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Decimus and the Wary Widow
Decimus Pryor is one of London’s most notable rakes. He saunters through life, trysting with young widows and making people laugh. But rumors have spread that his skills in the bedroom are overrated. The young widows are laughing at him, not with him, and they’re slamming shut the doors to their boudoirs.
Eloïse Fortrose, widow of the late Viscount Fortrose, has no tolerance for rakes. But when Decimus rescues her from highwaymen, she discovers that there’s a lot more to this Casanova than meets the eye.
What better way to heat up the chilly autumn nights than to indulge in a brief liaison? They’ll frolic between the sheets, laugh a little, restore Decimus’s standing as a rake, then go their separate ways.
Eloïse doesn’t believe in love and neither does Decimus . . . but love is coming for them both, whether they want it to or not.
Decimus Pryor—Dex to his family and friends—enjoyed being the center of attention. He’d never minded being gossiped about. What wasn’t to like about being pointed out as a notable rake? The man who’d seduced the ravishing Lady Winslow from under the nose of a rival, the dashing buck who’d been the first to snare Lady Brereton when she entered the ranks of available young widows, the Lothario with the legendary stamina who’d entertained the Cleweston sisters in their hunting box for one blissfully strenuous week.
A wit had once labeled him le jouet des jeunes veuves. As sobriquets went, it hit the mark; Dex was only interested in young widows, and he was extremely happy to be their plaything. Assignations with the lovely young relicts of deceased noblemen were his raison d’être. Flirtations and stolen kisses and amorous liaisons with ladies who knew exactly what they wanted—and with no need to worry about outraged husbands, because the husbands in question were dead. So, yes, Dex was very happy to be called le jouet des jeunes veuves.
But no one had called him that for several months. The name that followed him around these days was Vigor, and while that nickname could be taken as a compliment, it was not.
Vigor, but no finesse.
An observation that Lady Twyckham—beautiful and viperish—had made about him.
Dex liked making people laugh. Jokester, jester, wag—those were all labels he was happy to own—but while he liked making people laugh, liked being laughed with, he didn’t particularly like being laughed at, and he especially didn’t like being mocked.
That’s what was happening at Wimbledon House this evening. The ball was in full swing, couples whirling around the dance floor while matrons and dowagers gossiped on the sidelines, ostrich feathers nodding in their headdresses. A promising number of young widows were present, but instead of sending him come-hither glances and roguish smiles, they were whispering behind their fans. “Look, it’s Vigor,” he heard one of them say to another. Her companion shushed her, and they both tittered and turned away.
Dex gritted his teeth behind a smile and made a note never to pursue either lady. It was their loss. His stamina—his vigor—was legendary.
Too legendary, alas.
It was four months since acid-tongued Lady Twyckham had made her unfortunate comment about his prowess, but whispers and laughter still followed him. Some of it was friendly laughter, like at his club, where he was openly ribbed, but some of it wasn’t. Those two young widows and their barbs of laughter weren’t friendly.
Both ladies turned back to him, lowering their fans and giving him the sorts of smiles he was used to receiving from young widows, playful and provocative, flirtatious, but Dex mistrusted them. If either—or both—of them invited him into their beds, he rather thought it would be to laugh about it afterwards with their friends.
He aimed an indifferent nod at them, an indifferent smile, and moved on, heading for the far side of the ballroom, where a footman presided over a tureen of punch that was as potent as it was fragrant. Every time the laughter and mockery became too much, his feet led him back to the tureen. The punch was the only good thing about tonight’s ball. It took the edge off his anger. Dex wasn’t used to being angry. He was used to flirting and joking, to making ladies blush and laugh and invite him into their boudoirs. But not tonight. Tonight he was stewing in wounded pride.
His punch procured, Dex leaned his shoulders against a silk-covered wall, trying to look nonchalant, as if he didn’t care that half the ballroom was covertly—or not so covertly—laughing at him.
Hyperbole, he scolded himself, sipping the punch, tasting rum on his tongue, champagne and orange zest, sugar and spices. It wasn’t half the ballroom. It wasn’t even a quarter. It was mostly just the young widows. His sole purpose for attending this ball.
Damn Lady Twyckham to perdition.
