'It was eleven o'clock, Gray,' Sebastian pointed out as he expertly handled the matching greys stepping out lively in front of his curricle.
'As far as I am concerned, any hour before midday is the crack of dawn,' Lord Gideon Grayson—Gray to his closest friends—assured him dourly as he huddled down on the seat beside him, the high collar of his fashionably cut jacket snug about his ears despite the warmth of this August summer day. 'I barely had time to wake, let alone enjoy my breakfast.'
'Kippers, eggs and toast, accompanied by two pots of strong coffee,' Sebastian said cheerfully. All eaten, as I recall, while you perused today's newspaper.'
'My valet was rushed through my ablutions, and…'
Sebastian stopped listening to Gray's complaints at this point. He was too full of anticipation at the prospect of the challenge of seducing Juliet Boyd to allow anything— or anyone—to shake him out of his good temper.
'… and now my closest friend in the world is so bored by my company that after dragging me forcibly from my own bed and home he cannot even be bothered listening to me!' Gray scowled up at him censoriously.
Sebastian gave an unrepentant grin as he glanced down at the other man. 'When you have something interesting to say, Gray, I assure you I will listen.'
'Could you at least try to be a little less cheerful?' his friend muttered sourly. 'I do believe I am feeling a little delicate this morning.'
'A self-inflicted delicacy!' The two men had done the rounds of the drinking and gambling clubs yesterday evening—Sebastian had won, Gray had not—after which his friend had left to spend several hours in the bed of his current mistress, before returning to his home in the not-so-early hours.
'You are in disgustingly good humour this morning, Seb.' Gray gave another wince. 'Have you taken a new mistress to replace Lady Hawtry?'
'Not yet.' Sebastian grinned wolfishly. 'But I intend doing so in the next two weeks.'
'Oh, I say!' Gray's interest quickened. 'I hope you are not intending to try your luck with Dolly Bancroft during your stay at Banford Park? I warn you, next to your brother Lucian and yourself, Bancroft is the best swordsman in England!'
'You may rest easy concerning both my interest in Dolly's bedchamber and Bancroft's prowess with the sword,' Sebastian assured him dryly. 'Dolly and I are no more than friends and never will be.' Especially now that he knew Dolly had been bedded by both his brothers!
Gray arched a dark brow. 'But you admit there is a lady involved in our uncharacteristic behaviour in attending a summer house party?'
'Of course,' Sebastian drawled, but he had no intention of sharing his particular interest in bedding the newly widowed Countess of Crestwood.
'Tell me I do not see the parson's mousetrap snapping at your booted heels…' Gray mocked.
Sebastian gave a humourless laugh. 'You most assuredly do not.' He was even more determined to avoid that state after seeing both his brothers succumb over the last year.
'I must say neither of your brothers seems to mind it so much.' Gray's thoughts travelled the same path. 'I am not sure that I should mind, either, if I had one of their wives for my own!'
'In that case, feel free to find your own wife, Gray,' Sebastian jeered. 'But for goodness' sake, do not attempt to find one for me.' His interest in any woman, Juliet Boyd included, did not include marriage!
'Yes, Sebastian, she has arrived.' Dolly answered his silent question once the greetings were over and Gray had departed to the library to share a glass of reviving brandy with his host. 'She has asked for tea in her bedchamber, however, and has every intention of staying there until it is time to come down for dinner. But I have given you adjoining bedchambers. The balconies of your rooms are connected also,' she confided warmly.
Sebastian smiled his satisfaction with the arrangement. 'I trust I will be seated next to her at dinner too?'
'Sebastian, I amnot sure your interest in the Countess is altogether wise…' Dolly suddenly looked troubled.
'If it were "wise", Dolly, I doubt I should wish to pursue it!' he teased. 'Now, if I have your permission, I believe I would like to retire to my own bedchamber and rest a little before dinner.'
'Rest?' His hostess's brow arched speculatively.
'I assure you I have no intention of intruding upon the privacy of the lady before we have even been formally introduced,' he pointed out.
'That will come later, one assumes?' Dolly teased.
'Hopefully, yes,' Sebastian murmured.
There had been many rumours circulating about the Countess of Crestwood since her husband's sudden death—most of them unpleasant, to say the least. But none of them had even hinted at her ever being involved in a liaison with another man, either before or during her marriage. Or, indeed, since her marriage had ended….
