Clara bolted upright in her chair, but when the voice came again, she realized it was not the Almighty who had uttered such prescient words, but one of the two gentlemen seated at the table on the other side of the potted palms. Though he was facing her direction, he was not looking at her, and she realized that he had not been speaking to her at all, but to his companion. He was also, quite obviously, a mortal man.
Mortal, perhaps, she thought as she angled her head for a better view of him between the palm fronds, but certainly good-looking enough to be a god.
His hair, short but unruly, was of dark, burnished gold and seemed to catch and hold every glimmer of light through the windows of the tea shop. His eyes, the clear, azure blue of a Grecian sea, were focused completely on his companion, granting Clara the undeniable treat of studying him unobserved. His face, of perfect symmetry, lean planes and chiseled contours, seemed as unyielding as a marble statue, but then he smiled, and at the sheer, dazzling brilliance of it, Clara’s heart turned over in her chest.
“I’m happy to help,” he said, “but I hope it’s not money you need. I’m absolutely flat at present.”
His companion said something in reply, but Clara didn’t catch it, for her attention was fully occupied by the man opposite. And who could blame her? It wasn’t every day that a golden, windblown Adonis came down from Mount Olympus to grace an obscure little tea shop in Holborn.
His body—what she could see of it above the table—was sheathed in the fine white linen and dark gray morning coat of a proper English gentleman, and yet, his wide shoulders and tapering torso made his physique seem far more suited to some ancient Olympiad or Roman coliseum than the civilized London of 1893.
This god, this delectable feast for feminine eyes, stirred in his chair, his splendid shoulders lifting in a shrug, and the move caused Clara to tear her gaze away. She did not want him to catch her staring. But as he spoke again, she couldn’t resist leaning closer, curious to hear more.
“What does every man spend his money on, Lionel?” he said, his voice light and careless. “Wine, women, and song. And cards, of course.”
“But especially the women, eh?”
The two men laughed together at that bit of raillery, but Clara couldn’t help feeling let down. Adonis seemed rather a rake. Not, she feared, a noble god at all. And rakes, as she well knew from her father’s example, never truly reformed.
She had no chance to speculate further on Adonis’s character, however, for the voice of the man called Lionel returned her attention to the conversation at hand. “No, what I need from you isn’t money, old chap. I need advice about love.”
Those words reminded Clara that she was expected to dispense some of that particular commodity herself this afternoon, which meant she ought to stop eavesdropping on other people’s conversations and return to her own task. But before she could reach for another letter, Adonis spoke again, giving her pause.
“Good God, Lionel, why would anyone want advice about love from me?”
Clara, who had been asking that very question of herself, wondered what Lionel’s answer might be.
“It’s Dina, of course,” he said. “She’s dropping hints about matrimony, and I’ve got to find a way to slip the hook. That’s where I’m hoping you might be able to advise me. You’re so good at that sort of thing.”
Clara was a bit shocked. Adonis, however, merely seemed amused.
And which is my talent?” he asked with a laugh. “Staying free of marriage, or advising others how to do so?”
This was not the sort of problem Lady Truelove would choose to tackle in her column, but nonetheless, Clara was intrigued. She’d asked for help, after all, and help did often come from the most unlikely places. Keeping her head down so that the man opposite wouldn’t detect her eavesdropping, she leaned even closer.
“Are you sure you want to slip the hook? Your inamorata is rather a catch herself, you know. She’s not only a rich widow, she’s also young, exceedingly pretty, and most agreeable company—quite a prize for a lowly MP like you. There’s many who’d deem you a very lucky chap.”
“True,” his friend agreed, sounding as if he considered himself anything but fortunate. “You wouldn’t, though. Everyone knows your opinion of marriage.”
“Not everyone, sadly. Despite my aversion to that outmoded and wholly unnecessary institution, certain members of my family are determined to see me chained to it, and in pursuit of this goal, they insist upon hurling desperate debutantes at me every season. But not many men share my cynical view. I certainly never thought you did.”
“I don’t, really. It’s just that . . .” Lionel paused and gave a heavy sigh. “I’m not sure I want to marry right now.”
“Ah.” There was a wealth of understanding in the word. “What you mean is that you’re not sure you want to marry her.”
“I suppose that’s it,” Lionel mumbled, and Clara felt an immediate compassion for the young lady in question. “She’s not really my sort, you know. I’m such an ordinary chap, and she’s part of the ton.”
