The upper class regarded Sir Benjamin Wright with utmost honor and respect. Yet Lady Emma knew her husband was, in fact, a drunken, jealous brute who delighted in humiliating her both in and out of the bedroom.
His murder had been a blessing, she thought—that is until the constable’s accusing finger pointed to her.
But it soon becomes apparent that her late husband hid many secrets and had many enemies. When the practical Comte Saint-Juste arrives on the scene offering his services, Lady Emma is about to discover what the French dedication to l’amour really means . . .
Originally published under the name Marion Chesney, this is a suspenseful love story from an author who “delivers top-notch Regency fare” (RT Reviews).
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"So you are to leave us again, Lady Wright?"
Miss Appleby, a thin, eager young lady, all sharp corners — sharp elbows, sharp nose, and sharp eyes — stared enviously at Emma, Lady Wright. There was much to envy, thought Miss Appleby. Not only was Lady Wright very beautiful, but she was married to Sir Benjamin Wright, Member of Parliament and distinguished leader of the small society of the village of Upper Tipton in Sussex.
"Yes," said Emma quietly, "Sir Benjamin does not like to stay away from the House too long," by which she meant the House of Commons. Silently Emma sent up a prayer that Miss Appleby and the rest of the guests would go so that she could finish her preparations for the journey on the morrow. The people who were gathered in the Wrights' drawing room consisted of the upper class of the village. Apart from Miss Appleby, there was the squire, Sir Harry Henley, and his wife and two sons, Lady Herriet, a grim dowager, the rector, Dr. Barnstable, his wife and daughter, and old Colonel Anderson, long retired from the wars but still fighting them in extensive monologues, and Emma's parents, Mr. and Mrs. Anstey, looking nervous and honored at being included in such exalted company.
The guests all had one thing in common, they were proud of Sir Benjamin, and eagerly cut out reports of his speeches from the newspapers and circulated them around the less distinguished members of the village. He was a tall, corpulent man with a thick head of white hair, a long body, and short little legs. He looked impressive sitting down. He had pale blue eyes criss-crossed with a network of red veins, for Sir Benjamin was fond of the bottle.
Emma had been married to him for three years. She had never been asked whether she wanted to marry Sir Benjamin or not. He had seen her at a local charity ball, had approached her parents, and settled the matter with them.
At first Emma had quietly accepted the idea of marriage to him. He was very rich indeed. She had seven sisters and three brothers. Her father was a gentleman and so did not work, living on a small yearly income from a family trust. Although five of her sisters and two brothers were now married, they had not married well, and so it was Emma, because of her strange and rare beauty, who had been picked to restore the family fortunes. Whatever Sir Benjamin had paid for her by way of the marriage settlements, Emma did not know, but often reflected her father must have driven a hard bargain, for the Ansteys now boasted a smart new carriage and had moved to a larger house on the outskirts of the village.
Emma hardly saw her family. Sir Benjamin had let it be known that he had married beneath him and would be pleased if the connection were cut. The invitation to her parents was a rare mark of condescension. Emma remembered well trying to talk to her mother about the hell that was her marriage, but her mother had looked shocked and would not listen.
And so Emma, humiliated in the bedroom and tyrannized outside of it, had retreated into herself, hiding in the rooms of her mind, where her husband could not reach her.
She felt she might have died of sheer loneliness of spirit had not a miracle happened during the last London Season.
She rose and walked over to the pianoforte and sat down and began to play so that she could remember that miracle in peace. Behind her, the guests drank and gossiped as her fingers moved across the keys.
Last year the Season had been nearly over when her husband had insisted she make a call on an elderly dowager, Mrs. Trumpington, whose husband had been a prominent member of the Whig party during his lifetime. He had intended to go with her, but had drunk so deeply the night before that he complained of being poisoned and said he would spend the day in bed.
And so Emma had gone alone. There were two other ladies there visiting Mrs. Trumpington, both, like Emma, in their early twenties. They were Annabelle, Mrs. Carruthers, married to a gamester; and Matilda, Duchess of Hadshire. Mrs. Trumpington proved to be a malicious and amusing old quiz and entertained her guests with all the latest scandal before suddenly and quietly falling asleep.
The three ladies had talked politely at first about the things they were supposed to talk about, social chitchat, recipes, plays, and operas, but all of them being drawn together by the fact that all were as yet childless.
And then Emma had said suddenly, after they had been discussing a production of Romeo and Juliet, "I wonder what would have happened had Romeo been able to marry his Juliet? Perhaps after a year or two passed, he would be nagging her about this and that, and she would have grown fat on pasta and misery."
"Or he would have drunk and gambled so that life became a constant fear of ruins and duns," said Annabelle.
"Or his great love might prove to be nothing more than a sophisticated fantasy," said Matilda. They talked for a little, and then it dawned on Emma that they were in fact all talking about their husbands. It was so delicious to be able to unburden oneself to sympathetic ears that each lady began to castigate Romeo and that famous lover began to take on the character of first, Emma's husband, then Annabelle's, and then Matilda's. They became fast friends. Sir Benjamin was flattered that one of his wife's new friends was a duchess and did everything he could to encourage the friendship.
