|Publisher:||Whiskey Creek Press|
|Sold by:||SIMON & SCHUSTER|
|File size:||434 KB|
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This was a bloody mistake, but then again, lately his life had been one big bloody mistake after another. Andre Duncan, Earl Westbrook, leaned back against the marble pillar in Riverton's gaudily decorated ballroom, watching their party swirl around him with an undoubtedly bored expression plastered upon his face.
Odd how one could be alone even when surrounded by people. He took a drink, letting the brandy burn down his throat as he drained the glass.
He'd thought he could pick up the pieces of his old life. But he was wrong. Dead wrong. He didn't belong here anymore either. He'd considered heading for home, but that took too much energy, so he just stood there.
"Ah, so you're hiding out in plain sight, too," Sebastian Haversham, Viscount Denton said, as he leaned against the other side of the gray pillar. "One of the advantages of having a wife is that we can do this without fear of being cornered by the matchmaking mamas."
Maybe if he didn't respond the man would just go away. One could only hope. Of course after knowing Denton over half his life, he knew that wasn't bloody likely. The man would keep talking until he provoked a response out of him. Too bad he didn't have a response. Not that he needed one. Denton could carry on a conversation all by himself. Besides he had no intention of explaining that his wife wasn't here protecting him from the matchmaking mamas because she was hiding out at his country estate refusing to talk to him. Not that he knew what to say to her if she did start talking to him. He never imagined their life together could be so difficult. For his own sanity, he'd escaped to town, hoping to get back to his old life andput the pain of his disastrous marriage behind him. But that was looking less and less likely by the minute. Damn, he needed another drink.
"This is one of the few times I envy you two blokes falling into the parson's trap." Jordan Lennox, Earl Milborough, found his place at the other side of the pillar. "I don't know what possessed me to consider jumping into the marriage mart this season."
"Probably dreams of a warm, willing woman in your bed every night and getting that touch only a wife adds to home." Denton sipped his drink. "Don't you agree, Westbrook?"
"Not everyone is as unhappy as your parents were. If you marry the right woman it can be wonderful. Don't you agree, Westbrook?"
Unless of course she was your mistress first.
E'gad, had he said that out loud? Damn, he must have because now both men were staring at him.
"Things cool off after she gets the ring on her finger, eh?" Milborough turned to look at Andre with amusement flickering in his eyes. "And here I thought knowing your wife so intimately would help you two bump along and avoid the problems that usually plague ton marriages."
No, they had different problems. Ones unique to their situation. Ones he should have foreseen, but sadly did not.
"To think I envied you when I first heard. The thought of teaching a virgin..." Milborough shivered. "I can't say I'm surprised. It was a bit too good to be true. Marrying your mistress I mean."
"As if you would do anything so scandalous." Denton poked Milborough with an elbow.
"No, but it was a nice fantasy." Milborough shook his head. "Too bad it didn't work out, Westbrook."
"I don't know if I'd say that," Denton remarked dryly. "Countess Westbrook doesn't look too cold from where I'm standing. Although, I'm stunned you let her leave the house dressed like that."
Leave the house? Not bloody likely. His wife was haunting the halls of his country estate, dressed in black.
"I say, Westbrook, that is your wife over there with mine, isn't it?" Denton motioned with his head.
"What are you babbling about, Denton?" Andre glanced over, following the direction of Denton's gaze. The man must be mistaken.
But then again the stunning woman in the scandalous red gown standing in a cluster of women at the far edge of the dance floor did indeed look like his Corina. But that was impossible. She''d sworn never to appear in society.
So why was she here? And why the bloody hell hadn't he known she was in town? And where the bloody hell was she staying if not with him?
Denton chuckled. "You didn't know she was here, did you." He whistled. "And here I thought this evening would be dull."
Andre swallowed hard. His breath caught in his throat. Seeing her like that reminded him of happier days.
"I can't believe she's here," he blurted out, wishing the words back as his friends stared again.
"So you really didn't know?" Milborough asked in a stunned tone.
"No. She'd sworn never to set foot in society, because she believed everyone would shun her. I'd told her the other women, would in time, overlook her past."
