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There was the rustle of silk and a brief moment of silence in which Clarissa imagined the couple to be embracing; then she heard a suspicious sound rather like lip smacking or sucking. Squinting, she tried to peer

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through the bushes, but all she could see were the smears of what appeared to be a woman in a light-colored dress and the slender dark form of a man. They were very close together. Very close indeed. Their faces looked to be one large blur beneath two seemingly connected fuzzy white wigs.

They were
kissing!
Clarissa realized it with dismay, and she wondered what Lord
Achard
would think of that. For she had recognized who the woman was the moment
Prudhomme
addressed her as Hazel. Lady Hazel
Achard
was a member of her stepmother's circle—one who was quite often sharp and cold in her attitude to Clarissa. Now Clarissa understood why. The woman was jealous of
Prudhomme's
courtship of her.

'Oh, Henry, make love to me,' Lady
Achard
gasped suddenly.

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'But we just did, my sweet,'
Prudhomme
protested. 'I am only a man. I cannot perform again so soon, but must recover from the passion you instill in me.'

'Oh.' There was a long, drawn-out sigh of disappointment, then: 'Were we married—'

'Yes, were we married I could hold you in my arms every night, just as I am now,'
Prudhomme
proclaimed softly. Then he cursed and said, 'Damn your husband for his good health!'

Yes, damn him,' Lady
Achard
agreed. 'I wish he would—'

'
Shh
,'
Prudhomme
interrupted. But Clarissa suspected Lady
Achard
hoped for the early demise of her poor, unfortunate husband.

'What?' the woman asked, sounding anxious.

'I think I hear someone coming.'

The couple broke apart, and none too soon, as an-

other woman came around the path. She stopped in apparent surprise at the sight of them. 'Why, Lord
Prudhomme
. Lady
Achard
.'

Recognizing the voice of Lady Alice
Havard
, another of her stepmother's friends, Clarissa tried to shrink a little smaller in the bushes.

'Lady
Havard
,' the amorous twosome murmured innocently, as if they had not been in a passionate embrace just moments before.

'Out for a breath of fresh air, Alice?' Lady
Achard
asked, sounding suspicious.

'Yes. I fear 'tis rather stuffy inside,' Lady
Havard
replied. Then, sounding smug; 'In fact, I was just saying so to Lord
Achard
but a moment ago.'

'Arthur is here?' There was no missing the alarm in Hazel
Achard's
voice. 'But he said he was not feeling up to attending tonight.'

'Hmmm. He appears to have changed his mind.' Lady
Havard
sounded immensely satisfied. 'He asked me if I knew where you were, and I told him I thought you had gone to the table to dine.'

'Oh.' There was some hesitation, and then the blur that was Lady
Achard
turned to
Prudhomme
. 'Thank you so much, my lord.
'Twas
most kind of you to take time out to show me your garden. I shall return inside now, I think.' She hesitated a moment, then asked a bit archly, 'Will you accompany me, Lady
Havard
?'

'No. I think I should like to see Lord
Prudhomme's
new fountain. You did mention that your mother had purchased one, Henry?'

'Yes, yes,'
Prudhomme
said at once. 'Be glad to show it to you.'

'Well... I shall be away then,' Lady
Achard
said with obvious reluctance, and her blurred form moved off.

Sure that
Prudhomme
and Lady
Havard
would follow, and that she and Adrian could then slip from the trees and go back to the party, Clarissa nearly sighed her relief aloud. However, she was mistaken. The moment Lady
Achard
was gone, Lady
Havard
turned on
Prudhomme
, her voice sharp with jealousy as she asked, 'What did she want?'

'Lady
Achard
claimed she needed a breath of fresh air and asked me to show her the new additions to the gardens, so I did,'
Prudhomme
said innocently. Clarissa rolled her eyes. Goodness, the man was a masterful liar!

