The Bride Behind the Curtain

BOOK: The Bride Behind the Curtain
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The Regency Makeover

Part I

The Bride Behind the Curtain

Darcie Wilde

InterMix Books, New York

An imprint of Penguin Random House LLC

375 Hudson Street, New York, New York 10014

REGENCY MAKEOVER PART I: THE BRIDE BEHIND THE CURTAIN

An InterMix Book / published by arrangement with the author

Copyright © 2016 by Darcie Wilde.

Excerpt from
Regency Makeover Part II: The Stepsister's Triumph
copyright © 2016 by Darcie Wilde.

Penguin supports copyright. Copyright fuels creativity, encourages diverse voices, promotes free speech, and creates a vibrant culture. Thank you for buying an authorized edition of this book and for complying with copyright laws by not reproducing, scanning, or distributing any part of it in any form without permission. You are supporting writers and allowing Penguin to continue to publish books for every reader.

INTERMIX and the “IM” design are trademarks of Penguin Random House LLC.

For more information visit
penguin.com
.

eBook ISBN: 978-0-698-40812-8

PUBLISHING HISTORY

InterMix eBook edition / March 2016

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

____________________________________

Version_1

I

Our story begins, as the best often do, in a library. It is a hushed and graceful room, its many polished shelves lined with volumes lovingly collected across generations. A small but cheery fire crackles in the hearth. The red velvet drapes have been drawn over the bowed window's alcove to close out the winter drafts, so that nothing disturbs the room's peace.

That is, until Lady Adele Endicott darts through the door and slams it tightly behind her.

“Blast Patience!” Adele wiped frantically at the tears drenching her round cheeks. “Blast Aunt's everlasting house parties! Blast Marcus and his penny-pinching! Blast
everybody
!”

Even as she cursed her whole world in uncompromisingly unladylike language, Adele retreated from the door toward the curtained alcove. The last thing she needed now was for anyone passing by to hear her crying, or swearing.

Christmas was over, and everyone in the house was bored to tears. Not even the prospect of the house party's crowning event—the Windford Park New Year's Ball—seemed able to lift the gloom. The snow had been falling nonstop for two days. Riding, or any other form of outdoor recreation, even ice skating, was impossible. No one knew if the neighbors and added guests meant to arrive for tonight's ball would be able to get through. So, Lady Patience and her witty friends had turned to the only available entertainment—teasing whichever of the party's disregarded girls was unlucky enough to be at hand. This particular afternoon, that meant Adele.

It had happened in the blue parlor, which Aunt Kearsely had set aside for the “young people.” Adele had only gone into the room at all because she'd wanted to retrieve her workbasket, and the servants were all occupied with the last-minute frenzy of preparations for the ball. The parlor had been empty when she slipped in, but the instant she closed her fingers about her basket handle, the doors burst open. A whole gaggle of fashionable persons flooded in, led by Patience, who was exclaiming how terribly, terribly dull everything was!

“Why, one might almost be driven to talk with Adele, just to hear something new!” Miss Violette Delacourte laughed and then covered her mouth. “Oh, I'm sorry, Adele! I didn't see you there!”

“No. You will excuse me.” Adele hugged her basket to her, as if it might provide some protection, and turned at once toward the door. But the dreaded gleam of amusement had already lit in Patience's cornflower blue eyes.

“How could you possibly have missed her, Violette?” Patience cast herself gracefully and carelessly onto the sofa. It was one of her favorite poses, as it showed off her willowy figure. That her slender frame made such a dramatic contrast to Adele's round hips and full bosom was an added pleasure. “My sister commands the attention of any room she is in.”

Lewis Valmeyer draped one long, thin arm across the mantel and smiled down at Adele. “Yes. She's always
such
a picture.”

Just get out
, Adele counseled herself.
Lift your chin and keep walking. Do not stop. Do not give them the satisfaction.

But she had to juggle the basket to manage the ruffled hems of her housedress, and her slippers of course had snagged on a carpet edge, so she stumbled, and shame reddened her cheeks and drew soft snickers from the jaded audience.

“Indeed, Adele, your sister and I were just remarking on the dress you wore to Christmas Eve.” Violette Delacourte settled next to Patience and patted her hand fondly. “An amazing creation. Patience told us you designed it yourself.”

Despite Adele's determination to get out as quickly as possible, this turned her around to stare at her sister and her mocking friends. “Patience knows very well I did not.”

