Authors: Connie Brockway
Tags: #Fiction, #Romance, #General, #Historical, #Juvenile Fiction
“God.” He raked his hair back, ruining his carefully groomed locks and turning himself once more into the disheveled, slightly disreputable blackguard she knew so well. “I can’t believe anyone could think you could succeed in this. This is madness.”
His irritation struck a spark. “It may be madness, but madness is, I believe, our only option,” she retorted. “Now did you drag me out here to bolster my confidence or do you have something more to say?”
He regarded her with a tightening jaw. “No.”
“Then what are we doing out here? It is not dark, you know. People can see us quite clearly. And several are looking.”
“That is precisely why we are out here,” he said grimly. “That and this.”
And without warning he caught her up in his arms, crushing her ruthlessly to him, his mouth descending on hers in a bruising kiss.
No one had ever kissed her like this before. He owned not a whit of the finesse or refined skills with which most of her more sophisticated suitors kissed her. He was a brute. No cajoling caress, no sweet entreating, no wanting supplication. Instead, he mounted a sensual assault, catching her off guard with the devastating confidence with which he took her mouth.
He pulled her closer, ignoring all proprieties; hip to hip, thigh to thigh, belly to belly, his mouth intent, hot, and open over hers. His hand slipped up the back of her neck, spearing through the careful arrangement of curls and ribbons, laying havoc to all her careful artifice, spilling the short curls from their ribbons and pulling her head back, making her mouth more accessible to him. God help her, she did not resist.
She hadn’t been prepared for this. Nothing in her education as the ton’s most darling and daring coquette had prepared her for this. Her arms reacted without volition, lashing about his neck as her mouth opened ecstatically beneath his, her heart leaping in her chest as he strained against her, over her, deepening the demanding kiss.
She sighed against his open mouth and his warm, damp tongue immediately swept deep inside her own. Thoughts tore loose from her mind, shredded on the talons of sharpening desire. Her eyelids drifted shut and her hands clutched with increasing weakness on the broad shoulders bent over her.
The world swirled, desire fast thickening into need. Her legs buckled then, and he caught her, pulling her up, sliding her body along his hard, tensile form, his mouth torn from hers. Thoughts clamored to be heard above the sensual seas she drowned in. Faintly, she heard the heated spurts of her own breathing, felt the galloping rhythm of her heartbeat. He made a sound, masculine and low in his throat, bending his head close again, his eyes luminous and heated in the twilight, ready to begin the sensual assault anew.
She wasn’t. She couldn’t. It was too much and she was not ready. She pushed against him, her arms stiff. He released her at once.
Uncertainly, she looked up into his face. His expression was shuttered, but his chest rose and fell deeply beneath her flat palm and she read in the thick beat of his heart a different reaction. One not quite so detached.
“You’re supposed to be carried away by passion, not look as though you were attempting to avert a rape, my dear,” he murmured in a low, caustic voice. He looked tellingly at the hand pushing ineffectively against him.
A wave of heat surged up her throat and she snatched her hand back.
“Better,” he whispered, bending his head and licking a path down the long line of her neck. Fine tremors raked her body. “Don’t worry. I won’t kiss you again. A few more moments acquiescent in my arms and I think we can close the curtain on our performance.”
His mouth stopped at the base of her throat, his tongue lapping gently against the pulse beating frantically at the hollow there. The tremors turned into quakes.
“Easy, Lottie,” he whispered in his dark, passion-rimmed voice. “It isn’t so much after all.”
But it was, she knew. It was.
“My dear, you have done it!” Ginny exclaimed as Charlotte entered the bedroom. At Ginny’s request, the maid had brought word the moment Charlotte returned. The courtesan pushed herself up on the pile of pillows behind her, her face animated for the first time since her accident. “You are ruined! ’Tis marvelous. And so quickly and efficiently brought about. Truly marvelous!”
“How did you know?” Charlotte asked.
“Lord Skelton was here an hour earlier.” Ginny chuckled. “He must have left the Argyll Rooms on a dead run to carry the news to me. Such devotion! ’Struth, I may owe him a kiss!”
“What did he say?”
“He wanted to be the first to inform me of the most wicked, most delicious
to have passed through society in a decade. That
being that my young angel of mercy has been compromised!”
