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Authors: Eloisa James

A Wild Pursuit

BOOK: A Wild Pursuit
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Eloisa James
A Wild Pursuit

For my wonderful critique partner, Jessica Benson,
who lends me her intelligent language
and her biting wit.

Readers should be aware that
all the funniest lines are hers.



  In Which Scandal Brews in Wiltshire


  A Hen Party…Plus One


  So Young and Yet So Diabolic


  The Garden of Eden




  The Contrariness of Men Hardly Bears Repeating


  A Saint, a Sinner, and a Goat


  The Sewing Circle


  Prudishness…That Coveted Quality


  The Heights of Pleasure


  The Delights of Poetry


  Beds, Baths, and Night Rails


  In Which Countess Godwin Learns Salutary Lessons about Desire


  Because the Library is Not Yet Emptied of Books


  The Imprint of a Man's Skin


  The Unexpected Pleasure of Your Company


  Playing at Billiards


  In Which Curiosity Runs Rampant


  Yours to Woo


  Twenty Minutes Later…Privacy at Last


  In Which a Marquess Pays a Call on a Lady


  The Infernal Circle


  Various Forms of Advertisement


  Waltzing on One's Deathbed


  A Taste for Seduction


  The Experience That Divides the Ladies from the…Women


  Sweet William


  In the Library


  Spousal Relations


  In the Midst of the Night


  A Proposal


  And Motherly Love, Part Two


  In Which the Goat Eats a Notable Piece of Clothing


  Yours Till Dawn


  Lady Beatrix Entertains


  Because It Takes Courage to Admit a Mistake


  Nights of Ecstatic Union


  The Poetry Reading

The First Epilogue

 Plump as a Porker

The Second Epilogue

 In Which a Puritan Loses His Reputation

In Which Scandal Brews in Wiltshire

Shantill House
Limpley-Stoke, Wiltshire

t is a truth universally acknowledged by women that it is far easier to dress when the point is to cover one's body, than when one desires to leave expanses of flesh delectably uncovered.

In the days of Esme Rawlings's reign over London society, it took her hours to clothe herself. She would emerge as a caterpillar from its coccoon: silky black curls gleaming over pearly shoulders, bodice miraculously suspended in air at the very moment of dropping to her waist, delectable curves swathed in a fabric so light and revealing that many gentlemen weakened at the knees at her very sight. Other gentlemen stiffened. It was all a matter of constitution.

These days it took precisely twenty minutes to throw on enough clothing to cover herself, and gentlemen in her vicinity never showed reaction beyond a sharpish discomfort at the apparition of a woman with a stomach the size of a large cannonball.

“I am plump as a pork pudding,” Esme said, peering at herself in the mirror over her dressing table.

“I wouldn't say
” her aunt said with her characteristic drawl. Viscountess Withers was seated in a small chair, riffling through her reticule. “Drat, I cannot find my handkerchief.”

“Stupendously stout,” Esme said disconsolately.

carrying a babe,” Arabella said, looking up and narrowing her eyes. Clearly a pair of pince-nez would have come in handy, but spectacles were inconceivable, given the dictates of fashion. “I never liked the look of it. But you, my dear, might go far to changing my mind. How dare you look so delightful? Perhaps your example will finish the ridiculous habit of women
themselves. Such a punitive word,

“Oh pooh,” Esme said, rather rudely. “I am reaching elephantine proportions. No one would wish to see me on the streets of London.”

“I believe that your size is normal, not that I've had much to do with childbearing. In fact, this is the first time I have seen a woman so close to her time. So when do you expect it, my dear? Tomorrow?”

“Babies aren't like house guests, Aunt Arabella. They choose their own moment, or so I gather. The midwife seems to think it might be a matter of a few weeks.” Privately, Esme thought the midwife had to be mistaken. If she grew any larger, she'd be confined to a bath chair, like the Prince of Wales when he had the gout.

“Well! Here I am, ready to help in every way!” Arabella threw out her hands as if she expected to catch the baby in midair.

Esme had to grin at that. Arabella was her very favorite relative, and not only because her reputation was as scandalous as Esme's own. “It's very kind of you to visit me, Aunt Arabella. Not to mention positively self-sacrificing in the midst of the season.”

“Nonsense! One can have just as much pleasure outside of London. Even in Wiltshire, if one applies oneself. I knew that you would be quite dreary in the country all by yourself. Always struck me as a foolish habit, women rusticating themselves in the wilderness merely because they're carrying a babe. The French are much more sensible. Marie Antoinette was dancing up to the moment she gave birth.”

