“Yes, you are,” Jemma said, smiling down at her. “I need you. And I need Fowle to make an inventory of these paintings.”
“Why must I attend the dinner?”
“Because my brother is near to making a fool of himself. Oh look, there’s a painting of Judith in the corridor. I hadn’t even seen it before. Fowle, did you mark this one down?”
Harriet glanced back and saw the butler making a notation on a piece of foolscap.
“What is your brother doing?” she whispered.
“Making an ass of himself, as I said,” Jemma replied, in a perfectly normal tone of voice. “Mooning over Roberta, if the truth be known. In fact, from the look in his eyes, he’s halfway to thinking he’s passionately in love. And I can’t have that.”
“Because Roberta must marry Villiers.”
“Well, if she’s marrying Villiers—”
“No one in their right mind would marry Villiers if Damon entered the lists,” Jemma said impatiently.
“You are his sister,” Harriet pointed out, feeling a bit like laughing for the first time all day. “Don’t you think you might overestimate Damon’s good parts just slightly?”
“Not at all. It’s an impartial judgment. Roberta doesn’t play chess, so Villiers’s talent is of no attraction. In fact, I’m not quite sure what she does find so attractive in him. But I also know that Damon is kissing her in the odd moment here or there, and I certainly don’t want him to muddle Villiers’s proposal, or Roberta’s thinking about it. So you must dance attendance on him, Harriet. I am counting on you.”
“I don’t wish to be in the same room with Villiers.”
“I’ll put you at opposite ends of the table,” Jemma said. “Ah, here’s another. Particularly bloodthirsty, isn’t it? And she put it in the morning room, in the place of honor.”
They both gazed for a moment at the triumphant Judith, holding up a head. The artist appeared to have given special attention to the neck of poor Holofernes. Jemma shuddered a little. “I shall never understand the dowager duchess: never.”
“When did Beaumont’s father die?” Harriet asked.
“I believe he was ten years old. Perhaps nine.”
“So he essentially grew up with his mother.”
“That fact would go far to making me feel sorry for him,” Jemma said. “But of course there’s no such emotion between man and wife.”
She turned away. “There’s another one in the ladies’ retiring room. It gave poor Lady Fibble quite a shock during our ball, or so she told me. Apparently she thought that it resembled Beaumont. I devoutly hope that is not the case. Or if it is, I assume that the portrait is of the late duke.”
It was Harriet’s turn to shudder.
Day six of the Villiers/Beaumont chess matches
C harlotte could tell before she put her slipper from the carriage that Beaumont House was surrounded by throngs of people waiting to see who would enter. She took a deep breath. She was not used to traveling among the very highest circles of the ton. She and May were girls grown long in the tooth, hanging on the fringes with their inadequate dowries and lack of powerful friends. They were well bred, so were invited everywhere. But they didn’t stand out. They never took.
Except, Charlotte reminded herself again, that May had now been taken by Mr. Muddle, and next year Charlotte would be doing the season on her own. It was all so dismaying that one couldn’t think about it too clearly. It was like thinking about turned seams and orphaned children.
She gave herself a little shake. She looked her very best. Charlotte knew exactly what that meant: not like a ravishing goddess, but like the profile on a Roman coin. May always said her nose was refined. It was a nice shape, but far too long. “It makes you look intelligent,” Mama had said. “No man wants an insipid miss for a wife.”
It seemed they didn’t want a Roman coin either.
The crowd around the carriage pushed and juggled as she stepped from the carriage. Most of them were trying to figure out who she was.
“That ain’t Lady Sarah,” she heard someone say. “Lady Sarah doesn’t have—”
Charlotte was sure that Lady Sarah didn’t have a Roman nose. She pulled herself taller. Her gown was of pale pink crêpe and showed off her skin and her dark blue eyes. Her hair was perfectly groomed, and as high as fashion demanded. She was the very best she could be, and that had to be enough.
“I got it—Tatlock,” she heard someone say loudly, just as she began to climb the stairs to the front door. The butler bowed so low that she almost expected him to topple over.
“Miss Charlotte Tatlock,” he said, backing away. The house was surprisingly quiet. “If you please,” the butler said, after her wrap had been removed, “would you prefer to visit a retiring room, or would you like to join the other guests in the drawing room?”
Charlotte was, frankly, too frightened to gaze at herself again. It was best to get it over with. Surely the dinner would be large, and there would be people she knew. She could find a comforting matron and stay in her shadow.
But it was not a large party, and there was no comforting matron to be seen. Instead there was just a small cluster of people standing about holding glasses.
Charlotte almost ran, but the Duke of Beaumont turned, and smiled.
She walked forward.
One moment Roberta was chatting with Mrs. Grope about the feathers she had bought at the bazaar, and the next Villiers had swept her away to the far side of the room.
“Surely one might keep a polite distance from women of her caliber?” he said.
She looked at him.
“I realize it is difficult under the circumstances.” And then, without pause: “I’ve never asked anyone to marry me.”
Unless Roberta was mistaken, the Duke of Villiers was about to ask her to marry him. Was doing it at this very moment, as a matter of fact. She had an unnerving sense of watching a play rather than performing in it. “I trust that new experiences are not always unpleasant ones,” she said.
“I am surprised by my own pleasure in it.”
It flashed into her mind that he seemed remarkably unconcerned by the question of her pleasure, but it was a disloyal thought, so she put an expression of pleased acceptance on her face.
Somewhat to her surprise, he did it properly. In one smooth movement, Villiers dropped to his right knee, took her hand and said, “Will you do me the great honor of becoming my duchess, Lady Roberta?”
She swallowed nervously and said, “Yes,” and that was that.
He kissed her hand afterwards.
Of course it wasn’t a kiss like one of Damon’s wicked kisses. It was a perfectly respectable brush of his lips.
She shivered, and there was a ghost of a smile on his lips that made her feel a little vexed. The smile seemed to imply that young women always shivered when he kissed them.
“I asked your father for his permission this afternoon,” he said, rising to his feet with the lithe beauty of a large cat, like a tiger.
“Oh,” Roberta said, wondering how her father had managed to keep that a secret from her.
“I requested that he not inform you,” Villiers said. “Although you can hardly have had doubts about my intentions.”