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A Season to be Sinful
By Jo Goodman
ZEBRA BOOKSCopyright © 2005 Joanne Dobrzanski
All right reserved.
Chapter OneLondon, April 1815
His nibs was a watchful one. She'd give him that. Most of the young bucks strolling through Covent Garden after the theatre discharged its patrons gave their full attention to the muslin set and never took notice of the footpads brushing their elbows. Some nights it was so easy to lift the contents of a gentleman's pocket that there was no sport in it.
She had never cared for the sport of it overmuch. Snick. Snack. A flick of the wrist and two swipes of a finely honed blade were usually all that was required. The threads, even the finest silk ones, could be sliced as easily as butter. Sometimes the money purse jangled, especially if it was nicely weighted, but by then it was already too late. Fleet of foot and as unpredictable in their movements as quicksilver, the thieves were already plunging through the crowd, hiding behind skirts as well as under them.
The gentleman-and she could tell by his negligent confidence that he was at the very least a gentleman-inclined his head toward the woman on his arm as she spoke. The nature of the comment was not clear to her, as the gentleman's features merely remained politely fixed. The woman evidently thought her observation was worthy of some sort of response because she raised her brows expectantly. His nibs remained unmoved. This seemed to cause his companion some distress as the curve of her dark red mouth faltered, then fell. Lest he miss the point, the woman underscored it by pursing her lips, not with disapproval, but petulance.
It was not a look that sat well on the woman's narrow features, she thought as she advanced on them, but that expression had arrested the gentleman's attention and neither he nor his lightskirt made any attempt to evade her approach.
She saw the buzz-gloaks coming at him from three directions, moving purposely through the crowd but without hurry or menace, cautious in the way they were proceeding to deliver the rum-hustle. Indeed, if she had not been looking for them, they might have easily escaped notice. It was all part and parcel of their plan, a plan they had executed successfully more times than she cared to contemplate. One would rub elbows with their quarry, one would beg his pardon, and one would step smartly on his ladybird's ruffled skirt. They would move on quickly, but not at a run. They were boman prigs and knew their craft too well to draw more attention to themselves than was strictly necessary. If their victim realized his purse had been lifted and gave chase, then they would run. It would require more luck than determination to catch them, for they had a lightness of foot that equaled the lightness of their fingers and putting hands on them was like trying to snatch quicksilver.
Her attention was all for them, gauging the moment they would strike, her deliberation matching their own. It surprised her, then, that she should notice anything at all outside the trap that was about to be sprung. Perhaps it was because she knew the players so well that one more or less in the drama gave her pause. It was as if Iago had made his entrance with Queen Titania's fairie court; one knew immediately that Othello's villain had no place in A Midsummer Night's Dream.
She did not mistake the man's nature by naming him a villain. Although he was a brutish sort, with broad, uneven features and a heavy gait, he was in every way the equal of the dangerously sly and manipulative character that Shakespeare had perfectly penned.
These thoughts flitted through her mind so quickly that she barely grasped their import; acting on them was impulsive, accomplished more by instinct than plan. She had arrived in this place with only one purpose: to stop the three young ruffians from picking the gentleman's pockets. Once she saw the glint of the attacker's blade, she was helpless to respond in any way save to stop him from slitting the gentleman's throat.
Launching herself forward at a run, her lithe body defied gravity as it took flight. For a few moments she was actually suspended above the crushed gravel path, then momentum brought her crashing into the gentleman, bearing him hard to the ground.
Lady Georgia Pendelton, Countess of Rivendale, pressed her hands to her heart in what an idle observer might have determined was a dramatic, perhaps overwrought, gesture. Those fortunate people who numbered themselves among the lady's dearest friends knew the sincerity of such gestures and would always recognize them as a sign that her sympathies were deeply engaged.
"Never say you were hurt, Sherry. I do not think I can bear it if you say you were injured." Her pale gray eyes narrowed as she made a complete survey of her godson. He had suffered a measure of this scrutiny when he crossed the threshold into her sitting room, but then she had not known he had had an adventure. Now she must assure herself that he was none the worse for it, dear boy.
That dear boy, Alexander Henry Grantham, Viscount Sheridan, was in his twenty-eighth year, and he was as kindly cooperative of his godmother's second study of his person as he had been her first.
