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Roselyn Longworth contemplated her damnation.
Hell was not fire and brimstone, she realized. It consisted of merciless self-awareness. You learned the truth about yourself in hell. You faced the lies that you had told your soul in order to justify doing the wrong thing.
Hell was also eternal humiliation, such as she was suffering at this country house party.
All around her Lord Norbury's other guests laughed and played while they awaited the call to dinner. Upon arriving yesterday in Lord Norbury's coach, she had discovered that the guest list was not what she expected. The men were all members of polite society, but the women—
A loud screech interrupted her thoughts. A woman in a garish sapphire dinner dress playfully fought with a man who had grabbed her. The other men shouted encouragement to the fellow. Even Norbury urged him on. After a display of mock resistance, his captive surrendered to the kind of embrace and kiss that no one else should see.
Roselyn surveyed the painted faces and extreme attire of the other women. The men had not brought their wives with them. They had not even brought their refined mistresses. These women were common prostitutes imported from London's brothels. She suspected a few could not even claim that pedigree.
And here she sat among them.
She could not hide from the stark implications. The other men had brought their whores, and Lord Norbury had brought his.
How could she have misunderstood the events of the last month so badly? She tried to put her mind back to the day of Lord Norbury's first flatteries and overtures, but the memory was gone now, burned to ashes by the ruthless fire of reality during the last twenty-four hours.
The lover in question strolled among his guests, coming toward her. With each step the lights in his eyes brightened a bit more. She had thought those were the flames of love and passion. She now saw them as reflections off ice.
She had been pathetically stupid.
"You are very quiet, Rose. You have been all day." He sidled closely, looming beside her chair. A day ago she would have welcomed his closeness and found his attention romantic.
Stupid, stupid woman.
"I begged you to allow me to leave. I am in this drawing room only because you demanded that I come down for dinner, so do not complain that I do not engage in your party's games. I do not care for the company or the free behavior being shown." Over in the corner the embracing couple were lost to the world, but the world could watch their groping all the same.
"My, you are proud. Far more proud than you should be." His mutter carried a cruel edge. Her nape prickled.
He alluded to more than her disapproval of his house party. She had refused him things last night. She had not even understood what he wanted at first, and had not hidden her shock when he explained.
In the span of minutes the affectionate and generous lover had become the angry and spurned patron. Cold. Hard. Mean. He transformed into a man who had paid more than he ought for a possession, only to discover that he had been defrauded.
Her face warmed at the memory of the sordid scene in her bedchamber before he left. She had thought she was his beloved, his paramour. He had made it clear that he considered her a common whore. His scathing words had been so many slaps, wakening her from an illusion created out of her own hopelessness and loneliness.
"If I am too proud, call for the carriage and allow me to leave. Show the kindness of permitting me to retain what little of that pride remains."
"I would be alone without female company then. I will look a fool in my own home."
"We will say I became ill. We will say—"
His hand came to rest on her shoulder, silencing her. He grasped firmly, hurtfully. She tried to suppress a shiver of revulsion at the sensation of his palm on her skin.
"We will say nothing. You will go nowhere. I expect you to continue showing your gratitude for my generosity. If you please me, our arrangement can continue. You like the dresses and ensembles, Rose. You want the comforts and niceties that your family's fall denied you."
Her throat tightened. She blinked back the first tears of the day. "You misunderstood."
"You gave me your aging innocence and your favors. You took my gifts. I misunderstood nothing."
He bent down so his face was mere inches from hers. She fought the instinct to veer away from the ruddy complexion and pale eyes and tawny hair that once belonged to a man she respected. She had even convinced herself that he was handsome.
"We understand each other now at least, don't we?" He made it a demand. "There will be no more childish delicacy tonight."
Her stomach lurched. "There have been too many misunderstandings and I fear they continue. I have asked to leave all day because there will be nothing tonight."
His mouth formed a line so hard that she was grateful others were in the chamber. The hand on her shoulder gave a painful squeeze. "You do try a man's patience, Rose."
The prickling returned on her nape and scurried down her spine. She searched his expression for signs of the jovial man she had so recently thought loved her. She could find none. Of course not. That man had never existed.
A mild disturbance broke their silent battle of wills. The butler eased through the drawing room. Norbury took the card being borne on a silver salver. He read it and walked away.
He opened the doors that led into the library. Before the door closed she glimpsed a tall, dark-haired gentleman waiting in there.
Ill ease sloshed in her stomach. She fought to contain the panic that wanted to pour through her.
She had been stupid again. Ignorant and blind. What she endured now was nothing. Tonight would be the true descent into hell.
Norbury appeared angry when he entered the library. Kyle caught a glimpse of the drawing room before the doors closed.
"Bradwell. I expected you earlier."
"The surveyors took longer than expected." Kyle gestured toward the drawing room. "You are entertaining. I can return tomorrow."
"Nonsense. You are here now. Let us see what you have." Norbury's face creased into a smile intended to be reassuring.
Kyle surmised that the annoyance was not with the hour of his call, but something else. Like most men of his station, Viscount Norbury, son and heir to the Earl of Cottington, did not take disagreement well. He expected all but his peers to assume that whatever he did or said was correct. It looked as if someone in the drawing room had not conformed to those rules.
Kyle unfurled a large roll of paper on the desk. Norbury bent over it. He scanned the map closely, then stuck a finger on a blank section near a stream. "Why have you left this empty? We could fit another estate here. A good-sized one too."
"Your father does not want another house visible from the back of the manor house. With the stream, there is no way to use that land without positioning the new house—"
"He is of no mind or condition to make such decisions now. You know that. It is why he handed management of his affairs to me."