He ought to have stayed in the country. The Little Season had seemed tempting when he was buried in Gloucestershire, but now that he was in London he’d far rather be back at his grandfather’s estate, where there were no enticing young widows, but equally there was none of the mocking laughter that so stung his pride.
His gaze drifted over the assembled guests. It wasn’t a crush, but it was full for a ballroom in early September. But then, balls at Wimbledon House were few and far between, invitations highly sought.
A sprightly contredanse was underway, the musicians plying their bows with fervor, young ladies and sprigs of fashion dancing vigorously. Vigorously. Pah. Dex’s upper lip curled involuntarily, angrily. He hid it behind the rim of his glass.
He would probably be able to laugh about this one day, but that day was very far off.
He sipped the punch, his gaze drifting over the dancers. Débutantes held no attraction for him, be they the shy, shrinking ones who dared not meet his eyes or their more confident peers who boldly flirted with him, hoping to snare a duke’s grandson as a husband. He had no interest in virgins and no interest in marriage, just as he had no interest in other men’s wives. Young widows on the other hand, experienced and enticing, unfettered by husbands . . .
Dex sighed into his fifth glass of punch. Or was it his sixth?
If he couldn’t remember how many glasses he’d had, it was probably time to leave.
He scanned the ballroom, unerringly finding the young widows—a cluster of them in the farthest corner, several on the dance floor, the pair who’d given him those coquettish smiles he mistrusted. There, near the door to the cardroom, was the delectable Viscountess Fortrose—or more properly, the Dowager Viscountess Fortrose, given that the current viscount, her late husband’s cousin, had a wife who was also Viscountess Fortrose.
One needed that qualifier “dowager” when both ladies were in town, but now that autumn had taken hold and the viscount and his wife had retreated to their country estate, it was unnecessary. Such a disconcerting term, dowager. It brought to mind elderly matriarchs, stately and gray-haired and with formidable bosoms, but Eloïse Fortrose was slender, not stately, and her hair was a striking white-blonde. She wasn’t someone you could easily overlook. She was pretty, yes, and the white-blonde hair was unusual, but it was her clothing that really captured the eye. The dowager viscountess favored bold, vivid colors. Rich yellows and deep crimsons, emerald greens and azure blues. Gaudy, the most disapproving of the matrons called her, but they were wrong; there was nothing flashy or garish about Lady Fortrose’s wardrobe. Not that she cared what people said about her. She possessed a cool, aloof confidence that was almost, but not quite, hauteur. She was frosty with rakes, coolly friendly with everyone else, and notoriously picky when it came to lovers. As one Casanova had so aptly observed, “Every time she sees a rake coming, she raises the drawbridge, lowers the portcullis, and sends archers to man the ramparts.”
That comment had led to her being dubbed Lady Fortress.
Dex found the juxtaposition of vivid color and cool reserve intriguing. Eloïse Fortrose was an enigma, a puzzle, a challenge. He wanted to joke, cajole, and wheedle his way into her boudoir and melt her frosty heart.
Unfortunately, the viscountess had rebuffed every approach he’d made—and he’d made a number over the years. Dex hadn’t given up hope yet. He would continue to lay siege to the Fortress, but not right now, when his pride was so dented.
At that moment, Dex discovered that his evening was looking up, for there, having newly entered the ballroom and not two steps from the viscountess, was Lady Swansea.
Lady Swansea’s proximity to Viscountess Fortrose was unfortunate. The viscountess was resplendent in eye-catching pomegranate red; Lady Swansea wore fawn trimmed with blonde lace. Alongside the viscountess she looked mousy, dowdy even. But, unfortunate choice of gown aside, she was an undeniable beauty, a voluptuous treasure, ripe for the plucking. Or at least, she’d been ripe for the plucking four months ago.
He and Lady Swansea had been getting along very well indeed when Dex was last in town, their flirtation rapidly heading towards an affair. They’d been on the brink of a liaison, and if his cousin hadn’t dragged him off to Hampshire in pursuit of a red-haired governess, Dex had no doubt that he and Lady Swansea would have been intimately acquainted by now.
He set aside his empty glass and sauntered across to her. His smile was jaunty, the familiar swagger back in his step.
“Lady Swansea, how delightful. I had no notion you were in town.” Dex bowed over her hand with a flamboyant flourish, kissed her gloved fingertips, then offered an extravagant compliment: “Your beauty is dazzling tonight. You outshine the sun, the moon, and all the stars in the sky.”
