Chapter one of Deirdre and Don Juan

Published in 1993, reissued in April 2008 in Lovers and Ladies

" enchanting masterpiece that is sheer romantic perfection." Romantic Times

   Chapter 1
   The news of his wife's death caught the Earl of Everdon in his mistress's bed. He knew most of the world would consider this unremarkable for a man generally known as Don Juan, but he could only see it as a social solecism. Even as he read the disturbing letter, he directed a few choice epithets toward his thick-skulled secretary. What had possessed young Morrow to send it here?
   After all, he'd not clapped eyes on his wife for close to ten years, so this travel-stained record of Genie's demise could surely have waited until he returned home.
   Noblesse obliged, however, and he detached himself from Barbara Vayne's demanding fingers, swung out of bed, and began to pull on his clothes.
   He was a tall, handsome man of thirty, who had inherited a distinctly Latin cast to his features from his Spanish mother. His skin had a year-long darkness unusual in England; his eyes were a deep-velvet brown under smooth, heavy lids; his brows and lashes were richly dark. His hair, however, had been touched by his English heritage, and showed sherry-gold lights in the afternoon sun. This merely served to emphasize the darker cast of his skin.
   "Don, what's the matter?" his abandoned lover demanded plaintively, pouting her lush lips.
   He fastened his pantaloons. "A family crisis."
   Barbara threw off the covers and arched. "Something more important than this?"
   He tried never to be unkind to a woman, so he paid her the homage of a hot, regretful look, but didn't halt his dressing. His mind was on other things.
   There were disturbing aspects to this situation.
   Ten years of freedom were over.
   He had married Iphegenia Brandon when only twenty, and just down from Oxford. In retrospect, it had not been wise, and the subsequent disasters had been excruciatingly embarrassing, but he had grown accustomed. In time, he had even discovered that there were advantages to being an abandoned husband.
   For the past ten years the Matchmaking Mamas had regretfully ignored him. He had been able to behave with remarkable rashness without any possibility of being forced to the altar. His only brother's death the year before had caused him to investigate the possibility of divorce, but he had intended to select a bride with great care well before he was known to be available.
   Now, however, he was fair prey in the matrimonial hunt. Absurd though it was, once this news broke even someone like Barbara -- the wanton widow of a highly disreputable infantry captain -- might think she had a chance of getting Lord Everdon to the altar.
   He didn't neglect the courtesy of a heated farewell kiss, but he first imprisoned Barbara's hands above her head, just to be sure he escaped her bedroom safely.
   Then Mark Juan Carlos Renfrew, Earl of Everdon and lord of a score of minor properties, walked through the streets of Mayfair feeling vulnerable for the first time in his adult life.
   During the walk his wariness turned to irritation, and the irritation found a focus. When he arrived at his Marlborough Square mansion, he stalked into his secretary's study and tossed the letter on David Morrow's desk. "Preaching, I'll abide, but not outright malice. You are dismissed."
   The young man was already on his feet. Now he wavered, sheet-white. "I'm what...?"
   "You heard me. I will give you an adequate reference as to the conscientiousness of your work."
   "But... but why, my lord?"
   Everdon was arrested. Young Morrow was nothing if not honest, and his bewilderment rang true. "Why did you send that letter over to Barbara's house?"
   "But... but your wife, my lord. She's dead!"
   "Six months ago, according to that Greek priest."
   "But even so... You would want to know... You wouldn't want, at such a moment..." The young man flushed red with embarrassment.
   Everdon swore with exasperation. "David, my beloved Genie ran off with an Italian diplomat nearly ten years ago, within six months of our ill-judged and juvenile marriage. She has since worked her way through the best -- or worst -- part of the European nobility. Why the devil should I care that she's finally met her end?"
   But Everdon did care, and knew his untypical foul mood was a direct consequence of that distant death.
   Young Morrow's lips quivered slightly, but he stiffened his spine. "I am sorry for so misjudging the situation, my lord. I will just collect my possessions-"
   "Stubble it," said Everdon curtly, fairness re-asserting itself. As the fourth son of an impoverished family, David Morrow had his way to make in the world, and he was an excellent employee. It wasn't the lad's fault that he was as prissy as a cloistered nun. It amused Everdon to surround himself with righteousness.
