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Authors: Darcie Wilde

The Stepsister's Triumph

BOOK: The Stepsister's Triumph
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Also by Darcie Wilde

Regency Makeover Series

The Bride Behind the Curtain

Lord of the Rakes

The Accidental Abduction

Regency Makeover

Part II: The Stepsister's Triumph

Darcie Wilde

InterMix Books, New York

An imprint of Penguin Random House LLC

375 Hudson Street, New York, New York 10014


An InterMix Book / published by arrangement with the author

Copyright © 2016 by Darcie Wilde.

Excerpt from
Regency Makeover Part III: An Exquisite Marriage
copyright © 2016 by Darcie Wilde.

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eBook ISBN: 978-0-698-40813-5


InterMix eBook edition / April 2016

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.



It must be considered a ridiculous thing for a young lady to hide from her own brother. That, however, was exactly Madelene Valmeyer's intention when she ducked into the small side gallery of Somerset House.

The Royal Academy of Arts was holding its first exhibition of the season. The catalogue promised a carefully assembled collection of works by the finest artists from England and abroad. Madelene had come with her friends Lady Adele Endicott and Lady Helene Fitzgerald.

Helene, however, had stopped in the main gallery to speak with a cluster of girls and matrons, and Adele was taking a closer look at a collection of French portraits, probably examining the dresses for aspects she might incorporate into her own designs. Their unconventional and somewhat alarming chaperone Miss Sewell had stationed herself in some corner from which, presumably, she could keep one eye on them all. So, for the moment, Madelene had the smaller gallery to herself.

Madelene, Helene, and Adele had become fast friends since meeting at the Windfords' New Year's ball. They had all three remained unmarried for long enough that society had listed them in the category of the haut ton's disappointments and shook its collective head at them. How, they wondered, could such girls be such failures? Adele was a duke's daughter. Helene's father was a viscount. Madelene herself was heiress of a considerable fortune that would be entirely hers in one year's time. Still, the world confidently pronounced them all spinsters in the making and had started to overlook them when it came to the matter of invitations and calling lists. But at New Year's, they had exchanged a mutual promise to change this dreary prediction. Together, instead of another year of disappointment and neglect, they would create a triumph.

Madelene remembered the flush in Helene's cheeks as she spoke so confidently of the possibilities. Helene, though, was brave. Actually, she was more than brave. She was a radical bluestocking and proud of it. But Madelene did not have the same courage. Maybe she had once, a long time ago, but somewhere during the years spent immersed in the simmering discontent that filled her father's house, that courage had dissolved, like sugar in the rain. As she'd listened to Helene and Adele talk about their plans, Madelene had felt the familiar shrinking inside.
, cautioned her inner voice.
Don't do it. You don't want to be seen. You don't want to be noticed. It'll all be ruined anyway. Why even try?

These were familiar thoughts, and they bore the bitter tang of long experience. What had given her the strength to push them aside this once? Whatever it had been, she had offered to give her fellow conspirators the one thing she possessed that they needed—money. Madelene had a trust and a generous monthly allowance from the interest. The capital would become hers in a year when she turned twenty-five.

Helene insisted her money was not the reason she'd asked Madelene to join their coterie. She meant it, but it did not change the facts. Madelene was painfully shy, plain, thin, unaccomplished, and redheaded as well. But she had money, and she knew full well the money was what the world wanted of her. The difference between the rest of the world and Adele and Helene was that Adele and Helene offered honest friendship in return, and in such generous measure that Madelene had begun to believe in it, and them.

Against all odds, their plan was showing signs of success. Adele, it turned out, had a particular genius for style and fashion. Each of the girls now had a new wardrobe uniquely suited to her coloring and her figure, and, most importantly, to her personality. Today, for instance, Madelene's walking costume was a simple yellow muslin dress, neatly trimmed with cream ribbons. The matching straw bonnet had a broad brim that not only looked well on her, it allowed her to feel a little sheltered from the eyes of strangers. Adele knew how shy she was, and Madelene was sure she'd selected the style for that purpose.

