Sloane: THE DEVIL IN DISGUISE
Lady Lucinda Grey had not precisely decided what she would do if the overly eager Matthew Redding, Lord Cuthbert, compared her eyes to the Aegean Sea. Or the most brilliant of sapphires. It had all been said before and—Lucinda admitted with a stab of regret—in much more creative ways than poor Lord Cuthbert could ever dare dream.
“I shall faint, I believe,” she said succinctly, straightening the Alençon lace fichu neatly tucked into her jonquille gown.
Lord Cuthbert stopped ogling Lucinda’s bosom abruptly, a look of confusion clouding his round face. “I beg your pardon?”
Lucinda realized her earnest suitor clearly felt he’d reached the point in his seduction where she should have been dizzy with anticipation and too caught up in the moment to speak.
“Lord Cuthbert, I do apologize,” she offered, taking advantage of the moment to discreetly reclaim her hand from his damp gloved grasp. She slid to the end of the settee, putting two feet of gold damask cushion between them. “Pray continue.”
Lucinda felt compelled to see this thing through, despite the temptation to feign what would surely be a spectacular fainting spell. Lord Cuthbert’s fumbling attempt at romance was, she realized, not unlike happening upon a carriage accident; be it concern or distasteful fascination, one simply could not look away.
Nor faint away, she acknowledged with a frustrated sigh.
Over the last few weeks, Lucinda had acquired far more experience with this sort of thing than she could have ever imagined or wished to endure. The endless parade of suitors who had found themselves on her doorstep this season had been uninspiring, to say the least.
This was all her dear friend Amelia’s fault, of course, Lucinda reflected as Lord Cuthbert droned on. If Amelia hadn’t married the Earl of Northrop last year and if the couple had not displayed a love so wide and vast that those observing wondered if they might very well be lost forever . . . well, Lucinda would not be in this predicament.
A fellow ape leader for the last several seasons, Amelia had, until the altogether unexpected appearance of the earl, been a staunch supporter of a woman’s right to peace. And quiet. And sanity. In other terms, a woman’s right not to marry.
“If only Lord Northrop had not worn Amelia down,” Lucinda muttered under her breath, causing not even the slightest pause from the windbag before her.
Lord Cuthbert was completely absorbed in his rehearsed speech, which left her free to return to her contemplation of the events that had led to his presence in her parlor.
Discreetly counting the winged cherubs that inhabited the plaster ceiling in force, Lucinda begrudgingly admitted that Lord Northrup had not precisely worn Amelia down. Not exactly. That was to say, not at all. On the day the two met it was as if the heavens echoed with the cries of angels—and Cupid himself nearly collapsed from the joy of uniting such a pair.
Uncharitable and unkind, Lucinda mentally chided herself. She adored Amelia as though she were her own sister. To be unhappy over her newfound marital bliss would be inexcusable. And in all honesty, Lucinda was pleased for her friend. It was just that they had both been so convinced that love was a ruse, invented to keep the poets out of trouble. And now one had only to look upon Amelia and her new husband to know that they’d been utterly wrong.
But the real difficulty was that—London being London— Amelia’s blissful state meant that the entirety of polite society assumed Lucinda would follow suit and be felled by love as well.
Frankly, Lucinda found the whole thing somewhat alarming.
And Amelia was no help. Utterly smitten and convinced Lucinda should share her happiness, she had done nothing to defend her friend and dispel the ton’s false assumption. On the contrary, she’d worked feverishly to provide every opportunity for Lucinda to achieve an equally sublime level of bliss. And after count- less prospects, all of which had been met with what could be politely called mild disappointment on Lucinda’s part, Amelia had grown desperate.
Which was how Lucinda had arrived at this moment with Lord Cuthbert, forced by good manners to endure his declaration of undying affection.
Cuthbert’s patting of his mud brown hair into place pulled Lucinda from her thoughts. Clearing his throat with theatrical emphasis, he continued his attempts at poetic flattery. “Lady Lucinda, your eyes are, to be sure, the bluest of blues that I’ve ever encountered. Truly, without a doubt.”
She stared at him. She did not know what to say.
He blinked. “Quite blue. Really, truly very blue.”
And in that moment, Lucinda realized that there was only so much a lady of reasonable intelligence could be expected to endure.
“My lord,” she began, rising from the settee and smoothing the fine lawn skirt of her morning gown, “I fear our time together is at an end.”
