Beguiling the Beauty
Fitzhugh Trilogy - 1
For my agent, Kristin Nelson, who makes everything possible
Wendy McCurdy, for her exceptional instincts and abundant patience.
Kristin Nelson, for an invaluable last-minute consultation. And for her yummy crème brûlée.
Kris Alice Hohls, for correcting all the German phrases in the manuscript—and for being wonderful.
Maili Ryan, for being the bottomless fount of knowledge she is and for her help in eradicating Americanisms from my writing. Responsibility for those that remain is solely mine for not asking her.
Joanna Chambers, for stepping in to answer questions for Maili.
Judith Ivory, whose novel Beast inspired this novel.
Janine, for always being there, ready to help.
Ivy Adams, for being endlessly entertaining.
Tiffany Yates Martin of Fox Print Editorial, who was accidentally left out of the acknowledgment page of His at Night.
Google Books, the best friend I’ve ever had on the research front. How did I ever live without you? Google Maps, my other indispensable buddy. Together you make every day a fun threesome.
My readers, for their interest and support during my gap year from the shelves.
My truly wonderful family.
Deadlines being what they are, acknowledgments are always written when I’m bleary-eyed and underslept, my heart full of gratitude but my three remaining brain cells flopping about uselessly. If I’ve forgotten anyone, it is not from a lack of appreciation, but only a temporary absence of gray matter.
As always, if you are reading this, thank you. Thank you for everything.
It happened one sunlit day in the summer of 1886.
Until then, Christian de Montfort, the young Duke of Lexington, had led a charmed life.
His passion was the natural world. As a child, he was never happier than when he could watch hatchling birds peck through their delicate eggshells, or spend hours observing the turtles and the water striders that populated the family trout stream. He kept caterpillars in terrariums to discover the outcomes of their metamorphoses—brilliant butterflies or humble moths, both thrilling him equally. Come summer, when he was taken to the seashore, he immersed himself in the tide pools and understood instinctively that he was witnessing a fierce struggle for survival, without losing his sense of wonder at the beauty and intricacy of life.
After he learned to ride, he disappeared regularly into the countryside surrounding his imposing home. Algernon House, the Lexington seat, occupied a corner of the Peak District. Upon the faces of its chert and limestone escarpments, Christian, a groom in tow, hunted for fossils of gastropods and mollusks.
He did run into opposition from time to time. His father, for one, did not approve of his scientific interests. But Christian was born with an innate assurance that took most men decades to develop, if at all. When the old duke thundered over his inelegant use of time, Christian coolly demanded whether he ought to practice his father’s favorite occupation at the same age: chasing maids around the manor.
As if such nerve and aplomb weren’t enough, he was also tall, well built, and classically handsome. He sailed through life with the power and imperviousness of an ironclad, sure of his bearing, convinced of his destination.
His first glimpse of Venetia Fitzhugh Townsend only further fueled that sense of certainty.
The annual Eton and Harrow cricket match, a highlight of the London Season, had just paused for the players’ afternoon tea. Christian left the Harrow players’ pavilion to speak to his stepmother—his former stepmother, as a matter of fact, as she had recently returned from her honeymoon with her new husband.
Christian’s father, the late duke, had been a disappointment, as self-important as he’d been frivolous. He had, however, been fortunate in his choice of wives. Christian’s mother, who’d died too young for him to remember, was generally praised as saintly. His stepmother, who came into his life not long thereafter, had proved a great friend and a staunch ally.
He’d seen the dowager duchess earlier, in the middle of the match. But now she no longer stood in the same spot. As Christian scanned the far edge of the field, the sight of a young woman momentarily halted his gaze.
She was casually perched on the back of an open phaeton, yawning behind her fan. Her posture was slouchy, as if she’d secretly rid herself of the whalebone undergarments that bludgeoned other ladies to sit as stiff as effigies. But what made her stand out from the crowd was her hat—a coronet of apricot-colored feathers that reminded him of the sea anemones that had fascinated him in childhood.
She snapped closed her fan and he forgot all about sea anemones.
Her face—he lost his breath. He’d never encountered beauty of such magnitude and intensity. It was not allure, but grace, like the sight of land to a shipwrecked man. And he, who hadn’t been on a capsized vessel since he was six—and that had only been an overturned canoe—suddenly felt as if he’d been adrift in the open ocean his entire life.
Someone spoke to him. He couldn’t make out a single word.
There was something elemental to her beauty, like a mile-high thunderhead, a gathering avalanche, or a Bengal tiger prowling the darkness of the jungle. A phenomenon of inherent danger and overwhelming perfection.
He felt a sharp, sweet ache in his chest: His life would never again be complete without her. But he felt no fear, only excitement, wonder, and desire.
“Who is that?” he asked no one in particular.
“That’s Mrs. Townsend,” answered no one in particular.
“She is a bit young to be a widow,” he said.
The arrogance of that statement would amaze him in subsequent years—that he would hear her called a missus and immediately assume her husband to be dead. That he took it for granted nothing could possibly stand in the way of his will.
