About the book
Temptation is a dangerous thing…
After her brother’s marriage into nobility, Miss Jenny Jones enters the Season. And despite her struggle to shake off her life as a maid, the wagging tongues are relentless. For, her mother was a prostitute.
Sebastian Nicholes, the Viscount of Hartwood, is probably the most hated man in London. Drinking away his guilt for his parents’ deaths and his sister’s damaged life, gossip sticks to him like a second skin. Until the day he meets a lady that sets his soul and the rest of the world on fire.
But her label as the prostitute’s daughter is not the only thing haunting Jenny. Her happiness turns to ashes in her mouth when threatening letters start appearing wherever she goes, and Sebastian becomes a target. Revenge, they say, is a dish best served cold. And this one has been waiting in the frost of darkness for far too long…
Miss Jenny Jones, seven-and-twenty years old and full of nervous energy, was getting ready to attend her first-ever society ball.
“I’m shaking,” she said, watching her reflection in the looking glass as the lady’s maid fiddled with her long, straight, raven-black hair.
“I’ll be with you every step of the way—every second, if you need,” Mrs. Alison Jones replied.
Jenny let out her breath in a long, wistful sigh.
“All right,” she said, but she still didn’t feel all right. No matter how much her sister-in-law reassured her, she didn’t think she’d ever feel all right.
Jenny was a slender young woman, tall and tanned and with a smile that could win the world over. Her eyes, a warm chocolate brown that twinkled often, told of a quick intelligence and a life of hard work, and they whispered of a distrust of those around her.
“But I am too old to have a debut,” Jenny said, the shake in her voice clear. “And certainly not the right type. Whoever heard of a maid attending a ball as anything other than a servant!”
“But you’re no longer a maid, are you, My Dear?” she said. She was ready, having been aided by the lady’s maid before she started on Jenny. “And don’t consider it a debut, as such. It’s a ball—your first—don’t fret about it.”
“How can I not fret?” Jenny asked, not taking her eyes from her reflection.
Jenny reached up to the twist of hair the maid had secured at the back of her head, and she slid out one of the pearl-tipped hairpins, sliding it in somewhere else. The maid patiently returned it to where she had originally put it, saying not a word. Even after a year of her new life, Jenny was unused to being coddled by a maid, and she wasn’t sure she would ever accept being dressed by someone else everyday—even if her new wardrobe required it.
“Let poor Fanny do your hair and stop fussing,” Alison reprimanded, her voice calm but firm. She had brought her lady’s maid with her when she had left her the house of her father, the Duke of Salsbury, and she helped both Alison and Jenny to dress now. “And yes, your situation is admittedly a little… unusual, but really Jenny Dear, that’s what makes it all the more special.”
Lady Alison had married Jenny’s twin brother, Luke, just a year before, and their baby girl, Elizabeth, was a tender four weeks old. At seven-and-twenty years, Alison herself was old by society’s definition, but she was married with a babe. She had done her duty, in their eyes. She did not care because she had fought for what she had wanted, and she had won.
Her golden-blonde hair tumbled around her face in tight curls, and her eyes were marbled with blue. She was the epitome of a society beauty, and Jenny looked longingly at her. Alison seemed to just belong, with seemingly no effort whatsoever.
But I shall never be one of them.
“You are so naturally beautiful, though,” Jenny said, “and—”
“Well, that’s very flattering,” Alison said, eyeing her sideways, “but we both know that is not true. You are sure to woo many a gentleman this evening.”
“You are too kind,” Jenny said softly, moving yet another pin. Fanny simply slipped it out of her hair and replaced it, again without complaint.
Jenny had been a maid to Alison’s family, and Luke had been the favored head groom. The groom before him, Jack Jones, had kindly taken them in after his own wife and child died, and he brought them up as his own. When he died, they had gone in search of their mother, hoping to find out more about their origins—and they found out more than they expected. It was when they discovered the heir of the Duke of Carrington, Thomas Denninson, was their brother that things changed—and Luke and Alison could finally marry, despite her father’s reticence.
Luke, now a businessman and working for his brother, had bought a London townhouse in which the three of them lived, and it had taken Alison and Jenny a long time to become friends. Jenny mistrusted Alison for a long time, and Alison hadn’t been able to accept Jenny’s change of status as easily.
