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Authors: Kate Harper

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The Marquis At Midnight

BOOK: The Marquis At Midnight
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The Marquis At Midnight

 

 

 

Kate Harper

 

 

 

 

 

Copyright Kate
Harper@2011-11-25

 

www.kate-harper.com

 

 

 

Smashwords Edition, License Notes

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Chapter One

 

 

 

 

A masquerade at the Vauxhall Gardens was
possibly one of the most exciting events to be found in London,
Lady Grace Pemberton reflected happily. The music, the crowds, it
was all quite enchanting. She sighed, taking a sip of ratafia to
cool her flushed cheeks.

When someone nudged her shoulder, Grace
looked around to see the familiar figure of her friend Hester
Woodward standing beside her. It was a poor disguise to anyone who
knew her, for the green mask she wore could not hide the riotous
color of her bright red hair. She was carrying several glasses of
chilled champagne, one of which she handed to Grace.

‘I saw you enjoying yourself! Do not pretend
otherwise.’

‘I would not dream of it,’ Grace laughed.
Laughter felt good. It felt as if she had not truly laughed for
such a long time. ‘I have danced the last three dances and am
dreadfully warm. There are so many people.’

Hester chuckled. ‘A public masquerade at
Vauxhall Gardens? My dear, of course there are. That’s why I
suggested it. You needed something different. Drink up and then you
will be ready to dance some more.’

Grace didn’t know about that, but she was
glad she had come and took a sip of her champagne. It was
delicious. Perhaps Hester was right after all. It had been eighteen
months since Justin had died and, with the coming of this
particular spring, she’d begun to feel something stirring inside
herself, like the green shoots that were currently unfurling on the
trees and bushes and hedgerows. Hester had been pestering her for
some time about visiting London to reenter society. Now she was
glad that she had taken her friend up on her invitation, although
Grace suspected that the joys might pall after a time. It had been
a harsh winter in the wilds of Yorkshire. She’d been pleased to
leave the still icy north to its own devices for the time
being.

‘Where is Porter?’

Hester gave an airy shrug. ‘Who can say? Off
chasing some likely bit of skirt, I daresay. As long as they are
not wearing a green mask and do not have hair like mine, no woman
in the room is safe.’

‘Oh for heaven’s sake…’

‘I do not want to talk about it.’

Of course she did not. She had not wanted to
talk about it ever since Grace had realized that husband and wife
were barely on speaking terms, but it was impossible to believe
that solid and sensible Porter was off chasing other women. Of
course, she had not seen much of her host since she had arrived at
Curzon Street as he was working on government business and had been
away in France for the first week, but since his return it had
become obvious that all was not as it should be in Hester’s
marriage to Viscount Woodward.

Certainly, in the past few days hostilities
between the once happy couple seemed to have escalated. For some
reason, Hester was insisting that Porter was being unfaithful.
Indeed, she insisted that few married men were without a mistress
so what did it matter? But Grace was having none of it.

And if the conversation she
had heard earlier in the night was any indication, it was Porter
that believed
Hester
was involved with another man, an equally absurd
notion.

The marriage of Miss Hester Carstairs and
Viscount Woodward had been a love match two years ago. Grace was
prepared to swear to it. They had been besotted with each other and
she was determined to discover what had happened, but now was not
the time, even if she could get her friend to open up about what
was going on. As outgoing as Hester was, she had been less than
forthcoming on the subject of her marriage.

Unfortunately, this
reticence did not extend to Grace’s
own
affairs. ‘It is lovely to see you
having so much fun. Why, I can’t remember the last time you took to
the dance floor so much.’

‘You know perfectly well I attend some of
the assemblies at Harrogate.’

‘Oh,
Harrogate
,’ Hester said, dismissing
the town with a wave of one white hand. ‘Very nice for the
provinces, my angel, but you needed to come up to London and go
about properly. Shake off Yorkshire and its sheep.’

Grace was amused. ‘But my home is in Scotton
and, while it is very nice of you to have me...’

‘Pffst!’


...I really need to go
home in the next week or so.’

‘Why?’ Hester demanded. ‘What do you need to
get back to?’

‘Fifty tenants and a household?’

‘You have an estate manager for that. And a
perfectly competent housekeeper.’ Hester returned quickly. ‘The
place will putter along quite well without you for a month or so
and well you know it. And I do so want you to stay and keep me
company. The Season has just started and it gets so dreary if one
does not have a particular friend to go about with.’

Grace looked at Hester thoughtfully,
although it was impossible to read her expression, dressed as she
was. Grace had been staying with her for nearly two weeks now and
was seeing flashes of something quite disturbing. Something was not
well with her usually equable friend; so much was obvious. Gentle
probing had not drawn out the cause. She seemed strangely reluctant
to reveal the reason for her increasingly mercurial moods.

Something to do with Porter and the busy
schedule that had been keeping him from home?

‘I suppose I can stay for a while longer,’
she agreed easily, ‘especially as it has been so wet. The roads
will be quite dreadful. Perhaps another few weeks?’

‘Oh yes, please!’ Hester said with
breathless gratitude, just as a pair of laughing gentlemen
approached them.

‘Ladies!’ one said merrily, ‘We cannot have
two such ravishing creatures languishing on the sidelines. Come and
dance with us for we are devastatingly lonely.’

