Read The Bride Behind the Curtain Online
Authors: Darcie Wilde
“There you are!” cried Helene as Adele slammed into the library.
As Adele feared, the other two girls had already arrived. There was no evidence of James, but the drapes were drawn shut across the window alcove.
“What is the matter?” asked Madelene.
“Nothing,” lied Adele. “I just. It's close in here, isn't it? I'm just going to crack the window.”
She hurried to the drapes and peeked between them. There was the window seat, quite empty and innocent. “Oh, it's still snowing,” she remarked. “Perhaps we'd better leave it closed.”
“If you've quite made up your mind about the window,” said Helene with forced patience, “perhaps you're ready to hear what I have to say. We don't have much time before the house is up and about.”
We've less time than you think.
Adele did not turn at once. She could not do so until she'd composed her manner. She desperately wished she had a moment to think. Too much had happened in the space of a short hour. James. Aunt Kearsely's revelation about Mother. Could she possibly have been telling the truth? There was no way to know.
“Adele?” asked Madelene. “Are you sure you're all right?”
“No, but it doesn't matter.” Adele made herself cross to the sofa and sit down. “What is it you wanted to tell us, Helene?”
Helene and Madelene settled onto leather armchairs on the other side of the coffee table.
“I have been thinking,” Helene said, “about how Almack's was founded.”
“Why would you?” asked Adele.
“Because it is significant,” she answered loftily. “Almack's used to be just a gambling club. It was not, however, as fashionable as some others, and it was losing business. Then, along came the board of lady patronesses, and all of a sudden, people were clamoring to get in. Seven women, working together, took Almack's from being a second-rate club to the most exclusive and revered set of rooms in the fashionable world.” She paused and looked at them.
Madelene twisted her hands in her lap. “I'm sorry, Helene, I know I'm very slow, but I don't understand.”
“I propose we do something similar.”
“You want us to set up a club?” said Adele.
“Not quite. I suggest we three work together to transform not a club, but ourselves. We take ourselves from wallflowers to triumphs.” Helene leaned forward, her amber eyes shining. “You said it yourself, Adele. You should be in charge. You've got everything needed to be a success. You've got wit and personality and social standing. Why aren't you as much of a success as your sister?”
Because my mother didn't trust me.
Adele winced, but of course she couldn't say that out loud. She didn't really know these two. Not yet.
“It's not possible,” Madelene said.
“Madelene's right,” said Adele hollowly. “Society has made up its mind about us.”
Has sheltered and sabotaged us, has beaten our futures into the shape they believe bestÂ .Â .Â .
“And why is that?”
“Because I look like a dumpling!” Anger, unreasonable and petty, surged through Adele. What was the matter with this girl? There were things that could not change. Ever. It didn't matter what one person wanted when the whole worldâstrangers, family,
âwanted something different.
“That shouldn't matter. You're a duke's daughter, and your brother has not only salvaged the title, he's made the family rich. You should be fighting off every fortune hunter in England, plus new ones from the Continent.”
“It does matter.” Adele tugged futilely at her ruffled sleeves.
I shouldn't have come. I've got too much to worry about without listening to Helene Fitzgerald's madness.
“Everybody says so.”
Triumph sparked in Helene's eyes. “That's exactly it. Everybody
so. Like they say I'm a shrew and Madelene's aÂ .Â .Â .”
“Disappointment,” said Madelene.
Helene took her friend's hand and squeezed it gently. “So, how do we change what they say about us? We get together, and we do it.” She shifted in her chair so she faced Adele squarely. “You said you used to dream of the dances you'd give and the dresses you'd have. Could you actually do it? Could you organize wardrobes for the season? And perhaps even a ball?”
Adele opened her mouth and closed it again.
No. Of course not.
Except that wasn't what she said. “IÂ .Â .Â . well, I've imagined doing soÂ .Â .Â .”
“Like you imagined those dresses? With the suppliers and the costs and all of it?”
