‘Tis a generally accepted fact that a wife will spy upon her husband. Whether it be in the harried sifting through of delicately written correspondence, the desperate sniffing of a linen shirt, or the outright following of a husband to his lover’s nest to discover his fidelity or lack thereof, wives will inevitably engage in conjugal espionage.
Cordelia Eversleigh, Duchess of Hunt, had reached that inevitability.
But after two days spent in London trotting about cobbled streets, peering through polished glass windows, and attempting to gain entrance to both his home and his club Cordelia, Cordy, to almost anyone who knew her, had finally admitted that there was only one way she was actually going to engage in converse with her elusive husband.
She was bloody well going to accost him on the street.
After all, the indignity of being shunted from his front door (also in all technicality her front door) had been the last straw on the proverbial camel’s back. She had enough with following him about. It was time for action.
Besides, her concern in spying was not to discover amorous adventures. In fact, it was quite the opposite. Her interest lay in how to best address the proposition of an annulment. . . from the husband she had never met.
She could hardly remember that day in Rome (a brief trip out of Africa to collect materials and supplies for her parents’ archeological sites) where she had been married by proxy to her husband as a child. Something which, thank goodness, had been actually quite illegal.
However, she could still hear her father’s voice intoning, I have won you a husband Cordy, before the highly unexpected ceremony. And not just any husband but the son of a duke. A second son at the time, but still quite a coup. Now, the second son, in a chance of fate was the Duke of Hunt. And he was a husband who apparently had no more desire than she to be wagered as a child in a game of chance. His desire or lack thereof made evident by his long-standing absence.
Since reaching her majority a few years ago, her husband’s failure to collect her from Luxor, or Cairo, or anywhere in between depending upon the time of year and the archeological season was significant enough reason to take the incredibly long passage, composed of surly animals, riotous boats, unstable French men determined that Napoleon really should rule all of Europe, and badly sprung carriages back to England and demand if her husband actually was ever going to bother claiming his wife.
If not. . . Well, an annulment would be the best for both of them. Their marriage wasn’t factually valid if challenged in any case, but she wished to leave nothing to chance.
A formal annulment would leave him free to marry someone he truly wished. And most importantly, she could retrace her steps to France, war torn or no, and speak with the foremost archeologists of the day. She’d finally be able to study fortified by the knowledge that her lord and master could not swoop down upon her at any legally justified moment, fulfilling a marriage based upon the honorable word of both their fathers.
So, without allowing herself to think twice, she set her determined chin, and waited for the doors of parliament to open and expel the lords of the land as they emerged from their most recent vote.
As if on the command of her thoughts, the towering doors swung and men in multi-hued coats, some bewigged, poured out to the wide street before Westminster Cathedral.
Cordy tightened her fingers about her serviceable parasol, straining to see her duke. She’d brought the parasol, as she always did, for her personal protection and the consideration that one never knew what a man might do at a surprise as large as say reminders of one’s matrimonial state.
Arching a brow at the ever emerging group of lords (surely it had taken her less time to reach London than it was taking for the Duke of Hunt to exit), she assessed the girding of her loins. She’d already made certain that they were in as steely a state as possible for potential humiliation and a slight weakness of knees (circumstances she was completely alien to).
The stories of her husband’s beauty were as frequent and as enraptured as his exploits. His reputation for ending marriages was quite ironic given that he’d never even taken the time to begin or even end his own.
The rather alarming image she had created on the journey to London suddenly danced in her head. Her husband would no doubt be an absolute picture of perfection. All this perfection would only serve to remind her of her lack of suitability for such a buffoon. (Surely all London rakes were buffoons, her husband the buffooniest of them all.) Why else would she be left to rot in such resounding silence for so long?
The only conclusion she could draw was that sun-ravished women with worn fingers, and a practical approach to negotiations with grave robbers and idiot Italians were not characteristics one generally sought in a wife. London would doubtlessly consider her a scandal. Abomination might even be the appropriate word.
The sooner she left the better, but first, she had to see him.
At least she’d be able to recognize him. Aside form his apparent beauty, she’d managed to stare for a good hour at a portrait hanging of him in one of the most fashionable artist’s studios the day before. That hour had not increased her usually indomitable confidence. Clever, vivacious, good fun, were all words she’d heard to describe her. Beautiful? No. And surely such a man only appreciated women who were beautiful.
She shook herself at the ridiculous thought. She didn’t care what he thought. She didn’t want him. Which was the entire point of her ludicrous but important endeavor.
Cordelia scowled. Irritated with her own sudden sweep of self-pity, she took several steps across the damp pavement, willing him to exit.
And once again, as if she did indeed have the powers to summon someone from Parliament, he stepped out from the arched doorway. The dusky light emphasized the sharpness of his cheekbones and the firm square of his jaw that rather begged someone to take a good punch at it. But it was his eyes, eyes that even from over a hundred paces away, spoke of an eagerness to meet such a challenge. There was no humor in them, but rather a dark, sardonic intensity as he contemplated the people milling before him.
Cordelia drew in a slow breath. The portrait hadn’t done him justice. He was far more beautiful and well. . . terrifying. He looked as if ready to eat anyone who spoke to him. She shivered. Would it be so horrible? To be eaten up by such a man?
She rather fancied she could meet his dangerous mood and rise to it. Still, she had no true idea of his temper. Only the words of her friend Kathryn, Duchess of Darkwell, who spoke of him with a sort of tolerant fondness. Surely, someone that Kathryn admired couldn’t be too dangerous?
His broad shoulders expanded as if letting out a great sigh, he peered up to the sky then placed his black hat atop his raven hair that was pulled back in a que. With a sort of tired resignation he turned up the collar of his great coat and strode out in the misty London early evening.
