Authors: Loretta Chase
Castle de Grey, Kensington
Wednesday 17 June 1835
e'd best do it now,” Chloe Sharp told her older sister. “Say goodbye and bawl, so that we don't make a spectacle of ourselves, or set Mama off.”
“Y-yes. Oh, Chloe, I'll miss you so!” Althea fell weeping on Chloe's neck, heedless of the wrinkles and stains she made on two of London's costliest dresses.
Bride and bridesmaid stood in a dimly lit passage that ran between the picture gallery, which extended the west wing's full length, and the smaller of the two drawing rooms. The larger, the Gold Drawing Room, occupied the center of the first floor of the Duke of Marchmont's Jacobean mansion. There hundreds of wedding guests were celebrating Althea's marriage to Prince Louis of Massbeck-Holveg. From the passage, though, the merriment was practically inaudible.
This was the last time Chloe would see her sister for a long time. Her heart was breaking. Still, she made herself draw away.
“That's enough,” she said. “We don't want the Beau Monde to see us with tear-streaked faces and crushed bows and creases. Come out into the gallery, where we'll have some light, and I can put you back to rights.”
She started to open the door to the gallery, but paused as a wave of masculine laughter spilled toward them. Althea stopped, too, and caught hold of Chloe's arm. They both giggled the way they used to do when they were children, hiding to spy on grown-ups.
“But everybody knows he was obliged to give up the girl he loved,” somebody said. Mr. Crawford? Chloe had met so many aristocrats today that their names and faces were a hopeless muddle in her brain.
“Which girl was that?” another man said.
“A sweetheart Prince Louis left behind in Massbeck-Holveg,” Crawford said. “Lovers torn asunder, you know, by Fate.”
Althea inhaled sharply, her grip on Chloe's arm tightening.
“Love, gentlemen, is a luxury His Highness cannot afford,” said a deep, drawling voice. “Three royal castles in his speck of a country, and all of them falling to pieces. He doesn't need love: He needs new chimneys.”
Though Chloe had never heard that voice before today, she knew who it belonged to: James Bransby, the Earl of Lovedon.
A leader of fashion, one of Prince Louis's dearest English friends, a favorite of the King and Queen, and famously whimsical, he was London's most elusive bachelor.
The men went off again, into whoops this time, as though it was the wittiest thing they'd ever heard.
“Come away,” Chloe whispered to her sister. “There's a doorway to another roomâ”
“He's hardly the first of the King's cousins to come to England for a rich wife,” Lovedon continued. “For them, this sort of thing is merely a business transaction. Naturally he'll put aside any personal disappointments with Teutonic fortitude, like the staunch patriot he is.”
While he spoke, Chloe was aware of Althea's breath coming faster and faster. She gave a small, choked cry, and let go of Chloe's arm.
Though she wanted to push Lord Lovedon out of a window, Chloe had to tend to her sister first. She pulled Althea toward another doorway, an open one leading to one of the back staircases. Althea was sobbing again, this time in deep, painful gulps.
Chloe half-dragged her to the door on the other side of the landing, through the recently abandoned dining room, and into a pretty sitting room. Its lone window overlooked the splendid gardens that spread out for miles, it seemed, from the north front of the house. Thanks to the afternoon's onslaught of rain, a grey haze shrouded the glorious vista Chloe had glimpsed this morning.
She grasped Althea by the upper arms and gently shook her. “Those men are
,” she said. She was none too sober herself, she realized, as a wave of dizziness nearly toppled her. Firmly ignoring it, she went on bracingly, “I was amazed to see how much champagne Lord Lovedon could pour down his throat and still stand upright. But you know what aristocrats are like: heads of oak, and hearts even harder.”
“Itâit wasn't a secret. Prince Louis told me he was poorâbut he s-said he l-loved me.”
“Which he does, as everyone can seeâexcept Lord Lovedon and his dimwitted followers. But you can't expect them to recognize a love match when they see one. Defective vision, you know, thanks to centuries of inbreedingâand the pox, too, probably. And don't forget the gallons of champagne they've swilled, or the fact that they do nothing but gossip because they lack the mental capacity to carry on an intelligent conversation. My love, you can't possibly take them seriously.”
“But what if it's true?” Althea said. “Only think of Prince Louis pining for the girl he loves, while having to pretend to care for me.”
“If there was such a girl, he forgot her the instant he clapped eyes on you,” Chloe said. “I was there, recollect, on the day His Highness came into Maison Noirot with Lord Longmore.”
Mama had patronized the French dressmakers practically from the day they opened their shop. Chloe and Althea had been waiting in the showroom for her when Prince Louis and the Earl of Longmore entered.
“Once His Highness got his first look at you, he couldn't see or think about anything else,” Chloe said. “He certainly didn't know then that you were rich.”
“H-he could have g-guessed, I wasn't p-poor,” Althea said, “considering it's the most expensive dressmaking shop in L-London.”
Chloe dismissed this with a wave. “The point is, he fell over head and ears in love with you, and everybody knows it except this pack of drunken degenerates. How can you let a lot of strutting ignoramus blockheads make you wretched on your wedding day?”
