Vice, p.1

Vice, page 1



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  Also by Jane Feather

























  This one, finally, is for Jim. Always my inspiration. Always—well nearly always—the soul of patience. Always a rock of support and reassurance. Always my love.



  I do not have such a piece at present, Your Grace.”

  “I didn’t imagine you would, madam. But I assume you could procure one.” Tarquin, third Duke of Redmayne, bent to inhale the fragrance of a rose in a deep bowl on the table at his side.

  “Such specific requirements will not be simple to furnish,” Mrs. Dennison mused from behind her painted fan.

  A smile flickered over the duke’s lean countenance. “You and Mr. Dennison will find the reward matches the effort, Elizabeth.”

  His hostess glanced over her fan and her eyes twinkled. “La, Duke, you know how I hate to discuss terms … so vulgar.”

  “Very vulgar,” he agreed smoothly. “However, it must be the genuine article, madam. I have no interest in counterfeit maidenhead, however fresh the piece might appear.”

  Elizabeth Dennison looked wounded. “How could you suggest such a thing, Your Grace?”

  The duke’s smile broadened, but he shook his head slightly and drew a lapis lazuli snuffbox from the deep pocket of his full-skirted velvet coat. There was silence in the sunny parlor as he took a leisurely pinch, closed the box, and replaced it before dusting his nose with a lace-trimmed handkerchief.

  “Is the piece to be for Your Grace’s own use, may I ask?” the lady inquired a trifle hesitantly. One could never be certain with the Duke of Redmayne where he drew the line between useful inquiry and impertinence.

  “You may assume when you go about the search that she will be for my exclusive use.” The duke rose to his feet, “That way we can be certain she will meet the most exacting of standards.”

  “I trust you will find that all of our ladies meet the highest standards, sir” There was a note of reproof in her voice as Mistress Dennison rose in a rustle of silk. “My husband and I pride ourselves on the quality of our house.” She pulled the bell rope.

  “Had I believed otherwise, Elizabeth, I wouldn’t have sought your help,” the duke said gently, picking up his gloves and cane from the console table.

  Mistress Dennison looked somewhat mollified. “I shall put inquiries in train immediately, Your Grace.”

  “Keep me informed of your progress. I give you good day, madam.” Her visitor bowed courteously, but there was a glint in his hooded gray eyes that his hostess, sweeping him a low curtsy, found vaguely discomfiting. But it was a familiar sensation when doing business with the Duke of Redmayne, and she was not alone in feeling it.

  She turned with an assumption of brisk assurance to the flunky who’d appeared in answer to the bell. “His Grace is leaving.”

  “Madam, your most obedient, …” the duke murmured with another bow. He followed the flunky from the room, into the hall. There was a hush over the house in the sunlit morning, the maids creeping about their business as if anxious not to disturb the sleepers above stairs—those whose business was conducted at night and who took their well-earned rest in the daylight.

  The smile faded from Mistress Dennison’s countenance as the door closed behind her visitor. The duke’s commission would not be easy to fulfill. A piece still in possession of her maidenhood, who could be coerced into obeying the duke’s dictates.

  Virgins could be discovered easily enough … innocent country girls arriving friendless in the big city were ten a penny. But one who would have a reason to agree to the duke’s dictates …

  And not the dictates customary in this kind of contract, as the duke had been at pains to emphasize. He wanted no common whore, because he had a most uncommon use for her. He hadn’t elaborated on that use.

  Elizabeth Dennison shrugged her plump, creamy shoulders. She would put the situation to Richard. Her husband and business partner could be relied upon to come up with a plan of campaign. One didn’t disoblige a client as wealthy and powerful as Tarquin, Duke of Redmayne.

  Chapter 1

  Juliana was suffocating. Her husband was making no attempt to protect her from the full force of his weight as he huffed and puffed, red-faced and Weary-eyed with wedding drink. She was perfectly resigned to this consummation and indeed was quite well-disposed toward Sir John, for all his advanced years and physical bulk, but it occurred to her that if she didn’t alert him to her predicament in some way, she was going to expire beneath him.

  Her nose was squashed against the mountainous chest and her throat was closing. She couldn’t think clearly enough to work out what was happening to the rest of her body, but judging by John’s oaths and struggles, matters were not proceeding properly. Black spots began to dance before her eyes, and her chest heaved in a desperate fight to draw air into her lungs. Panicked now, she flailed her arms to either side of her imprisoned body, and then her left hand closed over the smooth brass handle of the bed warmer.

  With an instinctive desperation she raised the object and brought it down on her husband’s shoulders. It was not a hard blow and was intended simply to bring him back to his senses, but it seemed to have the opposite effect.

  Sir John’s glazed eyes widened as he stared at the wall behind her head, his panting mouth fell open; then, with a curious sigh like air escaping from a deflated balloon, he collapsed upon her.

  If she thought he’d been heavy before, he was now a deadweight, and Juliana shoved and pushed, calling his name repeatedly, trying to wake him up.

