Cressida’s Dilemma by Beverley Oakley

Cressida's Dilemma by Beverley Oakley

Cressida’s Dilemma

Salon of Sin, Book 1

by Beverley Oakley

Totally Bound

Ebook ISBN: B010B7WZJK
Print ISBN: 1784306401

[ Regency Romance, MF ]

A woman who fears her husband is being unfaithful takes an extraordinary and sensual journey to discover an unexpected truth—and helps unravel the mystery of a lost child.

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Chapter One

“The Earl of Lovett has taken a mistress?”

The breathy shock of pretty newlywed, Mrs. Rupert Browne, sliced through the buzz of conversation, lancing its unsuspecting target three feet away and causing a deaf colonel to ask the duchess solicitously if she required a glass of water.

Still choking on her champagne, Cressida, Lady Lovett, strained to hear the response of her cousin, Catherine, who had obviously disseminated this latest shocking on dit while she smilingly assured deaf Colonel Horvitt she was quite all right, as if her happiness were not suddenly hanging by a gossamer thread.

She could only hope she was making the right responses to the colonel’s monologue. All her concentration was focused on the nearby conversation as she waited desperately for a rejection of the outrageous claim.

“Surely not?” gasped the generally well-intentioned but oblivious Mrs. Browne to Cousin Catherine’s whispered reply. “But the earl made a love match. Mama told me he scandalized society by marrying a nobody.”

Cressida had to use two hands to keep her champagne coupe steady. The indignity of being described as a ‘nobody’ was nothing compared with the pain of hearing her husband’s amours—real or otherwise—discussed in the middle of a ballroom. She forced her trembling mouth into her best attempt at a smile as the colonel leaned forward and wagged his finger at her, his stentorian tone precluding further eavesdropping. “Your husband ruffled more than a few feathers with his speech in the House of Lords last night, Lady Lovett.”

Cressida had once giggled with her ferociously forceful cousin, Catherine, that the colonel used his deafness as an excuse to peer down the cleavage of every pretty lady he addressed. She was in no mood for giggling now. Clearly, Cousin Catherine was disclosing details about the state of Cressida’s marriage, of which Cressida, apparently, was the last to know. She straightened and pushed her shoulders back, suddenly self-conscious of appearing the sagging, lacking creature the several hundred guests crowded into Lady Belton’s newly renovated ballroom must imagine her, if they were already privy to what she was hearing for the first time. Before her last sip of champagne, she’d considered herself happily married. It was all she could do to remain standing and dry-eyed.

Adjusting the lace of her masquerade costume, she managed, faintly, “Ah, Colonel, you know Lord Lovett and his good causes.” She tried to make it sound like an endearment, but the axis of her world had become centered on ascertaining what other tidbits about her marriage Catherine was divulging to Mrs. Browne.

The music swelled to a crashing crescendo, the end of which was punctuated by Mrs. Browne’s shocked squeak, “Who is the woman? Madame Zirelli? Was she not once Lord Grainger’s mistress? No! His wife? He divorced her? And now she and Lord Lovett—?”

Cressida hadn’t wanted to come to Lady Belton’s masquerade. Little Thomas was teething, but Justin had been especially persuasive, reminding her that it had been a long time since they’d been out in public, and that, yes, he knew Thomas was cutting a tooth, but there was nothing Cressida could do that Nurse Flora couldn’t, just for a few hours that evening.

Searching the ballroom for her husband, she spied him talking to her friend, Annabelle Luscombe, near the supper table. Justin’s look was inquiring, as if he were hanging on her every word. Cressida knew he would take equal interest if Annabelle were talking about her latest bonnet or about the Sedleywich Home for Orphans, of which Justin was patron and Annabelle on the committee.

A frisson of longing speared her. Justin had looked at her like that when she’d first met him. So handsome, so determined, so interested and sincere.

The thought that he’d made a special plea for her presence tonight purely in the interest of stilling wagging tongues was almost too terrible to consider.

A mistress? Her kind, beloved, faithful Justin?