So Sebastian spent the hours before dinner resting in his bedchamber, all the time aware that the beautiful but elusive Juliet Boyd was in the room adjoining his. All was silent behind the closed lace curtains at the windows, however, and the French doors into her bedchamber from the balcony remained firmly shut against the warmth of the day.
But she had accepted the invitation, as Dolly had said she would. And Juliet could not remain in her bedchamber for the whole of her stay here….
Juliet had never felt so nervous as she stood hesitantly in the cavernous hallway of Banford Park, delaying her entrance into the drawing room, where the other guests of the Countess and Earl of Banford could be heard chattering and laughing together as they gathered before dinner.
Dolly Bancroft had been very welcoming upon Juliet's arrival that afternoon. William Bancroft had been equally charming.
No, it was not her host and hostess's lack of welcome that Juliet feared, but the reactions of their other guests, once they realised that Juliet Boyd, Countess of Crest-wood, was amongst their number. For Dolly's sake, Juliet sincerely hoped that none of those guests decided to depart once they realised they were to share their stay here with the 'Black Widow', as Juliet was all too aware she had been cruelly labelled after her husband's death.
She should not have agreed to come here, Juliet told herself, for what had to be the hundredth time since accepting the invitation. Much as she might have wanted to give Helena a little treat after their long period of enforced mourning, Juliet knew she should not have allowed herself to be persuaded into believing that these two weeks at Banford Park was the means by which to do it.
Perhaps she would have felt differently if she had been able to have the fiercely protective Helena at her side. Instead Helena had done as she had said she would, and accompanied Juliet as her maid—a role her cousin seemed to be enjoying immensely. She had cheerfully left Juliet's bedchamber a few minutes ago, after first dressing her hair and helping her into her gown, to go upstairs and gossip with the other maids.
'Will you allow me the honour of escorting you into the drawing room, Lady Boyd?'
Juliet turned sharply, relaxing slightly when she saw that it was her host who stood solicitously beside her, proffering his arm. A tall and handsome man in his fifties, who now looked down at her with shrewd hazel eyes, the Earl reminded Juliet very much of her father.
'I was just admiring this portrait.' Juliet glanced up at the painting upon the wall which she had, in truth, only just noticed.
'My great-grandfather—the seventh Earl of Banford.' The Earl nodded. 'A singularly ugly man, was he not?' he drawled disparagingly.
Juliet could not help the chuckle that escaped her lips; the seventh Earl had indeed been a very unattractive man!
'Shall we…?' His great-grandson, the tenth earl, offered her his arm a second time.
'Thank you,' Juliet accepted shyly, and placed her gloved hand on top of that arm.
She had chosen to wear a fashionably high-waisted gown of dark grey silk this evening, with only the barest hint of Brussels lace at her bosom and around the edges of the short puffed sleeves. A row of pearls was entwined amongst her dark curls, her only other jewellery matching ear-bobs and the plain gold wedding band on her left hand.
Juliet would have liked to remove even this symbol of Edward's ownership of her, but knew that would only add to the speculation that had followed so quickly after Edward's death and still remained rife.
Although she very much doubted that the wearing of her wedding band or the demure style of the grey silk gown would make the slightest difference to the gossip that was sure to ensue the moment her presence here was known!
'My wife always maintains that it is best to do exactly that which pleases oneself. On the premise, I believe, that it is impossible to please all people all the time,' the Earl confided.
Juliet turned to give him a startled glance. 'It has been my experience that it is impossible to please any of the ton any of the time!' Juliet murmured, some of the tension easing from her slender shoulders. 'Did your wife also suggest that it might be beneficial if you were to wait out here in the hallway this evening in order that you might gallantly offer to escort me into the drawing room?'
The Earl gave a inclination of his head. 'I do believe she may have mentioned some such thing, yes.'
Juliet gave a husky laugh. 'You are too kind, My Lord.'
'On the contrary, my dear, I consider myself deeply honoured,' he replied. 'Now, let us go into the drawing room and set the tongues a wagging, hmm?' He encouraged her almost as gleefully as his wife might have done.
