The blush, which had receded, surged back full force. Wainwright had no chance to reply, though, before Grey perceived Lady Beverley drifting toward them, an intentness in her eye at sight of Percy.
“Light-frigate off the starboard bow,” he said under his breath. Percy frowned in bewilderment, but then saw the direction of his glance.
“Really? She looks most respectable,” Percy murmured, he having evidently spent enough time with General Stanley in military circles as to have acquired familiarity with such terms as “light-frigate” for a woman of easy virtue.
“Don’t go into an alcove with her,” Grey murmured back, already nodding and smiling at the approaching lady. “She’ll have her hand in your breeches before you can say—Lady Beverley! Your servant, madam—may I present you my new stepbrother, Percival Wainwright?”
Seeing the hint of hesitation in Percy’s eye, he grasped Lady Beverley’s trailing hand and kissed it, thus signaling to Percy that, yes, she was married, reputation notwithstanding, then gracefully relinquished the appendage to Wainwright for the bestowal of his own homage.
“Mr. Wainwright.” Lady Beverley gave him a look of approval, then turned the force of her not inconsiderable charm on Grey. “We are obliged to you, Lord John! Monstrous kind of you, to bring such an ornament to decorate our dull society. Do come and have a glass of punch with me, Mr. Wainwright, and tell me what you think of Mr. Garrick’s new role—you will have seen it, I’m sure. For myself…”
Before either man could draw breath to answer, she had got Percy’s hand firmly trapped between her elbow and her yellow silk bodice, and was towing him purposefully toward the refreshment table, still talking.
Wainwright cast Grey a wide-eyed look, and Grey sketched a small salute in return, suppressing a smile. At least Wainwright had been warned. And if he took care to keep Lady Beverley out in the public view, she would be good company. Already she had drawn him into the circle around the guest of honor, which she cleft like the Red Sea, and was introducing him to the French philosopher.
He relaxed a bit, seeing that Percy seemed able to hold his own, and deliberately turned his back, not to embarrass his new relation with undue scrutiny.
“Lord John!” A clear voice hailed him, and he looked round to find his friend Lucinda, Lady Joffrey, smiling at him, a small leather-bound book in one hand. “How do you do, my dear?”
“Excellently well, I thank you.” He made to kiss her hand, but she laughed and drew him in, standing on tiptoe to kiss his cheek instead.
“I crave a favor, if you please,” she whispered in his ear, and came down on her heels, looking up at him, expectant of his consent.
“You know I can deny you nothing,” he said, smiling. She reminded him always of a partridge, small, neat, and slightly plump, with a kind, soft eye. “What is your desire, Lady Joffrey? A cup of punch? Sardines on toast? Or had you in mind something more in the way of apes, ivory, and peacocks?”
“It may well be pearls before swine,” she said, dimpling, and handed him the book. “But the fact of the matter is that I have a…relation…who has written some verses—negligible, I am sure, but perhaps not without a certain charm. I thought to present them to Monsieur Diderot…” She cast a glance toward the window where the distinguished man of letters held court, then turned back, a faint blush mantling her cheeks.
“But I find my nerve fails me.”
Grey gave her a look of patent disbelief. Small and demure she might be in appearance; by temperament she had the guile of a serpent and the tenacity of a sticking plaster.
“Really,” she insisted, both dimple and blush growing deeper. She glanced round to be sure they were not overheard, and leaning close, whispered, “Have you by chance heard of a novel entitled Les Bijoux Indiscrets?”
“I have, Lady Joffrey,” he said, with mock severity, “and I am shocked to the core of my being to discover that a woman of your character should be acquainted with such a scandalous volume. Have you read it?” he inquired, dropping the pose.
“La, everyone’s read it,” she said, relaxing into comfortable scorn. “Your mother sent it to me last year.”
“Indeed.” He was not surprised; his mother would read anything, and maintained friendships with several similarly indiscriminate ladies, who kept up a constant exchange of books—most of which would have shocked their husbands, had those worthy gentlemen ever bothered to inquire about their wives’ pastimes.
“Have you read it?” she asked.
He shook his head. Les Bijoux Indiscrets was an erotic novel, written some years before by M. Diderot for Madeleine le Puisieux, his mistress at the time. It had been published in Holland, and for a time, there had been a mania in England for smuggled copies. He’d seen the book, of course, but had done no more than flip through an illustrated copy, looking for the pictures—which were indifferently executed. Perhaps the text was better.
“Prude,” she said.
“Quite. Am I to infer that these…verses…share something of the sentiments of that particular volume?” He weighed the book in his hand. It was both small and slender, befitting poetry.
“I believe they were inspired by certain of the events depicted therein,” Lady Joffrey said, circumspect. “The, um, author of the verses wished to present them to Monsieur Diderot as an acknowledgment of the inspiration, I believe—a tribute, if you will.”
