The Pleasures of Passion
Impatiently, Niall paced the drawing room of the Margrave town house, waiting for his mother to be ready so they could go to dinner at Clarissa’s. This was his first time in town since his pardon and subsequent return to England a month ago, but some things never changed.
Mother still didn’t know the meaning of being on time. And she was worse than ever now that Father was dead and Clarissa had married one of his childhood friends—Edwin Barlow, the Earl of Blakeborough. There was no one around any longer to reel Mother in.
His newly hired valet entered the room. “Begging your pardon, my lord, but when I was unpacking the trunk you shipped from Portugal, I found this envelope at the bottom.” He held it out. “I wasn’t sure if it was important.”
As Niall took it and saw the script written in his father’s hand, he wondered why he would
have kept an old letter with his other correspondence. Only after he opened it and a newspaper cutting fell into his hand did he remember.
A few months after his arrival in Spain, Father had sent him the article from La Belle Assemblée, a ladies’ magazine. It was the Provincial News section—a list of births, deaths, and marriages outside London.
And Niall remembered its contents word for word:
Married. At Chester, Mr. Reynold Trevor, son of Captain Mace Trevor, to Miss Brilliana Payne, of London, only daughter of Sir Oswald and Mariah Payne.
Father’s accompanying letter had only said, I thought you would wish to know.
Bree had married within scant months after Niall’s departure.
Niall felt the pain of the loss of her anew, the years having barely dulled it. Clearly Father had been right—Bree had merely been waiting for a better offer. Mr. Trevor might not have been heir to an earl, but he’d been wealthy enough to own an estate in good condition, and his father had some standing in society. Apparently those two things had sufficed to prompt Bree to throw Niall over.
If she’d ever even loved him at all.
Now, as then, Niall noted that Bree’s mother hadn’t been listed in the cutting as the late Mariah Payne. So Father had been right about that, too. All that nonsense about Bree not wanting to marry because of her sickly mother had been naught but an excuse.
With a start, he realized his valet was asking him something. “Sorry, I’m woolgathering. What is it?”
“Is the letter to be kept? Is it important?”
In a surge of temper, he crumpled the cutting in his fist and tossed it into the fire. “It’s naught but a bit of inconsequential old gossip.”
Inconsequential gossip that had destroyed him after he’d read it. But he was past all that now.
Granted, Bree had taken him by surprise a couple of weeks ago when she’d shown up at Stoke Towers, Edwin and Clarissa’s estate in the country, and then at the wedding of his cousin Warren to Delia Trevor. How could he have known that Bree’s husband was Delia’s brother? Or rather, had been Delia’s brother before the man’s tragic death a year ago.
Niall had practically fallen apart at his first sight of the widowed Bree—no, Mrs. Trevor now—looking lovelier than ever, with a lusher figure and a haunting sadness in her chocolate-brown eyes. She was even out of mourning, which meant she was available again.
He gritted his teeth. Not to him. She hadn’t
sent him so much as a word in all these years. If not for Father, he wouldn’t even have learned that she’d married. If not for running into her at the wedding, he wouldn’t have known she was widowed and had a son. Clearly she didn’t give a damn about him anymore.
If she ever had.
Niall’s valet cleared his throat. “One more thing, sir. Shall I lay out different attire for when you return from dinner? Will you be attending St. George’s this evening?”
Niall had been made an honorary member of St. George’s Club by virtue of being Edwin’s brother-in-law. And by virtue of what he’d done to protect his sister, though no one knew about that except Edwin and Warren.
“I may, if Edwin wants to. But if I do go, I’ll just wear this.”
“Very good, sir.” With a nod, his valet left.
Niall glanced at the clock, then swore. Stalking out into the hall, he called up the stairs, “Mother! We were supposed to be at Clarissa’s half an hour ago!”
“I’m coming, I’m coming,” she grumbled as she appeared at the top of the stairs.
A lump caught in his throat. Mother might be flighty and prone to exaggeration, but he’d missed her. The separation from his family had been a particularly hard part of his exile in Spain and then Portugal. And he still couldn’t get used to how much older Mother looked now.
“I don’t know what you spent your time abroad doing,” she added as she made her slow way down the stairs, favoring her bad hip, “but I swear it has turned you into quite the grump.”
