It was a simple choice: either smoke a cheroot or kill someone. Simone drew the flame into the end of the tightly twisted length of tobacco, puffed in utter relief, and shook out the match. Not, she silently mused, shoving the burnt match into the dirt and leaning back against the garden wall, that there weren’t a few people whose death would make the world a better place. And not that anyone would think it appropriate to see it in that light or to thank her for the improvement.
She considered the open doors of the mansion through a moonlit haze of sweet smoke and shook her head. Another night, another ball. The third night of her official first Season and she was already bored out of her mind. She arched a brow and watched Lord Puff and Fluff come out onto the balcony and make a beeline for the shadows. Where, as it turned out, the wife of Lord Tinkle happened to be taking a respite from the dizzying gaiety of the ball—and the pathologically possessive eye of her husband.
Ah, the not-so-secret lives of the peerage. Simone blew out a stream of smoke and smiled wryly. If she got caught smoking in the garden, the news would be all over London within the hour. No one would be surprised, of course. But they would be beyond delighted to have what they’d consider irrefutable proof of her low breeding. As though proof of any sort was required before they expressed their opinions.
Simone sighed and watched Lord Puff and Fluff bend Lady Tinkle backward over the balustrade while simultaneously trying to liberate her breasts and choke her to death with his tongue. If they got caught at it, there would be some clearing of throats, some hasty rearranging of clothing, and a thoroughly proper gentlemen’s agreement that nothing would ever be said of the awkward moment.
Unless of course it was Lord Tinkle who caught them. That would be ugly. He’d rage over his wife’s fickle and faithless nature, beat Puff and Fluff to a bloody pulp, and then drag Lady Tinkle home by her hair to lock her up for the next aeon or two. She’d contemplate throwing herself out an upper-story window and it would never occur to Lord Tinkle that there might be just a bit of hypocrisy in his continuing weekly visits to Whitechapel and the madam with the Indian rubber sheets.
And no one in Society would ever utter so much as a word about any of it in public. “Why would they?” Simone whispered on a sigh as she jabbed the end of the cheroot into the dirt beside the used match. “When they have me to talk about?”
Fishing a peppermint from her beaded reticule, she stepped from behind the cover of a flowering shrub of some sort and made her way along the path leading back to the mansion. The tortures one accepted for the sake of appearances and in the name of family. . . . Cruelly uncomfortable clothes, stupid shoes, and inane conversation were bad enough, but having to deal with all that and stifling hot and perfume-cloyed ballrooms . . . She really deserved a medal of some sort.
Simone gathered her skirts and climbed the steps to the balcony, ignored the spectacle in the shadowed corner, and stopped two feet inside the brightly lit ballroom. Snapping open her fan, she did what she could to produce a cooling breeze while considering the entirely too bejeweled and oh so publicly circumspect crowd. The actual London Season was just a few months long, she reminded herself. She could endure it.
The question, really, was whether Society could endure her. She smiled and fluttered the fan faster, wondering what unspoken message she was sending with it this time and what ninny had come up with the entire convoluted system of signs. God forbid that people actually say what they thought or—horror of horrors!—clearly and honestly articulate what they wanted. No, if people did that, the world would come to some sudden, hideously crashing end.
Simone’s smile widened. According to her older sister, the matrons were saying that Simone was far more interested in courting Armageddon than she was in letting any of the peerage’s money-chasing bachelors catch her. It really was amazing how perceptive the old hens could be. And how utterly overwhelmed some of the chicks are, Simone added as she watched one of her fellow sufferers sneak a quick peek from behind a potted palm in the far corner. Poor Emmaline. Being pretty, petite, blond, blue-eyed, and the daughter of a marquis didn’t seem to have done much for her confidence; she was considerably more mouse than girl.
Simone closed her fan and made her way along the edge of the crowd. Emmaline certainly wasn’t what she considered a friend. No, not at all. They’d met only twice. The first time had been three days ago at St. James’s Palace while they were both waiting—wearing ridiculous panniers and hideously tight corsets—for their formal presentation to the queen. Emmaline had nearly fainted from the strain. Bracing her had been an instinctive thing—which had led to an obligatory bit of conversation once the girl had recovered her breath and balance.
It was only because Emmaline hadn’t been the least bit peerish in that first meeting that there’d been a second. At Lady Somebodyorother’s ball the night before last. Neither Emmaline nor Simone had wanted to be there. And while they had vastly different reasons for their aversions, it was at least something they had in common. Which, Simone knew, was far more than could be said for her and anyone else at this evening’s ordeal.
