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Conquering the Countess
by Em Brown

Category: Erotica/BDSM Erotica/Romance
Description: Married to the unfaithful Earl of Lowry, who disdains her lack of beauty, and scorned by her in-laws for not producing an heir for the earldom, Gertrude "Gertie" Farrington takes out her frustrations in the masked underground world of Madame Botreaux's Cavern of Pleasures. Concealing her identity there as 'Lady Athena,' Gertie is a domineering mistress with a peculiar propensity: she never allows a submissive to bring her to climax. Back from years of exile after a scandalous duel, Sir Phineas Barclay, a notorious rake and seducer of women, becomes instantly intrigued by the Lady Athena on a visit to the Cavern of Pleasures. He poses as a submissive with the intention of seducing the icy mistress and uncovering her true identity. As the Countess of Lowry, Gertie wants nothing to do with Phineas Barclay - a debaucher at best, and a murderer at worst. So why does she find herself hot and flustered in his presence? Phineas Barclay finds himself strangely drawn to the Countess, but every step forward with her seems to be followed by a step back with the Lady Athena. Which woman will he choose to focus his seduction upon - or is it possible to conquer both Lady Athena and the Countess?
eBook Publisher: Ravenous Romance/Ravenous Romance, 2010
eBookwise Release Date: May 2010

eBookeBook

16 Reader Ratings:
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Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [294 KB]
Words: 61574
Reading time: 175-246 min.


Chapter One

"Who is she?" marveled Phineas Barclay, adjusting the silken mask he wore to better view the woman wielding the nine-tail. He wished Penelope, the proprietress of Madame Botreaux's Cavern of Pleasures, would add more lighting to the dim underground assembly hall where men and women gathered to indulge their prurient appetites. While he understood the darkness helped to conceal the identity of the patrons, it hindered one's ability to fully admire the form of one's partner--or partners.

"Lady Athena," Lance Duport supplied. A longtime patron and friend of Penelope Botreaux, Lance had ceased to wear a mask many years ago. He eyed Phineas through a quizzing glass. "My dear fellow, that is a bang-up cravat. Do you think your valet could teach mine?"

Phineas smiled. "You have changed little in the years, Duport."

"As have you."

Phineas leaned over the rail of the balcony to observe the patrons who had gathered on the main floor below to witness "Lady Athena" and the two men chained to whipping posts on either side of her. Though she did not possess the sloping shoulders or slender arms admired by most, she was nonetheless a captivating figure, and for reasons beyond her strange costuming. Black leather boots, of the kind worn by men in the military but for the curvaceous Louis heels, encased her legs well past her knees. Her thin chemise fell over swelling hips, and Phineas believed that if a candle were held to it, the material would prove sheer enough to reveal her full and supple thighs. Her corset, an unusual black damask with gold floral embroidery, was loosely laced in the front, revealing the paleness of her breasts, two swollen mounds with nipples peering over the edge of the chemise. Phineas felt his cock tug at him as he drank in the scintillating curves of her body.

"How droll it is to have you back from your exile, Lord Barclay," said Penelope, whose rounded figure gave evidence of her affinity for one too many glasses of port.

"Sir Barclay," Phineas corrected, feeling his jaw tighten as he recalled the five years he had spent on the continent. Devil take it, he had never thought he would miss Yorkshire pudding, but he had.

"I have not had much in the way of an Adonis to feast my eyes upon -- not since Vale. Alas, he has not graced our company for nigh on two years." She sighed. "He used to stand right where you are."

"The Marquess of Dunnesford?" Phineas asked, turning around to face Penelope. "What induced him to take his leave?"

"He fell in love," Lance answered with a sigh to match Penelope's.

"Dunnesford? In love?" Phineas asked, incredulous.

Penelope and Lance both nodded. "With his wife."

"The deuce." Phineas shook his head, wondering what other surprises lay in store with his return to England. He turned his attention back to Lady Athena, who alternated between her two submissives with the flow of a choreographed dance. Unfurling her lash, she struck the man behind her between the shoulders, then brought it down upon the buttocks of the man before her. Her strikes were strong and delivered with surprising litheness.

"How long has Lady Athena been a patron of yours?" he asked Penelope.

Penelope aimed her quizzing glass at the woman in question, then brought it back towards Phineas, her preferred subject.

"A twelvemonth, perhaps," she replied. "I do not recall your having been so intrigued by a Mistress before."

