Our host for the evening, Viscount Delmar, had recently inherited his position. The previous viscount had passed without issue, so the title had been transferred 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 thrilled when I agreed to play the part of impromptu hostess. He had just taken his seat in the House of Lords, and John 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 desire and worry.
The previous viscount had moved in different circles than John and me; those that were considered much faster than our own. He had died, quite violently, in an impromptu horse race at a house party a few months past. Rumor was that he had been wildly drunk, and 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’d 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’d been inside the grand dining room, where the previous viscount had played host to his closest 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 speak with the man that 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 my questions to the butler and housekeeper, who might be able to supply 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. A veritable horde of candles was held aloft in their arms. Delicate crystals dangled beneath each one, the facets reflecting candlelight down toward our party, where it glanced off silverware, flashed across 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 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 intricately tied cravats. John, at the opposite end of the table, was one of the few points of starkness and sobriety. He was deep in conversation 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’d said that had put such a wily expression on the older man’s face.
As though he could feel my regard, John turned in my direction. He wore his usual mask of frosty indifference, but even at this distance, I saw what I suspected was a lingering heat that threatened to melt it. Our eyes locked. The room fell away, leaving us 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 small bud of heat blossomed to life 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 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 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.
A moment passed before I could respond. “I’m fine, thank you…” I tried and failed to put a name to her face.
“Mrs. Mary Ainsley,” she said, glancing from me to the young man seated across from her with a small smile.
Though I had been sitting perpendicular to her for two full courses, this was the first time I had heard her speak. She had a soft, lyrical voice that hinted 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, 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 of 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 with and yet complimenting 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. 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.”
Her gloved fingers strayed to them. “Thank you, Your Grace. They were my mother’s.”
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.”
I found his humility as refreshing as his wife’s innocence, and so I spent the rest of the meal in quiet conversation with the pair. Neither appeared to 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 some while, I found 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 keen intelligence that seemed well suited to his chosen profession. We might have been fast friends if things were different. I was tempted 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?
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, someone like Mrs. Ainsley, who was guileless and unburdened by the stress and pressure a lady of the ton faced on a daily basis. I found myself drawn to her because of it, curious about her in a way that I wasn’t with women of my own rank. What had her childhood been like? 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.
She was far beneath my rank, yes, but though it would be unusual for me to befriend her, it would fall far short of causing scandal. And so, when we set down our dessert spoons and rose from our seats, I thanked 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 said in a simpering tone after dinner. She snuck a glance in my direction to see whether her 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, stood 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 and turned further toward John, pretending 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.” The man adored ranting about John’s 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 wanted to snap. The man was tactless and almost comically obtuse. 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, he had somehow inherited the grudge, and so the earl made a point of provoking us each time we met. Much to my ever-increasing annoyance.
I forced myself to relax my grip on my champagne flute as I raised it to my lips and took a long sip of the effervescent liquid. Ah, but it would be beyond 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 self-restraint?” John said, his quiet tone bringing my focus back to him. His expression was utterly blank. Never a good sign.
“I have no idea how you stand for such abuse. Where is the Parasite of Parliament?”
He paused. “Did you just invent that one?”
“Yes,” I said, feeling a little foolish.
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, I was learning 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. John had eyes and ears everywhere, people from all walks of life working together to further his political ambitions. Servants in other households. Magistrates. Street vendors. Me.
Surely someone was watching Osley. And knowing John, he would have thoroughly investigated the earl and his father’s relationship. That he had yet to discover why it was so contentious was slightly alarming, now that I really thought about it.
Behind him, the earl continued to speak, and where I had lost the thread of his conversation, 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. I almost pitied him. John was a bloodthirsty politician. He could be unspeakably cruel to those he detested, or those who attempted to oppose his political agenda.
“Tell me, Osley,” he said, “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 that the reagent confides in me? Or is what’s really bothering you the fact 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.”
He patted the earl on the shoulder like one might an aging hound who struggled to master a new trick. The expression on his face was just as patronizing. “Perhaps you should step away from the board for a while, old man. Staring at the pieces for too long will be bound to give someone of your age 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 free hand into the crook of it and bit the inside of my cheek to keep the grin that threatened at bay.
“Shall we make our exit?” he asked, turning us away.
“What about Glover?” John had been seeking the elderly duke’s support for a 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 said.
I gave his arm a squeeze. “Well done, Your Grace.”
He flashed me a look that might have been victorious in nature and steered us toward the front door. 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 said, leaning back into my seat.
John nodded. “I know what you mean. 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.”
I grinned. 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. “You didn’t.”
“I did,” he said. His full lips parted in a rare smile that lit up the interior of the carriage with its brightness.
My heartbeat hiccupped. It was no longer possible 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 his mind and even his very nature, regardless, or perhaps because of, how dangerous it made him.
What a fool I was. I had done the one thing that I swore I never would.
I had fallen in love with my husband.
Copyright © 2020 by Navessa Allen
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, including photocopying, recording, or other electronic or mechanical methods, without the prior written permission of the author, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical reviews and certain other noncommercial uses permitted by copyright law.
This book is a work of fiction. References to real people, establishments, locales, events, and organizations are used fictitiously and only with the intent to provide a sense of historical authenticity. All other characters, dialog, incidents, and settings are drawn from the author’s imagination and are not to be construed as real.