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Hannah Reid, Duchess of Dunbarton, was free at last. Free of the burden of a ten-year marriage, and free of the endlessly tedious year of deep mourning that had succeeded the death of the duke, her husband.
It was a freedom that had been a long time coming. It was a freedom well worth celebrating.
She had married the duke after a five-day acquaintancehis grace, all impatience to be wed, had procured a special license rather than wait for the banns to be readwhen she was nineteen and he was somewhere in his seventies. No one seemed certain ofexactly where in his seventies that had been, though some said it was perilously close to eighty. At the time of her marriage, the duchess was a breathtakingly lovely girl, with a slender, lithe figure, eyes that rivaled a summer sky for blueness, a bright,eager face made for smiling, and long, wavy tresses that were almost white in their blondnessa shimmering white. The duke, on the other hand, had a body and face and head that showed all the ravages of age that time and years of hard living could possiblyhave piled upon them. And he suffered from gout. And from a heart that could no longer be relied upon to continue beating with steady regularity.
She married him for his money, of course, expecting to be a very rich widow indeed within a matter of a few short years at most. She was a rich widow now, quite fabulously wealthy, in fact, though she had had to wait longer than expected for the freedomto enjoy her riches to the full.
The old duke had worshiped the ground she walked upon, to use the old cliche. He had heaped so many costly clothes upon her person that she would have suffocated beneath their weight if she had ever tried to wear them all at once. A guest room next toher dressing room at Dunbarton House on Hanover Square in London had been converted into a second dressing room merely to accommodate all the silks and satins and fursamong other garments and accessoriesthat had been worn once, perhaps twice, before beingdiscarded for something newer. And the duke had had not one, not two, not even three, but four safes built into the walls of his own bedchamber to safeguard all the jewels with which he gifted his beloved over the years, though she was perfectly free to comeand fetch whichever of them she chose to wear at any time.
He had been a doting, indulgent husband.
The duchess was always gorgeously dressed. And she was always bedecked with jewels, ostentatiously large ones, usually diamonds. She wore them in her hair, in the lobes of her ears, at her bosom, on her wrists, on more than one of the fingers of each hand.
The duke showed off his prize wherever he went, beaming with pride and adoration as he looked up at her. In his prime he would have been taller than she, but age had bent him and a cane supported him, and for much of his time he sat. His duchess did notstray far from his side when they were together, even when they were at a ball and prospective partners abounded. She tended him with her characteristic half-smile playing always about her lovely lips. She was always the picture of wifely devotion on such occasions.Nobody could deny that.
When the duke could not go out himselfand it became increasingly difficult for him to do so as the years went onthen other men escorted his duchess to the social events with which the ton amused itself whenever it was in town in large numbers. Therewere three in particularLord Hardingraye, Sir Bradley Bentley, and Viscount Zimmerall handsome, elegant, charming gentlemen. It was common knowledge that they enjoyed her company and that she enjoyed theirs. And no one was ever in any doubt of what wasincluded in that enjoyment. The only detail people wondered aboutand wonder they did, of course, without ever reaching a satisfactory conclusionwas whether all that pleasure was enjoyed with the duke's knowledge or without.
There were some who even dared wonder if it was all done with the duke's blessing. But deliciously scandalous as it might have been to believe so, most people actually liked the dukeespecially as he was now elderly and therefore deserving of pityandpreferred to see him as a poor wronged old man. The same people liked to refer to the duchess as that diamond-laden gold digger, often with the addition of who is no better than she ought to be. Those people tended to be female.
And then the duchess's dazzling social life and scandalous loves and dreary incarceration in a union with an aged, ailing husband had all ended abruptly with the duke's ultimately sudden demise from a heart seizure early one morning. Though it was notnearly as early in the marriage as the duchess had hoped and expected, of course. She had her fortune at last, but she had paid dearly for it. She had paid with her youth. She was twenty-nine when he died, thirty when she left off her mourning soon after Christmasat Copeland, her country home in Kent that the duke had bought for her so that she would not have to leave when he died and his nephew took over his title and all his entailed properties. Copeland Manor was its full name, though the house was more mansion thanthe name implied and was surrounded by a correspondingly large park.
And so, at the age of thirty, the best years of her youth behind her, the Duchess of Dunbarton was free at last. And wealthy beyond belief. And very ready to celebrate her freedom. As soon as Easter had come and gone, she moved to London and settled infor the Season. It was at Dunbarton House she settled, the new duke being a genial man of middle years who preferred tramping about the country counting his sheep to being in town sitting in the Upper House of Parliament listening to his peers prosing on foreverabout matters that might be of crucial importance to the country and even the world but were of no interest whatsoever to him. Politicians were all prize bores, he would tell anyone who cared to listen. And being a man without a wife, he had no one to pointout to him that sitting in the Upper House was only the most minor of reasons for the spring gathering of the ton in London. The duchess might occupy Dunbarton House and have a ball there every night with his blessing. And so he informed her. Provided, thatwas, she did not send him the bills.
That last was a comment typical of his rather parsimonious nature. The duchess had no need to send her bills to anyone. She was enormously wealthy in her own right. She could pay them herself.
She might be past her youth, and really thirty was a quite nasty age for a woman, but she was still incredibly beautiful. No one could deny that, even though there were a few who would have done so if they could. Indeed, she was probably more beautifulnow than she had been at the age of nineteen. She had gained just a little weight during the intervening years, and she had gained it in all the right places and none in any of the wrong places. She was still slender, but she was now deliciously curvaceous.Her face, less bright and eager than it had been when she was a girl, had settled pleasingly into its perfect bone structure and complexion. She smiled frequently, though her characteristic smile was half arrogant, half alluring, and altogether mysterious,as though she smiled at something inside herself rather than at the outside world. Her eyes had acquired a certain droop of the eyelids that suggested bedchambers and dreams and more secrets. And her hair, at the hands of experts, was always immaculately styledbutin such a way that it looked as if it might tumble into luxuriant disarray at any moment. The fact that it never did made it only the more intriguing.