"All manner of women intrigue me," Phineas said with a rakish grin.

"You are incorrigible," Lance said with a shake of his head. "Was it not your entanglement with a woman that forced you from England?"

Phineas remained quiet. He had no desire to revisit the past. Nor did he know or trust Duport well enough to divulge that his affair with a married woman played only a minor role.

"What does it matter?" Penelope said. "From what I heard, the duel was more than fair. That Jonathan Weston was killedE"

Phineas turned around to see Penelope clearly wishing she could have swallowed her words. He crossed his arms over his chest. "Do you know this Lady Athena?"

She shook her head quickly. "I do not reveal the identity of my patrons, and Lady Athena has never indicated a desire to reveal herself. She does not tarry with any one man for long. I believe tonight she will seek yet another new submissive at the Presenting."

Lance added, "She is one that even you, my friend, will find difficult to conquer."

Phineas raised his brows. "My reputation as a lover must have diminished greatly in my absence."

"Your skills in that vein are of no use with her. She allows no one to bring her to climax."

"Odds fish." Phineas had never heard of such a thing. What was the purpose of coming to Madame Botreaux's if one could not attain that sublime euphoria? This Lady Athena was the most peculiar mistress. He looked over the balcony to see Lady Athena circling one of her submissives. Was it the boots that lent her stalking such an erotic quality?

"I can see your thoughts, Sir Barclay," Penelope said with a small grin. "I will lay you a wager that what you contemplate cannot be done."

Phineas unloosened his cravat with slow deliberation.

"Alas, a work of art gone in a moment," Lance murmured, but his dismay was easily replaced with a new interest as Phineas began to unbutton his shirt.

"Your stakes, madam?" Phineas asked Penelope.

Both Penelope and Lance nearly drooled as the linen slid down his arms to reveal a chiseled chest.

"My--my word," Lance stammered. "Have you taken up pugilism?"

"I spent most of my time on the Continent in Italy, perfecting the art of the sword."

"You," Penelope pronounced. "I wish you to be mine for a full night."

"And if I can seduce the Lady Athena, what is my prize?"

"I must have a piece of this wager," Lance interjected.

Penelope smiled, envisioning her win already. "Name your price."

"Her name," Phineas answered. "I want to know who she really is."

Penelope glanced down in consideration, but after a brief hesitation, she lifted her chin. "I have witnessed Lady Athena for a year now. As delectable as you are, Barclay, she will not change her ways."

"You wound my pride, madam," Phineas said, covering his heart in mock pain.

"You will have such time until she casts you aside and selects a new submissive." Penelope sidled up to him and tapped his chest with her quizzing glass. "At which time, you shall be mine, dear Barclay."

He captured her hand and brought it to his lips. "I adore a wager that knows no loss for me."

Penelope trembled at his touch and had to take step away from him to breathe.

"And myself," Lance reminded. "I should like to have you for a night as well."

Phineas bowed. Lance, among the finer-looking men with his raven black hair and trim figure, would not prove to be the first man he had taken to bed, but he had foresworn men after the disastrous duel that forced his departure from England. However, if he successfully seduced the Lady Athena, Lance would not be a concern, and no woman had yet proven impervious to his charms. His conquests reflected all manner of women from a shy rector's daughter to a frosty matron who disapproved at first of his attentions upon her daughter, then became increasingly envious of her own progeny. Lady Athena possessed the one quality he needed: she was a woman.

Invigorated by the impending challenge, he descended the balcony and prepared himself for the Presenting.

Gertrude "Gertie" Farrington appraised the men and women in the Presenting, a ritual in which new guests and those wishing for a new partner--or partners--presented themselves for selection. She felt formidable in her new garments. Of particular pride were the boots she had designed herself. The mask she wore was cut from the same fabric as her corset. When first she had donned the name and character of Lady Athena a year ago, she had favored a gold mask. Now, black was her preferred color.

Her favorite crop resting atop her shoulder at a smart angle, she strode down the line with the air of a general inspecting his troops. Senior patrons selected first, but many of them deferred their position to Lady Athena. Out of pity or respect, Gertie knew not. Nor did she care.

A pretty young redhead in line raised her hopeful eyes, but Gertie passed the woman by. On rare occasions, she had selected one of the fair sex for her submissive, but men spurred her vigor, her anger, in a way no woman could. Gertie eyed a slender young man, one who dutifully kept his eyes cast downward. A good submissive, most likely well trained, but not willful enough for her. She did not want a man who groveled at her feet too adeptly.