“She isn’t a widow,” he was informed. “She happens to be very much married.”
He hadn’t noticed anyone accompanying her. She appeared to him as if on a stage, alone and flooded by limelight. But now he saw that she was surrounded by people. Her hand rested casually on a man’s forearm. Her face was turned toward this man. And when he spoke, she smiled.
Christian felt as if he were falling from a great height.
He’d always considered himself a breed apart. Now he was just another sod who might yearn and strive, but never achieve his heart’s desire.
You made quite a display of yourself today,” said Tony.
Venetia hung on to the carriage strap. The brougham plodded through London’s congested streets; there really was no need to use the strap at all. But she could not seem to unclench her fingers from the strip of leather.
“One of the Harrow players couldn’t stop staring at you,” continued Tony. “If someone had handed him a fork he’d have devoured you in one sitting.”
She didn’t respond. When Tony fell into one of his moods, there was never a point in saying anything. Clouds gathered overhead. Beneath the spreading shadows, the summer leaves turned gray—nothing escaped London’s reign of soot.
“Were I less discreet I’d tell him you can’t breed. You are God’s elaborate ruse, Venetia. All that prettiness on the surface, quite useless where it counts.”
His words were drops of acid upon her heart, burning, corroding. On the sidewalk the pedestrians opened their umbrellas, held ever at the ready. Two fat plops of rain hit the carriage window. They slid down the glass pane in long, blurred streaks.
“It is not certain I can’t have children,” she said. She shouldn’t. She knew he was goading her. But somehow, on this subject, she rose to the bait every time.
“How many physicians does it take to convince you? Besides, my friends marry and within a year they already have heirs. It’s been two years for us and you show not the least sign of increasing.”
She bit the inside of her lip. The blame for their failure to procreate could just as well lie with him, but he refused to even contemplate that possibility.
“But you will be glad to know that your looks aren’t entirely useless. Howard agreed to join my rail venture—and I daresay he did so to have more opportunities to seduce you,” said Tony.
At last she looked at him. The harshness of his voice was reflected in his countenance, his once winsome features now hard and brittle. During their courtship she’d thought him impossibly appealing—funny, smart, and lit from within by a thirst for life. Had he truly changed so much or had she been blinded by love?
And if he despised Howard for wanting her, then why bring Howard deeper into their lives? They didn’t need the rail venture. Nor another source of displeasure for him.
“Are you going to betray me?” he demanded suddenly.
“No,” she said, weary almost beyond what she could bear. His contempt and dismissal of her had become a near-permanent condition of their marriage. The only thing he cared about—or so it seemed sometimes—was the matter of her fidelity.
“Good. After what you’ve made me become, being faithful is the least you can do for me.”
“And what have I made you become?” She might not be a paragon but she had been a decent wife. She saw to his every comfort, never overspent her allowance, and gave no encouragement to men like Howard.
His voice was bitter. “Don’t ask useless questions.”
She turned her face back to the window. The pavement had disappeared under a horde of black umbrellas.
Even inside the carriage she felt the incipient chill. Summer would end early this year.
A short time later Christian finished his last term at Harrow and went on to read the Natural Science Tripos at Cambridge. The summer after his second year at Trinity College, he took part in a dig in Germany. On his way back to Algernon House, he stopped in London to inspect a new shipment of marine fossils at the British Museum’s natural history division, fossils that would not be available for public viewing for some months.
The discussion engendered by the new fossils was most stimulating, so much so that instead of continuing on with his journey home, Christian accepted an invitation to dine with the curator and several of his colleagues. Afterward, rather than retiring immediately to his town residence, where a small staff kept the house ready for his use should he require it, he decided to while away an hour at his club. Society had departed London at the end of the Season; he could expect to be largely undisturbed.
The club was indeed quite empty. With a glass of brandy by his side, he settled in and tried to read the Times.
The days were easier. Between his course work, his estate, and his friends, Christian’s hours were fully occupied. But at night, when the world quieted and he was alone with his thoughts, his mind turned all too often to the woman who’d pickpocketed his heart without so much as a glance.
He dreamed of her. Sometimes the dreams were lurid, her naked, lithe body under his, her lips whispering lecherous words of encouragement into his ears. Other times she remained resolutely out of reach, walking away while he was rooted to the ground, or coming to stand next to him just after he’d been turned into a stone statue. He would struggle and shout inside his marble confines, but she took no notice at all, as uncaring as she was lovely.
Someone entered the dark-paneled library. Christian recognized the man instantly: Anthony Townsend. Her husband.
The years since his encounter with Mrs. Townsend had been a long tutorial in the frailer aspects of humanity. Until he’d met her, he’d not known envy, misery, or despair. Nor guilt, which pulsed through his veins at the sight of Townsend.
He’d never wished the man ill—and rarely ever thought of him as anything but an immovable object. But he’d lain with the man’s wife countless times in his mind. And if something were to befall Townsend, he’d be the first in line for an introduction to his widow.
Those were cause enough for Christian to drain his brandy and lay aside the paper, still crisp from its ironing. He rose to leave.