“I suppose so,” Esme said, wondering whether a black gown would diminish the look of her waist. She was no longer in full mourning, and the idea of returning to blacks was dispiriting. But then, so was her girth.

“I took the liberty of asking just a few persons to follow me tomorrow,” her aunt went on briskly. “We shall dine alone tonight, unless Stephen Fairfax-Lacy joins us in time. I suppose you know that your friend the Duchess of Girton is
? If she births a male, obviously Fairfax-Lacy will lose his title. Mind you, it was only an honorary one, but having had it for eight years at least, the man will probably feel as if he's lost his hair. We'll have to cheer him up, won't we, darling?”

Esme looked up, startled. “Fairfax-Lacy? I am not in a position to entertain a house party, particularly one which includes a man I have only the slimmest acquaintance with!”

Arabella ignored her. “And of course I've brought my
dame de compagnie
with me. Why be on our lonesome when we needn't? It
the season, but I fancy that my invitation outweighs any tedious little parties that might be occuring in London.”

“But Aunt Arabella, this is not entirely suitable—”

“Nonsense! I shall take care of everything. In fact, I already
. I brought some of my staff with me, dearest, because there are such terrible difficulties with people hired in the country, are there not?”

“Oh,” Esme said, wondering how her butler, Slope, had taken this news. The extra footmen might come in handy if she was reduced to being hoisted about in a chair.

“As I said, a very few persons will follow tomorrow, just to enliven dinner, if nothing else. Of course, we won't hold any public gatherings, or perhaps only a very, very small one, because of your condition.”


“Now darling,” Arabella said, patting her hand, “I've brought you a basket absolutely full of the latest creams and soaps made by that Italian man, the one with the funny little shop in the Blackfriars. They are all absolutely efficacious. You must try them immediately! Your mother's skin was disastrous when she was carrying you.” She peered at Esme's face. “But yours appears to be remarkable. Ah well, you always did take after me. Now, I shan't expect you downstairs until dinner. You do remember that Fairfax-Lacy is a Member of Parliament?”

Esme was starting to have an odd feeling about the presence of Stephen Fairfax-Lacy.

“Aunt Arabella,” she said, “you wouldn't be thinking of matchmaking, would you? My husband died only eight months ago.”

Her aunt raised her exquisitely shaped and dyed eyebrows. “If you call me
again, my dearest, I shall scream! It makes me feel quite ancient. Arabella to you, thank you very much. We are family, after all.”

“I would be delighted,” Esme said, “but—”

Arabella was never one to respect another's sentence. “It's a dreary business, being a widow. I know, as I've been one three times over.” She lost her train of thought for a second and then continued. “Now, I'm not saying that I couldn't be married if I chose, because I could.”

“Lord Winnamore would marry you in a heartbeat,” Esme agreed.

“Precisely,” Arabella said, waving her hand. “I've invited Winnamore as well; he should arrive tomorrow. But my point is, darling, that being a widow is rather—daunting. Fatiguing, really.”

“Oh, dear,” Esme said, thinking that her aunt did look rather more tired than she had seen her in the past. “You must make a long visit.”

“Nonsense,” Arabella said smartly. “I shall stay with you for the time being. But where's the excitement in living with a woman, hmmm?”

Her wicked smile made her lose at least twenty years.

Esme grinned back. “I'll take your word for it. Miles and I only lived together for a year, and that was years ago, so I can hardly speak from experience.”

“All the more reason to marry again,” Arabella observed. “Now I've been thinking about Stephen Fairfax-Lacy. He's just the man for you. Lovely laugh lines around his eyes. That's important. And he's strong too. Apparently he boxes regularly, so he won't keel over in the act the way your late husband did.”

“It wasn't
the act,” Esme protested. Her husband had suffered an attack in their bedchamber. The fact that it had occurred during the first night they had spent together in years was not relevant.

“Close enough. Not that we can fault poor Miles too much. After all, he got the deed done, didn't he?” She waved vaguely in the direction of Esme's belly.

“Yes,” Esme said, dismissing the thought of another possible contributor to her situation.

“Fairfax-Lacy is not a man to leave you in the breech, so to speak.” Arabella almost choked on her smirk.

“I'm glad you're enjoying this discussion,” Esme said pointedly. “It's nice to know that my husband's demise affords someone pleasure.”

“For goodness' sake, Esme, don't start taking on airs like your mother. The way Fanny wept over your father could hardly be believed. And yet she couldn't stand the fellow. Well, who could?”

