Authors: Vicky Dreiling
Tags: #Fiction, #Romance, #General, #Historical, #Regency
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To Daniel, Regina, and Autumn Rose, with all of my love.
Michele, I’ve said it before, but it bears repeating. Your insights are absolutely brilliant and make an incredible difference in my books. Thank you for everything.
Lucienne, thank you so much for all of your advice, for answering questions, and most of all for your enthusiasm. I’m so fortunate to have you for an agent.
Many thanks once again to Kati for being the best personal assistant ever. Thank you so very much!
Also, lots of thanks and hugs to my street team partner Kieran Kramer and to all of the Regency Rockstars. You are all fabulous. xoxoxo
To all of the readers, thank you so much for reading my books and for the kind e-mails letting me know how much you enjoy the stories I create. I wish you all hours of happy reading.
Lady Atherton’s ball, London 1819
ndrew Carrington, the Earl of Bellingham, was on the hunt for a new mistress.
He stepped inside the elegant foyer, having timed his late arrival to avoid the ubiquitous receiving line in the ballroom. As he relinquished his greatcoat, hat, and gloves to the butler, he thought about the type of mistress he wanted. Beauty was a must, but equally important was cleverness. He couldn’t abide foolishness in a woman, no matter how comely her appearance. Naturally he avoided married women and virgins. The former could cost him his life, and the latter could cost him his bachelorhood.
He straightened the stickpin in his cravat and strode into the great hall. A statue of Augustus stood at the base of the stairwell. The stone founder of the Roman Empire helpfully pointed the way upstairs.
Bell walked up one side of the U-shaped staircase, with its ornate iron balustrade. A dull roar sounded from the ballroom as a handful of guests spilled out onto the landing, no doubt to escape the heat generated by one too many bodies packed inside.
He gained the landing and entered the ballroom. The orchestra struck up a lively tune, and the voices grew louder. He pressed through the crowd in search of his friends, but he’d taken only a few steps when a stout matron glanced at him, grabbed the arm of a pencil-thin young lady, presumably her daughter, and hurried toward him. Bell turned and strode off in the opposite direction.
Hell. Five minutes into the ball and he was dodging a matchmaking mama and her daughter. The temptation to quit the place gripped him, but as he broke through the worst of the crowd, he saw his friends Harry and Colin standing by the sideboard.
When Bell reached them, he tugged on his cravat and said, “I need a drink.”
Harry Norcliffe, Viscount Evermore, handed Bell a brandy. “Narrow escape, old boy.”
Colin Brockhurst, Earl of Ravenshire, laughed. “We saw Lady Coburn and her daughter chasing after you.”
Bell scowled. “I don’t know her.”
“She is Sir Harold Coburn’s wife,” Harry said. “Her daughter is Miss Anne Coburn, first season.”
Bell downed the brandy in two swallows. “Intelligence from your girl cousins, no doubt.”
“My aunt’s drawing room is famous for the best gossip,” Harry said.
Bell frowned. “I’ve had enough already. I say we quit the ball and go to my town house to play billiards.”
“Wait,” Harry said. “Last night you said you were looking for a mistress.”
Bell set his glass on the sideboard. “The only available woman I’m likely to find here is a bored married lady, and I don’t poach in other men’s territory.”
“You’re in luck,” Harry said. “There’s a new widow in town.”
Colin snorted. “Right. More news from the drawing room.”
Harry nodded. “Yes. She’s rumored to be quite mysterious.”
Colin poured himself a brandy. “Harry, how can you take them seriously? Your cousins bamboozle you on a regular basis.”
“They said she is beautiful and young.”
“More likely old and ugly,” Bell muttered.
“Always the optimist,” Colin said.
Bell shook his head. “I’m a realist.”
Harry shrugged. “I’ve yet to meet her, but she could be right beneath our noses.”
“On the floor, you mean?” Colin quipped.
Harry pulled a face. “It’s a bloody expression. Must you be so literal?”
Bell rolled his eyes. He’d only met his friends recently, but already he knew they argued over anything ridiculous. “In other words, Harry has no idea what her name is or what she looks like. At this point, I think the odds of meeting her are nonexistent.”
“Because she doesn’t exist,” Colin said.
“Ha.” Harry downed the rest of his brandy and poured another glass. “Her name is Lady Chesfield, and she hails from Hampshire. She’s new to town and a particular friend of Lady Atherton.”