Now, though, they were the best of friends. Both filled with love for Luke, they had reluctantly agreed to spend time together. He had been kind and gentle with them, guiding them toward each other and making them realize that neither was what the other thought. With time, their afternoon teas and their walks in the park became less like a chore and filled with more laughter and joy.
“Regardless,” Alison said, taking a step toward Jenny, her lady’s maid scuttling behind her. “It is possible to find a husband at this late stage. Love does not have a deadline and although you may not have the choice you once would have, late marriage does happen. All the time, in fact.”
“Perhaps,” Jenny said, shrugging, although marriage was not her true concern. It was acceptance she craved above all else. “But even you have to admit that a late marriage and a beggar’s upbringing is something of a challenge. I am a servant at heart, as you well know.”
“I disagree entirely,” Alison said firmly. “You may have been—incorrectly—raised as a servant, but you are not a servant at heart. And besides, you have worked extremely hard in the previous months. You’ve had all the lessons on etiquette and behavior. You know how to be a lady, now.”
Jenny snorted, trying not to laugh too loudly at Alison’s outlandish statement. She could learn all she liked, but no amount of lessons could ever make her a lady.
“As soon as I open my mouth, they’ll know,” Jenny said.
“We’ve been through that, too,” Alison said. “Think about what you want to say before you say it, and then speak slowly, clearly enunciating each sound.”
“I know,” Jenny said, nodding her head sadly. “You’re right. Of course.”
This new way of life felt incredibly restrictive, with rules for every tiny thing she did—even what she thought. She may not spend her days scrubbing pots and pans or clearing fireplaces or even delivering food. But it seemed her life was even more confined than it ever had been.
“But—” she began, turning to look at Alison, who looked back with a bright and encouraging smile.
“But what, Darling Sister?” Alison asked.
“But it matters not how I speak, nor how well I behave. Heavens, it wouldn’t even matter if I were eight years younger and the right age to be introduced to the ton.”
“What do you mean?” Alison asked, carefully watching her.
Jenny put a hand to her stomach, tightly restrained by her stays, so different to her uniforms as a maid, and she looked away, not wanting to face Alison for fear her eyes would well up with tears.
“Jenny?” Alison asked gently, placing a careful hand on Jenny’s bare arm. “What is it?” Jenny turned back, her lips in a tight, thin line of pain.
“It matters not because they all know.”
“Don’t talk nonsense,” Alison began, her voice forcibly bright and undoubtedly false.
“It’s not nonsense,” Jenny snapped. “Don’t think I haven’t heard the rumors, the whispers. Every time we go out, be it the dressmaker or the tearoom or the marketplace, I hear them making snide remarks and discussing my unfortunate past.”
Alison sighed, but she looked at Jenny with such sadness in her eyes that Jenny felt herself soften. She was not ashamed of her past, but she knew others would not approve, and she so badly wanted this to work—for her brother’s sake, if nothing else.
“Yes,” Alison admitted. “I have heard the rumors, too. But really, Jenny, rumors and gossip are currency among the rich, where money means nothing. And once it is spent, it is gone, and then it is done. They need to find new tales to tell to keep up with their friends, and then they will no longer be talking about you.”
“Do you honestly believe that?” Jenny asked.
“I do,” Alison said. “Remember, I have been that currency. That I married the groom—whether or not he had become a businessman by that point or not—was quite the talk of the town.”
“I hadn’t forgotten,” Jenny said, smiling. “You are so strong, Alison. To have fought for what you wanted against this tide of people and their seemingly arbitrary rules. It’s quite something.”
“And you are strong too, Jenny. Of that, I am certain.” Alison flashed Jenny a smile and then leaned forward, kissing her quickly on the cheek. “Now, come along, get your gown on. We need to leave shortly. I shall go and check that Luke is ready and not lost in some business papers—you know how he is!”
Jenny chuckled as Alison glided out, the taffeta of her baby-blue gown rustling softly as she went. She was right. Luke had a tendency to lose himself in his work, and he always had. Where before, he would spend long hours brushing down horses and building a rapport, now he locked himself away in his study, piles of papers in front of him. He would pore over the words for hours, having finally discovered the true joy of reading and writing.
