"C'MON, JACK! You used to be game for any lark!"
Jack Carrington, captain in the 1st Foot Guards, peered
over a stack of half-unpacked linen at the young dandy
accosting him from his doorway. "I'm happy to see you,
too, Aubrey, and while I appreciate the flattering
enthusiasm for my company which led you to hunt me down
before breakfast, I'm not interested in going anywhere. I
didn't reach London until late last night, and as you can
see, I've yet to settle into my rooms. Can this excursion
Receiving the rebuff with no noticeable dimming of his
enthusiasm, Aubrey Ludlowe crossed the room and, pushing
aside Jack's portmanteau, poured himself some ale from the
flagon on the desk. "Can't wait. Besides, why unpack?
Leave it for your man."
"I sent my batman to rejoin his family as soon as we
landed and haven't yet had time to find a replacement."
Aubrey waved his hand. "Let your new man attend to it
after you hire him. The lesson begins shortly, and if we
do not arrive soon, all the best seats will be taken."
Surprised, Jack swallowed his ale in a gulp. "You want to
drag me away at barely past dawn to watch a lesson?
Since when did you develop such enthusiasm for education?
Not while we were at Oxford, to be sure!"
Aubrey set his mug down with a thump, his expression
affronted. "Tisn't a matter of some rubbishy book-
learning! Nay, "tis more important than that. Indeed, "tis
the most important thing going on now in London, what with
the Season not yet begun. Every gentleman of note will be
present. Stands to reason there must be a decision soon,
and good friend that I am, I don't wish you to miss having
Jack stared at Aubrey. "A lesson is the most important
event now taking place in London?" he asked, trying to
sift the most intelligible bits from his friend's speech.
A sudden thought occurred and he leaned forward to sniff
the air. "Are you sheets-to-the-wind, Aubrey?"
His friend chuckled, seemingly much less offended to be
accused of being drunk at seven in the morning than at the
suggestion he'd taken up scholarship. "Nay, though I don't
mind a little nip first thing, to revive the spirits. A
sirloin wouldn't come amiss either, but we haven't time."
Aubrey snatched the folded shirt from Jack's hands and
tossed it on the bed. "Wear regimentals, since you're half
dressed in them already, but we leave now. The fencing
master closes the doors promptly at seven-thirty."
"You're haranguing me to go to a fencing lesson?" A sudden
vision filled Jack's head β smoke, screams, the rattle of
musketry and clang of blades, himself with saber slashing.
Shaking it off, he said grimly, "No, thank you, Aubrey. My
fencing skills are quite proficient enough. Pray God, I
shall never need to hone them again."
His friend sobered. "Amen to that. Heard Waterloo was a
dreadful slaughter. But I'm proposing a different sort of
contest β and one you definitely will want to see. Trust
me, old fellow! Have I ever led you awry?"
Recalling a long line of dubious exploits stretching from
childhood to university, Jack smiled. "Frequently."
Grinning back, Aubrey protested, "Well, not this time. If
you decide I was wrong, you may afterward exact whatever
retribution you like, but I'm sure you will be thoroughly
grateful I insisted you come along. "Tis nearly a...a life-
altering experience! Or," he added with a heavy sigh, "so
it has proved for many of us. But no more β you must see
for yourself. You'll thank me, I promise you!"
"Oh, very well," Jack capitulated, his curiosity by now
thoroughly piqued. Abandoning the shirts, he shrugged on
his uniform jacket. "In compensation for making me leave
my kit in such disorder, you may buy me breakfast."
"Immediately after the match," Aubrey promised.
"Only hurry! I've a hackney waiting."
With the speed of long practice, Jack looped the fasteners
as he followed Aubrey into the hall.
"Why are you staying here at Albany anyway?" Aubrey asked
as he hustled Jack down the stairs. "Dorrie's making her
come-out, isn't she? Why not move into the family manse?"
"Mama and Dorothy won't be coming to London for another
month. You know old Quisford won't stir from Carrington
Grove until the family leaves, nor would he trust an
underling to properly open the house here. When I
mentioned I intended to put up at Grillon's until they
arrive, a fellow officer whose regiment hasn't yet been
ordered home from Paris offered me the use of his rooms
"You'll stay in London until the family comes?" Aubrey
asked as they boarded the waiting hackney.
"I'll remain just long enough to sell out, purchase new
garments and consult our solicitors. Then I'm off to
breathe country air and let Mama and Dorrie fuss over me."
"If they can spare you the time," Aubrey replied,
signaling the driver to start. "When Mama fired off my
sister, "twas such a frenzy of preparations you'd think
they were mustering an army. You'll return with them for
the Season, of course?"
"Yes, after I get the spring planting sorted out with
Ericson. I promised Dorrie I'd escort her to parties,
introduce her to any army chums who happen to be in town
and see that only eligible gentlemen are encouraged to
call. Which leaves you out," he added with a grin.
"As if she'd look at me anyway, when we've known each
other since we were in leading strings," Aubrey
retorted. "Besides, I've no desire yet to become a tenant-
"Since as Dorrie's equerry I shall be obliged to go about
in society, I plan to keep my eyes open. Perhaps I'll
discover a little charmer who persuades me to settle down."
