Lady Carys Davies dressed to meet her blackmailer in the same way she dressed for every other social occasion: scandalously.
Her clothes were both her armor and her weapons, and although outright murder—however justified—was out of the question, there was still a slim hope that her outfit would induce a fatal apoplexy in her tormentor, Christopher Howe.
If the sight of her near-naked figure also managed to spur a reaction from the terminally laconic Tristan Montgomery … well, that would be a delightful, if unlikely, bonus.
Tongues were already wagging as she and Rhys paused at the top of the steps leading into the ballroom.
“You’re causing a sensation.” Her brother sent her a cheeky sideways grin.
His tone was amused, indulgent, and Carys felt a familiar flash of gratitude for her easygoing sibling.
“That’s the plan,” she whispered back, smiling through her teeth. “What’s the point in going to a party and being ignored?”
Exhale. Calm. Smile.
This was the Carys Davies who appeared in public: carefree and delightful, a girl who cared for nobody’s opinion but her own. No one could guess that on the inside she was besieged by panic and uncertainty. Not even her brothers.
Especially not them.
The three of them thought she relished setting the fashionable world on its heels, but that wasn’t entirely true. Tonight’s outfit—indeed, every outfit she’d worn for the past two seasons—had been carefully calculated to provide a distraction. If she could keep people talking about her dress, or undress, in this case, then nobody would start asking awkward questions like, Why haven’t you chosen a husband yet?
Carys spied her best friend, Frances Roque, and tugged at Rhys’s arm. “There’s Frances. Come on.”
The room was a rainbow swirl of costumes. Nuns and friars squashed up against shepherdesses and chimney sweeps. Several people, like herself, had come dressed as characters from classical antiquity. Three vestal virgins giggled in a corner with a knight in full armor, and a man she recognized as Lord Burlington was Bacchus, with a wreath of vine leaves circling his head.
Her own outfit was still the most remarkable. The sheer white fabric left one shoulder bare and draped, Grecian-style, diagonally across her body before flowing in liquid pleats to the floor. The wide silver belt encircling her waist matched the quiver of arrows on her back, and the crescent moon that nestled in her hair surrounded by a galaxy of bobbing silvery stars.
It was the transparency of the material that had everyone whispering behind their fans; was that naked skin they glimpsed whenever she moved? Was that a nipple?
In truth, her outfit was a masterpiece of tease and innuendo. Madame de Tourville, her dressmaker, had fashioned a skin-toned underdress; Carys was more fully clothed than almost every other woman in the room, but the dress gave the appearance of being scandalously translucent. She could already see several men squinting in a vain attempt to see through the fabric.
Her smile widened as she and Rhys made their way through the crowd.
“Looking ravishing, Aphrodite!” Lord Caseby brayed, bowing low over her hand.
Carys extricated herself with a trilling laugh before he could kiss her bare knuckles.
“What a delightful Athena.” Colonel Brant smiled, his monocle fogging up as he lifted it to his bloodshot eye.
Carys gave him her best eyelash flutter and deftly escaped.
Frances was dressed as a flower seller, with a wooden tray filled with posies suspended from a ribbon around her neck. Her forehead wrinkled as she greeted Carys. “Are you supposed to be Minerva?”
“Diana. Goddess of the hunt and the moon.”
“Ah. That explains the stars.” Frances eyed her elaborate coiffeur with a smile. “How have you got them to bounce around like that?”
“Each one’s on a wire, pinned into my hair.” Carys shook her head, and the halo of metallic spots shimmered like a shoal of silvery fish.
“Clever. But please tell me you have something on under that dress.”
“Perfume?” Carys teased.
Rhys chuckled at her side. “I’m off to the cardroom. Try and stay out of trouble. And if you can’t be good, be careful.”
“I think that’s the unofficial Davies motto.” Carys laughed, waving him off.
“You know what I mean.” Frances dropped her voice. “Unmentionables.”
Carys lowered her own voice to the same theatrical whisper. “If you mean, am I wearing a corset, and a chemise, and drawers, then yes, of course I am.”
Frances exhaled. “Oh, thank goodness. You’re treading very close to the line, you know.”