Then her gaze met a pair of intense eyes behind a silver mask. In the dim lighting, she could not discern the color of the eyes, which seemed to capture what little light existed and reflected it back twofold. They stared at her with unnerving intensity. Feeling as if she might drown in their pools, she pulled her gaze wider and contemplated the whole of the physiognomy. Though his mask covered half his face, the shadows suggested a striking appearance.

The body, too, was beautiful. He stood a head taller than she, and had a pleasing proportion, neither wide and brawny nor long and lanky. She imagined dripping hot candle wax upon the ridges of his chest and landing her lash against his strapping thighs. His muscles, sleek but not burly, exposed an aristocratic background full of sport. His calf was well defined, as was the bulge in his breeches.

Conscious that he was still staring at her with unabashed impudence, she raised her brows at him. But instead of realizing his place, he continued to stare. Such defiance could not go unpunished, Gertie thought to herself. She could derive much satisfaction in being the one to administer his punishment. She had seen his sort of arrogance before. Many such men had proven remarkably weak when tied to the whipping post. Would he as well?

Strange, but he seemed to read her thoughts in the way that he looked at her. For the first time since becoming a regular at Madam Botreaux's, she felt herself faltering. Her heart seemed to palpitate unevenly. Walking past him, she spotted a more callow fellow, who puffed his chest forward in a display of undue confidence. Just as she was about to select this one, she heard a voice behind her. His voice felt like velvet, if such a thing were possible, its resonation low and comforting.

"Afraid, Mistress?"

Gertie could feel the blood pounding a warning in her ears. She turned slowly towards the man with the bright eyes. "It is customary that those in the Presenting line not speak lest spoken to."

"Am I to be punished for it?"

To keep herself from licking her lips at the thought, she pursed her mouth. "Perhaps. You are new here and may merit forgiveness for your first transgression. The decision will lie with your Master or Mistress."

"Are youEafraid to administer the punishment?"

She stared at him in disbelief. Had he twice called her afraid?

"Consider yourself spared," she responded. The crowd murmured its agreement.

"That fails to answer my query."

She sucked in her breath, then enunciated the difference. "Not afraid. I am disinclined."

The corner of his mouth curled. "Ah. Of course."

Of course? What the devil did he mean by that? Did he presume to know her better than herself? Realizing her vexation growing, she took a deep breath and eyed him more keenly. Who was this stranger and why these attempts to insult her?

"Is it punishment you be wanting?" she asked him imperially.

At last he displayed the proper deference by bowing his head. He said in a low baritone, "If you would give it, Mistress."

She shivered for it felt as if his words had caressed her skin. No man in her recent memory had provoked her with such efficacy. She straightened in triumph, but he dashed the cup of victory as quickly from her lips.

"And if you dare," he added. When he looked up, there was a glimmer in his eyes.

If she selected him, then his stratagem prevailed. If she did not, she risked validating his accusations. The great Lady Athena feared no one--even if this man, with his uncanny ability to unsettle her, possessed an air of danger.

Her pride carried the day.

She put the tip of her crop upon his pectoral, lightly at first, then with increasing force, digging the point into his hard muscle. To his credit, he did not step back or flinch.

"You will rue your words," she informed him. "Towards that end, I would be much inclined."

He bowed his head in acknowledgement. A few patrons around them shook their heads at his foolishness.

Gertie headed towards one of the many arched alcoves that lined the main assembly hall. The stranger followed behind her.

Located at the far end of the cavern, her alcove looked upon the length of the assembly hall. On the opposite end wound the large staircase that led to the balcony of Madame Botreaux. She had once been invited to join Penelope on the balcony but had declined. Gertie had little interest in the other patrons and derived no titillation from watching them.

The furnishing in the alcove consisted of a table, bench and whipping cross. Adorning the walls were ropes, whips, chains, shackles, and a lone candelabra. Gertie indicated the stranger should stand in the center. To her relief, he did as she directed without word. She took a deep breath and began to circle him. Although this ritual was one she always began with after having selected a new submissive, her true motivation was one of procrastination. Why did this stranger compel such uncertainty for her? He waited patiently, his eyes forward as she stalked around him, a panther surveying her prey. He had the elements of a proper submissive, but he was not like any she had known.