When Aubrey chortled in disbelief, Jack continued, "No,
I'm serious. There's something about finding oneself
intact, after riding through a hail of musketry and
artillery shot, that makes one contemplate one's own
mortality. Perhaps it's time I do my duty to marry."
Aubrey stared at him. "I believe you mean it. Thank heaven
I'm a younger son! No duties of procreation for me β not
of the legitimate variety anyway," he amended.
"So what illegitimate activity are we pursuing this
morning? Must be of some great moment, to get you up at
such an hour. Or have you merely not been to bed yet?"
"Got a few hours' sleep," Aubrey replied. "Man needs his
wits about him for this endeavor."
"Which is precisely...what?" Jack pressed.
"You'll see for yourself soon enough." And with that, Jack
had to be content. During the rest of the drive, Aubrey
refused to be coaxed, tricked or bullied into revealing
anything further. Mystified and a bit annoyed, Jack was
more than happy when his friend had the carriage stop at a
modest town house in Soho Square.
They followed several other gentlemen up the stairs to the
main floor where Aubrey, after tossing coins into a box
beside the door, led him into what appeared to be a
converted ballroom. The area by the door was thronged with
groups of chatting gentlemen; beyond them was arranged an
assortment of chairs, all occupied.
"Blast, I knew we'd tarried too long," Aubrey grumbled.
"Now we shall have to stand."
After scanning the crowd, Aubrey elbowed a path to a space
against the left wall. "This will have to do. Ah, they're
beginning. Is that not magnificent?"
In the sudden hush, Jack heard the clang of steel on
steel. Turning his attention to the floor, he noted facing
them an older man clad in breeches and shirtsleeves. His
opponent, posing en garde with his back to them, appeared
to be a mere stripling, but before Jack could glean any
further impression, the young man went on the attack.
Although the older gentleman, clearly the instructor, was
taller and heavier, the young student seemed nearly his
match. The flashing blades struck sparks as the boy thrust
and counterthrust, offsetting the master's advantage in
size and experience with superior agility and audacious,
risky changes of direction that allowed him to steadily
drive the man back.
His distaste for combat forgotten, Jack's attention
riveted on the interplay of blade with blade. When, after
checking an advance intended to throw him off balance, the
boy countered with a thrust so swift and unexpected Jack
barely saw the weapon move, he joined the gallery in a
roar of approval as the master's sword went flying.
"Brilliant!" he said to Aubrey while the student trotted
to retrieve the errant foil. "How long has he..."
As the boy untied his mask and turned to face them, the
rest of Jack's sentence went unuttered. Walking toward
them, the master's sword in hand, was not a young lad, but
A woman, rather, Jack amended, noting with appreciation
the curves suggested beneath the loose-fitting linen shirt
and breeches. Though with those rounded hips, that
delicious curve of bottom, how could he have believed for
a moment the student was a boy?
And her face β Jack literally caught his breath as his
gaze rose to what must rank as one of the Almighty's
supremest acts of creation. Its shape a perfect oval, the
skin luminescent as a China pearl, her countenance was
animated by large eyes of deep gentian blue set under
arched brows. Though the full, petal-pink lips were
unsmiling, the newly minted gold hair pulled severely back
and tucked into a knotted queue, she was without question
the most beautiful woman he'd ever beheld.
Aubrey's low chuckle pulled him from his rapt
contemplation. "Did I not tell you?"
Realizing from the amusement on his friend's face that his
mouth must be hanging open, Jack shut it with a snap. "Who
"Lady Belle β or at least, that's what the ton calls her,
after her long-time protector, Lord Bellingham."
"No, a courtesan β and since Bellingham's death a month
ago, the most sought-after woman in London. Every
unattached gentleman in the city has been pressing her to
consider his offer, though Lord Rupert β" Aubrey gestured
to a tall, thin man in black, his expression as somber as
his garb " β has the blunt to outbid all comers. Rumor
says he once offered Bellingham two thousand guineas to
relinquish his claims to Belle β and doubled the offer to
the lady privately, though she never left Bellingham, so
it might be all a hum. Thought you might want to enter the
"At a starting bid of four thousand guineas?" Jack
laughed. "I haven't that sort of blunt! She's ravishing
indeed, but β alas," he said, surprised to feel a genuine
pang of regret, "I could never afford her."
"If 'tis true that she's turned down Rupert on several
occasions, she might be angling for more than just money.
You're a well-favored gent, war hero and all. Might have a
chance with her. And if successful, you would upon
occasion allow your best friend to worship at her feet."
Something in Aubrey's tone made Jack transfer his gaze
from Belle back to his friend. "You have a tendre there?"
Aubrey sighed. "She'd never look twice at me β an un-
distinguished younger son of modest appearance and
fortune. But wait β the most amusing part is beginning.
Once Wroxham discovered she was taking lessons β wearing
breeches β the news raced through the ton and a crowd
began gathering to watch. Hoping to discourage it, I
suppose, she told Armaldi to charge admission, but that
only seemed to bolster attendance."
"If she makes enough from that, she'll not need a new
"Oh, she don't keep it β gives it to Armaldi, to reimburse
him for his trouble in having such a crowd foisted upon
him, she told Montclare. But Ansley β the young cub who's
been dangling after her since last Season β protested that
her admirers deserved a boon for their devotion. He
induced her to agree that after the lesson, she'll meet
one challenger. Anyone who manages to best her wins a