“Fanny,” she said, calling out to the lady’s maid who seemed to be lost somewhere within the wardrobe, “do you have my gown?”
“Of course, Miss. Arms up.”
Fanny came out of the wardrobe with a brand new and pristine ivory gown draped over her arms. Alison had wanted her to wear white, but Jenny had been horrified at the idea of wearing a color that signified innocence and youth. She would be made a mockery of, she was certain. Jenny had wanted emerald green, instead, but they finally settled on the ivory, with the emerald green already made for the next ball.
Jenny held her arms in the air and bent over as Fanny slipped the gown over her head. The silk shimmered in the light. It was a simple gown, but all the more beautiful for it. The short sleeves were frilled and puffy, but other than that, the ivory silk was left to shine on its own. The bodice was short and tight, but the skirt flowed freely, a gentle femininity added by the way in which the fabric swung around her legs.
“All set, Miss,” Fanny said, smiling at Jenny’s reflection in the mirror. “And very beautiful you look, too.”
“Are you sure?” Jenny asked, the fluttering of her stomach almost too much to bear.
“Certain,” Fanny said.
Jenny nodded at her own reflection, as much to convince herself as to agree with Fanny. Butterfly wings whipped against her breastbone, her belly tickled with nerves. It all seemed so unnatural to her, and she dreaded facing the rumors, but she was determined to do everything correctly, for Luke’s sake. He had worked so hard to get where he was, and she desperately didn’t want to let him down.
Taking a deep breath, she made her way down the stairs.
“Well, don’t you look something,” Luke said as she approached. He and Alison waited in the small entrance hall.
“Quite the young lady now, isn’t she?” Alison asked, looking proudly at her sister-in-law.
“Neither young nor a lady,” Jenny snorted, but before Luke could argue, she added, “but I feel as much tonight. And I shall truly make the best of the evening.”
“Please do,” Luke said, reading the hidden message in her words. “I want so much for this to work for us.”
“I know,” Jenny said, stepping onto the tiled floor and giving her brother a kiss on the cheek. “And you have worked so very hard to get us to where we are. Believe me, Luke, I am incredibly grateful and I will find a way to repay you.”
“No need,” Luke said, pulling back to look her up and down again. “Repay me only by being happy.”
“Are we ready?” Alison interrupted. “The carriage awaits, and I am excited to attend my first ball after the birth of Elizabeth. As truly wonderful as she is, her dancing skills are terrible, and I wish to dance!”
Jenny laughed aloud, unable to stop herself despite being told numerous times how unladylike it was, but Alison only laughed along with her, and they all made their way into the coach.
As Jenny’s twin, Luke had been fortunate enough to share many of her good features. His skin had always been flawless, and his straight, black hair fell foppishly over his forehead. His eyes were equally warm, the mahogany brown flecked with shades of black.
To her, he was her brother, and therefore not in the slightest bit handsome—or so she had teased him for the length of their childhood and beyond—but in truth, she could see what had so attracted Alison in the first place. Apart from the way he looked, he was a kind and gentle soul. He worked hard at whatever he was doing, always taking pride in his work, and though he was sometimes a little hard on Jenny—especially when she so struggled with her new way of life—she knew it was only because he cared.
The ball was to take place in Carrington Hall, just on the outskirts of London. It was the home of the Duke of Carrington, although the ball was being hosted by his adopted son and heir, Thomas—Jenny and Luke’s brother. He had thrown it, he said, in honor of Jenny particularly—a way to get her out into society and, hopefully, meet her future husband.
Jenny had felt the pressure to be what they wanted of her even more then, but she knew Thomas believed he was doing something good and exciting, and so she went along with it. Besides, it wouldn’t be too bad should she find a wealthy nobleman as a husband. Would it?
“Are you happy?” Luke asked, shoulders hunched and a grin spread across his face as he looked at Jenny opposite him.
“I…” she trailed off, unsure how much to reveal to her brother, but Alison nodded her encouragement, “yes, very much so,” she said.
And she was, to an extent. Part of Jenny’s problem was that she felt too much—of happiness and fear and excitement and dread. It all mixed into one until she didn’t even know where to look.
