The Scandal of It AllSophie Jordan
For my Aunt Loretta, one of the first heroines I’ve ever known. Your strength, energy and infectious laugh forever inspire.
About the Author
By Sophie Jordan
About the Publisher
The black-garbed ladies mingled through the room like bobbing crows, pecking at the food on their tiny plates with the same vigor with which they prattled about the recent demise of Lady Vanderhall, now at eternal rest in the velvet-swathed coffin positioned against the far wall of the drawing room.
Black baize fully draped the room, hiding the floral wallpaper. The impenetrable fabric covered the windows, too, shutting out all light. Candles flickered atop every surface, casting dancing light and shadows in the shrouded space. Tomorrow family and friends would escort the coffin to the church for the funeral. Until then vigil was maintained. People came and went, never letting the candles burn out. Always the room remained illuminated. Always the body never left alone.
“So tragic,” one beak-nosed lady pronounced, waving her ham sandwich about imperiously. As though she were the first to make such an observation on this most unhappy occasion.
“Do you think her daughters will have any memories of her?” another inquired, searching through the room for the small girls.
“Doubtful. They’re but ten and eight, I believe. Still such infants. It’s doubtless for the best, though.”
Graciela, the Duchess of Autenberry, downed the rest of her lemonade in the hopes it would chase the sour taste from her mouth. She looked longingly in the direction of the door, ready to escape.
For the best they forget their mother? It would be as though she never existed, dust lost to the wind, and these gabsters deemed that for the best? She hoped they were wrong. Entirely wrong.
The recently departed Lady Vanderhall had been her friend, and Graciela had few enough of those to feel her loss most keenly.
As soon as word reached her of Evangeline’s unexpected death in a riding accident, Graciela had quit the country and traveled back to Town to pay her respects, leaving her daughter and stepdaughter behind at Autenberry Manor. No need to drag them all this way for something as dismal as a funeral, and Lady Vanderhall had been only a vague acquaintance to them.
At any rate, her daughter and stepdaughter preferred to stay in the country. This time of year Town offered very little diversion. Building snowmen and sledding down hills and reading Byron before the fire whilst they sipped chocolate held more appeal to the girls. In truth, at this particular moment, it held more appeal to Graciela. This was simply unbearable. She was already saddened over her friend’s death, but these mourners only made her grief worse with their unfeeling remarks.
She didn’t think she could abide one more moment of poor Evangeline’s vigil, and tomorrow—the funeral—would be even more difficult.
“Bunch of carrion.” Mary Rebecca fell in beside her, perhaps the only true friend left to her.
Like Graciela, Lady Talbot was a young widow not entirely favored by the ton. From the very start, they were outsiders. She was Irish, whilst Graciela hailed from Spain. More than one lady had discreetly accused them of stealing a noble husband away from a more deserving English lady. Graciela had heard the quiet mutterings when she first arrived in England at the tender age of eighteen. And she still heard them now at the age of five and thirty. Some things never changed.
“Lud! I think they relish it,” Mary Rebecca murmured. “The misfortune of others makes them feel better at their own bleak lives.”
Graciela shot a glance at her friend, bringing her cup to her lips. “I think we’ve paid our respects enough for this day.”
“Indeed.” Mary Rebecca nodded in agreement and turned away. “Shall we take our leave?”
They departed the house with but a few snide glances cast their way.
“I’ve a house all to myself,” Graciela announced, slipping on her gloves as their carriages were brought around. Stepping out onto the stoop, she nestled into her ermine-trimmed cloak. Faint flurries of snow shook down from the afternoon sky. “Why don’t you join me for some refreshment? We can properly toast to the memory of Evangeline and you can recount your holiday with the children. I should like to hear of it all.”
“A house to yourself? Whatever is such a thing? When I took my leave this afternoon, my boys were pummeling each other with wooden swords whilst my daughter pitched a tantrum because she couldn’t find her favorite shawl.” Mary Rebecca looked heavenward. “Somehow the fault was mine to bear.”
Graciela chuckled, understanding perfectly. “Of course.”
“Indeed, I am in no hurry to return home. Lead the way, dear friend.”
Smiling, Graciela permitted a groom to assist her into her carriage. It was true. She usually never found herself alone. Her daughter, Clara, and her stepdaughter, Enid, were always underfoot. Graciela preferred it that way. She enjoyed being surrounded by family and friends. She dreaded the day her daughter married and left her. Certainly she wanted Clara to find happiness and marry a good man, and at ten and four that day would be here before she knew it.
Life passed quickly. It seemed only yesterday Graciela had been running through Papa’s vineyard in her bare feet, a girl with tangled hair, giggling as she played games of chase with her siblings and cousins. And now she was the mother of a daughter half-grown.
It wasn’t just Clara she dreaded losing. She would miss Enid, too. Her stepdaughter was, by all accounts, a spinster. And yet Graciela expected she would marry someday, too. She read the longing in her eyes for a home of her own, a husband and children. She’d observed this in her face, watching as other girls her age married and started their own families. Her stepdaughter was headstrong and clever with definite bluestocking tendencies—not precisely the most sought out characteristic in an English bride, but Graciela had no doubt she would eventually meet a gentleman comfortable with her distinct charms.
