(Many thanks to the talented Eliza Knight for the introduction to this passage.)
“What were you thinking, Ambry?”
Richard shook from his thoughts to see that his good friend Lord Dernflook stood beside him refilling his glass of brandy.
Richard shook his head and took a sip. “She lied.”
Dernflook raised his brows. “About what part?”
“All of it!” Richard scoffed. “Come now, Dernflook, you’ve known me since I was in leading strings, when have I ever taken a woman who wasn’t going to make my earth quake? And really, on the ice? I was freezing my ballocks off out there!”
Dernflook chuckled and took a swig of his own glass. “I did wonder about that. Thought maybe you were just overcome with lust.”
Richard frowned. “She’s pretty. She’s got a lovely, curvy—" He cut himself short, what the hell was he thinking? “She’s a conniving little witch is what she is, and I’m going to find out what she’s up to.”
“I imagine she’s after you for marriage.”
“Yes, but why me?”
“Come, come, dear chap, think,” Dernflook said. “I’ve never thought you unable to look past the end of your aristocratic nose.”
Well Dernflook could speak of noble noses. Over generations of systematic breeding, some involving marriages between cousins, the man’s family had perfected that part of the anatomy to the point that the current Earl of Dernflook, the very fellow who stood beside Ambry at the moment, had exactly the right length of nose to sniff insufferably in a manner than no one standing near him could miss. He did it now. Irritating fellow, truly.
“Out with it, man,” Ambry snapped. “What are you talking about?”
“Didn’t it seem strange to you that none of your former lovers took up your cause when the Slockholme chit made her accusations against you?”
“How can I know why women do what they do? The lot of them might have been enjoying my downfall, for all I know.”
Dernflook arched a brow. “Or planning it, rather.”
“The devil, you say.” The fellow could be a thorn in Ambry’s side on occasion, but he had a sharp mind and even sharper eyes. Friends disregarded Dernflook’s advice at their peril. “They’ve formed some kind of conspiracy to get me wed to Miss Slockholme?”
“They acted eager to help her to trap you, and consider this.” Dernflook laid a hand on Ambry’s arm. “None of them seemed the least surprised to find the two of you rolling in that ice.”
“You’re right.” Devious females. “They’ve planned the entire thing somehow.”
“And that’s only half of the story, old fellow,” Dernflook said. “Someone else must be directing their efforts. Have you even known a man’s multiple mistresses to cooperate with each other?”
“Hair-pulling and eye-gouging is the more usual course,” Ambry said.
As the ball continued around them, gowns of all colors swirling in the newest dance, a waltz, Ambry let the consequences of what Dernflook had implied roll through his mind. Though most ladies disguised any flaw of character with their beauty, the female was truly the more dangerous sex. If some woman was plotting against him and had enlisted all of his previous liaisons in the conspiracy, he could find himself in a great deal of trouble, indeed. Perhaps far worse than a marriage he hadn’t asked for nor wanted.
“I believe Miss Slockholme has only recently entered polite society, has she not?” Dernflook asked.
“No one had heard of her until a few months ago.” Of course, he hadn’t considered that while staring at her mouth and wondering about the taste of her lips. When he’d sampled them and found them warm and pliant beneath his and when he’d enjoyed the press of her bosom against his chest, any thoughts of who she might actually be or where she might have come from had flown right from his mind. Or rather, what was left of his mind after she’d filled his senses with her scent and the sound of her rapid breathing. Typical male reaction and dashed inconvenient.
“She had a letter of recommendation from a Lady Smallwood in Kent,” he continued. “Or was it Hertfordshire? Shropshire?”
“And no one checked her reference?” Dernflook asked.
“Of course. All the ladies claimed acquaintance with Lady Smallwood and vouched for her judgment.”
“The same ladies who abandoned you just now in your hour of need?”
Ambry could only stare at the man in amazement. “By God, you’re onto something there, Dernflook.”
Dernflook raised a finger into the air. “Find Lady Smallwood and you’ll find the source of your current discomfort.”
More easily said than done. He didn’t know where the woman lived, and none of his former lovers would provide any help. How was he to find a Lady Smallwood in all of England, if that even was her real title?
“If I were you, I’d keep close watch on the orchestra,” Dernflook said with another sniff.
“Do you think the lady in question is lurking among the musicians?”
“Not she in person, but if you look closely, you’ll notice one performer who doesn’t belong in a salon ensemble,” Dernflook said.
Ambry scanned them, pausing on each individual. All seemed as it should be until he came to a small figure on one end. “The little drummer boy.”
“Exactly,” Dernflook said. “A spy if ever I’ve seen one. Here to watch you, but I’ll wager that if you follow him, he’ll take you right to Lady Smallwood.”
Meanwhile, in a country house in another part of England that might be Kent or Hertfordshire or Shropshire or somewhere else entirely, Olivia Dorney, the Dowager Countess of Smallwood, paced before the hearth in her drawing room. A certain letter folded and stuffed into the bodice of her newest gown crinkled softly as she moved. It was addressed to Miss Olivia Havenscourt, her maiden name. The last she’d had from Ambry. If her plan worked, he’d eat every word he‘d written--very literally--without even sherry to wash it down.
Her mind wandered back to that day so long ago. How she’d sat in that warm field, full of flowers, rubbing her rapidly swelling ankle as he’d ridden up on his chestnut gelding. He’d blotted out the sun with his size, and the rays had seemed to cast a halo around him. He was truly the most magnificent human being she’d ever set eyes on, and when he’d dismounted and helped her to lie back in the fragrant grass so that he could examine her injury, she’d surrendered to the tenderness of his touch. She’d made things so easy for him. She’d never make that mistake again.
“I’m ready for my revenge, Ambry,” she said softly to herself. “I only need for you to come to me.”
Alice Gaines is the author of Miss Foster's Folly and Always a Princess, both of them Victorian. She apologizes in advance for any errors she may have made in the Regency details of this piece. She also wishes you a happy holiday season and a great 2012.