Monday, December 26, 2016

A Scandalous Secret

August 1813 - English Channel

Amazon  |  B&N  |  iBooks
Kobo  |  Google Play
Lady Hannah Campbell leaned against the rail of a roiling frigate. She sighed as her hair blew in the sea breeze, and she pulled the blue and green Campbell tartan closer about her shoulders. England was barely on the horizon, a land she hadn’t laid eyes on in more than a dozen years.
Hannah frowned, plagued once again with the same worry that had haunted her since she and her boys had left Spain. How would the three of them get along in England? After so many years following the drum, she wasn’t sure she knew how to function in polite society anymore. 
“Mama?” a tiny voice called from her side as a small hand tugged on her scratchy, wool traveling dress.
With a start, Hannah looked down into the expectant face of her seven-year-old son, Ewan. What was the lad doing up on deck? She’d left the poor little fellow sleeping in bed after another bout of seasickness. “What are ye doin’ out of the cabin, my love?”
A tear formed in Ewan’s dark eyes and his lip trembled as he spoke. “Alasdair says I smell like a chamber pot.”
Hannah pursed her lips. She should have guessed Alasdair was responsible for his brother’s fretful state. After all, her oldest son was definitely having the hardest time adjusting to their new situation. She pulled Ewan into her arms, smoothed his tears away, and kissed his swollen little cheeks. “Oh, sweetheart, ye doona smell like a chamber pot.”
Someone snorted behind them, and Hannah knew without a doubt that Alasdair had followed his brother on deck. “Alasdair Murdoch Campbell—” she didn’t even glance over her shoulder to face her oldest son— “how many times have I asked ye ta be kind ta yer wee brother?” 
When he didn’t respond, Hannah turned her head and met his bitter and brooding green eyes. Alasdair shrugged his shoulders, a hardened look on his twelve-year-old face. “Soldiers doona cry and run ta their mothers, Ewan.”
Hannah narrowed her eyes on her oldest boy, but he met her glare with an icy one of his own. When had Alasdair become this petulant child? Not that he didn’t have a reason or a right to be angry. They all did. But all they had left was each other now. “Wheesht! Alasdair! Ye have seen just as many soldiers cry as I have, and I will no’ let ye chastise Ewan. Do ye understand?”
Alasdair stared at her for quite some time before he let out a deep sigh and finally nodded. “Aye, Mama.”
Hannah smiled with more cheerfulness than she felt. “Good, then come over here so ye can see England.” She had both boys’ instant attention and she pointed to the land just barely visible in the distance. “Right there. Do ye see it? We’ll be home today.”
Home. She’d never thought to lay eyes on England again. Not England, not Chet… Havers! Where had that thought come from? 
“Tell us again, Mama.” Ewan’s tiny voice broke her from her reverie. “What’s London like?”
It had been a lifetime ago. Thinking back on it now, she’d been just a naïve lass at seventeen when she’d arrived in London. “It’s a grand city, Ewan. With parks, theatres, museums, and—”
“And cousins?” Ewan asked anxiously.
Hannah couldn’t help but smile at his exuberance, and she tousled his dark hair. “And cousins,” she agreed.
“And we’re stayin’ with them?” he asked, doubt seeping into his words.
“Aye, we will be stayin’ with yer Uncle James, yer Aunt Bethany, and all five of yer cousins,” she assured him for what seemed like the hundredth time. But she could understand his reluctance to believe such a thing; neither Ewan nor Alasdair had enjoyed the same address for an extended period of time. Neither boy had ever set foot on English soil or the Scottish homeland of their ancestors, for that matter. Both of her brave little soldiers had been born on the continent while she followed Malcolm’s regiment from one camp to another. 
But those days had abruptly come to an end on the battlefield outside Vitoria when Malcolm had taken a ball in the chest. If God had been merciful, Major Campbell would have died on the field that day, but there was very rarely mercy in war. Malcolm had somehow managed to drag his battered body back to camp. Though the surgeons were able to extricate the bullet and stop his bleeding, infection was an entirely different matter. He stubbornly held on to life for more than a week, but in the end Major Malcolm Campbell lost his final battle. 
Hannah tried to be grateful for Malcolm’s last days. At least the boys had been able to say their goodbyes to their father. But that didn’t make his passing any easier on any of them. They’d followed Malcolm for so long, she wasn’t sure they knew how to live on their own without him. 

The only comforting thought in the back of Hannah’s mind was that her brother James would see to her wellbeing. She and the boys were sure to be a burden on James, but her brother would make certain they were well cared for. Hannah heaved a sigh as the first bit of sun peeked over the horizon and her heart lightened a bit. Of course James would take care of them. He always had, after all.

Monday, December 19, 2016

A Scandalous Charade


February 1812 - London

Amazon  |  B&N  |  iBooks
Kobo  |  Google Play
This truly is a den of iniquity, Lucas Beckford thought to himself. One sleeping, naked woman was draped across his lower torso, while another slept soundlessly, her head resting on his left shoulder. However, Luke was not sleeping. He was wide awake in the wee hours of the morning, staring at the crushed red velvet walls and what was left of some flickering candles.
Something in his life was most definitely missing. Unfortunately that same thought seemed to creep into his mind at the most inopportune times over the last month or so. Not that he should complain. Many men would love to be in his position—especially the one he found himself in right now. But somewhere along the line, this had become mundane for him. After many years of cheerful sinning in one capacity or another, he’d started to tire of this existence that was his life. Fast-paced hazard tables, fast-paced whores, and a never ending supply of money and whiskey. No, most men wouldn’t complain.
Yet, he wasn’t satisfied. So, there had to be something he was missing. Something…more.
The woman in his arms stirred and he took the opportunity to shift her to a pillow beside him. However, the one draped across his middle didn’t seem likely to move for quite some time, and he hated to wake her. She had been quite accommodating. 
“Luke!” came a panicked voice on the other side of the door.
What the devil? He sat up with a start, waking the poor girl that had been atop him. “Sorry, love.” He smiled at her.
The panicked voice continued, “Lu—ke!” Then the interloper banged wildly on the door. 
“For God’s sakes!” he growled. What in Lucifer’s name was the problem? Luke wrenched the door open, not a stitch on him, and glared at the intruder. His glower lightened a bit when he recognized his young friend William, Lord Haywood, standing in the corridor, a horrified expression plastered on his boyish face. Will knew better than to interrupt a man here. Something truly terrible must have happened.
