The Mad, Bad Duke (Nvengaria #2)(2)

Deirdre’s husband was a wealthy nabob, a fact Deirdre flaunted with costly frocks and as many jewels as she could cram onto her person. Even for this clandestine outing she’d donned a dark blue velvet gown trimmed with brilliant scarlet, draped a gold silk shawl over her arms, and hung cascades of diamonds from her ears.

Meagan Tavistock, daughter of a gentleman without excessive means, wore a narrow silver ring—a gift from her father—on her left hand and a gold ring dusted with Nvengarian sapphires on her right, a gift from her dearest friend Penelope. Meagan’s frock was plain broadcloth, a rust color that went well with her red hair and did not make her complexion too sallow.

“Do sit down, Deirdre,” Meagan said as Deirdre passed the sofa for the dozenth time. “You make me dizzy simply watching you.”

Deirdre swung to Meagan, regarding her with large brown eyes that protruded slightly. Meagan’s new stepmother always said that Deirdre reminded her of an over-eager rabbit.

“This is a very important transaction, Meagan darling,” Deirdre said, her gloved fingers twitching. “After tonight, you will be proud to be my best friend.”

Meagan did not point out that her best friend was in fact Penelope Trask, who had married last summer and gone to the far-off kingdom of Nvengaria to be its princess.

“Are you certain you wish to do this?” Meagan asked Deirdre. “Your husband is a kind man. I cannot fathom why you rush to cuckold him.”

“All married women take lovers, and their husbands take mistresses.” Deirdre waved propriety away. “I’ve given Braithwaite an heir and a spare, and now I am taking my reward for being tied to a tedious and frumpy old man.”

Mr. Braithwaite was middle-aged and good-natured. Even if he was a trifle portly, Meagan had never considered him frumpy.

“Who is this gentleman you wish to ensnare with a love spell?” Meagan had been asking the question all afternoon, but Deirdre so far had refused to answer.

Deirdre gave Meagan another mysterious look. “Shan’t tell you.”

Meagan frowned at her. “I am risking my father locking me in the cellar for the entire Season to be here, you know. You might at least tell me which gentleman you are pursuing.”

Deirdre opened her mouth as though ready to blurt out the name then looked wise and shut it again. “You’ll find out soon enough.”

Meagan let out an exasperated breath. “I vow, Deirdre, it is a great trial being your friend.”

“You shall laugh when you know. He is a very powerful man—oh my, he is powerful. All gentlemen of the ton fear him, and he has the new king of England eating out of his hand. Perhaps I will convince him to introduce you to one of his colleagues and make a good marriage for you.”

“That would be a fine trick,” Meagan said with faint bitterness. Her stepmother had pointed out to her only this morning that if Meagan didn’t “take” this Season, she’d be hopelessly on the shelf. They’d been in London for a few months, and so far, no gentleman had rushed to Meagan’s side, begging her to be his wife.

“Oh, now,” Deirdre began. “You mustn’t—”

She broke off as the sitting room door opened to admit the lady for whom they so anxiously waited.

Again, Meagan felt vague disappointment. Black Annie—in truth Mrs. Annabella Reese—was not a crone with a mass of wrinkles and a hunched back, but a tall, graceful lady with dark hair. She might have been fifty at most, with a touch of gray at her temples and faint lines about her dark blue eyes. She wore a simple gown of gray serge that made overdressed Deirdre appear ridiculous.

Deirdre nearly sprang at Black Annie, her fingers in her fine kid glove stretched out. “Mrs. Reese, how delightful to see you again. This is my dear friend, Miss Meagan Tavistock. Have you got it ready?”

Black Annie shook Deirdre’s hand, her expression neutral, then moved her gaze to Meagan. She held out a smooth hand adorned with one gold ring. “Miss Tavistock. How nice to meet you.”

“Mrs. Reese,” Meagan said politely.

As their palms clasped, a strange pressure stole through Meagan’s body. Black Annie looked into Meagan’s eyes a moment, assessing her, and then she gave a slight nod and smile. She moved away, and Meagan rubbed her hand, wondering what had just transpired.

Deirdre, impatient, chattered on. “I have brought my fifty guineas. May I have it now?”

Meagan’s eyes widened. “Fifty guineas? Good heavens, Deirdre.”

“The spell is nearly finished,” Black Annie replied smoothly. “Did you bring the final piece?”

“What? Oh, yes, I almost forgot.” Deirdre yanked open her reticule and withdrew something wrapped in a handkerchief. “I got it from my maid, who got it from one of his maids. Was that not clever?”

“Oh yes, you are very clever, Mrs. Braithwaite.” Black Annie turned away, but not before Meagan saw her small, amused smile.

Black Annie carried the handkerchief to a table in the corner and rang a silver bell that rested there. A moment later, the mob-capped maid entered with a wide, shallow basket. Meagan craned her head to watch, interested, as Black Annie picked over the basket’s contents.

Black Annie pulled out a variety of seemingly ordinary things—scraps of cloth, a length of gold wire, and feathers of different shades and sizes. Once she had the pile of odds and ends assembled on the table, she dismissed the maid, who curtsied and sped away.

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