Lady Lavinia Gillingham slipped into Lord Evenrude’s library and gently closed the door behind her, blocking out the not too distant sound of the ball she’d just escaped. Knowing her time was short, she hurried to the bookshelves, her gaze scouring the spines for the book she sought. Ah, there it was.
The Geologic History of Cornwall.
Her heart picked up a bit of speed as she plucked it from the shelf and settled herself on a nearby settee. A fire burned in the grate, offering light along with the sconces on the walls and a small lantern atop a table near where she sat.
The tome wasn’t terribly lengthy, and yet she still wouldn’t have time to read it all. She’d do her best and perhaps find another opportunity to make her way into Lord Evenrude’s library. He was a member of the Royal Society, and if her parents wouldn’t be shocked and horrified, she’d simply ask to borrow it. Her parents would, however, be shocked and horrified. So she conducted her research and studies in relative secret.
She soon lost herself in the description of the rocks and dirt of Cornwall and might have believed herself to be there if not for the sudden jolt of awareness that accompanied the soft press of lips—lips?—against her neck.
Gasping, she snapped the book closed and dropped it to the settee as she jumped to her feet. She turned to face the man bold enough to do such a thing. Lord Northam, of course.
Her eyes immediately narrowed. “What on earth are you doing?”
He had the grace to appear contrite. “I beg your pardon. I thought you were someone else.”
“Of course you did.” Lavinia didn’t bother keeping the sarcasm from her tone.
He bowed, his tall, athletic frame bending with grace and elegance. “My deepest apologies. I didn’t mean to interrupt your reading.” His gaze dipped to the book, and he leaned forward slightly over the back of the settee, as if he were trying to read the title on the spine.
“Well, you did. And now I suppose I must leave so that you can meet your…lover.” The word felt strange on her tongue, or maybe that was because she was alone in a secluded place with one of London’s most notorious rakehells.
His eyes widened for the briefest moment. “Er, yes.” He gave his head a sharp shake. “I mean, no. I’ll leave you to your book.”
“How kind of you, now that you’ve already caused considerable disruption. I suppose as soon as I sit back down, your paramour will interrupt me too. No, I should be the one to leave.” She began to step around the settee.
“Well, that is very thoughtful of—”
The sound of the door clicking open cut off his speech. “Hide under the desk,” he hissed. “Quickly!” He turned abruptly and hurried to the door.
Or at least Lavinia assumed that was where he meant to go since she didn’t stand there and watch. She spun about and threw herself beneath Lord Evenrude’s pedestal desk. It was large enough for her to hide under, but open in the center so that if Northam’s lady friend looked toward the desk, she’d likely see Lavinia’s blue dress against the dark mahogany of the wood.
It was, however, the best she could do. In hindsight, she should have dashed behind the curtains at the window. On the other hand, this allowed her to see what was happening in the library.
On the other other hand, she probably didn’t want to do that.
“Oh, Northam!” The breathy exclamation floated across the library, and Lavinia watched the sweep of a dark pink, flounced skirt as the woman turned toward the marquess, her hands sliding up around his neck.
Lavinia tensed as the woman stood on her toes, presumably to kiss him. Except Northam clasped her upper arms and gently held her away from him.
“I’m afraid we’ll need to postpone our assignation.”
Lavinia heard the pout in the woman’s voice and gritted her teeth.
“Have you changed your mind?” She turned from him, and Lavinia squinted at the woman, whom she instantly recognized as Lady Fairwell, a young viscountess perhaps a few years older than Lavinia’s twenty-three years. “Beatrice said you would, that you would tire of me very soon.”
“Nonsense,” he soothed as he reached for her and turned her back around, which gave Lavinia a bit of relief. His gaze darted toward Lavinia, and they made brief but pointed eye contact. She’d no idea what he meant to communicate, if anything, but she rolled her eyes at him. “I’m afraid someone might have seen me come this way. I was just going to leave when you arrived.”
Lady Fairwell gasped. “I can’t be discovered with you!”
Then perhaps you ought not be carrying on with a man who isn’t your husband, Lavinia thought. She shook her head as she huddled beneath the desk.
“Of course not. You go back to the ball, and we’ll find another time to meet.”
“Promise?” Lady Fairwell wheedled.
Lavinia tried not to gag, particularly when Lady Fairwell stood on her toes again and pressed her mouth to his. The kiss was over as quickly as it had begun as the marquess set the viscountess away from him and gestured toward the door.
“Go quickly now,” he urged.
She swept from the room, and the marquess locked the door.
