Read The Bride Behind the Curtain Online
Authors: Darcie Wilde
Adele dutifully took her seat and picked up her own visiting book from the stack. Helene's approach to the social world made Patience and Aunt Kearsely look like raw beginners. Whenever the girls met at Miss Sewell's, Helene had the name of a new matron with whom an introduction needed to be managed. This, ideally, should lead to an exchange of cards, which, ideally, would lead to an opportunity to call, which in itself would lead to a new introduction, or even a formal invitation. Helene tracked the tree of acquaintances across the pages of her visiting books, for she kept more than one. Each call paid successfully was written down along with notes on how it had gone, what the topics of conversation had been, and any names that had been particularly mentioned, and in what context.
“It is like being a spy,” Helene said when Adele tried to make a joke out of it. “We are engaged in a siege of the fortress of society, so we need to gather all the intelligence we can.”
“It's almost exciting to look at it that way,” said Madelene. “I like telling myself that I'm working for Wellington. It makes sitting in all those drawing rooms so much easier.”
The mention of spying made Adele glance toward Miss Sewell again. If Miss Sewell noticed, she gave no sign. Adele might feel uneasy, but what else were they to do? They needed her, as much as they needed this house. No. 48 was the one place they could talk and act freely.
Well, Adele told herself, if Miss Sewell did intend to write anything mischievous, she would find what it was to have a daughter of the Windfords to deal with. Not to mention the duke himself.
March paraded down London's streets, dressing itself first in snowdrops, then crocuses, and finally daffodils. The three girls paid calls, meticulously following Helene's schedules and lists. They went together, and they went separately. As they did, they slowly refashioned their apparel.
A new bonnet made an appearance here, new gloves there, or perhaps it was a new detail to a dress, such as lace or a new bag or shawl. But those were not the only changes. Nor were their growing circle of acquaintances the only ones to remark on them.
Adele had just come out of her closet to find Aunt Kearsely standing in her bedroom and staring.
“Adele, what on earth is the matter with that dress!”
Well, the color, the ruffles, theÂ .Â .Â .
Adele clamped her mouth shut. She'd hoped that watching her new wardrobe take shape under Marie's clever fingers would give her more patience with the dresses her aunt selected, but it wasn't working. Still, she had to keep quiet. The success of the entire plan depended on Aunt Kearsely not knowing that any plans existed.
“It's positively bunched up.” Her aunt strode forward and began fussing with Adele's dress, tugging at the shoulders, attempting to resettle the waist. “Don't tell me we need to let it out again!” She paused then and looked at the twist of fabric in her fingers. “No. It doesn't need to be let out. This needs to be taken in.” She stared at her niece. “Adele, have you
“IÂ .Â .Â . wellÂ .Â .Â . it's possible, I suppose.”
Adele did. Aunt Kearsely watched. Then she walked around Adele on her own. “IÂ .Â .Â . wellÂ .Â .Â . I must say. IÂ .Â .Â . It is very well done, Adele. I will send a note to Madame Flaubert asking her to come and make the alterations. IÂ .Â .Â . well.”
With that, Aunt Kearsely took her leave. Adele walked back into her dressing room and, for the first time in her life, it seemed, stood in front of her mirror and took a very long look.
She was slimmer. It wasn't her imagination. The loose-fitting dress told the truth. How had that happened?
had that happened? She'd been eating just the same, and the weather had been too foul for regular exerciseÂ .Â .Â .
It was the work, she realized. Usually, Adele's little season consisted of eight weeks of tedium, with nothing to look forward to but another season of sitting by the wall. She ate to pass the time. She ate because it was comforting and, if she admitted it, because it was forbidden.
These past weeks, though, she'd eaten only at mealtimes, and then distractedly. There'd been so much to do. Designing full wardrobes for three very different girls was no small thing. There were a thousand details to be considered. Even with Mademoiselle Marie's expert help, the effort had been absorbing all Adele's time and attention. Was the weather bad? It didn't matter. She must venture out to meet with the others, or to stop by Mademoiselle Marie's workroom to see her progress and review plans and patterns; or she must be off to the warehouses with Marie to select silk and ribbons and beads and lace. She hadn't walked so much since she was a little girl in the country, and she'd done it in all weathers.