"I wouldn't hold my breath on that score," Denton said softly. "But since my wife seems to have a hand in this matter, I feel it is only fair to warn you that if my wife and Francine Weatherby brought her here, then you're in big trouble."
"I see our women are at it again." Rolland Weatherby, Marquis Renford strolled over with two drinks in his hand. He offered one to Andre, who accepted it without taking his eyes off his wife. "You're going to need this to get ready to deal with the Bliss Society."
"What?" That got his attention.
"I can barely control my wife, but Renford here has let his run wild." Denton shook his head. "She gives them all sorts of ideas about how men should ... Well, this isn't a discussion for polite society."
Renford snorted. "Darcy has you wrapped around her finger. Admit it. Besides you like her ideas, especially the..." He coughed. "You're right, this isn't a proper conversation to be having here."
Interest flickered in Milborough's eyes. "Don't stop on my account."
Denton wiggled his dark brows. "Sorry old chap, but this is a conversation for married blokes. You have to have a wife to be on the receiving end of the Bliss Society's wisdom."
"And here I thought this conversation was going to get good." Milborough glanced at the other men, raising his hands. "I'm going. I need to dance anyway. That is if I can remember whose dance card I signed."
The men were silent for a moment as they watched Milborough walk away.
"Do you envy him?" Renford asked.
"Hell, no. I'm finally figuring Darcy out. I sure as hell wouldn't want to start over again. I wouldn't be in Westbrook's position again, either. Unless..."
"Unless what?" Andre snapped, not liking the way the two men were looking at him.
"It seems that our wives were intrigued by the fact your wife was once a mistress," Denton said.
"Although a little less so when they learned she was unhappy." Renford took a sip of his drink.
Andre blinked. His wife had shared that with strangers. "How did they meet my wife? To my knowledge she never ventured out in polite society even after we were married."
Renford shrugged. "They sought her out."
Andre choked on his drink. "And you let them?"
"Aren't you discovering for yourself that wives have minds of their own? There is very little controlling them; unless you want to live in constant turmoil."
"I just assumed..."
"That a well-bred woman would be more manageable? Hardly. Ours, or at least mine, has ideas of her own."
"Oh mine has plenty of those, too." Denton shook his head. "Some of them I actually enjoy.
"Since I'd guess my Darcy was the instigator of this little adventure it's only fair that I be the one to warn you what you're up against." Denton leaned closer, whispering in his ear. "I'm not sure how my wife and Francine became the ones to go to for advice on finding marital bliss, but they have. I supposed our rocky start saw to that. You see old chap, the only way you get to join the Bliss Society is by having trouble..." Denton glanced at Renford.
"In the bedroom," Renford finished as he downed the last of his drink. "Of course, there may come a time when you don't complain, but now..."
Renford's words were lost in the roar of blood pounding in his ears.
"Do you think we did the right thing warning Westbrook?" Denton snagged another glass of punch.
"From the looks our wives are shooting us, I'd say not. But I still think it best not to walk into their den cold. Besides, it's fun being on the watching rather than the receiving end of Bliss Society's plots."
"Speak for yourself. I rather enjoy dealing with Darcy when she's all worked up."
Renford laughed. "The evening definitely gets heated."
"Do you have any reservations about them mingling with Corina, Duncan?"
"A few. Darcy has had enough trouble with her reputation. But I doubt that would stop her once she makes her mind up. Her loyalty and willingness to defend others is one of the things that I love about her."
"Francine too. She looked past all the gossip about me." Renford sat his glass down and leaned back against the pillar.
"Did Francine say anything to you about Westbrook's wife?"
"Not a word. I only know that they went out to visit her because my driver told me. The man is such a mother hen when it comes to my wife."
"I knew something was up when Darcy got extra affectionate with me. Now I understand why she was attempting to smooth my possible temper. This is one adventure I probably wouldn't have condoned if I'd known what they were up to. Not that my opposition ever stopped her before." Denton laughed. "Once Darcy sets her mind on something, she plunges forward and damned be the consequences. She trusts that my wealth and title will protect her."
"And it has."