A pair of suddenly sparkling blue eyes met a
pair of laughing brown. Both ladies placed their now empty glasses
down and swept elegant curtsies to the gentlemen. Once again, they
sailed onto the floor.

 

Sheridan, the Marquis of Morvyn, eyed the
crowded dance floor grimly, wondering where the devil Judith was.
Not where she’d said she’d be, so much was clear. He stared at the
dancers, trying to make out which one was his sister. She was
wearing blue, he recalled. Blue satin, he fancied. A girl in just
such a dress whirled by, closely followed by another. Damned
masquerade balls! How the hell was he supposed to find her in this
crowd?

Morvyn was out of sorts. He loathed such
affairs and had strenuously resisted bringing Judith. If it wasn’t
for their mother, curse her, he would have refused, but, as usual,
Lady Morvyn had resorted to her hartshorn and her handkerchief and
had batted big, tearful eyes at him.

‘I would, Sherry dear, but
I feel quite poorly this evening.
Please
be a darling and take your
sister. She has been looking forward to it for a
week
.’

That was his mother. All sighs and eyes, or
so his father used to say. The trouble was that neither he nor his
father had ever been able to say no. So here he was again, trailing
after his damned sibling at some ridiculous amusement that he
normally wouldn’t be seen dead at. Although, it must be admitted
that a masquerade had its uses. He’d even found a black satin
domino to wear because, quite frankly, anonymity was the only
positive that could be taken from this entire affair. At least he
would not have to fend off hopeful debutantes or their ghastly
mothers the evening through.

Another female dressed in
blue capered by. The light was not as good as it could be, part of
the charms of the masquerade, he supposed. It made identifying the
guests that much harder and it was impossible to tell if it were
Judith. He thought it might be; the female was about the right
height and slender enough. Had she been wearing that domino? He
could not remember. He hadn’t paid much attention, truth be told.
Judith was twelve years younger than him and a whole universe
distant in terms of similarity of outlook. If he were asked
anything at all about his youngest sibling he would probably be
forced to plead ignorance, but happily he didn’t
need
to know anything
about her. That was what his mother was for. All that was required
of him was to – very occasionally – squire Judith to some event.
Fortunately, it happened very rarely.
Un
fortunately, he had been in the
wrong place at the wrong time tonight and had been thrown to the
wolves by his beloved parent.

‘Where the devil is she!’

There came a sudden gap in
the dancing couples and he stiffened when he saw what he assumed
was his sister in the arms of a man on the other side of the floor.
There was no doubt that the gentleman was in his cups; it was a
wonder he could negotiate the steps of the waltz at all. And that
was another thing. A waltz? Morvyn didn’t
think
so. Judith might be a cheeky
little minx, but she was his sister and he was damned if he’d have
some foxed fool manhandling her to a dance that was still being
supervised at Almacks.

He began to negotiate his way around the
edge of the dance floor, dodging giggling women and boisterous men.
It was getting close to midnight and the revelry was escalating.
More than time to take Judith home, for this was hardly a suitable
environment for all that it was sanctioned by the likes of Lady
Jersey and the Prince Regent. He’d seen Prinny puffing around
earlier in the evening, his plump figure unmistakable in its purple
satin and flamboyant feathered headdress. It had not been a
particularly regal look for the future king of England.

Having reached his
destination, Morvyn paused, eyeing the couple that were more
lurching than dancing. Clearly Judith wasn’t having much of a time
of it with her partner. As rescue was so close at hand, Morvyn took
a moment to observe the tableau, wondering if the fool pawing his
sister merited a swift kick up the pants. Perhaps not. Clearly the
fellow was using Judith more to hold himself up than to take
advantage.
Perhaps this will teach her a
lesson
, he thought, and then
immediately,
although I very much doubt
it!

Judith, like so many females of her age, was
not much given to lesson learning.

Morvyn moved forward and tapped the
inebriated gentleman on the shoulder. The man turned his head and
Morvyn was engulfed in a cloud of alcoholic fumes. It said much for
his sister’s stamina that she was still standing there, although
perhaps she had been worried her partner would collapse. He had not
realized she was so considerate.

‘Yersss?’

‘My dance, I think.’

‘But 'm dancing.’

‘You were dancing,’ Morvyn returned coolly,
removing a large hand off his sister’s shoulder. ‘Now, however,
you’re finding something else to do.’

The man stood disconsolate, wavering on the
balls of his feet, while he debated what stance to take, but his
fuddled head was clearly not up to confrontation. With a
particularly unlovely belch, he sketched a half bow to his partner,
who had stood silently throughout, then tottered from the floor,
colliding with quite a few bodies along the way.

‘That was very chivalrous
of you.’ A soft, mellifluous voice. Certainly a lady’s
voice.
Not
his
sister’s voice, however. ‘He was becoming a little too much to
manage.’

Morvyn stood, hesitating for a moment.
Clearly he had the wrong gown entirely, but walking away would be
the height of discourtesy. He made her a bow. ‘I am sorry that he
was bothering you.’

‘Oh, it is getting late. He
was not impolite,’ she sounded a little mischievous.
Not so very old, then.
‘In fact, he tried very hard to engage me in conversation.
Unfortunately, he kept forgetting what he was saying.’

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