o now you know why I cannot let Mama throw me on the marriage mart, why I can nev-never marry,” whimpered Emily, burying her tear-streaked face in her hands.
It pained Bonny Barbara Allan to watch Emily’s shoulders bent over the dressing table, heaving in wave after wave of fresh sobs. What hurt even more was Bonny’s own powerlessness to help the only two people she cared about. She could no more ease her cousin’s acute suffering than she could heal her own beloved mother of the destructive disease ravaging her body.
Bonny’s lashes swooped down, clearing tears from her own eyes. “If you shan’t marry,” she began in a soothing voice, “what will you do? What is it you want from life, Em?”
The question had the effect of renewing Emily’s sobbing. “All that I ever w-w-w-wanted has been taken from me.” Emily blotted her face with a fresh handkerchief before a new assault of tears gushed forth.
Bonny crossed the carpeted bedroom and stood beside Emily, gently patting her shoulders. Presently, she suggested, “I think you should tell your parents everything.”
Emily straightened up, her hands dropping to her lap, her
knuckles whitening as she twisted the handkerchief. She turned frightened eyes on Bonny. “Never! Promise me you’ll never tell them—you’ll never tell anybody.”
“I would never tell anyone,” Bonny said reassuringly.
“Especially my mother. You know what she’s like. I’m terrified of her.”
If the truth be known, Aunt Lucille fairly terrified Bonny, too. “But surely,” Bonny said, thinking of the close relationship she enjoyed with her own mother, “you could talk to her at a time like this.”
“You’re the only one I can turn to since Aunt Camille’s gone. I hated to ask you for the money from your grandmother, but there was no one else I could go to. I vow I’ll repay you when I get my portion from Aunt Camille’s estate.”
Bonny waved off her cousin’s gratitude. “Pooh, it’s nothing. I owe you and your father for coaxing your mother into letting me come to visit here in London.” She took a silver-handled brush from Emily’s dressing table and lovingly ran it through her cousin’s blond tresses.
“Don’t pretend that coming here was what you wanted,” Emily said, sniffing. “I know you too well, Bonny. You always do everything for everybody else. The only reason you wanted a season in London was to ease your mother’s worry.”
Seized with a growing sense of grief, Bonny swallowed hard. “I do want Mama to be able to die happy, knowing I’ll be taken care of.”
Emily, her eyes lowered ruefully, turned from her dressing table to take Bonny’s hands. “I’ve been so selfish talking about my problems, when you’ve had to watch your mother’s life slip away day by day.”
“Mama’s illness does seem to have devastated me far more than it has her. She continues to say she has had a long, happy life, that all she wants is for me to make a decent match.”
“Only decent? With your beauty? Everybody talks of how lovely you are.” A feeble smile crept across Emily’s somber face and an impish twinkling sparked her reddened eyes. “Which, of course, makes Mama seething mad, but even Mama would have to admit that you could have any man you choose.”
Bonny made no attempt to deny her own beauty. That she was extraordinarily beautiful was as much a fact as knowledge that the sun would rise on the morrow. But where nature had been overly generous, circumstances had failed her. “I’m prepared for disappointment since I have no dowry,” she said simply.
“With your face, it won’t matter.”
“Perhaps not to the man, but it will to his family.”
“Then you’ll simply have to pick one who’s already come into his majority.”
“I may not have the luxury of selecting a prospective husband.”
Emily put aside her drenched handkerchief. “Do you mean you’ll take the first one who asks?”
“I may have to. My mother’s consumption worsens by the day, and I must assure her that my future is secure.”
“Would it not upset you terribly to have a loveless marriage?”
Of course it would cause her a great deal of anguish. How horrid it must be to lie naked with any man, to have him probe one’s body, but to lie with a man one didn’t love, she thought, must be God’s punishment for betraying the sacred bonds of matrimony. Instead of sharing these thoughts with Emily, though, Bonny calmly said, “Haven’t your parents had a loveless marriage these last thirty years?”