“That’s just it. Dina’s not a girl. She’s five years older than I am. And being a widow, she knows her way about all right. When she made her attraction to me so plain, I thought all she wanted was an affair. I thought, ‘Why not?’ I was flattered. What bloke wouldn’t be?” He sighed again. “It all seemed so simple. So straightforward.”
“You’re talking about a woman, Lionel. Nothing is ever simple or straightforward.”
“Don’t I know it? The point is, I never thought she’d want marriage.”
“Ladies usually do, once we’ve slept with them,” Adonis murmured, and at those blunt words, heat flooded Clara’s cheeks. She knew just what “slept with” was a euphemism for, thanks to the explanations of her forthright sister, and she felt a growing indignation on this Dina’s behalf. Whoever she was, the woman was obviously being quite ill-used.
“Deuced inconvenient of them, I know,” Adonis went on, “but there it is. That’s why I steer clear of respectable young ladies as often as I can. Invariably, they expect marriage.”
And why shouldn’t they? Clara wondered, feeling prickly and a bit defensive. What’s wrong with wanting to be married?
“Dancers and actresses,” he continued, adding to her ire, “are much less bother.”
Bother? Clara bristled at the word. Women who wanted honorable marriage were a bother?
“That’s all well and good, but hardly helpful.” “My dear Lionel, what is it you expect me to say?”
“I want you to help me stay out of the trap! Though how I ever got snared in the first place escapes me.”
“Haven’t we already established that? You fell into the trap when you fell into her bed.”
The blush in Clara’s cheeks deepened, spreading heat through her entire body. Heavens, who’d ever have thought such nefarious conversation could take place in the respectable confines of a tea shop?
“And everything was going splendidly, too,” Lionel murmured in a gloomy tone while Clara pressed her hands to her hot cheeks. “But barely a month later, she’s making wedding plans.”
“Women,” his friend replied, “can be so unreasonable.”
Clara had to clamp one of her hands over her mouth to stifle an exclamation of outrage before it could escape her lips and give her away.
“Rather,” Lionel agreed and gave a laugh, though he sounded anything but amused. “My family has never met her. Hell, they don’t even know about her. And her family certainly doesn’t know about me. We’ve managed to be very discreet until now. If her people found out, the fat would be in the fire, for it would be a come-down for her, and they’d never approve of it. And yet she doesn’t seem to care. She’s prepared to tell them all to go to blazes—for my sake, she says. My sake? Damn it, man, what am I supposed to do?”
Adonis was silent a moment, considering the problem. “Could you go abroad?” he asked at last. “Take a jaunt to Paris or Rome for a few months? The season’s just beginning, and Dina will surely be caught up in the social whirl. I daresay by the time you come back, she’ll have forgotten all about you.”
“Or she’ll follow me. Dina isn’t a meek and mild little flower, you know. Being so rich, and a widow, she doesn’t have to worry about either costs or chaperones.”
“Perhaps, but why should she bother? Other chaps will be lining up soon enough, I daresay, and paying her so much attention that she probably won’t miss you a jot.”
“I suppose you’re right.”
Clara couldn’t help noting that Lionel didn’t sound relieved by the prospect. Isn’t that just like a man? she thought, feeling a stirring of her sister’s suffragist sympathies. Wanting to have the cake and eat it, too.
“And besides,” Lionel went on, “going abroad isn’t possible for me. I’m a hardworking MP. I am,” he insisted as his friend made a sound of derision, “and Parliament is in session. I can’t go trotting off to the Continent.”
“Then your course is clear. You have to break with her.”
“Must I?” Lionel paused and sighed again. “Why can’t we just go on as we are for a bit, see where it leads us?”
“You can’t, I take it?”
“I made the suggestion, but she said she didn’t see the point. Since we love each other, she said, marriage is the only possible way forward.”
“Love?” Adonis’ voice was suddenly so hard and so sharp, that Clara was startled. Forgetting caution, she lifted her head and watched as he leaned forward, his perfect countenance suddenly grim. “You told her you love her?”
The palms beside Clara’s shoulder rustled, agitated by Lionel’s restless elbow as he wriggled like a guilty schoolboy. “May have done,” he muttered. “In the . . . umm . . . heat of the moment, as it were.”
His friend groaned and fell back again in his seat, impelling Clara to once again duck her head. “Of all the idiotic things to do,” he muttered. “During the twenty years we’ve known each other, has nothing I’ve told you about women penetrated your thick skull? Really, Lionel,” he added, sounding thoroughly exasperated, “you’re a hopeless business.”
