One Summer of Surrender(4)

By: Jess Michaels

Stenfax’s shoulders rolled forward in defeat and he sighed. “Yes, I know.”

“Here you are, sir!” the footman called out as he came up to the door outside with Stenfax’s mount.

“Goodnight,” Gray said, mercifully releasing Stenfax from the requirement of addressing the subject further.

“Goodnight,” Stenfax returned, tipping his head to his brother before he walked out and swung up on his mount. He rode the animal out into the street and turned him toward Vivien Manning’s, where there was always a party in full swing.

But even as he vowed to do exactly as his brother suggested, he knew it wouldn’t help. It never did.

The Duchess of Kirkford sat in a quiet side room in the home of the notorious Vivien Manning, her hands folded in her lap and her mind reeling. She had come here by appointment and had been led through what could only be described as an erotic bacchanalia. She had seen things she’d never even imagined before, from women performing wild dances in very little clothing to couples having sex right in the main room to the intense scrutiny of the audience.

She shifted in her chair at the thought of it, and the tingling awareness those thoughts created. She was in over her head, it seemed.

The door to the room opened and a woman swept through. As Elise got to her feet, she gasped. Vivien Manning was younger than she’d imagined during their brief correspondence, and far more beautiful, with a coil of blonde hair piled high on her head and a serene face.

“Your Grace,” Miss Manning said as she extended a hand.

Elise shook it in a fog and then stammered, “O-oh, please, call me Elise. I don’t want to think about being the Duchess of Kirkford when I’m here.”

Vivien lifted a brow at that declaration and then motioned Elise back to her chair. She took the one opposite and suddenly blue eyes were sweeping over her, taking her in, judging her. Elise swallowed hard at the other woman’s perusal. Would she live up to whatever standard she was being compared to?

“Elise,” Miss Manning finally said. “Then you must be certain to call me Vivien. And I’m happy for that familiarity, but there is one issue.”

Elise’s stomach turned. “And what is that?”

“I may call you by whatever name you ask for, my dear, but the material point still exists that you are the Duchess of Kirkford.”

Elise squeezed her eyes shut for a moment. “Yes,” she said softly.

“It isn’t that I haven’t matched the occasional titled widow,” Vivien continued. “But never one of such a high rank. So I must ask, what is it that brings you to my door? Pleasure or something else?”

Elise stared at her. The concept that a woman would come to Vivien for a pleasure match had never occurred to her. She shook her head. “I—must I say it?”

Vivien nodded. “You must. I need to know the circumstances I’m involving myself and others in if I am to continue. But this place is known for its utter discretion. So you needn’t worry that your story will become fodder for others.”

Heat was burning Elise’s cheeks now and she could hardly find the words as her head spun. At last she drew a long breath and said, “I am in a tenuous position. My husband died in November of last year. There was a drawn out struggle between two cousins to determine who would be his successor.”

“Oh yes, that was very public.”

“Very public,” Elise said with a shudder as she thought of the cruel and violent pair who had battled so fiercely for the prize of the title. “Neither was the best choice, but the one who won the title in the end is a bastard of the highest order. He and my late husband had that in common, it seems. And it has been determined that I have been left nothing.”


Elise lifted her hands to rub her arms, as if she could make the cold go away when it generated from icy terror about her future. “No. I have been allowed to stay in a smaller home in London thus far, but that ‘kindness’ is threatened to soon come to an end. Whatever money I saved from my pin amount is all I will be settled with and it is a pittance, Vivien. I have no family left—my parents died two years ago—and nowhere else to go.”

“You could reenter Society and find a new husband,” Vivien suggested gently.

Elise shook her head. “The mourning period requires I wait an additional three months before I even think of reentering Society. If I returned now looking for a husband, I would be shunned. And my husband’s death was in a duel over a married woman. I think you probably know that.”

Vivien inclined her head once and Elise stammered, “Th-then you know that scandal will likely make any attempt to marry well even more difficult. It’s a nearly impossible path, but to be someone’s mistress…”