As if he were conscious of her from across the room, Justin turned, his dark brown eyes kindling at the sight of her, the warmth of his smile spreading comfort like a woolen mantle. It radiated across the heated, perfumed distance that separated them. Dear Lord, he looked like a handsome prince taken right out of the pages of a storybook, his brown, wavy hair brushed fashionably forward, topped with the laurel wreath required by his costume, his sideburns contouring his elegantly chiseled, high cheekbones. Dressed like a stately Roman senator, he was the stuff of every girl’s dreams, yet it was she, insignificant Miss Cressida Honeywell, daughter of a poor country parson, who had won his heart all those years ago.

She’d thought she still had it—had vowed she’d always keep it.

Rallying, she took a step forward, responding to the invitation implicit in her husband’s eye, but the colonel began counseling Cressida on the dangers of Justin making speeches about orphans and sanitation when he could better rouse his audience in the Lords if he concerned himself with more important matters.

The look she’d just exchanged with her husband was enough to all but dismiss her fears. Exhaling with relief, Cressida smiled at the colonel who, obviously regarding this as encouragement, closed the distance between them as he pursued his argument. She retained her smile as Justin, from the other side of the room, focused another very warm glance in her direction before attending to the hunchbacked Dowager Duchess of Trentham, whose eightieth birthday celebration this was. Justin had the gift of making every woman feel the center of his especial interest. Clearly something must have been misconstrued…

And yet.

Awareness prickled through her—that she had for some time sensed all was not quite right. Taking a step back, she swallowed past the lump in her throat while making, she hoped, the appropriate responses for the benefit of the colonel. Justin, lately, had not been the contented husband of old. The recent bolstering she’d silently received from him faded upon this acknowledgment and her eyes stung. She knew her behavior had not been beyond reproach—that she had withdrawn and that understandably, he was confused. Some months ago, he’d tried to raise the subject, yet she’d brushed it aside, incapable of putting her feelings into words, unable to entertain that unmentionable aspect of their marriage at the heart of all their problems.

Forcing aside her shame, she turned in the direction of her cousin.

“Catherine? A minute, if you please?” Cressida waylaid the stately, dark-haired young woman dressed as a siren as the colonel—thankfully—responded to his wife’s perfunctory summons. With a little intake of breath and a stammered excuse, the recently gossiping Mrs. Browne slipped away while Cousin Catherine betrayed her guilt with a blush.

“Why, Cressy, I did not notice you. How long have you been standing there?”

“Long enough to wonder who Madame Zirelli might be and what she is to my husband,” Cressida responded with uncharacteristic harshness.

Catherine’s hand flew to her mouth. “Oh, Cressy,” she gasped. “I had no idea you— I’m so sorry. But of course, it’s only gossip. You know how quick people are to jump to conclusions.” But her cheeks were flushed. She knew she was guilty of the charges Cressida made. “You’re looking unwell, Cressy. I’ll take you home. We’ll have a nice, cozy chat in the carriage, shall we? I hadn’t expected to see you out this evening, you’ve been hiding away so long.”

Cressida was about to argue that she planned to return home with Justin when Catherine took her arm, saying breezily, “Don’t trouble yourself over Justin. He’s asked me to tell you he’s off to White’s with Roddy Johnson. He knew you were anxious to return home to little Thomas.”

Was that grim satisfaction she saw on her cousin’s face?

It wasn’t until she’d gained the darkness of the vehicle that Cressida broke her tense silence. She could barely force out the words, but she would not have Catherine secretly gloating over something Cressida was apparently the last to know about.

“I’d thank you to tell me everything you told Mrs. Browne.” Sinking back against the squabs of her husband’s plush equipage, she hid her disquiet beneath a veneer of dignified anger. “If she is under the impression Justin has taken a mistress, you apparently did little to disabuse her of that notion, when I know very well it is not true. I’d like to know the source of your information.”

Catherine shifted beside her, and although Cressida could not see her face, she could tell she was uncomfortable. “No need to get on your high ropes, Cressy,” she muttered, and Cressida could imagine the proud, defiant tilt to Catherine’s pointed chin as she defended her actions, just as she had done all through her impish childhood and spirited adolescence. “Like you say, I’m sure there’s nothing to it.”