  If she’d been panicked before, she was now terrified. She tried to call out, but her voice was muffled by his body and lost in the thickly embroidered brocade bed curtains. There was no way anyone could hear her behind the firmly latched oak door. The household was asleep, and George had passed out after his third bottle of port on the couch in the library. Not that she could have endured being found here in this mortifying exposure by her loathsome stepson.

  Juliana wriggled like an eel, her body slick with the sweat of effort; then, finally, she managed to draw up her knees and obtain sufficient leverage to free her legs. Digging her heels into the mattress, she heaved with her arms and shoulders, and John rolled sideways just enough for her to squiggle out before he flopped back again.

  Slowly she stood up and gazed down at him, her hand over her mouth, her eyes wide with shock. She bent over him.

  “John?” Tentatively, she touched his shoulder, shook him lightly. “John?”

  There was no sound, and his face was buried in the pillows. She turned his head. His sightless eyes stared up at her.

  “Sweet Jesus, have mercy!” Juliana whispered, stepping back from the corpse. She had killed her husband!

  Dazed and incredulous, she stood by the bed, listening to the nighttime sounds of the house: the ticking clocks, the creaking floorboards, the wind rattling open casements. No sounds of human life.

  Dear God, it was her cursed clumsiness again! Why, oh why did everything she ever did always come out wrong?

  She had to waken someone. But what would they say? The r
ound mark of the bed warmer stood out on the dead man’s back. She must have hit him harder than she’d intended. But, of course, that was inevitable given her blunder-headed, accident-prone nature.

  Sick with honor, she touched the bed warmer and found it still very hot. She’d struck and killed her husband with a burning object.

  George would waste no time. He would listen to no reasonable explanations. He would accuse her publicly as he’d done privately that morning of gold digging. Of marrying a man old enough to be her grandfather just for his money. He’d accuse her of manipulating his father’s besotted affections and then arranging his death so she’d be free and clear with all that had been allotted to her in the marriage settlements. Property that George believed was his and his alone.

  It was petty treason for a woman to kill her husband. Just as it was for a servant to kill his master. If she was convicted, they would burn her at the stake.

  Juliana backed farther away from the bed, pushing aside the bed curtains, rushing to the window, where she stood drawing deep gulps of the warm night air, enlivened by a faint sea breeze from the Solent. They would burn her at the stake.

  She’d seen it happen once, outside Winchester jail. Mistress Goadsby had been convicted of killing her husband when he’d fallen down the stairs. She’d said he’d been drunk and had been beating her and he’d tripped and fallen. She’d stood in the dock with the bruises still on her face. But they’d tied her to the stake, hanged her, and set fire to her.

  Juliana had been little more than a child at the time, but the image had haunted her over the years … the smell of burning flesh embedded in her nostrils. Nausea swamped her, and she ran back to the bed, dragging the chamber pot from beneath, vomiting violently.

  Perhaps the magistrates would believe that John had died of natural causes in the midst of his exertions … but there was that mark on his back. He couldn’t have put that there himself.

  And George would see it. A stepmother convicted of murdering her husband couldn’t inherit. The marriage set-dements would be nullified, and George would have what he wanted.

  Juliana didn’t know how long she sat on the floor, hunched over the chamber pot, but gradually the sweat dried on her forehead and her mind cleared.

  She had to leave. There was no one there to speak for her … to speak against the facts before their eyes. Her guardian had negotiated the marriage settlements, ensuring, of course, that he, too, benefited from the arrangements. He had then thankfully washed his hands of one who had been nothing but a troublesome charge from the first moment his orphaned infant niece had been delivered into his arms. There was no one else remotely interested in her.

  She stood up, thrust the chamber pot back beneath the bed with her foot, and took stock. The stagecoach for London stopped at the Rose and Crown in Winchester at four o’clock in the morning. She could walk the ten miles to Winchester across the fields and be there in plenty of time. By the time the household awoke, or George emerged from his stupor, she would be far away.

  They would pursue her, but she could lose herself easily in London. She just had to ensure she wouldn’t draw attention to herself at the Rose and Crown.

  Averting her eyes from the bed, Juliana went to the armoire, newly filled with her trousseau. But she’d secreted a pair of holland britches and a linen shirt. In this costume she’d escaped Forsett Towers on the frequent occasions when life had become more than usually unpleasant under the rule of her guardian’s wife. No one had ever discovered the disguise, or the various places where she’d roamed. Of course, she’d paid the price on her return, but Lady Forsett’s hazel switch had seemed but a small price to pay for those precious hours of freedom.

  She dressed rapidly, pulling on stockings and boots, twisting her flame-red hair into a knot on top of her head, tucking telltale strands under a woolen cap pulled down low over her ears.

  She needed money. Enough for her coach fare and a few nights’ lodging until she could find work. But she wouldn’t take anything that would be missed. Nothing that would brand her as a thief as well as a murderess.

  Why she should concern herself about such a hair-splitting issue Juliana couldn’t imagine, but her mind seemed to be working on its own, making decisions, discarding possibilities with all the efficiency of an automaton.

