A smart woman must transform herself into whomever the situation requires.
–Miss Pearl Kelly to the Duchess of Colton
The first time the Duchess of Colton saw her husband since their hasty marriage, she found him seated at a card table with a buxom woman draped across his lap, her legs dangled over the side of his chair. Julia could see them both quite clearly from across the gaming room. The woman was…pleasuring herself while the duke had one hand inside the woman’s bodice, his fingers moving beneath the fabric to casually caress her breast.
The display shocked Julia. Scandalous yet strangely alluring, the performance served as a reminder that her husband’s life was a world away from her own sheltered existence in London. But then, she reasoned, what else would one expect of a man dubbed the Depraved Duke? She swallowed her embarrassment and continued to watch the scene unfold.
He was handsome, she realized. Julia had seen him briefly during the wedding ceremony, but they’d both been younger, not to mention she’d been a shy and terrified sixteen-year old. Had she even looked him in the face that long ago afternoon? Now, he appeared older and…much bigger. His black hair a bit long, it fell down around his collar to frame his perfect features: a straight nose, bold cheekbones, and a full mouth. He was truly breathtaking.
Some women might be consumed with jealousy at catching their husband in such a fashion. Not Julia. The man was a stranger to her, and she felt nothing but a combination of anger and annoyance. Anger that Colton had ignored her for eight long years, and annoyance she’d been forced to create such an elaborate ruse and travel across the continent to carry it out.
Julia watched as the trollop on his lap began gasping for breath. The woman closed her eyes and shivered from head to toe, her head thrown back in ecstasy. Colton’s expression revealed nothing about his companion or his cards, while the other players appeared nonplussed as they studied their own hands. Save Julia, no one else in the room paid a bit of attention to them. A woman was…climaxing on his lap and no one even turned to stare. Was this a regular occurrence, then?
Once the woman caught her breath, she leaned in to whisper in Colton’s ear. He smiled, politely assisted her off his lap, and gave her backside a small slap before dismissing her. His attention turned back to the game.
Julia’s good friend, Simon Barrett, the Earl of Winchester, appeared by her side. “Are you certain about this? It’s not too late to back out, you know.”
She shook her head. “No. I’ve come too far to stop now.”
Simon was quite a handsome man in his own right, more so tonight with his fair hair and blue eyes contrasting nicely with his black evening clothes. He’d insisted on accompanying her to Venice, to pose as her current lover, allowing him to both escort her and protect her. Deep down, Julia was grateful for his help.
She smiled at him. “And after what we’ve just seen, I’d say my plan is perfect.”
He sighed. “I was afraid you would say that.”
She sobered. This wasn’t Simon’s battle, and it seemed only fair to offer him the same chance of escape. “Simon, as I’ve said many times, I can do this on my own. Your friendship with Colton need not suffer because of your participation.”
Simon glanced across the room to the duke. “I have my own reasons for helping you. I’ll deal with Colt’s anger, if the time comes.”
She leaned up on tiptoe and placed a kiss on his cheek. “You’re a good friend.” Her heels came back down to the floor as she gently reminded him, “Now, I’m the incomparable Mrs. Juliet Leighton, London’s most notorious courtesan. Allow me a few moments with him but no more.”
“Fine. I only hope I can recognize you.”
Learning of her wayward husband’s preference for red haired women, Julia had procured a lotion to temporarily turn her light yellow locks to auburn. “What matters is catching Colton’s eye.”
“Oh, I shouldn’t worry about that.” Simon held out his arm. “Shall we?”
She nodded and accepted his escort. The card tables lined the back wall, so she and Simon were forced to amble through the clusters of guests and footmen passing glasses of champagne in order to reach their destination. Though Simon had warned her what to expect at a private party of loose morals, Julia had a hard time not staring at the goings on around her. No wives were in attendance; instead, the women were mistresses, actresses, and prostitutes. And the men, mostly former members of the Venetian government or wealthy merchants, seemed eager to take advantage of the situation. Couples openly kissed and touched one another boldly, the air thick with smoke, lust, and sweat.
Her confidence grew as they crossed the room. No one they spoke with suspected her an impostor, and they treated her informally—as a courtesan, not a duchess.
Despite her nerves, there really was no choice in the matter. This plan must succeed. If Colton’s odious cousin, Lord Templeton, followed through on his recent threat to further reduce her stipend, in a few months she wouldn’t have enough funds to pay the servants or the rent on their small house in Mayfair. Colton’s mother had made it clear Julia was unwelcome at any of the ducal properties. Which meant she and her aunt would be destitute.
Julia needed a male child, a legitimate one, to serve as the heir to the Colton estate. Only then could she thwart Templeton’s designs on the dukedom.
Her plan was foolproof. Six months ago, Julia had sold off all her remaining jewelry in order to secretly hire Pearl Kelly, London’s true reigning courtesan, to offer advice. Pearl had proved a veritable fount of information, telling Julia precisely how to dress, act, speak, and flirt like a Cyprian.
Pearl had even helped design Julia’s gowns along with the courtesan’s own modiste. The resulting wardrobe was luxurious and elegant with sumptuous fabrics and daring necklines, such as the deep emerald green gown she wore tonight. The undergarments had been ordered from Paris, and they still made Julia blush. Her jewelry had posed a problem, since every good piece she’d owned had been sold off over the past two years. So Pearl had graciously loaned Julia several stunning sets, which included the expensive diamond and pearl necklace now around her neck.
Julia had also learned how to use creams and paints to best enhance her features. Earlier, she’d applied a dusting of white pearl powder on her face, rose pink rouge on her lips and cheeks, and a light coating of lamp-black on her lashes and eyebrows. The enhancements combined with her red hair made her completely unrecognizable to anyone familiar with the blond and understated Duchess of Colton.
They ventured near the duke. After a moment, Colton looked up and his face registered surprise. “Winchester!” He threw his cards on the table and unfolded his lanky frame to stand before them. “I can scarcely believe it. Why didn’t you write to let me know you were coming?”
Simon managed to look surprised, then slapped Colton on the back. “I’d heard a rumor you were still here, old man.”
“I cannot find a reason to leave.” Colton turned to Julia, focusing on her with polite interest. “I see you are not alone. Pray introduce me.”
“Of course. Colton, may I present the most beautiful woman in London, the inimitable Mrs. Juliet Leighton. Juliet, His Grace, the Duke of Colton.”
She dropped into a deep curtsy and watched from under her lashes as her husband took in the shockingly low neckline of her gown, where her ample bosom threatened to make an appearance at any moment. He gave a neat bow as she lifted her gloved hand, which he then brought to his mouth for the lightest brush of his lips. “Mrs. Leighton, your reputation precedes you. I’ve heard nothing but accolades to your beauty and wit. It is said you are the woman who holds all of London in the palm of her hand.”
Julia was relieved to hear the rumors they’d started had reached her husband’s ears. “Perhaps not all of London, Your Grace, but a fortunate few have indeed felt the palm of my hand.”
© Joanna Shupe