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The Royal Academy was hot and crowded, even though the Season had scarcely begun. It was supposed to be a private viewing, open only to the best and brightest of Society, but that seemed to include half of London.
St. John, the Earl of Donnington, yawned behind his hand and glanced at the paintings with only the mildest interest. He was far more intrigued by Lady Mandeville's backside. Unfortunately, she was very happily married, unlike a great many of the peerage, and her husband was a rather large man.
Sinjin strolled the Exhibition Room, seeking more amenable prey. There was Mrs. Laidlaw, whose husband was known to be involved with Lady Winthrop. She was quite acceptable in every way but her hair. It was blond, and that was anathema to him.
Lady Andrew, on the other hand, was dark-haired, and her gown was very tight in the bodice, the impressive curve of her bosom all the more accentuated by the severity of her garments. Her husband was a known philanderer, making her ripe for the plucking.
As if she felt his stare, Lady Andrew turned. Her eyes widened as she saw him, and he wondered what was going through her pretty head.
The Earl of Donnington. Wealthy, handsome, possessed of every grace a peer ought to display. Impeccable clothing. The bearing of an Indian prince.
Sinjin laughed to himself. Ah, yes. The very pinnacle of perfection.
And London's most notorious bachelor rake.
He smiled at Lady Andrew. Her lips curved tentatively, and then she turned back to the painting. It was enough. She was interested, and when it wasn't so damned hot, he might choose to pursue the opportunity that had so readily presented itself.
Out of habit, he continued his hunting. Far too many blondes. But here, a little beauty with soft brown hair, a figure too abundant to be fashionable, and a much older husband by her side. There, an Amazon with shining black tresses and the confident manner of a woman who has been desired.
And across the room, standing before one of the new Alma-Tademas
A mass of curling ginger hair that couldn't quite be contained in the tightly wrapped styles of the day, a height neither petite nor tall, a figure neat and fine, a dress so unobtrusive that it made her fiery head all the more striking.
Ginger hair was not fashionable. But it drew Sinjin like a roaring hearth in winter. It collected all the heat in the room and crackled with light.
"Ah. You noticed her, too."
Mr. Leopold Erskine joined Sinjin, his tie somewhat wilted, his auburn hair disheveled and his tall, rangy body bent as if the heat were a physical burden riding on his shoulders. The second son of the Earl of Elston, Leo had been one of Sinjin's best friends since their first meeting ten years ago as hopelessly foolish and naive young men. They'd spent considerable time together since, and Sinjin valued Leo's opinionthough in many ways Erskine had never quite grown up. He spent months at a time either traipsing around the deserts of North Africa and Arabia, or with his head buried in one of his incomprehensible scholarly books.
He had also declined to become a member of the confirmed bachelor set of which Sinjin was undisputed leader. Erskine was constitutionally incapable of being a rake; he actually regarded women as friends and equals.
"Quite a beauty, isn't she?" Leo commented, squinting his curious gray eyes.
Sinjin chuckled. "How can you tell? All I see is the back of her. And you've left off your spectacles."
"It was you who advised me not to wear them. ‘Too bookish,' you said."
"So I did." He slapped Leo's back. "Someone must look after you, Erskine. You're a little lost lamb. You ought to join one of our gatherings you might even enjoy it."
"Not I. I should rather read in my library."
"Of course. How foolish of me to suggest it."
Leo began to speak again, but Sinjin's attention had already wandered back to the fire maiden. She had turned slightly, but her face was still not visible. Yet there was a lightness and grace about her movements as she bent her head to listen to one of the ladies standing beside her a tall, dark-haired woman Sinjin recognized.
"I see that the lady in question keeps company with the widows," Sinjin remarked.
"You haven't been living in a cave, Erskine. Those widows. The untouchables."
"Ah, yes. I believe they call themselves the ‘Widows' Club.'"
"The Witches' Club," or so some liked to call them: a half-dozen wealthy, well-bred and eccentric ladies who had vowed never to marry again. Sinjin felt a flicker of disappointment.
"Are you acquainted with them?" Erskine asked.
"One would be hard-pressed not to be aware of the dowager Duchess of Vardon," Sinjin said. "She believes she is some sort of ancient princess."