“Oh, I'm sorry,” said Patience with a smile. “It just looked so very like you, the way it set off your figure so wonderfully . . .” Patience pressed her fingertips to her dainty pink lips. “But perhaps I shouldn't make such a comment in front of the gentlemen. To think when we were girls . . .” Patience paused dramatically. “Of course, I cannot tell you that.”

Naturally, they all leaned in and demanded to know. The door was still a thousand miles away. Two thousand. Adele's face burned with useless fury.

Behind her back, Patience said, “Well, we all used to call her . . . Dumpling! So absurd of us! Whoever saw a dumpling in so much lace?”

Laughter pressed on Adele from every side. She couldn't breathe. She grabbed up her skirts and ran blindly down the corridor. She slammed into somebody, spilling her basket onto the floor, but she didn't stop to apologize, or to pick anything up. Instead, she bolted through the first closed door she came to, which proved to be the library.

Now here she was, in the quiet room with its books and gentle fire.

The gentle fire. Adele stared at the blaze through the tears clinging to her eyelids. There would not be a fire if no one was planning to use this room tonight. Marcus, who hated parties and could be counted on to absent himself from the festifivities as soon as possible. He must have given orders for the library to be prepared for him.

I must get out of here.
Adele wiped at her face again. Marcus might arrive at any moment, and having her stern older brother know she'd been crying would only make everything worse.

But where could she go? The house was full to the brim. Not even her own room was safe, because Aunt was already upstairs. One look at Adele and Aunt Kearsely would launch into a scold about her red nose and eyes, and her silly tears. What, she would say, did Adele have to cry over? It wasn't as if anyone had broken her heart.

Or ever will. Who would take the trouble to break a dumpling's heart?

As this bitter thought surged through her, a new sound broke the library's hush. Footsteps. On the floorboards outside. Adele slapped her hand across her mouth. The door's handle rattled and turned. Adele leapt for the only available refuge—the drawn curtains and the alcove behind them. But she moved too fast and tumbled sideways onto the window seat.

And right up against the man sitting there.

Adele twisted. It was barely six o'clock, but it was already dark outside, and the faint light reflected by the snow showed her a man with dark hair swept back from a high forehead and the clean, strong lines of a sculpted face. But his eyes were lost in shadow, and in her confusion Adele could not recognize him. She tried to push away, but two things happened at once:

Beyond the curtain, the door opened.

The dark man clamped one broad palm over her mouth and pulled her backward roughly, onto his lap.

“Hush!” His breath was warm, and his mouth brushed the edge of her ear. “Move the drapes, and we are both caught.”

Adele stilled. Not that she was sure she could have broken free in any case. The man was strong, and he held her tightly. She could feel the hard contours of his arms pressed against her sleeves, the same way she could feel his hard thighs beneath her skirt.

What do I do?
It was as deeply, scandalously improper as could be imagined, and yet a thrill of excitement and fear ran through her. Should she faint or scream? She definitely should not remain still and let a man keep his firm arms around her. Especially not a man with a distinct French accent.

Who are you?
she wanted to ask. They had several French guests. Aunt Kearsely and Patience arranged their guest lists like an extension of their wardrobes—all frills and show and never mind the actual
fit
, as long as everything was the first stare of fashion. Foreigners of all sorts were in vogue this year, which made them as welcome as the suspected novelist, Deborah Sewell. But of the house's current French residents, M. Odevette was seventy, M. Renault smelled constantly of onions, snuff, and brandy, and M. duChamps had lost an arm in the wars. That left . . .

“James Beauclaire,” Adele said, or rather she tried to. The sensation of her lips moving against the skin of his palm threatened to set the world spinning.

Someone moved on the other side of the curtain. There was the sound of the irons rattling, and the thud and rustle of the fire being poked up. It must be Marcus. If he caught her here, like this, she'd be dead. Well, no. M. Beauclaire, if this was him, would be dead in the ensuing duel. James Beauclaire was a gambler and a fortune hunter. James Beauclaire was also following along with Patience's coterie and spending most of his time in the card room, or the blue parlor.


Mais oui, c'est moi
,” James Beauclaire murmured. He also removed his hand from her mouth and his arms from around her. Adele felt instantly lighter, and colder. “But be calm. You are quite safe.”

“I doubt that,” she breathed, and she bit her lip.

“But you are. For now, at least.”

“You'll tell me when that changes.” She also, slowly, and if she was truthful, a little reluctantly, slid off his lap onto the window seat.

He chuckled, a sound far too close to a purr for anyone's comfort. “You will be the first to know.”

