An Excerpt from The Ice Duchess,
Book 2 in the Scandalous Regency Widows Series
Latimer House, Mayfair, London
18th October 1816
“Jonathon, I can’t believe that you and Helena have managed to talk me into this hare-brained scheme.” Georgiana, the widowed Duchess of Darby, turned her back on the crush in the ballroom of Latimer House and threw a baleful glance at her twin brother. He should at least have the decency to look a little shamefaced.
But Jonathon merely smiled broadly at her, setting her on edge even more. “Come now, Georgie dearest,” he cajoled in the exact tone that always made her want to poke him in the ribs. “You know very well why Helena and I have embarked on this mission. You have been holed up in the Wolds for far too long.” His expression altered slightly, his smile taking on a melancholy tilt, his blue eyes so like her own, softening. “Your mourning period was officially over a month ago. Allow yourself to have a little fun for once. Teddy would have wanted you to.” Jonathon didn’t need to add that life was far too short. The last year had definitely shown them both that it was indeed the case.
Georgie closed her eyes as a sharp bite of grief pierced her heart. She was more than just a little relieved to be lurking in a secluded alcove behind an elaborate floral arrangement on the edge of the ballroom. She really didn’t think she could bear the prying eyes of the ton upon her right now. Thank the Lord her acquaintances were keeping their distance, obviously out of respect for her widowed status.
Poor Teddy. A husband in name only, but my best friend.
The love of Jonathon’s life.
“I know, Georgie-bean,” Jonathon said in a low voice, squeezing her arm gently. “I miss him desperately too. But life must go on. And twenty-eight is far too young to be acting the part of a dowager.”
“Humph. Yet I’m far too old for this nonsense,” she replied, her voice starch-stiff with an annoyance that bordered on resentment. She knew she sounded ungracious—not at all like a duchess—but she couldn’t help it. She wasn’t ready for this return to society. Heavens, after ten years, she’d truly had enough of this tired old parade. The false gaiety. The appraising glances and facile flirting. The ceaseless whispering of the ton. She really didn’t want to don her social mask again. The famous Ice Duchess. Poised, remote, unshakable.
But she must. Especially since matchmaking seemed to be high on the agenda of both Jonathon and Helena, Georgie’s dearest female friend.
Jonathon raised a dark eyebrow. “Speak for yourself, Georgie. I certainly don’t intend to spend the rest of my days as a monk.” Reinforcing his point, he threw a calculated smile toward a beautiful young dandy with an elaborate cravat Beau Brummel himself would have been proud of.
“Be that as it may, I seriously doubt that Teddy would have wanted you to procure a lover for me.” She caught her brother’s startled gaze and narrowed her eyes. “Because that’s exactly what your intention is this evening. And Helena’s. You can’t deny it.”
This time Jonathon did squirm beneath her penetrating stare. His cheeks reddened and he cast his gaze downward as he pulled at his cuffs. “Hey ho, that’s a bit strong, sis.” Apparently finished with adjusting his apparel, he slid a glance her way again. “Teddy did ask me to make sure that you were happy. You know that as well as I.”
Georgie barely suppressed the unladylike urge to roll her eyes. “How many times do I have to tell you that taking a lover—or indeed, finding another husband—will not make me happy, Jonathon?”
Her brother reached forward and stilled her hand that had been busily flicking her fan against her azure silk skirts. “But maybe it will.”
Georgie made a moue of displeasure, deciding then and there she was going to summon her carriage and leave. No matter that she had only arrived ten minutes ago. No matter that Helena and her husband Phillip Latimer, the Earl of Maxwell, had gone to such pains to throw such a grand ball even though it was October. No matter that both her friends and Jonathon had engineered the evening so that several of the ton’s most eligible bachelors were here for her delectation. They could deny it all they liked, but Georgie knew the truth.
Jonathon’s grip tightened on her gloved wrist. “You’re not going to cut and run are you? That would be poor form. Especially now that Helena is headed our way.”
Oh heavens, no. Georgie followed her brother’s gaze and spotted the dark-haired Countess of Maxwell weaving her way through the throng—her flame-red satin ball gown made her impossible to miss. Mercifully, she was by herself. No darkly handsome Lothario or Viking fair rake accompanied her. Georgie released the breath she’d been holding.
“Georgie, darling. There you are.” Helena’s wide smile lit her beautiful face before she turned her attention to Jonathon. “Why are you letting your sister hide away like this?” she admonished playfully. “I’ve been searching everywhere for her, Sir Jonathon.”