“Hello, Emmaline,” she said, slipping behind the potted plant.
“Oh, Simone,” the other gasped, throwing her arms around Simone’s shoulders and giving her a hard hug, “I was so hoping you would be here.”
“That makes you the only one,” she replied, chuckling as she was released. She checked her arms to make sure that she hadn’t been pierced by any of Emmaline’s hundreds of pale pink sequins. “Are you hiding for a specific reason or is it more a precautionary measure?”
Emmaline sagged back against the wall and stared down at the floor. “I pled a headache last night and was allowed to stay home. Unfortunately, Mother wouldn’t believe it could happen two nights in a row.”
It wasn’t an answer to the question, but Simone didn’t press. Neither did she point out that a second evasion might have been possible if Emmaline had been creative enough to develop a different ailment. “My sister insisted that I had to be here, too,” Simone supplied, watching the eddying crowd through a veil of palm fronds. “Why, I don’t know. But then, I consider this entire coming-out process to be one of life’s great mysteries. And torments.”
“Has anyone asked you to dance?”
Simone grinned and stepped back to help Emmaline hold up the wall. “The trick is to keep moving, to look as though you have somewhere important to go, and that you’ll knock them down if they get in your way.”
“Oh, I couldn’t possibly do that.”
“Knock them down,” Emmaline clarified. “You could and would and they know it. It makes all the difference, you know.”
Yes, she did. Just as she knew from their brief encounters that the girl didn’t have the foggiest notion of how to hold her own in a crowd of strangers. How to go about angling a shoulder for proper impact would be completely beyond her. The things some people didn’t teach their daughters. Someone really should take poor Emmaline under their—
“Would you like to learn how to do it?” Simone offered, buoyed by the prospect of a diversion that could well last for months. For the entire Season! “I’d be glad to teach you.”
“I don’t think I can—”
“Nonsense,” Simone happily interrupted. “I’m living proof that anyone can learn to be and do anything.”
Emmaline’s smile was weak at best. “I appreciate the offer, Simone, but there is no hope of success and the effort would leave you no time for your own . . .” She glanced through the fronds and then made another pathetic attempt to smile. “Pursuits.”
Dear God, the girl was her own worst enemy. Did she ever utter a sentence that didn’t contain a version of “not”? “I like challenges. As for my pursuits . . .” Simone laughed softly and then leaned closer to confess, “I’m going through all of this just to make my sister and guardian happy. Well, that and I got the horse I wanted for being agreeable. I have absolutely no intention of ending the Season tied elbow, hip, and ankle to some man.”
Emmaline stared at her wide-eyed for a long second. Eventually she blinked, swallowed, and said breathily, “Truly? I’m going to marry the first man who asks for me so I don’t ever have to do this again.”
That is desperate. “Well,” Simone ventured, undeterred, “they have to know you exist before they can ask for you.”
“I suppose you’re right.”
Simone ignored the plaintive sigh. “I’m always right, Emmaline,” she assured her, coming off the wall. “Trust me.”
Emmaline looked as though she were being asked to walk the plank, but she did take a deep breath, and that was close enough to consent for Simone. She extended her hands and held them there until Emmaline reluctantly put hers in them.
“Now lift your chin,” Simone instructed once she had the girl planted squarely on her feet. Emmaline looked up at the ceiling. “Not that high. Unless you want a crick in your neck and people looking up your nose.”
Emmaline brought her chin down to give her a horrified look.
“Remember how Victoria held hers during the presentation?” Simone suggested. She grinned as Emmaline mimicked it perfectly. “You’ve got it, my dear. Now square your shoulders.”
Bless the girl, she really had no concept of a midpoint on anything. Considering her ample chest . . . “That’s not square,” Simone observed, trying desperately not to laugh. “That’s my-breasts-arrive-in-a-room-five-minutes-before-the-rest-of-me-does.”
Emmaline sighed and sagged. “See, Simone? I’m hopeless. I’ve spent all of my life being a good girl and trying very hard, as good girls should, not to be noticed. And now . . . Overnight . . .” She shook her head. “I don’t know anything about how to go about being noticed properly.”
Obviously. Where the hell has your mother been the last few years? “We’re going to fix that,” Simone assured her. “Move your shoulders back half as far as you did before.”
