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London, June 1817
Biting the inside of her cheek, Amelia d’Orsay suppressed a small cry of jubilation. Even at a rout like this one, a well-bred lady’s abrupt shout of joy was likely to draw notice, and Amelia did not care to explain herself to the crush of young ladies surrounding her. Especially when the reason for her delight was not a triumph at the card table or a proposal of marriage, but rather the completion of a dinner menu.
She could imagine it now. “Oh, Lady Amelia,” one of these young misses would say, “only you could think of food at a time like this.”
Well, it wasn’t as though Amelia had planned to stand in a ballroom, dreaming of menus for their family summer holiday. But she’d been puzzling for weeks over a new sauce for braised pheasant, to replace the same old applejack reduction. Something sweet, yet tart; surprising, yet familiar; inventive, yet frugal. At last, the answer had come to her. Blackberry glaze. Strained, of course. Ooh, perhaps mulled with cloves.
Resolving to enter it in her menu book later, she swept the imaginary dish aside and compressed her grin to a half-smile. Summer at Briarbank would now officially be perfect.
Mrs. Bunscombe brushed past in a flounce of scarlet silk. “It’s half-eleven,” the hostess sang. “Nearly midnight.”
Nearly midnight. Now there was a thought to quell her exuberance.
A cherub-faced debutante swaddled in tulle grasped Amelia by the wrist. “Any moment now. How can you remain so calm? If he chooses me tonight, I just know I’ll swoon.”
Amelia sighed. And so it began. As it did at every ball, when half-eleven ticked past.
“You needn’t worry about making conversation,” a young lady dressed in green satin said. “He scarcely utters so much as a word.”
“Are we even certain he speaks English? Wasn’t he raised in Abyssinia or . . .”
“No, no. Lower Canada. Of course he speaks English. My brother plays cards with him.” The second girl lowered her voice. “But there is something rather primitive about him, don’t you think? I think it’s the way he moves.”
“I think it’s the gossip you’re heeding,” Amelia said sensibly.
“He waltzes like a dream,” a third girl put in. “When I danced with him, my feet scarcely skimmed the floor. And he’s ever so handsome up close.”
Amelia gave her a patient smile. “Indeed?”
At the opening of the season, the reclusive and obscenely wealthy Duke of Morland had finally entered society. A few weeks later, he had all London dancing to his tune. The duke arrived at every ball at the stroke of midnight. He selected a single partner from among the available ladies. At the conclusion of one set, he would escort the lady in to supper, and then . . . disappear.
Before two weeks were out, the papers had dubbed him “the Duke of Midnight,” and every hostess in London was jostling to invite His Grace to a ball. Unmarried ladies would not dream of promising the supper set to any other partner, for fear of missing their chance at a duke. To amplify the dramatic effect, hostesses positioned timepieces in full view and instructed orchestras to begin the set at the very hour of twelve. And it went without saying, the set concluded with a slow, romantic waltz.
The nightly spectacle held the entire ton in delicious, knuckle-gnawing thrall. At every ball, the atmosphere thickened with perfume and speculation as the hour of twelve approached. It was like watching medieval knights attempting to wrest Excalibur from the stone. Surely one of these evenings, the gossips declared, some blushing ingénue would get a proper grip on the recalcitrant bachelor . . . and a legend would be born.
Legend indeed. There was no end of stories about him. Where a man of his rank and fortune was involved, there were always stories.
“I hear he was raised barefoot and heathen in the Canadian wilderness,” said the first girl.
“I hear he was barely civilized when his uncle took him in,” said the second. “And his wild behavior gave the old duke an apoplexy.”
The lady in green murmured, “My brother told me there was an incident, at Eton. Some sort of scrape or brawl . . . I don’t know precisely. But a boy nearly died, and Morland was expelled for it. If they sent down a duke’s heir, you know it must have been dreadful.”
“You’ll not believe what I’ve heard,” Amelia said, widening her eyes. The ladies perked, leaning in close. “I hear,” she whispered, “that by the light of the full moon, His Grace transforms into a ravening hedgehog.”
When her companions finished laughing, she said aloud, “Really, I can’t believe he’s so interesting as to merit this much attention.”
“You wouldn’t say that if you’d danced with him.”
Amelia shook her head. She had watched this scene unfold time and again over the past few weeks, admittedly with amusement. But she never expected—or desired—to be at the center of it. It wasn’t sour grapes, truly it wasn’t. What other ladies saw as intriguing and romantic, she took for self-indulgent melodrama. Really, an unmarried, wealthy, handsome duke who felt the need to command more female attention? He must be the most vain, insufferable sort of man.
And the ladies of his choosing—all flouncy, insipid girls in their first or second seasons. All petite, all pretty. None of them anything like Amelia.
Oh, perhaps there was a hint of bitterness to it, after all.
Really, when a lady dangled on the outer cusp of marital eligibility, as she did, society ought to allow her a quiet, unannounced slide into spinsterhood. It rather galled her, to feel several years’ worth of rejection revisited upon her night after night, as the infamous duke entered at the stroke of midnight, and at twelve-oh-one his eyes slid straight past her to some primping chit with more beauty than brains.
