The Secret Life of a Debutante by Bianca Blythe
Lord Cornelius Chichester wandered through Lady Richmond’s ballroom, avoiding eye contact with the row of chattering debutantes.
“My dearest Viscount.” Lady Richmond lifted her voice effortlessly over the violins and cellos, equally unperturbed by the not always rhythmic thuds of guests as they leaped to a Scottish reel, landing on the glossy wooden floor. “You must dance.”
Cornelius halted. “I am in no mood for dancing.”
Disappointment drifted over Lady Richmond’s face, and Lord Cornelius Chichester remembered that Lady Richmond’s youngest daughter had recently debuted. He glanced toward the row of wallflowers. They straightened, and fluttered their eyelashes at a speed not explained by the smoke wafting from the fireplace.
Cornelius gave a tight smile. Perhaps his stomach was twisting, but Lady Richmond did not need to know. Her skills in gossiping were as renowned as her skills in hosting.
Dancing was more enjoyable when women did not view the five minutes of hopping and twirling as an opportunity to express their suitability at becoming his wife. Ever since his father had died, women regarded any time with him as an occasion to list their virtues, no matter how vigorously he cultivated a reputation as a rake.
Apparently they all possessed immaculate taste, ideally suited to the demands of interior decoration. Similarly, they were gifted at assisting housekeepers in choosing scrumptious meals that would be certain to delight even the grumpiest of guests. Moreover, they all boasted of superior singing and piano-playing abilities, should their future husbands favor lounging in armchairs and exercising their auditory abilities rather than attempting the trying tasks of carrying conversations.
“I was admiring your beautiful ballroom,” Cornelius added in a hasty attempt at gallantry. “The gilt moldings are remarkable, and every chandelier sparkles.”
“I shall pass your compliments to my staff for their skills at polishing. Though I think you’ll prefer actual art. We have a new painting from Julius. I have not unveiled it yet, but I am happy to give you a special viewing.”
“Then you must show it to me.” Cornelius inclined his head in what he hoped was a sufficiently reverent movement.
In truth, he had no particular interest in art, even though he was accustomed to the effusive adoration shown to various painters from the continent. Spain had Goya, France had Ingres, and now England had Julius Stanwycke. Personally, Cornelius thought the most impressive thing about him had always been his ability to be referred to by his first name as if he was Michelangelo himself.
Lady Richmond’s apple cheeks broadened. “I am glad you are fond of art. Have I mentioned that my daughter Daphne is an art connoisseur?”
“You did not.” Cornelius’s stomach tightened. He knew what Lady Richmond hoped he would do: propose.
“Her taste is exceptional. Let me call her over to explain the art to you.”
“That is unnecessary.”
“It will be no trouble at all.” Lady Richmond waved toward a plain-looking young woman who had been squeezed into a puce-colored dress and matching turban and who was speaking to one of Lord Grandley’s more awkward younger sons. “Yoo-hoo! Daphne!”
Miss Daphne Richmond jerked her head toward her mother, whispered something to the man beside her, then scurried to them. She would have appeared less ridiculous were her gown not festooned with many ribbons, as if the modiste had decided to charge for the dress by the amount used in a single square foot.
Lady Richmond glided her hand toward Cornelius in an elegant motion. “Lord Chichester. I am delighted to present my daughter, the lovely, artistic—”
Daphne’s pale eyebrows shot up at that particular adjective, and Lady Richmond gave her a stern look.
“Miss Daphne Richmond,” Lady Richmond finished triumphantly.
Cornelius bowed politely as Miss Daphne Richmond sank into an obligatory curtsy.
“I was informing the viscount about the new painting Papa purchased,” Lady Richmond said. “Have you seen it?”
Daphne shook her head and glanced toward Mr. Grandley. “I’m not very inter—”
Lady Richmond coughed noisily, even though she had not coughed or made use of her handkerchief a single time in Cornelius’s conversation with her.
Daphne’s face pinkened. “It’s in Papa’s library.”
“What an odd place to put the painting. As if your father has any interest in art.” This time, Lady Richmond’s cheeks adopted a deeper cranberry shade. “My husband does not share my daughter’s exquisite artistic sensibilities.”
Cornelius nodded his head politely.
“Well, we must visit my husband’s library,” Lady Richmond declared. “It is essential.”
“Is it?” Daphne asked.
