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May 1817Highbury House, London
'Do smile, Pandora; I am sure that neither Devil nor Lucifer intends to gobble you up! At least it is to be hoped, not in any way you might find unpleasant.'
Pandora, widowed Duchess of Wyndwood, did not join in her friend's huskily suggestive laughter as they approached the two gentlemen Genevieve referred to so playfully. Instead she felt her heart begin to pound even more rapidly in her chest, her breasts quickly rising and falling as she took rapid, shallow breaths in an effort to calm her feelings of alarm, and the palms of her hands dampened inside the lace of her gloves.
She did not know either gentleman personally, of course. Both men were in their early thirties whereas she was but four and twenty, and she had never been a part of the risque crowd which surrounded them whenever they deigned to show themselves in society. Nevertheless, she had recognised them on sight as being Lord Rupert Stirling, previously Marquis of Devlin and now Duke of Stratton, and his good friend, Lord Benedict Lucas, two gentlemen who had, this past dozen years or so, become known more familiarly amongst the ton as Devil and Lucifer. So named for their outrageous exploits, both in and out of ladies' bedchambers.
The same two gentlemen Genevieve had moments ago suggested might be considered as likely candidates as lovers now that their year of mourning for their husbands was over
She gave a shake of her head. 'I do not believe I can be a party to this, Genevieve.'
Her friend gave her arm a gently reassuring squeeze. 'We are only going to speak to them, darling. Play hostess for Sophia whilst she deals with the unexpected arrival of the Earl of Sherbourne.' Genevieve glanced across the ballroom to where the lady appeared to be in low but heated conversation with the rakish Dante Carfax, a close friend of Devil and Lucifer.
Just as the three widows were now close friends
It was sheer coincidence that Sophia Rowlands, Duchess of Clayborne, Genevieve Forster, Duchess of Woollerton, and Pandora Maybury, Duchess of Wyndwood, had all been widowed within weeks of each other the previous spring. The three women, previously strangers, had swiftly formed an alliance of sorts when they had emerged from their year of mourning a month ago, drawn to each other by their young and widowed state.
But Genevieve's suggestion a few minutes ago, that the three of them each 'take one lover, if not several before the Season was ended', had thrown Pandora more into a state of turmoil than anticipation.
'Our dance, I believe, your Grace?'
Pandora had not thought she would ever be pleased to see Lord Richard Sugdon, finding that young gentleman to be unpleasant in both his studied good looks and over-familiar manner whenever they chanced to meet. But, having found it impossible to think of a suitable reason to refuse earlier when he had pressed her to accept him for the first waltz of the evening, Pandora believed she now found even his foppish company preferable to that of the more overpowering and dangerous Rupert Stirling or Benedict Lucas.
'I had not forgotten, my lord.' She gave Genevieve a brief, apologetic smile as she placed her hand lightly upon Lord Sugdon's arm before allowing herself to be swept out on to the ballroom floor.
'Good Lord, Dante, what has put you in such a state of disarray?' Rupert Stirling, the Duke of Stratton, enquired upon entering the library at Clayborne House later that same evening, and instantly noticing the dishevelled state of one of his two closest friends as he stood across the room. 'Or perhaps I should not ask ' he drawled speculatively as he detected a lady's perfume in the air.
'Perhaps you should not,' Dante Carfax, Earl of Sherbourne, bit out. 'Nor do I need bother in asking whator should I say, whomis succeeding in keeping Benedict amused?'
'Probably best if you did not,' Rupert chuckled softly.
'Would you care to join me in a brandy?' The other man held up the decanter from which he was refilling his own glass.
'Why not?' Rupert accepted as he closed the library door behind him. 'I have long suspected that my stepmother would eventually succeed in driving me either to drink or to committing murder!'
Pandorahaving found herself trapped in a corner of the ballroom with Lord Sugdon once their dance came to an end, and only managing to escape his company a few minutes ago when another acquaintance had engaged him in conversationcould not help now but overhear the two gentlemen's conversation as she stood on the terrace directly outside the library.
'Then let it be drink this evening,' Dante Carfax answered his friend. 'Especially as the Duchess has been thoughtful enough to conveniently leave a decanter of particularly fine brandy and some excellent cigars here in the library for her male guests to enjoy.' There was the sound of glass chinking and liquid being poured.
