Excerpt: Lady Windermere's Lover

Attending the theater with the Duke of Denford was not the wisest way for Cynthia to spend her first evening back in London. He’d escorted her before, to plays, the opera, and less decorous events like masked balls at the Pantheon. But this was the first time she’d been out with him when she, Denford, and her husband were in the same country.

Receiving word from the Foreign Office of Windermere’s imminent arrival from Persia, she’d pressed the horses over winter roads from Wiltshire, thinking she’d find him already at home in Hanover Square.

Her stomach fluttering, she had climbed down from her chaise and up the steps into the marble hall. She found all serene: no excitement at the presence of the master of the house, no evidence of luggage from abroad. The Earl of Windermere wasn’t at Windermere House. The servants hadn’t seen him or even heard of their master’s return. The surge of optimism that she’d maintained for two days on the road dissipated like heat through a leaking roof. There and then, Cynthia determined to deny that foolish hope had ever existed.

There was no reason to be disappointed, she told herself firmly. Disappointment suggested the existence of expectations. Cynthia would be a fool to expect anything from Windermere. He hadn’t disappointed her, merely let her down. During just over a year of marriage, most of it spent apart, Damian Lewis, Earl of Windermere, had been consistent in that regard.

Lord Windermere might not have been present to greet his faithful wife, but the devil next door was. Not half an hour after her arrival from the country, the Duke of Denford stepped along the pavement from his house and welcomed her home as Windermere had failed to do. Despite at least two very good reasons why she should refuse, Cynthia was now dressed in her favorite evening gown, sitting in a box at Drury Lane with temptation incarnate.

“I didn’t expect to see so many people in town just before Christmas.” She leaned over the rail, peering at the sweep of seats opposite, five tiers of them, thronged with increasingly well-dressed patrons, ranging from clerks and servants in the highest gallery under the roof, down to the expensive and fashionable boxes nearest the pit. She and Denford occupied one of the latter, the sidewalls of which offered an illusion of privacy, despite being open to the gaze of the world.

“What an excellent box, Julian. You know I like being near the stage.”

“You also like being invisible to most of the gossiping tabbies.” He knew as well as she that her flouting of convention was largely bravado. Fewer than half the occupants of the vast horseshoe-shaped theater could see the inhabitants of the front boxes.

“I don’t even know why I worry about being discreet. I’m not well-known in town.” She waved her hand to indicate the opposite seats. “It’s quite possible that not a soul in the place knows who I am.”

“They know me.”

“That’s because you are notorious and therefore interesting to everyone.”

“The world is filled with fools.”

She turned to look at her companion, whose low voice dropped to an impossibly deep bass when he was particularly amused or especially cynical. His appearance alone was enough to make him stand out. His tall, lean figure was habitually clad in unrelieved black—this evening in satin breeches and an evening coat and waistcoat of velvet embroidered in black silk. Even his neckcloth was black. The gloom of his costume enhanced the satanic effect of dead-straight black hair, which he wore long and tied back in a queue with a silk bow. He sat upright beside her with arms extended, hands resting on the silver-chased knob of the ebony walking stick he rarely left at home. His dependence on the elegant staff was an affectation for a man under thirty in perfect health. Some people, including Cynthia, found it amusing. Others found it just one more reason to detest him. The Duke of Denford had plenty of enemies.

“I believe you enjoy shocking people, Julian.”

Denford’s mouth curled unpleasantly, then the thin face with the hawkish nose made one of the mercurial transformations that fascinated Cynthia, and had sent her scuttling out of town a few weeks earlier, terrified she would succumb to the heady seduction of the duke’s brilliant blue eyes.

“I enjoy shocking you,” he said. A man shouldn’t be allowed such devastating features, especially when he had the ability to change them from ice to fire beneath her gaze.

“I’m not as easy to shock as I was when we first met.”

“No,” he said. “Thank God for that. You have become a fascinating challenge.”

It didn’t seem possible for pure sky blue to exude heat, but Denford’s eyes made every inch of her skin flush warm. How did he manage it? Without moving a muscle, he examined her face with concentrated intensity for some seconds, then his gaze dropped to the white expanse of her bosom, the bodice cut so low that the blue silk and lace barely concealed her nipples. She felt them hardening, and a curl of fire kindled in her in belly. A familiar sick panic gripped her chest at the clash of attraction and repulsion, longing and fear.

She jerked her head toward the stage and stared at the obstinately closed curtain. Surely it was time for the play to begin.

“Why did you leave London?” The question was almost a whisper, close enough to caress her ear.

“Anne wanted to go to Wiltshire,” she said with determined nonchalance. “As her temporary chaperone, naturally I had to go with her.”

“Was that the only reason?”

“Why else?”