And this was the result. Adele pressed her hands against her flattened stomach, and then against her blushing cheeks. She wasn't slender, not like Patience, but she was undeniably slimmer than she had been just at Christmastime. The morning dress was still awful, but for the first time, the ruffles didn't look quite so outrageous; the gathers around the waist were, well, they were
, and hanging neatly, not straining out. It looked almostÂ .Â .Â . almostÂ .Â .Â .
She stood straight. She struck a pose. She laughed and clapped her hand against her mouth to smother the sound.
“Look at me,” she whispered behind her fingertips. “I'm
Marie Beauclaire was beginning to regret saying yes to milady, and to James.
It was not that she regretted taking on the task of milady's dresses. The dresses were going beautifully. Against expectation, James's new heiress had taste that came close to being French in its excellence and sophistication. She was also unexpectedly willing to listen when Marie suggested alterations to her designs. Even more unexpectedly, when presented with the bills, milady paid, and paid in full.
No, it was her stupid, sentimental yielding to her brother's curiosity that she regretted. Her foolish agreement to carry that first note between James and milady led to endless questions of “How did she look?” from him and “What did he say?” from her. Any hint that they might easily meet in a park or some private, friendly home was met with sound rejection. They had made a bargain. They would keep it.
“But Marie, howÂ .Â .Â .” she muttered in imitation of James's eager interrogation as she carefully stitched the beading into the latest skirt. “But Marie, whatÂ .Â .Â . Ow!” she cried as her needle jabbed her finger. She popped the wounded digit instantly into her mouth, while she smoothed out the skirt to see if any blood had marred the shimmering white fabric.
This, she decided, was the limit. One made allowances for foolish brothers and silly clientele, but not when their distractions made one clumsy and in danger of ruining good silk, most especially when there was no time left to order more before the ball.
Something must be done.
“They're here!” Madelene ran into the green parlor where Adele and Helene were sitting with Helene's latest lists. “The gowns have arrived! Miss Sewell is having them taken upstairs.”
Both girls dropped the papers they held and hurried after Madelene. Adele's heart was in her mouth. Of course she had seen much of the progress during her frequent visits to Mademoiselle Marie's little workroom, but there was so much beading and tucking and trimming to be done, work had gone on until the very last moment. It was only three hours until Mrs. Wrexford's ball. Three hours until the season began and they would know if there was even a possibility that their plans for transformation would succeed.
Three hours until she would know if she and James might have a chance.
All the girls had arranged to spend the night at Miss Sewell's. Aunt Kearsely had demurred. Adele was presuming too much on Miss Sewell's time, she felt. Adele was spending too much time with Lady Helene, and this Miss Valmeyer, what were her connections? Adele had come close to panic. If Aunt Kearsely was getting suspicious or uneasy, everything would be over before it truly began.
Most unexpectedly it was Patience who came to her rescue. “Oh, let her go, Aunt,” she said loftily. “It's only one party. I'm sure she'll be home much more after this.” And she smiled with all the warmth of a snowstorm.
Adele packed and took Bridget and went, but all the time, she wondered just how much Patience knew, and what on earth her sister might be planning.
But Adele set all that aside as she gazed at the two great boxes laid out on the bed in Miss Sewell's spare room.
“This came with the others, Adele.” Miss Sewell handed her a note.
While Bridget helped Helene and Madelene open the boxes and peel back the layers of tissue, Adele opened the note. Her hands were shaking.
“Oh!” Madelene cried, holding up the sparkling champagne-colored gown.
“It's perfect,” said Miss Sewell. “Well done, Adele!”
“IÂ .Â .Â . I'm almost afraid to wear it. It's too lovely.”
“Well, if you don't wear it, Madelene, all Adele and Mademoiselle Marie's work will be wasted,” Helene said. She was running her hand across the folds of her silver gown, with its trimming of glittering glass diamonds.
“Oh well.” Madelene giggled. “I would not want that. But, where's yours, Adele?”
“Marie writes she's still finishing it.” She held up the note. “Some last-minute work on the beading. She promises it will be here in two hours.”