It seemed to Juliet as if all eyes suddenly turned in the direction of the doorway as she entered the room on the arm of the Earl of Banford, the conversation faltering. Then Dolly swiftly filled that silence by engaging in conversation with the handsome and fashionably attired young man standing beside her.
A young man who stared boldly at Juliet, with unfathomable whisky-coloured eyes….
Sebastian was barely aware of Dolly's conversation as, along with all others present, he stared across the room as the Countess of Crestwood entered on the arm of their host.
She was incredibly beautiful—even more so than when Sebastian had last seen her, at some ball or other a couple of years ago, and his interest in her had first been piqued.
He became aware of the finer details about her. Such as the rich darkness of her hair and the entwined string of pearls. The smoothness of her brow. The thick lashes that edged eyes of the deepest green. Her small, perfect nose. The pouting bow of her sensuously full lips. The proud and slightly challenging uplift of her little pointed chin.
Her breasts were as full as ever, and they spilled creamily against pale grey lace, but her waist and hips appeared more willowy than when he had last seen her across that crowded ballroom, and the skin at the swell of her breasts, throat and arms was as translucently pale as the pearls in her hair.
'I advise that you close your mouth, Sebastian— before the drool threatens to spoil the perfection of your cravat!' Dolly whispered beside him in soft mockery, bringing a dark scowl to Sebastian's face as he realised Dolly had a point. He had been staring intently at Lady Boyd for several minutes.
Had anyone else but Dolly noticed his marked interest? he wondered, disgusted with himself. A quick glance at his fellow guests assured him that their interest was as engaged on the lady as his own had been.
'It is time for us to go into dinner,' Dolly informed him as she received a nod from her butler, where he stood discreetly in the doorway. 'Bancroft will be escorting his mother, the Dowager Countess, of course. Might I suggest, as the two of you are sitting together, that you offer your own arm to the Countess of Crestwood?'
Having been staring so intently at Juliet Boyd, Sebastian now found himself momentarily disconcerted by Dolly's suggestion. But only momentarily. Was he not the rich and eligible Lord Sebastian St Claire, brother of a Duke? Moreover, at the age of seven and twenty, had he not been considered by all the female members of the ton—debutantes and matrons alike—as the foremost catch of the Season, since both of his brothers had proved themselves unavailable by taking a wife?
More importantly, meeting Juliet was the only reason he had come here—so what was he waiting for…?
Despite the Earl of Banford's presence at her side, Juliet's appearance in the drawing room had been as dramatic as she had feared it might.
Following that initial stunned silence a muted conversation had been resumed by the female guests, at least, as they gossiped in whispers behind their spread fans. The male guests had been less quick to hide their surprise at her appearance here, and for the main part had just continued to openly stare at her.
One man in particular…
An arrogantly handsome man, dressed in the height of fashion in tailored black evening clothes, a grey waistcoat and snowy white linen. The same man with whom Dolly Bancroft had endeavoured to make conversation when Juliet first entered the drawing room.
The very same man who had made absolutely no effort to disguise his inattentiveness to that conversation as he'd continued to stare at Juliet with narrowed, enigmatic eyes. Rather beautiful long-lashed eyes, the colour of the mellow whisky her father had once favoured, Juliet couldn't help noticing admiringly.
She had expected the frosty disdain of the ton this evening. Had been prepared for that reaction. To find herself being regarded so familiarly by a man she did not even know, and who was obviously nothing more than a fashionable rake, did not sit well with her. It did not sit well at all!
Juliet's already ruffled calm deserted her totally as she saw Dolly take a firm hold of the man's arm and push him slightly in her direction. Was her intention to have him cross the room and offer to escort Juliet into dinner? An intention, for all the previous familiarity of the man's gaze, that he surely could not welcome!
Juliet snapped her fan open in front of her before she turned her back on the pair to engage the Earl in conversation. 'It seems that we have succeeded in creating something of a stir amongst your other guests despite your efforts, My Lord,' she bit out tartly. The humiliation of having a man forced to escort her into dinner burned beneath the surface of her emotions.
No matter how kindly meant Dolly Bancroft's invitation had been, Juliet knew she should not have allowed herself to be persuaded into coming here!
Excerpted from The Rogue's Disgraced Lady by Carole Mortimer Copyright © 2010 by Carole Mortimer. Excerpted by permission.
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