Lavinia scooted out from the desk as he rushed over to help her up. She didn’t bother taking his hand as she scrambled to her feet. In her haste, she stepped on the hem of her gown, which tripped her forward. Directly into Northam’s arms.
He caught her close against him. “I’ve got you.” His embrace was strong and sure, and he smelled of clove and leather. If he were anyone else, she might consider lingering a moment.
“And now you can let me go.” She made sure her heel was free of her hem as he righted her on her feet.
“I was only trying to help,” he said a bit defensively, his dark blond brows gathering together on his wide forehead as he stepped back.
“I don’t require your assistance, Lord Northam.”
He smoothed his hand over his lapel, his gray-green eyes narrowing slightly in a manner that only made him more attractive. Which he needed no help with—he was already one of the best-looking men in Britain. He was one of those gentlemen who looked dangerously handsome one moment—when he wasn’t smiling as now—and dizzyingly charming the next when he was smiling, as he did in the next breath. “You know who I am?” His lips curved up, and his straight white teeth showed briefly.
Lavinia snorted and didn’t care what he thought of it. “Everyone knows who you are.”
“Then you have me at a disadvantage, for I have no inkling of your identity.” His tone carried a hint of flirtation, but she imagined he couldn’t help doing so.
“Nor should you.” Though a part of her flinched in disappointment. Oh, why should he know you? They had absolutely no reason to cross paths. In fact, she should escape this interlude as soon as possible.
He blinked at her, clearly expectant. “Are you going to enlighten me?”
“No. I’m going to leave.”
“Come, you must tell me your name, at least.”
She sent him a dubious look. “Must I? We haven’t been properly introduced.”
“Something tells me that wouldn’t normally bother you,” he said wryly.
She scowled at him. “Do not flirt with me. I am not taking the place of Lady Fairwell.”
He cocked his head to the side. “My apologies, again. I didn’t mean to suggest you should.”
She straightened, then abruptly recalled what he’d told Lady Fairwell. “Did someone really see you come in here?” A rush of panic spiked up her spine.
“No, I said that to get Matilda—Lady Fairwell—to leave.”
Relief poured through Lavinia, but she didn’t want to tempt chance. “I need to do the same.” She stepped around him on her way toward the door.
“You aren’t going to say anything about this, are you?”
She half turned to see he’d pivoted and was watching her warily. “No. I don’t like gossip.”
“Be careful to look before you leave—just make sure no one is outside.” He nodded helpfully with a placid but encouraging smile.
Blast. Her heart picked up speed as she went to the door. She unlocked and opened it slowly and only the barest fraction, just wide enough to peer outside and check to see if anyone was hanging about.
Satisfied that there was no one present, she slid through the crack and snapped the door shut behind her without a backward glance. Taking a deep breath, she smoothed her hands over her waist as she hurried to the ballroom. Just before she got there, she turned and looked back at the library, recalling that she’d left the book on the settee. She didn’t dare go back to replace it on the shelf. Well, there was no help for it. Lord Evenrude would know someone had read his book about Cornish rock formations.
Spinning back around, she ran square into another person, a young woman she didn’t know.
Lavinia kept them both from falling. “Oh my goodness, I beg your pardon!”
“It’s quite all right. I’m afraid I stole up behind you. I thought you were someone else.” The young woman was perhaps a couple of years younger than Lavinia with bright red-gold hair and sharp blue-green eyes. “I’m Frances Snowden.”
“How do you do? I’m Lady Lavinia Gillingham.”
“Pleased to meet you. This is only my second ball, so I don’t know very many people.”
“Indeed?” Lavinia linked her arm through the other woman’s. “Well, come along, Miss Snowden, and I’ll introduce you to my friend, Miss Colton. We were just saying earlier that we need a third.”
They moved into the ballroom, and Lavinia squinted as she steered them toward Sarah, who stood alone in the corner. Lavinia winced. When she’d left for the library, Sarah had been in the company of her mother.
“We used to be a trio,” Lavinia said. “Until our friend Diana married a duke in December. We’ve missed having a third person in our group.” They’d arrived at Sarah’s side, and Lavinia withdrew her arm from Miss Snowden’s. “With a third, there’s less likelihood of anyone being alone.” She gave Sarah an apologetic look. “I wouldn’t have gone if I’d known your mother was going to abandon you.”
“Well, you were gone a long time,” Sarah said with a touch of curiosity in her gaze.
“Allow me to present Miss Frances Snowden,” Lavinia said, gesturing toward their new addition. “It’s her first Season, so, naturally, she needs us.”
