July 1814 –Avery House, London
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Cordelia Avery was certain she hadn’t heard her mother correctly. It wasn’t even possible that her mother had changed her opinion about attending the Staveley ball. “I beg your pardon?”
Lady Avery dropped her napkin to the breakfast table and narrowed her light green eyes on her youngest daughter. “I said the only reason we’re even attending Lady Staveley’s ball is because Sally Jersey expressly asked us to be present.”
Cordie nearly dropped her fork onto the table, but that would only earn her another lecture on comportment, so she grasped the utensil tighter. Ever since her dearest friend Olivia, the newlywed Duchess of Kelfield, had hastily married a rather scandalous duke, Lady Avery’s entire demeanor had changed. Not only was Cordie not allowed to see Livvie, she might as well have been shackled to her mother for all the freedom and spare time she enjoyed.
Cordie nodded, but didn’t say anything. Her mother had agreed to the ball. If she opened her mouth, Lady Avery might very well change her mind, and she couldn’t risk that. Livvie was certain to be at the Staveleys’, as they were relations, and it would be the first time since her wedding that Cordie would have the opportunity to see her dear friend.
“I do want you to promise me not to associate with either Olivia or Kelfield.”
“Of course, Mother. You’ve been very clear on the subject,” Cordie lied, her fingers crossed beneath the table. She didn’t really think the crossed fingers made the sin any less, but it was the best she could do at the moment. After all, she couldn’t tell her mother that she had every intention of speaking with both Livvie and Kelfield, if the latter happened to be present.
Since they were children, she and Livvie had been inseparable, growing up in a village that bordered Sherwood Forest. Until Livvie’s recent marriage, they’d seen each other every day of their lives. The forced separation twisted Cordie’s heart and left her feeling strangely alone.
“Thankfully no one outside the family knows you jilted the man, but between that unfortunate situation and Olivia’s scandalous actions your reputation is dangling by a thread. And now since you’ve rejected Captain Seaton’s offer, you’ll have to be on your absolute best behavior if you want to catch a proper husband.”
Cordie resisted the urge to roll her eyes. She hadn’t jilted Gabriel Seaton, not technically. After all, they weren’t officially betrothed. He’d never gotten the opportunity to speak with her brother, Gregory, on the matter. It was a narrow escape in Cordie’s mind, and she was grateful that she learned just what sort of a dictatorial prig the captain was before their betrothal could be finalized. Not that she should have been surprised. He was a captain, accustomed to giving orders and being obeyed. But that sort of life wasn’t for Cordie. She was looking for a little more freedom.
She feigned an accommodating smile for her mother and placed her fork on her plate. “Catching a proper husband is, of course, my goal.” And truly it was, though Cordie had a feeling that her idea of a proper husband and her mother’s were quite different.
Lady Avery frowned, and Cordie wondered if her mother could read her thoughts. “One wouldn’t know it. Your sister was already married with one babe by the time she was your age.”
Cordie suppressed the urge to scowl. Her mother made it sound as if she were on her deathbed. At twenty, it was true she was far from the youngest debutant in Town, but neither was she the oldest. And she’d had plenty of offers the three previous seasons, but until the captain, no one had turned her head—and what a colossal mistake that would have been.
“You’ll be fortunate if any decent man will look past your association with Olivia.”
She wouldn’t tolerate a husband who wouldn’t. Neither would she tolerate a husband who wouldn’t allow her to continue her friendship with Olivia. This breakfast discussion made one thing perfectly clear. She needed to find a husband—quickly—but one she could live with the rest of her days, her mother be hanged. A husband who would give her the freedom she craved. A husband who would let her make her own decisions. A husband who would love her like Kelfield obviously loved Olivia.
But where was she to find a paragon like that?
* * *
Almost to his Mayfair home, Brendan Reese, the Earl of Clayworth, stifled a yawn. The last bloody place he wanted to be was London, and yet he’d raced here from his Derbyshire estate after receiving a summons from Caroline Staveley. Apparently Caroline’s young cousin Olivia had gotten herself into a bit of trouble with the Duke of Kelfield and had been forced to marry the notorious scoundrel. The new duchess was being accepted less warmly than a leper in the midst of the ton. So Caroline, a meddlesome but lovely woman to be sure, was determined to change the tide of opinion in her cousin’s favor and was hosting a ball in honor of the duke and his new duchess.
This was the sort of thing Brendan normally could care less about. He had enough of his own problems, and had anyone else summoned him with the words, “Your stodgy presence is required to lend Livvie an air of respectability,” he would have told the author to go jump in the Thames. But he could rarely refuse Caroline. Not only was she the sister of one of his closest friends, but she was also one of the few people who had been kind to his late sister, Flora. That generosity could never be repaid.
Still, now was not the best time for him to leave Derbyshire. His youngest sister, Rosamund, was becoming more and more difficult to manage and his nephew, Thomas, was in desperate need of some male guidance. And he still hadn’t found those damning letters that could get them all sent to Newgate. Perhaps he could search again in London, as if he hadn’t already done that more than a dozen times already.
Of course, he’d already looked every place he could think of, more times than he could count. Brendan had methodically searched his ancestral home, Bayhurst Court in Derbyshire, from top to bottom, gone over every inch of Clayworth Hall in Kent, he’d gone through every nook and cranny of his hunting lodge in Yorkshire, and he’d gone over his Hertford Street home with a fine-toothed comb more than once. But the letters detailing his mother’s crimes against the crown were nowhere to be found, and the only clue he had was the memory of his late wife’s cryptic taunt. “The Lion holds your secrets.” He didn’t know what the devil that meant.