And then Graciela would truly be alone. A widow watching the seasons change as she waited for visits from her family.
When she arrived at her town house, she forced herself to shake off such maudlin thoughts, blaming them on the grim circumstances of the day. The house felt quiet without Clara and Enid . . . empty, even though a score of servants occupied it.
She and Mary Rebecca made their way to the drawing room. She slid off her gloves and rang for her favorite Madeira, grown from the lands that were once Papa’s vineyard. Now some distant cousin held those lands as well as Papa’s title, but one sip always took her to the home of her childhood and all its sweet memories.
Before Autenberry. Before life became so very . . . disappointing.
Mrs. Wakefield, the housekeeper, brought the decanter along with several cakes and biscuits. More than they could ever eat in one sitting, but Graciela and Mary Rebecca fell on them ravenou
“Thank you, Mrs. Wakefield. I couldn’t stomach food earlier today,” Mary Rebecca declared, taking her first bite.
“Such a dreadful shame about Lady Vanderhall,” Mrs. Wakefield opined. “You’ll never see me atop anything with four legs.”
Mary Rebecca exclaimed at the deliciousness of her first bite. “You really must send the recipe for these lemon biscuits along to my cook. They are delightful.”
“I’ll do that, my lady.” Mrs. Wakefield nodded at Lady Talbot as she moved to the doors, pausing before taking her leave. “Will you be dining at home tonight, Your Grace?”
Dinner. She stifled a wince at the mental image of herself eating all alone at the great big dining table. “Yes. A tray in my rooms will be adequate though. Thank you.” Eating alone in her room was far preferable.
The housekeeper nodded and departed.
After several more lemon-iced biscuits, Mary Rebecca fell back on the chaise with an utter lack of dignity, her hands palm-up at her sides. “What a terrible day.”
Graciela nodded grimly. “I can’t believe she’s really gone.”
“Only a month ago she was talking about joining me and the children in the Lake District before the season got under way.” Mary Rebecca shook her head and released a small sound of disgust. “You never know when your end may come.”
“She was almost our age,” Graciela murmured.
“Aye, she would have been six and thirty in November.”
Graciela paused midchew. The biscuit suddenly tasted like dirt on her tongue.
“What’s wrong?” Mary Rebecca eyed her as she sat up and reached for another biscuit.
She shrugged, an uncomfortable nest of knots forming in her stomach. “I thought she was older.”
“Evangeline? No, she only looked older. That wretched husband of hers put the years on her face.”
Graciela moistened her lips. “I’ll be six and thirty in September.” Which meant that Graciela was older than Evangeline. Older than her friend who had just died. Her death was unanticipated, to be certain. A freak accident, but still a rather jarring realization.
“Well, then. I expect you’re next.” Mary Rebecca winked.
“Oh!” Graciela tossed a half-eaten biscuit at her friend. Trust Mary Rebecca to make such a poor jest. “That’s a fine thing to say!”
“What?” Mary Rebecca swiped at bits of crumbs that dotted her skirts. “You think I like it any more than you do? I’m two years older than you. The truth is it can happen to any of us. Death does not discriminate. Evangeline was up and about, talking and laughing, one moment, and then . . .” Her voice faded away, but what was left unsaid hung heavily between them.
Mary Rebecca added, “It does make you think. I, for one, intend to enjoy my life . . . however much there is left of it.”
Graciela gazed into the crackling fire until she was forced to blink. It did, indeed, make one think.
She was a widow of ten years. She had lived the last seventeen years in England, first as a dutiful wife, then as a devoted mother and stepmother. There was little else to her identity.
Sweet Clara, so full of life, would be quick to cut strings and embrace her future. Soon Graciela would be alone with only the walls to stare back at her. She had no interest in remarrying. Once had been enough.
For all intents and purposes, she donned a happy mask when references were made to her late husband. As far as the outside world knew, she had been blissfully married to the late Duke of Autenberry. She maintained the ruse for her daughter. For her stepchildren. She would not taint the memory of their father with the reality of what was. She would keep the truth to herself. The past was best left buried. It did not account for anything anymore.
She had the present and future to occupy her.
Before today that had seemed like enough. More than enough.
Sitting here, though, beside Mary Rebecca, with the death of their friend hanging over them like a dark storm cloud, what she had in her life no longer felt like enough.
She felt a void. A desperate itching need for more. For more now. And more tomorrow.
“I better stop eating or I won’t fit into the shameful dress I planned on wearing tonight to Sodom.”
Graciela sat up a little straighter at the mention of the infamous club. Even if she herself had not stepped foot beneath its disreputable roof, Mary Rebecca had apprised her fully of all the delights and depravities to be had there. Anything to suit one’s tastes. Dark or light. Fleeting or more permanent in nature. Lovers or strangers. All came together there. Admittedly, Mary Rebecca’s tales had titillated and scandalized her in equal parts. “You’re going to Sodom? Tonight?”
