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"What an extraordinary coincidence!"
William Pemberton raised his distinguished head at his sweet wife's acid tone. Blue eyes that had been solemnly contemplating the brandy warming within his broad palm now met a glass-sharp gaze. It was a glancing contact, for her attention was already slicing past his shoulder.
"Your old friend is again socialising with us, William. Suddenly we appear to share many mutual acquaintances with Lady Bingham. She looks a little disappointed Ah, but she has now spotted you and looks far less glum."
"June" William's weary sigh accompanied his wife's name.
June Pemberton bestowed on her husband a fleeting, bright smile. "I shall not hamper your fond reminiscences this time, I promise. I was about to find my sisters, in any case." June made to sweep away, her ivory skirts held in fingers so tightly clenched the delicate silk was imperilled.
"I have had enough of this interminable innuendo," William gritted with a fierce azure look at his spouse from beneath heavy lashes. An unusually masterful hand on the soft skin of her arm stayed her. "Accuse me or have done!"
"Accuse you? Of what, pray?"June countered, her complexion becomingly flushed. She was already regretting revealing that the elegant brunette, who had just entered the Cleggs" ballroom, had unsettled her to such a degree. Three times this week they had socialised. Three times Lady Constance Bingham had arrived shortly after they did, and on each occasion the pretty dowager had contrived at some point in the evening to corner William, in order to engage him in quite an intimate and cosy chat about the old days when once they had been close. And what worried June was she had recently discovered that once, indeed, they had been close.
In the previous few months Constance Bingham had limited her interest in William to lingering looks when their carriages passed on an afternoon drive, or a coquettish glance when they found themselves browsing the same parade of shops. In those early days, an arch comment from June congratulating her husband on his new allure had rendered him amused, then thoughtful, then murmuring that he believed she must be mistaken over it all. He had reminded her of his reputation as rather a dull fellow. She must look to her dashing brothers-in-law for gentlemen cast creditably in the role of gallant, he had told her with a wry grin that melted her heart. Thus, initially, she had felt an amount of pride that her William was drawing the attention of such a well-connected society lady.
But that was a month or more ago and Lady Bingham's interest was becoming insistent enough for others to notice and remark upon it. Not within June's hearing, of course; she was well aware that conversations sometimes dwindled on her arrival in an elegant drawing room.
Recently she had been on the point of demanding to know whether she was invisible, so blatantly had Lady Bingham been flirting with her husband, but angry tears had been too close to the surface for her to risk challenging the woman and making a fool of herself. Lady Bingham was making it clear she found her quarry's wife of no consequence, and that was galling. Dwelling on that truth now made her snap. "Is it not coincidence then that Lady Bingham materialises at every social function we attend? And am I to believe it was simply good manners that obliged you to escort her to the terrace when she complained of feeling faint earlier this week?" "God's teeth!" The oath was so explosive that a lady and gentleman close by slanted curious eyes at William's taut features. "I believe I explained that incident at the time." The words were enunciated through lips that scarce moved. "Lady Bingham said she felt faint and asked me to accompany her outside for some air. Would you rather I had acted the boor and allowed her to collapse at my feet?"
June's amber eyes glowed tiger-bright as she dulcetly demurred. "Indeed, no, sir. I would rather you had recommended she used her salts or, better still, went home. But whatever you did do to revive her certainly worked. When you later reappeared together she looked quite red in the faceradiant, I believe your mother put it when she drew my attention to you both."
William closed his eyes and a low curse scratched at his throat. "I might have guessed my mother would have some part in it. Come. We are leaving. I have had enough."
"Too late, I fear." His wife darted a look across his broad shoulder. "Lady Bingham is being escorted to meet you by your parents." With a flick of the wrist June had opened her reticule. A cold metal bottle was extracted and thrust into her husband's hand. "Here! Take my hartshorn. Feel free to offer it to your admirer should she be in danger of swooning over you. "Twould prevent a trip to the terrace and her risking pneumonia. That scrap she has on is positively indecent and will provide little protection against the night chill." Without another word June turned and walked away.
William watched the ripple and sway of cream silk as his wife gracefully fled from him. The cascade of berry-blonde curls that curtained her nude sculpted shoulders glimmered in candlelight, stoking his frustrated desire. With a low sigh he forced his hungry eyes away. He hadn't investigated the approach of the people June had warned were nearby and, with rare incivility, avoided them by moving in the opposite direction. He felt unequal this evening to receiving any of his mother's studied bonhomie or Lady Bingham's coquetry. And he knew both were his if he remained where he was. But a quiet chat with his father would have been welcome. With a scowl moulding his mouth, he finished what was in his glass and weaved a path through a throng of people, hoping to find some uncomplicated male company.
As he walked he thought. He hadn't wanted to leave the house this evening, sensing this situation might arise, but June, with a faux gaiety, had evaded his amorous persuasiveness that they have a quiet night at home, and insisted they come. They had both known for some weeks that a confrontation about Lady Bingham's peculiar attention to him was imminent. A constant strain between them was upsetting their conjugal harmony, and thus William's equable nature.
William was coming to accept that his wife's suspicions were valid. Wherever they went, Constance was likely not only to materialise, but also to hound him. He knew too that June's mild annoyance at the woman's stalking had turned to a stronger emotion since they had become the butt of gossip. The fact that his own mother was fostering Constance's friendship and thus exacerbating the friction between him and June was obviously intriguing the ton. William, on the other hand, was well used to his mother's hostility to his wife.
"Is June ailing? She looked quite sickly, I thought, as she passed me a moment ago, with barely a greeting, too, I might add."
William closed his eyes and blew a silent curse through his teeth on recognising the voice accosting him. It was wrong to have supposed his mother would give up pursuit quite so easily, even if Constance and his father had. On the edge of his vision he noticed his father leading Lady Bingham towards the supper room.
Pamela Pemberton fussily hoisted a flimsy shawl about her thin arms. "Really, William! I think you ought have a word with your wife about her manners. Several years you have been wed; time enough by my reckoning for her early breeding to have been polished a little by association with us."
William Pemberton gazed glacially at his mother. "Yes, several years married, ma'am, and still she suits me as well as ever she did."
Pamela sniffed. "Still your nursery is empty. Where is my grandchild?"
"You have a granddaughter, as I recall Hannah's child."
"I have no daughter. I have had no daughter since she married that heathen."
"Your choice, then, to have no grandchild either," William pointed out, his voice vibrating with disgust. "Your loss, too, for the little girl is beautiful and I'm proud to call her my niece."
"That is understandable." His mother theatrically sighed. "Perhaps, if your wife suits you so very well, you must resign yourself to doting on other people's offspring."
"Indeed I shall, if that is how it is to be." William turned away from the sight of his mother's bitter, pinched features. "We are going home. June is unwell and is just gone to take her leave of her sisters."
William removed the tenacious fingers that had fastened on his arm.
"But you have barely arrived. This is one of the most lavish parties we shall see this season. You cannot go! Constance is here and keen to come to you."
"Why is that?" "Why is what?" "Why is Constance keen to come to me? There are other people here she knows. Why single me out as a person on whom to bestow such favour?"
"Perhaps she finds you amusing" The innocent simper that accompanied the remark was belied by the flush staining Pamela's cheeks. "Oh, how should I know?" she blustered.
"I just thought you might, ma'am" was William's parting shot as with a curt nod he moved on.