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Training Lady Townsend(4)

By:Annabel Joseph

“They want you, Arlington,” Hunter drawled from his position near the east balustrade. “You’d better pick one of them soon, before things come to a head.” He gestured toward young Lady Eleanor, who exchanged viciously polite glances with her rivals on all sides. She looked like a puffball, all white and soft around the edges, although marital ambition sharpened her smile. “Shelbourne’s chit thinks she has you in the bag.”

“For God’s sake, she’s the Marquess of Shelbourne’s daughter, not ‘Shelbourne’s chit.’ Could you attempt to be even a little polite and sociable? I threw this blasted party for your sake, and for your soon-to-be wife.”

Both men turned to where Aurelia sat in her protective social circle. The young ladies perched around a tea tray but none of them touched a thing.

“She looks like she’s having fun,” said Arlington.

“She looks like she’d like to jump off a cliff, but you’ve none on your vast property. You call yourself a duke of the realm?”

“I’ll have to look into acquiring some cliffs.”

At nearly thirty, Arlington was the oldest of their mad little group, as well as the most respectable, having been forced into duty and responsibility at a very young age. Outwardly respectable, anyway. The duke was possessed of long, golden hair he sometimes pulled back in a queue, and pale blue-gray eyes capable of freezing those who risked his displeasure.

“These betrothals are a dull business,” the duke said, frowning. “People who aren’t suited for one another are forced together to breed so society can proceed in the same lockstep manner.”

“It’s ghastly,” Hunter agreed.

“You’ll have a pretty wife anyway.” Arlington nodded in Aurelia’s direction.

Hunter studied her, her spine stiff and her head tilted just so to her companion. “Pretty dull, you mean.”

“You didn’t find her dull when we pointed her out at your parents’ ball.” His friend’s mouth twitched with amusement.

“I’ll get all of you back for that one day,” Hunter huffed. “Mark my words.”

“We look forward to your glorious transformation once you’ve been dragged, kicking and screaming, into the state of matrimony.” His hilarity died away, replaced by a gloom of concern. “Really, Towns, we wish you the best. If there’s anything we can do...”

“There is something you can do. Especially you, Your Grace. Go to Lansing and make an offer for her hand.”

“No point in that. She’s yours now. You’ve seen to it, for better or worse.”

Lady Aurelia turned to speak to the simpering young woman at her side. Minette, Warren’s amiable younger sister. So prim. So proper, all of them. “You’re a duke,” Hunter said. “Lansing would at least consider you.”

“She’s always been promised to you.” His friend’s voice took on a strange tone. “Funny, if not for the adjoining property, I might have had her.”

“Would you have wanted her?”

“I don’t know. It doesn’t matter. You’ve known for years this was coming, so buck up and be a man about it.” He pursed his lips, staring across the garden. “Your Lady Dormouse does have a magnificent set of breasts. No wonder Lansing kept her hidden away.”

Out of principle, Hunter refused to moon at his fiancée in public, although he’d had similar thoughts about her breasts, her hips, her pleasingly round derrière. She was womanly, lush. Ripe, one might say, which made her prim mousiness that much harder to bear.

“She’s in love with Warren.” The words burst out, apropos of nothing. Arlington looked over in surprise. Hunter stared back, trying to act as if it didn’t prick him.

“Ah well,” said Arlington. “All the ladies love Warren. He puts on a good show with that fancy hair and that devilish tailor of his. I wouldn’t take it personally.”

“I don’t take it personally,” Hunter scoffed with a bit too much conviction. “I don’t give a whit if she lusts after every man in Christendom. I’m no pillar of fidelity. I expect I’ll continue in my old habits after we’re wed.”

“Then stumble home to your wife looking—and smelling—as if you just rolled out of whore’s bed?”

“Not a whore, my friend. A specialized lady of a fine erotic house.”

“I know the ‘erotic houses’ you frequent,” Arlington mused. “I know the names of every one of your ‘specialized ladies,’ and I tell you, you’ll need to be discreet. Laudable Lansing won’t tolerate a philandering son-in-law.”