“Good,” Luke said. “I know it’s been a difficult year, and everything is so different to how it used to be.”
Jenny snorted with laughter, unable to stop herself. “Different is putting it mildly, don’t you think?”
“Perhaps,” Luke said with a shrug, “but that doesn’t make it any less fortunate.”
“No,” Jenny agreed, “it does not.”
“And above all else,” Alison said, leaning forward in her seat so both siblings could see her, “we shall dance!”
Despite being well prepared for what was to come, Jenny still found a way to be shocked. She had worked many balls as a maid at the Salsbury estate, and so she knew exactly what to expect. Add to that the lessons Alison had given her, and it made no sense that she would be so overwhelmed.
And yet she was. When they were announced and led into the ballroom, Jenny’s breath froze in her chest. She looked around her, mouth hanging open, regardless of whether it was ladylike or not.
The noise was the first thing to hit her. Music floated from the string quartet in the corner, but the chatter of the room almost overpowered it. Jenny even heard the footsteps as they walked along the wooden floor.
As a maid, she had not really paid much attention, other than to her task at hand. As the sister of the host, however, all eyes landed on her and she could already feel the gossips circling around her. She could feel, too, the energy of those who surrounded her. There was an air of excitement, of happiness and an anticipation of the night to come.
And still, despite everything, Jenny felt as though she didn’t belong.
“It’s—” she trailed off, her head still turning to take it all in.
“Impressive?” Alison asked, leaning over as though to whisper to Jenny. “Lord Denninson always knows how throw the very best of parties.”
“Well,” Jenny said, not quite sure what she was meant to say, “shall we join the throng?”
They stepped simultaneously from the step that surrounded the ballroom floor, and Jenny looked around her curiously. The string quartet was placed in a corner at the far end of the room, and opposite them was an opening to which Jenny could only assume led to the garden terrace. Just behind them, on a raised platform, was a seating area around which servants moved seamlessly with trays full of champagne and fine wines. And then, between them and the far end of the room, lay the largest ballroom floor Jenny had ever seen.
Not that I have seen a great many.
“I shall go greet some friends and business associates,” Luke said. “I trust you’ll be all right?”
“Quite,” Alison said, smiling at him. “Go! But try to remember to have some fun, rather than working all night!”
“I’ll try,” he said, a big grin on his face, and Jenny knew he had no intention of trying at all. Since taking on his new role within the world of investments, Luke had submerged himself entirely.
“Shall we sit awhile?” Alison asked, and Jenny nodded eagerly. “Perhaps I can pinpoint some of the more friendly people here.”
Lord Sebastian Nicholes, Viscount of Hartwood, shrugged on his ruby-red waistcoat, buttoning it up over his linen shirt. His tailcoat hung discarded over the back of the chair, as he was too drunk to even hand it over to the butler the last time he staggered home.
He closed his eyes at the sight of it, his brow creasing with shame. He did not know why he behaved so recklessly, but something within him drew him toward that way of life. He wouldn’t allow himself to think of it, though, preferring instead to push the emotion away—or, more likely, replace it with whisky and brandy.
At thirty years old, Sebastian knew he was past his prime, but he remained tall and muscular. His hair, a sandy brown, was rarely groomed and was simply pushed beneath his hat with little thought, and the freckles that danced across his nose would have, at one time, bothered him. Now, he cared little for his appearance, and the bright light that had once filled his pale-green eyes had dulled to a lifeless sheen.
“You’re going out?” his sister asked as she marched into the room. “Again?”
“Indeed I am,” Sebastian said, taking in a deep breath and preparing himself for the tirade that was to come. His older sister was something of a haranguer, a spinster who took her bitterness out on her brother.
“But you went out last night,” Diana proclaimed, sounding entirely affronted.
“So I did,” Sebastian replied, smiling up at her.
Sebastian was a charming man, able to beguile the most difficult of ladies—and even more so when they knew little of his history. But his sister, he had never been able to win over. She reacted always with anger, no matter what he did or what he said, and he rather suspected she hated him.
With good reason, I suppose.
He shook the thought away, not wanting to remember the horrific events of his past, nor wanting to even speculate on his sister’s feelings. He did that enough when she spoke to him.