“Well, yes.” She'd spent enough time sitting near the chaperones and hearing them pick apart the dances and parties, talking of all the things that could have been done better. She'd listened to Aunt Kearsely as she gave orders to the servants for the entertainments in the country and the city. She'd made notes and lists of dreams and ideas and guestsâall the things she'd do when she had her own house.
“Good,” said Helene firmly. “That will give us a foundation to work from.”
“This is impossible,” snapped Adele, because in that moment anger was easier than the pain of more useless hope. “You can't make over a reputation like last year's gown!”
“Of course you can,” Helene shot back. “It's done every day. Every season, there's some girl no one expects to triumph, but somehow does. Society loves it, and she becomes courted and feted and talked about. Why shouldn't it happen to us?”
“ButÂ .Â .Â . but look at us!” Adele spread her arms.
“Yes, look at us,” replied Helene, entirely unruffled. “Between us, we're clever, we're titled, and we're rich. Our only problem is we've let ourselves be browbeaten. Well, I, for one, am done with it.” Helene's voice was soft, but the words were absolute. “We have everything we need. We just need to put it all together.”
Madelene swallowed and twisted her fingers in her lap. “Not quite everything.”
“Have I missed something?” Helene frowned.
“Our families will never agree to this,” Madelene said. For a moment Adele thought Miss Valmeyer was going to burst into tears. Whether those tears were from sorrow or anger, she couldn't tell. She found herself looking at the tiny young woman again. Anger, she decided. Madelene was just as angry as Helene and as Adele; she just held it in better than either of them. “At least, my family won't agree,” Madelene went on. “And without family, how can we get out to do the shopping and the organizing? We're unmarried girls. We can't go out alone, or with just one another.”
“She's right,” said Adele. “I'm not even allowed to choose my own dresses. My auntâ” she faltered. “My aunt would never agree to my organizing my own season.”
“We'd have to find a chaperone,” Madelene said. “Someone we could trust not to tell our families what we were up to. I don't have any friends like that. Do you?”
Helene frowned, deeply. “Yes. You're right. How stupid of me. We do need a chaperone. Some older woman who understands our situation, and whom we can trust.”
Adele felt her mouth twist up into a sour smile. “You might as well say we need a unicorn. Who would help us?”
Helene stared out into thin air, her mind working furiously on the problem Madelene presented so neatly. But then she smiled. “Miss Deborah Sewell, of course.”
Madelene blanched. “Oh, Helene, you can't mean itÂ .Â .Â . Why would she?”
“Because we're going to pay her.” Helene pulled a sandalwood box out of her workbag. “I had thought to turn this into money for dresses, but it can as easily go for a salary.”
She opened the box. Cold winter daylight sparkled on an emerald brooch. The deep green jewel was square cut and as big as Adele's thumbnail, set in elaborate gold filigree.
“It's beautiful!” exclaimed Madelene.
“It's worth hundreds of pounds, if I sell it.” Helene snapped the box shut and stuffed it back into her bag.
“How could you stand to?” Madelene sounded genuinely awed.
“Easily,” replied Helene in a tone that said this was the final word on the subject. “Miss Sewell is a woman of business. We have a business proposition. She will at least hear us out.”
The girls were silent for a long moment. Adele could feel Helene's seething impatience as she waited for them to make up their minds, and it irked her.
“If you're so determined, why don't you just go ahead on your own?” Adele asked. She didn't want to sit here and listen to Helene anymore, because the more she listened, the more this mad idea began to sound possible.
“I can't do this alone. For one thing, I've got no eye for style, and to be a success we must be eminently stylish, and we don't have much time. Your designs will give us a running start.”
“But why do you need me?” whispered Madelene, and when Helene looked away, she added, “Because I've got money?”
“No,” said Helene stoutly. “That is, yes. We'll need the money. None of this will come cheap. But you're also thorough and thoughtful. You'll see the things I miss, like you did just now.” She drew herself up. “Success in society isn't just about parties. It's about reputation and it's about influence. We have none, and so we get trampled. If we change our reputations and turn them into influence, no one will dare trample us again.” She leaned forward. “Now, what do you say?”