Will pushed his way into the room and noticed the two girls now scrambling for clothes. He grinned bashfully at the younger of the two. “Oh, Sarah.”
“Lord Haywood.” The girl blushed, which was strange in Luke’s mind, as he didn’t remember ever seeing a whore do so before. 
After he pulled his trousers up over his hips and started to button himself in, Luke glanced up and was annoyed that Haywood was still making moon eyes at the girl. “Sweet Lucifer, Will, what are you doing here?” 
Will tore his eyes away from Sarah. “You have to help me, Luke. I don’t know what else to do. I’ve tried everything I can think of, but nothing’s worked. And tonight she told me I was a featherbrained dolt whose thoughts wouldn’t fill a thimble.”
At the moment, Luke was inclined to agree with whoever she was. He had a hard time believing that the young baron had tracked him down here in the middle of the night to discuss some female. Certainly this could wait until morning…or afternoon, or whenever Luke chose to finally wake up. “Who are we speaking about, Will?”
Haywood looked exasperated and frowned at him. “The Ice Princess, Luke—Lady Juliet.  That damned haughty chit.”
Luke’s head began to ache. This was hardly the sort of thing a man wanted to think about at—he checked his pocket watch—three-thirty in the morning. Then he pulled on his shirt and waived the girls out of the room.
Will smiled at the pretty young whore one last time. “Bye, Sarah.”
To her credit, Sarah quietly nodded and shut the door behind her. Luke scowled at his friend. “Sarah?” he asked incredulously. 
“What?” Will shrugged.
“Just surprised you know her name, Will.” Calling a whore by her first name was not something Luke had ever done. In fact, he didn’t know any of their first names and planned to keep it that way.
“Oh, well,” Will began as he sank into a high-backed velvet chair, “she’s a real sweetheart. Wants to be an actress.” 
Luke couldn’t care less, and his gaze darkened on his friend. “Perhaps instead of chatting up career goals with Madam Palmer’s girls you could be charming Lady Juliet.”
Will snorted and let his head fall into his hands. “I could spend all day trying to charm her and it wouldn’t do a damn bit of good. Honestly, Luke, a more frigid woman doesn’t exist.” Then his head shot upward. “That’s why I need your help.”
Luke didn’t like the sound of that and he shook his head slowly. “If she’s so prickly, Will, then just pick someone else. It’s not as if she’s the only heiress in England.”
“No, she’s just the wealthiest. If I have to sell my soul in marriage, I want to get the most out of it.”
Luke pulled on his Hessians and chuckled. It was no wonder the Ice Princess wasn’t charmed by Haywood. “What a romantic notion,” he remarked sardonically.
“That’s just the problem. I don’t have a clue what to say around her. You’ve got to go with me to the Ridgemont’s tomorrow…er, technically I suppose it’s tonight.”
“No!” Luke barked emphatically. He’d successfully avoided Louisa Ridgemont for the last fortnight and he wasn’t about to go traipsing into the she-devil’s den.
“Please,” Will begged. “You’ve got to watch me interact with her, tell me what I’m doing wrong.”
Luke was bone tired and he shook his head at his pitiful friend. “Not even to save your pathetic life, Haywood. Do you know how long it took me to end things with Louisa?”
Haywood actually blanched. “Oh, sorry. I hadn’t thought about that. The thing is, Luke, Lady Juliet’s unpredictable, and avoids functions for the most part. But I know she’ll be at the Ridgemont ball, and I desperately need your sage advice.”
Luke cursed under his breath. If it had been anyone else that was asking this of him, he’d have told them to go jump in the Thames…But he felt responsible for Haywood. He always had. “I ought to be checked into Bedlam for agreeing to this, and you’ll owe me for the rest of your life.”
Will’s solemn face broke into a wide grin. “You’re the best.”
“Yes, yes.” Luke frowned, opened the door of the small bedroom, and stepped into the corridor—directly into the path of Alexander Everett, the Duke of Kelfield.
An amused grin tugged at the corners of the wicked duke’s mouth. “Very interesting. I had no idea,” he smirked as he glanced inside the empty bedroom, then back at Luke and Will.
Luke scowled at Kelfield, as he pushed past him. “Bugger off.” Then as an afterthought he added, “Your Grace.”
* * *
“Dear God, she’s here.” Will gulped nervously, his boyish face drawn up tight. He quickly downed the remainder of the wine in his goblet.
They’d been waiting for nearly an hour at the Ridgemont’s and Luke had been certain the Ice Princess wouldn’t show up. She’d leave him to flounder in Louisa’s ballroom, paying a penance he had no desire to pay. But, apparently, he’d been wrong. 
Will raked his free hand through his dark hair, as if the process would help him think of the right thing to say this time. Luke had never seen the lad so anxious. This was serious indeed.
“Courage, Will,” he drawled next to his anguished friend. Then Luke lazily pushed himself away from the large, white pillar he’d spent the last half hour leaning against, to focus his attention on the Ridgemonts’ newest arrival. 
The reason he was here.
Lady Juliet St. Claire.
The last time he’d laid eyes on her had to be ten years ago, at a wedding or something. She must have been nine or ten at the time, a bony girl with knobby knees and big brown eyes. 
She had changed. 
She was lovely.
Lady Juliet was adorned in an expensive, yet tasteful silk rose gown that shimmered like diamonds as she glided across the floor. Her chestnut colored hair was piled high on her head, and dainty tendrils framed her heart-shaped face. Her brown eyes were still big, though apparently deceiving, as he’d heard tales of her ability to instantly chill a man to his bones with just her gaze.
So this was the chit Haywood had decided on. God have mercy on his soul. 
Luke watched Lady Juliet with methodical eyes. She was instantly swooped down upon by a fortune-hunting viscount, who was quickly followed by other suitors, all light in the pockets, each of them. Without a doubt Will had competition for the heiress’ hand…er…make that fortune. “Do you see how they’ve swarmed around her? You definitely do not want to be part of that pack.”
Will frowned and focused his attention on the lady. “But if I’m not near her you can’t tell me what I’m doing wrong, and I won’t have a chance at catching her.”
With a beleaguered sigh, Luke turned to his protégé. “You won’t have a chance if you join their ranks. Trust me, Will, ladies like Juliet St. Claire are accustomed to gentlemen showering them with attention. Up ‘til now you’ve been chasing her so hard that she takes your affection for granted. But if you suddenly turn your attentions elsewhere… Well, that she’ll notice. She won’t want to lose one of her many accessories, and she’ll scramble to get you back.”