Mary Rebecca had invited Graciela to join her at the pleasure club countless times over the years. Graciela always declined. She’d had a man in her bed once. She felt no compulsion to recruit another.
“After a day like today a visit to Sodom is more necessary than ever. It will remind me that I’m alive.” Mary Rebecca raised a fair eyebrow. “Perhaps you need the same reminder. Will you join me?”
It wasn’t long after her husband passed that Mary Rebecca took her first lover. She and Lord Talbot had been a love match. Mary Rebecca had been a simple country girl he met while he was buying Thoroughbreds on her father’s farm in Ireland. She claimed that once accustomed to the delights of the marriage bed, she couldn’t live without a lover’s caress again.
Graciela could not profess the same need.
She had been fond of her husband in the beginning. He had doted on her then. Even if older than herself, he had been a handsome man, and yet she had not enjoyed the marriage bed. It had been a disappointment. She had been a disappointment to him in that regard. He’d told her as much on their wedding night. Given your fiery disposition, Graciela, I had thought you would be more exciting than this.
He’d uttered this as he climbed from their bed and donned his robe, belting it rather savagely at his waist, his gaze cutting her to the quick. He’d left her that night—their wedding night. Alone. A girl no more in a cold bed, yearning for comfort. It was the first night of many where she would swallow disappointment and contend with the vagaries of a husband swollen with his own sense of entitlement.
Autenberry’s disappointment in her only made her tense and more self-conscious. Hardly conducive to becoming proficient in the art of lovemaking. She knew her husband had strayed from their marital bed. In the last years of her marriage, he’d spent more time in the beds of other women than in hers. It stung only a little. Mostly it was a relief—and she supposed that was a testament to the poor state of her union.
Perhaps it was time, at last, to move on and see what it might be like with another man. The act itself couldn’t be so unsatisfying all the time or why would so many people make such a fuss about it?
She swallowed against the sudden dryness in her mouth. “Mary Rebecca . . . tell me a little more about Sodom. What’s it like there?” She had never pried, never pressed to know anything about the place beyond what Mary Rebecca volunteered (which had been ample), but now she was curious to know . . . willing to learn. “Going there doesn’t mean you have to . . .”
“Oh, no!” Mary Rebecca waved her hands in a flurry of movement. “Your mere presence is not a binding contract into wicked deeds.” She released a huff of laughter. “Trust me, there are plenty of voyeurs. There are also those who only drink and play cards. They don’t partake in any of the activities above stairs.” Mary Rebecca winked. “Pity, though. That’s where all the fun happens.”
“Hm,” Graciela murmured, not yet ready to commit.
“You can go there to simply play and be admired . . . no one says you have to bed anyone. Nothing is more exciting and flattering than snaring a man’s attention. Even if it’s only flirtatious banter, it feeds a woman’s ego and can make you feel . . . alive.”
With a start, Graciela realized it had been years since she felt alive. Perhaps never
. There had never been sparks with her husband, after all. Almost immediately upon their marriage she had erected walls to protect herself. On the surface she was a happy, biddable wife. But inside she was numb and hollow, forcing herself to forgo all her dreams of love and passion for her reality.
She stared at her friend for a long, thoughtful moment. “Indeed,” she murmured. “It would be exciting to feel alive. Again.” She added the last word lest her friend sense how truly deprived she was. Mary Rebecca would only pity her if she knew her heart and body had been deprived not only the years since her marriage but all the years during her marriage, too. Graciela didn’t want that.
“We can don masks. Many do,” she offered.
Graciela snorted. “With my accent? And coloring? They’ll know at once it’s me.” Enough ton ladies had muttered within her hearing that she was as swarthy as a field hand. She harbored no misconceptions on that score. She was too recognizable.
Mary Rebecca shrugged. “The lighting is dim. And who said you need to speak at all?” She waggled her delicate eyebrows. “You can do other things with your mouth. If you wish.”
“You’re a wicked woman, Lady Talbot.” Graciela shook her head and laughed. “But what of the banter you mentioned?”
“Then speak. Talk.” She shrugged. “Truly. It’s really no concern. If anyone guesses at your identity, so what? I’ve been going for years and everyone knows it is me behind the mask. I’ve endured no adverse consequences. My children have not suffered. Ladies of the ton still glare at me . . . as they have always done. It matters naught what I do with my spare time. That will never change. I’ll always be that Irish upstart who snared the Earl of Talbot. We’re widows, Ela. We’re allowed a great deal more latitude.” She reached across the space separating them and clasped Graciela’s hand. “It’s been ten years. You’re overdue for some pleasure. It’s time.” Her friend gave her hand a hard squeeze as though imbuing her with a dose of confidence. “Live a little.”
Live a little.
She glanced down at her black mourning dress and was reminded of Evangeline, cold and dead in a coffin.