"What brings you here?" she asked at last. It was not her custom to engage in dialogue, but she knew not how best to proceed with him.

"I presume the same raison d'?tre that brings you here," he replied without wavering his gaze. "Mistress Athena."

The smoothness of his voice made her shiver, but the tone irked her. She sensed a veiled taunt.

"I shall call you Hephaestus whilst you are mine," she pronounced with a deliberate smirk, for Hephaestus was a lame and therefore grotesque god in Greek mythology. But he only smiled as if he shared in her mirth.

Walking behind him, she eyed the curve of his ass--round, hard, and smooth. Delectable. Perfect for the kiss of the lash or for sinking one's teeth into.

"Is my Mistress pleased by what meets her eye?"

The devil. Gertie stared at him in disbelief. Who was this man and how did he seem to know her thoughts?

"You are forward," she informed him. "You were not spoken to."

"Forgive me, Mistress," he said.

"You have been poorly trained."

"That can be remedied."

Her pulse quickened at the thought of learning him the ways of a proper submissive. She could derive much pleasure in bringing him to his knees, but she had the distinct feeling it would be no easy task. She had never committed herself to any man for considerable length of time, save for the one whom she was bound to by law and vow: her husband, the Earl of Lowry. The reason for her patronage at Madame Botreaux's. The stranger before her had presumed they possessed some shared interest in coming to the Cavern, but he could not be further from the truth.

"You shall be punished for your transgressions," she said without indicating whether or not she intended to provide the remedy of which he spoke.

She pushed him towards a wooden table along the alcove wall and felt herself growing warm, an uncommon occurrence. In her time at Madame Botreaux's, she had observed many an arse, perhaps few as beguiling as his or accented so well by such tight-fitting breeches, but certainly enough agreeable ones. Why did this one call to her, tugging at some primal urge embedded deep within her body?

"Let fall your breeches," she commanded.

He did as instructed without the least bit of timidity.

Dear bodkins. She stared at the molded buttocks. Naked, his arse was even more inspiring. Shaking her head, she forced herself to concentrate on the task at hand. "Bend over the table."

His arse arched further toward her as he complied.

"You will address me always as Mistress Athena," she told him as she tapped her crop into her palm in anticipation. "Failure to do so will merit you at least four lashes, or five, or six. Truly, it depends upon my disposition at the moment."

She fingered the length of her crop. "Do you favor an instrument of punishment?"

"I favor whatever my Mistress wishes to wield," he replied.

Well answered. But she had no intention of praising him yet. "We shall start with the crop. If you are as presumptuous as you have been, you will have the opportunity to taste all of my lovely implements here."

With that, she backhanded one arse cheek. He did not flinch. She landed another on the other cheek. Still no movement from him. Pressing her lips together, she allowed the pain to sink in for him. Gathering her strength, she dealt him three successive whacks in the same spot. This time she heard a small grunt. Even in the dim lighting, she could see the mark of the crop burning bright where she had struck. She wanted to reach out and touch him there, caress the wound, perhaps even plant a kiss.

Swallowing a growl of frustration, she struck him again, and again, and again, hoping the rhythm would diffuse the strange effect she was experiencing. But the vigorous lashing did not excise her disconcertion. On the contrary, she felt more flustered. Although he seemed to grip the table more tightly, he displayed little evidence of the pain he must be feeling. She unleashed her full strength, but her blows fell on an impassive body. The only one who seemed to be out of sorts was her. She was breathing hard from her exertion, and the sight of her crop falling against his arse had only caused her to flush more intensely.

Not knowing quite how to proceed next, she adjusted her mask and told him to don his breeches. "We are done. For tonight."

She was sorry and relieved to lose the sight of his delectable arse beneath his breeches. After buttoning the breeches, he stood erect, his posture emphasizing his broad shoulders.

"Thank you, Mistress Athena."

She nodded even though he faced away from her. He seemed to know the ways of a submissive, though his diligence in abiding by proper behavior was rather capricious.

The ensuing silence made her agitate her crop against her thigh. She let out a deep breath. "You will return two nights hence to this space. If I do not find you here waiting for me by ten o'clock, you are no longer my submissive."

She strode out, not daring to glance back. She hoped he would not return.

* * * *

Chapter Two

The strident voice of Dowager Lowry transcended the stairs as if she meant to call to someone on the second floor instead of speaking to her son in the drawing room where she waited. "I do hope your wife has not selected that dreadful gown of peach for the Bennington ball. Peach is not a becoming color upon her."