    "I apologize for misjudging you." Everdon smiled, deliberately using his charm to soothe. "Sit down and get on with your work, David. But if you're researching that matter of the relief of debtors for me, remember my interest as always is pragmatic, not moral or sanctimonious. Give me facts and figures, not sermons."
   The secretary sat with a thump, relief flooding his round face. "Thank you, my lord. Of course, my lord..."
   Everdon waved away gratitude. "As you see, I am decidedly out of curl."
   "Er... because of your wife, my lord?"
   Everdon's smile became twisted. "You could put it that way. I'm out of curl because I'm going to have to choose my next wife in a devil of a hurry."
   Upon leaving his secretary, Everdon went straight to his mother's suite.
   Lucetta, Dowager Countess of Everdon, was a handsome woman whose strong-boned face clearly showed her Spanish heritage. Though she was fifty her black hair held no touch of gray, and her fine dark eyes could still flash with emotion. She was, however, afflicted with a hip disease that made even walking painful, and she largely kept to her rooms, receiving guests and engaged in her passion -- embroidery. Everdon kissed her cheek, then surveyed her latest piece, an exquisite working of purple pansies on gossamer silk.
   "That is very beautiful, Mother, but I can hardly see it as a chair-back." He spoke Spanish, as he always did when alone with his mother.
   She chuckled. "Assuredly not, my dear. In truth, I am not sure what I shall do with it. Lady Deirdre has infected me with this notion of needlework for its own sake. I suppose if nothing else occurs it will make a panel for a gown."
   He shook his head. "The lady does not exist who is worthy of such ornamentation."
   "What nonsense you speak, Marco. It is just embroidery. Poor women do work as fine for pennies to ornament our society blossoms."
   "I disagree." He studied the work in her frame. "That is a special piece. It's the difference between a portrait by Lawrence, and one by an itinerant artist. Lady Deirdre has a case to make. When it is finished, I shall have that work framed."
   Lucetta studied her son, her only child now his younger brother was dead, killed at Vittoria. She sensed an unusual uneasiness in him. "What brings you here today, Marco?"
   He glanced up and his long-lashed dark eyes reminded her poignantly of her brother at the same age, and in a scrape. She knew she really shouldn't blame Marco for his philandering when he had inherited her family's devastating charms, but she did. Or at least, she worried.
   He evaded her question. "Do I need an excuse to visit you, madrecita?"
   "Of course not, but it is rare to see you in the afternoon. There are so many competing attractions."
   A faint color rose in his cheeks. Beneath the olive skin many would not have noticed it, but she was accustomed to reading such things. "Well?" she demanded.
   He looked down at a glossy boot. "Genie's dead."
   Lucetta's needle paused for a moment. "At last," she said.
   She continued setting stitches. "Am I supposed to feign grief? I am not sorry. I am not surprised. I can even guess the cause of her death."
   "Mother, really..."
   "You English are so mealy-mouthed. She was a wretched young woman, and doubtless died miserably of the pox. Her suffering may save her immortal soul."
   "Hardly the sentiment of a good English Protestant," he pointed out.
   "I became a Protestant for your father. I reverted to the true faith when he died, as you know." She fixed him with a direct look. "This is good. Now you can marry again."
   "That is my duty," he said bleakly.
   Lucetta's face softened. "Not all women are as Iphegenia was, dearest one. And you are much wiser now." She sighed. "I have blamed myself most deeply."
   He moved restlessly to a window overlooking the extensive gardens of his mansion. "It wasn't your fault, love. I was mad for her."
   "But you were young, Marco. Not yet twenty. It was my duty as your mother to be wise for you."
   Lucetta abandoned her work before she made a botch of it. It was a time for truth. "I saw your grandfather and uncles in you, you see. Women came to them so easily, they could not resist. It caused great problems. Genie was so beautiful, so passionate. When you loved her, I thought she might satisfy you and keep you safe."
   He turned to face her. "And instead, I failed to satisfy her."
   "No man could satisfy her. She proved that over and again."
   He said nothing -- he never had on this subject -- but she read old anguish in his face. "Do you still feel tenderly toward her, Marco?"
   He turned again, hiding from her. "Feel for her? I can hardly remember her. I remember how I felt..." His voice turned brisk. "Never fear. I know I must marry. With Richard gone, and Cousin Ian ailing I have no choice. I can hardly leave the earldom to Kevin, fond though I am of him. I must get an heir. It is merely a matter of finding the right woman."