The coach pulled to a stop in front of his Mayfair home. Brendan exited the carriage then climbed the front steps to be greeted by his butler, Higgins.
“Lord Clayworth, Lord Masten awaits you in the blue parlor.”
How odd. Brendan raised his brow in question at his butler. He hadn’t realized Masten was in Town. Even so, it was unusual for his friend to await him here, especially as he hadn’t yet arrived.
He strode down the hallway until he reached the blue parlor, a tacky room that his late wife had decorated—a room he should scrap and start all over, if for no other reason than he hated to be reminded that Marina had ever entered his life.
Brendan found Robert Beckford, the Earl of Masten, staring out one of the room’s grand windows. His friend’s hands were clasped behind his back and he was grumbling to himself.
His friend spun on his heel and offered a curt smile. “I see she’s roped you into this nonsense as well.”
Robert could only mean his sister, Caroline. Brendan shrugged. “When Lady Staveley beckons, we all fall in line.”
“Like the pack of fools we are,” Robert agreed. “What Aunt Jane thought she was doing, leaving Olivia with Staveley and my sister, I have no idea.”
“If it’s any consolation, Rob, when I saw them in Derbyshire, Kelfield seemed like a man besotted. I wouldn’t have believed it myself if I hadn’t seen it with my own eyes.”
“Bloody wonderful. My sweet, young cousin has married one of the most depraved men in all of England.”
To say the very least. Brendan could commiserate. If it had been one of his sisters or cousins who ended up with Kelfield, he’d be as irate as Robert. “It could be worse,” he offered, shrugging again.
“Oh?” His friend’s brown eyes flashed with indignation.
“It could have been Haversham.”
* * *
Marcus Gray, the Marquess of Haversham, left Madam Palmer’s establishment sated, but not completely satisfied. Though professional whores were fairly proficient at their trade, they often left something to be desired. What he needed was a mistress, though that was a touchy subject at the moment. Right before his wedding, Kelfield had cut his pretty actress loose, and Marc had hoped to snatch up the sweet little number in his stead. Unfortunately, Sarah Kane had already found a new protector, so Marc was still in the market.
As it was too early for most of his usual entertainments, Marc headed over to White’s, which was, admittedly, a little tame for him. But ever since Kelfield had married, his old friend was playing at being respectable. It was truly a sight to cherish—and place bets on how long it would last.
After entering the hallowed halls of the club, it didn’t take Marc long to find his old friend Alexander Everett, the Duke of Kelfield, in the library, sitting in an over-stuffed leather chair, perusing The Times.
Marc quietly shook his head. Though he had witnessed the wedding himself, it was still hard to believe the old devil had actually married the chit. No land, no fortune was gained—just the girl. It didn’t make one bit of sense. Not for a man like Kelfield anyway.
“I have seen neither hide nor hair of you since Macbeth,” Marc drawled as he looked down on his friend.
“What does that tell you, Marc?” Kelfield didn’t bother to look up from his paper, which brought a wry grin to the marquess’ face. It must be terribly tedious, pretending to be so respectable.
“Well, you can’t be avoiding me. So I can only assume you’re keeping that pretty little wife of yours tied up at Kelfield House. Has she asked about me?” Marc dropped onto a settee across from the duke and smirked.
Kelfield scowled over the edge of his paper. “Only to berate me for my poor choice of friends.”
“Browbeaten already, are you?” Marc cheerfully baited him.
The duke folded his paper in half and narrowed his eyes, clearly allowing Marc to see the true Kelfield, hiding just beneath the surface. “I’m certain you know me better than that, Haversham. Now what do you want?”
“To curse you for leaving Miss Kane so well positioned.”
“Turned you down flat, did she?”
“Bastard,” Marc answered with a nod. “She’s attached herself to Haywood. Can you believe that?” It was certainly hard for him to swallow. The penniless baron wasn’t in the same league as Marc. It shouldn’t have been a contest, and wouldn’t have been if Kelfield hadn’t left the girl a small fortune as a parting gift.
The duke shrugged. “I told you, Sarah is free to make her own choices.”
“I still can’t account for you just giving her up. Doesn’t seem like you at all.”
“Well, times change.”
“Ah, Kelfield, there you are,” came the deep voice of Commander Simon Greywood from behind them. “Ready for tonight?”
That sounded promising. “What’s tonight?” Marc asked, rising from his seat to shake Greywood’s hand.
“Nothing,” Kelfield answered, though he was drowned out by the commander’s reply.
“Caroline Staveley’s ball, of course.”
Marc fell back on the settee with a laugh, beaming at the duke. “You? A ball?”
“It’s for Olivia,” Kelfield growled.
Marc’s laughter echoed off the walls of the club. “God, Kelfield! You’ve turned soft. Married a fortnight, and she’s already wrapped you around her little finger.” Which was something Marc had never allowed to happen to himself. Not even his late wife ever attempted to dictate his entertainments.
It would be vastly amusing to watch the new duchess lead Kelfield around by his prick. Though Marc hadn’t received an invitation to Caroline Staveley’s ball—most likely an oversight on her part—he wouldn’t miss it for the world.