4 April 1825
Olivia stepped inside the sweltering ballroom and felt as if a finch had been pulled on her. The Duke had assured her of a small Salon.
Instead, she stood amidst the crush of the Season. The champagne punch flowed with no end in sight, as did the gossip, and the ballroom brimmed with every member of the ton currently in London.
How alone a person could feel in a crowd of people.
“Lady Percival,” she heard a perfectly cultured lady’s voice identical to every other perfectly cultured lady’s voice in the room call out. “Or is it Lady Olivia now?” Soft giggles muted by raised silk fans floated on the air.
Before Olivia, an intimate circle of four couples radiated excitement, anticipating a gossip-worthy exchange, the ladies snickering in delight, the gentlemen shifting from foot to foot, discomfort evident.
“Lady Olivia will do,” she replied, with a succinct snap in her voice, and immediately regretted it. She shouldn’t be using that tone tonight, her first night back in Society after a six-month absence. It could reveal anxious nerves. She’d believed herself prepared for the stir her presence would create, but her body told a different story. Her heart was a hammer in her chest, and sweat slicked her palms.
“We were just speaking of you, and now here you are.” The chit’s smile curved a smidgen too wide.
Her name was Miss Fox, and Olivia knew not a whit about her. She didn’t much keep up with her Debrett’s.
“Your gown is ravishing. You must give me the direction of your modiste. A scandalous French one, to be sure.” Sensing blood in the water, Miss Fox pressed, “It’s so rare these days that you grace Society with your presence.”
A silence so taut a pin could puncture it expanded as the tight circle of couples awaited Olivia’s response. No choice but to proceed as she meant to go on, she drew herself up to her fullest height and met Miss Fox square in the eye. “One must be careful about the company one keeps at a large and indiscriminate gathering such as this. It isn’t as select as one might wish.”
Her gaze swept up and down Miss Fox, and the vulpine smile fell from the younger woman’s lips as the implication of Olivia’s words hit her. No one could deny the fact that though she may be this Season’s scandal, Lady Olivia Montfort still outranked Miss Anne Fox. “Now, if you’ll excuse me.”
Olivia didn’t await a response before gliding away across the ballroom’s polished mahogany floor to seek sanctuary in the ladies’ retiring room. A single, bracing moment of peace and quiet should shore her up for this night.
She’d hardly exhaled the sigh that had wanted release all evening, when the outer door opened and closed with a muted, but distinct, click. She was about to peek around the screen when a firm, matronly voice rang out. “I say, she is lucky to be received in polite society, and you know it, Clarinda. But with a benefactor like His Grace at her disposal, well, who can refuse her?”
Olivia startled backward, breath suspended in her chest, ears attuned to whatever words would come next.
“Now, Ernestine, His Grace isn’t her benefactor. She is his daughter by law. Besides, Lady Olivia Montfort is the daughter of the Earl of Surrey. She isn’t the sort of woman who needs a benefactor.”
“Was the Duke’s daughter by law, you mean,” Ernestine huffed.
“Yet,” Clarinda began on a conspiratorial whisper, “it was the Duke who backed her petition for divorce at the House of Lords.”
“From his own son.” Ernestine lowered her righteous voice an octave. “She petitioned for the divorce, Clarinda. What is this world coming to that a wife can petition the House of Lords for a divorce? Then have the audacity to continue living beneath the roof of her divorced husband’s father? I daresay, we may be near the end times.”
That went to show what this battle-ax understood of these matters: The House of Lords hadn’t the legal or ecclesiastical power to grant Olivia a true divorce. What they had was the power to set the marriage aside. It was called a divorce a vinculo matrimonii, and she was only the fourth woman in England to be granted one on the grounds of desertion.
Still, the gossipy duo was correct about one point: The Duke had thrown his support behind her in the endeavor. In fact, he’d been the one to suggest it, promising to ensure that her daughter Lucy remained, if not legitimate to the exact letter of the law, a fully-fledged member of the powerful Bretagne family. She was the granddaughter of a duke, and no one would dare forget it.
The daughter of an earl herself, Olivia understood power and privilege, or thought she had, until the Duke had chosen to flex his ducal muscle on her behalf and the might of the dukedom was revealed to her in its full glory and scope. It was a magnificent and awe-inspiring thing, that sort of power, and she’d never felt so humbled in her life as when it worked on her behalf. With nary a whimper of contradiction, the House of Lords had acceded to his directive in the matter. Still, she understood that if Percy hadn’t been a younger son, or if their daughter had been male, the outcome might not have settled so satisfactorily in her favor.
