Midnight Pleasures with a Scoundrel(Scoundrels of St. James,Book 4)(24) by Lorraine Heath
By the time she reached the bottom of the stairs, she’d regained control of her breathing and calmed the tremors that had been dancing through her. She entered the parlor and the duchess rose gracefully from the chair. A young lady, obviously a servant, also came to her feet. The duchess smiled softly. “Miss Watkins.”
Eleanor curtsied. “Your Grace.”
She didn’t know what to say beyond that. Should she be forthright and ask why she’d come to call or should she simply wait? Had Elisabeth suffered through these moments of insecurity, of not knowing the exact behavior that was expected? Was that how Rockberry had managed to lure her into hell? Eleanor fought not to show the anger she felt with her father at the thought. If only he’d brought them to London on occasion, if only he’d exposed them to more of the world, Elisabeth might still be alive, they might all be happier. She herself might have had an opportunity to be properly courted as well.
“I must apologize for arriving at an inappropriate hour, but I feared if I waited until afternoon, I wouldn’t have enough time to accomplish all I wish to. I’ve come to beg a favor of you,” the duchess said.
“I’m not certain how I could be of service.”
Unexpectedly, the duchess stepped forward and took Eleanor’s hands. “I’m a dear friend of James Swindler. I believe he’s mentioned me. We grew up on the streets together. I know he’s been calling on you. I’m holding a ball this evening. I’ve invited Mr. Swindler. I was hoping you’d do me the honor of attending as well.”
To attend a ball, a duchess’s ball at that. Eleanor hardly knew what to say, other than the truth. “I fear I have nothing to wear.”
“I thought that might be the case. Jim mentioned that you had no sponsor and weren’t making the rounds. He also described you to me—quite accurately, if I may say—so I took the liberty of selecting one of my gowns that I think would look lovely with your complexion. You’re a bit smaller than I am, but Agnes here, my lady’s maid, is quite skilled with a needle. She could make alterations.”
“Oh.” Once again she hardly knew what to say. It was only then that she noticed the large long box resting on the sofa.
The duchess squeezed Eleanor’s hands, which she’d yet to relinquish. “I hope you’ll forgive me. I may be playing a bit of matchmaker. Jim has never spoken to me about another lady, so I know you must be very special indeed.”
Eleanor’s stomach tightened into a painful knot. This was what she’d wanted, but now that the moment was here…
The duchess seemed to sense her hesitation. “Why don’t we have a look at this gown, shall we? If it doesn’t please you, we can select another.”
How could it not please her? Eleanor thought as Agnes pulled it out of the box and held up the white gown edged in pink satin with tiny satin flowers adorning the skirt. “It takes my breath it’s so lovely.”
“I thought you might like it,” the duchess said.
“I hardly know what to say.”
“Say you’ll attend.”
Eleanor couldn’t stop her triumphant smile. “I’ll attend.”
Mrs. Potter joined them several minutes later with tea—and cakes. While it was not her usual habit to impose when her tenants had guests, she seemed unable to get beyond the notion that she had a duchess sitting in her parlor, sipping tea, nibbling on a cake, and chatting as though they were all familiar friends. The duchess had such an unassuming manner that Eleanor had little doubt she charmed anyone she encountered. For someone not born into the aristocracy, the duchess had adapted very well to her elevated position in society. Eleanor was left to wonder if she might have adapted as well if she, instead of Elisabeth, had been the one her father had chosen to send to London first. Or would she have been as naive as Elisabeth and followed her footsteps toward disaster?
“I’ve enjoyed the visit so much,” the duchess finally said, “but I fear I must be off. I’ll leave Agnes with you, so she can alter the gown as needed.” She rose and everyone came to their feet as well. “I’m leaving a carriage for Agnes and shall send one ‘round for you at half past eight, if that pleases you.”
“It pleases me very much,” Eleanor said.
Once again the duchess took her hands. “I think it shall please Jim as well.”
After the duchess left, Eleanor and Agnes retired to Eleanor’s rooms. The gown required very few alterations, but the duchess had been correct. Agnes was deft with the needle. A couple of hours later, when the work was finished, Eleanor stood in front of the cheval glass, admiring her reflection. The sleeveless gown’s low cut revealed an enticing bit of cleavage. The duchess had provided long gloves that went past Eleanor’s elbows, and pearled pink slippers.
“I could prepare your hair before I leave,” Agnes offered.
Eleanor shook her head. “No, thank you. I shall probably take a short nap before I begin final preparations. These affairs usually go late into the night, don’t they?”
“I know the ones Lady Catherine gave lasted well past midnight. She’s been helping Her Grace with the arrangements so I suspect this one shall as well.”
Eleanor smiled at herself in the mirror. She wondered if Lord Rockberry had been invited. If she had her way, tonight would be the night that he got his comeuppance.
Eleanor has accepted my invitation. I’ve promised to send a carriage ’round for her at half past eight. Send word if you’d rather do the honors.
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