Sarah’s blue eyes sparkled as she grinned. “Splendid! Do we know her sponsor?”
Lavinia looked to Miss Snowden, who answered. “That would be my sister, Her Grace, the Duchess of Clare.”
Lavinia exchanged a look with Sarah before wincing toward Miss Snowden. “Perhaps you’ll prefer different friends. We, er, we tend to hug the wall.”
“On purpose?” Miss Snowden asked.
“Somewhat,” Lavinia said. “It’s our fourth Season, and we aren’t—well, we aren’t related to an Untouchable, if you understand my meaning.”
Miss Snowden nodded knowingly. “My brother-in-law. The Duke of Desire.” She leaned toward them, lowering her voice. “Did you know my sister and her friends came up with those names in the beginning? They regret it a bit since it seems to have run amok. Now there’s a Duke of Every Single Thing. Or so it seems. Take this Duke of Seduction fellow. I don’t suppose either of you know who he is?”
Sarah shook her head. “We don’t. What do you know of him, Miss Snowden?”
“First, you must call me Fanny, and I’m afraid I couldn’t possibly find different friends. I’ve already decided to like you both, so you’re stuck with me. As to the Duke of Seduction, I probably know as much as you. He writes those gorgeous poems in the Morning Chronicle, and so far, two of the four women he’s written about have avoided spinsterhood and either been married or betrothed.”
“I believe the number will be three,” Sarah said. “My mother informed me this evening that Miss Lennox is on the verge of becoming betrothed as well.”
“Well, three of four, then,” Fanny said with a grin. “Lucky them.”
“Provided they are happy.” Lavinia shuddered. “There’s nothing worse than having to marry when you don’t wish to.”
“It seems you two have avoided such a fate,” Fanny said. “Has it been difficult?”
Lavinia gave her a grim look. “Progressively so. I’m afraid we both need to obtain husbands this Season or find ourselves pushed into unions we may not have chosen.”
“Surely your parents wouldn’t make you marry someone you didn’t want to.” Fanny held up her hand. “Forget I said that. I know nothing of how the Marriage Mart is supposed to work. I am only here by the grace of my sister, and there is no pressure for me to wed, save what I expect.”
Sarah looked at her intently. “And what is that?”
“To fall in love like my sister. To find a man who will look at me the way West—His Grace—looks at her.” There was a wistful quality to her voice that Lavinia recognized.
“I think we all want that,” Lavinia said with a half smile. For some inexplicable reason, she thought of Lord Northam. He was such a terrible rake. Did he want that? Or was he content to carry on temporary love affairs that likely had nothing to do with falling in love?
Sarah pivoted toward Fanny. “If you’re hoping to fall in love, you may need to choose different friends. We aren’t often asked to dance or promenade. As, Lavinia said, we’re wallflowers.”
“Well, I shall say just two things on that subject,” Fanny said authoritatively. “One, I said I didn’t want different friends, and I meant it. If you turn me away, it will be very cruel of you.” She flashed a smile to show that she didn’t think they would actually do that, and of course, they wouldn’t ever. “Second, as I am a horrendous dancer, it’s perhaps best that I align myself with people who don’t dance.”
This sent them all into a burst of laughter until Lavinia’s eye caught a swirl of dark pink skirt nearby. She lifted her gaze and squinted at Lady Fairwell strolling past with another woman, their heads bent together in conversation.
As Lavinia watched them, she realized she hadn’t told Sarah—and now Fanny—about her encounter with Northam. They’d simply been talking about other things, she told herself. She could mention it now.
His words came back to her as well as her response that she didn’t like gossip. She’d never considered sharing information with her confidantes to be gossip, but Northam had expressed his desire that she not say anything. And she was a woman of honor. Or at least she tried to be.
Besides, there really wasn’t anything to tell. She’d watched him extricate himself from Lady Fairwell’s embrace. Then Lavinia had traded barbs with him. More accurately, she’d tossed barbs and he’d flirted. And he’d caught her in his arms. He’d also kissed her neck. A flush crept over her skin as she recalled the touch of his lips upon her flesh. She’d been kissed by the alluring Marquess of Northam. And she wasn’t going to tell a soul.
“What sort of man would write poems about young women?” Sarah was asking as Lavinia sought to reenter the conversation after falling down a rabbit hole in her mind. It was, unfortunately, a rather common hazard, and one she’d become good at compensating for.
“It should have been a scandal,” Lavinia said, as if she hadn’t just gathered enough wool to outfit an entire regiment.