Beyond the curtain, there was a final thud and rattle. Marcus was done at the fire. The scrape of wood against wood said he had drawn back a chair. Adele realized her thigh was still pressed against M. Beauclaire's. A dangerous warmth crept up to her center, and higher, to her breast and her throat. She should move away. She could do so right now. He wasn't holding her in place anymore.

Glass clinked, followed by the splash of liquid pouring. Marcus was getting himself a drink. He was settling in. He might be here for hours. She needed to move now.


Courage
,” M. Beauclaire breathed into her ear.

Adele's heart skipped a beat, and she stayed exactly where she was.

Out in the library, the door's latch clicked. Glass clinked again, and wood scraped. Adele pictured Marcus getting to his feet as the door opened.

“Can I help you, Miss . . . ?” asked Marcus, his voice straining to remain patient. Beside her, M. Beauclaire shifted uneasily.

To Adele's surprise, it was a girl's cool, sharp voice that answered Marcus. “I don't think so, no.”

“Then can I ask what you're doing here?” Marcus inquired.

“I'm looking for a book. Isn't that what one generally does in a library?”

“I had no idea any of you girls actually read.”

“I had no idea you gentlemen did, either,” the girl replied. “I thought you were all in the billiards room trying to get drunk and steal one another's money before the ball.”

“Not all of us, as you see.”

“I do. I shall set it down as a mark in your favor.”

M. Beauclaire chuckled again.

“Well, as we are to share my library, do you suppose you might tell me who you are?” asked Marcus.

After a pause, the girl answered, “I am Lady Helene Fitzgerald.”

Fitzgerald?
Adele glanced automatically toward M. Beauclaire. His dark brows had inched up in surprise.

“And yes,” Lady Helene continued, “before you feel the need to remark on it, I am that Lady Helene who is the infamous bluestocking, the Lady Helene who has all but disappeared from society altogether, and the Lady Helene who is the hysteric who publically and shamefully broke her engagement to the Marquis of Broadheathe three years ago.”

“That's rather a lot of Lady Helenes to be.”

“I have set up a rotating schedule. We manage.”

“Well, I'm afraid I can only lay claim to being Marcus Endicott.”

“You are too modest, sir. You forget to add that you are the notoriously unyielding and impervious Duke of Windford, and my nominal host for this so very charming party.”

Adele felt her eyes widen. No one talked like this to Marcus, not even Patience. To her surprise, there was a trace of a smile in his voice when he answered.

“I never heard myself called notorious.”

“You must not listen to the right people.”

“I think I like her,” M. Beauclaire murmured. “How are you bearing up?”

I'm going to die. Either from shame or from . . . from . . .

Oh, there were all sorts of words. Most of them French, which was appropriate. M. Beauclaire put a steadying hand on her shoulder. At least, Adele thought it was meant to be steadying. Its actual effect was to send a hot shiver down her spine. She breathed in, softly, willing herself to stillness. It was a mistake. She smelled dust, and sweat and leather and whiskey, and something else, something sweet and strong that got right down into her blood.

“. . . I imagine you'll be leaving now?” Marcus was saying pointedly. “To dress for the ball and so forth.”

Marcus and Lady Helene been talking this whole time, Adele realized, but she hadn't heard a word. Her mind had been entirely taken up by the touch of M. Beauclaire's hand on her shoulder. The edge of one finger rested against the bare skin at the curve of her neck. It was like a fire, the kind that felt so welcome on a cold night. The kind that urged one to draw close and be restored.

“. . . And anyway, I can't leave,” said Lady Helene.

“Why not?”

“Because it might be seen I was alone in here with a man.”

Beside Adele, M. Beauclaire had leaned close for another confidential whisper. He was chuckling again. Did he know that when his lips brushed her ear that way, her heart began to pound frantically? He had to. He kept doing it. He also said, “It's as good as a play,
n'est-ce pas
?”

Better.

“. . . I thought you were infamous,” Marcus was saying to Lady Helene, plainly taken aback.

“I am. But I'm not ridiculous, or stupid. You will have to be the one who leaves.”

“Why? It's my library, and I'm not the one who is afraid of compromising my reputation.”

M. Beauclaire's hand shifted on Adele shoulder. Adele stopped breathing. He might do anything, or she might. She could cover his hand with hers. He could move his hand up to touch her bare throat, or down to touch her side, or her thighs.

BOOK: The Bride Behind the Curtain
9.05Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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