Cressida was not about to assume her normally pliant role in order to appease her cousin. Not when her happiness was at stake, and not when it concerned her husband. He was her light, her moon. In steely tones, she asked, “I would like to know, Catherine, how you gained the impression Justin has taken a mistress.” This was too important for the tears to which Cressida was sometimes prone, especially lately. With her back pressed stiffly against the carriage seat in the darkness, she felt, ironically, as if some of her own youthful confidence had returned. Justin was the axis of her existence. If her happiness was at risk—though she was sure it was not—she needed to know so she could act.

“Justin appears just as loving toward you as he ever did, my dear,” Catherine hedged. “Why, only last week when James and I dined with you, he remarked to me—”

“Obviously, you must have heard something specific. I’m sure you’d not repeat hurtful gossip.”

“Really, Cressida, I think you are making too much of this.” Catherine halted in the middle of her response, paused, then added in clipped tones, as if she were angry with her cousin, “All right then, if you must know, and since you’ve all but accused me of being a gossiping jade—though I had hoped to spare you—I’ll tell you what whispers are buzzing around the salons in London.” In the gloom, her expression was combative. “Justin has been a regular visitor to Mrs. Plumb’s Wednesday salons.” She gave a self-righteous sniff. “And if you’ve never heard of her, James says Mrs. Plumb is an actress with literary pretensions. A very vulgar woman, I believe, who paints her face.”

Now was not the time to remind Catherine that she herself was not averse to resorting to artifice to enhance her natural charms. Cressida gripped her reticule with trembling fingers and stared fiercely at her cousin. “I take it this Madame Zirelli is also a regular at Mrs. Plumb’s. Is it on this flimsy basis that the rumors are circulating regarding Justin’s…extramarital amours?” Hurt and anger banished Cressida’s propensity to soften life’s harsh realities. She rarely spoke so directly to anyone—certainly not to Catherine, who’d taunted Cressida since they’d been children for being ‘churchyard poor’, but whose respect Cressida had thought she’d gained through her glittering match with Justin. Now, Catherine had seized on the first opportunity to knock Cressida down to size. With dignity, she asked her cousin, “On what grounds am I to believe this? Come, Catherine, it is not like you to be anything but direct.”

“If you prefer directness, Cressida,” Catherine responded with an air of injury, “do you not think it perfectly reasonable that Justin, like most men after eight years of marriage, feels the need to seek diversion? Is it not perfectly understandable that after so long, you are no longer everything to him? What woman ever is?” she added bitterly.

Cressida gasped as if she had been struck, but her cousin went on, her green eyes glittering as the carriage passed beneath a lamppost. “He is no different from every other man, but you fail to consider your good fortune, Cressy, for at least Justin is discreet.”

“How can you say that?” Deflated, Cressida slumped into the corner, glad of the dimness so she could hurriedly wipe away her tears. Catherine would enjoy her weakness. “You speak as if I am the last to know and that I’ve brought this upon myself. How would you feel if James—” A sudden illumination stopped her mid-sentence, and she put out her hand, saying before she could stop herself, “James has strayed again? Oh, Catherine, I’m so sorry.”

“Save your sympathy for yourself, Cressy.” Catherine drew away, as if Cressida’s outstretched hand were as welcome as a snake. “I was under no illusions as to James’ likely fidelity from the day we wed. He was always too handsome for me—you remember we overheard Mrs. Dooley saying it at our engagement ball?”

Cressida knew Catherine’s wounding had been close to mortal all those years ago. Six, she recalled, wondering if by Catherine’s calculations, Cressida should consider herself lucky for having retained her husband’s loyalty for this long.

Shrugging, as if the matter were no longer of importance, Catherine went on, “James and now Justin are simply conforming to the prescribed role of husbands by doing what society condones within the limits of money and discretion and, like me, you should accept the situation and direct your energies toward the children. Though perhaps in your case—not wishing to criticize—I wonder if that is not at the root of your problem. You dote on those babies and seem to forget Justin has his needs, too. When were you last seen at his side?”

