Lord Beaumont greeted Evaline, and the foursome attempted to carry on a polite conversation. Mrs. Maynard gave her husband a significant look. Moments later, the man swanned by with an excuse to take his wife away. It was flimsy, but Evaline didn’t care. She would have Lady Beaumont to herself.
Evaline rose, her posture perfect thanks to her corset, her shoulders squared with determination, her face warm. A rush of boldness consumed her. Whatever society thought about Lady Beaumont, they were welcome to it. They wouldn’t cow Evaline into silence. Nobody deserved to be treated shabbily.
“If you’ll forgive me for being frank, you’re better off without Mrs. Maynard’s regard.”
Lady Beaumont’s eyes went wide. Then a bright smile flashed over her face. “I say, Lady Kingston, I should ever so much be obliged if you would come take tea with me this week.”
Evaline hesitated only briefly. An invitation to tea with a woman on the fringes of society? It was too thrilling for words, a charge of exciting daring shot all the way down to the very tips of her toes. She couldn’t accept quickly enough. “I would be honored.”
Lady Géroux called for everyone’s attention and invited them into the music room. All night long, Evaline buzzed with anticipation for meeting Lady Beaumont for tea and didn’t hear above one note in ten.
* * * *
A friendship was born. Through afternoons of tea, accompanying each other to the dressmaker’s, or strolling through the park, the two quickly became close. Formality fell away, and Lady Beaumont asked to be called Selina. She was less tame and predictable than the people to whom Evaline was accustomed.
Once, when they’d been wandering the shops, Selina handed a coin to a dirty woman in the street. Even the most militant among Evaline’s charity friends gave an icy reception to those they met begging.
Shocked, Evaline blurted the first thing that came to mind. “She’ll spend it on drink.”
But Selina only shrugged. “It’s hers now, isn’t it? She can spend it how she chooses.”
Evaline searched her new friend for any hint of sanctimony and found none. Indeed, Selina continued as if she’d forgotten all about the incident. The ladies in Evaline’s charity circles sometimes acted as if they felt holy merely discussing their commitment to good works.
“What if she doesn’t deserve it?”
Selina gave Evaline a quizzical look as they entered the teamonger’s, the scent of dried leaves encompassing them as they shut the door behind them. “Who doesn’t deserve compassion?”
The reply left Evaline haunted by shame and searching her conscious. At her next charity meeting, she’d repeated Selina’s stance. The outcome of which was setting the head of the circle, Lady Stephens, droning on without pause for three quarters of an hour about who knew what—Evaline stopped listening in the first few minutes when it was clear she wasn’t going to get anywhere. She would have quit the group then and there had it not been for fear of what Kingston would think.
Another time, in the park, they happened upon Victoria Maynard being driven in her shining carriage, top down, of course, and stopped to make polite conversation. When Selina had professed an opinion about an ongoing discussion in Parliament, Mrs. Maynard had sniffed and said, “Women don’t discuss such matters.”
The spring day had been sunny, with a few downy clouds scattered across the blue expanse. But when Selina laughed, the sun came out from behind a few wandering white wisps, as if it shone just for her. Evaline could have readily believed it did, and her heart warmed as she watched her friend effortlessly shrug off Mrs. Maynard’s priggishness. “Well, seeing as I’m a woman and that I do discuss such matters, I can only venture to say that you’re quite wrong.”
But all in all, life went on much as it had before. Fewer invitations, maybe. At first Evaline hadn’t noticed, eager to spend time with Selina. One friend—or former friend, rather—Frances Bertram, had taken Evaline aside one night and asked her why she was lowering herself with company of that
sort, glancing in Selina’s direction as her voice took on an icy tone. The next time Evaline had seen Frances, she’d given her the cut direct. And that had been that.
That is, until upon one particular morning, in the Beaumonts’ ivory-and-gold drawing room, when a particular confidence changed everything.
There was a pause in the conversation, a silence, and a little sigh. Then the words came out of Selina’s pretty, plump lips as if such topics were the most natural thing in the world. “I love my dear Lucas terribly, but I wish he’d do something more than roll over and start snoring when he finished.”
