London, England, 1826
Laughter pealed out through the darkened streets and alleys. It mingled with the low hum of conversation spilling out of the doors of the gaming houses and gentleman's clubs on Pall Mall, the Street of Palaces. Moonlight glittered upon three cloaked and hooded figures who slunk their way around the wrought iron fence surrounding St. James's Square, their cloaks flapping like bat's wings in the warm summer breeze. The two larger figures stumbled against each other, and the smallest one laughed again, the sound high, tinkling, at odds with its sinister appearance.
One of the larger figures drew the others against the fence and huddled with them. "Shh, Georgiana, before someone recognizes us. Neddy, you must shut up. You're making Georgie laugh."
Lady Darleigh opened her eyes wide and gave the cloaked man a pleading look, one that had never failed to bring him around. "I can't help myself, Rees. You look too ridiculous."
Rees Viscount Hammond scowled, no doubt trying to frighten her into quietness, but his mask blunted the effect and only made him appear silly. He was a highwayman this evening, complete with a black hat and brace of pistols -- unloaded, of course. She fought off another bout of laughter.
"You had better help yourself, Georgie," he hissed. "If Brock discovers what we're up to, he'll forbid Neddy and I to see you again. And I, for one, have grown quite used to your company."
Despite the midsummer evening's warmth, Georgiana slung her arms around her two companions' shoulders and pulled them close against her. She'd almost forgotten about Brock, her dear husband. Damn Rees for reminding her. "All right, I'll behave."
A muffled snort emerged from Neddy. "For how long?"
"For as long as I need to," she informed him, then squelched more giggles.
Rees put a finger against her lips. "Georgiana..."
She released them both and pushed Rees's hand away. "I promise, no more laughter."
"Let's move on, can we?" Neddy asked. "I'm boiling in this cloak." He pulled at the strings near his throat, revealing a Harlequin costume beneath, white covered with black diamonds and glittering gold thread. In his free hand he held a hat in the style of Napoléon's, long and arched on top and decorated with gold braiding.
Unlike Neddy, Georgiana had little trouble with the heat this eve. Her costume, that of an Italian peasant woman, left her quite cool, no doubt due to the low-cut bodice and the way she'd dampened her single cambric petticoat. The dress clung lovingly to her every curve and made her feel quite daring, if not a little reckless. The stuffier patronesses of the ton, such as Lady Cowper, would no doubt faint dead away at the sight of her dressed thus, but Lady Cowper wouldn't dare set foot in Watier's Club, not on this night.
Her smile faltered. How forgiving would society prove of tonight's escapade? Did she even care if society forgave her? She wrapped her fingers around the egg-shaped pendant that dangled from her neck by a chain. Just touching its cool glass surface gave her confidence.
No, she didn't care.
His gaze settling on the pendant, Neddy shuddered. "That's an ugly piece, Georgie. Looks like a drop of blood. Don't think I've ever seen you wear it before."
r"I found it in the bottom of my trunk, while rummaging through some old clothes. Thought it matched my costume rather well."
"It does at that. Make sure it finds its way back to the bottom of your trunk tomorrow."
Self-consciously Georgiana tucked the pendant into her bodice, until only its chain showed. While just a young girl, she'd found it in a Welsh meadow, near the base of an oak tree. At the time, the pendant's strange appearance had captured her fancy and, afraid she'd have to surrender it to its proper owner, she'd kept quiet about her find. Through the years, she'd forgotten the pendant existed...until earlier this evening, of course.
She released the scarlet egg and smiled at Neddy. "You're uncommonly chivalrous tonight."
"I'm cranky because I'm hot."
"Take the deuced cloak off, then," Rees demanded.
"I can't." Neddy glanced meaningfully at the cloak's hem. "Georgie's stepping on it. If I remove it I'll sweep her off her feet."
"Not likely," she soberly informed him, and they both laughed, the sound cutting through the night like a whistle on a teapot.
Rees waved his arms. "Devil take it, you'll both be quiet or I'll chase you home."
"Ah, so we're horses, are we, to be herded into stables?" she asked, one eyebrow raised in mock censure.
Neddy took her cue. "Are you jockey or groomsman?"
A reluctant smile curved Rees's lips. Soon he was chuckling, too. "You two will be the death of me. If I wasn't so afraid for Georgie, I'd leave you here to fend for yourselves."
"You know how much we adore your company, Rees. If I had a brother, he would be just like you," she soothed.
