A thin plume of smoke wafted through the drapes that screened the terrace doors. “I do not think it was a good idea. That one will not take well to being fooled.”
“I don’t think it’s a good idea for you to smoke, Lucia,” she replied testily. “It’s not good for your voice. I must see to Susan. Shall you come with me?”
“No, I think not.” She blew more smoke. Charlotte waved one hand in protest, starting toward the door. “He is not as you told me he would be,” Lucia said just as Charlotte put her hand on the knob. “I hope you do not underestimate him.”
Charlotte paused. Stuart Drake was more dashing than she had expected, it was true; there was a feeling of pent-up energy and recklessness that made his charming smile and manner all the more tantalizing. What really lay beneath the gentlemanly veneer? It was a veneer, Charlotte was sure. She had known more devils in angels’ garb than she could count, and Stuart Drake’s halo radiated falseness. The way he had rolled on top of her, simultaneously exciting and alarming ... Some women—and some girls—might find that attractive, but Charlotte knew better.
“No, he is just like every other man,” she said, only adding very quietly, almost to herself, “fortunately.”
She walked down the hall to the large drawing room where the rest of the guests were, summoning a gracious smile for her hostess. Lady Kildair beamed in reply; Charlotte knew it was craven delight at getting someone as scandalous as Charlotte and someone as rich as Susan in her drawing room. Those qualities tended to bring out the eligible gentlemen, something Lady Kildair would sell her left arm to do with three unmarried daughters of her own in the house.
Charlotte paused in the doorway, searching openly for Susan and covertly for Mr. Drake. She found him first; odd, since he was almost completely behind another gentlemen. He looked younger than she had first thought, but undeniably handsome, with dark hair and eyes and a tall, athletic body that even now sent a strange shiver up her spine.
Because the man would have assaulted you on a library sofa,
she reminded herself, just as he glanced over his companion’s shoulder and met her gaze.
She didn’t move, just stood there, without a smile or a sniff or a melodramatic toss of her head. No sign that she feared him, just that she saw him. His gaze was dark, displeased but not defiant. Neither looked away, until the air between them seemed to sizzle with the ferocity of feeling on both ends.
“Aunt Charlotte?” She turned away immediately. Susan was beside her, plucking at the fringe of her shawl.
“Yes, dear?” She smiled at her niece. “Are you enjoying the ball? I went out to get a breath of air.”
“Yes, I noticed you were gone.” Susan looked a touch guilty, as she should, having sneaked off to meet a scoundrel. “Did Lucia leave?”
Charlotte laughed. “No, heavens, she’s trying to assassinate Lady Kildair’s garden with those cigarettes.”
Susan wrinkled her nose. “They are quite vile.” A giggle burst out of her, and she stifled it with a nervous glance. “I’m sorry, that was rude.”
“Well, the truth often is.” Charlotte tucked her hand around Susan’s arm. “Come, shall we have some champagne?”
“Really? May I?” Her niece brightened. “Papa never let me have champagne except on very special occasions.”
Charlotte felt tonight qualified as such. “Let’s treat ourselves, shall we?” Susan nodded eagerly, and they headed for the refreshments.
Charlotte, fond aunt that she was, thought Susan quite pretty. She had hair the color of ripe wheat, without any of the curl that plagued Charlotte’s own hair, and clear blue eyes. But Charlotte was also objective enough to realize that Susan wasn’t, and probably never would be, considered beautiful, at least by the world in general. Still, she was determined to see Susan wed to someone who cared for her happiness, as well as for his own.
It wasn’t until they were sipping their champagne, watching the floor clear for dancing, that Susan brought up the topic Charlotte knew had been on her mind all evening. She knew not only from the bits of conversation she had overheard earlier, but from all the clumsy intimations Susan had made over the last few days about a wonderful gentleman she’d met, and wouldn’t Charlotte be so happy for her when she married? In many ways Susan was still a stranger to her, but in this she had been completely transparent.
“Aunt Charlotte, you always said I could speak to you about anything,” Susan began, her voice a little higher pitched than usual. “There—there is something I would like to tell you.”
“Of course, dear, what is it?” Charlotte saw him approaching from the corner of her eye. Oh dear, he wouldn’t go quietly. Susan gulped some more champagne, her eyes flitting toward him on every other word.
“I’m not a child anymore,” she said in a rush. “I am almost eighteen, old enough to know my own heart, and I have met the man I intend to marry.”