Standing alone at the top of the stairs, Gertie glanced down upon the gown of peach she wore. With her dark brown curls and pale complexion, she had thought the pastel an appropriate color for herself. The satin gown with its layered lace ruffles at the elbows was one of her favorites to start the Season. She wore it with matching slippers and had labored to find the best among her jewelry to accent her attire, finally settling on her garnet set. Despite her impatience, she had allowed the coiffeuse to produce curl after curl in a meticulous attempt to create the Merveilleuse. For a brief moment, Gertie considered donning another gown, but they were late for the Bennington ball as it was, and she had the suspicion that the most perfect gown would not meet the approval of the Dowager.

"Or that horrid gown of lavender she wore to the Wempole garden party," Sarah Farrington, her sister-in-law, added.

"Then why do you not impart your sensibilities to her?" Gertie heard her husband retort with irritation. "Instead you allow me to appear at these events with an unflattering wife."

"I protest. I have made such an attempt, but alas, it has proven futile."

Gertie recalled Sarah's one endeavor. Her sister-in-law had reviewed her wardrobe, sniffing at the mediocrity of certain articles and explaining how each gown was unsuited for a woman of her shape and features before declaring the whole effort to be quite fatiguing and that surely it was time for tea? Gertie would have gladly taken any guidance from her sister-in-law, for Sarah was a beauty of the first order and followed all the latest fashion plates in The Lady's Magazine.

"Her arms appear to have grown in thickness," Dowager Lowry disapproved. "I hope you have cautioned her, Alexander, against indulging her appetite too much."

Weary of overhearing more criticisms from her in-laws, Gertie made her entrance into the drawing room. Three pairs of eyes looked her over from head to toe. Alexander and his mother frowned while Sarah smirked upon seeing the gown of peach. Gertie was well aware that she was the ugly duckling among the statuesque Farringtons. Though she knew the Earl to have born more affection for her dowry than her person, she had considered herself fortunate to have acquired a husband who had such fine features. With only a modest countenance and a plump figure, Gertie had been convinced she could only marry a skinny freckled young man or a corpulent wizened man with a gout ailment. Alexander with his golden locks, fair skin, and high cheekbones had appeared a dashing prince.

They had been married three years. The fairy tale had withered soon after their wedding.

Alexander narrowed his eyes at the gown of offense. "Shall we increase your allowance, Gertie, that you may procure a suitable ball gown?"

He asked for the benefit of his mother for he knew the answer. Alexander had squandered the largesse of the dowry and inheritance, most of it upon procuring a new coach-and-four and a house in Berkeley Square--though he considered Grosvenor Square a more fitting address for an Earl--and the remainder at dice, horses, and pugilism. His flippancy with all matters monetary had led his steward to begin consulting with his wife, whom they discovered had a decent head for figures and possessed more common sense. His distaste for such responsibilities trumped his pride, and Alexander was content to have his wife oversee the handling of the estate and household economy, provided he had access to funds when he needed them.

"Perhaps we ought to consider a new dressing maid," Sarah added, raising two perfectly arched brows in her continued inspection of Gertie. "Jane has not done a proper job of disguising the shadows beneath your eyes."

During the first year of her marriage to Alexander, the criticisms from her sister-in-law came in the form of poorly conceived flattery, a la "the bonnet you wear today is much more flattering than the one you wore yesterday." Sarah made no effort nowadays to temper her contempt. Gertie allowed that such a beauty as Sarah was must easily find fault in lesser mortals and had once quipped to a friend that Sarah should be glad her splendor shined all the more when standing beside her plain sister-in-law. The angels had blessed Sarah Farrington with locks made from the sun's rays, a swanlike neck, dainty feet and wrists so slender they equaled those of a child. Her nose, like her mother's, was perhaps too sharp in profile, but apart from that, she was flawless.

"Perhaps a little more powder, then?" Gertie replied, attempting to view herself in a mirror on the opposite wall.

"We have delayed long enough," Alexander said with impatience.

Sarah had exceptionally discerning eyes, Gertie reassured herself as the Farringtons stepped into their carriage. Jane had received specific instructions to blend away the shadows, the result of an unfortunate series of events from the night before. Even now Gertie felt a warm discomfort as she recalled him. Hephaestus, she had dubbed him, but the name had done little to achieve what she had hoped. Never had a visit to Madame Botreaux's proven so unsatisfactory. She had been in fine form until he had appeared.

