Where many of the ton chose to make their homes outside of the crowded center of London, the Duchess of Amesbury had intentionally inserted herself into the middle of Mayfair, as though declaring herself the heavenly body around which the rest of the aristocracy orbited.
The grand façade of the residence she had so recently purchased was wrought in stone and accented with marble columns. Large banks of windows peered through them out upon Grosvenor Square. It was easy to imagine her standing up there, just beyond the panes, a looking glass to her eye as she spied upon the couples that strolled beneath the boughs of the trees that lined the grand avenues of the park.
I shivered slightly as my carriage slowed to a stop near the front door, feeling as though her eyes were already on me. Several other carriages quickly fell in line behind my own, waiting to deposit their guests. As much as I longed to delay the threat of receiving another note, to dawdle here would be to hold others up, which would not go unnoticed by anyone here to spy on me.
The door of the cabin swung open, and with a deep, steadying breath, I took the proffered hand of one of the duchess’s footmen and descended from my carriage.
In an uncommon show of familial duty, Amesbury had elected to act as the role of sponsor to Lady Jane Hartford, one of her great nieces, as the young woman began her first London season. It was common practice to bring girls out slowly, as a way of easing them into society. Much better to debut them to a minor gathering than immediately throw them to the wolves that prowled our grand ballrooms. Any character flaws or social handicaps could be caught out early and corrected before they could harm the young lady’s chances of landing a husband. It also provided them the opportunity to practice their etiquette and deportment. To learn the faces of those who outranked them so there was less of a chance that their ignorance might cause them to make a fatal slip in a larger gathering.
This afternoon was one of those smaller affairs. The duchess’s great niece was said to be something of a musical wonder, and so she was scheduled to play a few pieces on the pianoforte before the ladies in attendance retired to a parlor for conversation and refreshment.
Though I detested Amesbury, I was perceived to be close friends with her by the rest of my peers, and there was no question that I would attend this and all the assemblies designed to bring her niece out. The only saving grace was that there would be enough women present that I needn’t play court to the dowager the entire afternoon.
I did my best to put the threat of receiving another note out of my mind before being introduced by the butler. As he announced me, my gaze took in the women spread out in the drawing room, coming to land on a surprising figure: the Viscountess of Dover.
She was one of the many women the duchess did not approve of. A fact that the other ladies knew. The result was that the viscountess stood just a little to the side of everyone else, looking slightly out of place and more than a little uncomfortable.
I hated to see it, and so, risking the wrath of Amesbury, I beelined for her.
She had come out just two years before I had, and though I’d always admired her, we had never been close. I struggled to recall the last time we had even spoken and regretted the fact that I couldn’t remember the last conversation we’d had.
She was even taller than I was, and with her voluptuous curves, creamy skin, and rich golden locks, it was easy to see why she’d been considered the reigning beauty the year she stepped out. Something about her reminded me of Marcus. She had his same inexhaustible spirit. She always pushed the limits of fashion, laughed too loud, drank too much, was friendly with too many rakes, and was wildly popular among the faster set of the ton. In many ways, I envied her, as I likewise envied my brother. I also never wanted to see her stop living her life to the fullest, and as with Marcus, or maybe because of him, I felt the need to protect her.
“Viscountess, it’s so lovely to see you here,” I said, ignoring the glances of those who had turned to watch this interaction.
“And you as well, Your Grace,” she said, looking relieved and more than a little grateful when she curtsied to me. As if she felt the need to explain her presence, she added, “Jane is my cousin on my mother’s side. I couldn’t miss the opportunity to hear her play.”
“I look forward to hearing her as well,” I replied. “I’m told she’s quite good.”
“Prodigious,” the viscountess said, grinning.
As she rose from her curtsy, the high neckline of her dress shifted, the collar opening slightly to reveal the unmistakable blue and purple of a love bite on the delicate skin of her neck.
Oh, for the love of God, I thought. If anyone else saw, she would never live it down.