She leaned forward, her beautiful slanted eyes gleaming. “Did Ross really ravish you right there in the garden?”
“ ‘Ravish’ is decidedly overstating the situation,” Charlotte replied, trying desperately for an urbane tone as she willed her legs not to give way beneath her. She sank down on the foot of Ginny’s bed.
That was it then. She was ruined. Except her weak limbs had far less to do with the knowledge of her downfall than with the man who’d caused it. She had been kissed many times, by many men. None of them had ever affected her like this, leaving her breathless and mossy-headed, her pulse skittering like hail on the windowpane, her stomach hollow and her joints liquid. She must be coming down with something.
She forced herself to meet Ginny’s overbright, overly knowing gaze. “How gratifying for Lord Skelton. I assume you verified his ‘worst fears’?”
“Only after much hand-wringing and having secured innumerable vows of secrecy from him which he duly gave and which means that by now”—she glanced at the clock, which showed one o’clock in the morning—“Everyone, including the Lord Mayor’s second gardener, has heard about it.”
She patted the cushion beside her. “Come sit down and tell me all.”
Reluctantly, Charlotte pulled the soft chamois gloves through her fingers, unwilling to stay longer, wanting to be alone, to think. But also, she feared, to remember. “There’s not much to tell and I am exhausted beyond belief.”
“That, my girl, is definitely a lie,” Ginny said, her arched brow tipping upward. “Come. Tell me.”
“He chased off young Lieutenant Albright, commandeered me for two dances, dragged me out into the garden, making care that we should be appropriately framed by the doorway, and kissed me.”
“I kissed him back. Enthusiastically.”
“Good girl. This needn’t all be unpleasant work. And then?”
“Then he hustled me across the entire crowded ballroom, threw his greatcoat over my shoulders, and lifted me bodily into a hired chaise, which he then entered himself, calling out loudly for the driver to take us to my home.”
“Perfect!” Ginny approved. “And then?”
“Then, two blocks later, he rapped on the carriage ceiling, bade the driver to stop, got out, and wished me a good evening.”
“Oh?” Ginny sounded disappointed. “That’s all?”
“That’s all except that he mentioned his intention of taking me for a drive in Hyde Park tomorrow during the fashionable hour in order, so he said, to cement my infamy in the minds of any who hadn’t quite tumbled to the obvious yet.” She didn’t tell Ginny how Dand had looked during that short carriage ride, his face obscured by the shadows as he sat slouched in the far corner of the dark carriage interior, silently vibrating with palpable tension.
“Excellent. I can see he has thought the entire process out to an admirable degree. I begin to think I approve of Mr. Ross. Tell me, how did he look?”
“Yes,” Ginny said. “Was he as uncouth looking as”—she cleared her throat—“as you have always said he was? Or had he adopted a bit of town bronze?”
“Oh, he was most bronzed. And while his actions were decidedly uncivilized, he looked perfectly well maintained.”
“Even more excellent!” Ginny cried. “The news shall travel so fast it may even overtake St. Lyon on his way north. But to make sure, I must pen him a letter tonight and let drop that I am very much afraid that my headstrong young friend Miss Nash has gotten herself in a most difficult situation.”
The man pushed through a crowd gathered around a boy hawking newspapers by calling out bits about Napoleon’s latest exploits, barely aware of the jostling crowd. He had to concentrate. The board had changed within the last twenty-four hours. Luckily he was adept at accommodating change.
But…God help him, he hadn’t realized that he would be so affected. That he would find it so difficult. Even now emotion threatened to overwhelm him.
He swallowed hard, feeling the grip of his old mania upon him and looking quickly, spied a wretched little yard, black at this late hour and empty. Head low, he stumbled into the inky darkness—his breathing ragged, his throat constricting—and dug in his greatcoat for the penknife he carried there. Then, with a sense of shame and relief, he peeled off his glove and splayed his fingers wide. No more visible scars. Not anymore. Once this was over and he took his rightful place in Society, he would no longer need to…perform this abomination upon himself.
He pulled the thin, lethally pointed blade out of its malachite case and stared down at the silvery tip lying so sweetly, perfectly honed in the palm of his hand and tried to find the wherewithal to resist its glittering allure.
His head fell back against the brick wall, all the emotions within him fighting each other, pride and despair and anger and…yes,
twisting and twisting and twisting his heart, his very soul!