It was true, in as far as it went. Her houseguest Anne Brotherton had a reason to visit Hinton Manor, where she’d remained. But Cynthia had seized on the excuse it offered to escape Denford’s dangerous attentions. And Denford knew it.

“You like to accommodate your friends,” he said.

“Yes.”

“Am I your friend?”

She laughed nervously. “Of course you are.”

“I look forward to being accommodated.”

Her laugh degenerated to a titter. She grew warmer and more panicked, torn between the competing urges of flight and surrender. Desperate to break out of the sensual net he wove about her, she resorted to frankness. “I’m not like this, Julian,” she said, staring with dogged, unfocused eyes at the mass of humanity in the crowded pit. “I am the daughter of a clergyman. I am married. I would never break my marriage vows.”

“Would you not?”

“I will not.”

She sensed him retreat, lean back in his chair. Julian had always been clever that way. He would press her so far, then withdraw before she became alarmed and ran away. Except that one time. The one kiss. Which had resulted in her fleeing London and the temptation to sin.

Because she was, despite everything, a married woman and she would not betray her husband, however much he might deserve it. Besides, she wasn’t sure of Denford’s motives.

He desired her. She did not believe that his carnal interest was feigned. But he had also once been her husband’s best friend.

 

 

The Earl of Windermere dined at Grosvenor Square with Sir Richard Radcliffe. …Claiming pressure of work, Radcliffe asked Damian to escort his wife to the theater. Lady Belinda did not believe in arriving at the theater early. “They always start late. Besides, no one worth looking at ever arrives on time,” she said, and pressed another glass of brandy on him, giving him an excellent view of her bosom draped in red silk embroidered in gold. As he remembered well, Her Ladyship wasn’t bashful, either in private or in public. No one in the theater would miss that scarlet gown.

When they entered the Radcliffes’ box at Drury Lane, naturally in the best part of the house, Titania was waking up to find herself in love with an ass. Damian didn’t particularly like A Midsummer Night’s Dream. It disturbed him how the fate of humans was dependent on the whims of fairies, which seemed akin to the turn of the card or the fall of the dice. So he listened with half an ear to Lady Belinda’s commentary on the wardrobe choices of the audience and wished her husband had come with them.

Hard to believe that six years earlier, as a very junior diplomat, he’d had a massive tendre for the worldly hostess. She cultivated young followers from the better families, and her much older husband, ever occupied with the affairs of state, encouraged it. Damian sometimes wondered how much his advancement owed to the pleasure of his patron’s wife. Pleasure indeed. For a single month, once Lady Belinda had made it blatantly clear that her husband demanded only discretion, Damian had been her satisfied and ultimately exhausted bedmate. He’d been tossed aside for a newer, even younger candidate. A mission to Prussia beckoned, and frankly the Germans had been a bit of a relief after the exigencies of life as Lady Belinda’s lover.

A satin-gloved hand touched his knee, and stayed there. “I have heard, Damian,” she said, her voice a low purr, “that the Levant is home to many exotic practices.”

“I don’t know about that,” he said. “What seems exotic to us is normal to them. The game of Chowgan, for example, is no more or less thrilling than cricket is to us. It’s played on horseback with sticks to hit a ball. It’s very fine sport and demands a high degree of skill.”

“I’m always interested in sports that demand skill.” Her rich gardenia perfume tickled his nose as she leaned in to whisper. “Do the Persians not have seraglios, like the Turks?”

“Certainly. But male visitors, especially foreign ones, are not permitted to enter the zenanas. The women are well-guarded.”

“My poor Damian! Does that mean you have been alone for a full year?”

As a matter of fact it did. His bollocks roiled at the proximity of a woman who would, if he gave the sign, skip the play and put him through his paces for the rest of the night.

It was tempting. Very tempting.

Then he thought of his wife, who had been stranded in the country a full year. Though she hadn’t appealed to him in the past, long deprivation might make her desirable. With some regret he pretended to turn his attention to the stage.

Belinda hadn’t given up. “Gentlemen talk. Even if you lacked the opportunity to play exotic sports, I’m sure you learned the rules.”

“As a matter of fact I did play Chowgan.”

“Damian,” she said with an impatient edge. “I am not talking about games that are played on the back of a horse.”

It was stupid to encourage her, but he couldn’t resist. “I am astonished you never experienced that particular pleasure.”

She enjoyed that. “Will it surprise you to learn that I have tried? I thought to give new meaning to the rising trot but it proved impracticable.”

He crossed his legs, trying and failing to dislodge her hand. Instead it moved upward, warm against his satin-clad thigh. “Not even a horse can keep up with you, let alone a travel-weary man,” he said, hoping she would take the hint and accept that the delights of the evening would not extend beyond the thespian. As long as her hand didn’t travel any farther, she wouldn’t know that his cock hadn’t got the message about being too tired for action. Thank goodness the box was shadowy.