“The painting is by Julius. He’s the most famous rising artist in London. Moreover, he’s expensive. In fact, I should invite more people to view it with me.” Lady Richmond addressed the partygoers, raising her alto voice. “There will be a painting viewing in the library.”
Some people filed behind them, and Cornelius followed Lady Richmond and her daughter into the library.
Lady Richmond lit a candle and instructed Daphne to ignite more. Golden light flickered across overstuffed red armchairs. The walls were painted a pale green, and leather-bound books glimmered from a set of bookcases on one side of the room. The rest of the room was devoted to paintings, and it occurred to Cornelius that the books might have only been placed there to fulfill the function of a library.
Lady Richmond’s eyebrows furrowed together. “Where is the painting?”
“I believe that wasn’t there before.” Daphne pointed at some fabric draped over a painting opposite a comfortable-looking armchair.
“Heavens. Why is the painting covered?” Lady Richmond fluttered a hand over her chest.
“I can venture a guess,” one man said, and his wife elbowed him.
Lady Richmond’s cheeks reddened, and her jaw tensed.
This was not the first time Cornelius had been in a man’s quarters. There was one reason men kept their paintings covered, but it was hardly gentlemanly to discuss it.
“I don’t need to see the painting,” Cornelius said.
“Nonsense,” Lady Richmond said. “You will see the painting, and dearest Daphne will explain it to you.”
A nervous expression fluttered over Daphne’s face, as if she was trying to recall all at once the art history lessons taught at her finishing school.
“You’ll be most entertained,” Lady Richmond announced with the enthusiasm of a teacher instructing skeptical students on the joys of mastering Latin declensions.
Cornelius had the horrible feeling he might be entertained but that Lady Richmond might not be.
“Actually, I rather feel like dancing.” Cornelius turned to Daphne. “Perhaps you would care to dance with me?”
She nodded hastily, evidently eager to leave the library.
“Just show the painting,” another man said. “I’m curious.”
“Perhaps it’s a naughty painting,” the man beside him said. “Since it’s behind a curtain.”
Lady Richmond’s lower lip trembled, but she raised her chin. “My husband is an art lover. I assure you he would never purchase a painting from a famous artist for titillation.”
In one swift movement, she yanked the curtain to the side and gestured to her daughter. “Daphne, explain the painting.”
The other guests goggled.
Even Cornelius stared, and his jaw had a curious urge to sink to the ground as if it had suddenly, after twenty-six years, decided to succumb to gravity.
“Daphne?” Lady Richmond prompted, eyeing the guests.
“That is a painting by Julius,” Daphne said obediently. “It is of a—woman.”
“A woman with no clothes!” a man shouted.
Lady Richmond’s eyes widened, and she inclined her head tentatively toward the painting. The action caused the light from her candle to splatter over the canvas.
A redheaded woman was splayed over the painting. Her figure was sumptuous and very, very nude. A satyr leered beside her.
That was just the sort of painting Lady Richmond most likely did not want to show her guests. The best thing to do was to make light of it.
“It’s not that scandalous,” Cornelius said quickly. “Utterly innocuous.”
“She’s naked.” Shock coursed over Lady Richmond’s face, and her hands shook. Her eyes drifted to the comfortable armchair opposite the painting, and her face warmed. Perhaps she suspected why her husband had selected this piece.
Cornelius returned his gaze to the painting. This time, he stilled. The woman in the painting looked…familiar.
In fact, she looked exactly like…
He swallowed hard. No one should identify the model.
“Perhaps the model was warm,” Cornelius said. “Those ateliers must be quite stuffy. Heat rises, after all.”
“That is no reason for nudity.” Lady Richmond gave her daughter a stern look. “Daphne, please promise me that you will never abandon your dress, shift, and stays because of a temperature change, no matter how extreme.”
“I won’t, Mama,” Daphne promised.
Lady Richmond nodded, evidently momentarily appeased.
“I know who that is,” one guest said. “She looks dashed familiar.”
Don’t say it. Don’t say it. Don’t say it.
Timothy would be most aggrieved, and Timothy was Cornelius’s best friend in all the world.
“Is she at this ball?” a woman mused.
“The model is at this ball?” Lady Richmond asked. “My ball?”
Cornelius shook his head hastily. “No, no.”
“How would you know?” Lady Richmond asked. “Or are you an expert on models?”
Though Lady Richmond’s words to him had always been polite, there was no hiding the current aggressive edge to her voice.
“I have to leave,” he said hoarsely.
It was essential he find Timothy. At once.