Juliette, the Duchess of Dalliance, laughed when she opened her copy of the Morning Chronicle. She had turned directly to the Cytherian Intelligence column, as she always did. At the top of the column was her likeness facing a likeness of the Duke of Pelham, and the story below about their secret love affair was so delightfully wicked she almost wished it were true.
She lounged in bed, rumpled silk sheets pooled about her like an ice-covered lake. She sipped chocolate, popped a bite of scone in her mouth, and studied the image of the duke.
Juliette had never been introduced to Pelham, though on occasion, she had seen him from a distance. The artist in the Morning Chronicle had captured his dark eyes with their arrogant slant perfectly. The brown hair was too neat. Every time she had seen Pelham, his hair had been rumpled, as though he'd just climbed from a well-used bed. But the nose-that perfect Roman nose-the sculpted cheekbones and slash of a mouth, those the artist had rendered flawlessly.
She scanned the story again, well aware it fed the appetites of those in the ton who would like nothing more than a real liaison between the Duchess of Dalliance and the Dangerous Duke, so called because he gave the most contemptuous glances in London, perhaps all of England. He was rich, powerful, and influential. If he opposed another lord in Parliament, the man lost all support. And socially, if the Duke of Pelham cut someone, they were ruined forever.
She glanced at his likeness a second time. The artist had not managed to capture the cloak of danger surrounding the duke. But that was something one felt more than saw when near the man. Juliette shivered. She liked powerful men, had always been attracted to them. And not always with pleasant results.
How the ton did hunger for their gossip, and an affair between her and the duke would be enough fodder to feed the gossipmongers for weeks.
Juliette closed the paper then opened it again, having forgotten to study her own portrait. She frowned at it and closed the paper for good. The artist had drawn her to resemble an ice queen-cold, imperial, and haughty. She couldn't fault the work. The image did resemble her, but she didn't think any of her friends would have sketched her thus. They knew her merry, carefree side.
She climbed from bed, shed her clothing, and stepped into the warm bath waiting in her dressing room. She didn't linger but washed quickly. Rosie, her lady's maid, entered dressed in white. Female servants did not wear livery, but Juliette preferred that all of her servants match. Her maids were expected to wear clothing that complemented her signature livery-pure white with ice-blue piping. The Three Diamonds all dressed their servants in white to symbolize diamonds, but each used a different accent color. Lily used sapphire-blue, and Fallon used ruby-red. Rosie offered Juliette her blue silk robe, and Juliette donned it and returned to her bedchamber. Her maid glanced at the rumpled bed. "Anything of interest in the paper today, Duchess?" Rosie went about preparing the brushes, combs, irons, and other instruments of torture on Juliette's dressing table with a practiced efficiency.
Juliette sat in a dainty chair upholstered in cream silk. "I am embroiled in a scandalous affair with the Duke of Pelham."
Rosie lifted a brush and an eyebrow. "Are you now?" The round, pleasant woman of about forty grasped Juliette's waist-length pale blonde hair and applied her brush.
"Yes. His Grace and I are thinking of eloping via Gretna Green."
"Oh, dear." Rosie secured a section of hair with a pin. "Shall I set out your traveling clothes and pack your valise?"
"Not quite yet. I think I shall wait for an introduction to His Grace first."
Rosie nodded. "Wise decision." She pinned another section of hair. "What are your plans for today, madam?"
Juliette considered. It was already afternoon. She had been at a rout the night before and had not arrived home until after four. She had several invitations for this evening but had not yet decided which to attend. She would rather have stayed home. The ton would be surprised to learn their most celebrated courtesan preferred a quiet night with a book to the theater and musicales. They would also be surprised to learn how seldom her bed of sin was used for more than sleeping.
Her protector, the Earl of Sinclair-better known as the Earl of Sin-was not in London at present. Lady Sinclair, his countess, was ill and unable to make the journey to Town from their country estate, Somerset. Juliette had received a letter from the countess only yesterday and planned to answer it today, inquiring as to when she might call on the countess. It might not be socially advantageous to leave London at present, but Juliette didn't really care. And she doubted Fallon or Lily cared either. Both would be eager to accompany her.
If only the ton knew the truth about The Three Diamonds' relationship with the Earl of Sin.