Hunter didn’t much care what the Duke of Lansing would tolerate. He’d spent a decade training a coterie of women to cater to his sexual tastes, and he wasn’t going to throw them all away because of a forced marriage to an uptight prude.

Bounteous bosom or no, he doubted the virginal Lady Aurelia would submit to erotic punishment, or sodomy, or oral copulation. He wouldn’t give up these pleasures, for he found them essential to his life’s happiness. He’d only have to be more careful in seeking them out. He’d pay a little extra for his partners’ silence if he had to, to reduce the gossip after he was married. Once his new wife learned what he was into, she’d probably pay the courtesans herself to keep him out of her bed.

And if she complained about his extramarital activities, he’d explain that it was the way of the ton, and that she had no power to control him. He’d be a decent husband, as far as he could, but he had no intention of living like a monk only to protect her sensibilities.

“We ought to arrange a decadent orgy the night before the wedding,” said Arlington. He paused, considering. “Two nights before the wedding, perhaps.”

“Don’t arrange anything of the sort. I’m planning to remain celibate that entire week, so I can muster up enough lust to deflower my bride.”

“A week? You’ll never manage that.”

“I can survive a week with no women. It’s the least I can do for Lady Aurelia, to show some stiffening in my affections on our wedding night. How about an orgy the following week? I’ll be desperate for pleasure after I take a few trips between those ice-cold thighs.”

Arlington grimaced. “We’ll have to be awfully careful about such things. Maybe the orgy’s not a good idea. Lansing is a stickler for proprieties and he could make your life—and your father’s life—a bloody hell if you rub him the wrong way.”

“I’ve already rubbed him the wrong way.” Hunter stared morosely at his future bride. “Which is why I have to be here playing the lovelorn fiancé like a damned milksop.”

“Go and talk with her, would you?” Arlington nudged him the lady’s way. “I threw this party so you could prove to the quality that you’ve been reformed by this engagement, publicly at least. Why don’t you go kiss some hands and smile at some simpering ladies?”

“Bugger you, Arlington.”

“Then after, we’ll visit some houses of iniquitous congress, where you can reward yourself for your impeccable manners and respectability. Go on. Don’t stand here talking to me.”

Hunter heaved a sigh. “Very well. I’m off to court the Lady Aurelia, if she doesn’t run away from me first.”

*** *** ***

Aurelia’s whole body went tense as Lord Townsend ambled across the lush expanse of garden. Her future husband looked well enough in his fine embroidered coat, his black hair neatly tamed. Even his expression gave no cause for offense. His dark brown eyes were soft and his features arranged in a semblance of pleasant greeting, but Aurelia recognized his distaste for her. She felt it in every part of her body whenever he was around. Her companions’ idle chatter tapered off as he stopped before their table.

“Will you have some tea, Lord Townsend?” chirped Lady Wilhelmina. “Or one of these delicious confections?”

“There’s only one delicious confection I’m hungry for at the moment.”

Aurelia flushed hot as his eyes settled on her. The women giggled as though he was charming, but she felt humiliated. Must he profess to be hungry for her? How crass, how gauche...how completely made up. She hated that they must playact false affection between them.

“Lady Aurelia,” he said brightly. “I couldn’t stay from your side a moment longer.”

She was obliged to offer her hand, and when she did, he bowed over it, brushing a kiss across the back of her glove. “Lord Townsend,” she replied in a voice she hoped sounded equally bright. “It’s a lovely party, isn’t it? The weather is fine.”

“The beauty of the day pales in comparison to your charms.”

Mockery. Lies. If only Lord Warren were here, she wouldn’t feel so agitated, but since her official engagement to Lord Townsend, the man had made himself scarce. Lord Townsend gave her a desultory smile. She imagined he knew every one of her thoughts and mocked her for it.

“Ladies,” he said, looking around at her companions, “would you be so kind as to spare my dear Aurelia? I had hoped to stroll with her about His Grace’s picturesque grounds.”