“I’m quite sure they haven’t slept together since I was born eighteen years ago,” Emily said matter-of-factly.
“But Alfred’s twenty-nine. They must have slept together during the eleven years between your birth and your brother’s.”
“There would be more than the two of us if they had. What I believe is that they became estranged after Alfred was born. Then I think Papa probably lost himself one night when he was in his cups and made love to Mama nineteen years ago.” She giggled. “I believe that’s why he no longer imbibes.”
If he no longer imbibed, Bonny thought affectionately, it certainly was not because he regretted begetting Emily. She was so much the image of her father—skin the color of butterscotch, small bones, wide blue eyes, blond hair—and only Emily’s presence could soften a face hardened by thirty years with a faithless wife. “If you didn’t look so much like your father,” Bonny said, “I would think...” She hesitated.
“You’d think I was sired by one of Mama’s lovers?”
“Then you know about them?”
“My mother doesn’t approve. I don’t think I do, either,” Bonny said. “If I should have a loveless marriage, I shouldn’t wish to take a lover.”
“But lovers can be quite satisfactory. Look at Lady Lynda Heffington. She has the Duke of Radcliff for her lover, and there’s not a woman alive who wouldn’t swoon over him.”
Bonny could understand—understand, not necessarily approve of—lying with a man one was attracted to. “I’ve heard that the Duke of Radcliff is not nearly as handsome as his heir, Stanley Moncrief.”
Emily took a long sniff, patted her eyes one last time with a dry corner of her handkerchief and tossed it on top of her dressing table. “That is true, but there’s something about the duke. He’s so terribly serious looking. And there’s a strength about him. You could picture him slaying dragons with his bare hands for the woman he loves.”
Bonny’s eyebrows shot up. Such a man held interest for her. “If he loves this Lady Heffington, why doesn’t he marry her? Didn’t old Lord Heffington pass away some three years ago?”
“Why buy the cow,” Emily suggested, “when you can get the milk for free?” As the words fell from her own lips, Emily gasped, and her crying recommenced. “But Harold really was going to m-m-m-marry me.”
At precisely this moment, Lady Landis walked into her daughter’s room and threw up her arms in indignation. “I simply cannot abide this infernal crybaby business of yours, Emily. Just look at you! That face is much too pretty to go ruining, making it all red.”
With a swish of silk, Lady Landis glided across the floor and stood over her seated daughter, glancing at her own face in the looking glass hanging over Emily’s dressing table. Tendrils of hair, a subtle mixture of red and gray, curled about her still-pretty face. Her neck had thickened, like her waist, but because of her huge, cat green eyes, her face remained something out of the ordinary. She blinked into the mirror, opened her eyes even wider, gave her reflection a satisfied smile, then spun round to face Bonny, narrowing her eyes.
“My daughter needs to rest for tonight’s fete. Please remove yourself from this room, Barbara.” Her long fingers raked through her hair. “I refuse to call you that odious name from that terrible ballad. Bonny Barbara Allan, indeed! Your father must have been half-mad to have named you that. And the viscount’s sister, too, for allowing her baby to be called such a silly, common name.”
Emily grasped Bonny’s hand and held it tight, her eyes beseeching her cousin to stay. “But, Mama, I can’t go tonight. I’m too distraught over...over Aunt Camille’s death. We—you and I both—should be in mourning.”
“After all the money I’ve spent on your gowns—” Lady Landis glared at Bonny “—and gowns for your penniless cousin, I can ill afford to allow you to go into mourning. You’d surely be a different size next year.”
“We could have them cut down later,” Emily proposed. “I do seem to be getting thinner.”
The viscountess’s eyes narrowed again. “It’s no wonder, the way you hardly touch your food. You have been so changed ever since you came back from Spain. At first I was so pleased. You’d turned into such a lovely woman. Your breasts were so full. I fancied you beautiful enough to become a duchess.” She glared at her slender daughter and spoke with contempt. “But now you’re withering away, making yourself a disgusting watering pot.”