Not that he had reason to notice her. Her dowry barely scraped the floorboards of the “respectable” range, and even in her first season, she’d never been a great beauty. Her eyes were a trifle too pale, and she blushed much too easily. And at the age of six-and-twenty, she’d come to accept that she would always be a little too plump.
The girls suddenly scattered, like the flighty things they were.
A deep whisper came from behind her shoulder. “You look ravishing, Amelia.”
Sighing, she wheeled to face the speaker. “Jack. What is it you’re after?”
Pressing a hand to his lapel, he pulled an offended expression. “Must I be after something? Can’t a fellow pay his dearest sister a compliment without falling under suspicion?”
“Not when the fellow in question is you. And it’s no compliment to be called your dearest sister. I’m your only sister. If you’re after my purse, you must come up with something better than that.” She spoke in a light, teasing tone, hoping against all previous evidence that he would protest: No, Amelia. This time, I’m not after your purse. I’ve ceased gambling and drinking, and I’ve thrown over those ne’er-do-well “friends” of mine. I’m returning to University. I’ll take orders in the Church, just as I promised our dying mother. And you truly do look lovely tonight.
Eyes flicking toward the crowd, he lowered his voice. “A few bob. That’s all I need.”
Her chest deflated. Not even midnight, and already his eyes held that wild, liquor-flared spark that indicated he was on the verge of doing something spectacularly ill-conceived.
Steering him by the elbow, she left the young ladies to titter amongst themselves and guided her brother through the nearest set of doors. They stepped into the crescent of yellow light shining through the transom window. The night air closed around them, cloying and humid.
“I don’t have anything,” she lied.
“A few shillings for the hack, Amelia.” He grabbed for the reticule dangling from her wrist. “We’re off to the theater, a gang of us.”
Off to the theater, her eye. Off to the gaming hells, more likely. She clutched the beaded drawstring pouch to her bosom. “And how will I get home, then?”
“Why, Morland will take you.” He winked. “Right after your dance. I’ve two pounds sterling on you tonight.”
Wonderful. Another two pounds she’d have to siphon from her pin money. “At tremendously long odds, I’m sure.”
“Don’t speak like that.” A touch grazed her arm. Jack’s expression was suddenly, unexpectedly sincere. “He’d be damned lucky to have you, Amelia. There’s no lady your equal in that room.”
Tears pricked at the corners of her eyes. Since their brother Hugh’s death at Waterloo, Jack had changed, and not for the better. But in rare flashes, that dear, sensitive brother she loved would surface. She wanted so desperately to gather him close and hold tight to him for weeks, months . . . however long it took, to coax the old Jack out from this brittle shell.
“Come now. Be a sweet sister, and lend me a crown or two. I’ll send a runner to Laurent’s, and he’ll send that garish new landau for you. You’ll be driven home in the finest style his copper heiress can afford.”
“Her name is Winifred. She’s the Countess of Beauvale now, and you ought to speak of her with respect. It’s her fortune that purchased Michael’s commission and supports young William at school. It’s thanks to her and Laurent that I even have a home.”
“And I’m the worthless ingrate who brings the family nothing but disgrace. I know, I know.” His flinty gaze clashed with a forced smile. “It’s worth a few coins to be rid of me, isn’t it?”
“Can’t you understand? I don’t want to be rid of you at all. I love you, you fool.” She smoothed that incorrigible wisp of hair that always curled at his left temple. “Won’t you let me help you, Jack?”
“Of course. If you’ll start with a shilling or two.”
With clumsy fingers, she loosened the strings of her reticule. “I will give you everything I have, on one condition.”
“You must promise me you’ll join us this summer, at Briarbank.”
The d’Orsays always summered at Briarbank—a rambling stone cottage overlooking the River Wye, down the slope from the ruins of Beauvale Castle. Amelia had been planning this summer’s holiday for months, down to the last damask tablecloth and saucer of currant jelly. Briarbank was the answer to everything, she knew it. It had to be.
Hugh’s death had devastated the entire family, but Jack most of all. Of all her brothers, the two of them had been the fastest friends. Hugh had been just one year older, but several years wiser, and his serious bent had always balanced Jack’s wilder personality. Without that check on his impulsive nature, Amelia feared Jack’s grief and recklessness were conspiring to disaster.
What he needed was love, and time to heal. Time spent far from Town, and close to home and family—what remained of both. Here in London, Jack was surrounded by temptation, constantly pressured to keep pace with his spendthrift peers. At Briarbank, he would surely return to his good-humored self. Young William would come on his break from school. Michael would still be at sea, of course, but Laurent and Winifred would join them, at least for a week or two.
And Amelia would be the perfect hostess. Just as Mama had always been. She would fill every room with great vases of snapdragons, arrange theatricals and parlor games, serve braised pheasant with blackberry glaze.
She would make everyone happy, by sheer force of will. Or bribery, if she must.