With a soft cry of self-disgust he plunged the tip of the blade into the tender flesh between his index and middle finger, hissing at the piquant, the brain-clearing pain. Lovely pain, like acid eating away the guilt and doubt and horror, leaving nothing behind but exquisite…pure…pain.
Slowly, calm returned. His humor returned. His sense of perspective was restored. His mental acuity, always keen, seemed sharper. He felt the world a more lucid place. Carelessly, he slipped the blade back in its sheath, his thoughts already having turned to the night’s events and the various problems they posed. He thought about the girl and he thought about the whore and he thought about the man known as Dand Ross.
Of course. Of course. Why hadn’t he seen it before? It would all work out splendidly. Even better than he’d originally planned. It was almost, indeed, as if God meant it to be.
Perhaps he did.
Culholland Square, Mayfair
July 20, 1806
Lizette, Charlotte’s maid, did not even bother to knock on the door. She simply burst into the room, eyes wild and mouth agape.
Charlotte struggled upright in her bed, alarmed. “What is it, Lizzie? What ever is wrong?”
The maid flew to the bedroom windows, snapping open the heavy brocade draperies and filling the room with bright sunlight. She spun around, her hand to her chest.
“There is a man downstairs in the front hall! He showed up in a fancy carriage ten minutes ago demanding that the butler let him in. But when he told him that you were not receiving, he came in anyway! He’s down there now and told me to tell you to
“He told you what?” She blinked to clear her eyes. She hadn’t slept much the night before. Humiliation kept her wide awake until the wee hours of the morning. And not mortification based on the fact that she’d ruined herself in Society, but humiliation founded solely on her inability to hide her physical reaction to Dand Ross’s unexpected amatory expertise.
“Who is he?”
“I don’t rightly know, ma’am! A nabob, I’m thinking. He’s brown as an East Indian but dressed like a toff, tricked out neat as a pin, and speaks a treat. Only not a gentleman. ’Cause what gentleman would act in such a manner? None!”
was here? Charlotte thought in confusion. He’d said he was coming for her in the afternoon.
She glanced at the ormolu clock sitting on the fireplace mantle. It showed nine o’clock. An ungodly hour to be calling unless something momentous had happened.
She scooted out of the big, soft bed, thrusting her arms through the diaphanous jonquil silk dressing gown that Lizette, bless her anticipation, held out for her, then hastened out the door.
“Shall I send for the footmen?” Lizette asked, scurrying after her.
“No!” Charlotte called over her shoulder as she hurried down the stairway on bare feet. Something must be amiss. Otherwise why would Dand insist that she hurry? She dashed down the steps and along the landing above the hallway—
“Someone go tell the wench not to waste time primping.” Dand’s voice, bored, imperious, swollen with masculine indulgence and flavored with a subtly foreign accent, brought her up short. “A fellow wants to see what manner of ride he’s buying under all the rigging, eh?”
brought her up short. She looked down over the balustrade into the front hall. Dand stood in the center of the parquetry floor, leaning lightly on a silver-headed walking cane as he looked about with casual interest.
didn’t look overset. He looked quite comfortable. This was all wrong. She was a seasoned veteran of a hundred flirtations. She was a mistress of titillation. She was the incomparable, the unattainable, the provocative Miss Charlotte Nash. He was a…a…rat catcher!
But a handsome rat catcher. Deuced handsome. There was no denying it. His navy blue coat stretched across his broad shoulders without a single crease marring its perfectly tailored surface. Buff-colored trousers hugged muscular thighs while black Hessian boots that gleamed with a mirrorlike finish encased his calves.
“What are you doing here?” she called down from where she hung over the rail.
He looked up. His eyes alit with pleasure. “Ah, Lottie! And looking most fetching. I declare myself inordinately pleased. Indeed, I am!”
The sardonic gleam in his eyes made her uncomfortably aware of her dishabille, her short curls tousled from the bed and her face probably pallid after her fitful night’s sleep. For a pert coquette and heartbreaker of the highest order, she was at a decided disadvantage. “What are you doing here?”
“Well, since I have taken over the payments, I decided I’d rather avail myself of your winsome company than add the expense of a hotel room to our arrangement.” He’d definitely adopted a slight French accent.