Susan looked momentarily surprised by her meek reply. “Please don’t stand in my way. I love him and I want to marry him. Papa wanted me to be happy, and Mr. Drake will make me happy.”
“Susan, I don’t think this is the proper time or place,” said Charlotte gently. Why couldn’t the wretched man simply leave? Susan would be hurt, but at least it would spare them all a public scene. A confrontation in Lady Kildair’s ballroom would only humiliate Susan as well as break her heart.
“Please meet him, Aunt Charlotte.” Susan faced her with wide, intent eyes, her spine straight and her hands clenched. “Please listen to his suit.”
Charlotte hid her sinking heart behind a serene face. “If you wish, dear.” And then he was before her again, just as tall, just as devastating, just as wicked as before. Charlotte looked up, somewhat unsettled by the realization that he seemed even bigger and darker here than in the library. She had thought it all a trick of the light.
“May I present Mr. Stuart Drake,” Susan was saying. “Mr. Drake, my aunt, the Contessa de Griffolino.”
“Good evening.” Charlotte inclined her head, and he bowed.
“Drake, I’ve told my aunt of how much we’ve come to care for each other,” said Susan, becoming more nervous. “And that we wish to marry.”
The man smiled at her, so warmly Charlotte could almost believe he meant it. “Indeed, you’ve stolen my best line.”
Susan giggled, looking very, very young and vulnerable next to him. Charlotte’s resolve firmed; over her dead body would this scoundrel marry her innocent niece. She adopted the cool, remote smile any Italian would recognize as a rebuff, wanting to tear a strip off his hide after all, scandal be damned.
“Perhaps you would honor me with a dance,” Mr. Drake said, holding out his hand. “That I might argue my fitness for the honor of your niece’s hand.”
Charlotte looked at his hand, then at his face. The charming smile was still in place, but it didn’t reach his eyes. She wasn’t sure she wanted to put herself in his grasp again. Susan waited by his side, hands clasped in supplication. “Perhaps you would prefer to call,” Charlotte said. “We will be at home tomorrow.”
Susan caught her breath and turned anxiously to Mr. Drake, but his eyes never wavered from Charlotte’s.
“No, I would prefer to dance. In truth, I cannot wait until tomorrow. I would have my answer as soon as possible.”
“Please, Aunt Charlotte?”
Charlotte hated him even more for the hope in Susan’s voice.
You have already had your answer
, she promised him silently. Giving in, she handed her glass to Susan. “If you wish. Susan, will you wait for me?”
“Oh, yes!” Her niece beamed at both of them as Charlotte took his hand. Instantly his fingers closed over hers in a firm grip, and he led her to the center of the floor where couples were just gathering for the next dance.
“You are wasting your time.” She adjusted her shawl to a more secure position and waited for the dance to start. He said nothing, but caught her hand and pulled her close, right into his arms. Charlotte barely managed to restrain her gasp. “What—?”
“The next dance will be a waltz,” he said, refusing to let her back away. Around them, she saw other people eyeing them in surprise. The musicians hadn’t started yet, and the waltz was still rare in the country. Very rare.
“It will not. This is Kent, not London.” His arm was like iron around her. She pushed as inconspicuously as she could, with no effect. Everyone was staring at them still, and even though it made her wildly uneasy to be this close to him, she didn’t want to cause a scene by struggling with him on the dance floor. She settled for pinching the inside of his thumb.
His smile was wolfish, and he simply squeezed her hand until she had to relent. “And Lady Kildair has just learned no hostess in London does not include at least one waltz. I gather our hostess doesn’t wish to be countrified, even if she lives in the country.”
“Persuading Lady Kildair to play a waltz does not improve your standing with me.” The musicians were, in fact, beginning a waltz. She hadn’t danced it in over a year, but soon found it hardly mattered. He was a dominant partner, leading her through the steps with a forceful control Charlotte disliked. Even allowing for the fact that they were moving completely as one, she hated being steered along almost without any effort or will on her part. “You needn’t turn so hard,” she snapped. “I know the steps.”
He quirked an eyebrow. “My apologies. Perhaps you would like to lead as well?”
“Mr. Drake,” she said coldly, “I did not wish to dance at all. You have already had your answer to your suit. Leading Susan on in this manner will only make it harder on her when you leave.”
“You’re very sure I’m going to turn tail and run at the first black look from you.”
Charlotte was surprised into a short laugh. “Black look? Goodness, I thought it was so much more! Have I mistaken the matter? Are you in love with Susan after all?”
“No. I have never professed such a thing, not even to her.” He was still smiling, the wretch. “Not everyone willfully misrepresents themselves.”