“She said she loved me, and I just . . . I got caught up . . . oh, what does it matter? It’s too late for recriminations now. It’s not as if I can take the words back. So, what am I to do?”
“If you don’t want to break with her, and you don’t want to marry her, then your only course is to persuade her that what you have now is preferable to the other two alternatives,” he said, a reply that seemed to prove beyond doubt Clara’s earlier conclusion about men and their cake. “You’ll have to do it in a way that doesn’t make her feel you’re being dishonorable.”
But he is being dishonorable, Clara wanted to shout. And so are you for advising him to continue being so! If Clara was tempted to give voice to her outrage, however, Lionel spoke before she had the chance.
“Just how am I supposed to accomplish that? It’s impossible.”
“Not impossible. It can be done. But to be honest, Lionel, I’m not sure you’re the sort who can carry it off.” He paused, and though she was not looking at him, Clara could just imagine those blue eyes giving his friend a dubious glance across the table. “It’s a tricky business.”
“Tell me anyway.”
“You’ll have to suggest breaking with her.”
“I’ve told you, I don’t want to do that.”
“I said you have to suggest it. You don’t have to actually do it. Knowing Dina, if you’re the one to suggest breaking it off, it won’t seem nearly as appealing to her.”
“Or she’ll think it sounds like a fine idea and drop me flat.”
“That’s why it’s important to go about it the right way. You need to take her hand, look deeply into her eyes, paste an expression of utter devastation on your face, and explain that marriage between the two of you is just not possible.”
“And what reason could I give?”
“The facts are reason enough. You haven’t means to support her.”
“That’s true. I’ve very little money of my own, and she knows it.”
“Remind her of that and suggest—gently—that perhaps the two of you should go your separate ways? You don’t want to do it, of course, because you’re wild about her, and you can’t sleep or eat for wanting her, and your nights with her are the most amazing thing that’s ever happened to you, but for her sake, you feel you must tear yourself away.”
At this self-serving diatribe camouflaged by noble self-sacrifice, Clara nearly bounded out of her chair, but she managed to refrain by curling her hands into tight fists on the table. Staring down at them, she wished suddenly that she were a man so that she could call these scoundrels out and put her clenched fists to good use. Of all the outrageous speeches.
“I can’t say that,” Lionel protested as Clara worked to keep her temper in check. “It’s ridiculous.”
“Is it ridiculous? You want her, don’t you?”
“You don’t want to let her go, do you?”
“No, of course I don’t. I’ve already told you so.”
“Then, unless you want to find yourself standing in the nearest parish church a few weeks from now, pledging your entire future and what little you have in the way of worldly goods to a woman you barely know, you’d better find the words to persuade her to an alternative that doesn’t mean farewell.”
“But even if I could manage to say all the things you suggest, how can I make it seem convincing?”
“I advise you to spend a night or two beforehand going without food and sleep. That will give you the appropriately ravaged appearance.”
“God,” Lionel choked, laughing a little. “You’re such a clever fellow.”
Unlike Lionel, Clara felt no inclination to laugh. By heaven, her blood was up. To think of that poor young woman being deceived so thoroughly and persuaded by such nefarious means to continue an illicit liaison—why, it was unbearable. To stand by as another woman clung to the hope of marriage when the man she loved had no intention or desire to offer it, was unconscionable. If people found out about her illicit affair, she would be disgraced and shamed. And if she became with child, she’d be beyond the pale, ruined forever, and the child would suffer the stigma of illegitimacy and shame.
Until now, Clara hadn’t had any idea of the devious depths to which some men could sink, but this conversation was providing her with a quick and brutal education. In her opinion, the young lady in question would be gaining a lucky escape if she walked away from this Lionel fellow now, before it was too late. As for his friend . . .
Clara took another peek at the man she’d likened to Adonis, and when she did, she found that the spell was broken. Though he was still every bit as good-looking now as he’d been a short while ago, she could no longer see him as some sort of golden, windblown god. All she saw was a deceitful cad who toyed with women and encouraged others to do the same.
Lionel spoke again, and Clara found that her indignation on this Dina’s behalf was not stronger than her curiosity. She leaned closer to the palm trees as he said, “Even if I can convince her I’m shattered by the idea of ending things, I don’t see what good it will do. What’s to stop her from simply agreeing with me and saying good-bye?”
“She probably will, but I’m willing to bet any farewell on her part will be halfhearted. Parting from you isn’t what she really wants, you see. She wants a sweeping, romantic gesture on your part to reassure her that you care, even if you’re not prepared to marry her.”