Diana Nicholes was five-and-thirty years of age and still unmarried, much to her own embarrassment. She was far from ugly, having the curves that many young ladies desired, and chocolate-brown hair that fell in natural curls around her porcelain face. Her lips, too, were naturally red and seemed in a permanent pout. She glared at Sebastian, her icy-blue eyes chilling him from afar.
“You are an embarrassment to your family name, you do realize that, don’t you, Sebastian? You are damaging the whole family’s reputation with your selfish actions. These scoundrels you insist on calling friends are nothing but rogues.”
“Well,” Sebastian said, looking up at her with a bright smile, “it’s certainly not the first time you’ve told me. So yes, I guess I do realize that.”
She growled in frustration, her hands balled into fists at her sides, her foot slamming down hard on the floor.
“You are positively infuriating,” she spat. “And I must insist you do not go out cavorting, yet again, this evening.”
“And I must remind you, dear sister,” Sebastian said, sitting down to pull his shoes on, “that I am the man of the house and, in fact, your guardian. Do you know what that means?”
She replied only with a guttural noise that reverberated from her throat.
“It means that I can do as I wish, when I wish.”
She stamped her foot again, her actions petty and the scowl across her face even more so. In truth, Sebastian did not like to push his sister to such emotions, but she did berate him so, and he dearly wished she would simply leave him alone.
“But it is unfair,” she cried, her voice as whiny as it was angry. “And if Mother and Father were alive, they would say the same. They would have wanted me as their heir, seeing how you are nothing but a rascal dragging their name through the mud with your night-time endeavors.”
“Do not bring them into this,” Sebastian said through his gritted teeth. Sometimes, Diana took it too far.
“You may not like to hear it, Sebastian,” she spat. “But that doesn’t make it any less true. They would be ashamed of you and the man that you have become.”
Sebastian sighed loudly. She was probably right, but he didn’t want her to know that. He closed his eyes as he spoke to her next.
“What exactly is your problem, Diana? Is there something you want from me that I am not giving you?”
“Besides respect?” she said, laughing humorlessly.
“Yes,” he replied patiently, “apart from that.”
She was quiet for a long moment, shifting from foot to foot while looking at the ground.
“Out with it,” Sebastian said. “For goodness’ sake, Diana. We are no longer children. If there is something you want, say it.”
“All right,” she said, twisting her foot on the floor as she looked up at him, affecting a childish stance to go with the childish whine in her voice. Sebastian was irritated, but he took a breath and let it go, as he always did when his sister was involved. She was perhaps so immature thanks to his own lack of care for her.
“What’s wrong, Diana?” he asked, softer this time.
“There’s a ball tonight, at the Duke of Carrington’s. Hosted by his son, Lord Denninson.”
“And you wish to attend, I assume?” Sebastian asked.
“Well, yes,” Diana said, looking up at him through her eyelashes in an attempt at sweet innocence. “I would dearly like for you to take me. I cannot go without you, of course, but with you… perhaps I would have some chance at finding a husband, and then I could quite leave you alone, to live out your life as you wish.”
The thought of his poor sister, husbandless and stuck in a house she hated, sent his heart crashing through his stomach. He loved her, no matter what, and he hated to see her so saddened.
“Diana, my dear,” he began, getting up from his seat and approaching her. He placed a hand on each of her arms and looked down at her. “You need only ask. You should know that by now. You did not need to attack me quite so fiercely.”
“So we can go?” Diana asked, her voice wistful and girlish now as she smiled at him.
“Yes, we can go. I am always willing to attend such events with you, if only you push me in the right direction occasionally. You know I do not follow the agenda of the ton. That doesn’t mean you have to start a fight, though.”
“I know,” she said, chuckling, “I’m sorry.”
“I will escort you, but you must promise me something,” he said.
“What?” she asked, looking up at him. “Anything.”
“You are to utter not a single word of complaint when I go out with my friends after the ball.”
She eyed him for a moment, uncertain, but then she grinned.
“All right,” she said, “I promise.”
“Good. Now go get a gown on and get yourself ready for the ball, My Lady,” he said with a flourish, bowing to her with a playful smile.
