Those blue eyes of hers widened just slightly, and she cast him another of her glimmering smiles. “We really are two hearts that beat as one, Beaumont,” she said.
“In that case,” her brother said, “it is truly odd that you have spent so much time apart. Not to break up this touching example at marital felicity—so rare in our depraved age and, I think we’ll all agree, an inspiration to us all—but can you just show us the damned centerpiece now, Jemma? I’ve got an appointment on Bond Street, and your friend the duchess doesn’t seem to be making an appearance.”
“It’s in the next room, if Caro has everything prepared. She wasn’t quite ready when you arrived.”
Elijah caught himself before asking who Caro was.
Jemma was still speaking. “I trust her with everything. She has the most elegant eye of any female I’ve ever known. Except, perhaps, Her Majesty, Queen Marie Antoinette.”
Elijah shot his wife a look that showed exactly what he felt about those who boasted of intimacy with French royalty. “Shall we examine this centerpiece, sirs?” he said, turning to Corbin and Gryffyn. “The duchess is considered quite a leader of fashion in Paris. I myself shall never forget her masquerade ball of ’79.”
“Were you there?” Jemma asked wonderingly. “I vow, I had quite forgotten.” She tapped him on the arm with her fan. “Now it comes back to me. All the men were dressed as satyrs—’twas most ravishingly amusing—but you wore black and white, for all the world like a parliamentary penguin.”
He dropped her hand, so that he could bow again. “Alas, I do not show to best advantage with a satyr’s tail.” And neither did the asses of Frenchmen, though he didn’t say it aloud.
She sighed. “Both members of my family declined to join the fun. So English—so pompous—so—”
“So clothed,” Gryffyn said. “There were some knees in evidence that night that should never have seen the light of day. I still have trouble forgetting Le Comte d’Auvergne’s bony knobs.”
Jemma peeked through the doors to the ballroom beyond. Then she laughed and flung them open. “How wonderful it all looks, Caro! You are brilliant, absolutely brilliant, as always!”
Corbin was briskly following in Jemma’s train, so Elijah grabbed his brother-in-law’s elbow. “Who the hell is Caro?”
“Pestilently intelligent woman,” Gryffyn said. “Jemma’s secretary. She’s been around for four or five years. You haven’t encountered her?”
And, at Elijah’s shrug, “She prepares Jemma’s most extravagant escapades. Accomplices in scandal, that’s the way to describe them. Prepare to be dazzled by her incomparable abilities, not that you’ll appreciate them. I don’t suppose that you’re secretly hoping that Jemma will transform into a political wife, are you?”
“My hope is limited to a wish that she doesn’t topple my career,” Elijah said. “Do I understand you to say that all of Jemma’s secretary’s abilities are directed to the creation of scandal?”
“As I said, you won’t like it,” Gryffyn said. They were at the door. He pulled it farther open and moved to the side. “This is pretty standard for her.”
Elijah walked through the door and stopped short.
“Bloody hell,” he breathed.
“It’s better than those satyrs. No tail,” Gryffyn pointed out.
As Elijah stared into the room, he felt his hard-won calm and control slipping from his grasp. The huge mahogany table that generally stood in the dining room had been removed to the middle of the ballroom. Rather than dishes, it held an enormous pink shell, apparently made of clay. Rosebuds were strewn all about, falling in chains to the floor. Numbly he noticed that Jemma was exclaiming over how realistic the flowers appeared. “And the sea shells!” she squealed. “A beautiful touch, Caro!”
But that wasn’t it, of course.
What was making his heart thud against the wall of his chest wasn’t the hundreds of pounds worth of fabric flowers, nor the shell, nor even the pearls, because there were also strings and strings of pearls. God knows, he had more than enough money for whatever extravagances Jemma came up with. What Elijah treasured more than anything else in the world was his stock of carefully nourished, tenderly used, political power.
He had nurtured it day by day. Built up a solid reputation for energetic, thoughtful argument. While his wife lived in Paris for the last eight years, he built a career without the help that other men got from their wives throwing dinner parties, or hosting salons. He’d come to the top of the House of Lords, to one of the most respected positions in the kingdom, by marshalling his intellect, never taking a bribe. Separating himself from the corrupt policies and wild scandals that plagued Fox and the Prince of Wales’s disgraceful cronies.
And now, when he might have only a little time left to further his work—
The centerpiece wasn’t wearing a damned scrap of clothing.
And she was painted gold; never mind the pearls that were glued around her body at regular intervals.
His brother-in-law was watching her with a calculated, lustful look in his eye that Elijah despised, though he had to admit that only a dead man would ignore this centerpiece.
“At least she’s not wearing a tail,” Gryffyn commented.
At that very moment, the naked, gold-painted young lady bent sideways and fiddled with the little stand on which she was leaning. A huge spray of gorgeous peacock feathers burst from behind her beautifully curved rear.
“Spoke too soon,” Gryffyn said happily.
“Damn it to hell,” Elijah breathed.
R oberta entered the room just as the peacock tail sprang into view. About to announce her presence, the butler froze, mouth open. She patted his arm. “I’ll announce myself,” she told him. “My cousin is expecting me.”
He nodded and backed out of the room.
That was a stroke of luck, given that her cousin was not expecting her. In truth, the Duchess of Beaumont likely didn’t even know she existed.
The duchess was much more beautiful than the sketches Roberta had seen in Town and Country Magazine. Her hair was tumbled into a sophisticated mass of curls, and her clothes were exquisite. In fact, she looked rather like portraits of Roberta’s mother, with perfectly balanced features and deep crimson lips. But of course the duchess had a potent combination of elegance and sensual appeal that Roberta doubted her mother, buried deep in the country with a husband whom the charitable labeled eccentric, had ever possessed.
Roberta walked forward, but no one noticed her. There were two gentlemen standing by the table, gawking up at the naked woman. One had to suppose she was used to the attention, because she was smiling at them most genially. In fact, she reminded Roberta of nothing so much as a toothy crocodile, if crocodiles were endowed with large, fleshy bosoms.
The only gentleman not staring at the goddess was glowering at the duchess. He had to be the duke. Beaumont was often illustrated holding the reins of government or whipping members of the House. He looked powerful, with a sort of furious elegance.
“One of the points I should like to make,” he said with icy forcefulness, “is that this preposterously tailed young woman may well destroy my career. She will undoubtedly create an interesting evening, but have you given a thought to proprieties? I count among my important acquaintances a good many people with young, unmarried daughters. After one peek at this spectacle, they will never darken the door of my house again!”