Will didn’t look convinced, and Luke grinned to himself. Haywood was still such a green lad, though over all a pretty good fellow. It wasn’t his fault he’d inherited his father’s massive debts along with his title.  The young baron was simply trying to put his estates to rights, and he was in over his head.
A few years back Luke had taken pity on Will—fresh from the country with not an ounce of Town polish. The boy had been a complete innocent. Since that time, Luke had tutored Haywood in many things: gambling, whoring, drinking. But helping him with the unenviable task of snaring a wealthy bride wasn’t something he was anxious to do. The very idea sent chills down Luke’s spine, but he had seen the baron’s accounts himself. Marriage seemed the best way to keep the Haywood estates afloat. 
Across the room, Lady Juliet dismissed her entourage, one at a time. Two of her penniless suitors fought to retrieve the Ice Princess some refreshment. And it appeared that she dismissed the rest with a flick of her wrist and a cool scowl.
Now she was all alone, and Luke studied her delicate frame. If one had to marry an heiress, they’d be hard pressed to find a more attractive one.
Haywood started to move toward the icy heiress, but Luke halted him with a hand on his arm. “She’ll just turn you away, Will. Don’t be rash. Don’t act without thinking. Just watch her. Study her.”
Will snorted. “What’s the point? She never joins any group. She just stands there looking down her nose at everyone.”
But at the moment, she wasn’t looking down her nose at anyone. She was actually smiling at someone who had just entered the ballroom. Both Luke and Will glanced across the sea of people to see who had caught Lady Juliet’s attention. If Haywood had serious competition, it would behoove them to know just who it was.
But when Luke’s eyes landed on Georgina, Lady Teynham, he grinned wolfishly as luck, once again, smiled upon him. This was going to be like a walk in the park. Lady Teynham, a widowed marchioness, was Lady Juliet’s older sister. She also just so happened to be one of his sister Caroline’s dearest friends. But most importantly, Georgie had always had a soft spot in her heart for Luke.
He glanced at Haywood and winked. “Do not approach Lady Juliet. In five minutes, join me as I talk with Lady Teynham. Then we’ll all end up with the Ice Princess together and Lady Teynham will ease the way for us.”
Anxiously, Will looked from Luke to Juliet and back again. With an uncertain nod, he finally agreed. Then after one last look of warning, Luke stepped away from his young friend and toward Lady Teynham. This whole thing would be much easier if Will could just relax and listen to his guidance. 
Luke stepped in Georgie’s path, with a rakish bow and an outstretched hand. “Well, if it isn’t the loveliest widow in all of England.”
Georgie smiled radiantly, her blue eyes twinkling. “My dear Lucas, whatever are you doing at Louisa’s ball? I mean, the marriage mart is the last place in the world I’d expect to find you.”
Luke chuckled and placed her hand in the crook of his arm. “Perhaps times change.”
Georgie giggled at that and tapped his chest with her fan. “And perhaps house cats pull Prinny’s carriage. Darling, if you were seriously considering finding yourself a wife, news would be all over Town.”
“I hardly think I’m that noteworthy,” he remarked with a lazy smile.
“On the contrary,” Georgie insisted, “Caroline would be shouting the news from the rafters and scoping out any and all eligible candidates for the position.”
He chuckled at the image she painted in his mind. Georgie knew Caroline well indeed. If he was searching for a wife, his younger sister would make a complete nuisance of herself— of that there was no doubt. “Well, for God’s sakes, Georgie, don’t tell her whatever you do. I can manage without her assistance. But what, may I ask, are you doing at a marriage mart ball? You’re not replacing Teynham?”
Georgie’s marriage had not been a pleasant one and everyone knew it. She’d been married off at the tender age of seventeen to a man that was old enough to be her grandfather and who had the reported temperament of Attila the Hun. Luke would be surprised if she ever replaced the crusty old marquess. Widowhood had saved Georgie from a miserable existence. She wouldn’t give up that status lightly.
They were slowly creeping toward Lady Juliet, and Luke surreptitiously glanced around the room. Where the devil was Haywood? He was supposed to have joined them before they reached the Ice Princess’ side.
“I’m here with my sister, Juliet. You remember her?”
Luke nodded. “Of course.” 
Georgie leaned in closely to him and whispered, as if they were conspirators. “Actually, Lucas, I’m hoping someone will strike her interest. Unlike Caroline or myself, Juliet has the luxury of actually picking her own husband.”
This was perfect. He could get Georgie to tell him everything. “Oh? And who is the gentleman that’s caught her attention?”
With an unladylike grimace, Georgie shook her head and sighed. “No one yet. She’s being very obstinate about the entire thing.”
Well, that was good to know. Now he just needed to learn what the Ice Princess was looking for in a husband and then help Will discover those traits in himself. “How so?” he asked casually.
But the time for confidences had abruptly come to an end. The Ice Princess herself had stopped before them and kissed Georgie’s cheek in greeting. “I was starting to worry about you.”
Georgie pulled an unpleasant face and motioned toward the main entranceway, which was adorned in white tulips, where their hostess still stood greeting her guests. “Louisa cornered me and was-” She stopped in mid-sentence, glanced briefly at Luke, and then she cleared her throat. “Jules, you do remember Mr. Beckford don’t you?”
* * *
Juliet swallowed. Hard. She could never forget Mr. Beckford, and it had taken some amount of courage to approach her sister in his presence.  After all, the last time she’d seen him, she’d made a complete ninny out of herself, though she’d only been ten years old at the time. But she could still remember the mortification she felt when he’d overheard her gushing to Georgie about how ‘beautiful’ he was. He’d chuckled and patted her head in a very patronizing manner, crushing her little heart in the process.
From time to time, Juliet had thought about him over the years, but their paths had never crossed again. Though they both lived in London, they traveled in vastly different circles. Occasionally, she would hear about one of his wicked exploits and wonder what had happened to the beautiful young man he’d been.
What she saw was that he’d grown into an exceedingly striking man. Honestly, no man had the right to be that devilishly handsome. He was slightly taller than she remembered and his golden-blond hair fell rakishly across his brow. But it was his eyes that she found most captivating—just looking into them she felt lost, vulnerable, and fluttery in places she’d sooner die than speak of. 
And now he was looking at her, focusing those heart-stopping, green eyes on her. Just like when she was ten, Juliet’s mouth went dry in his presence and she didn’t think she could speak. But Georgie was staring at her with wide eyes, and she felt certain she was making a cake of herself. So, she stiffly nodded her head and managed to choke out, “Of course.”
