Read an Excerpt
London Before the Season March 1818
My dears, stop chatting or you will miss everything! The Duke of Meryon has arrived.”
A group of the ton’s finest gossips clustered near the entrance to Mrs. Harbison’s ballroom. Something interesting had happened.
“Meryon is here?”
“He looks like he’s still in mourning.”
They paused as one as they considered that even without a smile the Duke of Meryon was worth watching.
“It has been every bit of a year.”
“Is this his first social outing since she died?”
“What else would he do of an evening?” one of the dim-witted asked.
The ladies laughed at her naiveté. The gentlemen added gruff chuckles and considering glances.
“How long before he marries again?”
“He has an heir. Why would he marry again?”
The whispers bit into Meryon like the tip of a sword, reminding him that his wife’s death had changed his world forever. But these very gossips were the reason he was here tonight.
“Those women are idiots.” His hostess tried to steer him away from the crush of people, her too-tight grip a measure of her indignation.
Meryon halted their progress and bowed over her hand. “Nevertheless, I will speak with them.”
Letty Harbison took his arm again. “You will not speak to them alone, Your Grace.”
“I can handle The Gossips.” He smiled down at her. “I have plenty of experience with backbiting in the House of Lords.”
“But this is my house, Meryon, and I want to hear every word.”
He laughed out loud and could not recall the last time he had. “What a delight you are, Letty. Does Harbison know how lucky he is?”
She tapped his hand with her fan and faced The Gossips, assuming a look that Meryon could only describe as condescending.
“Good evening, ladies and gentlemen. Your Grace, I am sure you have met all these people.” He would not laugh. She had neatly insulted them and they had not even noticed, thrilled to have a duke in their midst.
Mrs. Harbison turned to him, including the others in their conversation. “I am so happy to see you among the ton again, Your Grace.”
“Oh yes,” one of the ladies echoed. “I know it has been a difficult year for you.”
“And for all of Rowena’s friends,” another added.
“But having you with us will remind us of what we loved most about her.”
“That she was a duchess?” He raised his eyebrows and smiled to cut his insult.
The wisest of The Gossips laughed. “Of course not, Meryon. We loved her because she made you happy.”
“Yes, she did,” he said, smiling at the memory, impressed with this one woman’s insight.
A long silence followed. Meryon waited it out, squeezing Mrs. Harbison’s arm when she would have spoken. The Gossips would not abandon their place by the door but seemed at a loss for words with one of their favorite subjects in their midst.
Meryon waited until they were nervous with embarrassment and then offered his tidbit of news. “Does anyone know why the Duke of Bendas’s grandson has taken rooms at Albany this Season?”
The Gossips fell on the question like hungry kittens, discussing the subject with such enthusiasm that the casual listener would think they actually knew the answer. When the ladies began to speculate on whether Lord William would ever marry, one of the gentlemen brought up the subject Meryon had waited for.
“Have you seen the Rowlandson cartoon of the Duke of Bendas, Your Grace?”
“Bendas? In a cartoon?” Of course he had seen it. He’d sent his coachman to Rowlandson with the story. Meryon’s task had been to find a way to have everyone talk about it. This group would make that happen.
“You should see it, Your Grace. It shows Bendas blindfolded and with rags in his ears while fighting a duel in which he shoots the wrong person.”
The group sprinkled the story with dismay and relish and gobbled it up.
“Rowlandson ridiculed a duke?”
“No one is off-limits to the cartoonists. Look what they have done to Prinny.”
“But Bendas is so powerful, so formidable.”
“He is so insistent upon being shown the proper deference.”
“That’s what makes it so delicious. I must find a copy.”
“My husband will have to add it to his collection.”
“It does give credence to that rumor of a duel.”
“I suppose that a duel could be the reason that his grandson is not staying with the family?” Meryon asked.
The gaggle stopped chattering.
Before any one of them was brave enough to ask if the rumored duel was true, Meryon bowed to them, offered Mrs. Harbison his arm, and withdrew. The chatter began again, busily weaving a story worthy of the Minerva Press.
“Bendas was in a duel? That’s shocking, Meryon. Are you not appalled?”
“Appalled, but not surprised. Bendas thinks he is a demigod, if not a god. He is old and failing and has convinced himself that his rank sets him apart from the laws of man.”
“But who would challenge a duke?”
Meryon thought about his answer. “Someone with a good reason.”
“I cannot believe it, Meryon.”
“It happened. And Bendas’s bullet killed an innocent boy.”
“Dear God, that is awful. You know this for a fact?”
“That question, Letty, is why I find your conversation infinitely more tolerable than that of The Gossips. And yes, I know it for a fact.”
“But I invited Bendas tonight. I hope he does not come. Surely he feels some regret?”
“None,” Meryon said sharply. “He as much as said that women and servants exist to do his bidding and have no value beyond that.”
“My God, Meryon.” She stopped their progress to confront him. “How do you know all these details?”
He could see she had almost guessed. “Because I’m the one who challenged him. The one he meant to kill.”
Mrs. Harbison raised a hand to cover her mouth, agape at the admission. Her eyes were wide with shock. “Meryon! You challenged him to a duel? Why?” She waved her hand in front of her face. “No, I did not ask that. I promise you I will tell no one.”
“Thank you, Letty, but the duel, if not the reason, will be common knowledge soon enough.” Meryon glanced back at The Gossips, who had most likely begun to ask that question among themselves.
“No one will hear it from me!” With that, she composed herself and they began to move through the crowd with endless curtsies and bows.
Meryon sighed gently. Well, he had accomplished what he came to do, but to leave so abruptly would distract The Gossips from their discussion of Bendas, so he allowed Letty to escort him around the room.
“Meryon!” Jack Forbes greeted him with a bow and a clap on the back. “Good to see a familiar face. I’ve been in Scotland for near on two years. The weather was foul but the fishing was superb. How’s the winter here?”
“The duke has recently returned from France, Mr. Forbes.”
“Bet the duchess made you buy her a dozen dresses, eh?”
Mrs. Harbison froze. Meryon made himself relax his fisted hand and hoped it seemed that he could answer the question as easily as any other. “Jack, I am sorry to embarrass you, but Rowena died more than a year ago.” He spoke very quietly, stepping closer to this longtime acquaintance.
“Oh, my God, Meryon, I am sorry. She was a sweet lady and I am ten times a fool. I must start reading the paper.” Forbes bowed, his expression stricken, as he backed into the crowd.
“I am so sorry, Meryon.”
“No apology is necessary, Letty. I expect it.”
“That no one remembers their manners?” She was annoyed, but then laughed a little. “Of course we have no manners when something interesting happens.”
From the Paperback edition.