Thanks to gifts from admirers and the Earl of Sinclair, Juliette had some funds, though she was far from wealthy. Of course, she would not remain London's most celebrated courtesan if she did not spend money. She must have the most fashionable Parisian gowns, a gleaming coach, matching horses, and a bevy of servants. As did all of London, she survived on credit. The mantua makers were eager to dress her because they craved an audience for their work and knew Juliette attracted attention. Every merchant clamored to be the one who dressed or furnished the horses or carriage or jewels for the Duchess of Dalliance. Few ever called in her markers, yet she felt the weight of the debts she owed.
She could not survive on credit forever. She was almost thirty. And there was always someone younger, someone prettier, someone more charming. Sinclair could not masquerade as her lover forever. His wife's poor health meant he rarely traveled to London anymore, and Juliette didn't want another protector. She accepted gifts and tokens from admirers who hoped to woo their way into her bed, and she had considered taking one as a lover. But she didn't want to endure a man's caresses. She didn't want to have to close her eyes and pretend he or she were someone else.
She wanted to fall in love. Forever.
She wanted a husband. She supposed that, as a divorced woman, she should swear off matrimony for good. But she had always been an optimist at heart.
Rosie was looking at her expectantly, and Juliette said, "I think I shall ride in Hyde Park." That was where she would likely find Fallon and Lily, and she was eager to speak with them privately-not that Rotten Row at four in the afternoon was private, but at least they would be able to speak without being overheard. And the ton would salivate at the chance to see The Three Diamonds together, heads bent in conference. Juliette smiled.
"Very good, Duchess," Rose answered. "The blue riding habit, then?"
"Yes. And do remember the hat I wear with it."
"Yes, Duchess. I know the perfect coiffure to set it off." And, true to her word, Rosie worked her magic.
Several hours later, after Juliette had been poked and prodded, powdered and perfumed, she drove her gig along the South Carriage Drive of Rotten Row, nodding to those with whom she was acquainted.
Some even nodded back.
She was careful not to acknowledge the gentlemen of her acquaintance if they were accompanied by wives, sisters, or fiancées. They would not thank her for causing them marital or familial discord. But she did stop to chat with several men riding alone. All the while, she could feel the fiery glares of the ladies of the ton burning into her back.
They hated her, and she understood why. It wasn't because she was bedding their husbands-she could all but guarantee she was not. It was because she had power they didn't. She was welcomed where they were banned, could speak when they were silenced, possessed knowledge when they were kept ignorant.
They hated her because they did not know where their husbands went when they bid them farewell of an evening. And because the wives didn't know, they hated Juliette because she did.
Juliette wondered if the women knew how much most of the men simply wanted to talk to her. Of course, they wanted an entrée into her boudoir, but if she was not amenable, they were more than happy to talk. They talked about their wives and children, their failures and successes, their plans for the future. They felt comfortable speaking with Juliette, felt they could trust her.
She was a friend in a time when most marriages were all but arranged. And that friendship was the real secret behind the appeal of the courtesan.
Juliette sat straighter when she spotted her closest friends, surrounded as usual by male admirers. Under a grove of trees, Fallon, the Marchioness of Mystery, and Lily, the Countess of Charm, stood with parasols open but tilted to ensure their faces could be seen.
They wore riding habits, like she. Fallon's was a bold red, which offset her dark coloring, and Lily's was apple green so as not to clash with her auburn hair. As Juliette neared, her friends spotted her and smiled with genuine warmth. There were few true friendships among Cyprians. One's position was too precarious, too easily undermined by another of her ilk. But Juliette, Fallon, and Lily had been friends before they had become The Three Diamonds.
And as the three mistresses of the Earl of Sin, they had another bond, as well.
"You shall be applying for membership in the Four-in-Hand Club next," Lily said, speaking of the gentleman's club for superb drivers.
Juliette waved her hand. "Not I. I couldn't abide the strict requirements for dress."
Lily and Fallon's mounts grazed on the lawn. Nearby, the waters of the Serpentine rippled in the breeze, and a few ducks quacked as they waddled into the shallow water. All three women could seat a horse splendidly, but Juliette was also an excellent driver and liked to tool about in her lightweight gig in fair weather.