Luke Beckford took her gloved fingers in his hand and brought them to his lips. Shivers raced down Juliet’s spine, and her heart pounded so hard she couldn’t think straight or clearly hear what was going on about her. Truly, it was difficult to function as normal when a Greek God was paying her his complete attention.
But the magic between them came to an abrupt end, when without any warning at all, Lord Haywood joined their group, and grinned at her like the idiot he was. She’d been trying to shake his interest for the better part of the last month. “What a surprise to see you, Lady Juliet. And might I say you’re simply stunning this evening?”
He was such a toady! A surprise? He’d kept his eyes glued to her ever since she’d entered the room. Did the dolt think she was too featherbrained to have noticed? 
After favoring the young baron with a cool expression, Juliet looked back at Mr. Beckford and caught a speaking glance that was obviously meant for Haywood. 
Realization hit her hard. The two of them were friends. She should have known better. 
Lucas Beckford was not the sort to pay her any attention. She wasn’t a member of the demimonde, or someone else’s wife, or some beautiful widow. However, the reprobate probably would assist his friend Haywood in his untenable quest for her hand. How silly she’d been to think that the handsome devil could possibly find something of interest in her for himself. She felt like that awkward ten-year-old girl all over again.
Juliet found herself frowning at her own foolishness and silently swore not to fall victim to her sensibilities in the future, at least not where he was concerned. 
It suddenly became much easier to look at the handsome scoundrel. And since he’d decided to interfere in her life, there were a few things she’d like to say to him. To that end, she turned an icy glare on the penniless, toad-eating baron. “Lord Haywood, would you please fetch me a glass of ratafia?”
“I’d be delighted,” Haywood squeaked. Then he scooted off toward the refreshment table, beaming with pride. The fool.
Juliet then focused her attention on her sister. She would have to get rid of Georgie too. As much as her sister loved her, she just didn’t understand the situation Juliet was in. Georgie was an incurable optimist and didn’t clearly see the dangers that surrounded wealthy heiresses. Georgie honestly believed that all of Juliet’s suitors were besotted with her, but Juliet knew better. Her suitors were besotted all right, but with her fortune not her dull, mud-colored eyes. 
With a sweet smile, Juliet gestured back to the main entranceway with a delicate flick of her wrist. “Georgie, Lady Ridgemont was just trying to signal you from across the room.”
Georgie glanced across the sea of people until she spotted her old friend—who was indeed looking their direction—and rolled her eyes heavenward. “I just finished speaking with her. I can’t imagine what Louisa could possibly want now.” Then with a sigh of resignation, Georgie made her way through the crowd toward Lady Ridgemont.
When her sister was safely out of earshot, Juliet braved a glance at the striking devil at her side, only to find his green eyes dancing with merriment.
“And just what do you wish to speak with me about, Lady Juliet?”
He knew? Blast him! Her face warmed and she stiffened her back in response as she met his amused gaze. “Take a turn about the room with me, will you, Mr. Beckford?”
He stared deeply into her eyes, and Juliet felt as if he was trying to see straight into her soul. “Wouldn’t you prefer to dance?” he asked smoothly.
The first strings of a waltz began, and, fool that she was, Juliet would have preferred to dance with him. But that was not an option so she shook her head. “I never dance, sir.” Then she waived her hand airily toward her bevy of suitors and furrowed her brow. “Those dogs would hound me until I danced with every single one of them, and I have no intention of indulging even one of them in that regard.”
To her delight, the dashing scoundrel threw back his head and laughed. Then he offered her his arm with a roguish grin. “A turn about the room it is then, my lady.”
She slipped her hand into the crook of his arm, and her fingertips tingled from just this simple contact with him. When he smiled down at her, Juliet thought she might faint, which was completely unacceptable—especially for her. So she took a deep breath, steadied her shoulders, and blurted out, “You are tutoring Lord Haywood in how to court me.”
The rogue nearly stumbled, but to his credit, he quickly righted himself and glanced down at her in surprise. “That obvious, is it?”
Juliet frowned her answer. She had suspected it, knew it in her mind, but hearing it confirmed was still disheartening. The tiny bit of her that hoped he’d had some interest in her died. “I want you to end it. In fact, I’d like you to convince him to find some other heiress to hound altogether.” She began to tick off the names with her fingers. “There’s Marian Hampton or Alice Kelston. Oh, Susan Clarke—her father is anxious for her to marry into a title and he’s quite plump in the pockets.”
One dark golden eyebrow shot up mockingly. “Well, you’re certainly mercenary, aren’t you?”
Juliet let go a beleaguered sigh as they passed couples who were dancing the waltz nearby. “Better one of them than me. Besides, Mr. Beckford, I’ll never marry. So your friend is simply wasting his time—Time that could be spent in courting Lucy Turnbridge perhaps?” she asked hopefully.
Luke grimaced and shook his head. “Isn’t she the one with a mustache?”
True, poor Lucy wasn’t the prettiest of girls, but physical attributes didn’t appear to matter at all to the group of fortune hunting scavengers that were preying on London’s wealthy females. “Yes, and isn’t Haywood the one with debts to pay?” she asked tartly. “Miss Turnbridge’s father has made a fortune in shipping. I’m sure your friend’s estates could be set to rights in no time.”
Her handsome companion looked skeptical. Juliet had to catch her breath when he towed her a bit closer to him and whispered, “Come now, Haywood’s a good fellow. He—”
“Is a gambling, rakish ne’er-do-well—just like you. Only he lacks your easy charm.”
He laughed again and he squeezed her fingers with his free hand. “You have a saucy tongue, Lady Juliet.”
She shrugged in response. “I can afford it. Do you have any idea how much I’m worth?” Juliet figured that, as Haywood’s confidant, Luke would have a fairly accurate guess as to her value. But would he admit to such a thing?
“Hardly an appropriate topic of conversation,” he replied with a feigned reproach.
This time Juliet laughed. “Considering your usual conversations are reputed to be highly inappropriate, Mr. Beckford, I’m certain we’re in acceptable territory. But I’ll save you the trouble of actually answering my question, as we both know that I’m one of the wealthiest women in all of England. The only St. Claire to have more than two farthings to rub together.” 
There was no point in denying the truth, and thankfully he didn’t. Everyone else knew it anyway—the St. Claire coffers were completely empty, except for when Juliet replenished them. She was the only one who had any money to speak of, as her fortune had come from her mother’s family. 
