For three years, London's haute ton has been captivated by the cool elegance of Philip "Phizz" Marston. Tall, refined, an expert gambler with a cold, unerring eye for style, what keeps the ruthless social climbers attuned to this dandy's every move is something more unsettling. . .a grace and beauty that leaves women and men alike in a state of unthinkable yearning. . .
. . .Will Be Deliciously Undressed. . .
Lord David Hervey must be losing his mind. How else explain the disturbing desires he feels whenever his eyes meet the penetrating gaze of Mr. Marston? When he overhears a threat on the gentleman's life, he intervenes and alone discovers the glorious truth. . .beneath the bindings of Mr. Marston's masquerade hides an exquisite body that is every bit a woman's. . .
. . .And Every Hidden Desire, Revealed.
Armed with desire and entrusted with her bold game, Lord David won't give up till the lady gives in, revealing herself to him completely, surrendering her deepest secrets with every persuasive pleasure he can offer. . .
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ALMOST A GENTLEMAN
By PAM ROSENTHAL
BRAVA BOOKSCopyright © 2003 Pam Rosenthal
All right reserved.
Chapter OneLondon, three years later
"Phizz" Marston wasn't the richest or most notorious of London's dandies. His house, though exquisite, was small and compact as a jewel box, and his bon mots didn't take to public recital. His sharp wit was perhaps a bit too pointed to be cherished and repeated throughout the city's salons and clubs.
But Phizz had something else: a cold, unerring eye for style, a deadly instinct for exclusivity. If Phizz proclaimed that something wouldn't do, then it wouldn't, whether that something were the tilt of a hatbrim, a turn of phrase, or the newest aspirant to London's select circles.
Reed-slim and elegant, dressed only in the deepest of blues and blacks, his narrow trousers the palest of fawns, his boots or dancing pumps glowing like flawless tropical ebony, he hovered at the fringes of the most exclusive balls and dinners like a ghost at an ancient abbey.
When he was at his club, White's in St. James's Street, he sat in its most coveted venue: the bow window overlooking the street, where an Olympian race of dandies hurled verbal thunderbolts at the everyday run of humanity passing below.
"I say, did you see that coat?"
"And his lady friend's hat?"
"A hat, did you call it? I took it for a slumbering owl."
Luckily, most ordinary mortals were blissfully unaware of the amusement they afforded the languid demigods in their deep leather armchairs. But a few unhappy souls walked by quickly, and only when urgent business made the route imperative. These gentlemen had had the great embarrassment to be blackballed from this most discriminating of clubs. Most often by Marston.
"But why, old fellow?" one or another fellow club member would ask. "After all, he's got manners, horses, money. Well connected, too: dined with His Majesty at Carlton House only last week."
"Because he relies upon his valet to knot his cravat. And deuced ugly and unpleasant knots they are too."
"Oh well then. Doesn't tie his own knots? Truly? But however do you know?"
He'd smile slightly, shake his head, and seal his lips. They trusted him all the more because he never revealed his sources. For once you looked at a gentleman through Marston's lorgnette, so to speak, you began to see subtle flaws in what had hitherto seemed a perfectly fine and acceptable specimen of ton. And now that you thought about it, the duke of thus-and-such did have a commonness, a boring, striving quality about him, the cut of his trousers or the turn of his cravat not really up to the standard required for a member of White's.
"I've heard that Baron Bunbury is furious at you, Phizz. Threatens to absolutely undo you. Holds you entirely responsible for his application having been refused."
The two young gentlemen were tracing their way through a particularly unpleasant yellow fog on a chilly Wednesday evening in late autumn. Mr. Marston was in black, Mr. FitzWallace in blue. The Almack Assembly Rooms, "seventh heaven of the fashionable world," were close by in King Street.
"Undo me? Really. But that's rather good, isn't it, Wally? However might he undo me, when I've never been done at all? And isn't that just like Bunbury-to think that being a gentleman is a matter of doing-rather than of merely, perfectly, and exquisitely, being."
No one knew Philip Marston's origins. He'd burst quite suddenly upon the social scene a few years before, and in an instant, it seemed, began to be invited everywhere. When asked about his parentage, he managed to be both scathingly honest and charmingly evasive.
"Oh, frightfully common. Horribly boring. My father the most earnest of vicars, summoned at all hours to minister to the fat local squire in his squat little castle, my mother doing endless good works among the multitudes under their thatched roofs ...
"Luckily, I was spirited away from all of that quite early, snatched from my cradle by a good faerie of exceedingly discriminating taste."
London had accepted him easily, on his own terms. He conferred an undeniable je ne sais quoi on a dinner party or a lady's Thursday at home. His own infrequent parties were small, highly select affairs, limited mostly to his own inner circle: fellow dandies and a few ladies ancient enough to tell a dirty story with finesse. His finances were mysterious: one wouldn't want him courting one's daughter. But he showed little interest in marrying. Or-except for his perfect manners and skill on the dance floor-in women in general. There were occasional rumors of other preferences. But London shrugged and pretended not to notice.