'Oh.' Lady
Havard
sounded relieved, but blurted, 'When I saw the two of you slip out here, I drought—'

'Hush, my love.' The small dark blur that was
Prudhomme
drew the teal blur of Lady
Havard
into his arms. 'You know there is no other woman for me, I love you, Alice, and I shall do so until I die.'

'Yes, Henry.' The woman sighed as he kissed a trail down her throat. 'It is just that I am so jealous of late.'

'There is nothing to be jealous of, my sweet.'

Clarissa squinted harder and edged farther forward as
Prudhomme
leaned back enough to tug some of the teal blur downward.
Good Lord!
She realized with shock that the man had just bared Lady
Havard's
breasts right there in the garden. At least, that was what Clarissa assumed those blurred blobs were, which
Prudhomme
proceeded to squeeze and press with loud smacking kisses.

Lady
Havard
gasped, then grabbed a handful of his wig and tugged his face away from her bosom. 'What of that girl?'

'Clarissa
Crambray
?'
Prudhomme's
scorn was obvious. 'A mere child. What does she know of a passion such as ours?'

'You do still love me then?' she begged.

'Of course,' he assured her.

Their blurs blended once more as he offered a moment's reassurance: 'I dream of you. I awake with your name on my lips, and imagine that you are mine and that all this sneaking about is unnecessary.'

Love

Clarissa rolled her eyes again. Apparently the man did a lot of dreaming—though where he found the time she couldn't say, if he was carrying on with both of these ladies.

'Oh, Henry!' Lady
Havard
gasped. 'Would that I were yours and we could hold each other like this every night.'

'Yes,'
Prudhomme
agreed. 'Damn your husband for his good health.'

Clarissa almost snorted aloud at this familiar refrain, but managed to catch it back.

'Now let me enjoy you for the few moments I do have you.'
Prudhomme
continued, and with that his dark blur suddenly dropped to kneel, then seemed to disappear beneath Lady
Havard's
skirts.

'Oh, Henry.' Lady
Havard's
shape leaned back against the tree. 'Oh, Lord
Prudhomme
. Oh, oh, oh ...'

Clarissa stared in amazement, then unthinkingly opened her mouth to ask, 'What the deuce is he—'

Mowbray
clapped his hand over her mouth at once, dragging her backward through the bushes.

Grabbing at his arm to keep her balance as they moved, Clarissa glanced at the blur that was
Prudhomme
and Lady
Havard
. She really, really wished she had her spectacles. Clarissa had no idea what the man was doing under the woman's skirt, but the moans Lady
Havard
was emitting seemed to suggest it was

pretty amazing. Then Clarissa was dragged out of the bushes on the other side of the path. Adrian allowed her to turn to face forward, then hustled her quickly away.

'What on earth was he doing?' she asked when he drew her to a halt in another small clearing.

Mowbray
glanced sharply at her, and she thought he actually blushed, but then she decided she must be mistaken. He finally said, 'I shall explain to you someday, my lady. But just now is not the time.'

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'Why not?' she asked curiously.

'Because you are far too innocent to understand such things. Because you would be embarrassed beyond belief in your innocence. Because ... because just now I do believe we should return you to the ball,' the earl finished, sounding relieved to think of it.

'Oh, but we did not get the chance to dance,' Clarissa protested. It did seem that, if she was going to be in trouble anyway, she should at least get to dance first.

'Another time,' Adrian promised, offering a gentle smile surely meant to soften the blow.

Clarissa was disappointed, but she allowed him to lead her back toward the noise, music, and lights of the ballroom. 'I fear there may not be another time, my lord. Lydia has been doing her best to avoid anyplace you might be. We came here tonight only because she did not think you would bother to attend
Prudhomme's
ball.'

'So that is why I have not been able to find you this week,' Adrian muttered, then admitted dryly, 'Your stepmother was right. Normally I would not have attended this ball.'

'Then why did you come?' Clarissa held her breath, unsure why until she heard his answer.

