Silk Is for Seduction (The Dressmakers #1) by Loretta Chase

Prologue

In the summer of 1810, Mr. Edward Noirot eloped to Gretna Greene with Miss Catherine DeLucey.

Mr. Noirot had been led to believe he was eloping with an English heiress whose fortune, as a result of this rash act, would become his exclusively. An elopement cut out all the tiresome meddling, in the form of marriage settlements, by parents and lawyers. In running off with a blue-blooded English lady of fortune, Edward Noirot was carrying on an ancient family tradition: His mother and grandmother were English.

Unfortunately, he’d been misled by his intended, who was as accomplished in lying and cheating, in the most charming manner possible, as her lover was. There had indeed been a fortune. Past tense. It had belonged to her mother, whom John DeLucey had seduced and taken to Scotland in the time-honored fashion of his own family.

The alleged fortune by this time was long gone. Miss DeLucey had intended to improve her financial circumstances in the way women of her family usually did, by luring into matrimony an unsuspecting blue-blooded gentleman with deep pockets and a lusting heart.

She, too, had been misled, because Edward Noirot had no more fortune than she did. He was, as he claimed, the offspring of a French count. But the family fortune had been swept away, along with the heads of various relatives, years before, during the Revolution.

Thanks to this comedy of errors, the most disreputable branch of one of France’s noble families was united with its English counterpart, better known—and loathed—in the British Isles as the Dreadful DeLuceys.

The reader will easily imagine the couple’s chagrin when the truth came out shortly after they’d made their vows.

The reader will undoubtedly expect the screaming, crying, and recriminations usual on such occasions. The reader, however, would be mistaken. Being the knaves they were—and furthermore quite truly in love—they laughed themselves sick. Then they joined forces. They set about seducing and swindling every dupe who crossed their path.

It was a long and convoluted path. It took them back and forth between England and the Continent, depending on when a location became too hot for comfort.

In the course of their wanderings, Catherine and Edward Noirot produced three daughters.

Chapter One

THE LADIES’ DRESS-MAKER. Under this head we shall include not only the business of a Mantua Maker, but also of a Milliner . . . In the Milliner, taste and fancy are required; with a quickness in discerning, imitating, and improving upon various fashions, which are perpetually changing among the higher circles.

The Book of English Trades,

and Library of the Useful Arts, 1818

London

March 1835

Marcelline, Sophia, and Leonie Noirot, sisters and proprietresses of Maison Noirot, Fleet Street, West Chancery Lane, were all present when Lady Renfrew, wife of Sir Joseph Renfrew, dropped her bombshell.

Dark-haired Marcelline was shaping a papillon bow meant to entice her ladyship into purchasing Marcelline’s latest creation. Fair-haired Sophia was restoring to order one of the drawers ransacked earlier for one of their more demanding customers. Leonie, the redhead, was adjusting the hem of the lady’s intimate friend, Mrs. Sharp.

Though it was merely a piece of gossip dropped casually into the conversation, Mrs. Sharp shrieked—quite as though a bomb had gone off—and stumbled and stepped on Leonie’s hand.

Leonie did not swear aloud, but Marcelline saw her lips form a word she doubted their patrons were accustomed to hearing.

Oblivious to any bodily injury done to insignificant dressmakers, Mrs. Sharp said, “The Duke of Clevedon is returning?”

“Yes,” said Lady Renfrew, looking smug.

“To London?”

“Yes,” said Lady Renfrew. “I have it on the very best authority.”

“What happened? Did Lord Longmore threaten to shoot him?”

Any dressmaker aspiring to clothe ladies of the upper orders stayed au courant with the latter’s doings. Consequently, Marcelline and her sisters were familiar with all the details of this story. They knew that Gervaise Angier, the seventh Duke of Clevedon, had once been the ward of the Marquess of Warford, the Earl of Longmore’s father. They knew that Longmore and Clevedon were the best of friends. They knew that Clevedon and Lady Clara Fairfax, the eldest of Longmore’s three sisters, had been intended for each other since birth. Clevedon had doted on her since they were children. He’d never shown any inclination to court anyone else, though he’d certainly had liaisons aplenty of the other sort, especially during his three years on the Continent.

While the pair had never been officially engaged, that was regarded as a mere technicality. All the world had assumed the duke would marry her as soon as he returned with Longmore from their Grand Tour. All the world had been shocked when Longmore came back alone a year ago, and Clevedon continued his life of dissipation on the Continent.

Apparently, someone in the family had run out of patience, because Lord Longmore had traveled to Paris a fortnight ago. Rumor agreed he’d done so specifically to confront his friend about the long-delayed nuptials.

“I believe he threatened to horsewhip him, but of that one cannot be certain,” said Lady Renfrew. “I was told only that Lord Longmore went to Paris, that he said or threatened something, with the result that his grace promised to return to London before the King’s Birthday.”

Though His Majesty had been born in August, his birthday was to be celebrated this year on the 28th of May.

Since none of the Noirot sisters did anything so obvious as shriek or stumble or even raise an eyebrow, no onlooker would have guessed they regarded this news as momentous.

They went on about their business, attending to the two ladies and the others who entered their establishment. That evening, they sent the seamstresses home at the usual hour and closed the shop. They went upstairs to their snug lodgings and ate their usual light supper. Marcelline told her six-year-old daughter, Lucie Cordelia, a story before putting her to bed at her usual bedtime.

Lucie was sleeping the sleep of the innocent—or as innocent as was possible for any child born into their ramshackle family—when the three sisters crept down the stairs to the workroom of their shop.

Everyday, a grubby little boy delivered the latest set of scandal sheets as soon as they were printed—usually before the ink was dry—to the shop’s back door. Leonie collected today’s lot and spread them out on the worktable. The sisters began to scan the columns.

“Here it is,” Marcelline said after a moment. “ ‘Earl of L____ returned from Paris last night . . . We’re informed that a certain duke, currently residing in the French capital, has been told in no uncertain terms that Lady C_____ was done awaiting his pleasure . . . his grace expected to return to London in time for the King’s Birthday . . . engagement to be announced at a ball at Warford House at the end of the Season . . . wedding before summer’s end.’ ”

She passed the report to Leonie, who read, “ ‘Should the gentleman fail to keep his appointment, the lady will consider their ‘understanding’ a misunderstanding.’ ” She laughed. “Then follow some interesting surmises regarding which gentleman will be favored in his place.”

She pushed the periodical toward Sophia, who was shaking her head. “She’d be a fool to give him up,” she said. “A dukedom, for heaven’s sake. How many are there? And an unmarried duke who’s young, handsome, and healthy? I can count them on one finger.” She stabbed her index finger at the column. “Him.”

“I wonder what the hurry is about,” Marcelline said. “She’s only one and twenty.”

“And what’s she got to do but go to plays, operas, balls, dinners, routs, and so on?” said Leonie. “An aristocratic girl who’s got looks, rank, and a respectable dowry wouldn’t ever have to worry about attracting suitors. This girl . . .”

She didn’t have to complete the sentence.

They’d seen Lady Clara Fairfax on several occasions. She was stunningly beautiful: fair-haired and blue-eyed in the classic English rose mode. Since her numerous endowments included high rank, impeccable lineage, and a splendid dowry, men threw themselves at her, right and left.

“Never again in her life will that girl wield so much power over men,” Marcelline said. “I say she might wait until her late twenties to settle down.”

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