The history of the St. Claires was a fairly unpleasant one. Much in the same way Henry VIII wanted a son, Juliet’s father, the late Duke of Prestwick, had been obsessed with having an heir of his own. And though the duke only had four wives as compared to the six of King Henry, the unfortunate Duchesses of Prestwick hadn’t fared any better. Though none of them were beheaded, not one of them had lived past childbirth. The duke had three daughters from three different wives before he finally had the male heir he sought. 
Juliet had witnessed two of these unhappy unions, and had no intention of going down that path herself. “I’ve seen many marriages, Mr. Beckford, from my father’s numerous wives, to Georgie’s unhappy turn as Marchioness of Teynham. I’m determined never follow in their footsteps. And, thankfully, I don’t have a need to. The fortune my grandfather left me will allow me to maintain my independence throughout my life and still repair the Prestwick estates for my brother. My freedom is too important to ever risk falling prey to the parson’s noose.”
* * *
Luke was pleasantly surprised to discover that the Ice Princess was simply enchanting—much more so than his usual companions. And he found himself smiling at her, completely amused. In fact, he was beginning to realize that he’d seriously misjudged Juliet from the onset. For one thing, he now didn’t think that she’d care at all if she lost Will’s interest. On the contrary she’d probably be elated. But most importantly, cold and frigid weren’t apt descriptions of the charming woman on his arm. Smoldering was a more accurate term, and he began to think of ways he could convince Will to give up the chase, and leave Juliet to him.
And that, in itself, should have been a most alarming thought. 
Innocent, young, virginal girls were too dangerous to dally with. He’d learned that lesson years ago, when he’d nearly been forced to marry a chit, who wasn’t even as innocent as she’d led on. Quite honestly, until now, he thought he’d lost the taste for such creatures, generally preferring much more experienced women of one sort or another.
He should bow and take his leave from her. He should walk away and forget that their paths had ever crossed. Yes, he really should do all those things. “Would you like to join me in the garden, Lady Juliet?” he asked instead.
She focused her intelligent brown eyes upon him and her delicate pink lips upturned to a knowing grin, as if she could read the devilish thoughts in his mind. “Just because I have no desire to marry doesn’t mean I wish to have my reputation ruined, Mr. Beckford.”
Luke couldn’t help but smirk at that. Lady Juliet truly did have a fiery spirit, and he was becoming more intoxicated by her every moment he spent in her company. He dipped his head down toward hers.
“Finally!” came a shrill voice from behind them. “I’ve been looking all over for you!” Luke knew that voice and nearly winced when he turned around to face the unwanted interloper—Louisa, Lady Ridgemont. Their hostess wore a dark red dress and a forced smile, though she frowned when her eyes fell upon Juliet. 
Damn! Things had been going so well. He’d been able to breeze past Louisa when he’d arrived, since she was clinging to her ancient husband’s arm. Somehow she’d gotten free, and Luke’s stomach churned.
“Lady Ridgemont,” he nodded curtly, and prayed in vain that his one-time paramour would leave him in peace to continue his talk with the much more intriguing Lady Juliet.
But that was not to be. 
Louisa edged closer to him, with what she must have thought was a seductive look in her crystal blue eyes. “My dear Mr. Beckford, it’s a bit stifling in here, don’t you agree? Can I persuade you to follow me outside for a breath of fresh air?”
Lady Juliet slid her hand from Luke’s arm and stepped away from him. He turned instinctively to meet her big brown eyes. She smiled knowingly up at him and took another step away. “Thank you for the walk, Mr. Beckford, it was most enjoyable.”
And then she was gone, disappearing into the crowd like an apparition. Luke scanned the room with his eyes, but his princess was nowhere to be found. Damn! He’d much rather have spent the evening matching wits with Juliet than dealing with Louisa.
Louisa—who was now tugging hard on his arm, and trying to steer him thorough the veranda doors to the crisp outside air. Luke wrenched his arm free from her grasp and hissed, “Sweet Lucifer, Louisa, do you want Ridgemont to see you behaving like this?”
She took a deep breath and puffed out her ample chest in his direction. “I don’t care what Ridgemont knows, darling. Please follow me outside.” Then she whispered, “It’s been far too long since I’ve enjoyed your company.”
And she’d still be waiting until the end of time, if Luke had anything to say about the matter. He took a step toward her, hoping to keep anyone else from overhearing them. “Louisa, you have guests to attend to. Pray do so.”
Then he turned on his heel and started back toward the crowd of people. He spotted Will immediately, now holding a glass of ratafia at the edge of the room and scanning the throng of guests like an expectant puppy. 
However, Will and his problems were the last things on Luke’s mind at the moment as he looked the room over himself. But still he couldn’t locate Lady Juliet. She was simply gone. 
Blast and damn!

Monday, December 12, 2016

A Scandalous Wife


April 1812 - London

Amazon  | B&N  |  iBooks
Kobo  |  Google Play
Robert Beckford, the Earl of Masten, glanced around his sister’s opulent ballroom and wondered, not for the first time that night, why he was there. These sorts of aimless functions were precisely why he spent most of his time in Dorset.
“Every year it gets worse and worse, Rob; and I get older and older, less able to
tolerate her all together,” Chester Peyton, the Marquess of Astwick, complained as he ran a hand through his dark hair. Everyone else at the Staveleys’ annual ball seemed to be enjoying themselves, but Chet, a hulking giant and normally cheerful man, was set squarely in the doldrums.
Robert smiled at the marquess dismissively. “Come now, she can’t be all that bad.
“It’s worse than I’m letting on,” Chet insisted firmly with a crinkled brow. “She’s pestering me nearly non-stop.” 
It was every mother’s duty to bully her son into a finding a proper wife. Chet had avoided it for too long at thirty-seven, and Robert chuckled at his friend’s continued reluctance to his obvious fate. Though the two had been friends since their boyhood days together at Eton, Robert had to agree with Lady Astwick on this matter. Her son was a bit long-in-the-tooth and quite overdue in selecting a bride. “Well, then finally settle on a chit and make your mother happy.” 
This conversation was tiresome. They’d had it on more than one occasion. Robert would much rather be discussing his stables, the latest races, or something else of interest. Besides, it wasn’t as if finding a wife would upset Chet’s daily routine. His life would continue as it always had, just like that of every other married man of their acquaintance.