Emily squared her shoulders and faced her mother, pleading, “Think of Aunt Camille—your only sister.”
Lady Landis’s artificially darkened lashes lowered, a look of pain sweeping across her face. “Need I remind you,” she said, her voice shaking, “how much I miss Camille? And truly I am mourning her even though I’m not wearing black. Remember, almost no one is leaving the Peninsula in the thick of all this dreadful war business. No one in London has heard of her death yet.”
“But you can’t expect me to smile and be pleasant to any gentlemen in my state of grief?”
Lady Landis crept toward her daughter like a tiger toward its prey. “I can, and you will.”
Emily threw a panicked glance at her cousin as Bonny slipped quietly from the room.
Lady Lynda Heffington looked into the distracted face of Richard Moncrief, the fifth Duke of Radcliff, and followed his gaze ten feet across the wooden ballroom floor. There stood perhaps the most beautiful woman she had ever seen, a raven-haired beauty who was surrounded by men. Even from this distance the young woman’s long eyelashes and perfectly white teeth could be observed. Though Lady Heffington did not at all like what she saw, she managed a smile, thrust out her ample bosom a bit farther and said in the sweetest of tones, “Will you escort me to dinner tonight, Radcliff?”
The duke did not respond. His eyes were riveted on the lovely creature while his mind absorbed every aspect of her. Her woman’s body in the soft white dress. Thick black hair swept back loosely from the smooth perfection of her china-doll face. Eyes that were neither blue nor green but a curious mixture of the two. And a smile that erased all the world’s pain. God’s eyes, but she was gorgeous, he thought.
And to think, he would not have been here at all had the hostess not been one of his late mother’s dearest friends. He had grown so bloody tired of the balls and routs, the gaming hells, the heavy drinking, the excesses he and the other bloods had enjoyed these past fifteen years.
It was time he settled down. He thought of how happy his parents had been in their marriage. A sadness nearly overcame him as he pictured them sitting before a fire, reading by candlelight, utterly content with only each other’s presence. That is what he had come to long for.
But, of course, he was not likely to find his life’s mate in one of these chits just out of the schoolroom who could talk of nothing but the weather and the latest fashions.
“Radcliff?” Lady Heffington tapped her foot impatiently.
He turned to the copper-headed woman, lifting a single eyebrow. Perhaps he should marry a more mature woman. A widow. He eyed the lovely widow at his side. It was certain that she wouldn’t do at all back within the comforting walls of Hedley Hall. Lady Heffington gained her sustenance from elaborate ball gowns and admiring glances.
“I asked if you would escort me to dinner later.” Her voice was smooth and rich, like good cognac.
“I’m not sure I’ll be here.”
She pouted. “You will claim me for a waltz?”
His eyes sparkled. “But, my dear Lynda, if I am to hold you that close, I’d infinitely prefer to be in the horizontal position.”
Lady Heffington slithered closer. “You’re so naughty, Radcliff.”
“I endeavor to please, madam.”
She slapped her fan against his velvet sleeve.
“Thank you for standing up with me,” he said with finality, moving away from her and across the crowded ballroom toward the card room. After taking but half a dozen steps, he was stopped short of his destination.
“There you are,” said James Edward Twickingham, who had answered to the name Twigs since his Eaton days. “I say, Radcliff, everyone here tells me the horse you bought at Tatt’s today went for four hundred guineas. Why would a horse fetch so much?”
“Because it’s the most perfect piece of horseflesh ever to set foot on English soil.”
“You rode it here tonight?” Twigs asked hopefully.
“No, my friend, but I’ll show it to you tomorrow.”
Smiling, Twigs pulled his lanky body face-to-face with the duke and lowered his voice. “Devilishly dull here, old boy. Interest you in a game of whist?”