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London, December 1806
Three weeks before Christmas
When Lord Alexander Beaumont entered Whites that night the entire room fell silent. No man would meet his eyes; their gazes slid away to study the pattern on the carpet or the brandy in their glasses. Throats were cleared, cuffs inspected with startling intensity.
"Gentlemen?" He raised one quizzical dark brow. "Would anyone care to enlighten me as to what is wrong?"
There was silence.
"Charles?" he prompted.
"Devil take it, Alex," his friend Charles Wheeler complained, "I knew you would ask me."
"That's what friends are for, Charles," Alex said smoothly. "Well?"
Charles stood up. He loosened his neck cloth, palpably ill at ease. "Don't know where to start, old fellow."
"Try the beginning," Alex advised.
"Good luck, Charlie," someone said sotto voce.
"It's Lady Melicent," Wheeler blurted out. "Your wife."
No one ever spoke to Lord Alexander Robert Jon Beaumont about his wife.
"Thank you, Charles," Alex said. "We may have been apart for a couple of years now, but I am still aware who Melicent is."
Wheeler winced. Several men drew in their breath in sympathy.
"She's… She's written a book," Wheeler said. "Several books. This is the most recent." He grabbed a slim tome from the hands of a man at a nearby table and handed it to Alex.
"Steady on, Charlie," the man protested. "I was enjoying that!"
"Bentley…" Wheeler said in a warning tone. The man's eyes flickered to Alex's hard face and he fell silent.
"'The Adventures of a Woman of Pleasure by Lady Loveless.'" Alex read the gold lettering aloud. He flicked open the book.
"'Being naked and laid open to him kindled so great a rapture in her that she lay in wanton pleasure waiting for him to plunge his huge—'"
A great harrumphing and clearing of throats followed. Alex closed the book softly and looked at his friend. "You are claiming that Melicent, my wife, is this Lady… Loveless?"
"Yes! Don't call me out," Wheeler added as Alex took a purposeful step toward him, murder in his eyes.
"Bentley bribed the publisher and found out that the manuscripts are sent from someone called Mrs. Durham, from Peacock Oak in Yorkshire.…" He made a pleading gesture. "You know that was Lady Melicent's maiden name and that she resides there now." He shook his head. "She has to be stopped, Alex. She bases the characters in her books on members of the Ton and they are too accurately portrayed for comfort." He gestured to Bentley again. "Will's betrothal to Miss Flynn was ruined because there is a scene in the book where a character called Bill Gentley ravishes an actress in a box at the theater during a performance!"
"We all know that happened," Alex said dryly.
"That isn't the point!" Bentley piped up.
"Bentley lost an heiress worth sixty thousand," Wheeler said. "Lady Loveless's sources are impeccable. Which is why she has to be stopped."
Alex tapped the book thoughtfully against the palm of his hand. "She will be."
"What are you going to do?" Wheeler asked.
"I am going to Yorkshire," Alex said. He smiled at the look of horror on his friend's face. "No need to fear, Charles—it is the north of England, not the North Pole."
"Yorkshire in winter," Wheeler spluttered.
"Yes," Alex said, "and I will take this with me." He raised the book, and the candlelight gleamed on the gold-lettered name, Lady Loveless, on the cover. "It will prove useful… for research purposes."
"Devil take it, Alex," Bentley called, "I was reading that!" But he spoke to thin air.
Lady Loveless indeed.
How very apt for his estranged wife.
Out in the street it was snowing, tiny flakes on the edge of a cold east wind. Alex turned up the collar of his coat, refused the offer of either a hackney carriage or a sedan chair, and set off down the dark streets toward Cavendish Square. Almost he relished the idea of a run-in with a pickpocket or thief. It would at least relieve some of his anger and frustration.
The wind stung his face. He felt cold inside as well, his heart shriveled, encased in ice. Melicent. He thought of his bride on their wedding day. They had met for the first time a mere week before. Melicent had been a gangly debutante in her first season, with long conker-brown hair and huge brown eyes. She had been impossibly shy and seductively innocent. Even though Alex had been furious to be forced into marriage by his father, the Duke of Beaumont, he had tried not to blame Melicent.
He had been attentive to her throughout the wedding breakfast, trying to draw her out, thwarted by her reserve. Later that night he had consummated his marriage, treating his young wife with gentleness and patience, but the encounter had not been a success, for she had lain as still and cold as a statue and he felt unfulfilled and empty afterward. A few more unsatisfactory couplings had followed, but after a fortnight or so he had not sought her bed or her company any longer. Running the Beaumont estates had kept him fully occupied; they were both wife and mistress to him. He needed nothing more.
Occasionally he would appear at balls to squire Melicent in a dance or two. His mother insisted on it and it silenced the gossips and his own guilty conscience. He and his wife had never spoken of their unsatisfactory marriage. It could not be said that the two of them had drifted apart, he thought now, for they had never come together in the first place.
He was sure that no one, least of all Melicent, had guessed at the fury that had burned him up inside. She would have had no notion of the frustration and rage engendered by the threats the Duke of Beaumont had used to force his younger son into marriage. Alex's father had wanted to ensure the succession and he had known that his heir, Alex's elder brother, Henry, with his preference for men, would never marry. The duke had therefore blackmailed Alex, threatening to deny him the right to run the Beaumont estates if he did not wed. Alex had loved Beaumont with a passion from the moment he was born. The lands and the people were his life. He was the only one in the family who cared a rush for them. His father could not have chosen a more effective weapon.