She'd needed weeks to convince Rees to come with her and Neddy to the masquerade. Neddy had gleefully supported the idea when she'd first mentioned it. He knew how to enjoy himself. Rees, on the other hand, was too damned serious. He'd talked endlessly about the potential damage to their characters. No doubt Brock had chosen Rees to squire her around for exactly that reason. He'd hoped Rees would keep her out of trouble.
She linked her arms through Rees's and Neddy's. Their cloaks swirled around them as they hurried through St. James's Square, then turned onto Pall Mall, keeping to the shadows. As they walked, Georgiana looked up at the sky and saw the stars twinkling above her. They were a beautiful white, but cold and very far away, taunting her with the promise of the night. She turned away from them, unable to rid herself of a feeling that their outing this eve, while it seemed quite promising in terms of fun and adventure, would leave her equally unfulfilled.
As they passed a church fitted with alcoves and colored glass windows, a barn owl swooped above them and roosted in one of the alcoves. Strident cries, presumably from the prey gripped in its talons, accompanied its long, mournful hoots. The two men glanced at it and hurried on, not even slightly interested. London embraced all sorts of predators; the owl was simply one of the more honest, well-mannered ones.
Georgiana shivered, however. Her sense of impending change -- perhaps not all for the good -- grew sharper. Unwillingly she remembered the lessons that her Aunt Gwynllian had insisted she learn while growing up in Wales. According to her aunt, if an owl flew over one's head with prey in its grip, someone close would die soon.
She forced the superstitious thought away. Her aunt was full of such warnings and had drummed them into Georgiana at a young age. While other girls had learned to manage household accounts and embroider pretty flowers along the hems of their gowns, Georgiana had discovered the meaning behind a crow's caw and a salmon's insistence on swimming upstream.
Sometimes she wondered what her childhood would have been like if her true parents, Sir John Wesley and Lady Margaret, had survived the carriage accident that had nearly claimed her life, too. Then again, she ought to thank Sir Stanton and his sister Gwynllian for their charity and the love they'd shown her through the years. She could have ended up in an orphanage. Instead, Sir Stanton and Gwynllian had taken her in when she was just a baby, and she'd grown to love them as much as she might a mother and father.
Neddy tugged on her arm. "Come on, Georgie. Stop looking at the church. You're too far gone to repent now. Watier's Club awaits us."
Rees paused to look back at them. "You're trembling. Is something wrong?"
Georgiana took Neddy's arm.
A frown crossed Rees's face. "Georgie?"
"I'm fine." She forced a smile. "Let's go."
Staying close behind her companions, she slipped down St. James's street and completed the walk to Watier's Club.
The date was July first, at the height of the season in London. The king had asked his royal chef, Jean-Baptiste Watier, to host a midnight masquerade for the nobility of England and their mistresses. Over a thousand guests were expected to attend. Since Watier had selected the dinner menu and the French chef Labourie had prepared the food, his guests would sup like royalty, enjoying various European delicacies the two gourmands had ordered from the Continent.
Still, Georgiana hadn't come for the dinner. Rather, the thought of mingling in these places where no husband ever took a wife sharpened her sense of fun. Since she'd married Brock, she'd made a study of insouciance and a habit of following an impulse to see where it led her. These qualities in another woman might have evoked the wrath of society's grande dames. But Brock's fortune and his position in society protected her, while her deliberate indifference and fair looks had inspired a crop of imitators. Despite her behavior, or perhaps because of it, she was accepted in every salon in London.
"Here we are," Neddy said unnecessarily.
Georgiana and her two companions drew to a halt. She took in the building with a wide, considering gaze.
Situated between two townhouses, Watier's Club stretched upward at least three stories high. Its windows were long, mullioned, and curtained with heavy drapes that blocked the view from the inside. No drapes, however, could mute the noise that echoed within its walls: laughter, merry shouts, and the lilting melody of a waltz played by an orchestral ensemble.
Carriages, many sporting noble crests, formed a long queue leading up to the door. Several footmen, dressed in spotless red uniforms sporting gold frogging, were handing masked peers and their Cyprian friends out of carriages. Torches and oil lamps cast shadows upon the aristocrats' faces.
Georgiana wondered how many of their wives thought them safely ensconced at White's, Brook's, or even Boodle's, cards in their hands as they enjoyed a civilized game of faro, as Brock often did. Would some of these gentlemen see through her disguise and blanch at the thought of Lady Darleigh rubbing shoulders with their mistresses? Quite possibly. Of all her capers with Rees and Neddy, tonight's was definitely the most outrageous. Word would likely find its way to Brock, and then she'd see if he finally remembered he had a wife.