“I’ve a crown and three shillings here,” she said, extracting the coins from the pouch, “and six pounds more saved at home.” Saved, scrimped, scraped together, one penny at a time. “It’s yours, all of it—but you must promise me August at Briarbank.”
Jack tsked. “He didn’t tell you?”
“Who? Who didn’t tell me what?”
“Laurent. We’re not opening the cottage this summer. It was just settled this week. We’re letting it out.”
“Letting it out?” Amelia felt as though all the blood had been let from her veins. Suddenly dizzy, she clutched her brother’s arm. “Briarbank, let out? To strangers?”
“Well, not to strangers.We’ve put the word around at the clubs and expect inquiries from several good families. It’s a plum holiday cottage, you know.”
“Yes,” she bit out. “Yes, I do know. It’s so ideal, the d’Orsay family has summered there for centuries. Centuries, Jack. Why would we dream of leasing it out?”
“Haven’t we outgrown the pall-mall and tea biscuits routine? It’s dull as tombs out there. Halfway to Ireland, for God’s sake.”
“Dull? What on earth can you mean? You used to live for summers there, angling on the river and—” Comprehension struck, numbing her to the toes. “Oh, no.” She dug her fingers into his arm. “How much did you lose? How much do you owe?”
His eyes told her he’d resigned all pretense. “Four hundred pounds.”
“Four hundred! To whom?”
“The Duke of Midni—” Amelia bit off the absurd nickname. She refused to puff the man’s notoriety further. “But he’s not even arrived yet. How did you manage to lose four hundred pounds to him, when he’s not even here?”
“Not tonight. Days ago now. That’s why I must leave. He’ll be here any moment, and I can’t face him until I’ve made good on the debt.”
Amelia could only stare at him.
“Don’t look at me like that, I can’t bear it. I was holding my own until Faraday put his token in play. That’s what brought Morland to the table, drove the betting sky-high. He’s out to gather all ten, you know.”
“All ten of what? All ten tokens?”
“Yes, of course. The tokens are everything.” Jack made an expansive gesture. “Come now, you can’t be so out of circulation as that. It’s only the most elite gentlemen’s club in London.”
When she only blinked at him, he prompted, “Harcliffe. Osiris. One stud horse, ten brass tokens. You’ve heard of the club, I know you have.”
“I’m sorry. I’ve no idea what you’re talking about. You seem to be telling me you’ve wagered our ancestral home against a brass token. And lost.”
“I was in for hundreds already; I couldn’t back down. And my cards . . . Amelia, I swear to you, they were unbeatable cards.”
“Except that they weren’t.”
He gave a fatalistic shrug. “What’s done is done. If I had some other means of raising the funds, I would. I’m sorry you’re disappointed, but there’s always next year.”
“Yes, but—” But next year was a whole year away. God only knew what trouble would find Jack in the meantime. “There must be another way. Ask Laurent for the money.”
“You know he can’t give it.”
Of course he was right. Their eldest brother had married prudently, almost sacrificially. The family had been desperate for funds at the time, and Winifred had come with bags of money from her mining-magnate father. The trouble was, the bags of money came cinched tightly with strings, and only Laurent’s father-in-law could loosen them. The old man would never authorize the use of four hundred pounds to pay off a gaming debt.
“I have to leave before Morland arrives,” he said. “You understand.”
Jack unlooped the reticule from her limp wrist, and she did not fight him as he shook the coins into his palm. Yes, she understood. Even if nothing remained of their fortune, the d’Orsays would cling to their pride.
“Have you at least learned your lesson now?” she said quietly.
He vaulted the low terrace rail. Rattling the coins in his palm, he backed away into the garden. “You know me, Amelia. I never was any good with lessons. I just copied my slate from Hugh’s.”
As she watched her brother disappear into the shadows, Amelia hugged her arms across her chest.
What cruel turn of events was this? Briarbank, rented for the summer! All the happiness stored up in those cobbled floors and rustic hearths and bundles of lavender hanging from the rafters—wasted on strangers. All her elaborate menus and planned excursions, for naught. Without that cottage, the d’Orsay family had no true center. Her brother had nowhere to recover from his grief.
And somehow more lowering than all this: She had no place of her own.
Accepting spinsterhood had not been easy for Amelia. But she could resign herself to the loneliness and disappointment, she told herself, so long as she had summers at that drafty stone cottage. Those few months made the rest of the year tolerable. Whilst her friends collected lace and linens for their trousseaux, Amelia contented herself by embroidering seat covers for Briarbank. As they entertained callers, she entertained thoughts of begonias in the window box. When she—an intelligent, thoughtful, well-bred lady—was thrown over nightly for her younger, prettier, lack-witted counterparts, she could fool herself into happiness by thinking of blackberry glaze.
Lord, the irony. She wasn’t much different from Jack. She’d impulsively wagered all her dreams on a pile of mortar and shale. And now she’d lost.
Alone on the terrace, she started to tremble. Destiny clanged against her hopes, beating them down one hollow ring at a time.
Somewhere inside, a clock was tolling midnight.
From the Paperback edition.