Read That Kind of Woman Online
Authors: Paula Reed
By Paula Reed
THAT KIND OF WOMAN
Copyright © 2012
All Rights Reserved.
NLA Digital Liaison Platform LLC
This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
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The Caribbean Trilogy:
Hester: The Missing Years of The Scarlet Letter
“The poor, poor dowager countess,” Lady Worthington said, though her small eyes gleamed with malice. She smoothed the skirt of a peach muslin gown that did not suit her advancing years and scanned the crowded drawing room. When her gaze fell on a heavy woman dressed in black and frowning deeply, Lady Worthington sighed dramatically. “I cannot imagine how she must feel, to see one of the Henley Harlots take her place as Countess of Danford.”
“Mortifying, that’s what it is,” one of her friends replied. “She
brave to keep up such a front. Leave it to the Duke of Montheath to host such an extravagant reception for such a scandalous wedding!” She took a sip of champagne, swallowing slowly and savoring the fine wine so expensive in wartime.
“Well, Lord Danford is not her own child, and one has so little influence over stepchildren. Still, for him to have married so low…” Lady Worthington said.
Miranda Carrington, Countess of Danford, sipped champagne behind them, listening to the women criticize her ascension as the bride of George Carrington, Earl of Danford. Her face betrayed nothing; she had certainly overheard people discussing her before. Today’s conversation was nearly complimentary in comparison.
“How long do you suppose it will take for her to cuckold Lord Danford?” another woman asked.
“She’s a Cyprian, just like her mother,” Lady Worthington snapped. “It is in her blood. The question is not how long, but whom. No one’s husband or sons are safe.”
“I have managed to resist both your son’s and your husband’s charms thus far, Lady Worthington,” Miranda said. The group of women pivoted to face her. “Although both have offered me a king’s ransom for my favors. I do not see my answer to either of them changing, simply because I have married.”
The three women accompanying Lady Worthington had the grace to appear abashed at having been overheard, but Lady Worthington smiled serenely. She tilted her head and gave Miranda’s pristine gown of ivory muslin and her perfectly coifed chestnut hair a scornful perusal. “You have no need of a wealthy provider now, do you, Miranda Henley?”
“Nor have I ever, and you may call me Lady Danford.”
Lady Worthington pursed her lips, and her eyes slid to the corner, where Lord Montheath, Miranda’s father, stood with a group of nobles. To a man, they vied for the powerful duke’s attention. Miranda saw the cold calculation in the older woman’s eyes. Doubtless she was weighing just how far she dared to push.
The desire to come out on top at this particular moment must have won, for she looked back at Miranda and said, “The by-blow of a duke is a by-blow all the same. The fact that he flaunts you and your tawdry mother hardly makes you Quality.”
“You have me there. After all, no one could hope to supercede you, a bitch of the very best breeding.” Miranda lifted her glass in mock salute.
The other women gasped, but Lady Worthington remained unfazed. “You even speak like a demimondaine.”
Miranda took another sip of champagne. “You should know, surely having encountered such women in the hall outside your husband’s chamber. Do have some champagne, Lady Worthington. It is my wedding day, and I would never have it said I was remiss in my duties at this little fête.”
She nodded to Lady Worthington’s three silent toadeaters, all titled matrons, and moved through the crowd gathered for her “little fête.” As she wended her way through the opulent drawing room toward her groom, she accepted a half-dozen insincere congratulations on her marriage with all the grace and dignity of a swan among geese. It was, indeed, her wedding day, and she refused to allow anything to dampen her mood. People could think whatever they liked, but Miranda was genuinely fond of George. She had no doubt they would live together in calm contentment on his country estates, far from the London crowds they both hated.
That mutual scorn for Society was what had made Miranda’s father so certain she and George would suit each other and the reason he had introduced them. True, George was considerably older than Miranda, but she had instantly liked his gentle and unassuming manner. That there seemed to be little passion between them didn’t worry her. Until she had met George, passion had been the chief interest of most of the men she had met, to the exclusion of all else. It was refreshing to be with a man who spoke of literature and art with true depth and appreciation.
Alas, their planned retreat to the country would not happen for several more days. Since they had met and become engaged in London during the Season, both their families had insisted the nuptials be celebrated there, as well. Barbara Henley, Miranda’s mother, had considered the match between her daughter and an earl a personal triumph. She was hardly going to allow the coup de grâce to be delivered privately. Also, George had wanted his family to attend, and all of them were in Town for the Season, with the exception of his brother Andrew, who was on the Continent, engaging Napoleon’s forces.
