One Night With You Page 1

Author: Sophie Jordan

Series: The Derrings #3

Genres: Romance , Historical

Chapter 1

Lady Jane Guthrie stared out her bedchamber window, her gaze following a lone carriage as it rattled down the dark and silent street. A great lumbering beast, it crawled through the night fog, its inhabitants unknown, its destination unknown, yet she wished she were aboard it, sheltered within its depths.

The evening wind tossed the curtains at the carriage window in a taunting farewell. She splayed her hand over the glass, cool and lifeless against her palm, watching as the carriage turned the square and disappeared from sight. Her stomach churned as the fading clatter of hooves echoed dully in the night.

Gradually, she exerted more pressure, pressing harder, as if she could break through the glass and transport herself away, outside—far from Desmond and Chloris and her three fractious nieces who delighted in heaping abuse upon her.

A shaky laugh spilled from her lips, filling the silence. Unreasonable expectations. A year well past mourning yet here she was, a glorified servant in the home she had once managed.

The door opened behind her with a soft creak. She jerked back from the window and spun around, fearing her thoughts had conjured forth demons to stop her night’s plans, to put her in place—in her cage. Her pulse beat furiously at her throat and her hand flew to her neck as if she might still the clamoring beat.

Anna stepped inside the room, her middle-aged face wreathed in a broad smile. Jane dropped her hand and drew a calming breath, the thud of her heart quieting in her ears.

“Mr. Billings has left for his club and Mrs. Billings retired to her rooms for the evening.” Anna paused, her great bosom lifting with excited breath. “It’s time.”

Jane nodded, her heart loosening inside her chest with the knowledge that Desmond had gone, that the same roof did not cover their heads. No risk of running into him in the corridor, of suffering his lecherous, insolent stare.

Nothing would stop her. Nothing barred her from seizing an evening out, a night of freedom.

Tonight belonged to her. Even if the rest of her life did not.

Jane pressed a hand to her stomach to still the dance of butterflies there. “Heavens,” she breathed, “you would think I’ve never attended a ball before.”

“Well. It has been an age,” Anna rejoined with a wry twist to her lips.

Jane turned to the cheval mirror to inspect her appearance one final time. The pale blue gown had been buried in the back of her wardrobe behind all the mourning rags. She hardly recognized herself in anything save dismal black crepe and paramatta.

“It’s good to see you in color again.” Anna stroked her chin thoughtfully. “But something is missing.”

Jane lifted an eyebrow in question.

Anna opened a small lacquered chest sitting on top of Jane’s dressing table. Few items filled it.

Her husband had not been one to lavish her with jewelry. At least not for her.

She possessed only one item of value. This, Anna pulled from a black velvet pouch, the stones sparkling as though lit from a light within. “Here you are.”

Jane brushed her fingers over the necklace, smiling in fond memory at the grandmother who had left it to her. Her fingers caressed the lustrous stones. If possible, they seemed brighter than she recalled. The canary diamonds felt warm, almost electric. Their age-worn surface glided seductively against her palm and the gold chain winked in the light. As a girl, she had believed any woman wearing it could only look beautiful.

“Very well.” Turning, she lifted her hair, the tendrils silky smooth. Anna had pulled back the heavy mass with two jet-studded combs and arranged it to trail down her back. Usually coarse as a horse’s mane and wound tightly into a knot, her hair felt like it belonged to another woman.

“There now.” Her maid stepped back to survey her handiwork. “You don’t look the crow anymore.”

Jane eyed herself in the mirror, stroking the diamonds weighing heavily at her throat. Her fingers moved from the necklace to the blue sleeve of her dress, rubbing the satin between her fingers.

“For one night at least.”

“You’ll wear color again,” Anna vowed in a voice hard with resolve, her dark eyes glinting beneath thick gray brows.

Jane forced herself to nod. Desmond’s leering face flashed across her mind and her stomach dipped. If her brother-in-law had his way, she would never wear color again, nor would she rejoin Society.

A deep sigh welled up from her chest. One year, four months, and ten days had passed since Marcus’s death, but Desmond remained as determined as ever to sequester her from Society, to keep her dancing attendance to the demanding needs of his daughters… and staring her with what she had come to consider the look.

 _The look _ reminded her of a gorilla she’d once seen at a zoological exhibition. The beast had swayed behind its bars, his eyes liquid pools of yearning, eager to break loose and devour her.

Anna interrupted her musings. “Come now. Your friends are waiting, and you’ve an evening of dancing ahead.”

 Dancing. Jane wondered if she remembered how. She had not been much of a dancer when Marcus lived, spending most of her time on the edge of ballrooms with dowagers long resigned to each other’s company, and matrons preferring each other’s company to that of the husbands they suffered at home.

Shaking off the cheerless realization that her state of widowhood had not greatly altered her social patterns, she moved to the door, determined to thwart her insufferable relations if only in this small act. Tonight was not about dancing or leisure entertainments. Tonight was an exercise in rebellion. To prove, if only to herself, that she was no one’s prisoner, that she alone controlled her life.

“Do try and enjoy yourself. Forget about those little monsters down the hall.” Anna settled Jane’s cloak about her, giving her shoulder an encouraging squeeze. “You deserve some happiness.”

 Happiness. Jane let the word roll around in her head, testing it. She had ceased hoping for something as elusive as happiness long ago. For now, for tonight, freedom would satisfy her.

