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'Miss Davenport is a young woman any mother would be proud of, would you not say, Sybil?'
'Indeed, I would, for she countenances no scandal whatsoever. A reputation unsullied in each corner of her life, and a paragon of good sense, good taste and good comportment.'
Lillian Davenport listened to the compliments from her place in the little room, deciding that the two older women hadn't a notion of her being there. To alert them of her overhearing such a private matter would now cause them only embarrassment and so she stayed silent, letting the heavy petticoats in her hands fall to her side and ironing out the creases in white shot silk with her fingers.
'If only my Jane had the sort of grace that she has, I often say to Gerald. If only we had drilled in the importance of the social codes as Ernest Davenport did, we might have been blessed with a very different daughter.'
'Sometimes I think you are too hard on your girl, Sybil. She has her own virtue after all and…'
They were moving away now and out of the ladies' retiring room. Lillian heard the door close and tilted her head, the last of the sentence lost into nothingness.
One minute. She would give them that before she opened the door and took her leave.
A paragon of good sense, good taste and good comportment.
A smile began to form on her face, though she squashed it down. Pride was a sin in its own right and she had no desire to be thought of as boastful.
Still… it was hard not to be pleased with such unexpected praise and, although she frequently detected a general commendation on her manners, it was not often that the words were so direct orhonest.
Washing her hands, she shook off the excess, noting how the white gold in her new birthday bracelet caught the light from above. Twenty-five yesterday. Her euphoria died a little, though she pushed the unsettled feeling down as she walked out into a salon of the Lenningtons' town-house and straight into some sort of fight.
'I think you cheated, you blackguard.' Her cousin Daniel's tones were hardly civil and came from a very close quarter.
'Then call me out. I am equally at home with swords or pistols.' Another voice. Laconic. The drawl of a man new from the former colonies, the laughter in it unexpected.
'And have you kill me?'
'Life or death, Lord Davenport, take your choice or stop your whining.'
There was the sound of pushing and shoving and the two assailants came suddenly into view, Daniel's head now locked in the bent elbow of a tall, dark-haired man, her cousin's eyes bulging from the pressure and his fair hair plastered wet across his forehead.
Lillian was speechless as her glance drew upwards into the face of the assailant. Jacket unbuttoned and with cravat askew, the stranger's jaw was heavily shadowed by dark stubble and she was transfixed by two golden eyes brushed in humour that stared now straight at her. Unrepentant. Unapologetic. Pure and raw man with blood on his lip and danger imprinted in every line of his body.
It seemed that her own throat choked with the contact, her heart slamming full into the ribs of her breast in one heavy blow, leaving her with no breath. A warmth that she had never before felt slid easily from her stomach, fusing even the tips of her fingers with heat, and with it came some other nameless thing, echoing on the edge of a knowledge as old as time. Shocking. Dreadful. She pulled her eyes from his and turned on her heels, but not before she had seen him tip his head at her, the wink he delivered licentious and untrammelled.
Mannerless, she decided, and American, and with more than a dozen other men and women looking on she knew the gossip about the fight would spread with an unstoppable haste.
Pulling the door to the retiring room open again, she returned to the same place she had left not more than a few minutes prior.
Anger consumed her.
Who was he? She held out one hand and watched it shake before laying it down on her lap and shutting her eyes. A headache had begun to form and behind the pain came a wilder and more unwieldy longing.
'Stop it,' she whispered to herself, placing cold fingers across her lips to soften the sound as the door opened and other women came in, giggling this time and young.
'I love these balls. I love the music and the colour and the gowns…'
And of all the gowns I love Lillian Davenport's best. Where does she get her clothes from, I wonder? Ester Hamilton says from London, but I would wager France—a modiste from Paris, perhaps, and a milliner from Florence? With all her money she could have them brought from anywhere.'
'Did you see her exquisite bracelet? Her father gave it to her for her birthday. Her twenty-fifth birthday!'
'Twenty-five! Poor Lillian,' the other espoused, 'and no husband or children either! My God, if she does not find a groom soon…'
'Oh, I would not go that far, Harriet. Some women like to live alone.'
'No woman wants to live alone, you peagoose. Besides Lord Wilcox-Rice has been paying her a lot of attention tonight. Perhaps she will fall in love with him and have the wedding of the year in the spring.'
The other girl tittered as they departed, leaving Lillian speechless.
Paragon to poor in all of five minutes, and a stranger outside who made her heart beat in a way that worried her.
'Mama?' The sound came in a prayer. 'Please, Lord, do not let me be anything like Mama.' She pushed the thought away. She would not see this colonial ruffian again; furthermore, if his behaviour tonight was anything to go by, she doubted he would be invited into any house of repute in the future. The thought relaxed her—after all, they were the only sort of homes that she frequented!
Wiping her brow, she stood, feeling better for the thought and much more like herself. She was seldom flustered and almost never blushed and the heartbeat that had raced in her breast was an unheard-of occurrence. Perhaps it was the fight that had made her unsettled and uncertain, for she could not remember a time when she had ever heard a voice raised in such fury or men hitting out at each other. Certainly she had never seen a man in a state of such undress.
