Our host for the evening, the Viscount Delmar, had recently inherited his position. The previous viscount had died without issue, so the title had passed to his eldest cousin: the portly young man currently seated at the head of the dinner table. As he was unmarried, the seat opposite him fell to the ranking noblewoman. In this case, me. The viscount had been effusively grateful when I had accepted playing the part of impromptu hostess, for he had just taken his seat in the House of Lords and my husband was something of an idol to him. The rest of the thirty-some-odd guests were organized by rank, those with titles seated nearest to the viscount, and those without closer to me. Because of this, John and I were separated by a sea of people, giving me the space I needed to clear my mind of the last remnants of lust and confusion.
The previous viscount had moved in different circles than my husband and I; those that were considered much faster than our own. He had died, quite violently, in an impromptu horse race at a house party at the beginning of the season. Rumor was that he had been wildly drunk, and had attempted to force his mount up over a hedge that was clearly too tall for it to clear. The horse had thrown him, and he had landed headfirst on a rather jagged rock. To add insult to injury, the horse had trampled him afterward.
Though I had attended soirees and masquerades thrown in the main ballroom, which was lovely, if a little plain for my tastes, this was the first time I had been inside the grand dining room, where the previous viscount had played host to his closer acquaintances. I rather regretted that now, for where the ballroom was functional and cold, this room was as opulent as it was inviting. I would have liked to have spoken with the man who had commissioned such a breathtaking room, asked him which artist had painted these stunning frescoes, where he had purchased such lavish wallpaper. Perhaps I could send Harriet here soon, to pose these questions to the butler and housekeeper, who would no doubt know the answers.
I glanced up as I took a bite of trout, my gaze lingering on the massive twin chandeliers that hung from the vaulted ceiling high overhead. Their intricate scrollwork was gilded in gold leaf, and a veritable horde of candles was held aloft by their innumerable arms. Delicate crystals dangled beneath each, their facets reflecting the candlelight down toward our party, where it glanced off silverware, flashed off wine goblets, and flirted with the jewels that adorned the guests, making it seem as though the dining room had been invaded by an army of enchanted fireflies.
I followed the dancing lights over the crowd, taking in the riot of color and conversation that spread out around of me. The women wore beautifully tailored gowns of silk and muslin that gathered just beneath their breasts to fall in loose folds to the tips of their slippers. Keeping with the current trend, they ranged in pale tones from mint green to the most delicate shade of pink that I had ever seen. In contrast, the men paired cream colored waistcoats with vibrantly hued dinner jackets, dressing them up with patterned, intricately tied cravats. John, at the opposite end of the table, was one of the few points of darkness and sobriety. He spoke calmly with the man seated across from him, the aging Duke of Glover, who was, at times, a close political ally.
I studied my husband’s profile as his lips moved, wishing I could hear the words that slipped between them, wondering what he could be saying that had put such a wily expression on the older man’s face. As though he could feel my gaze on him, John turned his head in my direction. He wore his usual mask of frosty indifference, but even at this distance I could see what I now suspected was a lingering heat that threatened to melt it. Our eyes locked, and the room fell away, leaving he and I alone in a calm not unlike that before a storm. His gaze transported me back to the carriage and the promise of pleasure between us. A warm bloom of heat blossomed open in my chest and unfurled its petals, coloring my cheeks pink. I was forced to look away, feigning a cough as I struggled to control myself.
The Duchess of Hampshire did not blush.
When I was recovered, I returned my focus to my food and forced myself to take another bite, but all I could think of was the words we had exchanged, and all I could see was the look of careful contemplation on his face as his gaze had roamed over my body. My cheeks started to burn again, and I feigned another cough to hide it, knowing that I couldn’t afford to be so distracted in my current setting. Later, when I was tucked safely in my bed, when the lights were out and no one would hear me –
“Are you all right, Your Grace?” the young woman seated to my left asked, jarring me back to reality.
A moment passed before I could respond. “I’m fine, thank you…” I said, trying to put a name to her face and failing.
“Mrs. Mary Ainsley,” she said, glancing from me to the young man seated across from her with a small smile and a pretty blush.
Though I had been sitting perpendicular to her for three full courses, this was the first time I had heard her speak. She had a soft, lyrical voice that hinted that she could hold a tune better than most. Her blonde hair was piled on top of her head in last season’s style, and though her dress was plainer than most, it was clean and creaseless, obviously well cared for. The skin of her face and neck was as pale as fresh cream, if still a little flushed, and when her blue eyes came back to mine, looking both nervous and pleased, I felt my practiced smile transform into a real one. Her innocence was not only refreshing, but also a welcome distraction.