“Sorry, Mother.” He hurried up to offer her his arm. “It’s just that this isn’t one of your society balls, where you can show up whenever you wish. This is dinner with your daughter and her husband. Whose company we both happen to enjoy.”
Apparently madly in love, the pair were happily expecting their first child. And that made all the sacrifices of his last seven years worth it.
Even losing Bree.
He grimaced. He’d never really had her. He’d just thought he did.
“Don’t be ridiculous,” Mother said. “Clarissa knows how I am. She won’t fret a bit over our being late. Besides, one always hears the best gossip late in the party, so there’s no point in showing up early.”
“Not early, Mother—on time. And is hearing gossip the only reason you go to dine with your daughter?”
“Of course not. I do enjoy a good meal, and Edwin’s cook is exceptional.”
God, he hoped so. One thing he missed about Spain and Portugal was the food there—excellent cheeses, well-spiced dishes, and exotic fruits. It had spoiled him for the usual British mutton stews; he’d give anything for a good dish of paella or pulpo.
Hmm, perhaps he should look for a Spanish cook. . . .
“I also wish to hear how Clarissa is feeling these days,” Mother went on. She shot him a sly glance. “She is carrying my first grandchild, you know.”
That was Mother Code for When are you providing me with a grandchild?
Thankfully, she was easy to distract. “So, the best gossip comes later on, does it?”
A bright smile lit her face. “Oh yes! Why, we might even coax Lord Fulkham to tell us intimate details about the king’s death.” She leaned in with a conspiratorial air. “If anyone should know them, it’s the undersecretary of state for . . . for . . .” She waved her hand. “Important things of some sort.”
“For war and the colonies. But Fulkham isn’t the sort to gossip. And why would he be at this dinner?”
“How should I know? But he accepted the invitation.”
“There were invitations?” Niall had thought this was just an intimate family dinner. “Who else was invited?”
“Well, Lord Fulkham’s sister-in-law, Mrs. Vyse, for one.” She cast him a knowing glance. “A very pretty woman, you know. And quite an eligible widow.”
He groaned. That was Mother Code for When are you getting married? He hadn’t considered the
possibility that Clarissa and Mother might use this dinner for matchmaking.
“Though sadly,” Mother continued, “she’s not rich. The widow you ought to consider is Mrs. Trevor—her aunt has provided her with a nice dowry, and frankly, you could use the funds for Margrave Manor.”
Niall grimaced. God, was she invited to this deuced dinner?
“I haven’t met her yet,” his mother rambled on, “so I don’t know if Mrs. Trevor is pretty enough for you—or young enough, for that matter. But—”
“Stop it, Mother. I don’t want any more nonsense about how I require a wife. I need time to settle in. Besides, I prefer to pick my own, not have one shoved at me by you or Clarissa. Not even a rich widow.”
“I’m only saying—”
“I know what you’re saying. I’m saying to leave it be. If I need your help with finding my countess, I’ll let you know.” And that was never going to happen. Mother would choose him a wife based on rank alone, which was the last thing he wanted.
She sniffed. “Good heavens, but you’re prickly these days.”
His eyes narrowed on her. “So, Fulkham and Mrs. Vyse will be there this evening. Anyone else I should know about? How many is Clarissa expecting?”
“Or perhaps fifteen.” She tapped her chin. “I’m not sure, actually. I confess I wasn’t paying much attention once she started rattling off names. Except for Fulkham and Mrs. Vyse, the others sounded dreadfully tedious. Sadly, it won’t be the usual fun people. The Keanes are at their new estate in Hertfordshire. And Warren and Delia are still on their honeymoon in Italy.”
He let out a breath. So none of Delia’s family would be there. Thank God. Surely that meant Bree wouldn’t be there, either.
Not that it mattered if she was. After the horrors he’d witnessed in Portugal during the ongoing bloody conflict between the British-backed liberals and the absolutists, he desired only one thing: peace. Not a two-faced female who wanted, as Father had said, “the advantages of being a countess.”
No, this time round he would find a woman who actually cared about him, who could help him put the images of his exile out of his mind. This time he wouldn’t fall into the trap Bree wove with her soft words and shy, entirely false smiles. Let the widowed Mrs. Trevor look elsewhere for a husband. He was out of the running.