This inspection was nothing new. He had been all of five the first time he was aware of it. On that occasion Lady Rivendale had swept into the nursery, his own mother a few steps in her wake, and made an extraordinary fuss over him. There had been comments about the unfortunate darkening of his hair, from toffee brown to bittersweet chocolate. And was there nothing anyone could do about the cowlick that surely pointed due north like a compass needle? His eyes, she also noted as she raised his chin, had lost every hint that they might be green or hazel and now were as deeply brown as his hair. Why was he so pale? she wondered, and because she was Lady Rivendale, his mother's great friend from childhood and his own dear godmother, she felt free to wonder this aloud.
There was also a critique of the shape of his nose, which was pronounced as substantial as an eagle's beak by his godmother and aquiline by his mother. "Just like his father's," Lady Sheridan had said. "Yes," his godmother had replied, "but one hopes that can be changed."
She said nothing about his mouth, which he remembered thinking was a kindness, for surely his lower lip had been quivering by then. Still, he stood there and accepted it, watching her gravely from eyes that she had already pronounced too large for his thin face.
She liked the way he stood, though, and complimented him on his soldier's bearing. "Come, give us a hug," she said, and enveloped him in her arms. For a long time afterward Sherry had thought the "us" he was hugging were the soft twin pillows of her breasts.
"You must call me Aunt Georgia," she told him. Of course he did. How could he refuse a woman with such important breasts?
She would disappear for months, sometimes years, then announce herself without advance notice or invitation. She was always welcome. Presents arrived at odd times, never for the usual celebratory reasons like birthdays or Christmas, but simply because she thought of him. Later, when his younger sister reached the great age of six and exchanged the nursery for the schoolroom, Lady Rivendale proclaimed this also made her of interest and showered her with attentions that had been formerly reserved for him.
He did not mind overmuch. His godmother was in every way generous with her affections. The more she gave of herself, the more she seemed to have to give. For proof of this, he had only to think of the visit she made to Eton in the month following the death of his parents.
A great-uncle on his mother's side was now guardian to him and his sister, but the charge lay heavily on his shoulders, more burden than privilege, and he gratefully surrendered all duties to Lady Rivendale when she applied for them. At the funeral service he had been overheard to say, "Deuced irresponsible of Sheridan and my niece to die with their children yet to be raised. What am I to do with the two brats? Oh, it is a simple enough thing with the lad. He is at Eton at least, and his future is set. But the girl? I can get nothing from her save tears."
When Lady Rivendale arrived at Eton, she had his sister in tow. It was one of the few times she did not inspect his person before enveloping him in her plump arms and plumper breasts; it was also the first time he was called Sherry.
Viscount Sheridan. His father's title, now his, but somehow uniquely his. No one had ever call his father Sherry, not even the dauntless Lady Rivendale.
On the occasion of that visit she had announced they would be family now, and she said it with such practicality that Sherry and his sister never questioned the good sense of it.
It was not a matter of becoming a family; they just were.
"I am all of a piece," he said, returning to the present before she placed the back of her hand on his forehead. "The ill effects were confined to my frock coat, which split at the shoulder seam, and the backside of my trousers, which was pitted with gravel. Kearns says the frock coat will be repaired to its former fit; the trousers have already been surrendered to the ragpicker."
"I am certain your valet has your wardrobe well in hand-he has never failed to turn you out impressively-but what of your backside?"
Sherry blinked. He should not have been surprised by the remark, for Lady Rivendale always spoke her mind. Most often it was a refreshing discourse. He found, however, when the subject was his backside the notion of such plain speaking was rather alarming.
"You are really quite charmingly priggish," she said, dropping both hands from her heart to lay them lightly on his forearm. "I have always thought so. No, you must not take offense, for none was meant."
"Saying that it is charming does not mitigate the priggishness."
Lady Rivendale smiled deeply. She loved his wry tone. Sherry might be a tad high in the instep, but at least he had the good sense to know it. "I will not be persuaded to allow my question to go unanswered."
Sherry regarded her gravely. "When I said I was all of a piece, dear heart, all the pieces included my backside."
Clapping her hands together smartly as she laughed, her ladyship sat back comfortably on the settee. "Splendid. That is perfectly splendid. Now, what of your companion? I suppose she emerged unscathed."
Had his sister made the remark he would have reproved her, but this was his godmother and he found himself chuckling instead. "You will be disappointed to learn it was just so."
She did not deny it. "Bother. I would not wish her any grievous injury, of course."
"But the thought of Miss Dumont tumbling head over bucket, especially if it were done with little grace, well, it is a delicious image."
Sheridan's manner of collecting himself until he could make a considered reply was to lift a single dark eyebrow in a pronounced arch. In that fashion he could communicate reproach, caution, or even carefully measured astonishment. If the dark glance that accompanied it was equally persuasive, the recipient of this look simply ceased to speak. There were times, though, when Sherry's deeply brown eyes were only amused, and the effect of the raised brow was to lend his expression a touch of the ironic.
