On Monday afternoon, Unity wrangled her voluminous black curls into subdued twists and clothed herself in her finest day dress. She looked more like a governess than a society miss, but she wished to learn from the Duke of Lambley, not waltz with him.
How many masquerades would he permit her to attend? If she were lucky… maybe two. It was not at all ideal, but if one was the best she could negotiate, then it would have to do. She’d bring a reticule large enough to hold a journal and several pencils, and take note of absolutely everything.
Her confidence wavered.
She’d spent years observing her cousin’s operations before attempting to meddle, and months immersed in Sampson’s before daring to make changes. Did she really think a single night hosted by the Duke of Lambley would have the power to—
Yes. She did think. After all, she knew what a masquerade was. She had attended several at Vauxhall and elsewhere. All she was looking for was the special spark that made his so different.
It couldn’t just be the carnal assignations rumored to proliferate at his parties. London had plenty of brothels and street prostitutes and high class demimondaines for all tastes and pocketbooks. Nor was Lambley the only member of the beau monde to host a masquerade.
Of course, fine gentlemen weren’t supposed to host parties. There was meant to be a wife or a dowager or an aunt or a sister acting as hostess, to make the gathering respectable. But clearly the duke wasn’t too concerned with conforming to society’s expectations.
That was the only reason Unity might have a chance. She did not match Polite Society’s expectations. To them, she was the wrong color, the wrong class, the wrong everything. But to Lambley, who delighted in being unconventional…
One night. One invitation. It could happen.
When the hack drew up outside the duke’s grand residence, Unity froze with her gloved fingers against the smudged glass of the small window.
The house was enormous. Three stories tall, and wide enough to fit her cousin’s club and Sampson’s gambling parlor in each wing. What on earth did anyone do with that much house? He could turn the first two floors into a theatre and still have more living space than a normal person would know what to do with.
Perhaps that’s what he was doing. Masquerades were a sort of theatre. Costumes to wear, roles to play. She could not wait to see what the stage looked like up close.
Unity handed the driver a coin and scrambled out of the hackney, then immediately regretted having done so. A lady did not scramble. Not that she was likely to be confused for a lady, but nonetheless, she did not wish to create a poor impression. What if he had seen her ungainly leap to the cobbled street?
More importantly, how was this street so clean? Did he and his neighbors employ an army of sweepers to dust away every pebble and leaf and horse dropping before it could even land? Did shoe-shiners pop out of the shadows to buff individual cobblestones into gleaming perfection after each carriage passed?
She made her way up the gorgeous, trimmed path to the front door, pausing every few feet to gawk at the size and breadth of his home.
Only because she was staring slack-jawed and shameless did she see a figure step close enough to one of the enormous windows for his face to be bathed in sunlight.
Three seconds. Maybe four. But that was all it took to burn that patrician profile into Unity’s brain for the rest of time. He was not even the sort of man she liked, and she would no doubt dream of him every night for the next two months.
Tall and wide of shoulder, dressed in the first stare of fashion and all that other twaddle Unity didn’t care about. It should have made him indistinguishable from every other rich, indolent Town buck.
But that face. Those shameless wenches had told her he was attractive, but a mere word could not encapsulate the harsh beauty of his face.
The duke’s visage should not have been handsome at all. Pale, cruel, unyielding. The angles a touch too sharp, the jaw a touch too square… and yet, touching was indeed what she longed to do. Feel those harsh lines beneath her fingertips. The firm lips of his unsmiling mouth, the dark lashes framing eyes that…
He had been too far away to gauge their color. His expression had not been angry or pinched or brooding, but rather… calculating, perhaps. As though when he looked out of his window, he did not see luxurious homes on a fairy-tale-perfect street, but rather the next battle in a war. He was moving chess pieces in his mind, and London’s lords and ladies were his pawns.
Definitely not an attractive look, she assured herself. He exuded coldness and power and control. A god, dispassionately surveying his creations, and deciding what to toy with next.
By the flutter in Unity’s pulse and the shallowness in her wispy breaths, she had no doubt every woman who crossed his threshold hoped to be the next morsel on the menu.
Indeed, this was the quickest reconnaissance mission she had ever attempted. She hadn’t even made it all the way to the front door, and already she knew exactly why the female half of his guests would strike any bargain required to be allowed through the door. Hell, even some of the male guests likely felt the same way.
The duke’s magnetism was the sort where you knew—you knew—he was bad for you in every sense, but it only made you want to press even closer. To be the one that haughty face turned towards, to be the butterfly pinned by those all-knowing eyes.
She swallowed and hastened up the path before she lost her nerve.
A butler opened the door.
Did she curtsey? She curtseyed. Why did she curtsey? Roger had a butler, and she never curtseyed for him. Then again, she’d felt as though they were of the same class. Servants and wards weren’t humans in the eyes of Roger.
This butler, however. He didn’t seem like an employee at all. He seemed regal. A marble statue, like his master. Cold. Dispassionate. Waiting.
“Er,” Unity said. “I… came to see… the duke?”
“Have you an appointment?” the butler asked in a tone that implied they both knew she did not have an appointment.
Unity fought the urge to fidget, then went ahead and fidgeted. This was her best dress, her best bonnet. Was it the light brown of her skin? Or was “respectable governess” the mistake? Perhaps the duke had a personal policy never to meet with anyone who could be considered proper.
Or perhaps it was her extended gaping in the front garden that had given her away.
“I’ve no appointment.” She straightened her pelisse. “I’m here to beg just a moment of His Grace’s time. My name is—”
The butler held out his hand.
Unity stared at it. Was she supposed to shake it? Kiss it? Dance a reel?
The butler’s voice was impassive. “Your calling card, if you please.”
Her calling card. Of course. She would absolutely hand one over, if she’d ever had reason to own such a thing prior to this moment.
“If you could just… tell him…” She trailed off. It was clear that one did not “tell” His Grace anything. If she were meant to be here, she would have an appointment, and they both knew it.
The butler lowered his hand. “If there’s nothing else?”
“Nothing else,” Unity mumbled and turned away before he could close the door in her face.
Lambley had won this round, damn him. But the game had just started.