Deliciously Debauched by the Rake(4)

By: Ann Lethbridge

The thought made her sick to her stomach.

“Are you all right, my dear?” Miss Barnhurst asked. Dear old Barny had welcomed her with open arms. She’d been Elizabeth’s governess in happier times, before she’d married her old rich husband. A mean old skinflint who, because she had not produced the expected heir, had left her penniless.

Elizabeth’s brother had offered to find another husband. Another man like her first. And when she’d refused, he, too, had cast her off. Barny had taken her in, despite her own dire circumstances. So Elizabeth had shared her good fortune with the woman she now considered her friend.

“Well enough,” Elizabeth said with a smile she was proud of as she let her gaze wander the slowly filling pit. Several gentlemen caught her eye and bowed low. She acknowledged their homage with the merest inclination of her head. It would not do to appear too eager. Men want what they think they cannot have another courtesan had told her once.

But it hadn’t been like that between her and John. The artifice. The skill of the hunt and the capture. The moment he had walked into her box, this very box, she had known he was the one.

She scanned the boxes opposite. A few contained parties of ladies and gentlemen. Some were empty. But it was early yet. Young gentlemen on the town rarely arrived for the opening curtain.

Her hand convulsed around the handle of her fan. They would ogle her. Send flowers and messages, and she would greet a few of them discretely in the shadowy recesses of her box. The presence of Miss Barnhurst and the burly footman she’d hired for the purpose would prevent any unwelcome advances from young men in their cups.

She just hoped John would see where his duty lay quickly so she could retire to the cottage in the country she was in the process of purchasing for her and Barny.

A stir opposite brought her woolgathering to a halt. A party of men and women were taking their places. Her gaze honed in on a familiar tall lean figure.

“Oh, dear,” Barney said. “How unfortunate.”

John. A breath caught in her throat at the searing pain of recognition. Careful not to catch his eye, or to appear to notice him at all, Elizabeth smiled and waited for the ache to reduce to a manageable level. She rapped Barney’s sleeve with her fan. “Not unfortunate at all.” She leaned close to her friend as if whispering a secret. “It is perfect. Just as I hoped.”

She tilted her head as she once more let her gaze wander the pit. She caught the eye of a very young blond gentleman. Not someone she knew, but clearly a young man of means. He doffed his hat and bowed low.

She inclined her head regally. A queen accepting homage from a courtier who just might be awarded the honor of her company.

His friends hooted and made obviously lewd remarks. The young man grinned. He would call on her in the intermission. Of that she had no doubt. The curtain rose and Elizabeth kept her gaze fixed on the stage. Nothing more was required of her than to be seen alone. Her dress with its revealing scoop, the paint on her face, her come-hither smile affixed to her face provided all the information anyone needed.

Yet she could not help watching the box opposite from the corner of her eye. Not once did John look her way as far as she could tell. Every nerve in her body tingled with awareness. Of him. But the party he was with was respectable. A man and his wife, two lovely young women, one dark, one fair, and both hanging on his lips.

John wasn’t a fool. He knew where his duty lay and it seemed that all he’d needed was a bit of a push. She’d been right, they had been too comfortable.

The pain around her heart was regret. Over time it would lessen.

It must, for it made it very difficult to breathe.

Chapter Two

“Flowers for Lady Elizabeth,” Broom, her footman, said. The beefy young man had been presenting her with calling cards since the moment intermission started. For all Elizabeth knew there was a line outside her box of eager gentlemen, young and old. Some of the names she recognized. Some she did not.

“Who on earth sent flowers?” Their heady perfume filled her box.

He laid the bouquet on an empty chair and handed Elizabeth the accompanying card.

“Well, are you going to let any of them in?” Barny’s corrugated lips pursed in disapproval and worry.

Elizabeth glanced over at the opposite box. John was back, having brought refreshments to the young ladies, who seemed dazzled by his presence.

She held the card up to the light from the candles suspended from the front of the box above. “‘George Francis,’” she read. She raised a brow. “Do you know anyone by the family name of Francis, Barny?”

As a governess, it had been Barny’s job to know all the branches of noble families, first and second tier. The older lady shook her head. “Not that I recall. I will have to consult Debretts.”

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