She slowed her conveyance, hesitating slightly when she noted one of the gentlemen was the Earl of Darlington, known as the "Darling of the Ton" because of his good looks and affable personality. He had been pursuing her for the last six months, and though she had made it clear in every way she knew how that his attentions would not come to fruition, he had not given up the chase.
The other man was Mr. Heyward. He was the son of a baron and known for lavish parties. Juliette had been to dozens of his routs.
Before the gig had fully stopped, Darlington was at her side, ready to hand her down. "Duchess, I had hoped to see you here!"
"Thank you, Lord Darlington." She accepted his proffered hand then released it as quickly as possible. She did not want to encourage him. One of Darlington's grooms stepped forward and took her horse's bridle, leading the animal in a slow walk to keep the beast's muscles warm.
Juliette watched idly then opened her parasol and stood beside Fallon, who moved aside to make room for her. The two usually contrived to stand beside each other, as Juliette's pale coloring contrasted nicely with Fallon's darker complexion and hair. The effect was striking.
Lily, with her auburn hair and jade-green eyes, was striking without any assistance.
"Good day, Duchess," Mr. Heyward said, tipping his hat.
"Good day, Mr. Heyward. Fallon. Lily." She smiled at her friends. "What a splendid spring day! I don't know how anyone can abide being inside on such a day."
"I couldn't agree more," Fallon said. Her voice was low and husky.
"I do love spring," Lily said, angling her face to the sun.
"Did you see the Morning Chronicle, Duchess?" Mr. Heyward asked.
Juliette took a steadying breath before answering. She was certain she would be asked this question a hundred if not a thousand times before the day was through. "I did." No use denying it. Everyone would know she was lying.
"Is it true?" Mr. Heyward asked. The man had no shame.
Juliette curved her lips in a secretive smile. "I'll never tell."
"Of course it's not true," Darlington said, his voice edged with annoyance. "Pelham arrived in London only last night."
"The papers claimed Juliette and the duke were secluded in the country," Lily said. Juliette had noticed she liked to antagonize Darlington when the opportunity arose. "Your observation only lends fuel to that speculation."
Darlington shook his head. His brown hair curled over his collar, and his cravat was askew, and Juliette thought-not for the first time-he needed a nursemaid more than a mistress.
"Anyone who knows Pelham knows what utter rot that is," Darlington said, tapping his walking stick to emphasize his words. "He came to Town solely for the opening of Parliament. The man has no interest in courting or elopements. The man has no interest in any type of diversion. If he makes an appearance at even one Society ball, I will stand on my head."
"I shall hold you to that promise, Lord Darlington," Juliette said.
He bowed to her. "I would expect nothing less, Duchess."
"Surely he will attend Prinny's fete at Carlton House tomorrow night," Fallon said, her smoky voice cutting off whatever Heyward had been about to interject. "It opens the Season."
"I would not hold my breath, Marchioness."
"Oh, I never do, Lord Darlington."
He bowed again to Lily. "Good day, Countess." He took Juliette's hand and kissed her glove. "Until we meet again, Duchess."
She nodded and pulled her hand back then watched as he strode toward his horse-a fine gray gelding-mounted, and rode on. He signaled his groom to continue walking her horse, and Juliette had to admit Darlington was courteous. She wondered just how well the earl did know the Duke of Pelham. She had never had any designs on Pelham, though she wouldn't mind if he took an interest in her. The ton wanted to see them together so badly, and she did like to give the public what they wanted. Of course, nothing would ever come of it. Pelham wouldn't want a woman with her reputation as his wife.
"I trust I shall see the three of you at the prince's tomorrow night," Heyward said.
"You shall," Lily answered. "And be prepared to be stunned."
Heyward clapped his hands. "Stunned? Really?"
Lily nodded, obviously pleased. She loved surprises.
"I don't suppose you will let me in on the secret," Mr. Heyward hedged.
"Not even a tiny hint," Fallon said.
"You are too cruel."
"And that's why you love us."
When he had taken his leave, Lily, Fallon, and Juliette glanced at one another. "Is your gown ready?" Juliette asked Fallon. It was a given that Lily, who loved fashion and planning grand entrances, had her dress pressed and ready to wear a week ago.
"I have one last fitting with Madame Durand," Fallon answered.