Brilliana Trevor stood in the Blakeboroughs’ drawing room, listening with rapt attention as
Lord Fulkham and Lord Blakeborough debated the merits of planting oats over barley. She wished she could take notes, but that just wasn’t done at a dinner party.
Clarissa frowned at her husband as she passed by. “Honestly, Edwin, can’t you talk about anything but estate matters? Poor Brilliana must be bored to tears.”
“No, indeed!” Brilliana said. “Now that I’m managing Camden Hall, I’m trying to learn everything I can about how to look after it.” Especially since she no longer had to worry about losing it to creditors.
“Very wise,” Lord Blakeborough said. “I wish more ladies would take an interest. Even Clarissa has a broader knowledge of such matters than the average wife.”
“Ah, but that’s because you include her in your estate affairs.” Bitterness edged into Brilliana’s voice. “Even when I tried to get my late husband to involve me, he wouldn’t. He always said not to worry my pretty head about it.”
“It is a very pretty head, to be sure,” Lord Fulkham said.
She stared him down. “Sadly, the prettiness of my head isn’t much help when it comes to knowing what to plant or how to manage tenants. Sir.”
A faint smile tipped up the corners of his lips. “Touché, Mrs. Trevor.”
What an odd response. Other men were
offended when she wasn’t flattered by their empty compliments.
Unsurprisingly, Clarissa said, “Lord Fulkham, I do hope you’re not one of those gentlemen who think women are only good as ornaments.”
“Certainly not. Though I do believe Mrs. Trevor would be better off hiring an estate manager than trying to acquire such extensive knowledge in a matter of weeks.”
“I agree,” Brilliana said. “But, sadly, I can’t yet afford one. Besides, the more I learn, the more I can teach Silas when he’s older. Camden Hall will be his one day, after all.”
“Ah, yes,” Lord Fulkham said. “I forgot you have a son. How old is he now?”
“Sixteen months. I’m hopeful that by the time he’s old enough to assume responsibility for it, the estate will be self-sufficient.”
Clarissa’s husband, Lord Blakeborough, smiled broadly at Brilliana. “An admirable aim. I have some books I can loan you.”
“Thank you. I’d appreciate that.” How nice to have at least one man here who didn’t assess her just by her appearance.
“And I’m always happy to answer your questions, too,” he added. “Ask me whatever you wish.”
“Or better yet,” Lord Fulkham said with a veiled glance, “you should ask Margrave once he arrives. I daresay he knows plenty on the subject of estate management, since he’s spent most of
the past month trying to get his own property in order.”
Brilliana’s heart dropped into her stomach. Niall was coming here. For dinner. Oh, Lord. The least Clarissa could have done was give her some warning.
Fixing her with a hard look, Brilliana said, “I assumed that your brother was still at Margrave Manor in the country.”
Clarissa’s smile was suspiciously bright. “Oh, didn’t I mention that he came to town yesterday? He and Mother are probably on their way now. Mother tends to be late to everything, you know.”
Aunt Agatha, Brilliana’s aunt by marriage, said, “I’m afraid I have not yet had the pleasure of meeting your mother.”
Lord Blakeborough chuckled. “It’s not so much a pleasure as an experience. The dowager is a cross between a whirlwind and a lunatic.”
Clarissa tapped his arm with her fan. “I can’t believe you’re calling my mother a lunatic!” She shot Aunt Agatha a furtive glance. “You’ll give Lady Pensworth the wrong impression, after I invited her expressly to meet Mama. I thought they’d enjoy each other’s company.”
“Why, because we’re both old widows?” Aunt Agatha asked tartly.
But Clarissa wasn’t flustered one bit. “Because you both have a wealth of knowledge about the inner workings of society. We younger ladies can benefit from your advice.”
That seemed to mollify Aunt Agatha. “Well then. I am always happy to counsel young ladies. Especially ones who appreciate the value of age and experience.”
Astonishing. No one else parried Aunt Agatha’s jabs so effectively. But then, Clarissa had a wonderfully deft hand for managing people. Which made Brilliana even more curious to meet her mother.
Niall’s mother. It dawned on Brilliana that she was about to meet the very woman he’d resisted introducing to her years ago.
Back then she’d resented that, but hadn’t entirely blamed him for his caution. Of course, that was before she’d heard why he had dueled—because of some woman rumored to be his paramour. He and Mr. Whiting, known to be a notorious seducer, had apparently fought over this other woman’s affections.