She went on in this way while she swiftly set about repairing the outward damage. Combining relentless mockery and mimicry of Lord Lovedon & Company with more practical remediesâthe careful application of a handkerchief, readjustment of hairpins, and smoothing of wrinklesâshe soon restored Althea to the state of glowing happiness she'd enjoyed only a short time earlier. By the time Althea returned to her princeâwho lit up, by the way, at the sight of herâshe was giggling.
Bride and bridegroom disappeared into the mob of well-wishers.
Chloe looked about her. All was in hand.
Except for one small detail.
She took a glass of champagne from a tray a passing footman presented to her, swallowed the contents, set the empty glass down on the nearest horizontal surface, then started back the way she'd come.
his time when Chloe opened the door to the picture gallery, the male laughter sounded farther away.
As she entered, she saw them gathered at the great bay window overlooking the north front.
was easy enough to spot.
The Earl of Lovedon was tall and dark, yes, but not handsome. His features were too harsh and angular for classical beauty .Â .Â . although from the neck down he was all too classical, like a Greek statue. That chiseled profile and athletic physique had claimed her attention all too often this day. The view had left her much too warm and breathing too fast.
His big shoulders propping up a corner of the window embrasure, the usual faint, superior smile curving his cynical mouth, he stood with arms folded, one long leg crossed in front of the other. The casual stance displayed the highest level of tailor's art: His fine wool coat skimmed the contours of his broad shoulders and chest, and his black trousers hugged his muscular legs.
If he hadn't had something to lean on, he'd probably fall on his face, the drunken moron.
The men were too busy gossiping and laughing to notice her approach until she was practically under their noses.
Then Lord Lovedon's dark gaze slanted her way.
“Ah, Miss Sharp,” he said lazily. “Taken a wrong turn, have you? The duke's house is something of a labyrinth. All sorts of odd corners and not-so-secret floors between floors. Happily, you needn't fear his mad aunt's springing out of a concealed door. She's moved to Torquay.”
Chloe stripped off one of her gloves and struck his cheek with it. She grabbed a glass of champagne from one of his startled companions and threw the contents in his face.
He didn't so much as flinch. The champagne dripped from his face onto his perfect neck cloth and down over his splendid silk waistcoat.
Over the room's sudden silence, the rain's hammering sounded like drumbeats. Her heart beat a harder and faster tempo.
with you?” she said. “How could you say such
things? At a
, no less! How dare you make my sister cry on her wedding day, of all days? You
“I say,” someone said.
“What the devil?” someone else said.
She ignored them. “If I were a man,” she said, “I'd draw your cork for you. I'dâ No. Why do I need to be a man? Be so good as to name your second, my lord.”
She was aware of hurried footsteps behind her, and familiar voices. Her sister Sarah had come. And Amy Renfrew, Chloe's dearest friend after Althea.
“Oh, Lord, I knew it,” Sarah said. “I saw that look. I know that look.”
“Come away, Chloe,” Amy said. “Whatever it is, let it be.”
“Name your second, Lord Lovedon,” Chloe said.
“Second?” Amy said.
“I believe Miss Sharp has challenged Lord Lovedon to a .Â .Â . duel?” one of the men said.
Chloe didn't know or care who spoke or who laughed. The world was a red fog of rage, and she could barely see. Except for him. His lordly hulk was all too clear, and she wanted to choke him, this spoiled lout who'd upset her sweet, gentle sister on what was supposed to be the happiest day of her life.
He stood, eyebrows aloft, still smiling his superior little smile. A drop of champagne clung to his thick black eyelashes. Another drop trickled down the hard angle of his jaw into his snow-white neck cloth.
“Oh, no,” Sarah said. She grabbed Chloe's arm and tried to drag her away. “You can
make a scene, Chloe. Not here. Not
“A scene,” Chloe said, her gaze locked with Lovedon's glittering black one. “I'll make a scene. By Jupiter, I'llâ”
“Come away, Chloe,” Amy said, taking hold of the other arm. “Whatever the trouble is, this is not the time.”
“For God's sake, come away,” Sarah said.
“I recommend you heed the ladies' advice, Miss Sharp,” Lord Lovedon said. “Under no circumstances could I possibly agree to meet a young lady at thirty paces.” He took out a large linen handkerchief, embroidered with an
, and calmly wiped his face. “I should be a deuced laughingstock.”
“Yet it doesn't trouble you to make a laughingstock of one who has done you no injury,” she said. “It's quite all right to demean someone you know nothing aboutâ”
“Chloe, let it be,” Amy whispered. “Come away before any of the others come looking for you.”
Chloe wasn't done. She wanted to hurt him, the way he'd hurt Althea. But he was unreachable, the aloof, immovable aristocrat. He still wore the mocking little smile. He remained perfectly cool and collected even while he wiped his face.
Meanwhile her hands were shaking, and it took all the willpower she had to keep her voice at an even pitch.
“I shall expect to hear from your friends tomorrow morning,” she said. “Or I shall evermore regard you as no gentlemanâand a coward as well.”