"As do I," Juliette said, linking her arm with Fallon, who linked hers with Lily. The three strolled on the lawn, quite aware of the fetching picture they made.
"What do you think of this business with Pelham?" Lily asked. "It's certainly made Darlington jealous."
"Heaven save us," Juliette said. "He's a puppy. A boy."
"Pelham's no puppy," Fallon added, pausing to study a wildflower. "If you could snag him, it would be the coup of the Season."
"I hear he's soon to be betrothed," Lily said.
Juliette had not heard this, and she frowned.
"That's of no consequence." Fallon squeezed Juliette's hand. "When have men ever been faithful to their betrothed, much less their wives?"
Juliette appreciated Fallon's efforts to reassure her. "You both know there's nothing behind these rumors. I've never even been introduced to Pelham."
"Perhaps he is the one spreading the rumors," Lily said, smiling at the Marquess of Cholmondeley, who was approaching on horseback.
Juliette paused as the marquess drew nearer. "I doubt it. I'd be more inclined to believe the papers fabricated the entire tale to sell more copies."
"And who cares if they did?" Fallon said. The marquess slowed, and they both waved Lily away, knowing she would want to speak with him. She gave them a quick flick of her hand and tripped lightly to the path where he waited.
Fallon turned to Juliette. "You know my theory-all talk is good talk, whether it's true or not."
Juliette wasn't quite certain she agreed. She feared so much had been made of her tête-à-tête with the duke that if she disappointed now, she might fall out of favor. And that would make life difficult. Her finances were not yet quite what she hoped, and she did owe rather large sums to several modistes-including Madame Durand-who had supplied her wardrobe for the Season.
Perhaps she should begin looking for another protector.
"Come." Fallon turned her and started back. "Why don't we go together to the dress fitting? Then we can see if Lily's plan is as spectacular as usual."
Juliette nodded. A dress fitting was exactly what she needed to alleviate the vague unease lingering in the back of her mind.
The Duke of Pelham strolled into his club at precisely twenty past six. He liked to eat at half past. That was an early supper by Town standards, but Pelham didn't care. He had always eaten at half past, he was hungry at half past, and he wasn't going to gnaw on his fist in order to wait until a more fashionable hour.
"Your usual table, Your Grace?" the club's steward asked as soon as the duke stepped through White's doors at 37-38 St. James's Street.
"Please." He handed Harrow his gloves, walking stick, and top hat, and the steward proceeded to hand those to a footman, who handed them to another footman. Harrow assisted in removing Pelham's greatcoat, and there followed the same ritual handing of the garment from one man to another. Pelham pulled on the sleeves of his blue tailcoat and made certain his watch fob had not tangled. He was not fastidious about fashion-he was no Beau Brummell-but Pelham insisted on shined boots and a well-cut coat made by Weston.
"We have leg of lamb with potatoes and a white soup tonight, Your Grace," Harrow said as he led the duke to his table, which was situated in a particularly good corner of the dining room. The table was close to the hearth and afforded a view of the men coming and going. Pelham didn't know who sat at the table when he was in the country-he was certain it wasn't allowed to sit fallow-but for the moment it looked exactly as he had left it.
"Very good." Pelham took the chair pulled out for him by one of the waiters.
"We also have an excellent French sherry tonight. It arrived this morning." Harrow signaled to a footman to bring Pelham a copy of the Times. Pelham accepted the paper but shook his head at the offered sherry.
"Port for me, Harrow. English port."
Harrow nodded. "Very good, Your Grace." And he departed, leaving Pelham to peruse the Times in peace.
At least until Darlington plopped into the chair across from him. "Predictable as ever," Darlington said, lifting his glass of what appeared to be sherry.
Pelham raised the paper and tried to focus on an article about a revision to the current tax on corn. He also hoped to block out the sight of Darlington's bright green waistcoat.
"I don't suppose you've seen the Morning Chronicle," Darlington said, pushing down the top of Pelham's paper with his hand. Pelham frowned at him. That was usually enough to scare most men off, but Darlington was oblivious to the danger he was in.
"I don't read the Morning Chronicle. It's utter rubbish." Pelham raised his paper again.
"Thought not. Then you don't know you and the duchess are having a torrid affair."