“But, Ernestine,” Clarinda’s voice lowered a conspiratorial octave, “Lord Percival Bretagne was alive these last twelve years. Can you believe it? We mustn’t be too hard on the poor chit.”
“The woman spent a decade running around with those artistic, bohemian types while her husband lay dead in Spain.”
“But he wasn’t dead in Spain,” Clarinda insisted.
“What sort of proper widow spends her time in those circles? I daresay,” Ernestine continued as if Clarinda hadn’t spoken. Olivia imagined brows lifted to the ceiling in damning hauteur.
“But the girl wasn’t a widow at all.”
“Girl?” Ernestine spat.
“Well, no longer a girl, I suppose.” Clarinda paused while another “humpf!” sounded from Ernestine. “But when she lost that boy—”
“You mean her husband, Lord Percival?” Ernestine interrupted.
“What a sweet love match they made in her first Season. Rumor has it she nearly went mad from the grief, poor dear.”
Olivia’s fingers curled into tight fists, the nails digging into her palms. They discussed her as if she was some sort of revolutionary bent on rending the very fabric of society in two.
Perhaps she was. Except that hadn’t been her intent at all.
When her sister Mariana had returned from Paris six months ago and revealed that she’d seen—and spoken with!—Percy, an avalanche of dread had nearly crushed Olivia, making it difficult for her lungs to draw air, suffocating her.
Percy was alive.
“He was His Grace’s favorite, they say,” Clarinda said.
Olivia couldn’t deny the truth of those words. Percy had been everyone’s favorite.
Except hers. At least, by the time he’d died. And most definitely by the time he’d rejoined the land of the living as, of all things, a spy, and the full weight of the truth crashed down on her: Percy had chosen to stay away—from her, from their daughter—for the last twelve years.
He’d been better off dead as far as she was concerned, which was why she needed to press forward with her plan to move house. Someday, he would arrive in Town, and when he did, he wouldn’t find her still housed beneath his father’s roof. She would eat glass first.
An unladylike huff of frustration escaped her. This morning, her plan had hit a snag. The Duke’s solicitors refused to assist her without his express consent. He would help her, of that she was certain, but she’d wanted to purchase a Mayfair townhouse herself and present it to him as a fait accompli. This final step toward independence was hers alone to take.
Yet, with no other option open to her, she’d had to petition her father’s solicitors for their services, even though her father and mother would remain in Italy for another season and have no ability to back her request any time in the near future. When she’d set out on this course six months ago, she’d had no idea how much male assistance a woman needed to become free and independent. Galling.
“Speaking of His Grace,” Ernestine began, a ribbon of girlish excitement twirling through her words. The door opened, and a roar of bright gaiety rushed in. The gossipy duo was exiting the room. “Have you seen him tonight? He is one eligible bachelor.”
“At five and sixty?”
“An unmarried Duke of Arundel is eligible at any age, Clarinda.”
The door shut behind the pair, and the outside world again dulled its pitch to a quiet muffle. Olivia stepped out from behind the screen and paused before a gilded Baroque mirror. Even its warm, reflective glow couldn’t mask the fact that her face spoke of devastation, like it had been scrubbed raw across a washboard. This wouldn’t do.
She leaned over the washstand and dabbed her skin with its cooling water. Hands to either side of the basin, she closed her eyes and inhaled deeply, clearing her mind on a long exhale. This Salon was no place for her past.
Another glance in the mirror revealed the red splotches mostly gone. Only a hint of pink remained, which could be taken for too much heat at a crush like tonight’s. Emotion could darken the sky blue of her eyes into stormy gray in an instant. She opened them a little wider into a semblance of their usual selves. The clouds receded.
Social armor intact, she stepped to the door, pushed it wide on a gust of festive cacophony, and her seventeen-year-old self danced before her on the happy notes of violin strings underlain by the grounding drone of cello and bass; the sporadic shrill giggle here and there, punctuating a witty remark like an exclamation point; the rustle of silk and superfine as guests wove in and out of each other, seeking good conversation, good gossip, and good champagne. All underscored by the dull, monotone din of the crowd as the light from a thousand candles glittered overhead, tiny prisms of chandelier crystals dancing to the subtle rhythm of the string quartet.
How her seventeen-year-old self had loved the controlled chaos of a party. Although there was pain on one side of this memory, she experienced the pleasure on the other side of it.