Cressida blinked like one dazed by blinding light. Catherine, whose lack of insight and sympathy was on a par with her lack of tactfulness, had come too close to the bone.

Seeming not to register Cressida’s stricken look, her cousin went on. “I mean, have you looked at yourself lately, Cressida? Yes, at twenty-six, you still have that girlish, sleepy-eyed charm that won him over, but must you appear quite so naïve after all those children? As I said, tonight is the first time you’ve torn yourself from the nursery to accompany Justin anywhere, and whom do you choose to masquerade as? A shepherdess, for God’s sake!”

Plucking the black lace of her own daring décolletage, Catherine straightened majestically. “Justin has been your loyal husband for all these years and he loves you. But if you want to win him back from the arms of Madame Zirelli—and yes, I have it on good authority that Madame Zirelli is his new mistress—you’d do yourself more favors parading as something less”—her lip curled—“insipid.”

Cressida had experienced Catherine’s propensity to lash out when she was feeling vulnerable. Not that this lessened her own devastation. “On whose good authority?” she whispered. “One of your snake-tongued society friends, or someone serving on the Home for Orphans committee?”

Catherine glared at the inherent criticism before saying, “If you must know, it was Annabelle Luscombe—”

“Annabelle!” Cressida’s hands flew to her face, and she had to force her knuckles into her mouth to stop the sob. “Annabelle wouldn’t say a word to injure anyone. What did she say about Justin?” With an effort, she pushed back her shoulders and directed a challenging look at her cousin. “That Justin had taken a mistress?”

Catherine had the grace to look ashamed. “Annabelle wasn’t gossiping, Cressida, and no, of course she didn’t say that.” She cleared her throat. “Well, not in so many words.”

“And what is that supposed to mean?”

Catherine sighed. “I’d really rather not elaborate, Cressy. Clearly, you’ll just get upset and—”

“You’ve said too much already, Catherine. And I can see you’re dying to tell me.”

Catherine appeared to consider the situation. Then she shrugged. “Actually, the information came as quite a shock. I was in conversation with Annabelle, who was waxing lyrical over Rossini’s opera The Barber of Seville when her husband, who is not known for his tact after three champagnes, joined us, saying he’d just left Justin, who was marveling over Madame Zirelli’s excellent rendering of Rosina’s part. When Reggie had gone, Annabelle looked shocked, asking if Justin hadn’t been known for his high regard for Madame Zirelli in the days before his marriage.”

Cressida was beginning to feel marginally better. Catherine was simply making wild suppositions. Relaxing, she managed a smile. “And that is the only basis for these cruel rumors and gossip? The fact that Justin has been praising another woman? For her singing?” Relief surged through her.

That was, until Catherine’s viper-direct response, “Surely you must know that Madame Zirelli was Justin’s mistress until five minutes before he married you?” Catherine’s shock was apparently unfeigned. For a moment, she simply stared at Cressida, as if she couldn’t believe her cousin could be so ignorant. Then a sly look crossed her face. “Oh, my poor Cressida,” she whispered. “How awful to be the last to know what is common knowledge. And how I wish it had not fallen to me to tell you the sordid details.”

Cressida put up at hand, as if to ward off the evil she knew was about to pour from Catherine’s insincere lips. She didn’t need to know. Didn’t want to know. “What Justin did before we were married is of no account—”

“But don’t you see? Justin all but admitted that once again, he’s been consorting with Madame Zirelli through his remark about having so recently enjoyed her voice.” Catherine cleared her throat as she settled back against the squabs, the self-satisfaction upon her face a look with which Cressida was painfully familiar. Catherine not only liked to deliver her barbs like a skilled marksman, she savored the kill. She clicked her tongue, adding in an undertone, “And let us hope that’s all he was enjoying when he paid a visit to Mrs. Plumb’s notorious salon.”

“That’s…that’s just cruel,” Cressida managed faintly, her mind consumed with images too dreadful to dwell on for more than a moment. But she couldn’t help herself for all that she’d promised herself only seconds before to turn a blind eye. “Who is this Madame Plumb? Why would Justin visit such an establishment?”