We were standing near the corner of the room, the mouth of the hallway only a few paces away. I stepped past her toward it and then closer to the wall, the viscountess turning with me as I’d hoped she would. It put her back to the rest of the crowd, and allowed me the opportunity to see if anyone else had noticed.
Thankfully, another guest was being announced and all eyes had turned toward the newcomer.
“Have you been to the duchess’s before?” I asked the viscountess.
“I haven’t, Your Grace,” she responded.
“You must see the Caravaggio in the library then,” I said, slipping my arm beneath hers so that the mark faced away from the crowd as I led her from the room. I pulled her into the first door I found, which opened on a small sitting room. Blessedly, it was empty.
“Your Grace?” she asked, confused.
“Your neckline slipped, I didn’t want the others to see what I did,” I told her, leading her over to a mirror.
She turned absolutely scarlet when she caught sight of herself. “Oh God,” she choked, her hands going to her neck to try and hide the mark. “Damn him, and damn this dress.”
Him? I wondered. Was she referring to her husband? Or had she, like so many of our peers, taken a lover? I hoped not. Perhaps it was the romantic in me, but I still wanted to believe that she and the viscount were happy in their union.
“I knew the collar wasn’t high enough,” she went on. “Even though my maid assured me it would stay in place. I’m so sorry, Your Grace.”
The poor woman looked as though she might cry.
“There’s no need to apologize to me,” I assured her.
“What am I going to do? I can’t leave now. It would be noticed,” she said.
I reached down and unclipped the brooch I wore on the ribbon that banded beneath my breasts. It was a simple gold pendant formed into the bud of a rose, with a diamond in the center. I doubted that anyone had even noticed it on me in the short time I’d been in the drawing room.
“Here,” I said, reaching up to pull the sides of her collar firmly together and use the brooch to pin them in place. “It’s dreadfully unfashionable, but that’s better than the alternative.”
“You are too kind, Your Grace,” she said.
“Nonsense,” I told her. “Any decent person would have done the same. And don’t worry, I’ll not mention it to anyone.”
For some reason, this only made her more emotional, and it was several minutes before she was calm enough that we could rejoin the party, where we went our separate ways.
An hour later, I took my seat in the front row of Amesbury’s music room and prepared myself to be lulled to sleep by Lady Hartford. She wasn’t the first young woman I’d been promised was a musical prodigy, and so I girded myself to hide the disappointment I was no doubt about to experience. When most ladies performed on the pianoforte, they sat perfectly upright, their fingers delicately gliding over the keys as they played out a light melody. It was an exhibition, one meant to flatter their forms and show just how accomplished they were. That’s exactly what I expected now.
I had been introduced to her shortly before. She was a young woman of average height, average social skills, and average looks, with a heart-shaped face, inquisitive brown eyes, and thick, chestnut-colored locks that must have taken a mountain of pins to keep in place.
And then she sat down at the piano, rested her fingers on the ivories, and shattered all my assumptions of her.
From the very first chord, I was mesmerized. Jane didn’t play like a well-bred young lady. She played like a man. No, she played like an impassioned man, something I guessed that her aunt hadn’t known before allowing her to go on. The dowager would consider what we were now witnessing to be highly embarrassing, base, and unladylike.
I snuck a peek at her and had my fears confirmed. Her pinched face was a thundercloud.
At the front of the room, Jane continued, oblivious. She bowed over the piano as her fingers flew over the keys, pounding out a dark, tormented piece that I’d never heard before. Her head swayed back and forth with the rhythm, while her body leaned in during the stronger sections and then out during the lighter. It was as though she had become part of the melody, as though the music was coming out of her very skin.
I had spent my entire adult life attending performances, plays, and recitals, some of which were given by the most accomplished performers in the world. They paled in comparison to what I was witnessing now. If Jane had been a man, she would have been world famous; her talent was that impressive. As she was a woman, I doubted that I would ever see such a demonstration from her again, especially judging by the expression on her elderly aunt’s face.
As the piece progressed, I felt myself lean forward in my seat, moved by the strong emotions that were rising within me. I could hear the story in the composition, one of love gone wrong. It was a tale of despair, heartache, madness. And it only became more turbulent the longer it went on. When it reached a crescendo, I was breathing deeply through my nose, struggling to control myself, urging the tears that were threatening not to spill over.