Up until now, she'd carefully orchestrated her antics to annoy him without casting a blemish on the family name. Hers was a subtle game of revenge designed to spend the money he'd married her for and make him regret their union. But he never reacted visibly to the gossip she managed to spark. Instead, he treated her with a polite coolness which nearly drove her mad. She'd finally come to the point where she wanted him irritated, angered, even enraged. She wanted to hear him shout at her and call her names.
"By God, I hope we don't run into Brock inside," Rees muttered. "He'll have my head on a plate."
"Don't worry about him." Georgiana lifted her chin. "He may be my husband, but he doesn't know me well enough to recognize me behind this costume. We're safe."
A spark flickered in Rees's eyes. "I've always admired Brock, you know that. But will you permit me to say he's a fool?"
Georgiana shrugged. "Say what you like. I care not."
Neddy leaned in close to them. "What's all this whispering about?"
"We're whispering about an ogre," she muttered. Something inside her twisted at the thought of Brock attending Watier's midnight masquerade. God knew her husband hadn't visited her bed since the first disastrous month after they'd married. Would he come here with his mistress? Did he even have a mistress?
She frowned. Let him come, alone or accompanied. She'd make sure he noticed the Italian peasant girl who charmed and danced with every man in the room. Perhaps she'd even interest him enough into inquiring about her, with the possibility of making her his mistress. How delightful it would be, to reveal to him that the Italian peasant girl was none other than his very own wife, innocent once but now the toast of the haut ton.
"Let's not talk about ogres," Neddy pleaded. "They have a habit of spoiling one's night. Instead, let's mingle our way into Watier's, so I might relieve myself of this blasted cloak."
"Agreed." Rees steered them both toward the door, nodding at the footmen who guarded the entrance. He whispered discreetly in one man's ear. Pound notes exchanged hands. A smiling footman waved them in.
The Marquess of Darleigh glanced lazily at his cards, then at the pile of guineas at his elbow. They were playing for small stakes at the moment, but the night hadn't really started yet. The true gambling at White's began well after midnight, when fools lost whole estates and sharps won them.
He stretched in his leather side chair, his gaze settling on his gaming partner and good friend Lord Carlisle. Perfectly sober, the man rarely overindulged, preferring to follow his wife's edicts rather than his own whims.
He glanced at the other men around the gaming table. The Honorable Matthew Williams had a glint in his gaze that suggested a certain familiarity with the game. Well-known as a plunderer of women, he'd brushed his brown hair into one of the most recent styles and wore collar points so high he could barely turn his head. While Brock found Williams's predilections wholly disreputable, he at least understood them.
Carlisle, on the other hand, had fallen in love with his wife, married her even though she hadn't a sou to her name, and remained utterly faithful. He was an oddball, forgoing many of the pleasures London had to offer in favor of a passel of screaming children. And while Carlisle's marriage had brought him neither prestige or wealth, the man seemed happy.
Brock glanced at the two peers of the realm who rounded out the fivesome. Their eyelids drooped, presumably with boredom. Brock compared his large pile of guineas to their small ones and decided if he'd lost that easily he'd be far from bored. Panicked, more likely. His father had squandered the family fortune while gambling and departed the earth a few days after Brock uncovered his debts, while his mother had a softness of the mind and required expensive doctors. In short, money troubles had dogged Brock from the moment he'd inherited the Darleigh estate. Now he played for small stakes only.
"Damn it, Brock, you've got the devil's own luck in faro," Williams said as they all threw down their cards.
Brock shrugged and moved guineas over to his pile of winnings. "I watch the cards very carefully."
Carlisle smiled. "Thank God we're playing for guineas."
"You also have the devil's luck with women," the brown-haired man continued, with a sly wink toward Brock. "I heard about the gathering in your wife's salon last week. It's said that a visiting Russian duke spent almost an hour persuading her to return to Russia with him."
His eyebrows lifting in an expression of mild disdain, Brock studied Williams. "And did she go?"
The other men barked with laughter.
When the chuckling died down, Williams picked up a brandy snifter and downed its contents in a single gulp. "If she were my wife, I wouldn't allow her such a long leash."
Brock frowned. "I have no wish to discuss my private life with you, Mr. Williams, nor have I any interest in your opinion."
"Really, Williams, I think you've had too much to drink," Carlisle observed, his blue eyes growing cool.
