“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. You; 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 too-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.
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 bleary-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, 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 it 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 round 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 horror, 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.