The house was silent as she followed Anna down the servants’ stairs. Her feet moved swiftly on the creaking steps.

“I’ll see that the door remains unlocked. Here, don’t forget this.” Anna thrust a black domino into her hand as they reached the back door.

On impulse, Jane embraced her old nurse in the shadows. “Thank you,” she murmured, wondering what she would have done without at least one friend within these walls. Anna had kept her sane during those miserable days when her marriage first crumbled. Nineteen, new to Town, new to her role as Lady Guthrie, she had been unprepared for the life her husband introduced her to—a world of glittering hypocrisy that slapped down anyone failing to sparkle.

Marcus had been the first to deliver that lesson.

Anna tapped her gently on the chin. “No frowns. I expect to hear you danced and flirted with every gentleman in the room.”

Before Jane could respond that flirting was the last thing on her mind—especially since she had no clue _how _ to flirt—and that tonight was purely an exercise in freedom, Anna pushed her out into the night.

Like a bird thrust from its nest, she blinked against the thick mist and hovered on the back stoop for a moment, staring down the worn stone steps and wondering if she should perhaps return to the safety of her room.

 Where you will remain for all the rest of your days.

The bitter thought barely had time to root before she hurried next door to the massive stone edifice. Having no wish to be seen about at such a late hour, she pulled her hood low and burrowed deep into her cloak, hiding from the soft glow emitted from the street’s gaslights until she mounted the steps of her friend’s mansion.

The front doors flung wide before Jane even lifted her hand to knock. The Duchess of Shillington stood there, limned in the great foyer’s chandelier light, the pale strands in her strawberry blond hair glinting like gold ingots. “I was beginning to fear you changed your mind,”

Lucy announced.

Just beyond the duchess, her butler shifted from foot to foot, looking chagrined at her commandeering of his duties.

And beyond him stood the Duchess of Derring, a vague smile that could mean anything at all fixed to her face as she leaned against the marble balustrade.

Squaring her shoulders, Jane lied, “I never considered it.”

Lucy ushered her inside, sweeping Jane’s cloak back from her shoulders even as the butler melted from the foyer, no doubt sensing activities were afoot that need not bear his witness.

Tapping her lip, Lucy assessed her gown with a martial light in her blue-gray eyes. Turning to the Duchess of Derring, she asked with heavy seriousness, “Astrid? What do you think?”

Astrid shrugged. “She looks like any other matron out for the evening.”

“My thoughts precisely.” Lucy met Jane’s gaze squarely. “You cannot wear this.”

“You only said that I should not wear black,” Jane reminded, feeling the stirrings of annoyance.

“For the purpose of tonight, you must attire yourself in something more”—Lucy’s nose wrinkled—”suitable.”

 Suitable. Jane strongly suspected that Lucy wanted to use a different word. Gathering a fistful of her pale blue skirts, she asked, “How is this unsuitable?”

“It is not—” Lucy stopped, sighed, then tossed a beseeching look to Astrid.

Astrid flicked her dark gaze over Jane, her face mild and unlined with expression. “You’re not sufficiently risque.”

“What would you have me wear?” Jane demanded, then gave her head a small shake. “It’s of no account. I cannot risk returning home to change. Bryony is a light sleeper. It’s a wonder I did not wake the girl when passing her bedroom.”

“A swift bludgeon to the head would take care of that,” Astrid suggested, eyes unblinking, expression unflappable as ever.

Lucy shot Astrid a quelling glare and propped her hands on her hips. The act opened her ermine-trimmed cloak wide and Jane gasped at her low-cut scarlet gown. The dress hugged her curves indecently.

She pointed speechlessly to Lucy’s gown, then looked at Astrid who, with a shrug, parted her own cloak to reveal a diaphanous apricot-colored gown as equally shocking.

“I understand the hostess’s chef makes the most delicious lobster pasties,” was all Astrid explained.

Food. As usual, everything came down to food with Astrid. It was the one thing her friend openly enjoyed.

“Fear not,” Lucy assured. “I have the perfect dress for you.”

Jane looked back and forth between their scandalous attire, wariness creeping over her. “What kind of masquerade ball is this?”

Lucy and Astrid exchanged looks and her uneasiness deepened.

“Who is the hostess?” She stared hard at her two friends, compelling one of them to answer.

Not surprisingly, it was Astrid. She lacked the ability or inclination to prevaricate. “Madame Fleur,” she stated.

“Madame Fleur?” Jane was well acquainted with the lady’s name. All of Britain knew of the famed courtesan. “Why would we wish to attend such an affair? It’s bound to be—” she stopped, groping for the correct words. Scandalous. Outrageous. Sinful. A strange little thrill coursed through her at the very idea. Functional-proper-widow-Jane would never dare attend such an affair, an insidious little voice whispered in her head.

“I could learn of only one masquerade tonight,” Lucy explained. “Besides, I’ve always been curious about these legendary masques of Madame Fleur. It’s bound to be an experience.”

“Yes, Bertram was a patron of hers.” Astrid lips twisted with derision. “Why not see where my devoted husband spent my dowry?”

Jane had no doubt _all _ their husbands had patronized Madame Fleur’s. That their husbands had been less than faithful—had in fact been renowned libertines before and after taking their vows—had bonded them from the start.

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