A SCANDALOUS RUMOR ON CHRISTMAS EVE
“My dear,” Lady Chatterby said to her Aunt Maria who was growing a little deaf. “Did you hear that the younger Kilpatrick girl is increasing?”
“No, the married one. Annabel.”
“Alice Kilpatrick is with child.”
“Don’t you mean Annabel?”
“No, the elder girl.”
Miss Lawson was taking tea with her best friend Lady Susan. “Miss Kilpatrick …” Then she lowered her voice because one could not speak of such shocking things aloud.
At Boodle’s Club young Lord Helmsley and his three boon companions were into their fifth bottle. “M’sister Susan tells me that Alice Kilpatrick has raised her petticoats and dropped her drawers with the predictable result.”
Friday, at White’s
“Alice Kilpatrick is a slut.”
Saturday, Christmas Eve
Although Mrs. Kilpatrick had been confined all week with a cold, she heroically arose from her bed of pain to chaperone her daughter to the Countess of Porton’s Christmas Eve ball. No trifle like a sniffle would keep her from her triumph: Sir James Banfield, a Buckinghamshire baronet, had asked permission to pay his addresses to her elder daughter. And Alice, the choosiest daughter to ever afflict a mother, had finally agreed to accept a proposal.
Tonight, at the ripe age of four-and-twenty, Alice would achieve that summit of every girl’s ambitions: a good match. There was nothing wrong with Sir James and everything right: the right age (thirty), the right income (twenty thousand a year), the right county (his estate was less than thirty miles from that of her sister Annabel’s husband). Even the right looks. For a young unmarried man of good fortune he was a veritable Adonis. Most of them looked like toads.
Alice was a lucky girl to have attracted his attention. Everyone agreed, including Sir James. Especially Sir James. He might propose to her on bended knee, but Alice had a feeling she was the one who should be in the supplicant position. Along with everyone in London, he thought she was getting the best of the bargain.
The Porton ball was a sad crush. Alice and her mother–her father had been delayed by government business–were stuck at the foot of the handsome staircase, waiting for the throng of guests to greet the hosts on the landing and disperse, like chicks released from the coop, into the rooms beyond. Sir James was ahead of them, almost at the top. He offered an admirable view of well-shaped shoulders, in a neat but conservative coat of dark blue superfine, and perfectly cropped hair. Even his ears were tidy. When he turned to answer a remark from an acquaintance he exhibited a classical profile and an air of self-consequence.
“Such a handsome man,” Mrs. Kilpatrick said.
“Indeed.” Alice wished she felt more enthusiastic about the betrothal that would be concluded and announced tonight. She needed to be married. Her younger sister was expecting her second child. Very soon the dreaded word spinster would be attached to her and she might even, perish the thought, be expected to wear a cap. If only Sir James made her heart dance, her skin tingle, and her belly glow.
Lost in dispiriting reflection on the stolid nature of her emotions, she had failed to notice the whispering that, from years of experience at London assemblies, told her there was scandal afoot. A certain quality in the ambient sound always meant trouble for someone. It wasn’t hard to guess the subject of tonight’s gossip. The Marquess of Amville had been grist to the scandal mill for as long as Alice had been out, and longer. He was accepted in the ton, barely, because of his rank, wealth and connections, but not everyone received him.
Her mother did not approve.
“Tsk tsk,” Mrs. Kilpatrick said. “I believe Lady Porton is his godmother so he had to be invited. I wish people wouldn’t bother.”
Amville leaned against the bannister at the very top of the staircase. He stood out from the fashionable company by wearing his coat unbuttoned, his neckcloth askew, and his smile devilish. A lock of gold-streaked hair tumbled over his brow. As always, Alice couldn’t stop looking at him.
She’d danced with Amville in her second season. She’d never before or since had a partner for the waltz that whirled her around the floor with such exuberance, or made her laugh so much. Then an affair with the wife of the Chancellor of the Exchequer had him dropped from government guest lists and they met only occasionally. Somehow they always managed to exchange a few words. Five minutes in his company made everyone else seem flat and colorless. With him the most banal topic seemed new, and she also felt they’d known each other forever. His presence now brightened the prospects for a dull evening.
Dull? What was she thinking? This was the evening in which she was supposed to celebrate her engagement.
“Stop staring at him,” her mother hissed. “I do believe he came out this evening without shaving.”
It was true. The shadow on his chin made him even more raffish, also more alluring. He turned and noticed her for the first time. A meeting of the eyes, a shared smile, and the yards of air in between them seemed to crackle.
Her heart danced, her skin tingled, and her belly glowed.
Alice Kilpatrick was the only reason Amville attended these affairs. Nothing in life, jaded by endless debaucheries, gave him greater pleasure than their brief, innocent encounters. She was lovely tonight, a deep green silk setting off her dark hair and bright complexion. She always glowed with life and joy. For the hundredth, no thousandth, time he tormented himself with thoughts of what might have been. If only after that first waltz he’d set out to court her as she deserved. If only he hadn’t already been involved with the Chancellor’s wife. If only they had not been discovered in virtual flagrante delicto at the Prime Minister’s garden party. If only Mr. Kilpatrick were not a respected member of the government. If only….
Yet what was the use? He’d been doomed long before, steeped in inevitable infamy and vice through his upbringing in the household of his uncle, a man of reputation so deservedly foul that even Lady Porton wouldn’t have him in the house. When he’d died of a seizure in a low brothel no one had mourned him, least of all his nephew.
Yet Amville had to live with his uncle’s legacy, making it impossible for him to aspire to the hand of London’s brightest jewel, the daughter of the incorruptible Kilpatrick. Word was she’d accepted Banfield, a dry stick of a man who’d never permit his wife to maintain the slightest acquaintance with a dissolute marquess. Tonight might be the last in which he would enjoy those precious five or ten minutes with Alice, dizzied by her voice and scent, yearning to possess what he could never even touch.
