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Death causes the oddest affectations in the upper echelons of society. The Countess of F___ certainly took the death of her husband to loftier heights of aberration in her latest display, and in Kensal Green of all places. Her exhibition was wholly … distasteful, and left much to be desired by all who were present.
Why the infamous Countess of F___ should be immune to censure from society has always baffled this writer. Though judging from the glances received by others in true mourning, she’ll not likely be allowed to carry on her usual dramas in widowhood.
The Mayfair Chronicles, May 26, 1846
As the oak coffin lowered into the muddy hole before them, Leonidas Harrow, the Earl of Barrington, muttered none too quietly, “He always was a jackass.”
An elderly matron dressed in heavy bombazine better suited to two decades past tittered. Her companion hissed in a horrified breath, narrowed her gaze briefly on him, and then returned her focus on the solemn grave as the vicar droned out his sermon.
Not that he gave a damn what anyone thought, but perhaps in this instance, it would have been better for him to keep his opinion to himself. It couldn’t be helped that it was nothing more than the truth.
And it wasn’t as though the onlookers wouldn’t expect him or his friends to utter such shocking words. They were known as the four degenerates of society—pleasure seekers with no other purpose than to make a mockery of their position and standing in the ton. Or so they were categorized.
Too rich to snub and too risky for the youth to befriend; they stood together on the outskirts of polite society. Though they were all invited into the inner folds of the elite class much like one might warily invite the devil in to better watch their back.
Leo stood next to the Countess of Fallon—now the dowager. She’d always been Jezebel, or Jez, to his small group of friends.
At least Jez was a widow now. Her husband really had been a boar’s ass right up till his passing.
Mr. Warren, the man who would inherit the earldom, stood across from them, a severe look of disdain set in his dark brows as he stared at Jez with barely concealed contempt. One of his hands was wrapped around the stylized dragonhead atop his black lacquered cane. His jacket was crisply pressed, his starched cravat done in so elaborate a knot that it must have taken his valet a good hour to accomplish the ostentatious display. The gleam in his eyes was smug and sure.
Leo suspected Mr. Warren, the great-nephew of the previous earl, might prove no kinder than Jez’s late husband. This whole situation didn’t bode well for Jez.
Jez fixed the edge of the black lace veil and dabbed away her tears—more likely derived from anger than from grief.
She then tucked the handkerchief under the edge of her sleeve and yanked her bodice down to reveal another inch of bosom. The crimson of the gown was like the color of a harlot’s painted lips, and wholly improper for the occasion of her husband’s funeral.
She placed her satin-gloved hand on Hayden, the Duke of Alsborough’s coat sleeve. Both he and Hayden each held an umbrella over her.
Leo turned to better see the duke, who stared down at the bleak grave filling rapidly with rainwater. Hayden’s jaw was squared, his stance stiff. Of their party, he was the only one wearing a somber expression befitting the occasion.
Tristan, the Marquess of Castleigh, stood to Leo’s right, stifling a laugh with his gloved hand by pretending to cough.
“Yes.” Jez gave another sniffle, or was that a laugh? The lacy veil obscured not only her expression but also a faded bruise inflicted by Fallon shortly before his heart gave out. “Though jackass isn’t quite the word I’d use.”
She released her hold on Hayden’s sleeve and kneeled to the ground to pluck the head of a white rose from one of the funeral bouquets.
The vicar continued to read a passage that Leo would bet his finest racing stud Jez had chosen with great care.
“‘Those who have done good will rise to live, and those who have done evil will rise to be condemned…’”
Her husband was definitely roasting in hell for his sins. But all that mattered was that Fallon would never again be able to lay a hand on her.
Even though the earlier downpour of rain had trickled to a spit, Jez’s hairpiece flattened against her head and face as she pressed beyond the reach of the umbrella.
Leo watched her curiously. She’d been acting most peculiar since her husband’s death, as though she were simply going through the motions of living every day when she should be celebrating her newfound independence. Instead, he knew she was fighting to keep the Fallon estate and its entailments in her possession. But the will had been clear: all the monies and properties went to the successor in title.
There was nothing allocated to her.
Whispers started among the procession, drawing Leo’s attention back to the present. The clergyman prattled on, but everyone else was focused on Jez as she plucked the petals from the head of a white rose, placing each feathery white piece at the center of her palm, and blowing them into the grave pit to land on the lowered coffin.
He was sure he was the only one close enough to hear her hushed words when she spoke.
“A thousand years of soul-burning agony will not be enough to right your wrongs. May your evil spirit blister in hell for all eternity. Not only have you wronged me in life, you have managed to cheat me in death.”
In her voluminous skirts, she struggled to find her footing in the mud as she stood. Hayden grasped her elbow and hauled her to her feet.
She peeped her head over her shoulder to look at the dark pit one last time, then turned back to them. “Let us be rid of all this … death.”
Leo could care less if they left the funeral early. He nodded his intention to leave to Tristan and Hayden. The crowd parted like the Red Sea, and the train on Jez’s dress flowed outward like froths of watery crimson silk as they departed Kensal Green.
Hoisting the lady on his arm into the waiting carriage, he climbed in after her. Leo called out their direction to the driver as he mounted the final step. Tristan and Hayden followed them in and took the leather bench opposite. With neighs and snorts from the horses, the carriage jolted forward.
Jez lifted the veil from her face and stared first at him with her somber, resigned expression and then at Tristan and Hayden.
None of them said a word.
Jez pulled the shade of the window aside and stared out at the rain-filled streets with a sigh.
