Saturday, May 11, 2013
Saturday's Chapter By Victoria Chatham
Lucius situated himself at the back of the entrance hall in Countess Esterhazy’s house. Light glittered from hundreds of candles set in wall sconces, candelabras and chandeliers. Footmen stood guard on both sides of the front door. Servants took cloaks, shawls, hats and canes from the early arrivals.
Waiting impatiently, he wanted to see and talk to only one person. He avoided several acquaintances, all of whom would be thoroughly shocked had they known of his infatuation.
Yes, infatuation, he told himself. It could surely not be anything else. She was pretty; no, he corrected himself, make that beautiful. Witty; no, a sharp tongued shrew who would probably never give a husband a moment’s peace. But, he told himself, this woman would never be a bore, could also be his friend as well as his lover if he chose to indulge that fantasy.
His attention focused on the front door. What would she be wearing? Would she see him? Could he stop himself from stepping out and sweeping her into his arms? The thought stunned him. That was a road he did not want to travel.
He fought to keep his warring emotions firmly under control but, when Emmaline at last made her entrance he joined in the collective gasp of admiration from those standing around the foyer.
Sheathed in a simple white satin gown that showed her figure to its fullest advantage, she walked with a grace that quite simply enchanted him. He stepped back behind a colonnade, not wanting his pleasure in seeing her to be seen.
He watched heads turn as gentlemen frankly admired her slim figure. Lucius fumed inwardly at their impertinence, amazing himself with the strength of his reaction. Why should the way other men look at her matter to him? Her exotic good looks could not but delight any eye.
The ladies cast envious glances her way, whispering about the design of the seed pearls stitched to her low cut neckline and the quality of the silver lace stole draped over her arms. Dowagers gasped as her satin skirts clung to her long, shapely legs. Clearly disapproving, some lifted fans to hide their faces while they made comments to their neighbours.
Her determination to combat the openly curious stares directed her way was evident in the tilt of her chin, her ramrod straight back. He watched her return stare for stare, nodding her head and smiling graciously at people as if she knew them. He moved closer and still Emmaline had not seen him. As she turned to speak to her chaperone, Countess Esterhazy appeared and swept her into a warm embrace.
“So good of you to come, my dear,” he heard the Countess say. “Our meeting at Almack’s was fortuitous but all too brief. I look forward to a longer conversation with you later this evening.”
“It was kind of you to send a carriage and chaperone for me,” Emmaline replied.
“My pleasure, my dear.” The Countess took her arm. “Now I must introduce you to some friends of mine.”
Unable to refuse, Emmaline found herself swept along on a tide of bon hommie, being introduced to one group of people after another, until the Countess stopped in front of Lucius.
“And I don’t believe I need introduce you two, n’est pas?” A little trill of laughter bubbled up from inside her as she patted Emmaline’s hand and walked away.
Fury at the subterfuge boiled in Emmaline’s veins. She raised her glance only to see humour lurking in Lucius’ steady gaze. She tightened her fists and would dearly loved to have hit him.
“Not my doing, Miss Devereux, I do assure you,” he said, putting up his hands as if in defeat. ”Although I can’t say I’m sorry. You look quite charming this evening.”
“I should do after all the effort that went into it,” Emmaline replied through gritted teeth.
“I see.” A ghost of a smile played across his face. “You would perhaps be happier in the country wearing homespun and half boots?”
“And why would that be?”
“I prefer the simple honesty of country life to the so called manners of people in Town, my Lord.”
“Really? Pray educate me.”
Dazed at finding herself so close to him again, Emmaline allowed Lucius to take her elbow and steer her to a seat in a window embrasure. When she saw where he led her, she glanced around but her chaperone was close by. Composing herself as best she could, she took the proffered seat.
“Now, you were going to educate me in the ways of honest country life and ill mannered Town people, were you not?”
For a moment Emmaline thought she detected mockery in his voice. She dared to look at him, but saw nothing other than interest in his face.
“As master of Avondale Park, I am sure you are well acquainted with country life and need no instruction from me.”