Clara bit down hard on her lip, fearing this man knew far too much about women.
“What sort of gesture?” Lionel asked, sounding bewildered.
“If you want her, you’ll have to throw your pride to the winds and plead with her not to leave you. Even if it’s only another night, another week—whatever crumbs she offers you, you’re willing to take. That’s what she wants to hear.”
“I suppose, but it sounds like utter rubbish to me.”
“It won’t if you do it properly. I’ll show you.”
Too curious for caution, Clara slid another sideways glance at him, watching as he lifted his hand to beckon to the waitress who was passing their table with a laden tray that looked to be Clara’s tea and scones.
The waitress stopped at once, so quickly in fact, that the contents of the tray almost slid to the floor. “Oh,” she gasped as Adonis stood up and faced her. Clara, meanwhile, readjusted her position, ducking her chin even as she slanted her gaze up so that she could continue to watch out of the corner of her eye.
“May I help you, sir?” the girl asked, her voice betraying an eagerness to please that went a bit beyond the polite civility usually provided by the employees of a tea shop.
“Indeed, you may, Miss . . .?”
“Clark, sir. Elsie Clark.”
“Miss Clark.” He smiled, and though Clara was now immune to the potency of that smile, the waitress was not. When he pulled the tray from her hands, poor Elsie Clark scarcely seemed to notice.
“I do need your help,” he went on, turning to set the tray on the table beside him. “You see, my friend here has been most injudicious with his feminine companion.”
That seemed too much for the poor girl to take in, for she frowned in bafflement. “Sir?”
“Honor demands he break with a girl,” he explained. “She’s far too good for him, and he knows it. He also knows the right thing to do is abandon his courtship, for he’s a considerate, gentlemanly chap.”
Clara gave a snort, but fortunately, the other three didn’t seem to notice.
“But he can’t bear to let her go,” Adonis went on. “He’s quite shattered about the whole thing, really, and he has asked my advice on the subject. I should like to demonstrate for him how he can postpone the inevitable end as long as possible, and that is where you shall be of invaluable assistance to me, Miss Clark.”
To Clara’s way of thinking, a man who bedded a woman, declared love, refused to offer honorable marriage, and saw nothing wrong with continuing to bed her with no intention of ever doing right by her was not in any way a gentlemanly chap. She glanced between the palms at the man seated beside her, and though his appearance seemed that of a benignant and amiable fellow, Clara knew he was nothing of the sort. He was a contemptible deceiver, and so was his friend.
Her gaze slid up, and she watched as Adonis lifted the waitress’s hand in his own. “So, Miss Clark, are you willing to assist?”
If Miss Clark’s beatific expression was anything to go by, she’d have been willing to do anything this man asked of her. When she nodded, he pulled her hand bringing her closer.
“My darling girl,” he began, “you talk of marriage, but how can that be possible between us? I am no one. I have nothing. You are a lady of breeding and quality, so lovely, so fine.” He paused, cradling her hand in both of his, then he said, “You deserve so much more than I could ever offer you. You may think right now that the vast difference in our station doesn’t matter, but it does, and I know that one day, you will realize it. And when you do, it will come between us and cast an unresolvable pall over our happiness.”
Damn, Clara thought, a hint of reluctant admiration breaking through her anger, this man might be a rake, but he’s a talented one.
She dared another peek at him and found that he was still gazing at the waitress, his attention fully fixed on her. As for Elsie, her upturned profile and enraptured expression only served to confirm Clara’s opinion of this man’s rakish character and talent for duplicity.
“Marriage,” he went on, “brings harsh realities that, little by little, turn love to dust. I couldn’t bear for what we have, the mad passion we feel, to be eroded and destroyed by the mundane tedium that marriage inevitably brings. What would become of us then?”
Elsie didn’t answer. She probably couldn’t, poor girl.
“No, my dear. Marriage isn’t possible for the likes of us. You deserve it, of course, but we must be honest about our circumstances. I don’t have the blunt to support you, and I certainly don’t have the breeding to be worthy of you. And what of your family? They would surely turn against you if you married a lowborn chap like me. How could I ever cause such a breach between you and your relations? Do you really think me such a cad?”
“I think you’re lovely,” Elsie whispered, a declaration that further outraged Clara’s feminine sensibilities, partly because of the worshipful tone in which the words had been uttered, and partly because she’d had the very same mistaken opinion of him not a quarter of an hour ago.