Her lips curved into her first genuine, if subdued, smile of the night. The past didn’t have to be all guilt and hurt.
How that girl would be giddy over the sight of this full-to-capacity ballroom, at the possibilities hidden within it. A tidbit of choice gossip. A chance to roam a room unchaperoned. A stolen glimpse of a handsome-beyond-compare boy with the deepest brown eyes in the wide world . . .
Oh, how Ernestine and Clarinda had conjured the past tonight. She longed to rush home and lie with Lucy, her daughter’s breath soft and regular in the cadence of sleep. Then she would steal away to her studio to ready the sketches she would present to her art master on the morrow.
But the present beckoned, and she must pretend to enjoy herself, smile pasted onto her face. She lifted her chin a notch and feigned indifference. She would be an ice queen, not the soft, gay girl this room had seen over a decade ago.
It was too soon. Hardly a fortnight had passed since Parliament set aside her marriage.
For the people populating this room, life maintained a smooth, unwavering trajectory from birth to death. They couldn’t comprehend how her fate had diverged so dramatically from theirs. Six months ago, she’d been an unremarkable widow, if a little eccentric given her involvement with the arts. But they’d understood her.
Now? She was a real, live divorcée, little more than a new species on display at the zoo.
Across the crowd, she spotted the Duke’s signature shock of silver hair and began making her way toward him through the ever-changing maze of ever-sweaty ton. She could hardly remember a time when she’d seen more of Society’s luminaries assembled in one place.
Who was tonight’s honoree? She hadn’t been attentive to the details when the Duke had requested her presence tonight.
She turned toward the first welcome voice of the night, her sister’s. “Oh, Mariana, what a relief to see you.”
Upon their presentation at court, “Milk and Honey” was the moniker the Regent had bestowed on the Earl of Surrey’s twin daughters, Ladies Olivia and Mariana, in reference to their respective, un-twinlike appearances. Olivia’s clear, milky complexion had been the perfect complement to Mariana’s tawny hair and eyes.
“Lady Olivia,” Mariana purred, not unlike the intonation of a jungle cat settling in for a feast of minced rat. “Sir Edwin, here”—She indicated the rather pugnacious-looking man at her side—“was inquiring about The Progressive School for Young Ladies and the Education of Their Minds.”
“Oh?” Olivia smiled and began to back away. No good ever came of crossing Mariana when her lioness purr coupled with that particular glint in her eye.
Most gentlemen of the ton regarded The Progressive School for Young Ladies and the Education of Their Minds to be a complete waste of time and resources for the needless education of daughters who were best married off as soon as could be decently managed. It was clear as day that Mariana was spoiling for a row.
“I’m uncertain how I can be of more help than my sister. If you will pardon me—”
Mariana slipped her hand into the crook of Olivia’s arm, securing her to her side. Olivia was caught. “Sir Edwin,” Mariana began, turning a dazzling smile onto her prey, “has difficulty believing our daughters’ feeble female brains are capable of progressing mathematically beyond tallying the number of stitches on a sampler.”
Olivia heard in Mariana’s tone the familiar stirrings of a righteous and one-sided debate. Sir Edwin would have no hope of getting a word in edgewise once Mariana warmed to her subject.
Herein lay the difference between herself and Mariana: Olivia was no crusader. While she believed that her daughter needed a male education—the very reason she and Mariana had founded the school, after all—she had no interest in converting the Sir Edwins of the ton to her way of thinking.
The ton simply wasn’t ready for The Progressive School for Young Ladies and the Education of Their Minds. And it wasn’t Olivia’s mission in life to make them so.
“Sir Edwin,” Olivia conceded, “I suggest you bring your daughter for a visit if your curiosity has gotten the better of you.”
Sir Edwin’s nose darkened into an unattractive shade of aubergine. “I can assure you that curiosity about such a school does not in any way outweigh my good judgment. Curiosity, indeed.” The man harrumphed. “More like turning my daughter into a curiosity with these outlandish—”
Olivia was spared the remainder of Sir Edwin’s scold when his voice died away and the volume of the room hushed to a dull murmur. Her eyes shifted from Sir Edwin’s florid face and followed the collective gaze.
At first glance, it appeared to be nothing more than the announcement of yet another couple standing at the top of the ballroom’s grand staircase. A closer examination revealed that the pair was no couple, rather a man and a girl a few years shy of her debut.