Sarah nodded in agreement, a dark curl brushing her temple. “And yet it wasn’t.”
“I daresay because his words were so lovely.”
“And while they are clearly specific to his subject, he doesn’t seem to be an intimate,” Sarah said. “All the women he’s written of have indicated they don’t know who he is either. And clearly, he didn’t want them for himself; otherwise, he would have made himself known.”
He appeared to want to cast a glow on those who’d been relegated to the shelf, or almost anyway. Lavinia had met Miss Berwick, his first subject. And while they weren’t close friends, Lavinia knew she was twenty-six years old and that her parents had decided not to press her on the Marriage Mart this Season. Miss Berwick was not a great beauty, and she was bookish and quiet. She seemed destined to be a governess. Until the Duke of Seduction had made her the most popular woman in London last fall. While Lavinia and Sarah had been at a house party, Miss Berwick had vaulted into the realm of the Untouchables. In January, she’d wed a widowed earl and become an instant mother to his two small children. She was, as evidenced by the thank-you letter she’d addressed to the Duke of Seduction and had published in the Morning Chronicle, ecstatically happy.
And now Lavinia had gathered enough wool to clothe a second regiment. She forced herself back to the conversation.
“Well, he must be a kind-hearted soul, if nothing else,” Fanny said. “What do you think he is, Lavinia?”
“Do you mean who?”
Sarah let out a short laugh. “I’m afraid she drifted off, Fanny. She does that sometimes.” She turned to Lavinia. “We were pondering what sort of man he must be. Is he married? We decided that was doubtful, and yet he seems to have experienced love. We suspect a widower. And perhaps older. I would guess forty at least. He seems to have a wisdom younger bucks don’t.”
“Your deduction is sound,” Lavinia said. “If he’s a widower who’s loved before, one might think he’d try to find love again. Why not court one of these young women he’s singled out?”
Fanny tapped her finger against her chin. “An excellent question. Perhaps he doesn’t think he can find love a second time.”
“Or perhaps he’s still so in love with his deceased wife that he simply can’t love another.” Sarah looked between them with a glazed expression.
“The excessively romantic tone of his poems certainly supports that,” Lavinia said.
Fanny’s lips tipped into a smile. “Perhaps he’ll write a poem about one of you.”
Sarah laughed, but Lavinia cringed inwardly. “I think that level of scrutiny might be rather unsettling.” If she were to garner the focus of Society, she’d rather it be about something worthwhile, such as a geologic discovery, rather than whom she might or might not marry. “It’s not going to happen, in any case. No, I think we’re on our own, Sarah.”
“Probably,” she agreed with a sigh. “By Season’s end, we’ll be wed—or on our way to the altar—or we’ll officially be spinsters.”
Right now, Lavinia wasn’t sure which she preferred.
William Beckett, Marquess of Northam, stared at the closed door for a moment before turning to survey the library in the hope that Lord Evenrude kept a bottle of whisky. Seeing none, Beck’s gaze fell on the book the mystery woman had discarded on the settee.
Circling around the piece of furniture, he plucked it up and read the spine. The Geologic History of Cornwall. What sort of young woman read such a thing?
He thumbed through the tome for a moment and shook his head before looking for where it might have been on the shelf. Finding a space, he tucked it between two other books.
Geology. She’d stolen into a viscount’s library to read about geology. He was suddenly embarrassed about his assignation, which was odd since he’d never been before. But then he’d never been up against a haughty young woman who had sought to use a library for its intended purpose, whereas he’d planned to sully it. Yes, embarrassment fit the moment.
A haughty young woman with spectacular chocolate eyes and hair the color of cinnamon. Good Lord, was he hungry? Or was it that she’d just been pretty enough to eat? No, not pretty. That wasn’t the right description. She was attractive, but her chin was perhaps a trifle too strong and her cheeks too severe. She was captivating, in possession of some unidentifiable quality that made you want to know more about her in the hope of naming it.
And right now, he didn’t even know her name. He turned and left the library and went in search of his friend Felix, the Earl of Ware. Finding him in the gaming room, he waited until Felix extricated himself from the card game and joined him near the door.
“Ready to go?” Felix asked.
“Not quite. Let’s repair to the ballroom for a bit.” He didn’t wait for Felix to respond before turning and leading him to the door that led to the ballroom.
Felix groaned. “Why? If you’re going to dance, I’m leaving without you.” They’d planned to go to Brooks’s Club as soon as Beck had completed his assignation.