“It tears me apart, for I’m wild about you, but I cannot bear the torment that would come with knowing I’ve ruined your life with matrimony. If a husband is truly what you want, I shall have to step aside, for I am not worthy of the role. Thus, I fear we must part forever.”
He moved to pull his hand free, but the girl clutched it tight, obviously unwilling to end what was perhaps the most romantic moment of masculine attention she’d ever had. “Is there no place for us?” she asked, sounding nauseatingly desperate as she clung to his hand.
There was a pause. “I can think of only one, and that is where we are now. One day, you will end things between us, I know, and it will break my heart. But I beg of you,” he added, pressing a fervent kiss to her hand, “do not let that day be today.”
Elsie sighed again, the fact that he had just reversed his entire position on ending things seeming to go right over her head. She stared up at him in dazed and silent wonder, but she was given little time to savor the romance of the moment. With a dexterity Clara couldn’t help but admire, he slipped free of Elsie’s grasp, leaving the girl’s hand still hovering in midair. “You see, Lionel?” he said in a conversational tone as he resumed his seat and forced Clara to again look away. “It can be done.”
“I suppose so, if one does it the way you just did,” his friend agreed, laughing.
“What do you think, Elsie?” Adonis asked the waitress, obviously so confident of his powers of attraction that he felt free to call her by her Christian name, the cheeky devil. “If you were the lady, would you go? Or would you stay?”
“I believe . . .” Elsie paused and gave a little cough as if working to recover her poise. “I believe I’d stay,” she managed at last. “Not forever, mind you,” she added, as if to emphasize that she still possessed a scrap of pride. “A girl’s got to look out for her future, you know.”
“Quite right.” Teacups rattled, and Clara’s gaze slid sideways to watch as he lifted the tray and held it up to her. “Thank you for all your help.”
However amiable his voice, his words were clearly a dismissal, and the girl realized it. “You’re very welcome, sir,” she mumbled. Taking the offered tray, she dipped a curtsy and departed.
“Well?” Adonis asked, returning his attention to his friend as Clara turned hers to the waitress coming around the palms with her order. “What do you think?”
“I think you should be on the stage,” Lionel said as Elsie set Clara’s tray on her table and began placing tea things before her. “And I believe you have resolved my dilemma.”
“Doing this buys you time, Lionel. That’s all. Put that time to good use.”
The two men stood up. Clara’s pot of jam hit her table with a thud, and then Elsie was off like a shot, bustling toward the front to assist the gentlemen with their departure.
As the two men came around the palms and followed the waitress toward the front of the tea shop, Clara snatched up one of the letters she’d previously opened and ducked her head, pretending to take no notice of them whatsoever. Adonis turned toward the door and Lionel came around her table to follow him, and Clara lifted her gaze to watch their backs as they settled their bill, and all she could think about was the nefarious trick about to be employed on an unknowing woman.
Someone ought to warn her what was afoot, Clara thought, her gaze narrowing on the architect of this scheme as he followed his friend out of the tea shop. Someone ought to tell her just how despicably her affections were about to be abused. But how, Clara wondered, could such a feat be accomplished?
She frowned, pondering the question.
This Dina was, she knew, part of the ton, a fact which did present certain opportunities. Clara was, after all, the granddaughter of a viscount and was now also the sister-in-law of a duke, so she possessed the proper entrée into this woman’s circle, but did that matter? She hadn’t really begun moving in society, hadn’t yet met many ladies outside the duke’s family, and among the few she had met she’d encountered no young widow named Dina.
Clara sighed and sat back. The girl’s surname would have been much more useful to know than her Christian name. Still, she could at least inquire of the duke’s sisters. They might know who the woman was.
But even if Clara could identify her, what then? She could hardly walk up to a young lady she didn’t know and blurt out that the woman’s secret lover was a deceiving scoundrel. Her good deed would probably earn her a slap across the face.
And besides, she thought, casting a gloomy glance over the pile of correspondence before her, she had her own troubles.
Suddenly, an idea flashed into Clara’s mind, a crazy, incredible idea that could not only solve her most pressing problem, but also save a fellow woman from future heartbreak and ruin.
Clara straightened in her chair, pulled a sheet of notepaper closer, and took up her fountain pen. She considered a moment, then she began to write. Only a few minutes later, she set down her fountain pen and placed her composition on top of the letters before her, feeling a sense of grim satisfaction.
Her first Lady Truelove column was now complete. She could only hope Dina Whoever-She-Was read the Weekly Gazette.