"True, but there are some circumstances that even money and a respectable title can't smooth over and fix."
"I hope you aren't thinking that this is one of those times."
"I'm thinking they may be on thin ice here. The Duncans have a complicated relationship made more so by the social stigma surrounding Corina's past. Marriage solved some of their problems, but it also created new ones. I'm just not sure our wives realize what they are getting themselves into."
Renford nodded. "This might be their biggest challenge yet."
"Don't stare, Corina, but Westbrook is coming this way." Darcy's voice rose with an excited twitter.
"I always thought he looked dashing in his evening clothes," Francine said.
Corina agreed. Her husband was a handsome man of medium height with light brown hair and the bluest eyes that changed color with his mood. One minute they were azure, the next steel-gray, and the next almost hazel. Not that the other men weren't handsome. Renford was the tallest of the group with dark hair. Denton was a little taller than her husband and beautiful in ways she suspected made other women swoon. Both had reputations for being rakes before they'd gotten married. As far as she knew they were reformed. Or at least if they hadn't, they were very discreet about it. But judging from the obvious affection between them and their wives, she deduced they were reformed.
"I wonder what our husbands were up to." Francine frowned.
"Hopefully they aren't plotting anything." Darcy tapped her chin. "I don't like the look that is passing between them. You don't think they'd tell Westbrook anything, do you?"
Only half listening, Corina was jolted back into the conversation at the mention of her husband's name. She glanced back and forth between her new friends. "About what?"
"That we know ... Well..."
Gad, she hoped not. Andre was a very private man. He'd hate having their life become even more a topic of speculation than it was already. It was one of the reasons she'd refused to come to town. Had she been wrong to share with these women?
Darcy gave her an understanding smile as he patted her shoulder. "It will be fine, dear."
No, it wouldn't. They were going to be angry with her. Even angrier than her husband was going to be when they realized what she was going to do. For both their sakes this was her first and last night out in society. She only hoped she could slip in and out of the ball without causing an even bigger scene or being noticed by one of the men from her past.
She shivered at the thought. As much as she loved Andre she had no choice...
This was an interesting turn of events. Simon Hammond, Viscount Byford swallowed his drink as he watched his ex-mistress and her new husband prepare for battle.
It stunned him that the chit would actually have the gall to show up here as though she expected to just be accepted after she had once been a mistress. But then again, her daring was one her charms. And showing up at a ball where she might very well meet any of her former lovers, him included, was the height of daring or stupidity, depending on how you looked at it.
What surprised him most was that the unbendable Westbrook, who was known for his rigid need to follow the rules, would risk his reputation in order to marry her. Sleep with her maybe, but to marry her...
What is it about that woman that put men under her spell?
He wished he didn't know. Corina had been the most exciting lover he'd ever had and he hated to admit it, but he hadn't ever really gotten over her. In hindsight he wondered if, despite her lack of funds, he wouldn't have been better off married to her than Cecily. At least Corina let him in her bed. Damn, now it was hard not to think about sex. His gaze slid over Corina's voluptuous form as she stood chatting with a group of women. He felt himself swell as he stared at her full breasts and rounded hips and realized suddenly that he was annoyed that she wasn't free for his use anymore.
Perhaps he could capitalize on their marital difficulties by offering a comforting shoulder? A woman was at her weakest when her marriage was in trouble, and he planned to be there with open arms. All he needed to do was pick the best time to approach her.
There was not a bleeding thing wrong with the way he performed in the bedroom. At least there hadn't been before...
Andre closed his eyes for a moment, trying to block out the images of his Corina lying like a broken doll. He wouldn't go back there. They couldn't go back there.
He made his way through the endless crush of people, all wanting to chat.
"Evening, Westbrook." A man he barely recognized grabbed his arm, stopping his forward progress.
He spun around, facing the intruder with anger no doubt shrouding his features. "I have no time for chitchat, if you'd let go of my arm..."
"Bold statement your wife seems to be making this evening, hey, Westbrook."
He could feel his face becoming redder with his rising anger. His fingernails pressed into the palms of his hands as he held himself in check.
"And what statement would that be?" His voice sounded cold, even to him.