How Pelham wished Darlington had sat on his other side, the side with his bad ear. Then he wouldn't have been able to hear him. But he had heard Darlington's ludicrous statement and now must make some response. Pelham lowered the paper. "What are you going on about, man?"
Darlington smiled, and Pelham had the urge to hit him with the paper. "I knew it wasn't true," Darlington said triumphantly.
"Knew what wasn't true?"
A waiter, closely supervised by the steward, arrived with the soup and the port, and Pelham set the paper on the table. Darlington leaned over, took a good whiff of the soup, and said, "Oh, that looks good. I'll have some of that myself."
"Very good, my lord." Harrow nodded to the waiter, who scurried away.
Darlington leaned over to smell the soup again, and Pelham scowled at him. "By all means, find a spoon and have a taste."
"Mighty generous of you, Pelham," Darlington said, taking Pelham's own spoon and doing just that. Pelham sat back in disgust. He checked his pocket watch. It was now twenty-five minutes until seven, five minutes past dinner, and Darlington was eating his soup.
Darlington looked up from the bowl. "Quite good. Want some?"
Pelham ground his teeth. "No, no. You go ahead."
Darlington did. Pelham raised his paper again just as a hand clapped him on the shoulder. "Heard you were back in Town, Pelham." Warrick Fitzhugh, third son of the illustrious Earl of Winthorpe, sat in the unoccupied chair beside Darlington. In the future, Pelham was going to have to speak to Harrow about removing the additional chairs at his table.
"Fitzhugh," Pelham said, setting the Times aside again. Unlike Darlington, Fitzhugh's waistcoat was a reserved black with stripes. Also, unlike Darlington, Fitzhugh generally made sense when he spoke, which was-thank God-not overly much. Pelham had been at Eton with Warrick and admired the man's intelligence as well as his prowess with his fists, a necessary skill when finding one's place at Eton. Rumors circulated that Fitzhugh had worked with the Foreign Office during the war, perhaps as a spy. Distasteful business, that, but Pelham didn't believe every rumor.
Still, Warrick had a devious look about him.
"Hello, old boy," Darlington said to Fitzhugh through mouthfuls of Pelham's soup. Pelham could not-and he had tried on numerous occasions-remember where or when he had met Darlington. It seemed one day the man was present, and Pelham hadn't been able to rid himself of the earl yet.
Truth be told, he hadn't tried overly much. Andrew was rather amusing, in his way.
And when he wasn't eating Pelham's soup.
As though summoned by that thought, Harrow reappeared with another bowl of soup. Without pausing to glance at Darlington, he set it in front of Pelham then motioned to the waiter to place the port and leg of lamb on the table, as well. "Will there be anything else, Your Grace?"
Pelham opened his mouth to say no, but Darlington interrupted him. "Another glass of sherry, Harrow."
"Very good, my lord. Anything else, Your Grace?"
Pelham looked at Fitzhugh. "I don't suppose you want anything."
"A glass of port, Harrow-since Pelham is paying."
"Very good, sir." Harrow signaled, the requested drinks were delivered, and Pelham was finally left in peace-almost peace-with his supper. He lifted his knife and fork.
"So this business in the papers with the duchess," Darlington said. Pelham lowered his fork again, but not before noting Fitzhugh's brows rose with interest.
"It's utter rot," Darlington continued. "Correct?" Darlington would one day be the Duke of Ravenscroft, but Pelham thought he had a lot to learn about stoicism before he claimed the title. Pelham's father had drilled him in the tenets of his duty since birth. A duke was never uncertain, never faltered, never showed emotion. And a duke was most certainly never late. He resisted the urge to check his pocket watch again.
Pelham set his knife on the table and looked at Fitzhugh. "What the devil is he going on about? What duchess? What paper?"
Fitzhugh's face remained impassive, but Pelham could have sworn he was enjoying the moment. "You've been mentioned in the Cytherian Intelligence column of late. The writers of the Morning Chronicle have you paired with the Duchess of Dalliance."
"Don't pretend you don't know who she is," Darlington said, sipping his sherry. "Even a country bumpkin like you has heard of The Three Diamonds."
"Are you speaking of courtesans?" He should have known. Darlington was always chasing after some woman or other.
"Now you're following," Darlington said, raising his glass.
