“Let’s enter, shall we?” she said, adjusting her drape of Anglican lace around her elbows. “We have a duchess to see!”
But in fact the first person they saw was not the duchess, but the duke.
“He’s glowering,” May whispered, as they approached the receiving line. “I cannot think why Her Grace returned from Paris. They cannot be happy together.”
“Perhaps she was tired of France. I’ve heard that it can be miserably hot in the summer.”
“There must be something more to it,” May murmured, with the kind of intensity that suggested she would spend the entire night talking of nothing else.
“Good evening,” the duke said, bowing before them.
“The duchess has made her way into the ballroom,” the duke said, looking glacially disapproving. “I know she will be most happy to see you, Miss Tatlock, Miss Charlotte.”
“Goodness,” May whispered as they hurried past him. “He couldn’t be more forbidding, could he? Is that Villiers on the other side of the room? It can’t be. He never speaks to Beaumont.”
“He might know the duchess…How interesting that would be!”
Sometimes May was quite dense. “If Villiers made a set at Beaumont’s wife,” Charlotte said patiently. “Villiers hasn’t a mistress at the moment, has he?”
“Who would know? The only thing that man really cares about is chess.”
“I know, but he seems to cut a wide swathe through the female half of the ton in between matches.”
“He’s so rude!” May said. “I simply can’t abide him.” She plumped up her hair. “Perhaps I shall grant Muddle two dances tonight. Here he comes.”
Charlotte groaned inwardly. Her older sister finally had a beau, Horace Muddle. I’m happy for her, she thought. I’m happy for her.
Why not be happy? They are both muddled and muddling; they will live together in happy muddlestown. And I shall live—
She turned away. One of her friends was hailing her from the side of the room, so she smilingly made her way over to sit among the young matrons, all of whom were her age and spent an inordinately large amount of time discussing their offspring. At least to Charlotte’s mind.
But not tonight.
“Did you see what she’s wearing?” Lady Hester Vesey asked immediately.
“I haven’t seen her at all. She had left the receiving line and Beaumont was irritably doing the honors on his own.”
“There she is,” Hester breathed. “Over to the right.”
Charlotte took care not to appear to be staring. She straightened her wrap, and smiled at an acquaintance to the left, and then let her eyes drift in the other direction.
The Duchess of Beaumont had dressed her hair very high in a mass of curls, marked by jeweled flowers. She was exquisitely gowned, so much so that Charlotte felt slightly faint with envy. Her gown was lemon-colored Italian silk, the petticoat puckered all over and sewn with roses.
“Do you see who she’s talking to?” Hester whispered.
“Ah,” Charlotte said, her eyes narrowing as the duchess laughed. “It’s Delacroix. I thought she had left him in Paris.”
“He followed her.”
“Did you hear that her brother has moved into Beaumont House with his child?”
Charlotte’s eyes opened at that. “I’m amazed the duke would allow such an irregularity.”
“It’s got everyone talking again about who the mother could be. Lady Piddleton claimed yesterday that she knew for a fact it was Mary Strachey’s child. But then there’s others who say his mistress took off for America and left him with the babe.”
“America? That seems unlikely.”
“Well, that’s what everyone says. I can’t imagine why he didn’t simply stow it in the country like any decent man would do.”
“I’ve never seen him with Mary Strachey.”
“That means nothing,” Hester said, with irrefutable logic. “Her acquaintances are legion, as it says in the Bible, or at least it says something like that. Your sister is looking very intimate with Muddle.”
“Yes,” Charlotte said. “I’m hoping for a wedding in the family.”
“Next we must turn to you,” Hester said comfortably. “It’s never too late!”
Charlotte silently ground her teeth. “I live in hope.”
“Well, that might be—”
But whatever bit of wisdom Hester was going to offer was swept away as her husband bowed before her and bore her off onto the dance floor, ignoring her protests. “There’s a chess game brewing between Corbin and Villiers,” he told her. “I’m not missing that, so we’re having our dance now.”
Charlotte sighed. There was nothing very appealing about the marriages she saw around her, but it was hard not to long for a spouse anyway. She sat still and tried to look as if she wasn’t alone. You’d think she’d be used to it. A few chords sounded…a polonaise was beginning.
Suddenly a pair of polished shoes stopped before her. “If you please?” A gloved hand paused before her face…she looked up. It was the Duke of Beaumont.
“Your Grace,” she said, rising and curtsying deeply.
“Miss Charlotte. May I have the pleasure of this dance?”
Her heart skipped a beat. Of course, he was a married man, but he was so dreadfully handsome. She rose and placed her hand in his. A moment later they were gravely pacing down the dance floor. Charlotte resisted looking about to see whether anyone had noticed she was dancing with the host.
Instead she looked up at him. Of course, he was famously short-tempered, and it would be foolish of her to provoke him. But then he achieved such remarkable things in the House of Lords.
She had two choices: they could engage in twenty minutes worth of silent dancing, or she could speak. He clearly considered his duty to end with the dance itself. “I read the description of your recent speech in the House of Lords, Your Grace.”
He looked marginally more awake. “In the London Gazette? I’m afraid that the majority agreed with the opposition, more’s the pity.”
“Are you quite certain that you are right about Mr. Fox’s intent to make the East India Company accountable to commissioners?”
“Am I certain that it’s a blatant attempt to seize the Company’s wealth for themselves? In a word: Yes.” He didn’t look very pleased by her question anymore.
“I mention it because I was greatly struck by the wording of the actual bill. I am in sympathy with your wish to force an election, but should not companies be accountable? Someone must look over their shoulders, Your Grace.”
“The Whigs look over the Company’s shoulders only to seize its wealth.”
“How hard it is to tell the difference between an anti-corruption measure and greed,” Charlotte said. “It did occur to me—” She stopped.
“What occurred to you?” He looked interested, bending down slightly, and Charlotte’s heart thumped again. “Curses, we’re going to the end of the measure,” he said. “Don’t forget your thought.”