"Why, that she's finally ready to enter society." He smiled. "Can't say I remember seeing your wife out in society before. And she's found a flock of new friends to keep her company. Isn't that Renford and Denton's wives flanking her? If I were you I'd watch how often they get together; the lot of them could start consorting against us." The man laughed, obviously tickled by his own joke.
Without answering, he pulled his arm from the man's grasp and forged on towards his wife. People greeted him as he passed. A few more brave fools dared to try and stop him, but he gave them a look that ended hopes of having a conversation with him. Or at least as many as he could. There were still some who persisted as he moved on.
Trying not to look as flustered as he felt, Andre pushed through the last of the group to get to Corina.
Bloody hell, it would seem as if everyone wanted to have a bloody chat. He made brief, polite conversation with one of his neighbors before finally finding himself standing next to his wife.
"Hello, my dear."
She blushed as he approached. Some of the bravado he'd noticed from across the room slipped as he took her arm. He could feel the tension vibrating through her, but he wasn't sure if it was from fear or nerves. She'd changed. That much was clear. Her face had regained some its color. Her red hair was artfully arranged and the scarlet dress she wore showed off even more of her curves up close than it did at a distance.
Heaven help him, he'd missed her.
"Hello, darling." Her smile was tentative and he wondered if it crossed her mind to be wary of his reaction to her sudden appearance. He hadn't really ever lost his temper with her, but then she'd never pushed him this far either.
He was painfully aware of the others watching them. Did they all suspect that he hadn't known she was in town until now?
The things he longed to say to his wife stuck in his throat. This wasn't a conversation to be had with an audience.
Obviously she had no more idea what to say than he did, because she stood there mute.
Not knowing what else to do, he turned to the ladies standing guard over his wife. Darcy was dark like her husband with unruly curls and dimples that came freely when she smiled. Francine reminded him of an angel with her golden hair and delicate features. Neither woman seemed to belong next to Corina, who was dressed more like a courtesan than a wife.
"Good evening, Lady Darcy, Lady Francine. I'm glad to see that my wife has made friends."
"We are enjoying getting to know Corina," Darcy said, smiling a bit too brightly at him.
At least she acknowledged him. That gave him a bit of hope that they didn't think he was a total ass.
"If you'll excuse me, ladies, I'd like to dance with my wife."
"Capital idea." Denton appeared out the crowd with Renford to claim a dance with their wives. "We all need to remember what we're here for."
Denton's earlier warning rang in his head. Bloody hell, he didn't want to think about what they knew about his life. Obviously more than he did at the moment.
He didn't ask her permission, just cupped Corina's arm as he led her out onto the dance floor. She didn't resist, although the tension in her body said otherwise.
He pulled her into his arms, briefly closing his eyes as he savored the feel of her soft curves nestled against him. "I wish you would have given me some notice that you were coming, but I'm glad to see you," he murmured in her ear. Overwhelming relief was more like it, but he wasn't about to admit that. "I have to confess, I'm surprised and baffled by your sudden change of heart. I'm not complaining mind you, but..."
"It was time to quit mourning." Her tone was brisk, almost matter of fact.
"I see." He didn't, but as long as she was talking, he urged her to continue. "Is that why you have stopped wearing black?"
"It was time." There was no warmth in either her tone or words.
"You obviously didn't prepare for tonight at our townhouse. I know, because I was home all afternoon."
"No. I didn't"
There was that stiff, clipped tone again. He pulled back, looking down into her eyes and for the first time since they'd met he was unable to read them.
"I see you've made some friends." He decided to be tactful and get her to open up.
"Darcy and Francine rescued me. They made me see what my life was missing."
"And what was that?" he asked, knowing full well that he probably wouldn't like the answer.
"A husband that won't treat me like I'm glass."
The music picked that moment to stop and he shifted uncomfortably as they were forced to stand there, waiting for another song to start.
"I'm sorry." For more things than he could count.
"I don't want your regrets."
"Then what do you want?"
"A divorce. I've decided that I like being a mistress better than being a wife."
She turned, making her way through the parting crowd as he stood there too stunned to move.