“I’m not going to dance. I’m merely trying to find a woman.”
“Didn’t you just meet a woman?” Felix snorted. “You’re insatiable.”
Beck rolled his eyes. “Our plans were interrupted.”
“I see. How disappointing. Do you need me to create a diversion so you can try again?” Felix was quite adept at causing a disruption, usually for the purpose of general hilarity, but occasionally to allow for Beck or someone else of their acquaintance to accomplish some other act. At Oxford, Felix had been rather notorious for his abilities. Now, he tended to use his skills for organization. No one planned a game or activity better than Felix.
Because of this skill, Felix tended to know people Beck didn’t, though identifying a young miss on the Marriage Mart might be beyond even him. Like Beck, Felix steered fairly clear of those looking for a husband.
“I don’t need a diversion,” Beck said. “I need you to tell me who someone is.”
They stepped into the ballroom, and Beck instantly felt a prick of annoyance. The whole notion of young women putting themselves on display as if they were vegetables at the market disgusted him. Society put far too much stock in how a woman looked and on her standing in their rigid hierarchy.
“Why are we trolling the ballroom?” Felix asked.
“I met a young woman earlier and didn’t get her name. I’m hoping you might know her.”
Felix stopped and stared at him. “A young woman? You detest the Marriage Mart. What the devil are you doing?”
Beck scowled as he tugged Felix’s sleeve. “Don’t stop. People will want to approach us to converse.”
“And we wouldn’t want that,” Felix muttered. “Where is this astounding young woman?”
Continuing his perusal of the ballroom, Beck scoured the far corners. At last he saw her, huddled with two other young women. “Ten o’clock, in the corner. Cinn—red-brown hair. Blue dress. Taller than the other two she’s with.”
“I don’t immediately recognize her, but then I can’t get a good look at her,” Felix said. “I’d suggest we move closer, but I’m guessing you’ll say no.”
“Perhaps a little.” Beck led him closer to the wall.
Felix looked at him sharply. “We’re into the wilds now. Why is this woman so important? And if you met her, why didn’t you learn her name?”
“Never mind any of that. I’m simply curious.”
“I see her now. That’s Lady Lavinia Gillingham. She’s a close friend of Sarah’s. And that’s Sarah to her right.”
Beck turned to Felix and stopped. “Colton?”
Felix nodded. “Anthony’s sister, yes.”
Anthony Colton was one of Felix’s closest friends. They’d grown up together.
“Do you want me to arrange a formal introduction?” Felix asked.
“That won’t be necessary. I was merely curious.” Lady Lavinia…Gillingham. Her father was an earl. And Beck had been closeted alone with her. Hell, he’d kissed her bloody neck. Suddenly feeling overheated, he wanted to beat a hasty retreat from the ballroom.
“I believe she’s Sarah’s bluestocking friend. Anthony says she’s terribly smart and likely would’ve bested him at school.”
That would perhaps explain her interest in geology. What sort of young woman left a ball to read a book? The interesting sort.
“Sarah’s a bit of a wallflower, isn’t she?” Beck asked as they left the ballroom.
“Yes, though I don’t understand why she and her friends aren’t wed,” Felix said. “They’re attractive, and they hail from good families.”
“That isn’t always enough.” Beck kept the darkness from overtaking his tone, but the statement still came out gruff. He couldn’t help it. He knew too well what young women went through and how whether they were accepted or successful could affect them. The familiar tightening of his chest stole his breath for a moment.
“To the club, then?” Felix asked.
“No, I think I’m done for the evening.” Beck’s mood had darkened, and his muse was dancing a merry tune in his head.
An hour later, he leaned back in his chair behind his desk and scrubbed his hand over his face. His cravat hung untied around his neck, and his coat lay on the floor. He unbuttoned his waistcoat as he stared down at the words he’d written. It wasn’t his typical work, but then she wasn’t his typical subject. Lady Lavinia didn’t appear to be flirting with the shelf, but what did he really know?
Not much, and he usually tried to glean as much information as he could before launching a campaign. However, Lady Lavinia was different.
For some reason, he felt bad about his encounter with her earlier. He’d kissed her and flirted with her and generally put her in an uncomfortable situation. None of the other women he’d written about had suffered his abuse. Lady Lavinia had handled the entire affair with aplomb, evidencing an ability to take care of herself. Why, then, did he want to help her?
Because she deserved notice. She was intelligent and beautiful, and she was a wallflower. She ought to have her pick of gentlemen. And Beck would see that she did.Return to The Duke of Seduction