Leo closed his eyes and rested his head back against the seat. Perhaps time with friends would cheer Jez up. They could work up an old trick or two to distract her from the melancholy that had fallen on her this past week.
Leo had never liked Jez’s husband, but if the bastard weren’t already dead, he’d kill the old blighter with his bare hands for the undue suffering he continued to cause from beyond the grave.
Jez was vulnerable right now, and he hated to see her helpless when she was normally on top of the world.
“Whatever you need right now, just name it,” Leo said.
Tristan leaned forward in his seat and placed his elbows on his knees. “Yes, what can we do to cheer you up, dearest?”
“Must we do anything at all?” Hayden removed his hat and settled it over his knee.
Tristan gave him a look of bemusement. “If it were up to you, we’d mope about for a week.”
“Enough.” Jez twisted her finger absently around the tassels tying back the small curtain. “Knowing what I now know about the will … and my husband’s abominable final feat on his death bed, I wouldn’t hesitate to push him down a flight of stairs to be rid of him sooner had I been given the opportunity.”
“Jez…” Leo reached for her hand and gave it a comforting squeeze.
When she turned back to them, a trail of tears carved a damp path down her right cheek. “I wish I could carry on with life as though none of this mattered.”
“Of course it matters,” Tristan said. “That bastard knew exactly what he was doing to you.”
“There never was any love lost between us. Perhaps this is my punishment for marrying for convenience instead of for love?”
Leo couldn’t recall a single day where Jez had been content with her marriage.
“Fallon was an ass,” Tristan pointed out again. “There was nothing you or any other person could do to change that fact. And besides, many a woman would have wanted to be in your position, so there was no fault in your choice.”
After the hell her husband had put her through, and Leo had seen some of the damage left by the earl’s heavy hand—though Jez had denied any wrongdoing by her husband—you’d think he’d leave her something. Mr. Warren didn’t seem disposed to spare her any humiliation by offering her a small settlement from her long-suffering marriage, either.
Leo wondered if the only steadfast thing Jez had in life now was her friendship with them. She’d been labeled as one of their set shortly after her introduction into society as the Countess of Fallon because she eschewed society’s rules of conduct for a young lady.
“We should head back to my townhouse. Let’s call it a day, Jez.” Hayden was always the voice of reason.
“There wouldn’t be nearly as much fun in that, old man,” Tristan said.
Leo also wasn’t inclined to let his friend out of his sight just yet. “Jez, name your preference for the evening.”
“Hmm…” She swiped away a few remaining tears and pasted on a smile for them. “I’m sure there are a number of activities that might brighten my mood.”
Hayden’s gaze narrowed on him; Leo smiled in return.
Jez drummed her fingers along her beaded reticule, the sound reminiscent of a snare drum readying soldiers in line for war. “The Randalls are hosting a ball tonight. And I certainly wouldn’t want anyone to assume I’m in mourning.”
Tristan clapped his hands together. “Excellent.”
“We’ll have to stop at my townhouse. I don’t want to be seen wearing my funeral rags to the duchess’s ball.”
“Nor I, for that matter,” Tristan concurred, fixing his skewed black cravat.
“And no more feeling sorry for myself. I’m never maudlin.” Jez raised her chin high. “It’s better to be angry. If ever there was a woman scorned, that woman is I. And I will not be kicked down a moment longer.”
The carriage turned toward Mayfair, quickly approaching Jez’s townhouse.
“My solicitors will look over the will first thing in the morning,” Hayden insisted for the umpteenth time.
The man was determined to find a loophole and no one would begrudge him that. Hell, Leo still couldn’t believe that Fallon had so thoroughly tied up his funds in his successor. All Jez had was the paltry sum she’d gone into her marriage with.
“I’ll worry about the will tomorrow, Hayden.” Jez gave them all a droll look. “I deserve a short reprieve from the reality of my situation for at least one night.”
The carriage rolled to a stop.
“Are we sure this is wise?” Hayden interjected as the door opened and Jez took the footman’s hand to be let down.
Tristan ducked his head and exited. “Should we hide behind our mothers’ apron strings?”
Leo laughed and slapped Hayden on the shoulder as he stepped down from the carriage. “Come on, Hayden. It’s meant to be a night of celebration now that the old scalawag has kicked the bucket.”
“I’m willing to do just about anything to cheer you up, Jez.” Tristan offered his arm. “I’ll see you to your townhouse.”
With a pointed glare aimed at Hayden, Jez batted her lashes at Tristan. “I couldn’t ask for a better or more willing companion.”
“What have you planned for the evening, Jez?” Leo asked, trailing behind Jez and Tristan up the steps to her townhouse.
“This particular ball is full of debutantes … ripe for plucking. I do believe Mr. Warren has his eye on one of the ladies in attendance. There was something he said at the reading of the will to indicate such.”
Not sure how he should interpret this tidbit of information, Leo only quirked one brow. No one knew how to exact revenge quite like Jez. That was what had set her apart from most women of his acquaintance: she thought and acted as ruthless and as cunning as a man.
It brought a smile to his face when he remembered the first time he’d met her. It had been gentlemen’s night at Hastley’s and she’d been smoking a cigar and playing cards at a table with ten other men.
“What do you have in mind?” Leo asked, intrigued.
“I’m only thinking of the girl,” she said with a sweet pout tilting her mouth down. “I wouldn’t wish the life I had on anyone. She mustn’t marry Mr. Warren.”
Copyright © 2012 by Tiffany Clare