Robert scanned the ballroom until his eyes settled on a pretty little thing near the entrance to the drawing room. He smiled when he saw her. Light from the chandeliers reflected off the soft hues of her strawberry blond hair piled high on her head. She wasn’t like the other girls in their light pastel gowns and demure looks. No, the pretty girl that caught Robert’s attention was bold in a rich sapphire-colored gown that was eye-catching in its contrast with her light hair and creamy complexion. She seemed much too daring for Robert’s own conservative tastes, but Chet…well, Chet could use a bold woman. “That girl, there. You look like you could be her father, but perhaps she prefers older men. Quite pretty.”
Chet followed Robert’s gaze and when he spotted the girl, his laugh boomed so loudly that couples stopped dancing and turned toward the disruptive sound. Robert was accustomed to Chet’s affable demeanor, so the guffaw had no effect on him except that he raised his eyebrows slightly in question.
After wiping a laugh-induced tear from his eye, Chet shook his head in dismay. “Honestly, Rob, that was nicely played. I appreciate your good humor.”
It was common knowledge among their set that Chet could be extremely picky when it came to women; this was why he was still single and unattached at thirty-seven. But Robert couldn’t detect anything outwardly offensive with the girl in the sapphire dress. On the contrary, she was breathtaking. He rubbed his chin in frustration. Shouldn’t Chet at least make the acquaintance of the girl, before he rejected her outright? “And what exactly is so funny? What could you possibly find wrong with that girl?”
Chet tried not to laugh again, and draped his arm around his friend’s shoulder. “Well, for one thing, she’s your wife.”
Robert’s eyes flew back to the pretty girl on the other side of the room. That could not possibly be Lydia Masten. His own wife was a mere child, much younger than that pretty girl. Though now that he thought about it, it had been five years since he’d laid eyes on her. Even then, their interaction had been brief—just long enough for him to say his vows and then explain to her afterward what the rest of her life would entail. “Not possible,” he was barely able to mutter.
“What’s not possible?” Chet’s good-natured grin had yet to leave his face. “That she’s your wife, or that you didn’t recognize her?”
“Is it really?” Robert couldn’t help but stare at her. Had Lydia grown up to become that beautiful woman?
“Perhaps she prefers older men,” Chet teased him, apparently feeling more like his usual, gregarious self. “Why don’t you go over there and find out?” 
But Robert knew exactly what kind of men Lydia Masten preferred: roguish ne’er-do-wells like his younger brother. That’s how he got into this mess in the first place. Was that stunning creature really his Lydia? 
He tried to remember the timid girl of sixteen that he’d married in an attempt to protect his family’s name. She had seemed shy and quiet as they exchanged their vows, not like the wanton harlot she obviously was to be in bed with his brother at the late Lord Staveley’s country party.
At the time, Miss Lydia Warner had been in the charge of her aunt, the Dowager Lady Carteret. It was very likely that Robert would have never even known she existed at all, if Staveley hadn’t stumbled upon the chit in Lucas Beckford’s room, not a stitch on her, and in his brother’s embrace. 
Everything else had happened very fast. Luke, ever the cad, had bolted, leaving the ruined Miss Warner alone for her aunt to console. Something had to be done, and as usual that meant it was left up to Robert to find a solution.
Word of this sort of thing would spread quickly, of that there had been no doubt. And Robert had been fortunate that Lord Staveley was his sister’s father-in-law, as that bought him a little extra time, but still he needed to act fast. He didn’t necessarily care for the girl’s reputation—she’d made her own decision as far as he was concerned—but the Beckford family’s good name lay heavily on his mind. So, he did the only thing he could. He acquired a special license and married her himself. Then he hadn’t laid eyes on her again.  
Until now.
Yes, he seemed to remember that her hair was that light red color. But he didn’t remember those eyes—piercingly blue. The bold color of her dress certainly brought them out. The girl he was looking at was simply stunning. There wasn’t another word for her. But what was she doing here at his sister’s ball? She was supposed to be in Cheshire, for God’s sake!
It was as if Chet could read his mind. He slapped Robert’s back. “She’s spending the season with her cousin, Carteret.” Then Chet smiled wistfully. “Now, Lady Carteret…she’s one I could have married.”
Robert momentarily took his eyes from his wife and smiled at his friend. “That was a long time ago, Chet. Time to get over her. Everyone else has.”
Chet dismissed the notion with his hand. “Oh, I never had her—none of us did. Carteret was the only one for her, damn his eyes.”
It was Robert’s turn to laugh. “He really isn’t all that bad, Chet. I’ve never understood why the two of you dislike each other so intensely.”
Chet frowned, as he did whenever Carteret’s name was mentioned. “I have my reasons. Besides, he has rotten luck with cards. He hasn’t ever come out and said it, Robert, but I know he thinks I cheat. Is it my fault I’m lucky?”
Robert had been on the losing end of card games with Chet for years and could commiserate with Lord Carteret in that regard. “Well, I suppose he was the lucky one where Lady Carteret is concerned.”
“That’s the damned truth of it,” Chet agreed and then glanced back at Lydia. “So, then, about Lady Masten…Go on over. Introduce yourself to your wife, Rob. You just said she was quite pretty. Why don’t you see if she remembers you?”
Robert shook his head with determination. “I think I’d prefer to keep our relationship the way it is, Chet, thank you.”
“Suit yourself.” Chet’s light green eyes twinkled and he made his way over to the refreshment table. 
With that said, Robert continued to eye his wife from across the room. Had she been this enchanting at sixteen?  Could he actually blame Luke for wanting to hold that girl? For bedding her? But that girl was no longer a girl—she was now a beautiful woman, from what he could see. He took note of her plunging neckline and her full lips.  Then he shook his head, to snap out of the spell his wife was obviously weaving around him.
Of all the women in England, Lydia Masten was not for him. He was safer finding another woman like Cecily Rigsley. A woman with whom he could have an understanding, a woman who could satisfy his needs without being emotionally involved, a woman who knew her place. 
That woman was not his wife.
He’d sent Lydia off to Blackstone Manor in Cheshire immediately after their wedding ceremony and had insisted that she stay put. Though at the time she was outraged with his demands, he felt he’d been very generous in offering her the estate and the two thousand pounds a year that he allotted her. Better than she deserved, of that he was sure. And that’s where she was supposed to be right this moment. Not here. Not in London. Not in his sister’s ballroom.
Robert looked around the room. He wasn’t the only man whose attention she’d caught. In fact, many men seemed enamored by her. His heartbeat quickened. Lydia needed to return to Blackstone before she was embroiled in a scandal he couldn’t contain.
The same questions rolled over and over in his mind. What was his wife doing here of all places? Why had she left Cheshire? And why was he not informed of her departure? The staff at Blackstone would have to answer to him. They’d be damned lucky to maintain their posts.