'Ah, much better.' Devil Stirling sighed in satisfaction seconds later after he had obviously taken a much-needed swallow of the fiery alcohol.
'What are the three of us even doing here this evening, Stratton?' his companion drawled lazily as he threw wide the French doors out on to the terrace with the obvious intention of allowing the escape of the smoke from their cigars.
'In view of your dishevelled state, your own reasons are obvious, I should have thought,' the other gentleman remarked. 'And Benedict kindly agreed to accompany me, once I told him of my need to spend an evening away from the cloying company of my dear stepmama.'
Dante Carfax gave a hard laugh. 'I'll wager the fair Patricia does not enjoy being referred to as such by you.'
'Hates it,' the other man confirmed with grim satisfaction. 'Which is the very reason I choose to do it. Constantly!'
Devil by name and devil by nature
The thought came unbidden to Pandora as she remained unmoving in the shadows of the terrace, having no wish to draw the attention of the gentlemen to her presence outside by making even the slightest of noises.
The aroma of their cigars now wafting out of the open French doors was a nostalgic reminder to Pandora of happier times in her own life. A time when she had been younger and so very innocent, with seemingly not a care in the world as she attended such balls as this one with her parents.
Occasions when she would not have felt the need, as she had this evening, to flee out on to the terrace in order to prevent any of Sophia's tonnish guests from seeing that Pandora had finally been reduced to humiliated tears by Lord Sugdon's blatant and crude suggestions.
Not that most of the ton would care if she did find herself insulted, many of society not even acknowledging her existence, or troubling themselves to speak to her, let alone caring if she constantly found herself being propositioned by those gentlemen brave enough to risk her scandalous company.
Indeed, if it were not for the insistence of Sophia and Genevieve in having her also received at whatever social functions they chose to attend, then Pandora believed she would have found herself completely ostracised since she had ventured to return to society a month ago.
'A futile exercise, as it happens,' Rupert Stirling continued wearily, 'now that my father's widow is also recently arrived at the Duchess's ball.'
'Oh, I am sure that Sophia did not'
'Don't get in a froth, Dante, I am not blaming your Sophia'
'She is not my Sophia.'
'No? Then I was mistaken just now in the perfume I recognised as I entered the room?'
There was the briefest of pauses before the other gentleman replied reluctantly, 'No, you were not mistaken. But Sophia continues to assure me I am wasting my time pursuing her.'
Pandora's mind was agog with the implication of this last conversation. Sophia? And Dante Carfax? Surely not, when Sophia lost no occasion in which to criticise the rakishly handsome Earl of Sherbourne
'Would not the taking of a wife solve at least part of your own problem, Rupert, in that the Dowager Duchess would then have no choice but to leave off living openly with you in your homes, at least?' Dante now asked.
'Do not think I have not considered doing just that,' the other man rasped.
'And it would no doubt solve one problem, but surely bring about another.' 'How so?'
'In that I would then be saddled for the rest of my life with a wife I neither want nor care for!'
'Then find one you do want, physically, at least. There are dozens of new beauties coming out each Season.'
'At two and thirty, my taste in women does not include chits barely out of the schoolroom.' The toing and froing of Rupert Stirling's voice indicated that he was pacing the library in his agitation. 'I cannot see myself tied for life to a young woman who not only giggles and prattles, but knows nothing of what takes place in the bedchamber,' he added disdainfully.
'Perhaps you should not dismiss the existence of that innocence so lightly, Rupert.'
'Well, for one thing, no one could ever accuse you of a lack of finesse in the bedchamber, which would surely allow you to tutor your young and innocent wife as to your personal preferences. And secondly, innocence does have the added benefit of ensuringhopefullythat the future heir to the Dukedom would at least be of your own loins!'
'Which may not have been the case if Patricia had succeeded in giving my father his "spare"an occurrence which would have succeeded in rendering me fearful for my very life whilst I slept,' the Duke of Stratton stated venomously.