Lady Swansea used to blush and giggle when he paid her such fulsome compliments; now, she tittered and said, “You look very well, Mr. Pryor. Very . . . vigorous.”
Dex’s smile congealed on his lips. Was she poking fun at him?
He looked into those blue eyes, discovered a glint there, and realized that she was.
But perhaps it was a friendly glint? They’d laughed together often enough, he and Lady Swansea, before he’d left for Hampshire. Perhaps this was her idea of a joke, some friendly teasing between the two of them?
“Would you care to dance, Lady Swansea?”
“Oh, no,” she said, removing her fingers from his clasp. “Too vigorous for my taste tonight.”
Dex decided that it wasn’t a friendly glint in her eyes. He kept his smile with effort. “Another time, then.” He inclined his head politely, stepped away, and willed his face not to become a humiliated red. His feet wanted to march from the ballroom, but he refused to give Lady Swansea the satisfaction of seeing him leave so soon after her little witticism. So he had a sixth glass of punch, or perhaps it was a seventh, and then strolled out to the vestibule and requested that his carriage be brought round—he was ambling, not running away—and had to wait an interminable fifteen minutes before it drew up at the door. That was the problem with balls at Wimbledon House. One couldn’t just walk home. One had to drive the five wretched miles back to London before one could bury oneself in one’s club with a bottle of good claret and get comfortably drunk.
Unfortunately, Viscountess Fortrose had also decided to leave the ball early, along with her two companions, the diminutive and aging French comtesse with whom she resided, and a stout, gray-bearded Russian baron. Dex kept his distance. He didn’t need a rebuff from the oh-so-ravishing viscountess tonight.
Coaches came, coaches went, and finally it was his turn. He stepped outside to the accompaniment of the lilting strains of a quadrille. The carriage sweep was lit by torchlight and moonlight, dark inkblots of cloud smudging a starry sky.
The coach had a crest on the door and came with a coachman and a footman. Neither the crest nor the servants were his. Dex owned a curricle and a phaeton, but he had no reason to own a town carriage, not when his uncle, the Marquis of Stanaway, and his grandfather, the Duke of Linwood, had carriages and servants to spare.
He climbed aboard and flung himself into one corner, head tipped back, eyes closed, then sat up abruptly and rifled through the roomy pockets beneath either window. Was there a hip flask of whiskey tucked into one of them . . . ? Yes, there was. Excellent.
Dex cracked open the hip flask, slouched back in the corner he’d chosen, and settled in for a good sulk lubricated by strong spirits.
His good sulk lasted all of five minutes before the coach drew to an unexpected halt.
Dex opened the window and peered out. They were on Wimbledon Heath. He saw the dark shapes of trees, the silver disk of the moon, the shadowy figures of the coachman and footman perched high on the box.
“Something wrong?” he called out.
“Highwaymen,” the coachman replied in a low voice. “They’ve stopped a coach up ahead.”
Stopped a coach?
The viscountess’s coach?
Dex flung open the door and jumped down. “How many of them?”
“Looks like three, sir.”
“You have a blunderbuss?”
“Yes, sir.” The footman flourished it, the barrel glinting dully in the moonlight.
“Good. Stay at the ready, both of you. I’ll shout if I need assistance.”
“But sir—” the coachman protested, at the same time that the footman said, bewildered, “Don’t you want the blunderbuss?”
Dex ignored them both and set off in the direction of the beleaguered coach. Highwaymen generally didn’t harm their victims—but that didn’t mean that people weren’t sometimes hurt, or even killed. If Lady Fortrose was too uncooperative or if the highwaymen noticed her striking good looks and decided to ravish her . . .
He ran towards the dark shape of the coach sixty yards ahead, his dancing shoes almost silent on the hardpacked dirt. The moon was full and currently unconcealed by clouds, its light illuminating the road and himself, but no one noticed his approach. One masked and mounted man held the coachman and footman at gunpoint; the other two ruffians had dismounted, the better to assist their victims in the removal of their valuables. No removal of valuables appeared to be taking place, however. The French comtesse was in the throes of rather loud hysterics, collapsed on the ground with Lady Fortrose attending her, her shrieks shrill and incoherent. The baron was berating the villains in overwrought Russian, arms flailing, voice booming, as stentorian as a watchman, quite drowning out the rogues’ attempts to impose order. One scoundrel was futilely commanding everyone to shut up, while the other was repeating, in rather harassed tones, the standard demand of highwaymen everywhere: “Your money or your lives!”