Ridiculously she hoped the stranger would have had the sense to adjust his cravat and his jacket before he entered the main salons.
No! Her rational mind rejected such a thought. Let him be thrown out into the street and away from the city. She wondered what had happened to arouse such strong emotion in the first place. Cards, probably, and drink! She had smelt it on their clothes and her cousin's behaviour of late had been increasingly erratic, his sense of honour tarnished with a wilder anger ever since returning home to England.
She would not think about it again. Those silly young girls had no notion of what they spoke of and she was more than happy with her life.
Lucas Clairmont draped his legs across the stool and looked into the fire burning in the grate of Nathaniel Lindsay's town house in Mayfair.
'My face will feel better come the morrow,' Lucas said, raising his glass to swallow the chilled water, the bottle nestling in an ice-bucket beside him.
'Davenport has always had a hot temper, so I'd watch your back on dark nights as you wend your way home. Especially if you are on a winning streak at the tables.'
Luc laughed. Loudly. 'I'd like to see him try it.'
'He is no lightweight, Luc. His family name affords him a position here that is… secure.'
'I'll deal with it, Nat,' he countered, glad when his friend nodded.
'His cousin, Miss Lillian Davenport, on the other hand is formidably scrupulous.'
'She's the woman I saw in the white dress?' He had already asked Nat her name as they had walked to the waiting coach and now seemed the time to find out more, her pale blue eyes and blonde hair reminding him of the lily flowers that grew in profusion near the riverbeds in Richmond, Virginia.
'Is she married?'
'No. She is famous not only for her innate good manners but also for her ability to say no to marriage proposals and, believe me, there have been many.'
Luc gingerly touched his bottom lip, which was still hurting.
'Society here is under the impression that you are a reprobate and a wild cannon, Luc. Many more tussles like tonight and you may find yourself on the outskirts of even the card games.'
Lucas shook his head. 'I barely touched him and he only got in a punch because I wasn't expecting it. Where does Lillian Davenport live, by the way?'
'We're back to her again. My God, she is as dangerous to you as her cousin and many times over more clever. A woman who all men would like to possess and who in the end wants none of them.'
Cassandra bustled into the drawing room, a steaming hot chocolate in hand.
'Take no notice of my husband, Lucas. He speaks from his own poor experience.'
'You were lining up, Nat, at one time?'
'A good seven years back now. Her first coming out it was, and long before I ever set eyes upon my Cassie.'
'And she refused you?'
'Unconditionally. She waited until I had sent her the one and only love letter I have ever written and then gave it back.'
'Better than keeping it, I should imagine.'
He nodded. 'And those famous manners relegate anything personal to the "never to be discussed again" box, which one must find encouraging.'
'So she's not a gossip?'
'Oh, far from it,' Cassie took up the conversation. 'She is the very end word in innate good breeding and perfect bearing. Every young girl who is presented at Court is reminded of her comportment and conduct and encouraged to emulate it.'
'She sounds formidable.'
Cassandra giggled and Nathaniel interrupted his wife as she went to say more. 'Lord, Cassie, enough.' He caught her arm and pulled her down on to his knee. 'Luc is only here in London until the end of December and we have much to reminisce about.'
'I'll drink to that, Nat.' Raising his glass, Luc swallowed the lot, already planning his second foray into discovering the exact character of Daniel Davenport.
Lillian pulled up the sheets on her bed and lay down with a sigh. She had left her curtains slightly open and the moon shone brightly in the space between. A full moon tonight, and the beams covered her room in silver.
She felt… excited, and could not explain the feeling even to herself, the sleep she would have liked so far, far away. Her hand slid across her stomach beneath the gossamer-thin silk nightdress.
John Wilcox-Rice had been most attentive tonight, but it was another face she sought. A darker, more dangerous countenance with laughing golden eyes and a voice from another land. Her fingers traced across her skin soft and gentle, like the path of a feather.
Bringing her hands together when she realised where they lingered, she closed her eyes and summoned sleep. But the urgency was not dimmed, rather it flared in the silver moon and in the pull of something she had no control over. A single tear ran down her temple and into her hair. Wet. Real. She was twenty-five and waiting for… what?
The stranger had tipped his head to her, night-black hair caught long in the sort of leather strap that a man from past centuries would have worn. Careless of fashion!
His hands had been forceful and brown, work imbued into the very form of them. What must it be like to have a hand like that touch her body? Not soft, not smooth. Fingers that had worked the earth hard or loved a woman well!
She smiled at such a thought, but could not quite dismiss it.
'Please…' she whispered into the night, but the entreaty itself made her pause.
'Let me find someone to love, someone to care for, someone to love me back.' Not for her money or for her clothes or for the colour of her hair, which men always admired. Not those things, she thought.
'For me. For just me.' Words diffusing into the silence of the night as the winds of winter buffeted the house and the almost full moon disappeared behind thick rain-filled clouds.