Erskine pinched the bridge of his nose as if he were pushing up his missing spectacles. "Eccentric she may be, but she is a renowned hostess. For the past two years she has wielded considerable power in Society."
"Ha! As usual, you know far more than you let on."
"As you said, I have not been living in a cave." Leo smiled knowingly. "Even you cannot scorn such a formidable lady, Donnington."
"I won't kowtow to any woman, not even a former duchess."
"It would nevertheless be unwise to let her know that you despise her, or her chosen companions, because of their sex."
Sinjin ignored Erskine's comment. With increased interest, he let his gaze wander over the other women standing near the fire maiden. There was another ginger-haired girl pressed so close to the painting that her nose almost touched it; she wore one of those odd Aesthetic dresses without bustle or stays. It would, he reflected, be a good deal easier to get a woman out of such a garment, especially if one were in a hurry.
But his gaze passed over her, pausing only briefly on the stiffly upright young woman in the severe gray suit, the plump blonde, the brown-haired girl in an unbecoming and out-of-fashion dress and the older woman with a good figure and what might accurately be called a "handsome" face. He lingered a moment on the very young girl with black hair and dull gray dress: she must be still in mourning. Too young, in any case.
And that brought him back to the fire maiden. If she didn't have a horse's face or spots, she would be nearly perfect.
You may have vowed not to marry again, my dear, he thought. But that does not preclude a little entertainment on the side.
"What do you know of her, Leo?"
Erskine didn't ask which "she" he meant. "Lady Charles, wife of the late Lord Charles Parkhill."
"Parkhill? Charles is dead?"
"Two years ago, of a longstanding illness."
Sinjin shook his head. "I'm very sorry to hear it. I knew him at Eton even then he was often in ill health."
"Yes. Poor fellowafter so many years of isolation at his estate, he had few people but his family to mourn him when he passed on."
"I didn't know he had married."
"Only six months before his passing. Lady Charles cared for him until the end. She was completely devoted to him and never left his side. Even after she was widowed, she remained in the country until this Season."
"She is newly come to London?" Sinjin asked, surprised.
"Yes. The dowager Duchess of Vardon and the dowager Marchioness of Oxenham have been introducing her around town, but I understand that she has remained somewhat reclusive."
"Who are her family?" he asked.
"That, I have not heard." Erskine frowned. "Are you thinking of pursuing her?"
"I might have done, if not for Charles. I owe him a certain respect in light of our time together at Eton."
"You owe him respect, but not his widow."
"She does not seem particularly stricken."
"You know nothing about her except what little I have told you."
"Have you an interest, Erskine?"
"I need not be a member of your set to decline the pleasure of marriage," Erskine said.
"And you would consider nothing less."
"I am hopelessly old-fashioned, as you have so often reminded me."
Sinjin snorted. "Someday your virtue will take a tumble, my friend."
"And one of these days, old chap, you may find a woman who is your equal."
"If such a creature existed, I would marry her on the spot."
"May I take you at your word, Sin? Shall we make a friendly wager of it?" Leo suggested.
"You aren't a gambling man."
"The study of human nature is one of my favorite occupations."
"I don't know that I wish to be an object of study."
Leo produced his wallet and counted out twenty pounds. "Surely you can afford this much. But if you are afraid "
"Afraid of a woman?" Sinjin thrust out his hand. "Done."
"Then I shall leave you to it," Erskine said, smiling with an artless warmth that made Sinjin remember why they were friends. The tall man stalked away like an amiable giraffe and was lost in the crowd.
Throwing off a peculiar chill of unease, Sinjin returned his attention to the fire maiden. She was gone. He moved closer to the line of people observing the paintings and followed the flow.
There. She had stopped again and was examining a Frith with her head slightly cocked and her profile clearly visible.
No horse's face, and no spots. Sinjin didn't need to see the rest of her features to know she was lovely. He realized that her profile was familiar; he must have met her before he went to India, but he couldn't remember the place or time. How could he not have noticed her then?
He began to move in her direction, walking parallel to the queue of observers. The second ginger-haired girl was expounding on some aspect of the painting, her hands animated. The plump blonde nodded. The fire maiden suddenly turned around to...