Brock felt a sour turning in his gut. He didn't want to talk about Georgiana. He didn't even want to think about her. Perversely, an image of her formed in his mind. Beautiful green eyes that held nothing but contempt for him, pink lips that curled with scorn...Georgiana didn't like him much. One might even say she hated him.
He pushed the chair backward with a scraping sound and stood. "I believe I'm finished for the night, gentlemen. Had a damned trying day."
"Glad you're leaving, old boy. Now the rest of us have a chance," one of the bored-looking gamblers quipped.
The men dissolved into another round of laughter.
Carlisle lifted a snifter half-filled with ruby liquid. "Have a brandy with me, Brock, before you go."
Brock thought of his cold bed in Palmer House and decided a brandy before leaving would suit him quite well. Perhaps he'd even detour to Figg's Pugilism Academy in Haymarket, and have a couple of go-rounds with the bag before he went home. He nodded his farewell toward the others, then followed Carlisle to a pair of secluded armchairs facing the window.
Carlisle slouched into an armchair, his cravat askew, his black hair ruffled, the very picture of gentlemanly exhaustion. "How is Georgiana?"
"Is she attending Lady Capshaw's Ball?"
"I'm not certain."
Carlisle groaned and pulled at his collar. "For the last week, my wife's sisters have talked of nothing else. Planned out the evening's wardrobe a month ago, by God. Byron's reading one of his new sonnets and they're excited to think he might have written about one of them."
Brock accepted a snifter from a footman and sipped some brandy. It created a soothing path of warmth down to his stomach and made his regret easier to bear. Unlike Carlisle, he had the ordinary aristocratic marriage -- one of convenience -- with a woman who lived a life separate from his, although for some time now, he'd been wishing her life wasn't quite so separate.
"I don't keep account of her amusements." He slanted a curious glance at his companion. "Why this sudden interest in my wife?"
Carlisle looked at him, something hidden in his blue eyes. He opened his mouth to speak, then evidently thought the better of it and shrugged. "My sisters were looking forward to chatting with her."
"If she'll stand still long enough to chat," Brock added.
Georgiana, he thought, had a habit of running off from one scrape to another. If he weren't feeling so damned guilty, he would have taken her in hand a long time ago. But memories of her tears and her temporary decline after she'd discovered the true reason he'd married her left him willing to tolerate some very bad behavior indeed.
To keep the family afloat, Brock had gone to Almack's two years ago to find an eligible debutante with a hefty dowry. Taken with Georgiana's large green eyes and the even larger annuity that Sir Stanton, her guardian, had settled upon her, he'd courted and married her within a few months.
Their marriage had seemed a good deal for all concerned. He'd saved the family estate while Georgiana, an orphan without relatives or any real prospects, became Lady Darleigh. Inexplicably, however, Georgiana had wanted more than a noble title out of marriage. She'd wanted love.
A few weeks after their wedding ceremony, she'd overheard a conversation between himself and Carlisle, in which he'd admitted the reasons behind his courtship included affection, but not love. The knowledge had crushed her.
For weeks he'd listened to her sobbing at night and hated himself. He didn't blame her for forbidding him to enter her bedchamber; rather, he blamed himself for trifling with her affections. He should have realized she was too young and countrified to have an understanding of society's ways.
"My wife will no doubt appear at Lady Capshaw's tonight, as well as at a dozen other places," Brock muttered. "We receive so many invitations I can scarce find my mail beneath stacks of scented parchment."
"I'll wager Byron's new sonnet will include Georgiana in some way. She is a spirited piece, if you'll pardon me for saying so."
"I know far too well."
Carlisle's mouth drooped with male commiseration.
Brock took another swig of brandy, thinking back to the weeks following their marriage ceremony. After the shock of the truth had worn off, he'd thought Georgiana would retire to the country to curse him, and the society he represented, in private. Instead, she'd devised a more Machiavellian torture for him. She'd blossomed into a lovely creature capable of trading barbs with the most cynical member of the ton, a sultry woman who somehow still retained a charming air of innocence, a wife he could never touch.
He hadn't seen it at first, damn it, that smoldering look of hers which disarmed all who came within ten feet of her. Her large green eyes and pale complexion, offset by full, sensuous lips colored a delicate pink, made a devastating impression on every man she met. Charming, elegant, she became sought after by every society matron and surrounded by gentlemen who curried her favor.