And soon I shall see them again, thought Emma as her fingers rippled over the keys. It had been a grim winter. The deeper Sir Benjamin sank into the bottle, the more malicious and autocratic he became. He never staggered or slurred his speech, he merely became vindictive. He had decided that his pretty wife's inability to breed was caused by her lack of enthusiasm in the bedroom, and his demands on her body became more innovative and, to Emma, more humiliating. Although he stayed some time in London to attend the parliamentary debates in the House of Commons, such stays were of miserably short duration, or so it seemed to Emma. Each evening he was at home she would pray with increasing fervor that he would pass out as soon as his head hit the pillow, and for the past blessed month that had been the case.
If only he would drink himself to death! Emma shuddered at the wicked thought, but it took hold of her mind. She could almost see the funeral, the churchyard, the mourners. She could hear the voice of the rector raised in the funeral service; she imagined she could feel the springy turf of the graveyard under her feet as she walked away from the graveside a free woman.
Her husband put a hand on her shoulder and she started in alarm and brought her fingers down on the keys in a noisy discord. The harsh sound echoed round the drawing room.
"Our guests are going, my love," said Sir Benjamin.
Emma rose gracefully, lowering her eyes in case he could read her thoughts, and went to say goodbye. She kissed her mother's cold, powdered cheek. Her father gave her a perfunctory nod, his eyes already swiveling in the direction of Sir Benjamin in hope of some more marks of favor about which he could tell his cronies.
As soon as the last guest had gone, Emma slipped quietly away to her room to check that everything necessary had been packed. Her maid undressed her and prepared her for bed and then withdrew. Emma lay for a long time awake, dreading to see the door open and her husband standing on the threshold. At last she heard him mounting the stairs with a slow, dragging step and held her breath. His hand fumbled at the knob of her door, and then he slowly went along to his own room. Still Emma lay awake until at last the slow rumbling sound of snoring echoed along the corridor.
Safe for one more blessed night!
Tomorrow they would travel to London and she would see her friends again.
Sir Benjamin was in a foul mood as they set out for London. His head throbbed and ached and the light hurt his eyes. He felt obscurely that his miserable condition was all his wife's fault and eyed her sourly. Her beauty did nothing to soften his heart. She looked so cool and remote with her shining black curls under a smart bonnet and the calm oval of her face betraying no expression whatsoever and her large and beautiful dark blue eyes as blank as those of a sleepwalker. Her knack of retreating into her own mind and away from him annoyed him and excited him sensually at the same time as it gave the experiences of the marriage bed the extra titillating edge of rape. Sir Benjamin had brutal lusts and had his wife matched those, he would quickly have tired of her.
He knew traveling fatigued her and that the swaying motion of the coach made her feel ill. They were due to arrive in London at five o'clock the following afternoon. He had received an invitation to a ball at the French ambassador's which he had accepted for both of them, but had meant to send around a letter of apology as soon as they arrived, saying they could not attend. When he had first accepted the invitation, he had forgotten the ball was to take place on the eve of their arrival. But now he thought it might be a good idea to go after all. Emma would hate it. She would be feeling tired and ill.
"We are going to the French ambassador's dinner and ball tomorrow night, Lady Wright," he said harshly. "Wear your diamonds."
A look of dismay crossed her face, but she slightly bowed her head in assent.
Furious that he had been unable to raise any stronger reaction from her, Sir Benjamin jerked her into his arms and began to kiss her with wet, lascivious kisses while one of his strong hands crushed her left breast in a painful grip. Her coldness excited him, and he would have ripped her gown off had it not been for the presence of his wife's lady's maid, Austin, sitting opposite them with her head averted. He finally thrust Emma aside after giving her breast a final tweak. The lady's maid continued to look out of the window. She was every bit as poker-faced as her mistress, he reflected sourly, although, unlike Emma, she had a face like an old boot.
Still, humiliating his wife in front of her maid had put him in a good mood. He drank a great deal when they stopped for refreshment and fell mercifully asleep. Emma, looking at Austin, surprised a fleeting look of pity on her lady's maid's face and realized with surprise that her maid was sorry for her. The look was gone as quickly as it had come, but it had most definitely been there, and Emma felt strangely comforted. She had assumed all the servants revered Sir Benjamin as much as the members of the local society of Upper Tipton.
Perhaps it was that little look of compassion that sustained her on the journey and the fact that her husband slept most of the way, for she felt tired but not at all travel sick when the carriage finally rolled to a halt in front of Sir Benjamin's town house in Curzon Street.
