It Started with a Scandal(2)

By: Julie Anne Long



And followed them all the way up.

Inside them stood a man.

A very tall man.

He in fact all but loomed; the firelight threw his shadow nearly to where she stood at the door.

Elise took an unconscious step back from it, as though it were a spill of lava.

His face was aimed rather pointedly at the window, as if he was expecting someone.

She followed his gaze curiously.

She just saw the same ceaseless slanting rain, like bars on a cell.

A spray of sparkling shards surrounded his feet. The remains of a vase, from the looks of things.

“Lord Lavay . . .”

Elise shot Mrs. Winthrop a worried look. The seemingly indefatigable Mrs. Winthrop’s voice had gone faint. As if she suddenly didn’t have enough air to form words.

The man turned. Slowly, as if he was the earth itself on its axis. Or as if an invisible sculptor was rotating him to present a finished work.

Voilà! Elise thought to herself. An attempt at bravado.

It was too late. She’d already sucked in her breath and tightened all of her muscles, like a creature who had stumbled across a predator in a clearing and wished to make herself unnoticeable.

He was so clearly of that singular species, The Aristocracy, that she might as well have bought a ticket to see him, the way she had once when her father had brought her, as a little girl, to see the Royal Menagerie in London.

He wasn’t young. There was no softness to his face—­not in the set of his mouth, or the burn of his gaze, or the severe right angles of his jaw. His beauty was austere and inarguable, and there was a palpable force to him, as if he had sprung from the earth due to violent underground activity, a bit like a mountain range. She thought about the things she’d been told about him.

Privateer. Soldier. Prince.

Power, violence, privilege.

He looked like all of the things he was purported to be.

Do we carry around our pasts so visibly? she wondered. Because if so, she was certainly in trouble.

There was no denying that he frightened her.

And after a moment, this made her angry. She’d been so certain she was impossible to frighten after the events of the last five years. She could not afford to be frightened. She thought she deserved never to be frightened again.

She squared her shoulders.

Life is full of tests, children, she’d once primly told her students.

That was before she’d been tested.

THE WOMAN MRS. Winthrop had brought into his study was petite and colorless. Her face and the folded knot of her hands were twins, both white and tense. Her dress was demure, long-­sleeved, high-­collared, fashioned of ser­viceable gray wool. Her hair was dark. She could be any age.

Her eyes dropped instantly upon meeting his. It was deference or fear, or perhaps fascination. He was accustomed to all of them. None of it interested him.

She was, unsurprisingly, unremarkable in every way.

Apart, that was, from her posture, which was almost aggressively rigid. It reminded him of a drawn saber.

This made him smile faintly.

He sensed it wasn’t a pleasant smile when both women gave a little start.

“I’d like to introduce Mrs. Elise Fountain, my lord.”

Miss Fountain dropped an elegant enough curtsy.

“You may leave us,” he said to Mrs. Winthrop without looking at her.

Mrs. Winthrop bolted like a rabbit released from a trap.

Mrs. Fountain’s gaze rose again, rather like a man struggling up the side of a cliff, then it wavered and held.

IT TOOK ALL of Elise’s fortitude to resist craning her head after the fleeing Mrs. Winthrop.

“Please sit down, Mrs. Fountain.”

She went still. His native French still haunted his consonants and turned the vowels into veritable caresses. She could almost see the elegant, endless spill of a fountain when he said her name.

“Mrs. Fountain. Has Mrs. Winthrop brought to me an applicant who does not speak English?”

The tone was silk over steel, exquisitely polite. And yet she could easily imagine him ordering, in the very same tone, the beheading of whoever had brought him such a stupid and mute candidate.

“Forgive me, Lord Lavay. I do know how to sit.”

She tried a little half smile. She knew she possessed a portion of charm, though it was a trifle rusty from disuse, given that she’d locked it away after it had gotten her into trouble.

“If you would be so kind as to demonstrate your ability to do so.”

He gestured to a chair upholstered in chocolate-­colored velvet. She might as well have been a chair herself for all the charm he exerted. She felt positively neutered. Which was perhaps all for the best.

She sat gingerly and, she hoped, gracefully, on the very edge of it, the better to bolt if necessary, and folded her hands.

Oh God . . . the chair was so soft. It cradled her bum almost lasciviously. Its tall, spreading fan of a back beckoned like a lover’s arms. And her life had seemed so narrow and spiky for so long, in every direction she’d turned, that the comfort surprised her by nearly doing her in.

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