Her hair was her best feature, many people said. Except for her eyes, perhaps. Or her figure. Or her teeth, which were very white and perfectly formed and perfectly aligned with one another.
All this was how the ton saw the Duchess of Dunbarton and her marriage to the elderly duke and her return to London as a wealthy widow who was free at last. No one knew, of course. No one had been inside that marriage to know how it had worked, or not worked. No one but the duke and duchess themselves, that was. The duke had become more and more reclusive in his final years, and the duchess had had hordesof acquaintances but no close friend that anyone knew of. She had been content to hide in plain sight within the air of luxury and mystery she exuded.
The ton, which had never tired of wondering about her during the ten years of her marriage, wondered again now after a one-year interval. She was a favorite topic in drawing rooms and at dinner tables, in fact. The ton wondered what she would do with herlife now that she was free. She had been Miss Nobody from Nowhere when she reeled in the great prize of the Duke of Dunbarton and persuaded him to marry for the first time in his life.
What would she do next?
Someone else wondered what the duchess would do with her future, but she actually did it in the hearing of the one person who could satisfy her curiosity.
Barbara Leavensworth had been the duchess's friend since they were both children living in the same neighborhood in Lincolnshire, Barbara as the vicar's daughter, Hannah as the daughter of a landowner of respectable birth and moderate means. Barbara stilllived in the same village with her parents, though they had moved out of the vicarage a year ago when her father retired. Barbara had recently become betrothed to the new vicar. They were to marry in August.
The two childhood friends had remained close, even if not geographically. The duchess had never gone back to her former home after her marriage, and though Barbara had been frequently invited to stay with her, she had not often accepted, and even whenshe had, she had not stayed as long as Hannah would have liked. She had been too intimidated by the duke. And so they had kept up their friendship by letter. They had written to each other, usually at great length, at least once a week for eleven years.
Now Barbara had accepted an invitation to spend some time in London with the duchess. They would shop for her bride clothes in the only place in England worth shopping in, the duchess had written as an inducement. Which was all very well, Barbara had thoughtwhen she read the letter, shaking her head in slight exasperation, when one had pots of money, as Hannah did and she most certainly did not. But Hannah needed the company now that she was alone, and she rather fancied a few weeks of exploring churches and museumsto her heart's content before finally settling down. The Reverend Newcombe, her betrothed, encouraged her to go and enjoy herself and lend her support to the poor widow, her friend. And then, when she decided that she would go, he insisted that she take anastonishingly large sum of money with which to buy herself some pretty dresses and perhaps a bonnet or two. And her parents, who thought a month or so with Hannah, of whom they had always been inordinately fond, would be a wonderful thing for their daughterbefore she settled to a sober life as the vicar's wife, pressed a largish sum of spending money on her too.
Barbara felt quite decadently rich when she arrived at Dunbarton House after a journey during which it had felt as though every bone in her body had been jolted into a new, less comfortable position.
Hannah was waiting for her inside the hall, and they hugged and squealed and exclaimed over each other for several minutes, both talking, neither listening, and laughing over nothing at all except the sheer happiness of being together again. The ton, ifthey could have seen Hannah, might have been forgiven if they had not recognized her. Her cheeks were flushed, her eyes wide and bright, her smile broad, her voice almost shrill with excitement and delight. There was not the merest suggestion of mystery abouther.
And then she became aware of the silent figure of the housekeeper in the background, and she relinquished Barbara to her competent care. She paced aimlessly in the drawing room while her friend was taken up to her room to wash her hands and face and changeher dress and comb her hair and otherwise use up half an hour before being brought down for tea.
She was looking her neat, tranquil self again. Dear, dependable Barbara, whom she loved more than anyone else still living, Hannah thought as she beamed at her and crossed the room to hug her again.
"I am so, so happy that you came, Babs," she said. She laughed. "Just in case you did not understand that when you arrived."
"Well, I did think you might have shown just a little enthusiasm," Barbara said, and they both laughed again.
Hannah suddenly tried to remember when she had last laughed, and could not recall an occasion. No matter. One was not meant to laugh while one was in mourning. Someone might call one heartless.
They talked without ceasing for all of an hour, this time both listening and talking, before Barbara asked the question that had been uppermost in her mind since the Duke of Dunbarton's death, though she had not broached it in any of her letters.
"What are you going to do now, Hannah?" she asked, leaning forward in her chair. "You must be dreadfully lonely without the duke. You adored each other."
Barbara was probably one of the few people in London, or in all of England for that matter, who truly believed such a startling notion. Perhaps the only one, in fact.
"We did," Hannah said with a sigh. She spread one hand on her lap and regarded the rings she wore on three of her well-manicured fingers. She smoothed her hand over the fine white muslin of her dress. "I do miss him. I keep thinking of all sorts of absurditiesI simply must rush home to share with him, only to remember that he is not here any longer waiting to hear them."
"But I know," Barbara said, her voice earnest in its sympathy, "that he suffered dreadfully with his gout and that his heart was giving him much pain and trouble in his last years. I daresay it was a blessing that he went quickly in the end."
Hannah felt inappropriately amused. Barbara would make an excellent vicar's wife if her head was full of platitudes like that one.