I wanted it to stop. I wanted it to go on forever.
Worst of all, I wanted to live it.
I wanted to throw off the chains that bound me and give my entire being to someone. I wanted to know what it felt like to love another so much that the whole world came crashing down around me when it ended. I wanted obsession. I wanted madness. I wanted something all-consuming. And now that I realized it, I didn’t think that I would ever be the same again.
And that terrified me.
When the last haunting chords echoed forth from the instrument, Jane slowly slid her hands from the keys. She rose from her stool and faced us as though coming out of a daze, her eyes unfocused, her hair starting to come loose around her. The room was so quiet that the sound of her labored breathing seemed to echo through it. She wasn’t average, I decided then. She was one of the most beautiful creatures I had ever seen.
Her expression changed then, as her gaze sharpened and rose to the shocked faces of the crowd. From my vantage point it was easy to see the embarrassed flush spread over her chest and then up her neck, her fear as she looked to her illustrious aunt, and her shame as she realized that she’d made a massive faux-pas.
Her eyes cast back to the crowd, as though searching for aid. Something stirred within me when they met mine. A pressure began to build between my ears, and a burning arose in the pit of my stomach. For once, I did nothing to smother it. The fire that had been snuffed out of me so long ago came roaring back to life. It was such an alien feeling that it took me several heartbeats to recognize the emotion for what it was: rebellion.
This young woman had just given the performance of a lifetime and we would criticize her? Judge her unladylike? Gossip about what a heathen the duchess had for a niece? How someone so uncivilized would never be popular? It was too much. I was sick to death of propriety, sick of the rules, and the double standards that plagued my sex. We, who belonged to our husbands, who had no rights, no property, who were put aside, who were neglected and abused.
What were we doing? What were we thinking? We should be building each other up, not tearing each other down.
As the silence persisted, my anger continued to rise, seeking an outlet. It found one in my hands as I began to clap. Because of my seat, everyone could see me. Because of my rank, a few of the more sycophantic women hurried to join my applause.
It wasn’t enough.
When Jane’s teary eyes met my own again, this time in thanks, I started clapping louder. And then I did something that I had never done before, something that the old Duchess of Hampshire wouldn’t have in a million years, something that no one would have expected. I stood up. And clapped louder still.
A motion to my right caught my eye, and I turned my head to see the Viscountess of Dover rise to her feet. “Bravo!” she called, beaming up at her cousin.
Soon, more women were standing, clapping as loudly as I was, calling out their own encouragements. Someone in the back even whistled. I turned to face them and was shocked to see that a few were even crying. Clearly, I hadn’t been the only one moved by the performance. It seemed as though they had simply been waiting for someone to spark the revolt against Amesbury.
The duchess was one of the few people not clapping. Her gaze was fixed not on her niece, but on me, and when our eyes met, she nodded her head, slightly, as though promising retribution for usurping her music room.
“T-thank you,” Jane managed, curtsying deeply to us.
“That was quite the performance,” the Baroness of Norridgewock said to me once we were settled in the parlor.
She was an older woman, in her late forties, and still attractive in a way that made me think the rumors from her youth were true. It was said she had been so beautiful that the men of London had gone mad when she made her debut. Even the king had been after her if those same tales were to be believed.
She’d shocked the city by electing to wed the third son of a baron, a young man who’d been known for nothing, had no fortune, and was thought to be a bore. It was by sheer happenstance that he came to the title, his older brother succumbing to illness, and his second oldest dying in a carriage accident.
Having spent the last few years in and out of their company, I felt I understood them as a couple, and saw what had first attracted them to each other. Though the baron was bookish, he was attractive in his own way, even as he neared fifty. Beneath the baroness’s beauty was an impressive intellect. I’d once overheard the two of them having a quiet but impassioned debate about the policies of William Pitt the Younger in the middle of a ball. And more than once I’d caught the baron casting a gaze in his wife’s direction when he didn’t think anyone was looking that made me blush. They’d married for love and had somehow managed to maintain it for over twenty years. It gave me hope that others might be able to find the same, those like the Viscount and Viscountess of Dover.