When the girls appeared at the opening of the season just two weeks ago, women crowded around, admiring the creations, wanting to know who was responsible for such delightful new dresses. A trickle of invitations had begun to arrive as society's matrons decided to test the waters and see if the three members of the coterie might be regarded as something beyond mere afterthoughts.

It was exciting. It was terrifying. Because it couldn't last. Because it would surely be snatched away.

“Why should it?” asked Helene when Madelene whispered her fears.

“Because it always is,” answered Madelene.

“Not this time,” Helene said, firmly, as she said almost everything. “This time, we have taken matters into our own hands.”

Madelene tried to believe. At the same time, a part of her remained certain her particular hands were just grasping at straws, hoping they'd be strong enough to bear her out of the morass that was her life, and her family.

Wicked girl. For shame. To think that way about your own people!
The words and the guilt crawled together out of the back of Madelene's mind. She flicked her eyes from side to side, afraid someone might be taking note of her discomfort. But there was no one.

Don't think about that
, she advised herself.
You are here now. You should enjoy the exhibition.

It was unusually hard to take her own advice. In general, Madelene looked forward to the chance to tour an art gallery. Each painting was a window into another place and time. She could stand in front of a wall of such windows and lose herself in the myriad scenes. No painted person could look back at her. None of them would speak in words that had to be measured for the hidden meanings. Paintings could not ask for money or remind her of duty, or make themselves drunk at three in the afternoon and laugh so that everyone turned their heads to see who made so much noise.

Like Lewis was doing now, out in the main gallery. It was impossible to mistake the sound of his voice.

Madelene wished Helene was next to her, or Adele, or even Miss Sewell. She could go in search of them, but that meant Lewis might see her.

Of course her stepbrother could, conceivably, be here to see the paintings and meet friends. That he just happened to come to an art gallery on his own, without either of his sisters, or their mother, did not necessarily mean he planned to ask her for money, in public, where she'd be more likely to agree just to get him to be quiet and go away.

Madelene tried to shut out the sound of Lewis's voice and give her attention entirely to the paintings in front of her. She also tried to shut out the burn of anger that ran through her. The anger was pointless and always would be. Lewis was a member of her family, and her family was all she had.

Yes, they've made sure of that
, said another voice in the back of her head. This one sounded remarkably like Helene.

Madelene strolled across the gallery, trying to be calm, and trying to ignore all the feelings raised by her stepbrother's presence. Like the larger gallery, the red walls here were hung floor to ceiling with paintings in gilt frames with not even one inch of space between them. The ones toward the ceiling leaned out so that one could still, mostly, see the details, even though one had to crane one's neck to do so. Madelene's eyes drifted up and down, slipping over colors, faces, skies filled with clouds, this lady's smile, that gentleman's pointer dog, that stretch of rolling slate gray ocean.



Madelene's wandering gaze darted back to a painting hung slightly below the wall's center line. This was the position reserved for artists who were considered good but not of the very first water. It was not a large canvas, but the artist had managed to fill the space with an amazing amount of detail. The scene was a young woman dressed in white, sitting at her dressing table. The whole of it was painted as if the observer were looking over her shoulder, so one did not see the girl's face directly. One saw her reflection. The artist had posed her in the act of reaching for a silver comb. Her unbound hair was a delicate red gold, its hue echoing the candlelight. She was not looking at her comb, though. She was looking into the mirror at the reflection of an open door and a brightly lit corridor. That light was remarkable—a sliver of deep rich gold shining from the canvas, as if the painter had dipped his brush in a candle's flame. The artist had taken particular care with her features, showing the intensity with which she regarded that open door.

“Is it you?”

Madelene whirled, alarm jangling in every nerve. Behind her stood a tall, lean man. His gold hair was cut longer than the current fashion, but instead of being oiled and curled, it was tied into a neat queue that lay across his shoulder. His deep eyes were unusually large and lent a dramatic appearance to his sculpted face. He wore a simple green coat with a black cravat and breeches, defying the fashion for waterfalls of starched linen and spotless white legs set by “Beau” Brummel.

She knew him. They'd never been introduced, but she knew him all the same. His gaze remained steady as stone, and fixed on her. “I'm sorry I startled you. Benedict Pelham, at your service.”