He gazed down at her with an ache in the area of his heart. Yet that organ could not be so affected for it had long since been atrophied by the senselessness of life.
He took his time before he approached her, endured the dreary assembly for an hour, enjoying the anticipation of a few minutes’ happiness. Passing through Lady Porton’s suite of reception rooms, he was aware of voices rising in surprise and falling in pretended horror, the shocked intake of breath and the deliciously appalled laughter. In short, the familiar sound of scandal.
There was something different tonight. Instead of falling silent at his approach, the outrage reached him, like surf washing up on a beach. Tonight he was not the object of the gossip.
When he heard what was being said he was incredulous and then, for the first time in his life, scandalized. How could they believe such things of Alice? Not that he would judge her–he always eschewed hypocrisy–but couldn’t these blind idiots see that she would never betray her betrothed? And poker-backed James Banfield would never anticipate his vows. Amville would wager his very considerable fortune that Alice Kilpatrick was neither impure nor pregnant.
He happened to see her just as she learned what was being said. Her eyes widened, a hand covered her mouth. Two ladies turned their backs on her and she looked as though she had received a mortal blow.
No one must be allowed to distress his Alice.
Protective hackles rose and he charged to the rescue, but Banfield reached her first. Amville stopped abruptly. It was her fiancé’s right to defend her against calumny.
“Miss Kilpatrick!” Banfield was bristling with indignation. “I am horrified at what I have heard.” Alice opened her mouth, but the baronet’s ire was not to be contained. “I demand to know if it is true.”
Distress turned to astonishment. “Of course it is not. I don’t know how such a rumor can have started.”
“I wonder too.” Banfield, who had been a priggish arse since Amville knew him at Harrow, folded his arms and looked down his nose. “You must have done something to give rise to such a report.”
“You believe it?”
“As they always say, there’s no smoke without fire.”
Her fists clenched and she appeared about to throw an unladylike punch and terminate her engagement, a move Amville would have applauded. But of course she did not. She would deny the charge, reason would prevail and her betrothal and eventual marriage would progress as planned.
Then he had an idea. A wicked idea. He shouldn’t, but resisting temptation had never been his strong suit. He took a deep breath and committed the most dishonorable act of a life filled with iniquity.
“My dear Alice,” he drawled, stepping up beside her and placing her hand on his arm. “Are you having trouble?”
She stared at the use of her Christian name, her pink mouth forming a kissable oval. He wouldn’t let her pull away. Her hand felt perfect there and he intended to keep it.
Sir James recovered his wits, or at least his voice. “Amville! You are Miss Kilpatrick’s debaucher and the father of her child.”
“Sir James!” she squeaked, still trying to escape.
“Whatever do you mean? I don’t believe for a minute that Alice is with child.” A small huff of breath told him she appreciated his defense. She stopped struggling and relaxed. Prematurely. He smiled nastily. “You see, Banfield, a wise man knows how to take precaution against accidents.”
Banfield sputtered, Alice gasped. Amville had made it impossible for the rumor to be put to rest. There wasn’t a soul in England who’d ever believe he hadn’t seduced her. Now for the coup de grace.
“I will, of course, be asking for Miss Kilpatrick’s hand in marriage.” He brushed a kiss over her knuckles. “Better luck next time, Banfield.”
Alice was ruined. Yet a bubble of joy, hardly bigger than a mustard seed, formed in her heart. Did Amville mean his bizarre proposal? He wasn’t the marrying kind; if he were, she’d never have contemplated wedding Sir James. It came to her in a blaze of enlightenment that she’d turned down half a dozen perfectly eligible suitors because of one miraculous waltz in her second season.
Sir James stalked off in high dudgeon while other guests hovered, fascinated spectators of the drama. Amville was ghostly pale without a hint of his devil-may-care bravado and he held her so tightly her hand hurt.
“Come,” was all he said, and dragged her through the staring crowd. Her heart beat a tattoo as she tripped after him, brushing past friends, acquaintances and her horrified mother, into a small sitting room. Amville slammed the door and wedged a chair under the doorknob.
Breathing as though he’d run a mile, he put his hand on her shoulders, regarding her with anxious eyes. Mesmerized, she stroked the shadowed jaw. His dawning, devastating smile put her fears to rest. Her heart danced, her skin tingled, and she wanted to laugh out loud with joy.
Especially when he kissed her. This was no polite caress but the devouring possession she’d waited for all her life. He kissed her until her brain turned to wool and held her fast against him, body to hard body. Her belly didn’t merely glow; it burned.
All too soon he let her go. And, as expected that evening, a man got down on his knees before her. “Please marry me, Alice.” He looked humble, uncertain, supplicating. “By any standard I should make a wretched husband but you won’t find one who loves you more. I swear by whatever shreds of honor I possess to spend the rest of my life making you happy.”
“Why have you never said anything?”
He shrugged. “My reputation, your father. But tonight I seized my chance. I believe even Mr. Kilpatrick will say you have no alternative. I’m sorry.”
“Are you really?”
“Only if you are.”
She swept the disorderly lock of hair from his forehead, with a delicious shiver that she was now permitted to touch him. “I’m glad.”
“You’ll have me then?”
“As long as you never go near the wife of any cabinet minister again.”
“To be on the safe side you’d better not leave me alone in the vicinity of Downing Street.” Humility had vanished and Lord Amville was back, and she didn’t care how wicked he was as long as he was only hers.
“And how shall we celebrate Christmas?” she asked
“If I have my way, we’ll spend the rest of the winter in bed, with the curtains closed.”