No wonder the wretch had refused to tell her the reason for the duel. He’d known she would then see him for the lying, cheating scoundrel he was. The whole time he’d been courting her secretly by day, he’d been bedding some light-skirt by night.
Not that anyone had told her about it directly, since young ladies weren’t supposed to know that such women existed. She was lucky she’d managed to hear the gossip about the duel itself, and had it confirmed as true.
She had Niall’s father to thank for that. The
late Lord Margrave, whom she’d turned to briefly after Niall’s exile, had made it quite clear what sort of fellow his son was. She could only imagine what would have happened to her if she’d fled with Niall to Spain—a steady descent into ruin and degradation. At least she’d been spared that.
Just then the footman announced the arrival of Lord Margrave and the dowager Lady Margrave. Fortunately Brilliana was standing in the corner when they entered, giving her a chance to observe them without being seen.
This time she wouldn’t be taken by surprise, as she’d been two weeks ago, when she’d seen Niall for the first time in seven years and had behaved like a blithering idiot, blushing and stammering.
No, she would be cool and collected, as if there were naught between them but their family connections. And she would be the same with his mother.
But Lady Margrave, a bubbly older woman with bright eyes, wasn’t quite the dragon lady Brilliana had expected. And Niall . . .
He looked so delicious, making her fingers fairly itch for her sketchbook. His time abroad had cut away the boyishness from his features, leaving the strong cheekbones and firm jaw of a man in his prime. And Spain’s hot sun had streaked his cedar-brown hair a wonderful gold and bronze, complemented by his smart tailcoat of chocolate superfine with gilt buttons.
“Sorry we’re late,” Niall said to Clarissa. “You know Mother. The word punctual isn’t in her lexicon.”
“Oh, pish-posh.” His mother greeted her daughter with a kiss on the cheek. “Punctuality is for the dull. Just look at your sister; she’s never on time anywhere. And she’s always the liveliest one at every party.”
“True,” Lord Blakeborough said with obvious affection.
But Clarissa was glaring at her mother. “Mama, you’re insulting every one of my guests who was punctual.”
“Am I? I don’t see how.” The dowager blinked. “I haven’t even met half of them.”
Brilliana choked down a laugh. She was beginning to understand Lord Blakeborough’s unusual description of his mother-in-law.
Clarissa winced. “Yes, well, we must remedy that. Mama, this is Lady Pensworth, Delia’s aunt.”
Aunt Agatha nodded stiffly. “I am one of the dull, punctual guests.”
“Are you? Well, I’m sure you can’t help it. Not everyone can be as lively as Clarissa and I.”
“Mama!” Clarissa said. “I assure you that Lady Pensworth is quite lively.”
Aunt Agatha gave a thin smile. “I don’t believe anyone has ever classified me as—God forbid—lively. Don’t fret, Lady Blakeborough. I’m quite happy to be considered dull.” Pushing up her
spectacles, she shot the dowager a pointed glance. “It’s better than being considered a lunatic.”
“Oh, I quite agree,” Clarissa’s mother said cheerily. “Lunatics are very difficult to manage. I used to know this one duke . . .”
As the dowager waxed on about the mad duke of something or other, Brilliana caught Niall scanning the room until he fixed on her like a hunter spotting his prey.
When a scowl knit his brow, she tipped up her chin. She had as much right to be here as he. She was Clarissa’s friend, albeit a very recent one. And if he didn’t like it, he could just leave.
“Mama,” Clarissa broke in, “there are others I need to introduce.” She turned to Brilliana. “This is Mrs. Trevor. She’s a friend to both me and Niall.”
As Niall stiffened, Brilliana groaned. Oh, she was going to give Clarissa a piece of her mind later!
Meanwhile, Lady Margrave swatted her son with her fan. “You sly-boots, I can’t believe you didn’t tell me you had already met Mrs. Trevor.” She turned to eye Brilliana with blatant curiosity. “How lovely to meet you. I heard from my daughter that you’re a widow?”
“I’m afraid so, ma’am. A rather recent one.”
The dowager beamed at her. “But not too recent, since you’re out of mourning.”
“Yes. My husband died over a year ago.”
Lady Margrave cast her son a covert glance. “How very . . . interesting.”
When Niall rolled his eyes, Brilliana wanted to laugh. She might have, too, if she hadn’t been so annoyed to see him.