Cuthbert practically jumped from his seat. He stepped clumsily toward Lucinda, stopping mere inches from her. “Lady Lucinda, are you well?”
It was just the cue she needed. She’d faced much worse from importunate suitors over the last three weeks and hadn’t a doubt her dramatic flair would serve her well in this instance. “I seem to . . . that is to say . . .” She hesitated, swaying ever so slightly while raising her hand to her temple. “I must retire. Immediately, if not sooner.”
Cuthbert seemed to take this latest development as an opportunity, moving to stand unbearably close. He placed his hand at the small of her back. “My dear lady, you must tell me what you need and I will fetch it at once.”
He was determinedly solicitous; Lucinda had to commend him for that. She was going to have to skip to the coup d’etat.
“Lord Cuthbert,” she said, pausing to give what she hoped was a convulsive swallow. “I feel obligated to inform you that I fear I shall cast up my accounts at any moment. And I would so hate to ruin your extremely unique puce waistcoat.”
Cuthbert nearly shoved Lucinda to the settee in his eagerness to escape the baptism. He bounded across the room to reach a small armchair where Lucinda’s maid, Mary, was seated. “Attend to your mistress,” he barked. “At once.”
“My lady,” Mary said quickly, shaking herself from what clearly had been a pleasant daydream and standing.
Lucinda bit back a smile and focused her gaze on Cuthbert. “Thank you, my lord, you’re most kind.”
Clearly his fondness for the puce brocade far outweighed his affection for Lucinda. He backed quickly toward the doorway. “Of course, of course. I’ll call again at a more convenient time.”
Lucinda’s butler, Stanford, appeared with such alac- rity it was apparent he’d been waiting just outside in the hall.
“My lord,” the stony-faced butler intoned. His emotionless gaze focused on the gilded mirror just beyond Cuthbert’s large head.
Lord Cuthbert bowed before falling into step behind Stanford.
Mary closed the door quietly.
“He was the worst by far. What on earth could Amelia have been thinking?” Lucinda said, exasperation clear in her voice as she stood.
“That you’ve refused every eligible man in London under the age of seventy?” Mary answered, her years of service to Lucinda evident in her impertinent answer.
Lucinda laughed, Mary’s blunt observance easing the annoyance of the last half hour.
“I do believe Lord Mayborn is actually three-and-seventy.” Lucinda said. “And I highly doubt I’ve made the acquaintance of ‘every eligible man’ in the entire city. Surely there are at least one or two more for Amelia to proffer up in her quest for my everlasting happiness.”
“I’ve heard Lord Thorp’s son is available,” Mary answered, peering into the now silent hall before holding the door wide for Lucinda.
Amused, Lucinda arched an eyebrow at her maid’s too innocent expression. “I prefer my men properly attired, which does not include apron strings. And while I do like a good challenge,” she added dryly as she crossed the threshold, “I fear the twenty-year gap in our ages would prove to be an obstacle even I could not overcome.
“Hmph,” Mary said with unshakable calm as she followed her mistress out of the room. “You’ve no romance in you, Lady Lucinda. Not at all.”
“Well, when it comes to infants, I’d have to agree with you,” Lucinda answered over her shoulder as she walked toward the staircase.
Mary hmphed again. “Don’t play coy with me, miss.”
Lucinda stifled a grin at Mary’s curt tone. “Oh, Mary. It’s just not true and you know it.”
“Really, now?” the servant answered, the sarcasm somewhat lost in her rough Liverpool accent.
Lucinda mounted the carpeted stairs. “Really,” she confirmed. And it was the truth. She believed in romance as it pertained to the likes of Anthony and Cleopatra, Henry VIII and Ann Boleyn, Arthur and Guinevere, Amelia and John—though the tragic endings of all but her dear friend’s relationship were unsettling, to say the least.
I really must remember to mention this to Amelia, she mentally took note, reaching out to skim the smooth marble balustrade.
The point was, romance was all well and good for others. It simply was not for Lucinda. She did not need a man to make her life complete. Nor did she particularly want one, the emotional upheaval and mercurial behavior that seemed to accompany love something that she neither understood nor desired.
“I’ll have to take your word for it, I suppose,” Mary answered unconvincingly, then gestured for her lady to continue up the stairs, swatting at her derriere when she did so and eliciting a hoot of laughter from Lucinda.
Excerpted from The Devil in Disguise by Stefanie Sloane. Copyright © 2011 by Stefanie Sloane. Excerpted by permission of Ballantine Books, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.