The girl was both the man’s opposite and his equal at once. Where she was dark, he was light. Where he towered impressively, she stood modestly. Their connection, however, was apparent in the intangibles: a similarity in their composure and in the quiet way they took in the scene before them.
Mariana pulled Olivia close. “It appears the night’s gossip trump card is being played. You, dear sister, are old news.”
Olivia tore her gaze away from the new arrivals and lent an attentive ear to her sister.
“The newly minted Right Honourable Jakob Radclyffe, Fifth Viscount St. Alban,” Mariana whispered. “Rich as Croesus and tonight’s guest of honor. A shipping heir, if the gossip is true.”
Olivia couldn’t resist the tug of another glance. They were an impossibly gorgeous and arresting pair. His golden head of hair was the finest mixture of red and sun-kissed blond she’d ever seen, which contrasted sharply with the girl’s hair, the deep, complex black of a crow’s wing. It would be a challenge for any painter to get the colors right, especially a novice like herself, but she would love to try.
She heard someone say, “She’s his daughter. Haven’t you heard?”
Mariana squeezed Olivia’s arm. “Oh, the gossips will have a field day with this.”
Olivia nodded once, taking Mariana’s meaning. The girl’s parentage, specifically on her mother’s side.
The resemblance to both her Asian and European ancestries clear, the girl’s features came together in flawless synthesis: a heart-shaped face, a full rosebud mouth, and the most beautiful eyes Olivia had ever beheld, oval but angled in the exact same line as high cheekbones sharp enough to cut glass, appearing to be not brown, but the changeable gray of a black pearl. It was as if Nature had taken the best from both lines of descent to illustrate for the world its capacity for perfection.
The ladies formed a tight, exclusive circle, and whispered snippets of conversation flurried around Olivia.
“Rumor has it that the mother is Japanese,” she overheard.
“A servant, do you think?” came the scandalized reply.
“And he acknowledges her?”
“Oriental women have secrets, don’t you know?” came a giggly whisper from her left.
“Which ones did they teach him?”
“Wouldn’t mind finding out,” came a sly response.
The giggles grew bolder, and the crowd roared back to life as the string quartet swept bows across strings and played on with renewed vigor. The clamor to gossip about this new and intriguing development eluded Olivia, even as it possessed everyone around her.
Unable to take her eyes off the viscount’s face composed entirely of angles and shadows, she felt a twinge of something she couldn’t identify and quickly dismissed the feeling as nothing more than simple curiosity.
Why on earth would she feel anything more? The man was nothing to her.
“Have you ever seen such a pair?” came Mariana’s whisper in her ear.
“I think not,” was all Olivia could speak through parched lips.
“Come, let’s waggle an introduction from the Dowager.”
As Mariana pulled in one direction, Olivia leaned in the other and slipped her arm free. “I’m afraid not tonight. I have a splitting headache.” At Mariana’s bewildered expression, she continued, “You can fill me in on all the details at my soirée in a few days.”
Without further hesitation, Mariana was off on her mission, leaving Olivia on her own, a strange relief at her sister’s departure stealing through her. Recently reunited with her husband, happiness radiated off Mariana in waves. Olivia wouldn’t weigh down Mariana’s newfound joy with her problems and anxieties. In this way, she knew she wasn’t alone, for she had a full life and a supportive family, but she was alone in her choices and the path she wanted to forge. It was simultaneously exciting and terrifying.
Her gaze again stole toward the staircase where Lord St. Alban stood quietly surveying the room. Except his eyes weren’t quiet. They were absolutely fierce, only softening when he bent his head to make a comment to his daughter. The girl nodded once while staring straight ahead and drawing her embroidered silk reticule close to her chest. Deliberately, protectively, he placed a hand at her elbow. His message was clear: his daughter was a peer of this room as much as he.
The fearsome display of love elicited a confusion of emotion within Olivia, strange and alarming. She couldn’t help thinking of Lucy and Percy, of how he hadn’t been that father to her, and a hard knot twisted inside her chest, even as a warm shiver purled down her spine.
Instinct urged her to run as fast and as far away as her feet could carry her from this scene. After the scandalous six months of gossip she’d provided the ton, confusions of emotion were best left unexplored and avoided at all costs.
She would make her excuses, kiss her good-byes, and forget all about the unsettling Right Honourable Jakob Radclyffe, Fifth Viscount St. Alban. By tomorrow morn, she would be settled and ready to begin her independent future, decidedly free from all confusions of emotion.