I turned from her to the young man on my right. “Wife to Mr. Benjamin Ainsley, my husband’s favorite clerk?” I said, recalling John’s praise of the man from the week before. It had been he who had made the introduction between my husband and the new viscount.
“Yes, Your Grace,” Mr. Ainsley replied, a smile splitting his face.
They made a handsome couple, his dark hair and eyes contrasting nicely with the paleness of his wife. It made me think of John and Henry, of the embrace they’d shared before we left.
Stop it, I scolded myself. This was becoming ridiculous.
“What a pretty necklace, Mrs. Ainsley,” I said, needing discourse to keep from losing myself to my overactive imagination. “I adore pearls.”
“Thank you, Your Grace. They were my mother’s,” she said, her gloved fingers straying to them.
I turned toward her husband. “And what a coup, Mr. Ainsley, introducing the duke and Delmar.”
He grinned, glancing toward the head of the table. “Edgar and I are cousins through our mothers, Your Grace,” he said. “I would love to take full credit for the introduction, but it was he who begged it when he learned who I clerked for.”
His humility was as refreshing as his wife’s innocence. I spent much of the rest of the meal in quiet conversation with the pair. Neither seemed to fully relax in my presence, and though I was polite, I did little to encourage them to do so. I had to maintain appearances, after all. For the first time in quite a while, I was finding it difficult to do so. I truly enjoyed their company; Mrs. Ainsley was kind, unaffected, and easy to speak to, where Mr. Ainsley had a quick wit and a keen intelligence that seemed perfectly suited to his chosen profession. I thought we might have been fast friends if things had been different. I was almost willing to ignore etiquette and befriend them regardless of my rank. What was the point of being a duchess if I couldn’t break a few societal rules now and then? This thought triggered a familiar argument with myself.
It’s been three years.
My mind ran in circles while I spoke to the pair. It wasn’t just physical intimacy that I craved, but friendship. I had John and Henry, but I longed for casual conversation with another female, one like Mrs. Ainsley, who was guileless and obviously unburdened by the kind of past that I had. I found myself drawn to her because of it, some small part of me hoping that by basking in her light, I might keep my own darkness at bay. What had her childhood been like, I wondered? Did she have siblings? Did she get on with her husband’s mother? I had innumerable inane questions for her, about her youth, her day to day life.
I wanted to invite her to call on me so I could ask them, but what if three years wasn’t long enough? What if I wasn’t yet out of the woods? John and Henry had wealth and power and prestige on their side. It would buffer them from scandal. The Ainsleys had no such bulwark to shelter behind. Any association with me on their parts would be marked, remembered, and likely gossiped about to no end within their social circle. My ruin could lead to their suffering, and hadn’t I already endangered enough people because of my selfishness? Then again, Mr. Ainsley worked for John, and so his name was already irrevocably tied to our household. And if Mr. Ainsley was anything as intelligent as I thought he was, I believed he could find some way to use their ties to a scandalous member of the ton to further his career and their social standing. After all, when a tree falls in the woods, it carves a hole through the canopy on its way down that allows sunlight to shine on the undergrowth, providing the opportunists who have been biding their time a chance to elevate themselves into that light.
In the end I convinced myself that they had the willpower to persevere. That perhaps the fact that I had befriended those well beneath my rank might even further aid me, should I fall. Make people question whether or not the rumors of what I had been accused of could ever be true.
When we set down our dessert spoons and rose from our seats, I turned to thank them for such refreshing company and invited Mrs. Ainsley to call on me if the mood ever struck. Both she and her husband thanked me profusely, and when I glimpsed them beaming at each other as I stepped away, I couldn’t regret my decision.
“Oh, William, surely you’re exaggerating,” the Countess of Osley simpered not long after dinner had ended. She snuck a glance in my direction to see how much her and her husband’s words were affecting me, looking like a poorly constructed scarecrow beneath her blotchy rouge and flaking powder.
It was a struggle not to roll my eyes at her.
The party had withdrawn to the viscount’s formal drawing room, and she and her husband, the Earl of Osley, were standing near a bookshelf just behind John’s shoulder, having positioned themselves there knowing that their caustic words would reach our ears. I kept my face carefully blank as I turned my face up at John and pretended to listen to whatever he was saying. Something about how King George’s scribblings were becoming more lucid, a hopeful sign that this latest bout of our monarch’s madness was abating.
“Not in the slightest,” the earl mock-whispered to his wife. “I tell you, ever since he took over his father’s seat, our ships have been left to rot in the Thames. It’s complete chaos,” he assured her, ranting about one of John’s many perceived political failures. “And don’t even ask me about that embarrassment with the Americas. I can’t stomach to speak of it.”
You’re the true embarrassment, I sniped at him in my mind. The man was tactless and almost comically obtuse. I knew that I shouldn’t let someone so asinine rile me, but I had a fierce protective streak that made itself known whenever someone I cared for was targeted, even if that someone was John, who was more than capable of defending himself.