Evaline’s eyes watered, and she forced a scorching sip of tea down her throat—discombobulated by the unexpected information, she’d taken too big a swallow—the more favorable alternative to spewing it out in utter shock. Selina, dressed in a sumptuous sky-blue gown that set off guinea-gold hair, looked every inch the picture of a great lady, the shape of her tailored to the height of current fashion. The cinch of her waist. The bell of her skirts. Even the position of her pale hand as she reached for a little cake. Her expression was void of shame or mortification. Quite the opposite.
Surely Evaline must have heard incorrectly. She was prone to losing herself in her own meandering flights of fancy at the most inappropriate times.
But Selina only took a thoughtful bite of the cake, looking for all the world as if she were still detailing the new gowns she’d commissioned based on the latest styles in from France. “I would have thought with all the fuss that it would be something more than a poke and a jerk before it was all finished.”
Regret stabbed Evaline. If Lord Beaumont was as his wife reported, there would be no hope at all for Kingston.
Selina didn’t give Evaline the chance to respond. “You know, I wonder if there is a difference between the way a man takes a woman who is a chance lover or a mistress and the way a man takes his wife. Like we wives are a different breed of woman, with nothing so base as need
coursing through our veins. Our icy, icy veins.” Her lips turned up at the corners in amusement at the playful words. She took another delicate sip.
From a distant place, Evaline managed to find her voice, sounding so foreign to herself as to give the impression of a third lady being in the room. “I-I hadn’t thought of it that way.”
“Lord Kingston must not be like that at all, I dare say.” Selina gave Evaline an expectant look, brows poised in anticipation.
Evaline’s throat dried as if exposed to the heat flaming in her face. “Well, not exactly.”
Selina giggled. “Oh, dear me, Evie. I didn’t know you could blush so. You’ve gone awfully red.”
The clock on the mantel read half three. Evaline had a solid ten minutes left to her visit before it would be polite to leave.
The other woman followed the direction of her gaze and set down the delicate porcelain cup in its saucer with a clink
. “It’s all right, dear. We don’t have to talk about it if you don’t want to.”
Evaline bit her lip and stared into the surface of her tea, considering the dilemma. It was impossible to imagine having the conversation with any of her other friends, especially because they’d become standoffish since she and Selina started spending so much time together.
So if Evaline couldn’t talk about it with Selina, with whom could she talk?
“I’ve often thought there must be more to it than I experience with Kingston.” There. Evaline had made the admission. Relief cool as well water streamed through her.
Selina gave a sharp nod. “You see, it’s like I say. It must be. Lucas treats me like I’m delicate, like I could have no desires of my own.” She set down her dish and came around the table to seat herself next to Evaline on the brocade chaise.
Up close, flecks of gold were evident in Selina’s cornflower irises. If only Evaline could have counted herself among the numbers of men who flocked around her.
Maybe if she stayed still and willed those accursed thoughts away, she could forget about them. But she couldn’t stop herself from reacting. She and Selina were sitting closely, and the proximity pulled on her. Made her aware of herself as a woman. Heated her in certain places. Made her skin exquisitely sensitive. All the things Evaline—a married woman—should not be feeling for another person. Never mind another woman
It was wicked. So horribly, horribly wicked. And somehow…somehow Evaline, much as she wanted to, couldn’t be sorry for what she felt.
Selina’s face sparkled with curiosity. “Tell me, what’s it like for you when Lord Kingston comes to your bed?”
“I pretend I’m asleep.”
“You can’t mean…” Selina’s eyes were wide. “You pretend you’re asleep while he…”
Evaline nodded. What she wasn’t telling her friend tore her in two. If only she could admit how terribly much she wanted things to be different when it came to what she and her husband did together in bed. A tremble started in her fingers—she had to set down her tea.
If Selina noticed, she gave no indication. “We should do something about our respective situations.”
Evaline forced herself to think about what the other woman was saying. “What do you have in mind?”
“We seduce our husbands.”