The Duchess of WinterThe Duchess of Winter

(Book Seven in the "Jewels of the Morrow" series)


October 1893.

She looked as though she came from the same mould as every other woman in London society, Nicolás thought. She would be haughty and proud, stiff and unresponsive ... frustrating. Her motives would ultimately be baffling.

Except her attire was different. Her clothes weren’t bright. They weren’t dazzling with glittering jewels and beads, or finished with frills and furbelows, and endless yards of lace.

Nicolás put down his brandy balloon, and swivelled a little to watch her. The woman had just appeared in the reception hall of The Bagatelle card club, where Nicolás was cooling his heels tonight. Her cloak was a plain, unadorned black, but in a thick, luxurious material. Her hair held neither feather nor flower. When she unfastened the cloak and her companion slid it from her shoulders, she stood revealed in a black evening dress with all the hallmarks of quality and excellence that Nicolás had come to recognise as de rigueur in the social circles of the English upper class. Yet it was bereft of nearly every decorative device that Paris demanded.

Nicolás was about to turn back to his table, and to the game that had paused for a score count, when she turned. He saw that the rich, dark hair from her temple was marked with a startling streak of pure white, which looped up into the elegant coils at the back of her head. The unexpected marking made him study her a moment longer. When had she acquired that unique streaking? Why? What had caused it? For she was young still - the firm skin told him that much.

"Well, well, well..." The card player on Nicolás’ right leaned closer to him to see around the man on the opposite side of the table. He was looking at the woman, his thick sandy brows raised almost comically high. "Good heavens, it’s the Duchess of Beaumont. I wonder what has brought her out of hiding? Only something absolutely dire would do the trick, I imagine."

Ross, Nicolás remembered. His name was Patrick Ross. Fortunately there was no title to memorise for this one. The man played a cool, competent hand of cards, and Nicolás had been feeling the pressure from his right all night.

Ross glanced at Nicolás before looking back at the woman still waiting in the Reception hall. "She will make mincemeat of old Simmons. You watch and see."

Nicolás glanced to his left again. ‘Old Simmons’ was attending her now. The major domo was hardly old, nor decrepit as the title seemed to infer. He was an imposing and always correct fixture of the club, who kept the wheels oiled and turning no matter what abuse the members put the machinery through. Nicolás had been confronted by Simmons when he had become a member the first week of his arrival in England, and he knew that the implacable neutrality of the man’s face wouldn’t change even if he was witnessing murder.

Simmons was approaching the Duchess now. He was virtually ignoring the man with her. Nicolás guessed from the man’s clothing that he must be a servant of some sort. Probably the butler. Simmons’ disdain was as good an indication of one’s station in life as any. Simmons bowed to the Duchess, and spoke quietly, and Nicolás suddenly wished he had an excuse for moving to within eavesdropping range. The Bagatelle Card Club prided itself on its men-only membership, and even the kitchen employed a male cook -- exported from Paris at great cost. Simmons was the administrator of the male only policy and he applied it with ruthless implacability.

The woman shook her head in response to Simmons’ quiet words, and indicated the servant at her side. Simmons deigned to recognise the man with a single blink of his eyes before speaking once more to the Duchess.

At that moment the waiter serving their table approached with his silver tray, and Nicolás heard Ross speak. "You’ve got an ear to the ground, lad. Why is the Duchess of Beaumont here?"

"I can’t rightly say, sir," was the young man’s cautious response.

Nicolás kept his eye on the figures in the foyer while he kept his ears tuned to the sounds behind him. There was the unmistakable clink of coins changing hands, then the waiter’s quick cough to clear the throat. "I believe that the Earl of Tremayne is upstairs, sir."

"Upstairs?" Ross repeated, rapping out the word. "Is he drunk again?"

This time the waiter’s pause was for delicacy, rather than an effort to raise the price on his information. "I believe the Earl is indisposed, sir," he said with a hint of frost that Nicolás recognised. Ross had stepped on the waiter’s sense of propriety. To the waiter, the aristocracy did not get drunk. Especially not in public. It was not a plainly middle class man’s place to bawl it out in public ... no matter how much money he had. Although Nicolás was himself an outsider to London society, he understood the waiter’s diffident rebuke. He had learned the lessons from his own upbringing as the oldest son of one of Mexico’s most aristocratic families. The closing of ranks, the united face kept turned to the public no matter how chaotic things were behind the scenes ... it was an attitude that seeped down even to the servants who aligned themselves with the great families. It was also the reason he was sitting here tonight, wasting time trying to inveigle an appointment with the man Pensworthy. To break through those ranks one must chip away with the patience of water wearing away at a rock face ... or find the back door. He hadn’t broken through either way despite nearly six months of trying.

Nicolás found his attention wandering away from Ross’s faux pas back to the foyer where the slim straight tall woman in black was now plainly opposing something that Simmons had suggested. Nicolás could see her resistance in the way her shoulders grew squarer and the small chin lifted. It was too far away to see her eyes or distinguish her expression properly.

Simmons was gently shaking his head. I regret it cannot be done, Madame, he would be saying.

The butler was shaking out her cloak, as if she was ready to leave. But the woman wasn’t leaving. She studied Simmons for a moment, her jaw set. Then Nicolás saw her take a breath and begin to speak again. Simmons visibly quailed.

"Oh ho!" Ross murmured at Nicolás’ shoulder. "What did I tell you? They don’t call her the Duchess of Winter for naught. Ice for blood, steel for nerves, and a tongue that can lash strips off a man."

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