She squeaked in excitement and spun around, running out of the room to change. Sebastian sighed and went back to his own room. He would need something a little smarter if he was to attend a ball before the gaming hall, and he supposed he ought to run a comb through his wild brown hair.
He hated balls, just as he despised soirees and luncheons and any other kind of event in which he was forced to mix with the wealthy and the titled…
The utterly judgmental, more like.
He knew he wasn’t well liked, and Diana was quite correct in that he did little to improve his already poor reputation. But he supposed there was not much point. The rumor mongers had already made up their minds, and no amount of good behavior would change that. And besides, he deserved their disfavor, after all he had done in his life.
He slipped off his waistcoat and replaced it for a more understated black one, pushing his cravat aside as he pushed the buttons through the holes. He watched himself carefully in the looking glass, mentally preparing himself for what was to come.
“I’m ready!” Diana called through the door.
Sebastian, wide-eyed with surprise, twisted the brass handle on the big oak door, to find his sister looking sparkling in a pastel-pink gown that was tight in the bodice and with a skirt that was heavily embroidered.
“Goodness,” Sebastian replied, blinking rapidly, “that was awfully quick!”
Diana’s cheeks flushed a deep pink.
“I may have… had the gown out already,” she admitted.
Sebastian chuckled, then quietly closed his chamber door as he followed her down the corridor. It was just like his sister to do such a thing—she was a strong character. He had always thought of her as someone who knew what she wanted and would always, always, find a way to get it.
She had even, so it seemed, informed the coachman of their plans and had the carriage prepared in advance.
“You knew I would agree, didn’t you?” he asked, eyes narrowed in mock annoyance. She shrugged nonchalantly.
“I knew I would get my way, one way or another,” she admitted, examining the perfect ovals of her nails as she spoke. “I guess you cannot say no, given the way you’ve already destroyed my chance at a happy life.”
“I have not destroyed—”
“We both know I am far too old to even be trying to find a husband at this late hour,” Diana said, looking pointedly at him. “And that is thanks to you. But I also cannot sit around and do nothing for the rest of my life.”
“Try to be on your best behavior, won’t you?” Diana asked as the Master of Ceremonies led them through the corridors and to the ballroom.
“As if I’d be anything else,” Sebastian said, his eyes already twinkling with mischief. He would try, for his sister’s sake, to not cause any upset, but he suspected it would not be he who would be starting any trouble.
“Lord Sebastian Nicholes, Viscount Hartwood and his sister, Lady Diana,” the Master of Ceremonies announced.
His voice boomed loud enough for everyone in the room to hear, and the brief moment’s silence was quickly replaced by a murmur of whispers. Ladies raised their fans to their faces, as though that somehow hid the fact that they were gossiping, and Sebastian worked hard to keep the scowl from his face.
“Come,” Diana said, “let’s not stand at the entrance while everybody gapes at us.”
Rather than descending the few steps that led to the ballroom floor, she spun left and marched to the seating area while Sebastian trailed behind, slinking and shuffling. He knew what her plan was—to sit quietly and hidden in a corner until the talk died down or became focused on something else. It was what she always did as these sorts of events.
He sat heavily opposite her at the smallest and most unassuming table of the lot. She looked around her, clearly uncertain, her shoulders curled in and her body made small. He, on the other hand, spread himself out, sitting tall and proud and refusing to let anyone bother him.
He brazenly looked around the crowd and saw the usual suspects—certainly no one he wished to speak to—but then his eyes alighted on someone quite different.
The young lady in question was tall, her skin a gentle bronze from hours spent in the sun and, quite unlike the other ladies, she seemed proud of it, rather than coveting the pale-white skin with lightly flushed cheeks that was so popular. Her hair, dark as a raven, had been decorated with the tiniest, most delicate little pearls that glinted in the candlelight.
But what intrigued him most was the way in which she smiled, a little awkwardly, perhaps, and a little curiously, as their eyes met across the room. What she didn’t do was immediately turn and start talking to her companion, her eyes wide with impish delight. She didn’t look at him with disdain, as most of the others did, nor did she seem even in the slightest bit interested in his past.
And he was drawn to her, make no mistake.
Beautiful and intriguing.