He raised a brow at her, and opened the cover. Certain Verses Upon the Subject of—
“Jesus,” he said, involuntarily, and shut the book. He immediately opened it again, cautiously, as though afraid it might spit at him.
By an Admirer of the Works of that Urgent Genius, Monsieur Denis Diderot, who in Humility stiles himself “Sub-Genius.”
“You didn’t write them yourself, did you?” he asked, glancing up. Lady Joffrey’s mouth fell open, and he smiled. “No, of course not. My apologies.”
He thumbed slowly through the book, pausing to read here and there. The verses were actually quite competent, he thought—even good, in spots. Though the material…
“Yes,” he said, closing the book and clearing his throat. “I see why you might hesitate to present this personally—he is a Frenchman, though I believe he’s said to be quite faithful to his present mistress. I suppose you hadn’t looked at the contents before coming here?”
She shook her head, making the pheasant’s feathers she wore in her powdered hair sweep across her shoulder.
“No. He—the relation I spoke of—had brought it to me early in the week, but I’d had no chance to look at it. I read it in the carriage on the way—and then, of course, was at a loss what to do, until most fortunately I saw you.” She looked over her shoulder at the group by the window, then back at Grey. “I did promise to deliver it. Will you? Please?”
“I don’t know why your husband does not beat you regularly,” he remarked, shaking his head. “Or at least keep you locked up safely at home. Has he the slightest idea…?”
“Sir Richard is a most accomplished diplomat,” she replied with complacence. “He has a great facility for not knowing things that it is expedient not to know.”
“I daresay,” Grey replied dryly. “Speaking of knowing—do I know your relation?”
“Why, I am sure I could not say, I have so many,” she answered blandly. “But speaking of relations—I hear that you are to acquire a new brother? I am told that he is amazing handsome to look at.”
Hearing Percival Wainwright referred to as his brother gave him a slightly odd feeling, as though he might in fact be contemplating incest. He ignored this, though, and nodded toward the table.
“You may judge of that for yourself; there he stands.”
Wainwright had moved away from the throng around the philosopher, and was now surrounded, Grey was pleased to see, by a small group of his own, both men and women, all seeming much amused by his conversation—particularly Lady Beverley, who hung upon both his words and his arm. Wainwright was telling some story, his face alight, and even across the room, Grey felt the warmth of his presence. As though he sensed their scrutiny, Percy glanced suddenly in their direction, and shot Grey a smile of such delight in his surroundings that Grey smiled back, delighted in turn to see him manage so well.
Lucinda Joffrey emitted a hum of approval.
“Oh, yes,” she said. “And quite good style, too. Did you dress him?” she inquired.
No, but I should like very much to undress him. He cleared his throat.
“No, he has excellent taste of his own.”
“And the money to support it?”
He was not offended. A man’s means were generally of more interest than his face, and everyone would be wondering the same thing of a newcomer—though not everyone would ask so bluntly. Lucinda, though, did have a great many relations, of whom at least half were female, and felt it her moral duty to help her sisters and cousins to good marriages.
“Unfortunately not. His father—you collect he is the general’s stepson?—was a minister of some kind. Family poor as church mice, I gather. The general has settled a small sum upon him, but he has no property.”
Lucinda hummed again, but with less approval.
“Looking for a rich wife, then, is he?” she said, with a degree of resignation. She came from an old and estimable family, but one without wealth.
“Early days for that, surely.” Grey thought he had spoken lightly, but she gave him a sharp look.
“Ho,” she said. “Does he fancy himself in love with someone unsuitable?”
Grey felt as though she had pushed him suddenly in the chest. He had forgotten just how acute she was. Sir Richard Joffrey was indeed a good diplomat—but no little degree of his success was the result of his wife’s social connexions and her ability to ferret out things that it was expedient to know.
“If so, he has not told me,” Grey said, achieving, he thought, a good simulation of indifference. “Have you met the great man yourself? Will I present you?”
“Oh, Monsieur Diderot?” Lucinda turned to eye the guest of honor speculatively. “I did meet him, some years ago in Paris. A very witty man, though I think I should not care to be married to him.”
“Because he keeps a mistress?”
She looked surprised, then waved her fan in dismissal.
“Oh, no. The difficulty with witty people is that they feel compelled to exhibit their wit all the time—which is most tedious over the breakfast table. Sir Richard,” she said with satisfaction, “is not witty at all.”
“I suppose it wouldn’t do in a diplomat,” Grey agreed. “Will I fetch you some refreshment?”
Lady Joffrey assenting, he made his way through the crowd, the book she had given him still in hand. The room buzzed with conversation and the excitement of a successful salon, but a freak of sound brought him Diderot’s voice clearly—nasal, like all Frenchmen, but rich and pleasant. He seemed to be speaking of his wife.