   "That should not be difficult. You will be the prize of the Marriage Mart." Lucetta saw him wince and struggled to keep a straight face. As she took up her needle again, she thought that the next weeks could be amusing. She was determined, however, that this time her son would make a good marriage. He probably wouldn't believe it, but he was capable of making the right woman a wonderful husband.
   "I suppose I shall have to see what is still available this late in the Season," he said. "At least I'm not looking for a Belle or an heiress. Just someone quiet, plain, and content to stay at home."
   Lucetta's needle froze. "Quiet? Plain? That is hardly to your taste."
   "It is in wives," he said crisply. "I am hoping you have a candidate in mind."
   "I will have nothing to do with such foolishness," she stated. "You will join the social whirl and find someone who appeals to you."
   "I am recently bereaved," he said piously.
   His mother spat a Spanish opinion of that excuse. "Six month's bereaved."
   Everdon leaned against a wall, arms folded. "Very well, the truth. It's too dangerous out there. I intend to be in control of this selection."
   "Foolish boy. Are you afraid of the Matchmaking Mamas?"
   His grin was disarming. "Terrified. I've worn the armor of my marriage for so long I feel naked without it." He put on a most beguiling smile. "If you love me, mama mia, you will find me a safe candidate. You can't persuade me you don't know every one of this year's crop."
   Lucetta placed a careful stitch. "Maud Tiverton, then."
   "Maud Tiverton! She looks like a cross between Torquemada and a pug."
   Lucetta smiled sweetly at him. "At least you could be sure no man would steal her from under your nose."
   This time anyone would have seen the color in his cheeks. He made no defense or denial.
   "Oh, my dear," said Lucetta seriously. "This is no way to choose your companion in life. Give it time."
   He shook his head. "Life can be chancy -- look at Richard and Ian. I know my duty." He twisted his gold signet ring. "Since Ian fell sick and recovery became unlikely, I'd even made moves to obtain a divorce, though I hate the thought of a public airing of Genie's behavior. I know the distress it would cause her parents..."
   "At least that is no longer necessary," said Lucetta gently.
   "True. And I'd be a fool to waste the last weeks of the Season. What better time to find a bride? If you won't help, I will just have to pick one blindfolded." He shrugged. "Marriage is a mere lottery anyway. If one doesn't spend too long anguishing over the ticket, there's less pain if it turns out a loser."
   Lucetta rested her hands on her frame and considered him with a frown. She could tell he was in earnest and would do this foolish thing. "Very well, then. If that is how it is, I think you should marry Deirdre."
   "Deirdre Stowe?" he said blankly.
   "Lady Deirdre Stowe, daughter of the Earl of Harby. My young friend, whom you have met here now and again. That Deirdre."
   "Why not?" she asked briskly. "Is not one lottery ticket as good as another? She is well-born and well-bred. Her portion is comfortable. She is composed, but not weak. She will be well able to run your households and raise your children. It does, however, seem highly unlikely that some man will try to filch her from you -- men being short-sighted in these matters -- and even less likely that she would dream of being filched. Furthermore," she added tartly, "I have more concern for my comfort than you have for yours, and I like her."
   He shrugged. "The best argument of all. Consider it done."
   Her eyes flashed angrily. "Does it not occur to you, you wretch, that she might refuse you?"
   He quirked a brow. "No. Will she?"
   She glared at him but then sighed and shook her head. "It is unlikely, I fear. It would do you good to be refused for once. One reason I suggested Deirdre -- and I am beginning to regret it -- is that she is having a miserable time. She doesn't speak of it, but I am sure she is a wall-flower."
   "Men probably just don't notice her," Everdon pointed out. "She's so thin and wishy-washy I hardly notice her when she's here in the room." He looked around, in the pretence that the young lady might in fact be present.
   Lucetta shook her head. "It will not do, will it? I will try to think of someone more suitable."
   "Nonsense. She is ideal. I believe the Ashbys are holding a soirée tonight. Will she be there?"
   "It is likely. Her mother drags her everywhere, firmly convinced that one day a miracle will happen, and Deirdre will turn into a Toast before everyone's eyes."
   He grinned. "And so she will. She is about to sweep Don Juan off his feet."
   Lucetta focussed on him the full force of a maternal look. "Marco, I warn you, hurt Deirdre and you will pray for the fires of hell."
   LOVERS AND LADIES will be out in April, 2008.

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