Jonathon huffed out a sigh that was clearly affected. “She’s taking her widowed duchess status far too seriously, I’m afraid. Before long we’ll find her sipping tea or lemonade in the ladies’ retiring room with a cold compress across her forehead, claiming her tired old bones ache far too much.”
Helena laughed and touched Georgie’s arm. “Surely not.” But Georgie’s attempt at a smile didn’t fool her friend. After searching her face for a moment, a look of compassion replaced the twinkle in Helena’s eyes. “Oh, my dear, there is a frightful crowd here tonight, isn’t there? I completely understand if you are not quite ready for this. Phillip did warn me that this ball might be a bit too much too soon. If you do want to retire—”
Georgie shook her head, suddenly feeling guilty that she had planned to abscond. “It’s all right, Helena. I can see how much effort you and Phillip have gone to this evening.” She patted her friend’s hand still resting upon her arm. “Just don’t expect me to dance. You know how I loathe it.”
Helena’s dark eyes sparkled with mirth. “You’re going to claim you’re wearing the wrong sort of slippers again, aren’t you? New ones that pinch?”
“She already mentioned her toes hurt on the way here,” added Jonathon.
Georgie’s mouth twitched with a reluctant smile. She clearly needed a new repertoire of excuses. “I’ll stay for a little while,” she conceded. “But both of you must promise not to introduce me to any remotely eligible gentlemen. I know what you are up to, no matter what you say.”
Helena sighed dramatically. “As you wish. I promise I won’t introduce you to anyone fitting that bill. But you can’t stay hiding in the corner. Everyone will talk. Why don’t you come and play cards? I know Phillip has been looking for a worthy piquet opponent. He’s still smarting over the last time you trounced him.”
Piquet. Georgie hadn’t played cards since Teddy had died. He’d taught her everything there was to know about the game and she prided herself on her prowess. He’d also understood that to her, the cards were both a shield and a weapon during ton social events. And she wielded them well. It meant she didn’t have to dance or cultivate mindless conversations with men who might have seduction on their minds. She could just play. But it hurt too much to think of the games she had played with Teddy. The challenge, the good-natured verbal sparring, the laughter…
But Helena wouldn’t know that. Swallowing past a leaden lump in her throat, Georgie pasted a smile on her face and inclined her head. “That sounds absolutely perfect.”
Helena’s smile was as dazzling as the rubies and diamonds about her neck. “Wonderful. I’ll go and find him.”
As Jonathon claimed Georgie’s arm and began to escort her out of her bolt hole and around the edge of the ballroom, he murmured in her ear. “As I’ve said before, dear sister, life goes on. Enjoy yourself. Win this game for Teddy.”
Georgie nodded and squeezed Jonathon’s hand. “I will. For Teddy.”
* * *
Georgie took her seat at one of the piquet tables in the card room and removed her gloves, hoping that Phillip, Lord Maxwell, wouldn’t notice her slightly trembling fingers when he joined her. It seemed absurd to be so nervous. Where was her famous sang-froid?
It probably didn’t help that a hush had descended over the card room as Jonathon had escorted her in, and at this very moment she could feel at least a dozen pairs of eyes, if not more, upon her. The unvanquished Ice Duchess—the woman who barely ever lost a game—was about to play cards again. Of course people were going to notice.
Curse her brother and Helena. She would have attracted much less notice if she had simply decided to dance after all. Lemonade in the ladies’ retiring room seemed more appealing by the second. And where in heaven’s name was Phillip? She glanced about the room but could not spy Helena’s husband anywhere.
Not only that, she could see Jonathon disappearing out of the card room, no doubt chasing the dapper young buck he’d been making calf’s eyes at earlier.
If Phillip didn’t appear within the next thirty seconds, she would cut and run.
“May I join you, Your Grace?” A soft baritone drew Georgie’s attention away from the ornately arched doorway of the card room and back to the table.
She glanced up. And it was all she could do not to gasp.
A dark-haired, lean-jawed rake was smiling down at her. Her dastardly brother and friends had set her up after all.
Blast them all to hell.
Drawing in a steadying breath, she summoned a slight smile. Her well-practiced, cool duchess’s smile—a smile that had sustained her for almost a decade in the face of such obvious raw masculinity. Thank God she still had it.
“And you are?” she asked smoothly, arching an eyebrow. “I believe we’ve never been introduced.” She thought she knew most rakes of the ton and she had only been away from London for a year. But this tall, handsome man with smoke-gray eyes and a dark velvet voice she didn’t know at all.
