illian Dashwood glanced around the dining room in the Duke of Welbourne’s palatial hunting lodge in Hampshire and wondered, not for the first time, what she was doing here. Her gaze took in the huge stone fireplace, the bronze silk-hung walls adorned with the glassy-eyed heads of fox, boar and roebuck no doubt killed by his grace, before her eyes considered the guests seated around the long crystal-and silver-laden table.
Gillian recognized several of the men—all friends of her husband, Charles. Lord Padgett, Miles St. John, William Stanton and, not surprising, the duke’s youngest son, Lord George Canfield, were seated around the long table. All of them, at one time or another, had been guests in her home, but she couldn’t say their presence gave her any comfort. Being friends of her husband, they were all dissolute gamblers and heavy drinkers and beyond presiding over the dining table at her home, she avoided them, retreating upstairs with her companion and cousin, Mrs. Easley, as soon as politeness allowed.
Her gaze happened to meet Canfield’s and a chill swept through her. Averting her eyes, her chin lifted. What a detestable creature—staring at her bosom that way.
Once again, she glanced around the table. It wasn’t a large party, but that
was here was puzzling. From what she could discern, she and Charles were the only married couple in attendance. She’d assumed that the duchess would be attending, as well as the wives of the other gentlemen, but of the duke’s wife—or anybody else’s
there was no sign.
Several of the gentlemen, including her host, were married, but all the women present, with the exception of herself, were either widowed or unattached and none with any chaperone in attendance. The ladies, while young and attractive, were not in the first blush of youth either, but it was astonishing that they would be mingling so freely with the gentlemen.
Gillian told herself not to be judgmental, but the bold mannerisms and forward behavior of the women made her uncomfortable. The clinging hands, the too-loud laughter and the assessing, avid eyes ... And the gowns! Nervously, she glanced down at her own self. Helped by a diamond and topaz brooch she’d used to alter the neckline and a bronze gauze wrap worn like a shawl and crisscrossed in front of the brooch, her breasts were decently covered—even if it didn’t prevent Canfield from ogling.
When Charles had presented her with the gown, she’d taken one look at the amber silk confection he’d bought for her to wear tonight and had known immediately that it was far too dashing for her. They’d argued over the gown, Gillian refusing to wear a garment cut so low that the bodice barely covered her nipples. Mrs. Easley agreed with her. Furious, Charles stalked around the room, berating them for being a pair of country mice and unaware of the ways of the world. His words fell on deaf ears. Looking from one set feminine face to the other, shaking a finger at Gillian, he snarled, “By God, you’ll not defy me! You
wear the gown at Welbourne’s party, if I have to put it on you myself,” and stormed from the room.
Gillian and Mrs. Easley looked at each other and then at the silk and lace gown spread across Gillian’s bed. Fingering the offending neckline, Gillian sighed. “I suppose we can find some way to make it respectable.”
Mrs. Easley nodded. Taking the gown from Gillian, she studied it. “Perhaps I can do something with that diamond and topaz brooch he recently bought for you. See here? The brooch is certainly large enough and if we center it and use the clasp to hold the edges of either side ...”
Between the two of them, they managed to weave the fabric onto the pin of the large brooch and raise the neckline to some degree. The addition of a wide swathe of bronze gauze gave even more concealment.
While he amused himself in London, Charles determined that Gillian should remain home in their pleasant cottage in Surrey, but that didn’t mean that she wasn’t aware of society ways. Her parents had been members of the gentry and she’d been raised with all the benefits and rules pertaining to proper young ladies; if she’d been so inclined she could boast of titled ancestry a few generations back. Glancing around the table again, she suspected that there was nothing
about this evening.
She looked at her husband seated down a few seats and across from her and frowned. He had been exceptionally kind to her in the time leading up to the duke’s dinner party and that alone should have made her suspicious. Once he’d gambled away the respectable fortune she’d brought to the marriage, he’d had little use for her except to run his household and see to it that his friends, like Padgett and Stanton and the others, were made comfortable when staying with them in Surrey.
Her golden-brown eyes resting on Charles’s dark face as he beguiled the woman sitting next to him, Gillian could still see signs of the handsome and charming man she had fallen in love with and married nearly nine years ago. He was a month away from his thirty-fifth birthday, and while the ravages of an indulgent and rakish life were increasingly evident, there was no denying that when he entered a room women noticed him.
Watching the woman, a widow, flower under Charles’s warm look, Gillian wanted to warn her not to believe the honeyed words that fell from those chiseled lips and the promise that gleamed in those striking blue eyes. Unable to bear watching him work his charms on yet another foolish woman, her gaze dropped.
Wondering how different her life would have been if she’d listened to her uncle and heeded his words, she sighed. Except for her older half brother, Stanley Ordway, her only other male relative had been her uncle, and since she and Stanley were often at odds with each other, she’d had only her uncle to look to for approval when Charles had asked her to marry him. Uncle Silas had chosen his words with care. Smiling fondly at her, he’d said, “He’s a handsome bit of goods, I’ll grant you that, but I worry, my dear, that he might make you an
sort of husband.” She’d brushed his comment aside, at eighteen so besotted by Charles Dashwood that no one could have prevented her from marrying him.
Thinking back to that time, she grimaced. The fact that she and Stanley had been in agreement about something should have warned her. Shaking her head, she realized that Stanley’s friendship with Charles had been an obvious clue to his nature: her half brother was addicted to all games of chance and his friends were known gamesters. If only—
“Some more wine, my dear,” purred a voice in her ear, breaking into her thoughts. “Your glass is nearly empty.”