So trainable. So there’s no excuse for your awkwardness. “Very well done. And now that we’ve mastered basic presentation,” she said, giving Emmaline’s hands a gentle squeeze, “we’re going to walk—no, glide—ever so regally, over to the punch bowl and get ourselves something too sweet but otherwise unnoteworthy to drink.”
Emmaline’s gaze darted in the direction of the serving table. Her eyes were huge when she looked back at Simone. “Please promise me you won’t go off and leave me alone out there.”
“Cross my heart and hope to die,” she promised, releasing Emmaline’s hands. “We step out of here, on three, owning the world and all we survey. Ready?” At the girl’s swallow, Simone lifted her chin and squared her own shoulders, saying, “One, two, follow my lead, three.”
To her amazement, Emmaline followed and then bravely stepped up to her side as they made their way along the edge of the ballroom. It was nice to know that six long, hideous years of never-ending deportment lessons were worth something after all. And who would have guessed that what little she’d bothered to absorb of it all would be so much more than someone else had? Poor Emmy. Leaving her to fend for herself would be incredibly cruel. Hopefully she’d be able to give Emmy a bit of confidence before Mother Neglectful heard the stories about her daughter’s new friend. Once she did . . .
Of course there was the possibility that everyone would consider Emmy a desperately needed positive influence on her. Simone grinned. Not that it was bloody likely.
Tristan sipped his champagne, looked over the swirl of skirts for the thousandth time that evening, and concluded that wife hunting, while indisputably necessary, was a dreadfully dull thing to do. Not only was his mind numb from the attempt to remember names and faces he didn’t care one whit about, but his face was close to paralyzed from the effort of keeping a wholly false smile in place.
He moved his gaze along the edges of the room and caught a glimpse of pink satin and blond curls. Extreme thirst must have driven his sister out from behind the palms, he mused, sipping his drink again.
Or maybe not, he amended, his attention slipping to the dark-haired young woman standing beside her and obviously carrying the bulk of the conversation. The teal-colored gown she was wearing was uncommonly plain, which somehow managed to make the shape it encased all that much more curvaceous. And her hair wasn’t swept up to a fashionable pile atop her head, either. No, she’d pulled the sides back and pinned them into a soft little nest but let the rest of the lovely raven curls cascade down her back in defiance of fashion. And social convention, he added as an appreciative smile lifted the corners of his mouth.
“I take it that you’ve found someone of interest?”
He made a mental note to work on not being quite so transparent and then answered, “Over by the punch bowl, Noland. The woman with my sister. What do you know of her?”
His friend from their Eton days leaned slightly forward and to the side for a better view—looking something like a teetering bowling pin as he did. After a moment, he came back to center, took a sip of his champagne, and replied, “I do believe that’s Lady Simone Turnbridge.”
“Turnbridge,” he mulled aloud. “It’s not ringing any bells.”
“Probably because you never paid so much as a sliver of attention to those sorts of things.”
“Probably because I wasn’t in line to inherit anything that made it worth my while to pay attention.”
Noland gave him a chagrined smile and a brief salute with his glass. “She’s one of the old Duke of Ryland’s by-blow daughters,” he supplied. “The middle one. According to the rumors, she’s twenty and her first Season has been delayed until now because it’s taken forever and a legion of etiquette masters to make her even marginally presentable.”
A legion, huh? Given the hairstyle and the plainness of her gown, Lady Simone apparently had outlasted them all. “She’s certainly a beauty.”
Noland softly cleared his throat. “Yes, well . . .”
Whether it was the clear notes of Noland’s disapproval or the way Lady Simone tipped her head back to laugh at that moment . . . His pulse quickening, Tristan cocked a brow and pressed, “There’s a story to her?”
“Quite a few, actually.”
“Such as?” There was no artifice to her that he could see from across the room. Odds were quite good that she’d be a delightfully unrestrained lover.
“Suffice it to say that marrying her would ensure that your life would be a living hell. She’s an uncontrolled terror and every mother’s worst fear.”
Which put her in the running for being one of man’s favorite fantasies. Hopefully she didn’t have a voice that sounded like fingernails on a slate board. “Give me an example of her terrible behavior.”
“She rides astride. Need I say more?”
“No,” Tristan admitted, grinning as he headed across the ballroom toward his sister and the delectable morsel at her side.
Copyright © 2006 by Leslie LaFoy. All rights reserved.