Catherine fanned herself and adopted an air of nonchalance, as if what she was about to say was of no account. “You really don’t know? Well, I am surprised, for Madame Plumb was notorious in her day and continued to cause scandal when most scarlet women would have been content to fade into obscurity.” She leaned forward, locking her eyes upon Cressida’s. “My poor cousin, it pains me to say it, but Mrs. Plumb was an opera singer and actress before Lord Layton set her up. She and Madame Zirelli are great friends, and after Lord Layton moved on, and with Mrs. Plumb’s looks too faded to snare another of his ilk, she’s now set up a house, where she’s invited Madame Zirelli to live, and which has become famous for its Wednesday salons. People attend in masquerade, supposedly to listen to the music, but really it’s just a meeting place for—” She stopped at Cressida’s gasp, saying instead, in gentler tones, “It seems Justin has been a regular patron of Madame Plumb’s, and in view of his…close relationship…with Madame Zirelli, one can only assume the reason for his visits.”

“Justin loves music,” Cressida said, dully, trying to equate Justin sneaking off in masquerade to some house of ill repute after bidding her his standard, tender farewell for the evening. She forced herself to remain calm, her fingernails biting into her palms as she whispered, “I can’t believe, though, that Annabelle would condone anything that suggested that Justin were being”—she gulped the word—“unfaithful. Annabelle is so—”

“Kind?” Catherine supplied, her tone sharp at Cressida’s implication that she was not. “Perhaps she was distracted, for she has had much to occupy her with organizing her sister- in-law’s wedding—Madeleine Hardwicke, if you recall…the dark, Castilian-looking creature who looked so down in the mouth when you congratulated her on her impending marriage to Lord Slitherton this evening. You remarked upon her unusual looks when she came out last year.”

“Yes, a handsome girl. Poor Miss Hardwicke,” Cressida murmured, distracted for the moment. “Lord Slitherton is old enough to be her grandfather.”

“Well, her father, at any rate. But he’s rich and titled, and that’s all that counts. All men—even those who are handsome or loving at the start—” Catherine added, pointedly, “—stray. Oh my goodness, Cressy, you’ve snapped your fan!”

It was all Cressida could do not to slap her cousin with the poor, destroyed ivory accessory Justin had given her for her last birthday. Instead, she muttered, ignoring the feigned concern over her fan, “Not Justin.”

“Oh, he’ll deny it.” Catherine sounded as if she had much experience of such exchanges. “You must make the most of his discomfort, though. I suggest you order three fine, expensive gowns, confront him with everything you’ve heard, then present him with the bill. I promise you, he’ll pay up like a lamb.”

Cressida said nothing. That was not how she intended approaching matters. Though just exactly what she planned to do, she wasn’t quite sure. Quitting the carriage and putting as much distance as she could between herself and her poisonous cousin was a good start, though.

Changing the subject was the second best alternative. “I’m sorry for Miss Hardwicke. She and Mr. Pendleton looked so in love, and Justin was saying only the other day that he’d marked Mr. Pendleton out for great things. That is, once the young man’s a little older and less circumspect about putting himself forward. Apparently, he’s very clever.”

“That might be, but he has no money.” Catherine sniffed as if that sealed the matter. “Lord Slitherton has more than ten thousand a year and, as Miss Hardwicke’s mother is very ill and wants to see her only daughter settled, she’s obviously prepared to overlook Lord Slitherton’s age, just as she’s overlooked Mr. Pendleton’s candidacy on account of his impecuniousness. You forget how lucky you were, Cressy, that you were able to follow your heart, marry money and that you retained your husband’s interest for so long.” Her tone dripped false sympathy. “Just because Justin has taken a mistress doesn’t mean you are less to him than you ever were. He just wants more. Like most men.”