At the moment, George was talking to Andrew’s young daughter, Emma. They both looked splendid. George wore snug trousers and a dark jacket, his glorious head of graying brown hair framing a face that was aging well. Emma was a beautiful blond girl of twelve. Thrilled to have been allowed to attend the celebration breakfast after the morning wedding, she had chosen a sweet gown of palest pink. But Emma was not always as sweet as she looked. Above the din of the crowd, Miranda could hear a note of complaint in the girl’s voice, and she crossed her arms, looking like she was preparing for a good, long pout.
George’s stepmother, Letitia, Dowager Countess of Danford and Emma’s guardian, hovered nearby with her lips tightly pursed. She looked ignominiously dignified in the black mourning gown that swathed her substantial form, despite the fact her husband had died years ago. If anyone was uncouth enough to ask her opinion, she explained that
certainly hadn’t encouraged Danford’s outrageous decision.
Miranda set her empty champagne glass onto the silver tray of a passing butler, only to have a full one pressed almost immediately into her empty hand.
“Have another, my lady,” Henry Carrington said with an easy grin, and Miranda’s face finally relaxed into a genuine smile.
“How many have you had, Henry?”
“Who’s counting?” George’s half-brother, Henry, was an extraordinarily handsome boy in a flawlessly cut jacket and skin-tight trousers, which gave him the appearance of someone rather older than his eighteen years. He lifted his glass to her. “George has wonderful taste—in wine and women.”
Miranda tsked him lightly. “Your mother will have a fit if she sees you over here being so pleasant to me. She can wash her hands of Danford’s folly for he isn’t her own, but I rather imagine she would prefer I not corrupt her little boy.”
Henry gave his head a little shake, tossing back the lock of light brown hair falling over his brow in careful carelessness. He had a paler version of George’s thick hair, but where George’s eyes were dark green, Henry’s were hazel. His face was rounder, too; further evidence they shared only a father.
“She’d have me on leading strings if she could. I’ve dallied with women far more scandalous than you, sister dear.”
“Well, it’s good to know that someone besides George is willing to acknowledge me as family.”
Henry tossed his head again. “Lud, you’d think everyone would be relieved that old George has finally taken a bride, and a diamond of the first water.”
“Some might suggest he has been taken by a gem made of paste.”
He gave her an appreciative grin. “Perhaps you’d bear closer scrutiny, then. Oh, my, Mama’s glaring daggers. I believe I’ll make myself scarce. Don’t let her intimidate you, my lady. You’ll be a perfect countess.” With a little wave, he dashed off to join a group of old school chums.
Henry was far from the first man to suggest Miranda allow him a closer look at her, but he spoke without the jaded lasciviousness to which she was far too accustomed. Instead of feeling sullied, she easily brushed the comment off. Lord Henry was scarcely more than a child, a full four years younger than Miranda.
She set the full glass on another passing tray and resumed picking her way across the room when she saw George’s face light with joy. She smiled in return, but her expression faded when she realized he was looking past her.
“Andy!” he called out. “Over here!”
Miranda stopped, and her eyes followed the path her new husband’s had taken.
“George! Good God, I only just arrived, and the first thing I hear is I’ve missed your wedding. What’s all this?”
Major Andrew Carrington crossed the room in long, easy strides, the crowd moving respectfully out of his way. The scarlet jacket and gray trousers of his army uniform clung smartly to broad shoulders and trim hips. His russet hair was neatly trimmed, but like George and Henry, one errant lock fell across his brow. A portrait of him, painted just before he had left for Portugal, hung in the Carrington’s townhouse, but he looked older in person. His face was leaner, the skin around his eyes more deeply etched with lines. George was the elder by ten years, evidenced by the touch of frost in his hair, but he and Andrew looked closer in the face.
“Father!” Emma cried, and launched herself into his arms. Major Carrington stiffened for a moment, then hugged her close.
“Don’t you look like a perfect little lady?” he said, pushing her an arm’s length away. “Did your governess help you dress?”
Emma scowled. “She was a perfect fright!”
Major Carrington straightened up, inspecting her as Miranda supposed he must inspect his troops when they had displeased him. He clasped his hands behind his back and raised his chin to look down upon her.
The dowager countess bustled over. “Honestly, Andrew, if you would hire a governess with an ounce of compassion …”
“Emma would eat her for breakfast! How long did this one last?”
Emma pouted. “You’re spoiling the party, Father.”
Miranda stood at the front edge of the crowd gathering around the new arrival and his family. She sighed as she watched the exchange. Everyone had been expecting some sort of scene. With any luck, this would be the worst of it. It would give the gossips something to talk about besides the fact that the dowager Lady Danford had worn mourning clothes.
“Randa, dear,” George called to her. “Look who’s home!”
She put on her brightest smile and stepped into the circle. “Yes, I see. Major Carrington, how fortuitous that you should have arrived this morning.”