The French shrieks and Russian oration perfectly concealed the ever-so-faint crunch of Dex’s footsteps. He slowed from headlong run to stealthy tiptoe, slipping silently into the shadows on the far side of the coach, directing his attention to the mounted highwayman first. He appeared to be the least distracted of the three villains, and it wouldn’t do for anyone to be shot.
Dex didn’t have a blunderbuss, but that didn’t mean that he was helpless. Far from it. He was one of only ten people in England who possessed magic—the other nine being his father, grandfather, three uncles, and four cousins—and he could rout a trio of highwaymen with both hands tied behind his back.
He needed to rout them without anyone noticing the magic, though.
Rather obligingly, a cloud drifted over the moon, plunging the road into gloom.
Levitation was the magic that Dex possessed, and he used it now, lifting the mounted highwayman from his saddle, hoisting the man high, flinging him into the clutch of one of the hulking, shadowy trees that lined the road. He floated the blunderbuss from the villain’s grip while he was at it and lobbed it into the dark embrace of the night.
The man yelped, but the sound was swallowed by the comtesse’s shrieks and the baron’s bellows.
One ruffian down.
The coachman and footman were dim shapes on the box, staring stiffly ahead, fearful of the blunderbuss. Dex hurried to them and gripped the coachman’s ankle. The man yelped, much as the highwayman had yelped.
“Quiet!” Dex whispered fiercely. “Hold the horses steady and leave everything to me.”
The highwayman’s mount stood riderless. Dex released the coachman’s ankle, scooped up a stone, and flung it at the horse’s hindquarters, his aim aided by more judicious application of his magic.
The horse bolted down the road at a gallop.
Dex slipped around to the other side of the carriage.
The moon began to reappear, shedding ghostly silver light upon the scene. The comtesse’s shrieks petered out and the baron fell silent. Everyone—robbers and victims alike—was staring in the direction of the rapidly departing and riderless horse.
“Joe? You all right?” one of the two remaining highwaymen called out.
“Help!” Joe wailed from the tree Dex had flung him into.
The two villains exchanged a glance. Both had mufflers concealing their lower faces. One man leveled a pistol at Lady Fortrose and her companions; the other holstered his weapon, strode to his horse, grabbed the reins, and swung up into the saddle. Dex assisted him, his magic boosting the man up and over his horse. He fell in the dirt on the other side with a thump and a squawk.
There was an astonished silence.
Dex chortled soundlessly, and used his magic to relieve the fallen highwayman of his pistol, levitating it from the man’s holster, disposing of it stealthily in the shrubs on the far side of the road. The moon was fully out now, but no one would notice such sleight of hand.
“Harry?” the last highwayman standing said. “What you doin’?”
Harry scrambled to his feet and ran around his horse, belligerent and bewildered in the moonlight. Dex stepped forward to meet him. He punched the man solidly on the chin. A touch of levitation and the highwayman soared backwards across the full width of the road before tumbling into the ditch.
It looked rather impressive.
“Heh,” Dex said, rather pleased with himself. He shook out his fist and turned to find everyone was staring at him—comtesse, baron, viscountess, highwayman.
The sole pistol was pointing at him now, too.
He realized his danger an instant before the highwayman fired. There was a crack of sound, but his magic levitated the bullet, up into the dark sky, where it expended its lethal energy harmlessly.
Dex strode to the highwayman, took hold of the barrel of the pistol, wrenched it from his grip, and tossed it away.
The highwayman uttered a sound that was neither yelp nor squawk but more a bark of astonishment. He put up his fists.
Dex punched him. The blow didn’t connect well, his knuckles barely grazing the man’s cheek, but only he and the highwayman knew that. His magic did the rest: lifting the man off his feet, hurling him back into the carriage with a resounding thud.
The highwayman slid down the side of the carriage as if his legs were boneless and collapsed in a heap on the road.
“Heh,” Dex said again, very pleased with himself. It was rather fun playing the hero. He shook out his fist for verisimilitude and turned to his rescuees. Was that a word? Rescuee? He decided it was.