?” she echoed. “What the devil do you—”
“Mind the children, Lottie,” Dand replied in a low voice, his gaze traveling over her shoulder.
Turning her head, Charlotte followed his gaze. Behind her, Lizette hovered in wide-eyed, titillated amazement.
“And…” she heard Dand murmur.
She looked down into the hallway. The footmen, Brian and Curtis, stood below, flanking the front door, their expressions similarly bewildered and astonished, ready to act at her first word. She leaned further out and saw the cook, her head poking out from behind the green baize door leading to the kitchen, nodding as if all her worst suspicions had finally been confirmed. Even the tweenie, her dustbin still clutched in her hand, had crept out of the front parlor to see what was going on.
Oh, dear. Oh, my.
A soft sound escaped her lips.
Dand clucked his tongue sympathetically. “Ah, my poor darling. I didn’t mean for your maid to wake you. But the silly chit would not listen to reason.” He tilted his head as though a thought had just occurred to him.
“Why, Lottie,” he said, in a gently scolding tone, “you didn’t inform your staff about me, did you? Naughty girl. No wonder everyone looks so green about the gills. Tell them to be about their business, why don’t you?”
He looked around at the servants, his gaze very level, a warning in its dark depths. “Or shall I?”
“No. No.” She hesitated. What tone did one take when one was all but announcing to one’s staff that one had become a Loose Woman? He’d caught her entirely unprepared. It wasn’t fair. She would have to improvise. Something casual and haughty and polished…“All of you, go away. Go to work. Just
Dand smiled apologetically at her startled staff. “She desires a moment alone with me.”
Her staff went, scurrying away with the alacrity of beetles under a bright light. A few seconds later the only evidence left of their onetime presence was the gentle swinging of the green baize door.
Dand grinned up at her. “That went well, I thought.”
“Did you?” she asked coolly. “I bow to your doubtless greater expertise. Now, again and for the last time, what the blazes do you think you are doing?”
“Tch, tch, such language. You know, Lottie, the most exclusive birds of paradise are known for being genteel in public and otherwise in private. I am much afraid, my dear, that you have it quite reversed.”
“Just trying to offer what advice I can,” he said lightly, balancing his cane on his shoulder and starting up the stairs toward her. His movements caused her to back up. He couldn’t possibly mean to come into her bedroom! There were some lines even she had never crossed. This was one of them and she reacted instinctively.
“Stop. Stop right there!” she commanded. He halted halfway up the stairs, regarding her in puzzlement. “You. You wait in the…in the dining room!”
“You know for such a tough little piece of work, you are amazingly provincial—”
She didn’t linger to hear more but spun on her heels and marched down the landing and to her room. Quickly, she shed her nightdress and dashed water in her face before scrubbing at her teeth with a bristle brush and hurriedly donning a prim and extremely modest gown of plum-striped ivory batiste.
What was the meaning of this? Clearly, he came here intent upon lending verisimilitude to their act. But
how far did he intend to go to solidify her shattered reputation? She wasn’t sure of anything other than that it might be farther than she would like to go.
Was afraid to go,
her imagination whispered as the memory of their passionate embrace stole upon her, leaving flutters in her stomach. Enough. Sweeping her short mass of ringlets back from her face with a black velvet ribbon and having regained her aplomb, she went to face Dand.
“Where is he?” she asked the footman.
“Monsieur Rousse is in the dining room, ma’am.”
He really had gone mad.
She found Dand settled comfortably at the head of her dining table, spooning a bit of egg onto a piece of toast. Upon her entrance, he waved his silver fork over his plate. “Your cook makes the most amazing eggs, Lottie! Claims scallions does the magic.”
She ignored this, moving gracefully toward the table. She was worldly too, and it was time that he remembered it. “At the risk of redundancy,” she said tightly, “what are you doing here? And when did you adopt a French—”
He cut her short with a brief, telling gesture and reached for the coffee pot, pouring out a thin stream of black, steaming liquid into his cup. “The French custom of drinking coffee in the morning?” he interjected smoothly, casting a warning glance at the doorway and thus alerting her to his suspicions that they were being eavesdropped upon. “Because I am French.”
He smiled sunnily, making Charlotte wonder for a second if he was, indeed, partially French. He certainly spoke the language as a native. And not the rough patois of the commoner, but the silky buff of the aristocrat. But no. That was nonsense. He was a Scottish orphan, playacting.
