The Lovely DucklingBy: Lila DiPasqua
An “ugly duckling” is someone who blossoms
beautifully after an unpromising beginning.
—Eric Donald Hirsch et al., The New Dictionary
of Cultural Literacy, 2002
“Details, Vincent. You cannot simply state you had two women last night without offering details,” Gilbert complained, sporting his usual lazy smile.
Joseph d’Alumbert, Marquis de Valle, rose from his plush chair and strode across the floral carpet over to the window in the antechamber—away from his twin brother Vincent and younger brother Gilbert. He knew full well Vincent wasn’t about to withhold a single salacious detail of his evening of excess.
He simply wanted their younger brother to beg a little.
“Ah, the details . . .” Without turning around, Joseph knew his twin was grinning. He heard it in his tone. Though he and his brothers ordinarily shared the particulars of their carnal encounters, at the moment, Joseph didn’t care a whit how Vincent’s evening had unfolded.
He was on edge. Worse, since his arrival yesterday at the Comtesse de Saint-Arnaud’s country estate, he found himself looking out the window at the courtyard one too many times.
And here he was. Doing it again.
Joseph braced his hands on the window frame as he gazed down at the empty cobblestone courtyard. It was late afternoon. The Comtesse’s week-long masqueraded affair was into its second day. Well under way. She’s not coming, he mentally willed.
“Well?” Gilbert prompted Vincent, impatience in his tone.
“He had the d’Esseur sisters, Gilbert,” Joseph responded for his twin. “There’s nothing new there. Everyone has fucked them.”
“I haven’t!” Gilbert said. “How were they, Vincent? How can you be certain it was them? Everyone’s identity is disguised.”
Vincent chuckled. “Dear brother, you have been away in the campaign too long. Marie and Jeanne d’Esseur are known for two things. Their talented mouths. And their unfortunate, distinctive laugh . . .”
The Comtesse’s parties were never short on decadent diversions—to suit just about any taste. Yet last eve, instead of indulging in some debauchery of his own, Joseph had spent it in the company of the Comtesse’s fine brandy. Unable to focus on the amusements at hand, he’d actually turned down women who were eager to engage in just the sort of impersonal sex he preferred.
His thoughts were being pulled toward a female who wasn’t even in attendance.
“Fine. Wonderful. They had a distinctive laugh,” Gilbert said. “What else, Vincent? Out with it. Tell me before I stop asking altogether.”
At that, Vincent laughed. “We both know you won’t,” he needled Gilbert. “But since you insist, I shall tell you . . . I had them in the gardens, behind the statue of Zeus . . .”
A black carriage pulled into the courtyard, capturing Joseph’s attention. His brothers’ voices immediately faded into the distance as he watched it halt before the main doors of the Comtesse’s château. Sunshine glinted off its top.
Moments later, a figure alighted with the aid of the footman. She wore a mask. And a wig. But it didn’t matter. It was her. He’d know her anywhere. The way she was dressed—the multiple layers of fabrics—made him certain.
He’d hoped he’d convinced her to stay away. He knew exactly what she was after. Her letter had stated it plainly. She was here for the same reason everyone attended the Comtesse’s gatherings.
For the carnal entertainment.
For anonymous sex.
Joseph tightened his jaw and held back the expletives thundering in his head. He wasn’t about to let his brothers know how discomposed this woman had him. He’d never live it down. Women didn’t normally stir him beyond the physical. Yet lately Emilie de Sarron had been affecting him on a number of disquieting levels.
Jésus-Christ, she didn’t belong here. Not with this group. At hand were the very people who had driven her into seclusion ten years ago.
He was among the guilty.
He’d been a party to her humiliation the night Emilie had been introduced into society. As son of the Duc de Vernant, Joseph hadn’t made it a habit to take stock of his behavior. He’d always done as he pleased. Behaved as he willed, without thought or concern. Without excuses or apologies. But the hurt he’d seen in her soft green eyes before she turned and left was still vivid in his mind. Still ate at his conscience. Even after a decade.