“Women talk when they are disappointed.” There was no question in his mind that the remark was a veiled threat. Not a direct one. Talking about his bedroom prowess, or lack of the same, wouldn’t accomplish anything, but Lady Belinda held a good deal of influence in the circles where his future ambitions lay and was ruthless about getting what she wanted. She had the power to make life difficult for him and needed to be placated.

“I have something you will enjoy, once all my luggage arrives. Certain miniature paintings that I cannot display in my wife’s drawing room.” He kept his eyes on the stage, but a sharp intake of breath told him he’d intrigued the sensual magpie.

“And shall you demonstrate the poses?”

“Alas,” he said with what he hoped was a note of finality, “I leave for Oxfordshire in a day or so.”

“You should wait for my Christmas dinner party. A week or two won’t make much difference.”

“My wife may beg to differ. I have not seen Lady Windermere in over a year.”

“Is that so?” Now her voice held a note of amusement. “In that case I will importune you no more. I look forward to seeing the paintings.”

She removed her hand from his thigh and they sat side by side with perfect decorum, pretending to watch the play. If there was a single member of the audience less interested in A Midsummer Night’s Dream than he, it was Lady Belinda.

“Isn’t that Denford?” she asked, as a chorus of fairies in flimsy costumes cavorted on the stage. “Perhaps you haven’t heard, but the infamous Julian Fortescue has turned respectable. Or rather he inherited a dukedom, which had the same effect without him having to go to the trouble of changing his habits.”

His stomach clenched. He’d ignored Julian for the best part of seven years and he fervently wished he could continue to do so. But he had a mission. “Where? Has he changed his style of dress since being raised to the purple?”

“Opposite side, third box in from the stage.”

It was about as far across the expanse of the theater as was possible, but the tall, lean figure in black leaped instantly to the eye. Once he’d known Julian as well as anyone in the world and he could still pick him out of a crowd without the least difficulty. The years of disappointment and enmity slipped away and he felt the joy of seeing his best friend after a long absence. But only for a moment; then the old bitterness flooded his organs. Though he wished he could continue to pretend that Julian Fortescue didn’t exist, he had to reopen relations with the Duke of Denford. Duty demanded it.

“Still in black,” he said. “Has he cut his hair?”

“He believes he is Samson.”

“You are probably better acquainted with him than I. Now.” There was a hint of a question in his statement. If Julian—Denford—was one of Belinda’s lovers, wouldn’t Grenville have given her the task of persuading him to sell the paintings? She never made a secret of her affaires, and Sir Richard’s complacency, even complicity, was well-known.

“We are on nodding terms, that is all.” The pique in her voice told him that she wouldn’t mind playing Delilah, and he concluded that Julian had rejected her advances.

There was one other occupant of the box, a blond woman in blue, too far away to identify. He had the impression of a fashionable beauty, but her general mien struck no chord. It was unlikely that Damian knew her. She raised a lorgnette and looked around and he fancied they came under her scrutiny. Then she turned back to Denford, his black head contrasting with her fair one. Denford appeared engrossed by his companion and Damian couldn’t blame him. Even at this distance he could tell that she was exquisite. He wondered if her face matched her air of elegance.

“Perhaps I should go and congratulate him on his elevation,” Damian said, pondering the advantage of making initial contact in a public place He had no illusions about the difficulty of the task he’d been set. The last time he and Julian had spoken—ironically about a very different collection of pictures—had seemed to preclude their ever being on cordial terms again.

“I’m sure he won’t mind being interrupted.”

“Who is the lady?”

“I don’t know. I don’t keep count of Denford’s conquests.” The edge of malice in Belinda’s voice aroused warning prickles at the back of his neck. She was lying and she was up to no good.

The blond woman was probably married; Julian would hardly be escorting a young and single lady, and the female in question was clearly no Cyprian. Even at this distance she exuded an air of breeding and delicacy, though the latter quality was deceptive if she openly deceived her husband with a man of Julian’s ilk. Intruding on them without knowing her identity seemed potentially awkward. Suppose her husband was a friend of his? Reestablishing relations with Julian was going to be tricky enough without adding an unknown woman into the equation.

“The curtain is falling. You should go now.” Lady Belinda nodded to someone in another box and waved him toward the exit. “I can spare you for quarter of an hour.”

“I wouldn’t dream of leaving you alone.” If Lady Belinda pursued her own mischievous agenda, he refused to be manipulated “Also, I might be de trop over there. Who knows what Denford may be getting up to in that box.”

She smiled sweetly and changed her tack. “Some women have all the luck,” she purred, and put her hand back on his knee.

He inched away and calculated how much more of A Midsummer Night’s Dream he had to endure.

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