Messrs. Marston and FitzWallace were readily admitted to Almack's. Their subscription tickets to the Wednesday Night Ball-harder to secure than a peerage, it was said, even during the less selective "little" Season of autumn-were snug in their pockets. But nobody asked to see these vouchers; Marston would have been profoundly chagrined to have to prove his right of entry.
He nodded to the ladies of the Almack Assembly committee-Lady Castlereagh, Lady Jersey, Princess Esterhazy, and the cold, officious Dowager Lady Fanny Claringworth, who walked stiffly, with a cane-before leading Mr. FitzWallace on a stroll about the room's perimeter, scanning the crowd with a savage, practiced eye.
"That one's just up from the country. Look, her mother's incompetent modiste has concocted just the wrong sort of sleeves for her. They're not only graceless-they pinch, dammit-but they went entirely out of date the second week of last Season. And she knows it: she's got the wit to be embarrassed by her silly gown, and no doubt by her mother's crudeness as well. Ah yes, there's the mother, sniffing up to Lady Castlereagh like a nasty little pug dog. Well, I'll dance with the daughter; she's a bit plain but clearly not stupid. She looks like a decent dancer at any rate. And she deserves a pleasant turn about the floor to fortify her for the rigors of the marriage mart ...
"Just an hour, Wally. They'll play a waltz soon; I need a bit of exercise. I'll know when it's time to go when I'm so thirsty even the lemonade they serve here will begin to tempt me."
But Marston never touched the bad Almack lemonade, and he shuddered at its worse bohea tea. His nickname-since the heyday of "Beau" Brummell all the London dandies had had nicknames-came from the fact that no one had ever seen him drink anything but the best champagne. It never made him tipsy; he claimed that it ran in his veins.
The orchestra struck up a waltz.
David Arthur Saint George Hervey, eighth Earl of Linseley, groaned as the tinny strains of music wafted across the ballroom.
"Not only," he said to his companion, "have I been obliged to make more polite conversation this evening than I have made in the past six years, but now they play this confounded dance that I could no sooner do than fly."
Admiral Wolfe laughed. "It does seem quite the rage. And very amusing to watch. Perhaps we should learn it, Linseley, if we're serious about this marriage business. The young ladies do seem to like it.
"We could hire a French dancing master, I suppose," Wolfe continued. "Split the cost between us, you know. Try not to laugh as he twirls each of us old duffers about your front hall."
"I should overturn tables and send vases crashing," the Earl of Linseley replied. "Best to bring him out to Lincolnshire into a very large open field, with only the cows to witness my shame."
Wolfe nodded. "I expect one picks it up eventually. Like cricket."
Lord Linseley shrugged. "At forty-one doesn't pick up anything easily. Nor does one adjust to new companionship."
He sighed. "I hadn't supposed that it would be a romantic venue, but I hadn't thought I'd find this ball so reminiscent of a livestock auction. The young ladies are fairly obliged to open their mouths and show their teeth to the bidders. And one has the disconcerting feeling that their mammas have memorized the studbook-Debrett's Peerage, you know."
"Well then," Wolfe said, "you're all right, man." The earl's family lineage reached back to within three generations of William the Conqueror.
"While for you they must consult a far more important authority: the accounts of a young officer's heroism at Trafalgar, and a noble naval career ever since. Well, if this is how one shops for a wife nowadays, so be it. I suppose that at our advanced age one would be a fool to expect a bit of inspiration. But I confess that I had."
He peered out onto the floor at the dancers twirling by. Wolfe was right. One probably could pick up the rudiments of the waltz with relative ease, certainly with more finesse than some of the gentlemen bobbing about like corks out there.
The steps didn't look so difficult as all that. After all, he was hardly the most decrepit specimen in attendance. At least he still had all his hair, even if its thick black waves were a little grizzled at the sides. He ran a quick exploratory hand down the front of his neat waistcoat, as though expecting a paunch to have settled there since he'd entered the ballroom. No, not yet. Not for some years, perhaps. His belly was flat and hard and he could still feel a satisfying ache in his wide shoulders from last week's planting.
Too bad he'd had to interrupt the farm work he loved in order to come up to London. Voting in the House of Lords was a tedious, infuriating business but a necessary one. Still, he trusted his steward to supervise the remainder of the job. The winter wheat would be planted by an excellent crew of farmhands: honest fellows and their wives, who demanded a decent wage but did at least a decent day's work in return. And who might be robbed of land their families had tilled for generations, if the vote in Parliament went as Lord Linseley feared it would.
He roused himself from his reverie to watch a particularly graceful couple glide by. Yes, that's how it should be done, he thought. There was a purity, a concentration to the young man's swift steps, a perfection to the set of his hips and shoulders, joy of movement elevated to art through intense control and mastery. The lady held herself very upright, but one could feel a tiny shudder of surrender in her posture, a willingness to be led. One could see it in the arch at the small of her back, the confidence with which she entrusted her balance to her partner's gloved hand at her waist.