Gillian started and glanced at Lord Winthrop, the gentleman seated next to her. She knew him slightly, he was one of Charles’s friends, but she did not like him—or the assessing gleam in his gray eyes. Like the others, Winthrop had visited them a few times in Surrey and he always made her uneasy, staring too long at her bosom, his hands holding hers longer than necessary. She sensed if she were ever foolish enough to be alone with him that he could not be trusted not to make unwanted advances.
Easily a decade or two older than most of Charles’s friends and like her husband and her half brother, Winthrop was a gambler. Unlike Charles and Stanley, he was also wealthy and a close crony of Welbourne’s; she suspected it was Charles’s association with Winthrop and Canfield that explained their presence here tonight.
Forcing a smile, Gillian replied, “No, thank you.”
His eyes traveled over her, lingering on the soft swell of her breasts hidden beneath the bronze gauze, and she flushed and picked up her wineglass. Bringing the glass to her lips, she used her arm to shield herself from his bold gaze.
“It’s a warm night ... surely you don’t need that bit of gauzy nonsense hiding your charms,” he murmured.
A spurt of temper shot through her, and with ice in her voice, Gillian said, “You are too forward, my lord. I would thank you to keep your opinions to yourself.”
He laughed, not at all abashed. “Ah, I like a lady with spirit.” When Gillian glared at him, he murmured, “Forgive me, I was too bold, indeed.”
Gillian shrugged, wishing he’d turn his attention to his neighbor and leave her alone. Would this interminable meal ever be over?
“You’ve not attended one of the duke’s, ah, parties previously, have you?” asked Winthrop, not the least put off by her manner.
Stiffly, she replied. “No, this is my first time.”
He smiled. “Your first time ... well, let us hope you find it memorable ... I will certainly do my best to see that it is quite, quite pleasurable for you.”
His words and smile only increased her discomfort, and she glanced around for a distraction, but seeing that everyone was busy with their own conversations, she turned back to Winthrop and asked brightly, “Have you attended many of these, these parties?”
“Oh, yes. Frequently. One never knows what ...
Welbourne will have arranged for us.”
Feeling as if they were talking about two different things, Gillian babbled, “And the duchess, does she attend?”
Winthrop threw back his silver-streaked dark head and laughed. “Oh, my sweet, you are adorable. Wherever did Charles find you?”
Her fingers tightened on the wineglass and she decided she
didn’t like his lordship very much ... or the duke’s party. She wanted to go home. Now.
Perhaps, she thought unhappily, Charles was right and she
a country mouse. Certainly this glittering, sophisticated group made her feel out of her league.
As if guessing she was ready to bolt from the room, Winthrop said, “Forgive me—I see that I was too free in my comments. I apologize.” When Gillian nodded and kept her gaze averted, he murmured, “Come now, I’ve apologized. Won’t you relent, fair lady, and favor me with some conversation?”
“I doubt my conversation would interest you,” she muttered.
“How do you know unless you try me?”
She glanced sharply at him, wondering if there was a double meaning behind his words, but there was only polite inquiry on his face.
“Let us see, what topic would you like to discuss?” he asked. “Fashion? The latest gossip circling the
Or are you a bluestocking and prefer to talk about books and music? Ah, perhaps, the plight of poor King Louis and his beautiful queen, Marie Antoinette?”
Seated on Gillian’s other side and hearing Winthrop’s question, a florid-faced gentleman, one of the few men present with powdered hair, exclaimed, “Indeed, the situation in France should concern us all.” He looked around the table. “Everyone knows that since Mirabeau’s death in April the French assembly has been in utter disarray—why, even the royal family tried to flee the country. It is a shame they were caught before they could escape.” Shaking his head gloomily, he added, “You mark my words, there are dangerous days ahead.”
A blond-haired beauty nearby leaned forward and murmured, “Poor Marie Antoinette! Imagine being dragged back to Paris like a common criminal. Shameful!”
“At least the king and queen are still alive,” said another gentleman. “Not like several other unfortunates. It’s no wonder that London is being flooded with aristocratic émigrés. No one knows what will happen next.”
Winthrop yawned. “Dear me, I feel as if I have wandered into the House of Lords.” Plaintively he asked, “
we discuss politics?”
The gentleman on Gillian’s other side flushed, but a ripple of laughter went around the table and the situation in France was dropped.
A gentlemen on the other side of the table asked, “Speaking of tragedies, has anyone heard anything new about the widowed Mrs. Soule?”
“Wasn’t it shocking?” exclaimed one of the women. “You’d have expected it in London, but who’d have thought such a thing would occur here in the tranquility of the country.”
“Yes, it was shocking,” agreed Miles St. John.
An awkward silence fell, everyone suddenly remembering that one of the latest on-dits had been that St. John had been snared at last and that an engagement had been in the offing.
Self-consciously St. John cleared his throat and murmured, “Elizabeth was a dear friend. As many of you know I often escorted her around London.” His handsome mouth thinned. “It’s appalling to think that someone broke into her home and murdered her in her bed and if I ever ...” He broke off, flashed a wry smile and said, “Forgive me. I allow my emotions to run away with me.”
Not at all happy to be usurped by a rehashing of the tragic event that had ignited the neighborhood two months ago, Winthrop murmured, “First politics and now something that would provide the plot of a Minerva Press Novel.” Sending a pained look around the table, he asked, “Must we discuss these things?”
Charles laughed and said, “Come now, Winthrop, you like gossip as well as the rest of us.”
“Yes, but not,” he said, “when I am in the presence of a beautiful lady like your wife.”
“Point taken,” Charles murmured and turned his attention back to the lady next to him.
Smiling at Gillian, Winthrop murmured, “Ah, and now where were we? Was I admiring your eyes? Or perhaps, it was that delicious mouth of yours?”
“Actually,” she said with a bite, “
were the one who introduced the topic of King Louis and Queen Marie Antoinette.”