Louisa spun around to meet the wickedest green eyes she had ever seen in her life. Angled like a cat's, they glittered madly in the candlelight, and suddenly Louisa, despite the solidity of the wall at her back, plus the fact that the ball continued in full swing and that they were in view of everyone-- felt decidedly unsafe.
She attempted to move past the man, but he sidestepped, so she was unable to avoid him. She felt herself blushing--stupid, how old was she?--so she lifted her chin and glared, cutting him with contempt, before attempting to pass again. With a smile he simply sidestepped and was in front of her again. Really, it was altogether too galling.
She cast her eye across to the nearest group, who were too busy watching the dancing to notice her discomfort. Why hadn't anyone seen she was trapped like this? If she had been Amelia, she thought with chagrin, a handful of men no doubt would step to her rescue, but then Amelia was a wealthy pretty--minx--not a widow. Widows were considered able to look after themselves, and certainly a match for an unwanted advance.
"Sir," she said, filling her voice with venom. "Let me pass."
She'd heard voices like his before. Émigrés with one thought on their mind, to marry wealthily to make up for all they had lost in France. Lazy foreigners, all of them, every man jack of them.
"Madame," she snapped. "We have not been introduced, sir. Such proprieties are no doubt unimportant in Paris these days, but here in England we are made of better things."
The infuriating man had the gall to smile again. "You mistake me...madame" he said with an over-exaggerated bow. "Your virtue is safe with me, which is rather the point of my private discourse."
"Hardly private!" The words were out of her mouth before she could stop herself.
"I can assure you, ma chére, we have more privacy--and are regarded with far less suspicion-- here than we would be if we attempted to find a more secluded place to talk."
"I have nothing to say to you. Let me pass."
"But I have something to say to you. I am sure a lady of your discernment, your experience saw through the little Slockholme's trap. I know that you and the distingue milor' Ambry are good friends, but I'm afraid that is all you two will ever be."
"He's already made that clear," she said, turning away and looking blindly out at the dancers. Mutton. It stung her more than she had thought it ever could.
"Oh, don't envy Miss Slockholme; all Ambry wants is a wife to cover his real attachment..."Louisa found herself listening despite herself. She refused to give the man the benefit of a response and kept quiet.
"Surely," he said, "you've noticed his partiality? Non? You surprise me. He isn't only susceptible to the fair sex, my dear. He dotes on the quite unfair sex aussi." Louisa frowned, baffled, and he gave a small laugh as if amused by her naïveté. "Ah, oui. How can I put it more delicately? Cherchez le homme."
"No," Louisa breathed. "No. It's not true. Richard...Richard and I..."
"Oh, he's very clever--and didn't you know, ma chére, that some men like both the grape and the grain? He will play the Hervey - surely you remember the stories of him? A leg in each camp, as they say. Smile, you've gone quite pale, you don't want people asking questions. Not now, do you?"
"I don't believe you," she said.
"Oh, it's quite true. Why do you think Richard was in the garden?" He produced the note that Amelia had dropped in the snow. "I saw him cast this aside when he was confronted. As you can see, it's most definitely addressed to him. And who is this Thomas? A pretty mystery, is it not?
Her hand shook as she read the note. It was a masculine hand. "What if I were to bring this to Ambry's notice? Ask him of this? I could denounce you..."
"I don't think you'd do that, Lady Carmichael. And believe me, if you were to do so, it would bring you no joy. To the world, you would be enmeshed in a most sordid complication… even if it were not true. Forget about him, Lady Louisa. Find yourself a man who can give you what you want." He touched her face gently, then swaggered off towards the conservatory.
After the man had gone, leaving her more breathless than she liked, she leaned against the moulded wall for a moment or two, thinking about what the man had said. Richard? No. It couldn't be. It was not to be countenanced, surely! They'd been lovers...surely to goodness it would be obvious? I am no ingenue, she thought, blood rushing to her head, making her cheeks glow with warmth. I know a man's touch, a man who wants me. I would...
But then she remembered the scandals around the ton over the past decade. Some she had been too young to understand until recently. Men who went abroad, leaving their wives behind, taking their devoted male friends or their secretaries. Conversations in drawing rooms with groups of dowagers which stilled the moment a certain fop or dandy entered the room, arm in arm with a close friend. Lord Hervey--a good many years before, but still the scandal lingered. He had been married, he had had children--and had kept a...friend (Louisa's mind shunned any word more coarse) for years.
His poor wife. That was what everyone said.
Well, I will not be an object of pity, she thought with savage decision. But I must know who...who was the man? She hurried towards the conservatory herself to catch up with the count and question him. Stepping into the huge glass space, she could hear voices. There were no lights here, only the light of the moon pouring in the windows, giving the huge tropical plants a monstrous appearance.
A male voice sounded loud in the echoing space. She couldn't quite make out the words, so she crept nearer. It wasn't a French voice, she could tell that much. "Yes. Kiss me again. Quickly. I can't be away long. You are sure it will work?"
What woman would be risking her reputation like this? Other than me, she added to herself. The question was answered for her as the very recognisable tones of the Comte followed.
"I guarantee it," the Comte's voice sounded muffled, as if pressed against...Louisa felt faint. There was a compunction to step forward. To see. But she resisted it with all her will and continued to listen. The men were quiet for half a minute and then the Comte continued.
"The note dropped made it even easier. It was the work of a minute to append Ambry's name to it. Now the path is free for the fair Amelia. Lord Ambry might have tried to protect himself against Amelia's accusations by using Lady Louisa Carmichael as a shield, but that door will now be firmly closed to him. Lady Carmichael will not sully her name further than she has to take a risk on a suspected sodomite, and she will, I'm sure, discreetly pass the information to any other eligible ladies. And once our dear little Amelia is ensconced as Lady Ambry--and realises just how she got there, and how easily we could tear her down again--we can begin to reap the benefits, both financial and otherwise. Amelia's pillow talk is famous--we'll have secrets pouring into our laps."
"You've done well," the other man said. Louisa didn't recognise the voice. "You'll find that the French government will not be ungenerous."
"As long as I get my pardon," the comte said, "and a ... small consideration."
"My dear Thomas, won't this do on account?" There was a rustle of clothing and Louisa took the opportunity to back away before she fainted dead away on the floor.
Richard. Oh, no. What on earth was she to do?