The Marquis and the Vixen

By: Collette Cameron

London, England, Late May, 1822

Flimflam and goose-butt feathers!

One hand hiding her mouth, Blythe Culpepper gaped as she trailed her cousin, Brooke, and Brooke’s husband, Heath, the Earl of Ravensdale, into the mansion.

Surely that wasn’t authentic gold gilding the ornate cornices? Squinting to see better, she surveyed the grand entrance. Yes. It is.

And not just the sculpted cornices either. The plasterwork and practically every other surface, excluding the coffered ceiling’s elaborate paintings and the rose-tinted marble floor, boasted the shiny adornment.

Everything pink and gold and glittery. And costly.

“What a despicable waste of money.” Flinging Heath a hasty glance, Blythe checked her muttering. It wouldn’t do to offend him or their hostess within a minute of arrival.

The peeress, swathed in gold satin and dripping in diamonds—three diamond bracelets? On each wrist?—stood beside an enormous urn. Blythe fought the scowl tugging at her mouth and brows. Disgusting, this brazen flaunting of wealth.

Clamping her slack mouth closed, she reluctantly passed a waiting footman her silk wrap. A chill shook her, puckering her flesh from forearms to shoulders. Maddening nerves. She hadn’t expected the pomp, or the mob’s crush, to affect her.

A simple teardrop-shaped beryl pendant nestled at the juncture of her breasts, and Blythe pressed a hand to the expanse of flesh exposed above her wide, square neckline. Did she dare tug the bodice higher? After dressing, she’d attempted to, but the fabric had remained stubbornly form-fitting, the slopes of her bosoms pushed skyward for the world to ogle at their leisure.

Repressing a scornful grunt, she tipped her mouth a fraction. In twenty years, the smallish, twin pillows had never garnered much ogling. Probably little need to fret in that regard.

Tripping over her gown remained an entirely different matter.

Her secondhand garments had always been too short for her tall frame. Since exiting the carriage, this ball gown—its sheer silk overdress atop the yellow jonquil swirling about her feet—had become snared thrice upon her slippers’ decorated tops.

She would have to endure these outings for the remainder of the Season, and she didn’t relish sprawling, bum upward, before the ton’s denizens. Tapping her fan against her thigh, she estimated how many public jaunts the Season might entail and hid an unladylike groan behind an indelicate cough.

God spare her.

The instant the final dance note faded, she planned on trotting back to the country’s quiet civility—to the humble, familiar way of life she preferred. Or perhaps she’d contrive a minor scandal. Nothing too ruinous, merely shameful enough to see her banished in moderate disgrace.

Yes, that might do.

This gaudy, glistening parade quite shred her normally robust nerves. A calculated, hasty departure might be just the thing. After all, she hadn’t come to London to marry. Acquiring a husband ranked below cleaning the chamber pots and mucking the stalls on her to-do list. Unless, of course, she found a man who adored her the way Heath cherished Brooke.

Fanciful imagining, that. Stuff and nonsense. Fairy-tales. At least for Blythe.

According to Mama, even as a toddler, Blythe had possessed a determined—some might say daunting—personality. Now, as an adult, the unfeminine characteristic chaffed men’s arses and patience raw. No one who knew her had ever used acquiescent and her name in the same sentence, and she wouldn’t scheme to snare a husband with false biddableness.

Humbly accepting the dowry Heath had bestowed upon her hadn’t made the prospect of wedding more tempting, and though grateful for his generosity, she couldn’t expect him to provide for her indefinitely. In a month, she’d be of age and free to make her own decisions, which included returning to Culpepper Park and the new house Brooke had commissioned.

Somehow, Blythe would eke out an existence there. A slight shudder rippled the length of her spine. No more giving music lessons though. At least not to spoilt brattlings like the vicar’s daughters. For five interminable years, she’d endured that trial.

With a determined tilt of her head, she sucked in a calming breath and returned Heath’s encouraging smile.

He and Brooke preceded Blythe and her cousin, Brette, into the immense entry. Blythe’s twin sisters, Blaire and Blaike, slowly wandered in wearing identical wide-eyed, stunned expressions.