April 1812 - London
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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 totolerate 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.
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.”