You mean
Madelene swallowed the words. This man was the second son of the Marquis of Innesdale. . .

And an artist

Panic seized her. All Madelene's blood dropped to her feet in a dizzying rush. The room spun. Everyone could see. Everyone was staring. Worse, Lord Benedict was examining her, comparing her to his painted girl. He must be thinking what a poor imitation she was to this lovely creation . . .

“It isn't true,” he said.

“I . . . What?” Surprise cleared some of the dizziness.

“Whatever you're thinking,” he said. “Whatever's turned you so pale. It isn't true.”

How would you know?
Not only had they never been introduced, he'd never even seen her before.

Or—Madelene's panicked gaze darted to the painting—had he?

It had been at the Windfords' house party. She was looking for somewhere to escape her stepbrother and had found her way into the musicians' gallery of the house's antiquated ballroom. There, concealed behind the curtains, she had watched Lord Benedict at work decorating the floor for the upcoming New Year's Eve ball. He'd knelt with his sketches and his box of brilliant chalks, drawing an extravagant confection of birds and wreathes and ribbons on the ballroom floor. Colors stained his graceful hands, making it look like he'd been sifting rainbows through his fingers. Every now and then he would pause and stretch, and she could catch a glimpse of his face, serious, distant, his attention focused entirely on his work.

Madelene desperately attempted to rally some sort of dignity. “You r-r-really shouldn't make personal remarks about ladies you've never met properly.”

Lord Benedict had folded his hands behind himself. The posture should have been relaxed, but it was not. He practically vibrated, taut as a violin string. Madelene felt that vibration echo through her own self. Was he nervous? She'd never thought an artist might be nervous. She'd been sure such a man must be like her cousin Henry Cross, who was an actor, and who could stride onto a stage and take charge of a whole crowd just by smiling.

She was staring at him. She couldn't stop. She wanted to memorize every aspect of this man. She'd watched him from a distance only. She hadn't realized how tall he was. She hadn't known he smelled of sharp oils and soap, or that his eyes were so dark. She had not seen the thin, ragged scar on his temple, almost covered by his neatly trimmed side-whiskers. She hadn't known his voice was so deep, or so calm. She wanted to stand and listen to him speak and feel the intensity of his presence. But she didn't dare. The warm tension spreading through her was too much like an attraction. She could not risk raising such a feeling in herself.

“It-t-t was very nice to meet you, sir, but you m-m-must excuse me. I should go find my friends.”

“I wish you wouldn't. I wish you would tell me what you think of her.” He nodded his head toward the painting, and the girl who sat at her table and looked at the open door like she was starving.

I can't.
That was her first thought, full of the familiar pain and the desperate wish to hide.

“Please,” he said, as if she'd spoken aloud. Madelene's heart gave a little quiver that should have been fear but somehow wasn't. “Call it vanity if you will, but not one person has stood so long in front of this particular painting as you. I would very much like to know what holds you.”

Madelene was used to searching for the double meaning, for some hint as to the lie beneath the friendly words. But there was no dishonesty in this man's words, or in his searching eyes.

She made herself take a deep breath and let it out slowly, the way Helene had her practice when she had one of her anxious spells in a crowd. She turned toward the painting.

“It's the girl,” she said. “She sees the open door and she longs to go through it. But she's afraid of something, or someone. The artist . . . you . . . have caught her contradiction. You understand. She wants so very much to go out, but she wants to remain hidden as well.”

“What is she afraid of?” He was standing very near her. Too near for perfect propriety. She should move away. A half step to the side would suffice. “Why does she need to hide?”

He knew. There was no question. He knew she'd watched him in the Windford ballroom. She thought she'd been so careful, and he'd known the whole time. He'd taken her fear and dragged it out for all the world to gawk at. She should have been furious, but she couldn't manage it, because somehow, he'd also made her fear into something beautiful.

“Pelham! Thought that was you!”

. Madelene drew back so hastily she tripped over her hem. Benedict's hand shot out to steady her, and in that instant, the warmth of his touch blazed along every nerve.

BOOK: The Stepsister's Triumph
7.13Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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