Cressida glared at her cousin while nevertheless resorting to her handkerchief to dab her eyes. There were still another few minutes to endure in the carriage together, so she might as well be as armed with as much information as Catherine knew or suspected. Surely the more Catherine said, the greater the chance Cressida had of finding a hole in her theory. Justin would never take a mistress. Not if he loved Cressida. “Tell me about this Madame Zirelli. I’ve never heard of her.” She was encouraged by the skepticism with which she managed to lace the command, disappointed when Catherine responded in a matter-of-fact tone as the carriage negotiated a bend in competition with a cooper’s wagon. “Neither had I, until Annabelle told me the curious story of Miss Hardwicke’s uncle’s determination that Madame Zirelli sing at his niece’s wedding.”

“Miss Hardwicke’s uncle? Sir Robert, do you mean?” Cressida frowned. She’d heard Annabelle mention this illustrious member of the family who’d made a great fortune across the seas and had never been back to England.

“That’s right. Well, he’s coming back for Miss Hardwicke’s wedding, and of course Annabelle is doing all the organizing as Miss Hardwicke’s poor mother is on her deathbed—”

“But what’s Sir Robert got to do with Madame Zirelli?” What did this have to do with Justin? Cressida leaned forward to quiz her. Catherine was wrong.

“Well, Sir Robert has lived abroad the past sixteen years, in case you didn’t know, and he’s returning for the wedding but with the oddest request. He charged Annabelle with the task of hunting down the finest soprano in all England and has especially instructed Annabelle to seek out this Madame Zirelli.” Catherine leaned back and her voice took on an edge of scorn. “Of course, Annabelle’s husband took over the search after Annabelle learned of Madame Zirelli’s…well, unsavory past…and it led him to Mrs. Plumb’s house of ill repute.”

“Then perhaps Justin was merely helping to locate this Madame Zirelli.”

Catherine raised an eyebrow. “And it would seem Justin knew just where to look.” She sighed as if her cousin were displaying the greatest ignorance.

“Surely, Cressida, you can’t imagine your husband led a blameless life before he whisked you down the aisle? Be glad his name is associated with only this one woman. Why, James—”

But Cressida wasn’t interested in James. James was a whoremonger. Innocent though she was, she’d heard the label used in association with her cousin’s husband, and for that reason alone, she must try and feel some sympathy for Catherine, who’d never known the love and loyalty Cressida had taken for granted all these years.

Forcing out the words while trying to keep the tears in check, she whispered, “I don’t believe you. Justin is deeply loyal. I have never found fault with him as either a husband or a father.” Her thoughts trailed away. It was true, though, that she knew nothing of Justin’s female associations before she’d married him.

She gulped, stricken, as a thought occurred. “This Madame Zirelli…if indeed he did have an association with her… Perhaps she was not someone he could marry—” The idea of Justin losing his heart to someone else before her time but being unable to follow his inclinations was a terrible one and put their entire marriage in a new light.

“Without wishing to sound unkind, you were hardly a glittering prospect, Cressy.” With some slight consideration for the bluntness of this assessment, Catherine hurried on at her cousin’s injured look, reminding her of what Cressida had always taken comfort in. “Justin lost his heart to you the moment he saw you, and, despite all the persuasion that could be exerted, he married you, penniless though you were. This Madame Zirelli was married to Lord Grainger, though I believe their divorce was being finalized when she and Justin— Well, anyway, suffice to say you must forget this foolish idea that Justin is returning to some long-lost love.”

“I must speak to Justin,” Cressida muttered as the carriage lurched before coming to a halt outside Catherine’s Mayfair address. “What else can I do?”

In the lamplight that filtered in as the footman opened the door and put down the step, Catherine’s look was scornful. “The only sensible thing you can do,” she said with a toss of her head and a look to suggest Cressida’s remark bordered on the imbecilic, “is to get to the root of the rumors.” She gathered her skirts in one hand as she prepared to quit the equipage, turning to add, “If they are nothing but rumors, as you’re so sure is the case, you’ll not want to wound darling Justin’s sensibilities by suggesting you believe ill of him.” After gracefully descending the steps, she leaned into the carriage space to add in parting, “Discover the truth for yourself and make the most of the power you have over him, Cressy. We women have little enough of it.”

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