James watched from his shadowed corner as Lady Helene and Miss Valmeyer emerged from the library. He drew back, but a moment later realized there was no need. Neither girl glanced in his direction. Instead, they walked right past with their heads close together, whispering whatever secrets they shared between them.
It was ludicrous to be hovering about in corners like the hero of some gothic novel waiting for his ladylove, and yet, here he stood. Adele, however, did not emerge from the library. James glanced behind him. He could not be caught out like this. The morning was wearing on, and the house was stirring. People were coming down the stairs, heading for the breakfast room. Windford would soon be among them, or Mrs. Kearsely. Or Patience.
He drew a deep breath and quickly slipped into the library. He was closing the door when he heard the distinct swish of fabric behind him. James turned, but there was no one there. He noted, however, that the drapes were closed across the window alcove.
James smiled and stepped away from the door. He had no time to do more, however, because the door opened behind him.
“I thought that was you, Beauclaire.”
James suppressed the groan, and the curse, and turned around. Windford was already past him and headed to his writing desk. Melting snow glittered in his golden hair, and his cheeks were red with cold.
“You've been out early.”
“Yes, I needed to go out with my steward and view the roads. The men are at work, but it's looking like we're all stuck here for at least another day.” He sighed. “My aunt is not at all pleased. She fears wolves.”
“Inside or outside? Your cook must be in despair at having so many to feed for yet another day.”
“Yes, yes, I suppose so,” said Marcus distractedly. He settled himself behind his desk and steepled his fingers. “I wanted to ask you, Beauclaire, how is Pelham doing?”
“Benedict?” James frowned. He also strolled over to the fire, so Marcus would be forced to turn his eyes away from the alcove curtains. “He's well. Why do you ask?”
“I saw he left early last night. I was concerned about him, and you.”
“What concerns you about me?” If Windford meant to warn him about not setting his sights on Adele, when Adele was right behind that curtainÂ .Â .Â .
“Patience seems to have set her cap for you.”
James had been so braced to hear Windford talk about Adele, the mention of Patience caught him off guard. “Do you object?”
Windford sighed. “I do as it happens, but not for her sake. For yours.”
” The word came out as a bark of laughter. How on earth could this man with his fortune and his title be concerned about the reprobate sniffing about after his sister?
Windford, however, did not laugh. “There's more to you than meets the eye, Beauclaire. The way you helped Pelham overÂ .Â .Â . well, we won't talk about that. I know it's none of my business how you choose to spend your time, or with whom, but you should be careful. Patience wants to be a sensation. She's done a good job of it so far, and she's going to choose her husband like a capstone for her career. I don't see that going well for her, or the man she chooses.”
“That's a hard thing to say about your own sister.”
“And if I hear you've repeated it, I'm going to have to defend her, and I don't think either one of us wants that.”
“Very good,” replied Windford soberly. “But between us, here, it stands. Now, I'll have to ask you to excuse me. There's some businessÂ .Â .Â .”
The sound of running feet cut across whatever Windford had been about to say. The men barely had time to turn their heads before a hasty knock sounded on the door and a liveried footman pushed it open.
“My Lord Windford!” the man cried, red in the face and out of breath. “I'm sorry, my lord, but the roof in the stillroomÂ .Â .Â .”
“What about it?” Windford snapped.
“It's collapsed. There's a mountain of snow andÂ .Â .Â .”
The duke swore. “All right. All right. I'd better come see.”
James bowed to the departing duke's back. As the door closed behind master and servant, he crossed the room quickly so he could listen until he heard the footsteps fade. Then, he turned the key that had been left in the lock.
Fabric rustled behind him. Adele was peeking out from the curtained alcove. She saw him still there, and she froze.
James returned his best and most courtly bow. “Will you come out, m'lady? Or should I come in?”
He watched her consider the matter and felt his smile broaden.
