matter, though he has never struck me as a particularly admirable fellow.”
“Nor I,” Monteith agreed.
“At any rate,” he continued, “the Home Office has intercepted a communication from the leaders of the CLS and it mentions a meeting at Mrs. Bailey’s tomorrow evening between two of their operatives. I need to be there to see if Tinker or Linton do anything suspicious. If Linton shows no sign of involvement, then I can breathe a sigh of relief on that score at least.”
“Good God!” Winterson said, hastily removing the cheroot from between his lips. “No wonder you were so adamant about not taking her to Mrs. Bailey’s. I thought you were simply looking out for your own neck.”
“Well, that, too,” he admitted, remembering uneasily Maddie’s response to their denial of her request. “You don’t suppose she’ll try to go there without us, do you?”
“Surely not,” Deveril said with a shake of his head. “Even Maddie isn’t so foolish as to venture to such a place unescorted. She might resent having to maintain her reputation, but she would not carelessly put it in danger like that.”
“I hope you’re right,” Monteith said, thinking of how determined she could be when she wanted something. “I certainly hope you’re right.”
Copyright © 2013 by Manda Collins