"Then why do you keep calling her duchess?"
Fitzhugh raised a hand before Darlington could speak again. Thank God. "The Prince Regent dubbed Juliette the Duchess of Dalliance. That's the one you're rumored to be madly in love with."
Pelham stared absently at the fireplace blazing behind Fitzhugh. On the mantel, an ancient clock ticked away the hours. Above it, a painting of a hunting scene in greens and browns dominated the dark-paneled wall. He thought he vaguely remembered glimpses of these Three Diamonds from afar. He tried to picture this Juliette. "She's the dark one?" he asked.
"No. That's the Marchioness of Mystery," Darlington informed him.
Pelham shook his head. Had the prince nothing better to do than invent titles? "Then she's the pale one?"
"Right," Fitzhugh said.
"I'd hardly call her pale," Darlington corrected. "She's blonde, but her complexion has quite the pinkish quality. Most fetching."
"Perhaps the papers should pair her with you," Pelham said, lifting his spoon and tasting his soup.
"He'd like nothing better," Fitzhugh said, swirling his port. "But the duchess won't have him."
Darlington scowled at Fitzhugh, and Pelham paused in dipping his spoon in the soup. Now this was interesting. He couldn't remember ever seeing Darlington scowl.
"Why won't she have you?" Pelham said, tasting the soup again. "She's a courtesan. I didn't realize they were overly choosy."
Darlington shook his head. "She's one of The Three Diamonds, Pelham. She picks her own lovers, and she's extremely choosy."
"And why don't you make the cut? Not rich enough?"
"No." Darlington looked away.
"Too ugly?" Fitzhugh asked with a laugh.
"Not compared to some," Darlington said with a pointed look at Fitzhugh, who shrugged.
"I'm not the one who can't get a woman."
"I will have her," Darlington protested a bit too loudly. "I simply need to prove that..." He mumbled the last.
"Say again?" Pelham asked.
"That I don't need a nursemaid."
Pelham lifted his napkin, covering his smile. Fitzhugh wasn't so kind. He laughed loudly. "Is that what she said?"
"Oh, stubble it."
"Listen, Darlington," Pelham said. "I have no designs on your pale duchess. I'd venture to say, she planted those stories in the Morning Chronicle herself."
"She's not like that," Darlington protested.
Pelham almost felt sorry for the man, besotted as he was. "Of course she is. Probably needs to be set in her place."
"I like her place," Darlington grumbled.
"Find someone else," Pelham suggested.
Darlington gave him a look of incomprehension. "I can't simply forget her. I'm in love with her."
"Oh, good God." Fitzhugh rolled his eyes and finished his port.
"I don't expect you two to understand. You have hearts of stone."
"That's not true," Pelham argued. "In fact, I have reason to celebrate tonight. I'm about to sign betrothal papers. In a few short months, I will have my own duchess."
"Lady Elizabeth accepted your suit?" Fitzhugh asked.
Pelham lifted his port and toasted.
"Lady Elizabeth." Darlington snorted. "You're not in love with Lady Elizabeth."
"You know my rule," Pelham told him.
"Ah, yes, Pelham's Cardinal Rule. Never fall in love. It's complete rubbish."
"It's sensible. Men and women in love make poor decisions and act like fools." He gave Darlington a pointed look. "It serves no purpose."
"But how can you marry a woman you do not love?" Darlington asked.
"I feel quite warmly toward her."
"You feel warmly toward the estate offered in her dowry. It borders one of yours in Yorkshire."
"That does add to her appeal," Pelham conceded, unabashed. After all, what was marriage but a business arrangement? One might as well make the most advantageous arrangement one could. He had not become the wealthy, influential sixth Duke of Pelham because his ancestors went about marrying commoners or-God forbid-courtesans. Lady Elizabeth was the daughter of a marquess. She was accomplished, intelligent, and dowered with a critical piece of land. She was not overly pretty, but she had a pleasing aspect. More important, they agreed on essential matters. They both liked routine. They liked to live quietly and with dignity. They avoided the theatrics and goings-on of the beau monde Darlington and his ilk so relished. Marrying Lady Elizabeth would guarantee Pelham a staid, settled, stately future.
And that was exactly what he wanted. And exactly what he would have once he took care of one small, distasteful detail.