“I'd better come out,” she said at last.
He held out his hand. Adele hesitated, but then laid her palm against his. Hers was warm and delightfully soft, but there was strength there. He'd felt it last night when they danced.
“I think perhaps we should stop meeting like this.” He kept his own touch gentle as he closed his fingers about hers and drew her forward. “My reputation, you know.”
Adele, however, did not seem to be in a mood to be led. “Monsieur Beauclaire, what my brother saidÂ .Â .Â . youÂ .Â .Â . youÂ .Â .Â .”
Her words trailed away, and James knew whatever he said or did next was forever. There would be no retreat from this moment, whichever way it turned.
Walk away, walk away. This is dangerous. Go back to Patience. Do not risk this. You saw what true love did to Pelham. It nearly destroyed him. You have not the luxury of letting yourself be ruined for love.
But Adele looked at him with longing shining in her eyes, and all those words crumbled to dust and blew away.
“If we are to talk, Lady Adele, I would thank you not to mention your sister,” he told her quietly. “Patience is not the one for me, nor am I for her.”
“Because of what Marcus said?”
“Because, Adele, of what I felt when I danced with you.”
Adele did not answer, not right away, and not directly. She drew her hand out of his and turned back to the alcove. With one swift motion, she threw the curtains open. Cold winter daylight flooded the dim room. James did not move. Something powerful was coursing through Lady Adele, something she was struggling with. The wrong word, the wrong movement, and he could break the moment.
“Why? Look at me!” She spread her arms, clearly indicating her flounced and flowered housedress, and the body beneath it. The whole young woman beneath it, in fact. The whole of Adele.
He did look at her. He looked long and carefully, and he let her watch him doing it. The vision of her standing in front of him, lost and alone, blurred into his imaginings, into the memory of her touch, into more things than he could name.
“I do look,” he said softly. “I also listen. When we are alone, when we are together like this, just James and Adele, Adele is vivacious. She is witty. Bold, even. When there are othersÂ .Â .Â . Adele withers away and there is someone else. A young English milady who is pushed and prodded and scolded.”
“Plump, plain, and dull,” she said bitterly.
“Sad,” James corrected her. “The young milady is sad. And she is lonely. And a little afraid, I think.”
“No one looks at your young milady and sees such things.”
Stop. Stop now. This is your last chance, your only chance to spare her, and yourself.
“I see it.” He walked toward her until there was barely an inch between them. “And I would change it, if milady, if Adele, were to permit.”
It was past bearing.
Adele had stood everything else that had happened this long, insane morning. The scene in the breakfast room, the revelation of Aunt Kearsely's promise to her mother, Helene's mad plans. But to have James stand just a bare inch from her; for him to look down at her with his handsome face so strong and so gentle; to be able to breathe his warmth and scent of coffee, of leather and soap and a spiced cologne; this, this was too much. Every nerve in her was alive with a white heat as he took up her hand. Why did she have to feel this way? Worse, why did she have to feel this useless, doomed hope tightening like an iron band around her heart?
“I don't need your pity!” she cried. “I don't need a dance or a dalliance for mercy's sake!”
She expected him to flinch, or respond sharply. He did neither. He stayed where he was. He didn't even lower her hand.
“You may believe me, Adeleâwhat I feel at this moment is not pity.”
Her breath was coming too quick, too shallow. What she saw in his face undid her entirely, for there was fire beneath the sharp blue of his eyes. Fire lit by her, her presence, her touch. It was impossible. But it was real.
No. I won't do this to myself!
“You're a cad!”
“Yes.” He laid his other hand over hers. His touch was soft and seductive as the brush of velvet.
“And a gambler.”
“Yes.” He raised her hand to his mouth and kissed her fingertips. Sweetness surged through her.
“And a gazetted fortune hunter who has been chasing after my sister and her dowry!”