They were all staring at him, the comtesse lying on the road, propped up on one elbow, Lady Fortrose kneeling alongside her, the baron standing, with his mouth open and his arms frozen in mid-oratory flail.
“Everyone all right?” Dex inquired.
His rescuees gaped at him.
While they were gaping, the second highwayman, Harry, scrambled out of the ditch and attempted to mount his horse. Dex assisted him magically again, up and over and into the dirt on the other side. He couldn’t repress a cackle. This was rather amusing. He grinned at his audience and repeated his question: “Everyone all right?”
There was a moment’s pause, and then Lady Fortrose said, “Yes. Thank you.”
“My pleasure, ma’am.” He gave a sweeping bow.
Harry made another attempt to climb onto his horse. Up and over he went, landing in the dirt again. Dex decided that three times was enough for that particular trick. He crossed to the confused horse and gave its haunch a hearty slap. The beast took off into the night.
Harry looked up at him from the dirt. His muffler had slipped down below his nose. Above it, his eyes were very round, the whites showing.
“I’d run, if I were you,” Dex informed him.
Harry hauled himself to his feet and did just that.
Dex listened until the man’s footfalls had faded to nothing, then turned back to the carriage. Lady Fortrose and the baron were fussing over the comtesse, helping her to her feet, brushing the dirt from her gown. The footman had climbed down from the box and was gingerly brandishing a blunderbuss at the third highwayman. The coachman sat high above them all, reins in hand, horses firmly under control, commanding the footman to “Hold the fiend there! Don’t let him get away!”
The footman looked as if he wanted to climb back up on the box. He retreated a step as the third highwayman staggered to his feet. The ruffian steadied himself against the coach for a moment, then lurched towards his horse.
“I think not,” Dex said. A flick of his fingers and a stone levitated up from the ground and pinged the horse on its rump. The animal set off down the road with a thunder of hooves.
The highwayman stared after it in dismay.
The footman gingerly brandished the blunderbuss again.
Dex removed the weapon from the servant’s grip. He was likely to shoot someone’s foot off, holding it like that. “Off you go,” he told the highwayman. “Unless you wish to decorate the gallows?”
The highwayman tottered hurriedly into the darkness.
Dex chortled under his breath, very pleased with himself. He turned back to the coach. The viscountess, the comtesse, and the baron were all staring at him.
Dex stopped feeling quite so pleased with himself. Why were they looking at him like that? It wasn’t as if anyone could have seen him use his magic. It was nighttime, after all. They’d think he’d thrown that stone at the horse, not flicked it with his magic.
“Well, that was an adventure!” he declared, rather inanely.
The comtesse and the baron exchanged a glance. Lady Fortrose regarded him with narrow-eyed thoughtfulness.
The footman scurried over to the comtesse and busied himself brushing the most obvious dirt from her gown, the coachman was intent on his horses, but the viscountess, comtesse, and baron were all looking at Dex as if they might possibly have noticed the magic. Which they couldn’t have, because it was the middle of the night and the moon, while bright, wasn’t that bright.
Dex cleared his throat with a disconcerted “Er-hem,” and turned away from those unsettling stares. He gave a piercing whistle and shouted, “You can come along now!”
His grandfather’s carriage came along.
“The rogues are long gone,” Dex assured Lady Fortrose and her companions. “You’re safe now, I promise.”
His rescuees didn’t look completely convinced. In fact, they looked rather dubious. And they were all still staring at him.
Dex decided that those stares were because they doubted their safety. It had been a rather alarming incident, after all. They’d probably been in fear of their lives.
“I tell you what, I’ll ride up on your box with the coachman. I’ll carry this blunderbuss. No one will dare stop us.”
This pronouncement didn’t appear to overwhelm his rescuees with relief. They still showed an alarming tendency to stare at him. They did, however, climb back into their carriage. Dex closed the door and scrambled up onto the box seat, alongside the coachman and footman.
The coach lurched into motion with a clip-clop of hooves. His grandfather’s coach fell in behind.
Dex cradled the blunderbuss on his lap. Wimbledon Heath trundled past on either side—shrubs, bushes, trees. The moon shone down, a bright silver disk, beautiful and indifferent.
All was well in the world—viscountess rescued, highwaymen routed—but he couldn’t quite shake the feeling that something was wrong.