A Secret Affair
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 acquaintance—his grace, all impatience to be wed, had procured a special license rather than wait for the banns to be read—when she was nineteen and he was somewhere in his seventies. No one seemed certain of exactly 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 blondness—a 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 possibly have 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 freedom to enjoy her riches to the full.
The old duke had worshiped the ground she walked upon, to use the old cliché. 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 to her 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 furs—among other garments and accessories—that had been worn once, perhaps twice, before being discarded 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 come and 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 not stray 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 himself—and it became increasingly difficult for him to do so as the years went on—then other men escorted his duchess to the social events with which the ton amused itself whenever it was in town in large numbers. There were three in particular—Lord Hardingraye, Sir Bradley Bentley, and Viscount Zimmer—all 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 was included in that enjoyment. The only detail people wondered about—and wonder they did, of course, without ever reaching a satisfactory conclusion—was 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 duke—especially as he was now elderly and therefore deserving of pity—and preferred 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 not nearly 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 Christmas at 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 than the 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 in for 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 forever about 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 point out 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, that was, 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 beautiful now 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 styled—but in 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 hordes of 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 her life 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 still lived 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.