“To an extent that may be true, but I am not sure how best to respond to your argument. Pray enlighten me.”
“Why, my Lord, do your horses not bite at one end and kick at the other? Do your dogs not steal scraps from your table, the cat get into the cream or the foxes ravage your chickens?”
“And there is honesty in that?”
“But of course, for they are simply being themselves.”
“And in Town we are not?”
“Of course not.” The look Emmaline gave him was beyond scathing. “Countess Esterhazy very clearly arranged to put us together this evening. Mamas scheme to marry their daughters off to the richest man possible every Season, regardless of how they may feel about each other. You only have to consider Lord and Lady Fletcher to see that.”
“Miss Stephanie Howard’s parents married her off to Lord Fletcher for his fortune and his estates but she is now carrying Lord Burrough’s child. Tell me, what is honest about that?”
“How the devil did you know about Lady Fletcher?” asked Lucius, clearly astonished.
“It doesn’t matter.” Emmaline shook her head.
“And what of you, Miss Devereux, are you honest?”
Emmaline’s stomach turned upside down and she quaked in her white satin slippers. Oh, how much she wanted to tell him the truth, to trust that he would not turn away from her. But it was impossible. She steeled herself and dared to look directly into his eyes.
“At this moment, my Lord, no I am not.”
Her response surprised and intrigued him but before he could question her further, a buzz of conversation stirred in the crowd. People pressed back to clear the centre of the room. Lucius stood up as they heard the murmur of anticipation.
“It is the Prince Regent himself,” the chaperone whispered with awe.
Emmaline left her chair and stood beside Lucius, hoping to remain at the back of the crowd. To her horror Countess Esterhazy was forming a reception line and she quickly found herself at the forefront.
The Prince, with his entourage behind him, slowly made his way down the line. Emmaline looked down and bit her lip, hoping that he would pass by her but the Countess and the Prince Regent stopped in front of her.
“Miss Devereux, delighted to make your acquaintance again.” In the ensuing silence she heard the creak of his stays as he bent towards her.
“Your Royal Highness is too kind.” She dropped a deep curtsy and bowed her head.
“Nonsense.” The Prince lifted her hand to his lips. “England salutes you. And how is your grandfather and your army of wounded warriors, hmm?”
“As well as can be expected, your Highness,” Emmaline assured him, but the Countess had already moved on.
“Escorting Miss Devereux this evening, Avondale?” the Prince asked as the Countess introduced them. “If you ain’t, I might have to snaffle this pretty little thing out from under your nose.”
There were snorts of laughter and protestations from those around them and the Prince continued down the line, a fat chuckle emanating from his lips.
Lucius took two glasses of champagne from the salver presented by a footman and gave one to a still dazed Emmaline. She took the glass without a word, but turned with everyone else when Count Esterhazy proposed a toast to the Prince.
“So how come you’re acquainted with Prinny?” Lucius asked quietly once the Prince’s party moved on to take their seats in readiness for Catalani’s performance.
“I met him just once at a military function when in the company of my grandfather.” Emmaline sipped on her champagne.
“So why would England salute you?”
Emmaline sipped on her champagne and swallowed it slowly. Here was the core of her problem. She sipped thoughtfully on the champagne again. How could she possibly tell him anything without having to tell him all? There was no way at all. She recklessly tossed back the remainder of her champagne and placed her empty flute on a passing servant’s tray. Lucius stood close behind her. She sensed the heat in his hard muscled body. Her heart leapt, skipped a beat as he moved closer still. Her skin burnt as the backs of his fingers pressed lightly against her arm. She took a deep breath to compose herself and wished she had not drunk her champagne so quickly. Her head spun a little as she turned to Lucius.
“His Highness simply referred to the work my grandfather took upon himself to repatriate wounded soldiers. You must know they were shockingly neglected.”
“I have heard something of the sort, but I do believe there is more to it than that.”
Emmaline moved away a little and looked up at him. “But without calling me a liar, which would be most ungentlemanly of you, you will have to accept it will you not?”
“No, minx. I will not.”