"I did not realize you were acquainted with Miss Dumont," he said mildly.
"Acquainted? With your mistress? Hardly, Sherry, and you well know it." To give her hands something to occupy them, Lady Rivendale picked up her teacup and sipped. "But aware? Yes, indeed, how could I not be? She has been your consort these last three months. I believe I learned you intended to set her up in that house in Jericho Mews before she knew the same."
"You have never said anything."
"It is not at all flattering that you can scarcely credit it. I have always maintained that you should have some secrets from me."
"Or at least the illusion that I have them," Sherry said dryly.
Lady Rivendale had the grace to blush. Suffused with pink color, her remarkably smooth countenance hinted at the complete beauty she had been in her youth. In her fifty-second year, she was still a handsome woman by any of society's standards, though proportionately rounder. The visible markers of her advanced age were the graying threads of hair at her temples and the faint but permanent creases at the corner of her eyes. Because she had earned the latter by laughing at the vagaries of life, and the former by surviving them, she accepted both without regrets or any thought of concealment. A military man did not conceal his ribbons, and it was no different for her. Life was a campaign.
"You are put out with me, Sheridan," she said. "Do not deny it; I can see that you are. Although I abhor defending myself, I cannot abide that you might think I spy on you. What particulars reach my ears concerning you are never sought by me." Over the rim of the delicate bone china teacup, Lady Rivendale saw her godson's brow rise a fraction higher. "Almost never," she amended. "Certainly that is true in the case of Miss Dumont. I might have happily lived the rest of my life without knowing you had an arrangement with this woman, but no less a personage than Lady Calumet repeated the on dit within my hearing. Deliberately done, make no mistake, but entirely for my benefit. She knows I dote on you."
"Then perhaps I should extend my thanks. Will a note be enough, or should I call on her?"
Her ladyship went on as if Sherry had not interrupted. He meant not a word of what he said, and they both shared that understanding. "I doubt that Miss Dumont is even French, so if she has tales of escaping the Terror or of connections to the Bourbons to retain your sympathies and lighten your pockets, it is all lies and nonsense. Miss Duplicitous is what the baggage should call herself."
Sherry was glad he was holding his tumbler of whisky and not drinking from it. By only the narrowest bit of luck did he manage to swallow his laughter rather than choke on it. "Pray, do not mince words. If you have an opinion, I should like to hear it."
Unlike her beloved godson, Georgia Pendelton had never held back laughter in her life, and she was not inclined to begin now. It was no polite, trilling titter that escaped her. When she laughed it was an abandonment of genteel sensibilities in favor of a full-throated, husky shout of her delight. Her shoulders and bosom were engaged in the activity, heaving once, then merely shuddering until the first wave of amusement passed. There was little delicacy in the movements, though in the end, when she dashed away the tears that had collected at the corner of her eyes, it was accomplished with a certain gravitas.
"You are an evil boy," she said without rancor. "I am certain I knew it from the first. Look, you have made me spill my tea." Since every drop had been neatly caught by the saucer, her accusation did not have the weight of a rebuke.
At once solicitous, though with an exaggerated formality that made his gesture a parody of concern, Sheridan leaned forward and took the cup and saucer from her hand. He tipped the saucer so the droplets of tea slid onto the serving tray, replaced it under the cup, then added a generous pour of whisky from his own tumbler to her tea.
"For your nerves," he said. "Drink deeply."
Lady Rivendale was immediately alert. "What is it? Never say you mean to marry the girl."
"No," he said firmly. "I confess, the idea has never occurred to me. It is not a done thing."
This time when her ladyship's plump bosom heaved, it was with relief. She could point out to him that it was indeed a done thing, though perhaps not very well done. As annoying as Sherry's perfect sense of propriety could be on occasion, there were times, such as now, that it was a most comforting aspect of his character. He actually looked a bit affronted that she had even briefly entertained the notion.
"I am heartily glad to hear it," she said. She raised her cup and took a deep swallow. The whisky blended nicely with the tea's piquant flavor and admirably warmed her. She regarded him expectantly. "Well?"
"Last evening's incident at the garden was not without bloodshed."
The whisky kept Lady Rivendale's complexion in the pink. He was right to suspect she would need it. "But not yours," she said, eyes narrowing again.
Excerpted from A Season to be Sinful by Jo Goodman Copyright © 2005 by Joanne Dobrzanski. Excerpted by permission.
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