“Who—” Sebastian began, unable to take his eyes from her. Diana’s head turned quickly, her eyes lighting up as she spotted Jenny.
“Ah,” she said, “you’ve managed to find the one person in the room who may just have a worse history than you.”
Sebastian glared at her, quite uncertain what to think. He did not want to encourage rumor, but he so desperately wanted to know more about this strange and captivating lady.
“In what way?” he asked finally.
“Well,” Diana said, shifting in her seat to make herself more comfortable, her eyes sparkling with the excitement of talking about someone else. “She may parade as a lady now, but she is far from it in reality.”
“Whatever do you mean?” Sebastian asked.
“Word is that she was born to a lady of the night—father unknown, naturally. And she was maid until last year. Rumor has it that she used some of things her mother taught her to stay in with the wealthy gentlemen, if you know what I mean.”
“No,” Sebastian said, shaking his head, “what do you mean?” Diana tutted and rolled her eyes.
“Come now, Brother, I know you are not that naïve. She used her… feminine charms, shall we say? Occasionally offering the lords a service above and beyond her duties as a maid.”
“That sounds positively ridiculous, Diana. Sometimes I wonder if you truly hear yourself when you speak.”
“You know her brother somehow found his way into the world of business and married the daughter of a duke, don’t you? How he managed that, I do not know, but it sounds like trickery to me, don’t you agree?”
“No,” Sebastian said, shaking his head wildly. “I cannot imagine it is a trick. Not everyone is out to get something that doesn’t belong to them, Diana,” he reprimanded.
“And neither am I!” She sounded outraged, a hand to her chest and she looked around to check no one had heard his damaging words.
“Perhaps not,” he said, “but you certainly believe everyone else is. And besides, you of all people should know to pay no heed to rumor. We have been on the receiving end of it quite enough.”
“You have,” she spat. “I have been an innocent casualty in the disaster that is your life.”
“All right,” he said, holding his hands in the air and rising from his seat. “I did not bring you here only to be berated. If you wish to continue down this road, I will—”
“No!” she said, quick and loud. “No, please don’t,” she said, softer now, and he took his seat once more.
“As you wish,” he said. “In truth, your words have made me even more curious to know the lady, not less.”
“I hear,” Diana said, her conspiratorial tone returned, “that as soon as she opens her mouth you hear how poorly bred she was. Mouth like a sailor, according to Mrs. Jenkins the dressmaker. Although, by all accounts, she has been having elocution lessons.”
“She is holding herself well enough,” Sebastian said, his eyes landing on her again. “Does she have a name, this mystery lady?”
“One Miss Jenny Jones. Twin sister to Luke Jones, and the recently discovered sister of Lord Denninson, the Duke of Carrington’s son. Or so I hear.”
“So she is the daughter of a Duke, then?” Sebastian asked.
“No,” Diana said, shaking her head. She leaned over and picked up two glasses of fine red wine as a servant passed by. “Lord Denninson was adopted, apparently. The mother is said to have sold him to the highest bidder. The other two, though, were taken in by the old groom at the Salsbury estate, which is how they secured their jobs.”
“Goodness,” Sebastian said, sitting back in his chair. “How on earth do you find out such information?”
“I do have a social life, you know,” she said, “even if I do not have a husband.”
“So Lord Denninson is low born, too?” Sebastian asked.
“Absolutely not,” Diana snapped. “It cannot be helped where he was born, but he was given the correct upbringing and is quite the lord now. The very knowledge of his adoption is a well-guarded secret, only known by a select few. In fact, they only found out themselves a year or so ago. No, I do not have a bad word to say about him, and neither does anyone else, or so I hear.”
“Because he is an eligible bachelor with wealth and a title?” Sebastian asked, eyebrow raised. “How very typical of the ladies to pick and choose who to deserve their respect so arbitrarily.”
“It is not like that at all,” Diana said, but the flush on her cheeks told Sebastian that was exactly how it was.
“Did I hear my name being mentioned?”
Sebastian looked up to find Lord Denninson himself standing over the table, the smile on his face showing that while he may have heard his name, he did not hear the conversation that came with it.