“I did nothing of the sort. You assumed a great deal.” Something changed in his face, slight but significant, and Charlotte felt suddenly even less in control. Her hand was still tight in his, his arm was around her waist, and he was moving her around the ballroom so effortlessly Charlotte was sure they would continue waltzing even if she stopped participating altogether.
“I assumed what a normal man would assume. Surely you know that. Or perhaps you’ve never seduced a man before?”
“I didn’t seduce you,” she hissed, trying to wriggle her hand free. He refused to let go, and that unsettling light in his eyes burned brighter.
“Then you should learn not to tease a man. He might get the wrong idea.”
“Oh, of course!” She pulled a face. “I might have known you would fail to comprehend what any sensible person would see at once. Let me make it clear, then: you shall never, under any circumstances, marry Susan. I hold fortune hunters in the lowest possible esteem. I will not change my mind.”
“Every woman changes her mind, even, I daresay, withered old witches.”
Charlotte jerked, but his grip tightened again. “You understand nothing of women if you think that.”
He laughed under his breath. “I know a great deal about women.”
“All men think that. Fools, every one.”
“A fool for a woman? Why, yes, I believe most people would agree with that. I’ve been a fool for more than one woman, after all. I just can’t help myself; I like them too much.”
“Particularly those of good fortune.”
Another wicked smile gleamed down at her. He was devilishly handsome with that smile. “Of course. Often it is a woman’s finest attribute.”
Charlotte gave him a condescending smile of her own. “Naturally. When that’s all you want in a woman, it would of course be most important.”
“Ah, but think of all it can atone for: a sour disposition, a shrewish temper, or looks fading with age.” His hand shifted, as if he were testing her figure, and he cast an appraising glance downward. Charlotte went rigid.
“Release me at once,” she said between clenched teeth.
“You,” he said, his voice dangerously soft and calm, “are a hypocrite. You flaunt yourself to show how depraved
am, yet freeze up like an outraged virgin when someone else plays that same game. And yet, you’re nothing like a virgin, are you?” Charlotte gasped in shock. He lowered his head to murmur the rest in her ear. “Don’t think I consider this contest over. It’s only begun.”
Without regard for the social consequences, Charlotte drove the heel of her shoe into his toes, and whipped out of his grasp as he choked on a curse. The musicians were still playing, and although there were other couples on the floor, most of the guests were watching. In full view of eighty members of the best society Kent had to offer, Charlotte turned her back and walked away from a furiously angry Stuart Drake.
They left the ball almost immediately. Susan was shocked speechless. The other guests had whispered in glee at the delicious scene unfolding before their eyes; it was Kent, after all, and there was precious little in the way of gossip. Aware of every glance of bewildered longing Susan cast at Stuart Drake, Charlotte wasted no time in marching her niece from the ballroom, feeling his eyes on her all the while. Lady Kildair came scurrying out to bid them farewell, blatantly prying for information. Charlotte put their hostess off, promising to call the next day and hoping she would have a story by then that would avert a scandal. Thankfully their carriage arrived quickly, and they even made it home before the argument started.
The instant they reached home, however, it quickly became a screaming row. “How could you do that to me? To him?” Susan cried. “You humiliated both of us!”
“Susan, dearest,” said Charlotte, “he’s not a respectable sort of man. You’ll understand when you’re older.”
“Oh, oh!” Susan waved her hands. Her face was blotchy pink, her voice high and shrill. “When I’m older! Because I’m so naïve now? I must be, if I don’t see how
can be rude to anyone you choose and yet expect me to follow every silly rule about the color of my dress and the number of times I may dance with a gentleman!”
“He was insulting,” Charlotte said evenly. “And rude.”
“He wouldn’t be!” Susan gulped back a sob, and pressed one hand to her stomach. “He’s charming and polite to everyone, not just to me, and you must have said something to make him rude, if he was rude at all!”
“Do you think I’m lying?” Charlotte was indignant. “He’s a rake. A rogue. He’s not decent enough for you.”
“He is, he is,” wailed Susan, the very picture of misery. “I love him!”
“Susan, I only want—”
“I know what you want! You only want to ruin my happiness, so I’ll end up as miserable as you are!”
Susan was hysterical, but it still stung. Charlotte lifted her chin and repressed a cutting reply.
“I won’t, you know! I’m not going to wind up alone and bitter, too. I’m going to marry someone who will know how to be happy and have fun and enjoy life!”