“A close friend of Lady Atherton?” Colin’s dark eyes gleamed in the candlelight. “I daresay Bell will be delighted…despite the thirty-year age difference.”
Harry narrowed his eyes. “You’re wrong. I wager you a tenner he’ll make her his mistress in a fortnight or sooner.”
“You don’t have ten pounds,” Colin said.
Harry shrugged. “I will when you lose the wager.”
The orchestra struck up the opening bars of a country dance. Harry and Colin left to find their dance partners. Bell poured himself another brandy and turned to watch the crowd. A circle of guests disbanded, and then he saw his former mistress, Barbara. He set his glass aside and strolled over to her.
“Bellingham, you are as handsome as ever,” she said.
He bowed over her hand. “How is married life?”
“You know it was for convenience,” she said. A sly smile touched her lips. “I couldn’t wait for you.”
There was something in her expression that made him suspect she wasn’t jesting. “You have security.” It was no small thing for a woman.
“Security is dull,” she said.
He examined the diamond-studded ruby ring on her finger. “You also gained a title and wealth.”
“I made a bad bargain.”
He released her hand and didn’t bother to mention the obvious. Marriage was forever—until death do them part.
She lifted her frank gaze to him. “I’m doomed to unhappiness in marriage for a second time,” she said.
It wasn’t the first time she’d revealed her fatalistic outlook on life. Perhaps it had started when her first husband had died in the war. Yet, she’d taken advantage of her freedom as a widow and had more than a few protectors. She’d likely spent every penny of her pensions and accepted Norris’s marriage proposal out of desperation.
“I loathe Norris,” she said. “I try to pretend it’s you, but there is no comparison. I stare at the canopy and—”
“No tales from the boudoir.” He remembered how she’d always worn her feelings on her sleeve like a naïve girl.
She twirled a dark curl by her cheek. “I miss you.”
It had been nothing more than a short-lived liaison. He’d made the terms clear, but when she’d said she loved him, he’d ended it immediately.
She closed the distance between them and walked her gloved fingers down the front of his waistcoat. “Perhaps we could meet later tonight—for old time’s sake.”
Bell caught her hand, lifted it for the requisite air kiss, and released her. “Norris would object.”
“He doesn’t have to know.”
“Your husband is staring daggers as we speak.”
“I don’t care,” she said.
“You will if you’re not careful,” he said. “Don’t do something you’ll regret.”
“I regret letting you get away.”
“There is nothing to regret.” He gave her a cynical smile. “I never stay.”
“I’d almost forgotten what a heartless bastard you are,” she said with a brittle laugh.
“You’ve got the heartless part right,” he said, “but I was born on the right side of the blanket.” He paused and added, “In all seriousness, you are courting trouble the longer you speak to me.”
“Let me come to you tonight,” she said.
She was foolish to even consider such a risk, but she seemed determined to enact her own tragedy. “Sorry, I won’t be the instrument of your downfall.” He walked away, fearing that sooner or later Norris would catch her in an indiscretion. Some men overlooked it, but by law Norris could beat her and sue her lover in civil court. He hoped for her sake that she would be cautious.
Bell returned to the sideboard and thrust Barbara out of his thoughts. He poured two fingers of brandy and turned, only to find a petite blonde looking over her shoulder. She had a flawless, creamy complexion and a button nose. As she met his gaze, her eyes widened.
He expected her to look away, but she seemed almost mesmerized. Bell frowned, wondering if he’d met her before. No, he would have remembered the way her lips turned up slightly at the corners, even though she wasn’t really smiling, at least not full on. Any moment now, she would remember herself and avert her eyes.
Her lips parted a bit as she continued to stare. Over the years, more than a few women had given him second glances as they walked past, but this one was ogling him in a rather blatant manner. A wicked grin tugged at his mouth. He decided to see what she would do when he inspected her.
Bell let his gaze slide ever so slowly from her eyes down past her long neck to her plump breasts. He continued in a leisurely fashion to her slim waist and slender hips. As he inspected her skirts, he figured she had slender legs to match her slender arms. Then he slowly reversed his gaze until he lingered over her breasts. Devil that he was, he imagined pale pink nipples. When he met her eyes, his heart beat a bit faster. He was in the middle of a ballroom and had made no effort to hide the fact that he was mentally undressing her. Obviously the blonde was issuing an invitation. Or was she? There was only one way to find out.
He winked at her.