The corner of his wide, well-shaped mouth lifted into a smile. “Forgive my boldness, Your Grace. I am Rafe Landsbury, Lord Markham. Lord Maxwell has been…detained and offers his apologies. He asked me to stand in, in his stead.” His eyes held hers—a question or perhaps it was a spark of challenge flared in their gray depths. “If you don’t mind, of course.”
As if she could refuse with everyone watching. She’d gleefully strangle Phillip, Helena, and Jonathon later for putting Lord Markham up to this. They probably thought she’d build up a rapport with the man over cards. Then he’d suggest they dance or perhaps peruse the supper table together. His large hand would touch her elbow, the small of her back. His fingers would brush against hers as he passed her a glass of champagne… She knew all the ploys he would use to try and get her hot and bothered. But she wouldn’t fall for any of them. Never again. Just because she was a widow, it didn’t mean she was fair game.
Lord Markham was still watching her expectantly so she affected a small tinkling laugh and shrugged a shoulder. “Of course I don’t mind. Please, take a seat.”
“Thank you, Your Grace.”
Georgie tried not to stare as the nobleman folded his long, lean frame onto the damask covered Adams chair opposite her. Markham, Markham. No, not a memory of him stirred at all. Where had such a man been hiding for the last decade? He exuded such a quiet self-assurance as he watched her reach for the deck of cards, a completely unexpected and most disconcerting wave of heat swept over her face.
She hadn’t blushed in years. What is wrong with me?
“Shall I cut first?” Her voice had a breathy edge to it and she forced herself to sit up straighter, praying that the extra air entering her lungs would fortify her for when she next spoke. But all the movement seemed to do was draw Lord Markham’s gaze toward her sweeping neckline.
Why on earth had she dressed in such a frivolous, indecorous gown? So what that it was à la mode and the azure silk precisely matched the color of her eyes—or so Madame Dupuis, her modiste, had declared. What she wouldn’t do for a fichu to hide the rise and fall of her bosom right now. Another blush scalded her cheeks.
Lord Markham’s eyes returned to her face, his mouth tilting into another half-amused smile. The wretched man knew she was rattled, damn him. “By all means, cut away, Your Grace.”
Georgie forced what she hoped would pass for a sophisticated smile on her face and managed to smoothly shuffle the deck. Placing the cards in the center of the table, she then made her cut. The queen of hearts was exposed.
Not the best card to start with but it would do.
She glanced at Markham and the rogue cocked an eyebrow at her, his mouth tipping into that decidedly irritating, knowing half-smile again.
Wonderful. The man was going to flirt with her. Probably for the entire card game. He obviously didn’t give a fig that she’d just emerged from mourning. And he must know—the entire ton knew. Jonathon, if not the Maxwells, had probably told him that she was ripe for the plucking.
Unless flirting was just a ploy to put her off her game. Lord Markham struck her as a man who liked to play games in the true sense of the word. And to win. She would show him though. Georgiana, the Duchess of Darby, never lost. Ever.
Markham reached for the deck, his long fingers covering the cards before he took his turn to cut them. With a small jolt of surprise she realized the knuckles of his right hand were scarred, misshapen even. She stole a glance at his face and noticed further evidence of past physical altercations—a slight deviation to the bridge of his nose and the faint line of a scar running through one dark eyebrow. Was he a pugilist, or a military officer perhaps? But she had no more time to speculate on the man’s recreational habits or profession.
Markham turned over the ace of hearts.
Oh, Lord no. She was already at a decided disadvantage, unsettled by Markham’s good looks and devil-may-care manner. And now he’d claim all the subsequent advantages that came with being the younger hand during the first round.
“I’ll deal.” Markham flashed her such a confident grin, if Georgie had a drink at hand, she’d be tempted to throw it at him.
Instead, she simply smiled back and unclenched her teeth with an effort to reply, “Of course.”
Markham reached for the cards. “What stakes shall we play for, Your Grace?” he said, his voice running over her like rich, thick treacle, making her shiver. His disconcerting gaze slid to her lips for the briefest of moments before returning to meet her eyes. “I am open to whatever you suggest.”
Georgie blushed hotly again. Why did Markham make it sound as if they were playing something infinitely more dark and dangerous than cards? She would never be able to concentrate with his stare focused so intently on her, sexual innuendo lacing everything he said.
Provoking man. That’s when Georgie had a premonition that she was in deep trouble. What if she, the Ice Duchess, lost? Oh, she would never live it down.
Copyright © 2016 Amy Rose Bennett