This Duchess of Mine Page 25


Corbin immediately commanded a supper box in just the right spot with a minimum of fuss, ordering two bottles of Champagne and a plate of delicacies.

“Two bottles?” Louise said, trying to adjust her mask so she could see a bit better.

“We might as well make ourselves comfortable,” Corbin said. “I’m afraid that the Duke of Beaumont does not appear to have arrived yet.”

“I didn’t come only for that purpose,” Louise said loftily (and untruthfully).

Corbin didn’t seem to mind. “I should hope not. It doesn’t do for ladies to track men down like hunting dogs. It would make my whole sex far too vain to even know of the possibility.”

Louise took a desperate swallow of Champagne. “These masks make everything rather difficult,” she said. “I certainly hope I recognize those people I know.”

“There is no need for introductions at Vauxhall,” Corbin assured her.

She digested that in silence. Truly, the English were a different race than the French. No French nobleman would attend an uncouth event of this nature. Still, she ought to be polite, since Corbin was kind enough to accompany her. “Those lamps shaped like stars are quite beautiful,” she told him. Corbin filled up her glass again, and she clutched it like a precious elixir. “Do you see any sign of the duke?”

“Not yet.”

“Look at that!” Louise exclaimed. “I do believe there are courtesans here.” The woman in question had thrown off her mask, if she ever had one.

“Dear me,” Corbin replied. “That is an elegant dress. I wonder if she knows that her entire bosom is visible?”

“Of course she does,” Louise retorted. “One doesn’t skimp cloth in that particular area unless one has made up one’s mind to do so. I must admit that I’ve never seen the demimondaine very close. Of course, one jokes about people such as the Comtesse de Montbard, but there is a difference.”

“Yes, the countess is liberal with her affections but entirely free,” Corbin murmured.

“I wonder how they phrase the request for money,” Louise said, drinking again. “I would be quite embarrassed at the need to price myself, so to speak.”

“I suspect they are used to it,” Corbin said in a companionable sort of way. They sat in their small box and observed the dancers for a time. Then Louise found herself watching a very tall man with an air of natural command and a beautiful profile, even masked. There was no question: the Duke of Beaumont had arrived.

“I beg you to excuse me for a moment,” she said, rising. She swayed a bit but caught herself. “I see a friend of mine. I’ll just take a glass of Champagne with me.”

“I will be right here,” Lord Corbin said, with just the right note of reassurance.

Louise headed directly across the dance floor. The duke appeared to be in a veritable nest of courtesans, and she thought she ought to make haste. The duchess was certainly wrong about her husband’s faithfulness. But then, Louise thought with a pang, she’d had the same illusions about her own husband.

“Peter, what on earth are you doing here?” Jemma said, sliding into the marquise’s chair as Louise wavered away from the table. “You find yourself in the midst of a play of my making, though now that I think of it, it’s entirely appropriate. You instigated the plot, after all.”

“My dear duchess,” Corbin said, kissing her fingers, “I must compliment you on your efficacy. I certainly didn’t think that you’d be able to bring about a courtship of your husband within twenty-four hours.”

“I wasn’t entirely sure the marquise would take the bait,” Jemma confessed. “But I thought Vauxhall offered many opportunities for that sort of encounter. Where is Elijah, anyway?”

“He’s directly across from us. I rather think that’s a courtesan he’s speaking to.”

“Do give me a glass of Champagne, darling. This is fun for Elijah! And now comes Louise.”

“Oh my, she is truly unsteady. It must have been that third glass of Champagne. How was I to know that she had such a light head?”

“What on earth is Louise doing?”

“She’s winding herself around your husband,” Corbin pointed out. “You’ll have to stop giggling, Jemma, if you want me to believe that you are sober.”

“You may believe whatever you like. Did she just throw herself into his arms?”

“I think she might have tripped on her cloak.”

“Well, he’s holding her very tenderly,” Jemma observed. “You don’t suppose Elijah thinks she is I, do you?”

“Not now that he’s holding the marquise,” Corbin said cheerfully. “You weigh at least a stone more than she does.”

“Thank you very much!”

“Your weight is nicely apportioned in the chest area. Men tend to notice that sort of thing.”

“Well, at least he got her back on her feet. He’s laughing,” Jemma said. “Elijah is laughing.”

“Ah, the Puritan bends.” Corbin poured a little more Champagne into Jemma’s glass. “We must have a drink to the—”

“You drink,” Jemma said, getting up. “I’m going to rescue my husband. The marquise just kissed him on the ear, and that was not part of the plan.”

She pulled her mask straight and sauntered toward them. The marquise was draped against Elijah’s right side, looking muzzy but determined, and an unknown lady was draped on his left, looking considerably livelier and just as determined.

“Hello,” Jemma said as she sauntered up, pitching her voice deliberately in the hope that Elijah would think she was yet another stranger.

She couldn’t tell whether he recognized her or not. “Hello,” he said politely, and then turned back to the lady on his left. “I’m afraid that I don’t dance very well, but it’s kind of you to ask.”

“Every gentleman knows how to dance,” Jemma said, moving closer. The marquise had her head resting on Elijah’s arm.

“I know how to dance,” Louise said, clearly recognizing Jemma as she straightened immediately. “And what I’d like to do is dance with you!” She smiled up at Elijah. “Because you’re beautiful. I’m very, very fond of beautiful men. You probably didn’t know that.”

A muscle moved in Elijah’s cheek, and Jemma thought he was close to breaking into laughter. Which was better than becoming swamped by desire.

“I can teach you how to dance,” said the crimson domino on his left side. She had a husky voice that promised a lot more than dancing lessons.

There was definitely a cocky glint in Elijah’s smile now, Jemma thought.

Jemma put a hand on her hip and pitched her voice to be as inviting as that of the stranger with the husky voice. “Men have been known to cry if I refused to dance.”

Elijah looked expectantly to his left, to the crimson charmer. Her eyes were narrowed and she was examining Jemma inch by inch. “There are some people who aren’t worth dancing with because they’re too hoity-toity to have a good time.”

The marquise stepped away from Elijah with nary a waver and gave the crimson domino a scathing look. “Une allure honteuse.”

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