* * *
Lydia Masten had seen him, of course. Her husband’s rich, brown eyes could’ve burned a hole in her. She recognized him immediately. In fact, she could never forget him, try as she might. Unfortunately, the man was much more handsome than she remembered, though still just as intimidating. Apparently even his hair didn’t dare defy him, as every golden brown strand lay perfectly in place. He did look older to her. But then, he’d always seemed old—old and unyielding. She was just sixteen when they’d married and he’d been twice her age at thirty-two. He had a stern look in his eyes then, and she noted, with a bit of anxiety, that he still had it now.
She averted her gaze back to her companion, the tall, dark, and sinfully handsome Duke of Kelfield. “I can’t believe Caroline invited him.”
Kelfield laughed at that. “My darling Lydia, he is her brother.”
“But to not tell me. I wouldn’t have come.”
“Knowing Caroline, that’s precisely why she didn’t tell you. She likes to meddle, if you haven’t noticed.”
“Is he still staring at me?” Truly, that was a bit surprising. Her husband hadn’t deigned to even pay her a visit in the last five years. And now he couldn’t keep his eyes off her? It was a bit unsettling, to say the least.
Kelfield’s wicked lips quirked up to a grin. “Sweetheart, every man in the room is staring at you.”
It had been that way ever since she’d arrived in London nearly a month earlier, but it was still surprising. Being locked away in Cheshire for the last five years had left her unprepared for the overt attention she’d received upon her arrival. She was so young when she’d been banished that she hadn’t realized the depths of the depravity of the ton. Everywhere she went, men sought her out and made improper suggestions. 
“Still, what a tragedy to be tied to that prig the rest of your days,” Kelfield continued quietly.
That sentiment echoed inside her soul. 
She’d never even laid eyes on him until they were united in Lord Staveley’s study. Aunt Agnes had informed her that she would marry Lord Masten, and that she was lucky his lordship was honorable, given that his brother was not. 
Honorable. Robert Beckford may be honorable—he had saved her from ruination, after all—but the contempt he clearly felt for her was worse than any censure she could imagine. 
“The man has behaved abominably, if you ask me. Had I found myself married to you, sweetheart, I certainly wouldn’t sulk over it—and I’m the furthest thing from the marrying type.”
Lydia smiled at the duke. “Indeed? Kelfield, I was certain your name was being bandied about in connection with a very proper young lady within the last fortnight.”
His silver eyes twinkled. “Ah, Lady Juliet St. Claire? Unfortunately, the lady in question has set her sights on your brother-in-law.”
Her brother-in-law? Lydia resisted the urge to cringe. When she was sixteen she’d found him to be terribly handsome and exciting. Now it made her ill to think about him. He had been charming and made her feel special and she…well, she had been very foolish. Any young lady would have wanted the attention of the dashing Luke Beckford. She was no different. Just more naïve. 
“Has no one warned the poor girl what a reprobate he is?”
“Some women have a taste for reprobates.” Kelfield slid his arm around her waist and peered deeply into her eyes. He was very handsome in a wicked sort of way, but she’d had her share of that sort of man. Besides, she was a married woman. One that hadn’t been touched in years, yet married all the same.
“Let me take you home, sweetheart,” the duke whispered.
Home was the furthest thing on Kelfield’s mind, and she was well aware of the fact. The man practically undressed her with his eyes whenever they met. Still he was a friend of the family, and far safer to her than the other gentlemen of London for that very reason. “Honestly, Kelfield, isn’t there some sort of honor among rogues?”
He grinned down at her, still not releasing his hold. “Sweetheart, Masten is the furthest thing from a rogue. So, there’s no honor between us.”
She raised her brow indignantly. “I meant James.” 
The duke laughed again. “Your cousin stopped being a rogue years ago. I’m the only one left of the group. The rest—” he made a sour face—  “have all become respectable.”
“Is he still staring at me?” she asked again.
Kelfield nodded as he looked over her shoulder. “And turning a perfectly putrid shade of red.”
“I suppose I should at least say a word to him. Don’t you think?”
The duke dropped his hand from her waist and frowned. “Would you like me to talk to him for you?”
Hardly. Who knew what Kelfield would say? “I don’t think that would be appropriate at all.” And when dealing with Masten, one needed to be appropriate.
“Very well.” He released her with a sigh. “But don’t let him bully you, sweetheart. You don’t have to put up with his high-handed treatment. You are a countess. Bear that in mind.”
Lydia nodded and made a straight line for her husband. Once at his side, she offered her hand. “My lord, I hope this evening finds you well.”
The earl took her gloved hand in his and brought it to his lips. “My lady, whatever are you doing in London?”
There was that condescending tone she remembered. It was the same one he used when he’d explained to her what the rest of her life would consist of, right before he’d shipped her off to Blackstone. But Lydia was no longer that shy sixteen year old girl, and her husband’s demeanor was most annoying. 
She proudly thrust her chin up and bravely met his eyes. “Removing myself out from under your thumb, Masten.”
His eyes narrowed and he stepped closer to her. “I want you to go back to Blackstone, wife.”
She had meant to make peace with him, but she could feel his hatred in her bones.  There was nothing she could ever do to change that; it was plain as the nose on her face. Over the last five years she had led an exemplary life, sincerely meaning to make amends for her indiscretion, but it would never mean anything to this man. Lydia washed her hands of him.
She smiled prettily and gazed up into his brown eyes, certain that anyone witnessing the scene from afar would think she was enamored with the earl. “I’m sure you do, my lord, but my days of caring what you want are over.”
It was obvious he didn’t like that and his scowl darkened. “Like it or not,” he muttered between clinched teeth, “you are my wife and you will go back to Blackstone.”
She laughed sweetly, as if he’d made an amusing joke. “I would like very much to watch you try and force me back there, Masten. I’m not staying under your protection in London. You have no control over me. Not anymore. Do have a wonderful evening.”
* * *
Lydia sauntered past him and was stopped by a handsome young gentleman. She threw her head back and laughed at whatever inane thing her companion had said. Robert was certain it was inane. He had a look about him—too young to say anything intelligent.
He then seethed as she flirted with the young buck. “Lady Masten,” he said softly to himself, “you will do exactly what I say, or life will be very unpleasant for you.”
Chet returned to Robert’s side, once again grinning from ear to ear. “Well, it looks like she prefers older men, after all. I watched the two of you from across the room. Why’d you let her get away without dancing with you?”