A rosy flush spread over her face. She spun around, her airy overskirt floating a bit. Then she shook out her fan with a hand as diminutive as the rest of her and covered the lower half of her face. He half expected her to peek slyly above the ivory sticks, but instead she pressed through the crowd as if trying to escape. A moment later, Lady Atherton tapped the blonde on the shoulder, startling her.
Could she be the mysterious widow?
Lady Atherton led the blonde a few paces forward, and the two engaged in a tête-à-tête. The blonde woman shook her head vigorously, causing her sapphire earrings to bobble a bit. For some odd reason, he found it alluring.
Obviously she’d never intended to flirt, and somehow that left him feeling a bit deflated, which was ridiculous. He’d been more than a little intrigued, but he should keep his distance. Lady Atherton was a well-known high stickler and would have put a flea in his ear if she’d seen him visually stripping the clothes off the younger woman.
Harry returned and poured himself a brandy. “Did you meet the new widow yet?”
“No.” They hadn’t met, but she’d intrigued him, and he couldn’t recall the last time a woman had done that.
Harry sighed. “I think my cousins are leading me on a merry chase.”
“Probably,” Bell said.
“I’m to dance the next set with Miss Martindale,” Harry said. “I’d better find her.”
As Bell made his way through the crowd, he noticed that Lady Atherton was strolling with the petite blonde again. In all likelihood, she was too respectable to be any man’s mistress. For all he knew, she was some man’s wife.
He’d had enough of the noise and decided to walk out to the gardens to smoke a cheroot. Though he wasn’t familiar with the layout of the house, he managed to find his way to the door leading outside. There were lanterns in the trees, but he detected no one about. The wind was a bit chilly as it whipped the tails of his coat, but he welcomed the cold as he used one of the lanterns to light a cheroot. The wind riffled the leaves in the tall trees. He inhaled the smoke from the cheroot and enjoyed the relative silence.
He blew a smoke ring and wondered about the best way to secure a new mistress. The Cyprians were giving another entertainment next week. He would see if anyone caught his fancy there.
For some odd reason, he couldn’t get his visual encounter with the blond lady out of his mind. She was obviously Lady Atherton’s protégé, but that didn’t mean she was a widow available for dalliance. Lord only knew where or how these rumors got started, but he thought a widow might suit him, provided she understood that marriage was not in the offing. It would be a tricky business, trying to figure out whether the widow was amenable to an intimate relationship or not. If he made a mistake, he would cause a grievous insult. His lips curved a bit. Since when had he ever missed an opportunity to persuade a lady to loosen her morals?
He ground out the cheroot and lit up another. The low rumble of masculine laughter made Bell frown. Patches of misty fog made it difficult to see, but three young men emerged on the other side of the path. They halted and passed something around. Bell wagered it was a flask.
When the trio disappeared from his sight, he shrugged. They were safe from thieves and pickpockets in the garden. How they would fare guzzling whatever liquor was in the flask was another matter altogether, but they likely would pay for it with the bottle ache on the morrow.
A few minutes later, he ground out his cheroot. He thought of returning to the house but decided to indulge in one more cheroot first. Periodically, Bell heard the low laughter of the three young bucks. At one point, he was absolutely certain that one of them was pissing in the garden. By now, Bell was weary of the entire ball and the foolish young men. He inhaled from his cheroot one last time and put it out.
Then the door to the back of the house creaked open and shut.
Bell wondered if a pair of lovers meant to sneak out for a few kisses or more when he heard a feminine voice call out.
The three bucks suddenly grew silent. Bell couldn’t decide if he ought to expose them or not. In the end, he kept quiet. They weren’t his responsibility.
The unknown lady’s slippers crunched on the gravel path. A misty fog settled near the ground, obscuring the objects in the garden.
“Justin? If you’re out here, please let me know.”
She was nearing Bell, but he wasn’t sure if she could see him or not.
Then she stepped out of the shadowy mist, right before him. In the flash of a lantern, he recognized her as the blond lady. God, even in this dim light, she was stunning.
She gazed right at him and gasped.
“Wait,” he said. “Allow me to assist you.”
“No.” She backed up. Then she lifted her skirts, whirled around, and took off running as if she’d seen Lucifer waiting to snatch her.
He started after her, but his footsteps slowed. She’d said the one word every man should respect.
The low rumble of masculine voices sounded again. Bell released a long sigh as he watched the trio creep back toward the house like thieves in the night. They paused about five feet from the door and passed the flask around. Good Lord, they were brazen.