“Pfft. There are plenty of other risqué outfits here.”
“Not on single women. It’s all very well for married ladies and widows to wear something so provocative, but you don’t have the protection of a husband’s name.”
“Nor do I want one,” Carys said stoutly. “Hence my choice of Diana. She, too, swore never to wed.”
Frances shook her head. “I don’t understand why you’ve developed this aversion to marriage. At school we used to giggle about the men we’d choose. What changed?”
“I actually met some men,” Carys said drily.
Frances rolled her eyes. “They’re not all bad. You can’t still be peeved because Christopher Howe proposed to Victoria Jennings? That was almost two years ago.”
Carys hid her instinctive grimace. “I promise you, I’m not. Victoria’s welcome to him.”
That was the truth. She’d thought Howe handsome once, but now the idea of meeting him left her nauseous. Unfortunately, his summons tonight was one she couldn’t refuse.
“What about Lord Ellington?” Frances murmured. “He’s nice.”
“He is nice. I’m just not ready to marry yet.”
Maybe not ever, thanks to Howe.
“Your perfect match is out there somewhere,” Frances said confidently. “You’ll find him, just like I found James.”
Frances was head over heels in love with a cavalry officer named James Sinclair. They’d been courting for almost three months, and everyone expected a proposal very soon.
“Who knows?” Frances smiled dreamily. “Maybe your future husband’s here, at this very party.”
“And maybe pigs will fly.”
Frances shrugged, and the two of them turned to scrutinize the dance floor. Carys suppressed a little sigh as she spied her eldest brother, Gryff, and his new wife, Maddie, waltzing together, oblivious to everyone else in the room.
Frances followed the direction of her gaze. “Now that Gryff’s married a Montgomery, do you think that’ll be the end of the Davies-Montgomery feud?”
Carys snorted. “I doubt it. Five hundred years of adversity isn’t going to be smoothed over by one little wedding. It’s like the Wars of the Roses, only worse.”
“I thought a wedding ended the Wars of the Roses? Wasn’t Henry Tudor’s mother a Lancastrian? When he married a York princess it united the families and stopped all the bloodshed.”
“Nothing wrong with a bit of bloodshed. It keeps things interesting.”
“Maybe Gryff marrying Maddie will heal the rift?”
Carys sent her a pitying glance. “That’s what I love about you, Frances. You’re such an optimist. I predict things will only get worse.”
“Because now there are even more opportunities for Davieses and Montgomerys to be in close proximity. Gryff and Maddie’s house party at the end of the month is a case in point. It’s bad enough when we’re miles apart with a river between us. But Gryff’s invited all the Montgomerys to Trellech Court every day for a whole week, to take part in the activities.”
“Isn’t that a good thing? An olive branch?”
“It’s a naked flame to a keg of gunpowder.”
Frances took a delicate sniff at one of the posies from her tray and slid her a sideways glance. “I expect Tristan will be there.”
Carys frowned at her carefully innocent tone. Frances might be blissfully unaware of her problems with Christopher Howe, but she knew all about Carys’s long-standing obsession with her sardonic country neighbor. “I suppose he will. What of it?”
“I always thought you and he would make a good couple. If you weren’t sworn enemies, of course.”
Carys couldn’t contain her splutter. “Me? And Tristan? Are you mad? Where did you come up with that idea?”
“I’ve seen you with him,” Frances said simply. “You smile at other men, but with Tristan you glow. It’s like you come alive in his presence. You’re the fire to his ice.”
“That’s awfully poetic,” Carys managed, trying to hide her shock at being so suddenly exposed. She’d forgotten how perceptive her old friend could be. “But nothing will ever happen between Tristan and me. He just likes having someone to disapprove of, that’s all. After Bonaparte, I’m his next favorite opponent.”
Frances shrugged. “Well, maybe there will be some other nice single men at the house party?”
Carys opened her mouth to protest, but Frances spoke again before she could interrupt.
“Oh, I know you flirt with every man between the ages of seven and seventy, but you don’t take any of them seriously. There are some good men out there, Carys. Promise you’ll try to find one you could be happy with. As I am with James.”
Copyright © 2022 by Kate Bateman.