Adele tried to smile. She tried to accept the exclamations and promised to help the other two by playing lady's maid along with Miss Sewell and Bridget. She tried to ignore the feeling of approaching disaster that lurked in the back of her mind with the memory of Patience's smile.
” James stared at his sister. She was sitting placidly at her worktable with her foot propped up on a stool.
“I cannot go,” she said again. “I fell off the stool and twisted my ankle.” She gestured toward the bandage binding the wounded body part. “I cannot deliver the ball gown to milady Adele.”
“Then you must send Aimee,” James told her.
Did the confounded girl not understand? Tonight was everything to Adele, and to him.
“Aimee has gone home,” she replied placidly. “Her little brother has fallen ill, and she was needed. You must take the dress, James, or Adele will not have it for her grand evening.”
“You're doing this on purpose, Marie. There is nothing wrong with your ankle.”
She shrugged. “Fine. Do not go. It makes no difference to me. The gown is paid for. But how will you explain to milady that it is your fault she has no dress? Because I will tell her, you understand.”
“Yes, Marie,” James growled. “I understand you perfectly.”
In the tiny foyer of No. 48, the case clock chimed eight.
“You should go,” whispered Adele to Helene and Madelene, who stood, in their gowns with their fans and their reticules, ready to leave. They both looked truly wonderful.
“No,” said Helene stubbornly. “You've worked too hard for this. We are not going without you.”
“You have to,” she answered, striving to be firm, even though it felt like every bone in her body was crumbling to dust. “You, and the gowns, have to be seen. That's the whole point, isn't it? This is our first act. You've said it yourself. If it isn't completed, there won't be a second.”
“You go, Helene,” murmured Madelene. “I'll wait with Adele.”
Miss Sewell locked eyes with Adele and saw her agony of indecision. “I think not. It would look odd for two of you to be missing. There will be the wrong kind of talk.”
“ButÂ .Â .Â .” began Madelene.
“I'll be fine.” Adele mustered a smile. “The gown will certainly be here soon. I have Bridget to dress me, and I'll be along well before the supper dance.” She lifted her chin in her best imitation of Patience. “I shall be fashionably late, that's all.”
“Which will not cause any kind of talk,” muttered Helene. “But only if you're sure. We're in this together, and I won't see you left behind because of a silly dress.”
It's not a silly dress
, Adele wanted to shout.
It'sÂ .Â .Â . it's everything.
She twisted her hands.
“I have nothing else to wear,” she said. “I must wait, and you must go. Good luck, both of you.”
Adele embraced her friends and then had to quickly find a handkerchief to keep Madelene's tears from dropping onto her silk gloves and spotting them.
“Come along, girls,” said Miss Sewell quietly. “The horses cannot be kept standing in this cold.” She held open the door and let them file out into the hall. She looked again to Adele and nodded once, but her face was unreadable.
As soon as the others left, the house became deathly still. Adele had no idea what to do with herself. Her hair was done; her chemise, stays, and stockings were on underneath her quilted wrapper. All that was missing was the dress.
What had happened? Adele was filled with visions of accident, of robbery, of Patience bribing Mademoiselle Marie to divert the gown. But in the end it didn't really matter. What mattered was tonight was their moment. In a very real way it was their debut. If it went well, they stood a chance of effecting a lasting transformation, creating a genuine future for themselves. She had to shine for the world to see, or the world would never believe James Beauclaire could love her. It shouldn't matter, but it did. And so the dress mattered and the party mattered. Everything mattered, and here she sat, listening to the clock tick.
Oh, James. I'm sorry. I tried. I did.
The doorbell rang. Adele was on her feet, down the stairs, and across the entrance hall before she could even think. She was still in her wrapper, and Bridget was nowhere to be seen. Adele didn't care. She threw open the door.
She stood in front of him, eyes and mouth wide. She wore nothing but a thin wrapper that plainly showed all her beautiful curves. She looked stunned, she looked lovely, and here he was standing like a footman with this great box in his arms.
She was beautiful. More than beautiful. After all these weeks of only glimpsing her from a distance, now here, now there, the sight of her standing in her slippers and wrapper was almost more than he could bear.
“My beauty,” he whispered.
She took a step forward, her hand out. Her face was flushed.