Now it was Sir Benjamin who was mentally cursing his own folly in having decided to go to the ball. He was about to send a footman to say they could not attend after all, but Emma had decided that if they went to the ball, then her husband would drink too much and then he would sleep that night without troubling her, and so she put a hand to her forehead and swayed slightly and said, "I fear I do not think I am well enough to go out this evening, Sir Benjamin."
"Nonsense!" he said immediately. "Of course we are going," and Emma looked at him sadly and wearily while inside she was delighted at the success of her little piece of play-acting.
That evening she put on a dark blue silk gown that matched the color of her eyes. About her neck she wore the heavy collar of diamonds he had given her, and her thick black hair was coiffed in a simple style without any ornament or feathers. Her clothes were of the finest, Sir Benjamin enjoying showing off his beautiful young wife to London society.
Beautiful though she was, Emma was not a heartbreaker. To the young men who asked her to dance, she appeared too cold and withdrawn to be of any interest.
When they reached the French ambassador's residence, the cream of London society was already arriving. Britain had not long ago ceased fighting the French, but the British still adored everything French, and the long war had done nothing to damp their enthusiasm. All the foreign ambassadors appeared to have turned up along with the British ministers, Lord Castlereagh, Lord Melville, Lord Stewart, and Lord Binning.
They sat down to dinner, Emma relieved to find she had been placed next to the American ambassador, Mr. Richard Rush, and some distance away from her husband. The Prince Regent was seated next to the French ambassador, the Marquis D'Osmond, and the very presence of his fat and florid regal figure added a luster to the evening. Everyone affected to despise the prince and yet damned most events at which he was not in attendance as "deuced flat."
On the other side of Emma from the American ambassador was an elderly diplomat, Sir Struthers-Wiggins. He was deaf, and so in the ringing tones of those hard of hearing, he roared in Emma's ear, "There's one thing about the Frogs, they know how to cook."
Emma blushed in embarrassment and turned to the ambassador, but he was discoursing on the problem of Pensacola with his neighbor. Sir Struthers-Wiggins began boring the lady on his other side, and so Emma was left alone. There was, she noticed, a great quantity of wine being served — burgundy, tokay, St. Julien, and Sillery champagne. With any luck, her husband would soon be drunk. She had schooled herself to enjoy all brief moments of freedom from his company, and so she ate and drank with enjoyment, planning to call on her friends the next afternoon. The voices about her rose and fell like the waves of the sea. "General Jackson, commander of the United States, had taken possession of these fortresses, not as an act of hostility to Spain, but in necessary prosecution of the war against the Indians, and the defense of our own frontier." That was the American ambassador, still well launched on the subject of Pensacola. "I said to my son, I said, 'Why go to Paris for your pleasures? A night with Venus means a lifetime with mercury.' Haw, haw, haw." Sir Struthers-Wiggins was disgracing himself thoroughly. Mercury was the treatment for venereal disease.
And then Emma, looking across the table, saw for the first time the man who was to change her life. He was tall, impeccably dressed, with thick fair hair in disordered curls, very blue eyes, and a thin, clever face. He was leaning back in his chair, idly listening to the enthusiastic prattle of the lady beside him, but his blue eyes were fixed on Emma.
She looked quickly down at her plate. She found her hands were trembling and put them under the table and clasped them in her lap. She tentatively looked across at him again. His blue gaze met and held her own for a few moments. She jerked her head away and found to her relief that the American ambassador, Mr. Rush, had turned to her.
Emma asked him how he was enjoying London and Mr. Rush began to make a statement. He did not converse — he made statements, and so all she had to do was listen and nod from time to time and try so very hard to forget about the blue gaze across the table. "I must say there is one thing I found offensive," said Mr. Rush. "At the drop-curtain at Covent Garden are seen the flags of the nations with whom England has been at war. They are in a shattered state, and represented as being in subjection to England. That of the United States is among them! The symbols are, therefore, not historically true."
Emma suggested that a letter to the management of Covent Garden, protesting the insult, might be a good idea. Mr. Rush approved. She risked another look across the table, but the fair-haired man was now giving his attention to his neighbor. "Who is that gentleman opposite?" she could not resist asking. "In the blue evening coat and with fair hair."
To Emma's dismay, Mr. Rush raised his large quizzing glass and peered through it at the fair-haired young man. "The Comte Saint-Juste," he said.
"And is he a diplomat?"
"No, he is a friend of the D'Osmonds. A lily of the field. He does nothing." Mr. Rush's voice sounded disapproving.
"But most of society do nothing." protested Emma. "Why is this comte so unusual?"
"I mean, he appears to do nothing at all. He has no interest in sport, or literature, or the collection of art. He is a social butterfly. He is to be seen everywhere. His family fled the French Revolution but managed to escape with a great deal of money. He has been educated in England but has the soul of a Frenchman."
"And is that so very bad? We are no longer at war with France, and even when we were, the English still spoke French in polite society and copied French fashions and engaged French chefs."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Scandalous Lady Wright"
Copyright © 1990 Marion Chesney.
Excerpted by permission of RosettaBooks.
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