'Because I knew
Prudhomme
was considered a suitor, and because I therefore suspected you would come,' he admitted.

'Truly?' she asked.

'Yes. Truly.'

Clarissa thought Adrian might be smiling too, but she couldn't be sure. Then he smoothed his thumb along her eyes, urging her to stop her squinting as he said, 'I, too, quite enjoyed our discourse at the De
Morriseys
' ball and have looked forward to seeing you again ever since.'

'Oh.' She tingled with pleasure and sighed. 'I wish that...'

'What do you wish?' Adrian asked.

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Clarissa shrugged unhappily. 'I simply wish that Lydia did not feel such antipathy toward you.'

Love

He was silent as they walked up the path toward the laughter of the ballroom, then paused to turn her toward him. 'Perhaps there is a way to work around that.'

'A way?' Clarissa asked with a mixture of curiosity and hope.

'Yes.' Adrian peered at her in silence, and then she saw him nod decisively. His fingers tightened on her arm. 'Clarissa, should my cousin come to call in the next few days and offer to take you out riding, try to talk your stepmother into allowing it.'

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'Your cousin?' she asked uncertainly.

'Reginald
Greville
,' Adrian said. 'I shall ask him to collect you for me. Your stepmother shall approve. He will bring you out, and I shall meet with the two of you at the park.'

Clarissa frowned. She recognized the name
Greville
. 'I do not think it is very likely he will agree to

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come collect me, my lord. I fear I have already made his acquaintance.'

Adrian chuckled softly. 'He told me of your encounter.'

'He did?' she asked with dismay. Clarissa hadn't realized it at the time, but Lydia had told her later that she had scalded the man when she'd mistaken his lap for a table and set her tea upon it. She'd rather hoped Adrian hadn't heard about that story. It was humiliating. But then, most of her time in London had been similar.

'Yes, he did. But never fear; I have explained your situation to Reginald. He will be most pleased to help us out.'

'Mayhap,' Clarissa murmured doubtfully; then she bit her lip and glanced toward the blur that was his face. 'He is not a rakehell, is he?' When Adrian went still, Clarissa rushed on. 'Because, you see, that is why Lydia is resistant to you. She said that you were a rakehell when you were last at court. Though I am sure she is wrong. But if he is a rakehell as well...'

Adrian was silent and stiff for so long, Clarissa began to fear Reginald was a rakehell, but then Adrian relaxed suddenly. 'It will be all right.'

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Clarissa bit her lip, wanting to believe him, but finding it hard to accept that something so wonderful could happen in her life. She had experienced very little joy in the last ten years. First there had been her mother's illness, and then that terrible debacle with Captain Fielding. . . And then Clarissa's mother had died and, while she was still grieving, her father had married the horrid Lydia. Life had been hell in the country, with her stepmother reminding her of her shame every chance she got. The woman was constantly

remarking

that

Clarissa

had

hurried

her

mother to her grave with the shameful scandal she'd landed the whole family in.

Clarissa knew Lydia resented and blamed her for the fact that her father avoided London. Unfortunately, Lydia was right. Lord
Crambray
had avoided the city in the hope that the scandal would eventually be forgotten and that his daughter could yet make a good match. Lydia hated Clarissa for having missed out on several seasons in London, and made little secret of the fact that she couldn't wait to be rid of her.

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Yes, Clarissa suspected that resentment and hate were the real reasons behind Lydia's insistence that she not wear her spectacles. She suspected the woman was secretly enjoying every humiliating calamity, especially because her stepmother could then use each accident as an excuse to berate and punish her. And if Lydia had her way, Clarissa would be tied to the hateful
Prudhomme
for the rest of her life ... or his. Lydia probably knew exactly how horrid the little man was. Clarissa had noted for quite a while that die two acted friendlier than was warranted given their circumstances, and now she wondered if
Prudhomme
hadn't proclaimed his undying love to her stepmother a time or two as well and damned Clarissa's father's good health. It wouldn't have surprised her.