“Yes and yes. I am all of these things.” He lowered her hand but did not let go, at least not entirely. The fingertips of his free hand traveled up her sleeve until he touched the curve of her shoulder, just at the spot where it joined her neck. “I am also poor, French, and a Catholic. I am jaded and I am shallow and disreputable, and if you want me to leave you alone, I wish that you would say, because if we both stay here and I cannot kiss you, Adele, I will run entirely mad.”
His hand cupped the back of her head and pulled her forward. Her face was already tilted up to meet his mouth as he bent to her.
The kiss was hard and inelegant. She was making little noises in her throat as the fire flashed from him to her. She was pressing close even before he had his arms properly around her, and when he slid his hands down her back to urge her forward, that was even better. She kissed the corners of his mouth. She tasted his lips in clumsy little bursts and felt him smile. His tongue swept against hers, and she wanted that again, opened for it, begged wordlessly for it, and he obliged, thrusting deep inside her.
Yes. Oh yes.
His body was stone and heat, and her own was soft, confused, and exultant. She wanted him, wanted this, wanted more. She had no names for all the things she wanted, but she'd find them.
He was pulling away. Adele made a raw sound of frustration and tried to hold him close, but he was stronger.
“Adele.” He spoke her name breathlessly, and triumph sang through her. She'd done that. She'd made him as breathless as she was, as hungry as she was. She surged forward, but still he held her back. “Slowly, Adele, my beauty, gently.”
“I don't want to be gentle.” The words slipped out, and all at once she was blushing. What was she saying? What was she doing? James was smiling. He was going to laugh at her. She'd done everything wrong. She was clumsy, ridiculous, he was laughingÂ .Â .Â .
He ran two fingertips down her cheek and touched the corner of her mouth. “I don't want to be gentle, either.” He was looking at her with such burning need that coherent thought became impossible. “But,
, we have not time now. The house is all awake. Your aunt, your sister, your brother, your friends, they will be looking for your soon.”
She wanted to tell him no one ever noticed her, or cared what she did. Except that wasn't true, as Aunt Kearsely had pointed out so harshly. They'd always seen, they'd always cared, and they'd always interfered, because they didn't trust her.
What would they do if they knew where she was right now and what she was doing? Adele ran her hands across James's shoulders, delighting in their strong, smooth lines. James groaned and grabbed both her wrists. He kissed her palms, first the right, then the left. The sweet spread of heat up her arms turned her heart over beneath her breast. James sighed and made a great show of folding her hands demurely together in front of her. The brush of his fingers against her skirt and her belly did nothing to calm that fire he'd raised.
“There. You stay like that,” he said sternly.
She looked up at him and made her eyes go wide and pleading. James made a strange choking sound, and she giggled. With a French curse she probably shouldn't have understood, he strode to the alcove and pushed opened the windowpane. A chill blast swooped through the room. James stood up straighter and breathed the winter air in.
“I have to get out of this house,” he muttered.
“You can't. We're snowed in.”
“I have to leave anyway,” he said firmly as he latched the window again. “As soon as the roads are clear. I'm not safe near you.”
Adele was across the room before she could even think properly, wrapping her arms about his shoulders and kissing the mouth that said such foolish things.
“We don't have to be safe,” she whispered to him. “We just have to be discreet.” English house parties were notorious, even when they were as carefully chaperoned as this one. People still slipped into rooms that were not theirs, and all the world knew it.
“No. No. I won't treat you this way.” He placed his hands on her sides, but this time, instead of pulling her close, he pushed her away.
“But you just saidÂ .Â .Â .”
“I know what I said. I was wrong.” He looked into her eyes, his own gaze melting and honey laced. He didn't take his hands from her waist.
“I can't believe you don't care, that you don't wantÂ .Â .Â .” Her eyes strayed to the hard ridge of his erection.
Mon Dieu! Non!
” he laughed harshly. “That's the problem, I care too much about you and I want you beyond reason. Here, now this minute, as we both are.” He stroked her side. He slid his hand beneath her chin and cupped her jaw. “But I cannot have you!”
“Why not?” She paused. “I seeÂ .Â .Â .”