His mother seemed oblivious to her son’s irritation as she looked Brilliana over. “You seem very young to be a widow.”
“So I’m told.” At least half a dozen times a week. “But I’m sure you hear that nearly as often as I.”
With a titter, the countess patted her gray-blond hair. “Well, people do tell me that I look young enough to be Clarissa’s sister.”
Lord Blakeborough gave a laugh that turned into a cough when Clarissa raised an eyebrow at him.
“There’s certainly a family resemblance,” Brilliana said diplomatically. In Niall as well as Clarissa, for he had his mother’s eyes of warm hazel. Those same eyes were now examining her with the ruthlessness of a soldier assessing an enemy.
Was she his enemy? Not exactly. He was simply one man in a long line of them who’d betrayed her trust, starting with her father and ending with her husband, who’d lied to her about why he’d gone to London to gamble away their money.
All of them had abandoned her in one fashion or another, leaving her heartbroken and destitute. Never again would she rely on one of them. Niall had been a mistake, and these days she was trying to learn from those.
When Clarissa went on to introduce the other guests, Brilliana released a breath. Well, she’d survived that. Though she did have to wonder how Niall’s father had ended up married to such a flibbertigibbet as Lady Margrave. He’d seemed a somber sort when she’d met with him.
Dinner was announced, and Brilliana couldn’t help noticing that Niall pointedly ignored her as they went in.
Fine by her. Especially since she was seated next to Lord Fulkham, who was a most entertaining companion and proceeded to regale her throughout the meal with tales of his trips abroad.
As the dessert was served, he shifted the conversation to her. “So, how much longer will you be in London?”
“I’m not sure. But at least until Delia and Lord Knightford return from their honeymoon. Silas will want to see his aunt before we head off into the country.”
“So the lad is here in London with you?”
“Yes, of course. My aunt was kind enough to hire a nursemaid for him.”
“That’s very generous for an aunt by marriage.”
“It is indeed. She’s been very good to me and Silas.”
He glanced across to where Aunt Agatha was talking animatedly with an older gentleman who looked as if he’d rather be anywhere else. “I understand that Lady Pensworth has even provided a dowry for you.”
Her breath caught in her throat. He was asking about her dowry? Surely Lord Fulkham wasn’t interested in her like that. She dearly hoped not. He might be good-looking, with crystalline blue eyes and wavy raven hair, but she had no desire to marry again. Between Reynold and Niall, it was clear she had bad luck when it came to men.
Besides, there was something very calculated in the way he’d asked the question. She couldn’t see him as a fortune hunter, but still, it was probably best to handle this delicately.
She smiled at him. “Don’t tell me that you’re playing matchmaker, too, sir. Bad enough that my aunt and Clarissa keep trying to find me a husband.”
That seemed to startle him, for he eyed her askance. “How do you know I’m not asking for my own information? I am a bachelor, you know.”
“Yes, but you’re much too important a fellow to consider me for a wife. No doubt you have your eye on someone who can advance your political interests. I certainly cannot.”
His gaze sharpened on her. “I see.”
She had a funny feeling he saw more than he let on. It made her distinctly uncomfortable.
“But actually, what I meant was,” he went on, “that your aunt has taken on a rather unusual task in providing you with a dowry. You have other family members who ought to be assuming that position.” He searched her face. “Your father, for example.”
The breath went out of her. Dropping her gaze to her custard, she murmured, “My father and I are not . . . close.”
She hadn’t seen him since Mama’s death over six years ago, and she hoped never to see him again, considering what he’d done to ruin her life.
So she was relieved when Clarissa rose and asked the ladies if they wished to retire to the drawing room. As she followed the other ladies out, she wondered why he was prying into her personal affairs. If he wasn’t interested in courting her, it made no sense.
Then Mrs. Vyse approached her on their way to the drawing room. “I wonder if you’d take a turn with me in the garden? I find it a bit stuffy in here. Don’t you?”
That put Brilliana on her guard. First Lord Fulkham, then his sister-in-law. What on earth was going on? Had the woman been sent to assess Brilliana’s interest in him?
Whatever the case, perhaps it was time to get to the bottom of it, so she would know how to act.
Brilliana smiled. “Why, certainly, Mrs. Vyse. That sounds wonderful.”