Arabella began opening the jars on Esme's dressing table and sniffing each of them delicately. “
is the best of the lot,” she said, holding up a small jar. “Almond paste, straight from Italy and ground by nuns. Has a glorious perfume to it. Rub it on your chest every night and it will keep your skin as white as snow!” The viscountess had never been acclaimed as a beauty, but she didn't let that fact get in her way, any more than she was allowing age to dampen her flair. Her hair had faded slightly from a fiery mass to a gingery pink, but it was swept up in an exuberant mass of curls. Her face paint could not have been more exquisitely applied: it alone took some ten years from her true age.

She put the jar down with a little thump. “Now, let's see. Fairfax-Lacy has a good strong leg, and I like his buttocks too.” She rubbed a little of the miraculous almond cream into her neck. “He has plenty of blunt, not that you'll need it, since Rawlings left you well established. The point is, Fairfax-Lacy is a good man and he won't give out in the long term. Stamina, that's what you want in a man. Look at me: married three times, and not a single one of them survived past a few years.”

Esme sighed. Clearly poor Mr. Fairfax-Lacy was about to be thrown in her direction until his head spun.

“We're dreadfully awkward numbers tonight, with so few men,” Arabella said, patting the almond cream into her cheeks. “Yourself and I, of course, and your friend Lady Godwin, and my
dame de compagnie

“Who is she?” Esme asked without much interest.

“Well, poor duck, she's really my goddaughter. I don't suppose you know her. She debuted four years ago.”

“But what's her name?”

Arabella fidgeted with the glass jar for a moment, looking uncharacteristically hesitant. “I shouldn't want you to—well, I can trust you to be kind to the gel. It's not as if you've a puritanical past yourself.”

Esme looked up at her aunt. “Her name?”

“Lady Beatrix Lennox.”

One of the most irritating things about pregnancy, to Esme's mind, was that she seemed to have no firm grasp on her memory anymore. “I'm afraid I know nothing of her,” she said finally.

“Yes, you do,” her aunt said rather brusquely. “Beatrix is one of the daughters of the Duke of Wintersall. In her first season, unfortunately—”

daughter?” Now Esme remembered. She raised an eyebrow at her aunt. “I suppose you consider her your protegée, so to speak?”

“You're hardly one to talk, my girl,” Arabella observed, patting her curls in the mirror. “You've made quite a few scandals yourself in the past ten years, and I'll have you know many a person considers
my protegée. Including your mama. Lord knows, Fanny has complained of my influence enough.”

Esme was trying to remember the scandal. “Wasn't Lady Beatrix actually caught
in flagrante delicto
at a ball?
never did that.”

“Naturally, I would never inquire about such a delicate subject,” Arabella said, raising an eyebrow, “but perhaps you were merely never caught?”

Esme suddenly remembered a certain drawing room at Lady Troubridge's house, and kept a prudent silence.

“I'm never one to approve of the pot calling the kettle black,” Arabella said, favoring her niece with a smug smile. “Poor Bea was only a baby, after all, and no mama to take charge. The duke had found some doddering old cousin to act as chaperone, and naturally Bea was lured into a closed room by Sandhurst. Happens to girls all the time, but the father generally hushes it up. Instead Wintersall decided to make her into an example for his other five daughters, or so he had the impudence to tell me. Apparently, he told Bea she was fit for nothing more than a hothouse and gave her the address of one!”

“Oh, the poor girl,” Esme said. “I had no idea.” At least she herself had been safely married when she'd embarked on a life that had earned her the sobriquet Infamous Esme.

“Well, don't go thinking that she's a wilting lily. Bea can hold her own among the best of them. I'm glad that I took her after her father disowned her. She keeps me young.”

Esme had a sudden thought. “You didn't do this simply to irritate Mama, did you?”

“It did have a miraculous effect on your mother's temper,” Arabella said with a smirk. “Fanny wouldn't have me in her house for at least six months. Lately, I have contemplated a major renovation of my town house, if only because I could insist on staying with my sister for a time, and naturally I would bring my
dame de compagnie
with me.”

Esme couldn't help laughing. “Poor Mama.”

“ 'Twould do your mother good to be around Bea for a time. The gel has a backbone of steel, and she enjoys putting people in a stir. Thinks it's good for them. Wait till you meet her, my dear. She'll go far, mark my words!”

“Oh my,” Esme said, suddenly remembering her Sewing Circle and their likely reaction to Beatrix Lennox. “I forgot to tell you, Aunt Arabella, that I've become respectable.”

Arabella blinked and then snorted. “
Why on earth would you wish to do such an odd thing?”

“I promised Miles before he died that I would avoid any sort of notoriety. He wished to live in Wiltshire, you know. I've been establishing myself among the local people, and—”

BOOK: A Wild Pursuit
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