The weight of the book in Alex's pocket brought his thoughts back to Melicent and reminded him that she might have been an untutored virgin when first they had married, but that she had certainly gained some experience from somewhere—or someone—in the meantime. The anger kindled in him once again. How could Melicent, with her sweet, honest eyes, her generous smile and her patent innocence, have become Lady Loveless, the shameless purveyor of erotic literature? It seemed impossible.
They had been married for two years and it was a month after the Duke of Beaumont's death when Melicent had told him that she was going to Yorkshire to care for her mother and that she would be staying indefinitely. Her own father had died the previous year, her mother was an invalid and Melicent's feckless young brother Aloysius was running wild.
They had quarreled for the first time in a married life previously marked by indifference. Alex had forbidden her to go. He could see now that he had been driven by pride; it was one thing for him to treat Melicent with careless unconcern, but quite another matter for her to defy him. And she had defied him.
"You don't want me!" she had said bitterly, her belongings scattered about her as she hastily packed a portmanteau. "You have never needed me. Mama does."
He had not heard another word from her in two years.
Now she would be hearing from him. He would go to Yorkshire and confront his errant wife. He paused. No. He would go to Yorkshire and seduce his errant wife according to the style laid down by Lady Loveless. He would expose her for the wanton she must surely be.
Peacock Oak, Yorkshire
Two weeks before Christmas
Lady Melicent Beaumont put down her pen and rested her chin on the palm of her hand. It was impossible to concentrate when she could hear her mother's querulous tones floating down from the room above:
"I want Melicent! Where is she? And where is the doctor? I told you to send for him hours ago! I feel as sick as a cushion, and if he does not come soon I am like to perish here and now in my bed! No, do not build the fire any higher, you foolish woman! It is far too hot in here and is positively smothering me—"
Melicent sighed. She could not have blamed Mrs. Lubbock very much if she was tempted to take the pillow and squash it firmly over her mother's face. Mrs. Durham, a hypochondriac whose imaginary illnesses were always so much worse than anyone else's, had taken to her bed when Melicent's father had died and she had made everyone dance attendance on her ever since. It had taken Melicent only a few short weeks to realize that her mother was a tyrant. Unfortunately by then it was too late to turn back. After her last, dreadful quarrel with her husband she would not, could not, creep back to London with her tail between her legs. And so she was trapped here in Peacock Oak, in the little grace-and-favor house provided by a distant cousin, the Duchess of Cole; trapped in this drab existence with her ghastly mother and her idle brother and a very long-suffering servant.
"Miss Melicent is working, ma'am," she heard Mrs. Lubbock say with stolid patience. The housekeeper was a treasure, unflappable and fortunately impervious to insult. "She has sent for the doctor—"
"I will not see him!" Mrs. Durham was becoming shrill. Melicent sighed.
She reread the lines she had just written.
"'BorwickHall is built in late seventeenth-century style with decorative plasterwork in the drawing-room.…'"
She sighed again. The style was very dry. Mr. Foster, the antiquarian for whom she worked, disliked flowery language in his architectural guides, and so her prose was dull enough to send even the most devoted country house visitor to sleep.
Mrs. Lubbock's heavy tread sounded on the stair and then the housekeeper knocked softly on the door of the study.
"Begging your pardon, Miss Melicent, but your mama is refusing to see the physician. I sent for Dr. Abbott, but he is out on a call and his wife said she would send his nephew, who is here to help him over Christmas, it being the time that many people fancy themselves ill, so Mrs. Abbott says…"
Mrs. Durham's bell rang sharply, simultaneous with the heavy knocker sounding on the front door. A wail came from upstairs:
"Lubbock, where are you?"
Melicent rubbed her eyes. They felt tired and gritty from writing in the afternoon's gray winter light. She really should have lit a candle, except that candles were expensive and she could not afford the luxury.
The knocker sounded again. Evidently the doctor's nephew was an impatient man.
Mrs. Durham's wailings intensified.
"Please go up to Mama, Mrs. Lubbock, and see if you may calm her," Melicent said wearily. "I shall explain to the new doctor that Mama cannot see him at present. I expect that Dr. Abbott warned him of Mama's caprices, but I do not doubt that he will still be annoyed, having come all this way for nothing."
Mrs. Lubbock lumbered back up the stairs and Melicent stood a little stiffly, wiping her ink-stained fingers on her brown worsted skirts. There was no time to check her appearance in the mirror. The hallway was cold. In winter they kept a fire only in the drawing room for visitors and in Mrs. Durham's bedroom, which was often unhealthily stuffy. The rest of the house felt like a cold larder in comparison. Mrs. Lubbock's fingers turned red and chilblained in the kitchen. Melicent kept a hot brick at her feet when she was working, but even so her hands sometimes became too cold for her to write.
She opened the front door. A blast of cold air swirled into the hall, bringing with it a powdering of snow. The day was even more inclement than Melicent had imagined. Dark gray clouds lowered over the roofs of Peacock Oak.
She could barely see the gentleman standing in the shadow of the porch, other than to acknowledge that he was very tall and broad shouldered. The spiteful wind clipped her ankles and set her shivering, and she stood aside quickly to allow him entrance.
"Please come in, sir," she said. "You must be Dr. Abbott's nephew. Thank you for coming so promptly, although I fear you had a wasted journey. Mama will not see visitors today." She could not quite keep the exasperation from her tone, no matter how she tried. "Indeed, it is very bad of her to put everyone to so much trouble, particularly when she knows we cannot afford to pay—" He stepped into the light and she turned to look at him properly for the first time. For one long, agonizing moment her mind refused to accept the evidence of her eyes.
"But you are not the doctor!" she said foolishly. "You are…" Her voice dwindled to nothing.
The gentleman raised one dark brow in mockery, then bowed elegantly.
"Your husband," he said. "Indeed I am."