  She took four sovereigns from the cache in the dresser drawer. She had watched John empty his pockets … hours ago, it seemed—after the revelers had finally left the bedroom door and taken their jovial obscenities out of the house, leaving the newlyweds to themselves.

  John had been almost too drunk to stand upright. She could see him now, swaying as he poured the contents of his pocket into the drawer—his bloodshot blue eyes gleaming with excitement, his habitually red face now a deep crimson.

  Tears suddenly clogged her throat as she slipped the still-unfamiliar wedding ring from her finger. John had always been kind to her in an avuncular way. She’d been more than willing to accept marriage to him as a way of escaping her guardian’s house. More than willing until she realized she’d have to contend with George … malicious, jealous, lusting George. But it had been too late to back away then. She dropped the ring into the drawer with the remaining sovereigns. The gold circlet winked at her, its glow diffused through her tears.

  Resolutely, Juliana closed the drawer and turned back to the cheval glass to check her reflection. Her disguise had never been intended to fool people close at hand, and as she examined herself, she realized that the linen shirt did nothing to disguise the rich swell of her bosom; and the curve of her hips was emphasized by the britches.

  She took a heavy winter cloak from the armoire and swathed herself. It hid the bumps and the curves, but it was still far from satisfactory. However, the light would be bad at that hour of the morning, and with luck there’d be other passengers on the waybill, so she could make herself inconspicuous.

  She tiptoed to the bedroom door, glancing at the closed bed curtains. She felt as if she should make some acknowledgment of the dead man. It seemed wrong to be running from his deathbed. And yet she could think of nothing else to do. For a minute she thought hard about the man whom she’d known for a bare three months. She remembered his kindnesses. And then she put him from her. John Ridge had been sixty-five years old. He’d had three wives. And he’d died quickly, painlessly … a death for which she had been responsible.

  Juliana let herself out of the bedchamber and crept along the pitch-dark corridor, her fingers brushing the walls to guide her. At the head of the stairs she paused. The hall below was dark, but not as black as the corridor behind her. Faint moonlight filtered through the diamond panes of the mullioned windows.

  Her eyes darted to the library door. It was firmly closed. She sped down the stairs, tiptoed to the door, and placed her ear against the oak. Her heart hammered in her chest, and she wondered why she was lingering, listening to the rumbling, drunken snores from within. But hearing them made her feel safer.

  She turned to leave, and her foot caught in the fringe of the worn Elizabethan carpet. She went flying, grabbed at a table leg to save herself, and fell to her knees: a copper jug of hollyhocks overbalanced as the table rocked, and crashed to the stone-flagged floor.

  She remained where she was on her knees, listening to the echo resound to the beamed ceiling and then slowly fade into the night. It had been a sound to wake the dead.

  But nothing happened. No shouts, no running feet … and most miraculously of all, no change in the stertorous breathing from the library.

  Juliana picked herself up, swearing under her breath. It was her feet again. They were the bane of her life, too big and with a mind of their own.

  She crept with exaggerated care toward the back regions of the house and let herself out of the kitchen door. Outside all was quiet. The house behind her slept. The house that should have been her home—her refuge from the erratic twists and turns of a life that had brought her little happiness thus far.

  Juliana s
hrugged. Like a stray cat who had long ago learned to walk alone, she faced the haphazard future with uncomplaining resignation. As she crossed the kitchen yard, making for the orchard and the fields beyond, the church clock struck midnight.

  Her seventeenth birthday was over. A day she’d begun as a bride and ended as a widow and a murderess.

  “I give you good day, cousin,” a voice slurred from the depths of an armchair as the Duke of Redmayne entered the library of his house on Albermarle Street.

  “To what do I owe this pleasure, Lucien?” the duke inquired in bland tones, although a flicker of disgust crossed his face. “Escaping your creditors? Or are you simply paying me a courtesy visit?”

  “Lud, such sarcasm, cousin.” Lucien Courtney rose to his feet and surveyed with a mocking insouciance his cousin and the man who’d entered close behind him. “Well, well, and if it isn’t our dear Reverend Courtney as well. What an embarrassment of relatives. How d’ye do, dear boy.”

  “Well enough,” the other man responded easily. He was soberly dressed in gray, with a plain white neck cloth, in startling contrast to the duke’s peacock-blue satin coat, with its gold flogged buttons and deep embroidered cuffs. But the physical resemblance to the duke was startling: the same aquiline nose and deep-set gray eyes, the same thin, well-shaped mouth, the same cleft chin. However, there the resemblance ended. Whereas Quentin Courtney regarded the world and its vagaries with the gentle and genuine sympathy of a devout man of the cloth, his half brother Tarquin, the Duke of Redmayne, saw his fellow man through the sharp and disillusioned eyes of the cynic.

  “So what brings you to the fleshpots?” Lucien inquired with a sneer. “I thought you’d become an important official in some country bishop’s diocese.”

  “Canon of Melchester Cathedral,” Quentin said coolly. “I’m on my bishop’s business with the Archbishop of Canterbury at the moment.”

  “Oh, aren’t we rising far, fast, and holy,” Lucien declared with a curled lip. Quentin ignored the statement.

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