Sebastian tensed instantly, his jaw clenching of its own accord, and every muscle in his body taut. He was never comfortable in the company of these lords, and he was ready to defend himself at any moment. At least the lords he normally spent time with had shunned this world, as well.
“Good evening, Lord Denninson,” Sebastian said, refusing to make eye contact.
“So glad you could both make it,” Lord Denninson replied.
He had a large glass of wine, his fingers tight around it, and he smiled down at them, almost bent over as he spoke. Despite his one-and-thirty years, Lord Denninson was as youthful as a man ten years his junior, and his dashing face said the same, but his manners and his behavior were that of a much older man, one with maturity and wisdom. His hair was a thick black and his eyes a warm brown, and looking at him, Sebastian could see a vague resemblance to the lady he was so drawn to earlier.
“How delightful to see you, My Lord,” Diana said, the usual harshness of her voice replaced with a softness with which, Sebastian assumed, Diana hoped to display her femininity and virtue.
He did not, as much as he wanted to, roll his eyes. That his sister had her eye on this gentleman was quite obvious, and Sebastian had no doubt Lord Denninson could see it, too. He hoped he did not think her so brazen. As much as Sebastian’s relationship with his sister was strained, he did want to see her happy, no matter what she thought.
“And may I say, Lady Diana, that you look beautiful this evening. Is that gown silk? For the fabric reflects exquisitely in your eyes.”
“It is silk,” Diana replied through smiling lips. “And thank you, you really are most kind.”
“Not at all,” Lord Denninson said. “I do hope I get the opportunity to dance with you, My Lady. Assuming your dance card is not full yet, of course.”
“Full?” Diana chuckled. “Far from it, my Lord.”
“I cannot believe no one has given their name as yet,” Lord Denninson asked, a hand to his chest in surprise—affected, Sebastian assumed.
“We have not long since arrived,” Sebastian said, hoping to stop the charade while maintaining his sister’s dignity. “We have yet to make a round of the room.”
“I see,” Lord Denninson replied, nodding his head. “Well, if you’d be so kind—?”
Diana delicately handed her dance card over, the little girl in her shining through her mature eyes, and Lord Denninson pulled a pencil from his pocket.
“You could have been kinder,” Diana hissed through her teeth once Lord Denninson had moved on, his name now proudly written on her card.
“I was not unfriendly,” Sebastian replied, a little surprised at Diana’s reaction.
“You were not friendly either,” she snapped. “How am I ever to have even the slightest of chances, if you cannot even be polite?”
“I was polite,” he said, furrowing his brow at her. “And anyway, you know how uncomfortable I feel in these situations. Do you not care in the slightest for my feelings?”
“You are uncomfortable by your own doing,” Diana snapped. “If you hadn’t killed our—”
“I did not kill them,” he said, nostrils flaring at her.
He said the words firmly, as he always did when she accused him, but he wasn’t sure he could believe them either. He had blamed himself for their death for far too many years.
“Listen,” he said finally, his chin still tense and squared. “I did not bring you here so that we could argue, and certainly not in front of all these people.”
Diana snorted. “I do believe that’s the first time I’ve ever heard you concern yourself with how we look.”
“Diana,” he said firmly. “I will leave, if you keep pushing me. Believe me, I would much rather be drinking with my friends and—”
“And gambling, no doubt.” She looked at him with disapproval.
“Yes, if I’m honest, gambling as well. At least none of those men look down on me in the same way that the people here do.”
“Our parents died because of you, Sebastian. The least you could do is—”
“I was three-and-ten and I had smallpox! It’s not my fault they rushed back through the snow and rain and had an accident.”
Although he said the words, he did not believe them. He blamed himself even more than Diana blamed him.
“And I was eight-and-ten, and if it had not been for you, I would have debuted then, and not years later, by which time you had—”
“Stop! Diana, this is supposed to be a pleasant evening, not one of raking up the past.”
Diana sighed, her fingers pinching the bridge of her nose, and then she looked back at him.
“You’re right. I’m sorry. No more arguments, I promise. Let’s try and enjoy the evening.”
“Thank you,” he said, looking relieved. “Why don’t we take a tour of the room? See if we can get you dancing with some handsome gentleman, shall we?”
And that way, I can get a closer look at the beautiful Miss Jones.
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