Pandora was aware she no longer remained silent outside on the shadowed terrace merely to avoid detection, but was in fact now listening unashamedly to the two gentlemen's conversation. Two gentlemen, having seen them from a distance but a short time ago, it was all too easy for Pandora to now envisage.
Dante Carfax was tall and dark with wicked green eyes, his impeccable evening attire fitting to perfection his wide and muscled shoulders, flat abdomen and long powerful legs.
Rupert Stirling was equally as tall, if not slightly taller than his friend, his golden locks fashionably styled to curl about his ears and fall rakishly across his intelligent brow, his black evening clothes and snowy white linen tailored to emphasise the powerful width of his shoulders, narrow waist and long and muscled legs. His eyes would no doubt be that cool and enigmatic grey set in his haughtily handsome fallen-angel face, with a narrow aristocratic nose, high cheekbones and a wickedly sensual mouth that could smile with sardonic humour or thin with the coldness of his displeasure.
A displeasure that at present appeared to be directed at the woman his late father had married four years ago.
Pandora had been only twenty at the time, and not long married herself, but she remembered that the whole of society had then been agog with the fact that the long-widowed seventh Duke of Stratton, a man already in his sixtieth year, had decided to take as his second wife the young woman it was strongly rumoured had been romantically involved with that gentleman's son before he returned to his regiment to fight in Wellington's army against Napoleon.
Pandora, along with all of society, was also aware that the new Duke and his stepmother had occupied the same house ever since the death of his father the previous yearor rather houses, because whether in town or the country, Rupert Stirling and his father's widow invariably now occupied the same residence.
'As I recall, you always did have reason to fear for your life when in the bedchamber with that particular lady,' Dante drawled drily in reply to the other man's previous comment.
Pandora felt the colour warm her cheeks at overhearing such intimate details of Rupert Stirling's relationship with the woman who was now his widowed stepmother. Perhaps, after all, she had listened long enough to the gentlemen's conversation, and should now return to the ballroom and make her excuses to Sophia before leaving? Yes, that would probably be for the best
'Half the gentlemen present this evening are currently following my stepmama about the ballroom with their tongues hanging out,' the Duke said scathingly.
'And the other half?'
'Appear to be panting after a petite golden-haired woman in a purple gown'
'I believe you will find that her gown is violet in colour.'
'I beg your pardon?'
'Pandora Maybury's gown is violet, not purple,' Dante Carfax murmured.
Having already turned towards the house, with the intention of leaving the men to the privacy of their brandy, cigars and conversation, Pandora found herself stilling, a chill of apprehension now running down the length of her spine at suddenly hearing her own name mentioned.
'Barnaby Maybury's widow?' the Duke asked.
What little colour had returned to Pandora's cheeks during the minutes she had spent outside in the fresh air now drained away as she heard the unmistakable contempt underlying the Duke of Stratton's knowing utterance.
Dante gave a throaty chuckle. 'I know your preference is for women who are dark of hair, tall in stature and voluptuous in figure, Stratton.'
'And Pandora Maybury, being petite and fair haired and slender of figure, is so obviously none of those things'
'I defy even you to notice anything else about her once you have gazed into the exquisite beauty of her eyes!'
'Should you, in the circumstances, be noticing the beauty of another woman's eyes, or any other part of her anatomy, Dante?'
The other man chuckled at the sarcasm evident in his friend's tone. 'I dare any gentleman, whatever the circumstances, to ignore the beauty of Pandora Maybury's eyes.'
'Pray tell what is so special about them?'
'They are exactly the same shade of colour as the gown she is wearing this evening. Violets in the springtime,' Dante added with obvious appreciation.
'Can it be that your prolonged state of unrequited desire for our beautiful hostess has finally succeeded in completely addling your brain?' Rupert drawled with obvious derision.
'You are the second person this evening to suggest that might be the case,' the other man snapped. 'But, I assure you, where Pandora Maybury's eyes are concerned, I merely state the truth.'
'Violets.?' The Duke was still the sceptic.
'The deep, dark colour of violets in springtime,' Dante maintained firmly. 'And surrounded by the longest, silkiest lashes I have seen on any woman.'
'And these are the same violet-coloured eyes and long silky lashes, no doubt, which succeeded in luring not one man to his death, but two?' The Duke's tone was scathing.