Lucius leaned in towards her. His breath on her neck made her stiffen. Little licks of heat danced down her veins, twirled her pulse into a rapid tattoo. She tried to keep her back straight and to look ahead while all she wanted was to close her eyes and drop her head onto his shoulder. How could her body betray her so? She gave herself a mental shake and lifted her chin.
“I wish . . “ she began.
“What do you wish, Emmaline?”
She inhaled deeply. His words must have ridden on the cloud of her breath and detached themselves in her brain for she could not possibly have heard them.
“I mean, I want . . “
“What?” His lips were close to her ear. “Tell me what you want.”
He stood so close. She knew that if she leaned back she would feel the hard wall of his chest. She took a step away, but he moved beside her. She felt the firmness of his thigh against her hip. Shocked at the instant tremor this elicited in her, she moved away again. His whisper, soft and low and surely not heard by anyone but her, tickled the delicate shell of her ear.
“What I want is you in my bed.”
Emmaline gasped. This was wrong. She could not have heard him correctly. She blinked and looked up at him. The longing she saw in his eyes matched the longing in her heart and nearly overturned her resolve, but she lifted her chin even more and tried to smile.
“Ah, a jest to set the tone for the evening,” she said as glibly as she could
“I do not jest, I assure you, but I believe we should take our seats in readiness for the performance.”
In stunned silence, Emmaline took the arm he offered her. Lucius escorted her into the already darkened drawing room in which the evening’s entertainment was to take place. He procured seats for them, just as the performer made her entrance.
Catalani’s dark eyes swept her audience and commanded immediate quiet. She held them spellbound. Her audience waited. Her rich soprano voice began to fill the room and Emmaline felt a slight pressure on her hand. She glanced down to see Lucius’ hand resting gently on hers.
Her heart soared. Her pulse thumped as the soprano’s voice effortlessly rose and fell from one octave to another. Eyes closed, Emmaline remained motionless. She prayed that Lucius would not remove his hand and revelled in the warmth that radiated through the thin kidskin barrier of her gloves.
Her mind drifted. What if there were no barriers between them? What if she could remove his coat, his shirt? What if he slipped her gown off her shoulder? She shivered with pleasure at the image of his skin against hers.
Lucius turned her hand over and she felt the light pressure of his finger as he began to prescribe lazy circles in the palm of her hand. She gasped in shocked delight and, as that exploring finger travelled to the inside of her wrist and began to caress, felt a tremor run through her body.
Lulled by the melodies that washed over her, aflame from the sensations he stirred in her, she gave in. Relished the heat that emanated from Lucius’ hand and warmed her entire body. Wished the moment could last forever. When the song was at an end she reluctantly pulled her hand loose, rose from her chair and joined the audience in applauding the performance.
“She is magnificent, is she not?” Emmaline whispered to Lucius.
“Yes, you are,” he whispered back.
Suddenly breathless, Emmaline quickly sat down and folded her hands together in her lap to prevent them trembling. She peeped at Miss Stevens, hoping that she had not heard Lucius but her chaperone was still on her feet applauding. Catalani hushed the audience and sang two more pieces before making her exit amidst thunderous applause.
“However they managed it, the Esterhazy’s have outdone themselves,” Lucius said as the room began to empty. He held Emmaline’s chair as she stood up. “Were you perhaps invited to dine at Lady Darnley’s this evening?”
She nodded, unable to find words with which to reply.
“May I escort you?”
Fighting to control her breathing, she desperately hoped he did not notice her hesitation. “You do not have your own carriage this evening?”
“Yes, but it can follow.”
“And keep your horses waiting?”
A smile broke the lean face that loomed so close to hers. “There are times when it does not hurt them. Tonight is one of those times.”
Lucius beckoned to a footman and asked that his carriage be re-directed to Lady Darnley’s residence. He offered Emmaline his arm. She placed her hand in the crook of his elbow.
It felt so right, so good, as if it had always been so as she stepped out with him to her carriage. He had not said he loved her, had not asked for her hand in marriage, but his whispered words rang in her mind.
He wanted her.