Of course that's how it's done, Linseley thought. It was how all the important things in life were done-from the body's center. It was how you guided a horse over a gate, heaved a forkful of hay onto a wagon, took a woman to bed. This new dance led one's thoughts to lovemaking: no wonder there had been such consternation in fashionable circles when the waltz had been introduced. The couple whirled back into the crowd; losing sight of them, Lord Linseley stared at the space they'd occupied, astonished and rather shaken by the feelings that had seized him.
"Perhaps," Admiral Wolfe observed slowly, "you should ask that young lady to dance."
"The one you've been staring at, man. Rather intently-as though you'd found ... inspiration."
"Ah. Yes. The lady. Perhaps I should. When next they play something I can dance."
It would be impossible, Lord Linseley thought, to confess that he'd be hard pressed to distinguish that particular young lady from all the others whirling or promenading about the room in white and pastels. But it wouldn't hurt, he supposed, to invite her to the next quadrille.
If only he could fix her with his eye, get a sense of what she actually looked like. He searched the crowd for the couple who had so moved him.
Suddenly, abruptly, there they were. A quick turn. A flash of exquisitely polished pumps followed by a flutter of gauzy white ruffled skirt. Linseley raised his eyes: the black-clad young man was looking at him over the lady's shoulder. The earl found himself staring back into gray eyes flecked with gold, under straight, rather heavy black brows.
Thank God they'd whirled away again.
Lord Linseley took two glasses of lemonade from the waiter standing at his elbow.
He supposed he'd recognize the lady now: she had reddish hair in curls and a gown that bunched rather oddly at the shoulders. He'd offer her a lemonade, he resolved as he drained the other glass in one unconscious gulp. Lord, he thought, but it's hot in here. He nodded to Wolfe, in silent apology for his abstracted behavior. But Wolfe merely seemed amused, pleased that his friend seemed drawn to someone in this impersonal crowd.
Ridiculous, Linseley thought helplessly. Impossible. He wasn't the sort of man for an exotic passion. But there was no denying that he'd felt something-a bolt of strange cold lightning had flashed through him when he'd returned the young man's gaze. He'd shared his bed for years with one woman, raised a child with her, and helplessly held her hand when she'd died. He'd been prey to romantic infatuation in his youth and energetic libertinism these last few lonely years. But never had he felt anything like the unspeakable emotions that had seized him just now.
He directed a sidelong glance at Wolfe. He'd never asked him, of course, but everyone wondered about sailors, all those months with only men about.
Stop it, David, he commanded himself. Stop this idiocy at once. For he would certainly lose his oldest friend if John Wolfe caught the merest whiff of suspicion that David hadn't been in any way drawn to the young lady. He winced, imagining how shocked Wolfe would be to learn that what had roused decent, solid Lord Linseley's attention so profoundly had been the elegant posture and extraordinary eyes of a young man in black.
Nonsense. It must be a trick of the light or the unaccustomed lateness of the hour. Or perhaps that deuced waltz was simply too erotic for polite society.
He'd be home in Lincolnshire in a week, to deal with the consequences of the vote in Parliament, back working his fields beneath an innocent wide country sky. He'd be safe, far from this clouded, cynical capital, wreathed in smoke and fog, mired in greed and vanity.
He took a calming breath. The lemonade had cooled his flushed cheeks. The little orchestra was striking up what sounded like a finale. He stood, holding the lemonade glasses in strong farmer's hands that strained the seams of his fine kid gloves. The music crescendoed, crested and stopped.
The waltzing couple stood right before him.
He blinked, recovered his manners if not his senses, and offered the young lady a glass of lemonade.
The young man smiled. "I think you've made a conquest, Miss Armbruster. You've captured the attention of the best dressed gentleman in the room."
And here, sailing into view like a clipper ship, was Lady Castlereagh to make introductions all around. The young lady smiled in pleased amazement (perhaps, she thought, this gown isn't so hideous after all) while David felt as though he were in some odd, unpleasant dream in which everyone including himself was speaking an incomprehensible language.
"You waltz beautifully, Miss Armbruster," he heard himself say. The next thing he knew, she was offering to guide him through the steps when they played another. And he seemed to be assenting, on the condition that they take it slowly and that he be permitted to stop if he felt too much the buffoon.
Mr. Marston remained silent, his eyes slightly veiled, his lips in an ambiguous curve that might, David thought, be a smile. But then again it might not.
Abruptly, David turned toward the young man, only to realize that he'd interrupted Miss Armbruster in mid-sentence.
From the corner of his eye he saw a slightly bewildered Admiral Wolfe move forward to fill the gap in the conversation. Ah well, he told himself, what's done is done.
"I thank you for your compliment a few minutes ago, if compliment it was. But I confess to finding it quite mysterious. I'm a country farmer, you know, and quite out of touch with what a gentleman wears in Town these days."
"And yet, my lord, I called you the best dressed gentleman in the room."
"You did sir, but why?"
Marston knit his heavy black brows before answering slowly.
"I suppose, Lord Linseley, my assessment was inspired by the fit of your jacket-its drape about your shoulders-rather than its newness. And of course by the sublime knot in your cravat."
Excerpted from ALMOST A GENTLEMAN by PAM ROSENTHAL Copyright © 2003 by Pam Rosenthal. Excerpted by permission.
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