“It was,” I agreed, taking a sip of tea and wishing for something stronger.
I was still struggling to master my emotions after such a scene. I didn’t know what had moved me more, the actual performance, or the audience’s reaction to it. At first, I’d assumed many of them were merely following my lead, but the longer the applause had persisted, even in the face of the dowager’s censure, the more I realized that their response was genuine.
The baroness was one of those who had clapped the longest and loudest, and she’d also been openly disappointed when the recital had ended prematurely, going so far as to voice her regret. Though Jane had been scheduled to play another set, Amesbury had stepped in and stopped her, effectively snuffing out our brief revolt.
The dowager had then gone on to make a prolonged speech about how charming it was to witness a young woman’s passion for the pianoforte, and that nothing could top what we’d just witnessed. Though she attempted to affect kindness, it was clear from her expression that she Did Not Approve. Her true intent was to put a swift and vicious stop to what she considered further embarrassment to herself and her family. I felt for Jane then, for the longer speech her aunt would likely give her when the crowd departed and no one was left to bear witness to the depth of the duchess’s true disapproval.
“It was so thoughtful of you to respond as you did, Your Grace,” the baroness said, bringing me back to myself.
“Not at all. She deserved no less,” I returned before taking a sip of tea.
“I’ve half a mind to set up another one of these events, minus the duchess, just to encourage the girl,” she said in a rather recalcitrant tone.
“Do you know, I believe I would attend that,” I responded.
The smile she gave me told me that she’d hoped I might.
Just then, a servant entered the room, his eyes searching the thirty some odd women before they landed on me. As I watched, he made his way over. My pulse hitched. Throughout the gathering, I had been waiting for something like this.
I did my best to school my features as he neared, hiding the intensity of my gaze as I memorized his features. He was older, perhaps in his late thirties, with ashy blonde hair that was quickly going gray at the temples. His build was short and rather stocky, but he moved with a quiet grace that came from years of slipping through crowds unnoticed as he served them. This was not the same servant that had delivered me the first letter.
I still prayed that I wasn’t his target. That he would turn instead to the baroness with whatever news or missive he might carry.
“Pardon me, Your Grace, but this just arrived for you,” he said, bowing low and presenting me with a small, white envelope.
“From whom?” I asked, taking the letter from him. It was only with great effort that I kept my fingers from betraying me with a tremble.
“It was an urchin who delivered it, Your Grace,” he said, lowering his voice so that only I heard him. “But he said it was important, and I thought I better deliver it.”
“Of course, thank you,” I returned, wanting to question him further but not wanting to draw any more attention to the scene.
He rose from his bow and left, and I tucked the letter beneath my tea saucer and pretended to ignore it, as though it weren’t important. As though my heart wasn’t pounding out a staccato rhythm against my corset. I wanted to turn and take in the rest of the room, to see if anyone was watching me with too keen an eye, but I thought better of it at the last minute. I was unpracticed in games with stakes so high, and I wasn’t sure if by looking around me, I’d somehow be giving myself away.
“Aren’t you going to open that, Your Grace?” the baroness said from across from me.
It made me instantly distrust her. “In a moment. I’m sure it’s nothing too urgent. Were you at the masquerade last night? I didn’t see you,” I added, hoping to swiftly change the subject.
“I was, but it’s no wonder you missed me. Laud, what a crush,” she answered.
Twenty minutes later, I left the parlor to proceed to the second-floor powder room, my heart pounding in my chest. There was another woman in it when I arrived, and I was forced to casually fix my hair in the mirror until she left. As soon as she was gone, I searched every corner of the room to ensure I was alone, going so far as to peek behind the drapes, before opening the window on the far right.
With shaking fingers, I pulled the letter from where I’d stuffed it into my reticule, then broke the seal. It was even shorter than the first, just three little words.
About your husband.
Copyright © 2018 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 is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, businesses, companies, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
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