Dancing with her was the very last thing on Robert’s mind, though wringing her pretty little neck was at the top of his list. He pursed his lips in anger as he watched her flit about on the floor, now dancing with the scandalous Duke of Kelfield. 
Robert scowled. He had sacrificed so much in marrying her. He’d given up his hope of ever finding a suitable wife. He’d pushed all that aside, and he’d be damned if it was all for naught. “Lord Carteret, you say?”
Chet nodded and replied tightly, “Yes, she’s staying with that Scottish bastard.”
Robert scanned the room until his eyes fell on his sister. She stood in the open doorway conversing with her guests. “I’ll see him tomorrow. In the meantime, Lady Staveley owes me an explanation.”
Robert bowed slightly to Chet and started across the room, catching Kelfield’s smug expression as he spun Lydia on the dance floor. The image irritated Robert to no end. So, he impatiently waited for his sister to stop her idle chit-chat with some middle-aged spinster near the entranceway, tapping his foot in annoyance. 
When Caroline, Viscountess Staveley, finally noticed her brother’s storm-cloud expression, she immediately cut her conversation short and went to his side. “Robert, you look troubled.”
“Where can we talk in private, Caro?”
A slight grin cross his sister’s face, and Robert had a sneaking suspicion that she knew exactly what he wanted to talk about. “You can follow me to the music room, but I can’t be away from my guests for too long. It wouldn’t look good, Robert.”
Wouldn’t look good, indeed! He frowned irritably. He followed her down a corridor, passing many happy guests all dressed elegantly for the evening, but Robert paid no attention to anything until they reached the music room. When his sister shut the door behind them, he glowered at her. “Would you care to explain to me what my wife is doing here?”
The corners of her mouth upturned to a knowing grin. “Well, my dear brother, she is here because I invited her. I certainly couldn’t have people going around saying ‘Lady Staveley snubbed her own sister-in-law’. It wouldn’t look good.”
There it was again. It wouldn’t look good. He knew very well that she was mocking him. He had raised her and schooled her as to what was or was not appropriate. Luke hadn’t paid any attention to those lessons, but his sister had been an apt pupil. “You can save that bit of sarcasm for your husband, Caroline.”
She smiled warmly at him this time. “Rob, she’s staying with Lord and Lady Carteret. James is one of David’s oldest friends. I couldn’t very well not invite her. It would have been rude.”
This didn’t appease him. “I didn’t see Carteret out there.” 
“Well, they didn’t come. One of their daughters wasn’t feeling well, so Lydia came alone.”
“So, now it’s Lydia, is it?” 
The irritation was evident in his voice and his sister calmly sighed. “Really, Robert, you don’t even know her—”
“But you do?” He countered sharply.
“Well, I’ve spent a great deal of time with her over the last month.”
“The last month!” Robert roared, momentarily forgetting there were people in the hallway. Then he lowered his voice and hissed, “She’s been in Town that long and no one thought to tell me?”
Caroline stepped backward in obvious surprise. Robert rarely raised his voice with her. Apparently, she hadn’t realized how angry he would truly be. “You were in Dorset,” she finally offered meekly.
Did she honestly think he would accept that absurd answer? His glower darkened. “The mail coach runs to Dorset.”
Caroline smiled sheepishly and agreed, “So, it does.”
Robert paced around the room. His sister had to know what kind of position this put him in. What a fool he’d looked like out there. “Do you think you could’ve warned me before tonight?”
Caroline paused before carefully answering him.  “Then you wouldn’t have come. And I so wanted you to meet her. She’s such a lovely girl, Robert.”
She was lovely to look at, Robert conceded. But her presence here was unacceptable. Didn’t Caroline realize this was out of line? “Yes, well, I’ve met her, and we’ve exchanged words.” 
Caroline frowned in disapproval, as if there was any doubt in her mind that Robert had been the instigator. “You said something cruel, I’m sure. Heavens, Robert, must you be so boorish?”
He had done the honorable thing all those years ago by giving his name to girl who didn’t deserve it—gave her a title no less. And his sister accused him of being boorish? 
Then she smiled playfully at him, as if there was some grand master plan of hers that he was a part of. “Your eyes lit up when you saw her out there.” 
Had they really? He hadn’t realized it had been so obvious. “Were you watching for my reaction to all of this?” 
She nodded mischievously and her brown curls bobbed up and down. “It was most fun. I was hoping you’d like her.”
Robert ran his hands through his hair and glared at his sister. “Fun? If Luke is on his way here, you’d better warn me now. I’d hate to find them starting up where they left off.”
This time Caroline scoffed and looked offended. “In the first place, I don’t know where our brother is. And secondly, he knows he’s not welcome here. I’m quite put out with him at the moment, actually. Now, honestly, I’ve been away from my guests for too long, Robert. Please, don’t look so sour. Escort me back and try not to be such a beast to your wife.”
How had he gotten the reputation with his sister that he was a beast? He had always been the picture of propriety. He frowned at her words.
Bitterly, Robert abided Caroline’s request and led her back to the ballroom. Almost immediately his eyes landed on his wife, now dancing with the current Lord Staveley. “Apparently, your husband is fond of her as well.”
Caroline smiled and smoothed Robert’s jacket with the palm of her hand. “David is a very generous host. If I didn’t know better, Robert, I’d think you were jealous.”
Robert scowled at the idea, and focused again on Lydia. She had more sets of male eyes on her than he was comfortable with. It was just a matter of time before she was caught up in another scandal. She needed to be dealt with, and the sooner, the better.
As the song ended, Lord Staveley led Lydia to where Robert and Caroline stood near the grand entranceway.  The two women warmly embraced and Caroline smiled at her sister-in-law. “Lydia, you are truly radiant this evening.”
“Thank you, Caroline,” Lydia replied graciously. “This has been a wonderful night. Will I see you tomorrow for tea?”
It sounded as if she was taking her leave, and Robert couldn’t have been more relieved. Then his sister took Lydia’s arm. “Oh, darling, you can’t leave so soon. A waltz is just starting.” Sure enough, a violinist could be heard warming up his instrument even over the sea of people. Caroline continued in a soothing voice, “Robert, make me happy. Dance with your wife.”

Caroline had gone and lost her bloody mind! Robert could have killed her right on the spot—but later. There were too many witnesses at the moment. And too many people had overheard her request for him to ignore it. He couldn’t refuse to dance with his own wife, as that was sure to get tongues wagging all over Town. So he grudgingly offered his arm to Lydia. “My lady.”