“You ought to eat,” Dand went on comfortably. “Curtis!”
At once the door leading to the kitchen swung open and her youngest footman entered. Dand was right; the servants were listening in. “Sir?”
“Miss Nash requires sustenance. Egg?” His brows rose inquiringly, and his gaze traveled over her slender body in insolent assessment. “Two eggs. And toast.”
This was too much. She was not a broodmare he won in a bet and come to see if she was worth keeping. She was
to be his mistress. Mistresses were treated by their aristocratic lovers with a great deal of charm and adulation. Or so she’d heard.
Seeing the storm gathering in her eyes, he went on.
honey. Clearly she requires sweetening.”
Curtis, well-trained footman that he was, managed to excise his budding smile, but he could not hide the unabashed twinkle in his eye. “At once, sir.”
“And no more hovering about the door,” Dand added as an afterthought.
“I meant no disrespect, sir. Only hoping to provide as prompt service as possible, sir.”
“I am certain. But I shall take it greatly amiss should I ever discover anyone listening at doors. You might mention this to the staff.”
“Of course, sir.”
As soon as Curtis left, Dand settled back in the chair.
we can speak.”
“Oh, thank you,” Charlotte said sarcastically, pulling out the chair at the opposite end of the long table.
“My dear,” he said as she prepared to be seated, “I have done what I could to make us private, but if you insist on sitting twelve feet away, I daresay it will not take an ear to the door to hear our conversation.”
He was right. But he needn’t look so smug. She had, she could see, a great deal of catching up to do before she regained an equal footing with Dand. She had given away far too much during last night’s kiss. But that was last night and this was this morning, and she had remembered who she was and who she must be if she was to succeed in her masquerade.
With a gracious nod, she walked toward him. He rose and pulled out a chair for her, which she accepted.
“Now,” she said, motioning him to be seated, “please. Speak. First, why the French surname?”
“While I liked your notion of introducing me as your onetime neighbor’s lurking lad, I decided it would be too easy to disprove,” he answered. “Your father, my dear, was once a man of some means and your childhood home was in one of York’s most exclusive neighborhoods. I am sure there are others in London today who once shared that same neighborhood and who could say with frightening surety just who inhabited which house on each and every street.”
“And your pretending to be French helps us how?”
“A French émigré,” he corrected. “Andre Rousse who, with his family, once shared a glorious season in Bristol after escaping the dire goings-on in my poor papa’s native country. There happy chance led to our fateful meeting.” He paused in his recitation and fixed her with a brightly inquiring look. “Do you ever think our meeting was fateful, Lottie? I do. At any rate, our families met.
“I am sure you appreciate the brilliance of this fable, do you not? Should anyone find it odd you never mentioned me, well, one doesn’t mention one’s French affiliations these days unless absolutely necessary, does one?”
She had to concede his plan had merit. “I suppose that makes sense.”
“’Struth, you shall turn my head with such flattery.”
She almost smiled. She placed her chin in her hand and tipped her head. “But why are you
He popped another forkful of egg in his mouth. “I should think what I am doing here is self-evident. I have come to lend verisimilitude to my role of your protector.”
“That can be done quite well without your presence in my home at this ungodly hour.”
“I disagree. Oh, yes, we set a number of tongues wagging last night. But as far as the ton is concerned, you are simply compromised. Indeed, most of them are probably waiting for an announcement in the
Especially old St. Lyon, knowing who you are and, more importantly, who your brother-in-law is.
“I mean, really Lottie, what is more likely, your imminent engagement or your imminent entrance into the world of the demirep?
“Pleasant though the task would doubtless prove, I could spend
kissing you on every street corner and at every public venue in London before it finally became apparent that there was
going to be any announcement in the
and that you were
simply compromised but well and truly ruined. And then, and only then, would the cautious St. Lyon be drawn into your trap—by then your ruin coming far too late to be any use to me.” He smiled blandly. “I meant ‘us.’
“No. St. Lyon must be convinced, as you so properly pointed out last night, as swiftly and emphatically as possible.”
He took a sip of coffee. “And what more emphatic means of erasing any doubt as to your state than for me to take up residence here? Besides, no rumors are so swift or clarion as those spread by one’s own staff.”