Richard took in the sea of faces around them—shocked, disapproving. He’d seen such looks before, but usually only on one face at a time, when he and a female companion had been surprised in a secluded spot at Vauxhall or caught kissing on a moonlit terrace. Seeing it on twenty faces at once was unsettling. “Miss Slockholme slipped on the ice.”
“Mon dieu! Slipped, do you say?” A strapping young man stepped forward, an elegant study in gray and white. “That is not what I saw.”
Richard’s eyes narrowed. “And who are you?”
“I am the Comte de Villiers.” The man turned to address the crowd around them in his heavily accented English. “Someone must speak for this poor girl. This fiend, against her will he drags her out here, then he makes the attempt on her virtue!”
In a flash, Richard veered between two competing reactions. First outrage, that this jumped-up Frog should dare accuse him of forcing himself on an innocent girl. Then disbelief—of all the wrongs with which to charge him, how could anyone imagine he’d be so uncivilized as to pleasure a woman on the ice? Then outrage again, that Miss Slockholme's reputation was in jeopardy. “You’ll take back those words, sir, or you’ll answer for them.”
“Why should I take back the truth?” Spreading his hands, the Frenchman looked to their hostess. "I entreat you, Madame la Duchesse, ask the poor girl yourself.”
“Which is it, Miss Slockholme?” the Duchess said. “Is the Comte mistaken, or was Lord Ambry forcing his attentions on you?”
Richard glanced down at the girl, expecting a swift defense of his conduct or at the very least a mortified shake of the head. Even if she was too green to understand the full import of the Comte’s accusation, she had to be dismayed by the attention they’d drawn.
But to his surprise, she burst into a flood of tears. “Oh, it was awful! I told him I would never betray my dear friend Lady Louisa with him, but he only laughed and said, ‘Why should I want mutton when I could have lamb?’ Then he pulled me out here, dragging me through the holly and the ivy even though I told him over and over he was making a mistake. And then he—he—oh, it’s too dreadful to describe!”
Richard’s jaw dropped. What?
“There, you see,” the Comte said. “Did I not say it was so?”
Richard couldn’t believe how completely he’d been duped. The scheming minx! He’d never imagined he was dealing with a mastermind, yet Miss Slockholme had obviously planned this whole scene, and he’d fallen for it like a Johnny Raw.
He turned from the sobbing girl to smile blandly at the audience around them. “As diverting as this farce has been, I ask you all, does that even sound like me? I mean, really—forcing an ignorant girl? When have I ever had to force a woman?” When no one answered, he looked from one face in the crowd to another, his eyes coming to rest on Louisa. She was always quick to laugh at the ridiculous. “Well?”
Though a flush stained Lady Louisa’s cheeks, her face was as cold as an Inverness winter. She turned away with a jerk.
Damn. Richard looked quickly to Harriet Fordyce. They’d been occasional lovers since her husband’s death nearly five years ago. Surely she would come to his defense. “Honestly, does that sound like something I would do?”
She darted a glance at Miss Slockholme’s youthful face and looked pointedly away.
What was happening? Richard was beginning to think he was the only one who found the very idea ludicrous. With growing desperation, he picked out Celia Rosedale in the crowd. She’d been one of his earliest conquests. “Well, does it?”
Celia, too, looked away with a sniff.
Richard’s mouth went dry as the awful import of their silence sank in.
Good Lord. He’d been snared at last, and by the likes of Amelia Slockholme.
Louisa fled back into the ballroom, angry with herself at her own foolish sentiment. She’d all but thrown herself at Richard, and he’d not only failed to appreciate the offer, he’d been openly contemptuous of her charms. Though she knew he would never actually harm a woman, he'd obviously tried something improper enough to shock poor innocent Amelia. Why should he have mutton when he could have lamb, indeed.
She fought back a strong wave of self-pity. She’d known he wasn’t in love with her, just as she wasn’t in love with him. Well, not really in love. She’d had a hopeless schoolgirl crush on him for as long as she could remember, and he was the best lover any woman could hope for—but, unfortunately, he knew it. There was only one person who admired Richard more than she did, and that was Richard himself.
She’d long since realized the futility of waiting for a proposal from such a man. She’d dutifully married a much older suitor, and she and Gilbert had enjoyed three good years together. So why did that decision still feel like a mistake, even though she could see Richard didn’t want her?
It wouldn’t be nearly as humiliating if only he’d chosen someone else. Lady Rosedale was still striking and everyone knew she’d invited him into her bed when he was little more than a youth, so Louisa might have understood if he’d chosen her instead. Mrs. Fordyce was rumored to know more bedroom tricks than a seasoned courtesan, so she would've been a less galling choice too. But Amelia? Not only was she a friend, but Amelia didn’t have the first bit of experience with men.
No, all she had was money and beauty and youth.
Louisa was so lost in her own misery, a low, heavily accented voice just inches from her ear made her jump.
“Your pardon, ma jolie, but you look so very sad. Please, tell me there is something I can do to make you smile.”
Don't miss the next installment, when the talented Erastes picks up the story on the 12th.
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