The night had progressed from bad to worse when, upon arriving to Lowry House last night, she had discovered the portico she kept ajar for her surreptitious return had been shuttered. She had stood outside in the dark of night for what seemed like hours contemplating her options. She could knock on the door and wake the servants, perhaps explaining that she had gone for a walk to quiet a restless night, but that would not clarify how the door came to be locked after her. She finally remembered she had left the window of her bedchamber ajar. She had successfully climbed the vines to reach the balcony of her chambers, but only after scraping a knee and losing a slipper to the bushes below.

"The Henshaws announced the birth of child--a boy," Dowager Lowry remarked as their carriage veered onto Bourdon Street. "The Duchess had been rather apprehensive that Elizabeth would not produce an heir, but I had assured her that her daughter would fulfill her responsibility."

Gertie stared into her hands. She felt the pointed gaze of the Dowager. The Dowager never failed to announce a birth of note--one would have thought her the bloody Times--to underscore the fact that she had no grandchild. Gertie felt Alexander shift beside her. She had once told her mother-in-law, despite the delicacy of the matter, that it was not for want of trying. In truth, as much as she dreaded the conjugal act with her husband, she would have liked nothing more than to cradle a babe of her own. Alexander, however, seemed to have lost interest in the past twelvemonth. He had not touched her in some time.

"Gertie, have you been seeing Dr. Fitzwilliam?" the Dowager asked. "He told me you have not scheduled an appointment with him in more than three months. I took the liberty of inviting him over next Tuesday. You will make the engagement at one o'clock, I presume?"

Gertie glanced at Alexander, but he directed his gaze out the window. There would be no help from him on this matter.

"I wonder that his services are needed--or effective," Gertie said.

The nostrils of the Dowager flared. "Do you doubt his skill, Gertie? Elizabeth Henshaw was a patient of his."

With an inward sigh, Gertie relented.

Sarah arranged her skirts of midnight blue about her with long slender fingers. "I suppose the benefit of our supreme tardiness is that we are likely to pull straight up to the house, but then we will have missed much of the amusement, and the embarrassment of it all is most difficult to bear. I wonder if any other woman has to endure sharing a dressmaid with two other women. Shall we be forever late to all our events?"

She pinned her accusatory stare at Gertie, who was tempted to respond that most women had not the luxury of a dressing maid at all, but instead she said, "I think that no one save ourselves shall be cognizant of why we are late."

"It is enough that I am aware!" Sarah snapped.

Gertie looked to her husband, though she knew he would not defend her or offer that he had acquiesced to her suggestion that they rein in their expenses by releasing some of the servants. She suspected he had easily agreed in part because dismissing the other maids would have had little impact upon his person. Alexander had been more reluctant to dismiss the groomsman, but when Gertie explained they had exhausted their credit and that the only possible loan would have to come from Jewish quarters, he had conceded.

Silence pervaded most of the ride to the Bennington residence. Alexander spent the time examining his fingernails, Sarah pouted, and the Dowager stared at Gertie, who had long ceased to attempt a light tete-a-tete with her family. Inevitably, they would find something at fault with her. As Sarah predicted, there was no line of carriages to wait behind when they arrived, and when they were announced, most of the guests were too engrossed in conversation already to notice. Sarah was not often of a cheerful disposition, but Gertie braced herself for what would surely be at least a sennight worth of her cantanker.

Gertie anticipated a long night as her best friend, the Marchioness of Dunnesford, would not be in attendance. The dancing had already begun. Not expecting to dance--Alexander had yet to request a single dance since their marriage--Gertie went to sit beside Mrs. Pemberly, a woman who had befriended her parents before they had passed away.

"Gertrude, how lovely to see you." Mrs. Pemberly greeted her with a warm smile that extended to her emerald eyes, which had lost none of their radiance through the years. She patted the spot on the settee next to her. "Ah, you wore that dress last Season, did you not? It is a lovely gown, but I must confess I think the shade to be less than brilliant against your hue, my dear."

"That would seem to be the prevailing sentiment then." Gertie sighed as she took a seat and watched as a flock of men circled around Sarah for the minuet.

"Indeed?"

"My mother-in-law and Sarah commented upon the same."

"That won't do. I have no wish to be in accordance with Belinda Farrington."


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