It was the social event of the year and Violet was squandering it. She should have been dancing or chatting with friends. Instead, she was propped against the wall, hiding in plain sight, staring at him.
She could not stop staring at him.
The ballroom was filled with titled lords and ladies, but she was always able to find him. He was tall, nearly the tallest man in any room. Elegantly dressed. Starkly handsome, without frills to pretty up his visage. His features were strong, harsh like a Roman warrior, with dark hair, and eyes like twin pools of midnight. If she could photograph him right now, the caption would read, “Feared by most, revered by the rest.”
Once upon a time he spoke to her with kind words, during her parents’ dinner parties when she was deemed old enough to attend. That was before finishing school. Before her debut. Violet fell in love with him then, this intelligent and beautiful man who commanded every room.
At the time, she hadn’t a clue as to why her stomach dipped and swirled in his presence. Now, at eighteen, she understood. She’d read books and seen racy photographs. Moreover, she’d overheard the maids talking about their beaus. So, Violet knew why her breathing quickened around him, knew the reason for the slickness between her thighs when she thought about being alone with him. Why she possessed this mad desire to have him smile at her again.
He never looked at her, though. Not once. Nor did he visit her father, his closest friend, at their home any longer. Since Violet’s debut, he’d not asked her to dance, though most of her father’s friends had indulged her at least once. He hadn’t even spoken to her during her season. It was as if she were beneath his notice.
But then, most of London was beneath him. He was a duke.
And not merely any duke. His was one of the wealthiest and oldest of the titled families, the Duke of Ravensthorpe, Maximilian Thomas William Bradley III. She once looked his lineage up in Debrett’s and learned that the very first Ravensthorpe received the title after thwarting an assassination attempt against Charles II.
“Why are you not dancing?” Her friend Charlotte appeared, her gaze studying Violet’s face. “You are forever on the outskirts, observing. You should be having fun.”
“I am taking a break.”
“Who were you watching?” Charlotte’s head swung about, searching. “Was it that newly widowed viscount everyone is talking about? He is scrumptious—and under thirty years of age.”
“There is a newly widowed viscount?”
“Have you not heard? Honestly, Violet. What do you do with your time at these things?”
Stare at Ravensthorpe, obviously. “Why should I exert myself to learn all the latest gossip when I have you to do that for me?”
Charlotte laughed. “Fair enough. Tell me, at whom are you staring? Perhaps I can help you get his attention.”
“Do not be silly. There is no one here for me. Just a bunch of old dukes and boring dandies.”
“The dandies are quite nice to look at, however. Better than the stodgy dukes.”
Not all dukes are stodgy, Violet wanted to say. Some were quite glorious.
“I wish I had my camera,” she told her friend. “Then I could prove to you how not boring it is to watch.”
Her father had gifted her with a camera two years ago and Violet had been taking photographs ever since. She’d converted a space in their attic into a developing room and had been studying photography at London Polytechnic for the last six months. She liked the challenge of photography, of achieving the perfect image. One of her dreams was to someday photograph Ravensthorpe, to capture the harsh angles and pretty features of his face. The cool stare and the haughty lift of his brow. Then she could have the image forever.
Such was the advantage of photographs. They were a way to record an instant, preserve a memory that might otherwise have been forgotten to the sands of time. Who knew what sorts of discoveries were ahead as cameras grew more advanced?
Violet continued to watch Ravensthorpe out of the corner of her eye so as not to alarm Charlotte. Her friend would try to dissuade Violet from her singular purpose this season, which was to somehow get Ravensthorpe to notice her. Again.
Suddenly, a woman walked behind Ravensthorpe and lightly touched his shoulder. The edge of the duke’s mouth hitched and he leaned to whisper in the woman’s ear. She was a countess, wife to the Earl of Underhill. Whatever the duke said must have satisfied her because she nodded once, and then slipped through the terrace doors.
Envy spiked in Violet’s blood, violent and sharp, like she had poked herself with an embroidery needle. Charlotte kept talking, not taking notice of Violet’s discomfort, and Violet was glad for it. She needed to gain control over her emotions.
Perhaps Ravensthorpe would not go. He would reconsider and decide—
Her stomach sank as he excused himself and followed the countess out the terrace doors. Definitely an assignation. She could hardly catch her breath; jealousy lodged in her lungs. She longed to beckon him to the gardens where she could touch and kiss him, explore that generous mouth and bask in his stern gaze . . .
Violet fanned herself vigorously as she burned with curiosity. What would Ravensthorpe and the countess do in the gardens, kiss? Fellatio? Sexual congress?
There was so much more she needed to know. For example, was Ravensthorpe a bold and demanding lover? Selfish? Or was he eager to please, as many of the erotic photographs she’d seen depicted? Perhaps if she learned more about what he liked, then she stood a better chance of getting him to notice her.
Charlotte must have perceived that Violet’s attention had wandered. “Violet? One minute you are flushed and the next, pale as flour. What is wrong with you?”
She had to go. She had to see what was about to happen in the gardens. There wasn’t a moment to lose.
Gripping Charlotte’s arm, she kissed her friend’s cheek. “I apologize. I’m not feeling well. I think I shall tell my father I’d like to go home.”
Charlotte nodded, her expression brimming with affection and concern. “Excellent idea. Go on, then. Rest. I’ll call on you tomorrow.”
Violet bid Charlotte good night, then wove through the crowd, pretending to search for her father. In reality, her goal was to lose Charlotte and blend into the crush. With a final check to ensure no one was watching, she slipped through the French doors and onto the terrace.
The night smelled of lilacs and fresh dirt. Only a sliver of moon added to the soft torchlight along the edge of the garden path. Lifting her skirts, she moved carefully, desperate to not make any noise. She had been to this house before and knew the garden was designed as a large square, with a fountain at the far end. Tall hedges surrounded the path, high enough to offer cover to any couple. Her guess was that Ravensthorpe and the countess would meet near the fountain, farthest from the house.
She found a break in the bushes large enough to slip through and continued along the outside of the hedges bordering the lawn. Likely her slippers were ruined but she could not stop, not when she was close to discovering more about the duke. Sartorial sacrifices were necessary in the pursuit of all things Ravensthorpe.
Silent, she made her way along, allowing the hedge to be her guide in the dark. Near the final corner, she heard a lady’s light laughter and a deep chuckle.
©Joanna Shupe 2020