"It is still his land, and he spoke his wishes to me directly."
Norbury's anger was definitely directed at Kyle now. "How like him. He has agreed to carve up one of our properties into these small estates for the likes of your parvenu friends, but then he worries about the prospects from the old manor house. We never use it, so why should he care? I am telling you to put another one here. It will be the best of the lot and fetch the highest price."
Kyle had no interest in arguing and resented that he would now have to. Norbury knew nothing about land development. He did not know how to judge the best of the lot, let alone the prices that would be fetched. His family was providing the land alone and would profit handsomely. The real risk would be Kyle's own, along with the other investors who were joining the syndicate to build those houses and roads.
"You father's wishes may be ill-considered in your mind, but we lose nothing by accommodating them. The purchasers will not want to look up to the manor house any more than your family will want to look down and see them. Furthermore, to develop that section we will have to continue this road here, and that slices two other parcels inconveniently and lowers their value."
Norbury peered at Kyle's finger as it moved over the map. He did not like being wrong. No man did.
"Well, Kyle, I suppose it will do as it is," he finally said.
It sounded like acceptance, but Kyle knew every word had been chosen for a reason. "As it is" implied it could be better. "I suppose" was the lord giving his grudging approval. And calling him Kyle had been the most patronizing of all the deliberate words.
They knew each other very well. They had met often over the years, ever since they were boys. But even if they had liked each other, which they did not, their widely divergent births and some old bad blood between them meant they could never be friends. Norbury worked to avoid any presumptions on that count. His form of address was a way to put the upstart in his rightful place, which was far below Cottington and Norbury. It went without saying that Kyle could not return the informality.
"Let us see the plans for the houses," Norbury intoned. The "us" had become an imperious pronoun.
Kyle unrolled several of his architectural drawings. Considering Norbury's mood, he decided that his suspicion was right. Someone in the drawing room had pricked the host's pride.
It would not be hard to do. Norbury was jovial most of the time but could be temperamental at others. He also was not especially smart. Sometimes one had to point out the obvious to him, such as the problems with developing that land parcel. Unfortunately, Norbury could get mean when he realized that he had been caught being stupid or made to look a fool.
The mood turned friendlier while they discussed placements of rooms and how many servant chambers these homes needed. Kyle pretended to accept Norbury's judgment that everyone required a dozen servants to live at bare minimal levels of comfort.
"I envy you this skill." Norbury sighed and gestured to one of the drawings. "I would have liked to study such things. But for my birth, who knows, the world might have had another Wren. Duty calls, however, eh?"
Kyle smiled noncommittedly while he rolled the drawings. "I will see you in London, as scheduled. I will bring the final plans to our meeting."
"Expect a lengthy afternoon. We should have word from France about Longworth by then, and the group will meet first to decide our course."
"Hopefully we will be done with that soon. It is a distraction."
"Have no fear, justice will be served. We are all sworn to it." In a fit of bonhomie, such as he could display on occasion, Norbury helped tie the drawings.
Kyle made to leave, only to find his host examining him critically.
"Your coat is none the worse for wear considering you have been out in fields today."
"I was not planting hedgerows."
"Rather nice coat, actually. I'd say it is more than presentable."
"I do my best."
"I meant presentable enough to sit at dinner with us." He cocked his head toward the drawing room.
"I told the butler to call them in and that I would join them when you and I were done. You must come too."
Norbury aimed for the door like a man who expected to be followed. "You will find the party very amusing."
As a man of affairs, Kyle never turned down the opportunity to mix with people of wealth and high station. Nor did gentlemen mind meeting him. Money was thicker than blood when you got down to it, and he had a talent for helping rich people get richer.
He trailed Norbury to the dining room. The muffled sounds of a merry party turned into a roar when the door opened.
Kyle took one look at the assembly and knew that no business connections would be made tonight. The men might be members of polite society, but the women were not. These were vulgar prostitutes, painted and flamboyant. They were already foxed beyond any hope of discretion.
A blond woman of astonishing beauty and elegance sat silently at the far end of the table. She appeared not to notice the other guests. She gazed ahead at nothing and wore an expression of passivity.
Everything about her, from her discreetly plumed headdress to her blush dinner dress to the breeding that gave her such poise and dignity, set her apart from both the women and the men who had relinquished all reserve.
He recognized her. He had first seen her at a theater two years ago. He had barely noticed the play onstage after her lovely face caught his eye.
He glanced at Norbury. "What is Timothy Longworth's sister doing here?"
"I seduced her. I barely had to ask, actually. Bad blood all around in that family, it seems. I've enjoyed a bit of justice already, while I wait to see that scoundrel swing."
Roselyn had hoped that the intruding gentleman had brought news of some disaster that would call Lord Norbury away for days.
She sickened when instead Norbury rejoined the party. A shiver of loathing claimed her while he walked down the table's length toward the empty chair beside her.
She saw two people notice her reaction. The tall, dark-haired gentleman from the library entered with Norbury. As he took a place at the other end of the table, he glanced her way. The vaguest alteration of his expression suggested that he saw something of the revulsion flexing through her.
Across the table, a woman named Katy also noticed. Her glistening eyes glanced at Norbury's approach, then met Rose's in comprehension.
Rose braced for smug satisfaction that the proud lady was being brought low. Instead, Katy smiled sympathetically. The men flanking her were engaged in other conversations, and she leaned forward confidentially.
"Not going good for you, is it?"
That was such an understatement that Rose almost laughed. "No, not well at all."
Katy shook her head in exasperation. "He should know better, and you should too. Didn't set the terms, did ye? Need to do that right at the beginning no matter where he found you, or things can get bad."