By then she would have nothing to do with him. Worried that she might take a lover, he'd asked his cousin Rees to squire her around. He could trust Rees. He'd known the lad from childhood. Rees would watch her and keep her safe. Still, it irked him that Rees could enjoy his wife's company on a daily basis while he slept in a cold, lonely bed each night.
He placed his snifter on a side table with more force than necessary. "Christ, what a day I've had."
"You sound in need of amusement," Carlisle observed. "Come with me to Watier's Club for a visit. Jean-Baptiste is holding a masquerade for peers and their mistresses. We'll see who has become available."
Brock regarded Carlisle with wide eyes. "Pardon me? Did I hear aright?"
The other man sat straighter and assumed an injured expression. "You did. I'm suggesting a visit to Watier's Club."
"For what? Don't tell me you wish to find a mistress."
"Perhaps I do."
Brock couldn't prevent a bark of laughter. "What would Harriet say, do you suppose?"
An answering grin flashed across Carlisle's face. "She'd pack my bags and tell me to go."
"Then why in God's name do you wish to go to Watier's Club tonight, of all nights?"
Carlisle didn't reply. His smile faded. A minute or so passed in which he obviously struggled for words.
"If you aren't visiting for your own benefit," Brock said, "then I must assume you've suggested the trip for my sake. I assure you, man, I do not need you to play the pimp for me."
Silence continued to lie heavily between them. Brock shifted on his chair. "Do you have something to tell me?"
"Obviously you don't know."
"It's rumored that Georgiana will appear at Watier's Club tonight."
Brock sat forward. "What?"
Carlisle looked uneasy. "So say the gossip mongers."
"Who's been gossiping?"
"Lord Watkins, the young heir to the Stanhope title. A friend of mine heard him talking about her at Boodle's, after downing a few whiskeys. He boasted about escorting Lady Darleigh to Watier's Club on masquerade night."
Brock felt a tightening sensation in his gut, like a fist closing. Momentarily bereft of words, he stared at his friend.
Eyebrow raised, Carlisle broke into the lengthening silence. "Are you going to ignore this latest intrigue, too?"
"I have never ignored Georgiana," Brock managed.
"From my perspective, you seem to ignore her quite often, even if you are generous."
"I'm not ignoring her, Carlisle. I've allowed her freedom. It's the least I could do after all the pain I've caused her."
Brock saw the incomprehension in Carlisle's eyes and knew he would never understand. How could he? He hadn't lived two years as Georgiana's husband.
Early in their marriage, Georgiana had begun testing his limits and hadn't stopped since. She purchased the most expensive fabrics she could find from Swan & Edgar, and had them sewn into creations that set his account back for months. She hosted gatherings in her salon once a week and filled her guests' glasses with an unending supply of the finest champagne. Only the finest jewels graced her ears and neck.
Even though he could scarce afford it, Brock paid each of her debts without a murmur. He could deny her nothing, not after having listened to her sobbing for weeks on end. Indeed, he remembered the day she'd truly come into her own. At a soiree, two young bucks had offered her different seats at the same time. When she avoided choosing one over the other, they'd resolved to settle the matter with pistols. Both had come away from the field wounded. While the ton agreed Georgiana's behavior remained above reproach, the incident had added to her reputation as a seductress and elevated her to the ranks of an Incomparable.
"Who is this Lord Watkins?" Brock demanded.
"They call him 'Neddy.'"
"I've heard of him once or twice from my cousin Rees," Brock admitted, the fist in him loosening only a bit. "He'd seemed harmless enough by Rees's account. But I must admit, now I'm wondering. Why in God's name would Rees bring Georgiana to Watier's Club on such a night?"
"Perhaps the escapade wasn't Lord Hammond's idea."
"Do you suppose this Neddy fellow suggested it?"
Brock stared at him. "You don't mean to say Georgiana is behind it."
After a slight hesitation, Carlisle nodded. "According to Lord Watkins, she demanded they escort her there."
"What devil has gotten into her? You don't attend the mistress masquerade unless you're planning to take a -- " Brock broke off, outrage coiling through him. "She's going to take a lover, isn't she?"
"I don't know."
He stood, sending his chair backward with a harsh scraping noise. "I can only think of one reason for her to attend, and I won't have another man's bastard inheriting the Darleigh estate."
"Bring her in line," Carlisle urged. "It's high time."
"Indeed. We'll have to pay a visit to Watier's Club after all."
This time, Georgiana had gone too far.
copyright © 2000 by Tracy Forbes