Osley and John’s father had shared a long-standing hatred of each other for reasons that neither John nor I were privy to. When John’s father had passed on, he had somehow inherited the grudge, and so the earl made a point of provoking us every time we met. Much to my ever-increasing annoyance.
I forced myself to relax my grip upon my champagne flute as I raised it to my lips and took a long sip of the effervescent liquid. Ah, but it would be infinitely satisfying to turn and toss the glass’s contents in the earl’s ruddy face.
“Have I ever told you how much I appreciate your impressive self-restraint?” John said, his quiet tone bringing my focus back to him. His face was utterly blank; never a good sign.
“I have no idea how you stand for such abuse. Where is the Parasite of Parliament?” I said, my voice so low that only he would hear it.
He paused. “Did you just invent that name?”
“Yes,” I said, feeling a little foolish now.
The corner of his lips twitched. Just once. Anyone else would have missed it, would have been too distracted by the severe set of his brows, but after years of studying his face, it seemed I was finally developing the ability to interpret the subtlety of his expressions. Either that, or he had allowed me to glimpse his amusement. With John, I could never be sure who had the upper hand.
“I stand for it because I keep hoping that he will slip up and reveal something about why he and my father hated each other so much,” he said.
“It’s quite miraculous, really, that such a buffoon could keep so close a secret.”
“Miraculous, and concerning,” John said.
I repressed the urge to frown, reflecting upon his words. I wasn’t John’s only spy. He had eyes and ears everywhere. Surely some of them were watching Osley. And knowing John, he had thoroughly investigated Osley and his father’s relationship. That he hadn’t learned why it was so contentious was slightly alarming, now that I really thought about it.
Behind him, the earl was still speaking, and where I had lost the thread of his conversation, it seemed that John had not, for a sly, taunting grin tugged at his lips as he turned toward the older man. That look did not bode well for Osley, and I almost pitied the man. John was a bloodthirsty politician, and could be unspeakably cruel to those he detested, or those who attempted to oppose his political agenda. Deep down, I was worried that this was part of why I cared so much for him. That my darkness was drawn to his own.
“Tell me, Osley,” he said, his voice dangerously low, “does it irk you to know that I have the King’s ear?”
Osley began to bluster in response.
John didn’t give him a chance to speak. “Or is what’s really bothering you that you don’t know why our ships ‘rot in the Thames’, as you put it? That you don’t understand why we signed that agreement with Jefferson? My father always said that you were hopeless at chess when you were children. That you fell for every blind and bluff as you focused on the short game and ignored the long. Perhaps you should step away from the board for a while, old man,” he said, patting the earl on the shoulder like you might a hound who was struggling to master a trick. The expression on his face was just as patronizing, and his voice was laced with laconic disdain when he continued. “Staring at the pieces for too long will be bound to give a man of your…intelligence a headache. Best to stick with checkers and let those of us who know what we’re about see to the safety and sanctity of the empire.”
With that, John turned away, raising his arm. I slipped my hand into the crook of it dutifully, biting the inside of my cheek to keep the savage grin that threatened at bay.
“Shall we make our exit?” John asked, turning us away.
“What about Glover?” I said. John had been seeking the elderly duke’s support for a trade bill in the House of Commons. We needed his men on our side if it had any chance of passing.
“I elicited his agreement during the fourth course,” he answered.
“Well done, Your Grace,” I said, giving his arm a squeeze.
He flashed me a look that might have been victorious in nature and steered us toward the doorway.
We made our departure shortly afterward, and as soon as we were ensconced in our carriage, I felt the tension begin to ease from my shoulders.
“Tonight was more difficult for me than usual,” I confessed, leaning back into my seat.
“I know exactly what you mean,” John responded, the right side of his mouth twitching up as the carriage rolled out of the courtyard. “I was in the middle of trying to get Glover to see reason when I met your eyes at dinner. I almost forgot where I was and winked at you.”
“You didn’t,” I said, grinning in response to such an uncharacteristic declaration.The gossips would have fallen all over themselves in their haste to spread the word that the Duke of Hampshire had sunk so low as to actually flirt with his own wife. In public.
“I did,” he assured me, his full lips parting in a smile that seemed to light up the interior of the carriage with its brightness.
My heartbeat hiccupped at the sight. It was no longer possible for me to deny what I had been so desperately trying to. His tête–à–tête with the earl had only served to remind me that it wasn’t just his beauty that I lusted after, but also his mind and even his very nature, regardless, or perhaps because of how dangerously close it was to my own.
What a fool I was. I had done the one thing that I had sworn to myself I never would.
I had fallen in love with my husband.