She was supposed to immediately follow him. Instead, her own booted feet were stuck to the pavement as she stared at his form heading off in the thick mill of Londoners.
It was that strange half light when day mixed with night and it was that which gave her pause. For my god, it couldn’t be that she’d frozen at the sight of him?
To her dismay, she realized he was getting away. Cordelia cursed under her breath and vaulted after him, choosing a pace that was most unwomanly. Still, she wasn’t after him to be a lady, now was she?
As the light dimmed, the torch fires of the buildings along the road flickered to life. Far and few between they barely penetrated the lowering night and she hurried to catch up. She didn’t wish to be alone too long on the thoroughfare. She was perfectly capable after years amongst the most questionable of characters, still she was no fool. The glass windowed fronts of squat, ancient buildings lined the street, the sounds of raucous laugher coming from the taverns.
At last, she spotted his tall form, almost a head higher than those around him, just ahead.
Clutching her parasol tighter, she was about to shout out when he suddenly turned to his right and ducked in through the square door of a public house.
Well, bloody famous.
She stared at the now closed door, the sound of a screeching fiddle and men carousing pouring through the thick oak.
Ladies weren’t supposed to enter public houses.
This would not normally have given her pause, but she’d learned in the recent days in London that the English were a strange lot. If a woman stepped out of the confines of her narrow and appropriate world, she was free game to treat with any sort of vulgar parlance or attempt at physical coercion. It had been a most interesting lesson. It was also why she had several rocks in her reticule. Still, if she entered the public house, she’d be inviting the worst sort of advances.
Drawing in a steadying breath, Cordy grabbed the door handle and yanked. She’d come far too far to be deterred now.
The sound of Irish music and the smell of sweat hit her like a brick wall as she strode in.
Instead of the immediate attention she assumed she would receive the thick crowd of men ignored her, drinking heavily from their cups. A dark haired bar wench was passing out tankard after tankard. “Right, as many drinks as ye can manage! All on the duke,” she hollered in a thick Irish accent.
A resounding cheer met her words.
Cordelia didn’t know quite what to make of the duke’s gesture.
“To Ireland,” shouted one man!
“Erin Go Brah!” shouted another.
And soon a rousing tune was being played and the thick crowd was pounding their feet and tankards.
Suddenly, several men entered behind her, jostling her forward.
“Eh, love, move along,” one of them said.
Cordelia bustled forward, toward the bar, desperately trying to spot the duke but he was nowhere to be seen.
She clutched her parasol and lifted her chin. She had to find him and well, she was just going to have to inquire. Heading up to the bar, she mustered her most winning grin, the grin she used to coax donkey boys, river guides, and workers convinced that the tombs of glorified ancient Egyptian accountants were cursed. “I’m looking for the Duke of Hunt.”
The barkeep, a big hulk of a man with a swipe of fiery hair took one look at her, a quick up and down then said, “You’re not his type of petticoat, lass.”
Cordelia pulled back her chin before she could stick it too far forward, a terrible habit she’d never quite been able to break, much to the horror of her archeologically inclined Aunt Eglantine. Apparently, even she could pass for a woman of the night in such a place. “Even so, I need to see him.”
The barkeep leaned forward. “Look lass. You shouldn’t be here. This isn’t your sort of establishment. You’ll have better luck near the newer parks. Lots of wealthy gents.”
Her cheeks flushed. “What?”
“The duke. He likes ’em a bit jollier than you, if you understand.”
Oh, he did, did he? “Where is he?”
The barkeep’s eyes flickered upward.
“Take me to him.”
The barkeep shook his head, his lips curling into a devilish grin. “Have you recently escaped from an institution, lass?”
Cordelia hmphed out a noise that was not quite ladylike. The very idea. Did she look like a mad woman? “I simply need to meet with him to discuss a personal matter.”
The barkeep’s eyes narrowed. “Now look here, we like the duke here. He’s a good man, fighting for the Irish and their rights. I don’t want no light skirt making his night any worse.”
A booming, cultured voice echoed down from the narrow stairway near the bar, “More gin, Padraig!”
A long pause followed as the bar keep, Padraig presumably, stared up and apparently through the rough wood to the voice of the duke above. As if he could indeed see something through the ceiling, he murmured, “On the other hand, perhaps you’ll do.”
Cordelia crooked her own neck and lifted her gaze to where the Irish man’s was, hoping for some illumination as to what she might do for, but the ceiling remained just that, a ceiling. This entire event was becoming more fascinating than that season she’d spent a captive of Sheik Faisal.
She dropped her gaze and cleared her throat. “Well, if I will do. . . Then do lead on.”
He gaped at her.
“I promise I shall make it worth your while,” she added.
He gave her a sharp stare. “Look love, I don’t do any pimping. I’ll take you up but he’s in a right foul mood.” His shoulders relaxed as he relented. “Have a gin first.”
The barkeep pulled a bottle off the shelf poured out to glasses and nudged one toward, her, his eyes hard, daring her.
Feeling a mix of relief that the fellow was no longer trying to get rid of her and apprehension at her imminent meeting with her husband, she raised the glass. “Cheers.”
He lifted his. “Slainté.”
She tilted it all back in one swallow. It burned but no worse than the liquor she’d consumed dealing with half of Europe’s troublesome males.
At her ability, the barkeep let out a barrel laugh. “Perhaps I was mistaken lass. Perhaps you truly are just what the duke needs.” He placed his glass down and slipped out from behind the bar, grabbing a full bottle of gin and plunked it in front of her. “Up the stairs. First door on your right.”
“Y-you’re not coming?”
“What, love? You need me to hold your hand?”
“Certainly not,” she said, taking the bottle in hand. She eyed the narrow stair. There was no turning back now. This was the moment she’d been waiting for half of her life. And she was going to meet it head on.