She got no farther. A maid, a serious, thin girl, was hurrying down the stairs. “Oh, Lady Adele!” she cried, horrified to see her mistress standing in front of a gentleman in such a state. “You must get yourself upstairs at once!”
Adele's gaze met his. They both knew what they should do. He should put the box on the table, and he should leave. Now. This moment. Without touching her. Without a exchanging a word, never mind a kiss, never mind running his hands across her shoulders, never mindÂ .Â .Â . anything. They must just wait a little longer, that was all.
James bowed his head and began to turn away.
Adele watched James turning, and all her hesitation vanished in the space of a heartbeat. “Bridget,” Adele whispered to the maid, who was hurrying down the stairs. “IÂ .Â .Â . I have something to say in private to this gentleman.”
The maid drew herself up, prepared to be righteous and insistent. Adele was her responsibility tonight, and she was loyal and would not fail.
“This once, Bridget,” Adele said. “Never again. Please.”
Bridget opened her mouth. She closed it. She turned around and bowed her head, and Adele had the feeling she might be asking forgiveness from a much higher place than the girl whose family she served.
“I'll see to your wrap, miss,” Bridget whispered and walked away without turning around.
Adele did turn. Her mouth was dry, and her heart was pounding at the base of her throat.
What am I doing?
But she knew. She was walking up the stairs, her fingertips brushing the railing, her feet fairly floating an inch above the floor. Impulse was carrying her, and the wind. Because this could not be her doing. She could not be walking into Miss Sewell's spare bedroom with James Beauclaire following behind. She could not be closing the door and stepping aside so he could place the box with her ball gown in it on the bed, or standing frozen in place while he turned, breathing so deep his shoulders were shuddering. While he opened his arms so she could run, fly, into his embrace.
But she was and she could and his arms closed about her and they were kissing. Frantically. Passionately. Little bursts and bites alternating with long, slow, deep, open kisses. Her breasts crushed against his hard chest. He lifted her up onto her toes so their hips could press together, grind together; her most sensitive and private parts rubbed hard against the length of his erection, barely contained by white silk breeches.
Yes. Yes. She wanted this. She'd wanted this for weeks, for months. She wanted more. Her hands flew across his body, touching everywhere; back and shoulders and taut buttocks and hips. His fingers brushed the sides of her breasts, and when she groaned, he smiled into their kiss and leaned her back so he could cup her and caress her and toy with her nipples until she gasped and moaned.
I've missed you, Adele.”
“James.” It was all she could say, all she could think. “James.”
James bent down and kissed her again. His mouth was soft and warm and gentle. His tongue touched and teased and tasted until her lips parted for him. It was enthralling. It was the sensation she remembered, but honed and purified by imagination and longing. The exquisite touch of James's mouth and hands tightened every muscle in her body until she felt she must break from the strain, but she wanted it to never stop. She was vaguely aware of his hands at her waist, working at her wrapper's sash, but she couldn't remember why that was important.
Until her wrapper fell open and she felt the heat of James's body against her naked skin. She stiffened, but she did not pull away. James's tongue delved deeper into her mouth, stroking her, urging her, and she let him. Just as she let him curve his hands about her shoulders and push the wrapper away. The silk slithered deliciously down her back and her arms and puddled at her feet.
She felt him smile into their kiss as he tasted the corners of her mouth and sucked gently on her lower lip. He was backing her up, almost dancing with her. He put both broad hands on her bare shoulders and pressed downward until her knees bent, and she sat on the dressing table chair.
James knelt in front of her. Now their eyes were level with each other, and the fire in his gaze was enough to set her trembling. He must have seen, but he only smiled. He lifted her foot, delicately, as if she were made of finest porcelain, and pulled off her slipper. He cradled her heel in one hand, while the other caressed her toes and instep, and it tickled and she laughed and squirmed.
“Ah-ah,” he murmured. “This is serious business. I cannot risk ruining these lovely stockings. My lady must hold still.” Desire smoldered in his eyes and in his smile. Adele's heart couldn't decide whether it wanted to stop beating or gallop out of control.
He stroked his hand up slowly, caressing her ankle, her calf, the outside of her thigh. He teased and tested at the knot in her garter, and she groaned. She couldn't help it any more than she could help gripping the sides of the chair.