“And I want to make certain you
be happy. He’s a fortune hunter. What do you think life will hold for you, when he’s spent your inheritance and you’re both destitute?”
“You’re just jealous!” Susan lashed out, tears quivering in her eyes. “He’s handsome and charming and you’re jealous because he’s not paying attention to you! Does it hurt you so much that he might want to marry me instead? Why do you think the worst of every man who isn’t cow-eyed at you?”
“Now, Susan,” Charlotte began.
“I don’t care, I don’t care! I won’t give him up, just because you don’t like him. I love him and if you won’t give him your consent, we’ll wait until we don’t need it!”
And pigs will fly
, thought Charlotte. “If he waits three years to marry you, and his devotion never wavers, I’ll withdraw my every complaint. But he won’t wait,” she said harshly, as disbelieving joy radiated from Susan. “He’ll be gone before the end of the week, no doubt, now that he knows he won’t be marrying an heiress any time soon.”
“He does not want my money!” Susan looked appalled. “Just because you married for money doesn’t mean everyone else does!”
Charlotte felt the blow very keenly, but she tried to hide it. Susan was not responsible for what she said in the heat of anger. “I think you should go to bed, and we can discuss this in the morning.”
Susan’s face crumpled. Charlotte, still battling her own temper, crossed her arms. “I’m sorry if I hurt you, but it’s best that you face the truth about him.” Susan covered her face with her hands, and her shoulders heaved. Charlotte felt a wave of sympathy, and laid a hand on her shoulder. “There, now, it will all end well,” she said gently, but Susan shook her off.
“It will all end well for you, maybe,” she choked. “Your life is over, so you’ve gone and ruined mine!”
“Oh, really!” Charlotte snapped. “That’s quite enough.”
“I hate you,” sobbed Susan. “And I will never speak to you again!”
She didn’t wait for a reply, but turned and ran from the room, leaving Charlotte to stare after her in mingled frustration and worry. What was wrong with the child? Susan was ignoring what anyone of sense could see. Stuart Drake was a fortune hunter; he had as good as admitted it. He didn’t love Susan, only her money, and yet Susan clung to her irrational belief that he could make her happy.
... Charlotte sank into a chair, her anger melting away. How could she make Susan see reason before the scoundrel broke her heart?
She could tell Susan her beloved Mr. Drake had attempted to seduce her aunt. But he, no doubt, would manage to turn the tale to his own advantage and have Susan believe the worst of Charlotte instead. He had obviously taken the poor girl in quite thoroughly, and Charlotte sensed her best course was to say nothing more of him. Perhaps if Susan met a more suitable gentleman? Charlotte still shied away from London, but they might go to Bath, or to Brighton ...
No. That would never do. God alone knew how determinedly he would pursue Susan and her inheritance, and Susan would focus all her resentment on Charlotte for taking her away from the man she foolishly loved. Charlotte would do anything to protect her niece, but she couldn’t bear to have Susan hate her forever.
The front door opened, then closed, and a moment later Lucia came in, smelling of roses and Turkish tobacco. “What a night,” she said breezily, settling into one of the large overstuffed chairs and kicking off her shoes. “Goodness, these parties are so dull, but the people here, they do have their charm.”
Charlotte smiled half-heartedly. Lucia, who had once been one of the brightest stars in Milan, renowned for her clear, light soprano, had become something of a minor celebrity in their short time in town, even though she could no longer sing in the manner that had made her famous all over Europe. Now that the war with Napoleon was over, there was a great demand in England for all things continental, even fading opera singers who had lost half their range.
“But you! You,
what a scene you left!” Lucia fished one of her small cigarettes from her bag. “I have yet to see such excitement in the English as you caused.”
Charlotte rose with a swish of silk, pacing from the windows to the fireplace. “Susan says she will never speak to me again.”
“Bah.” Lucia lit her cigarette from a nearby candle, inhaling deeply. “Let her pout. It is good for a woman to know how to pout. Now it will not help her, but later, with a man ...” Lucia nodded, gesturing with her cigarette. “So. What did he say?”
Charlotte frowned, and handed Lucia an ashtray. “Your voice will never recover as long as you smoke those.”
Lucia blew a thin stream of smoke. “I haven’t lost my voice, only my muse. When I find him, my voice will return.”
Charlotte let it go. Lucia had always done just as she pleased, when she pleased. It was hardly Charlotte’s place to badger her about either her voice or her belief that sexual satisfaction would bring it back. “He made no attempt to deny he’s after Susan’s money. He said a large fortune was often a woman’s best asset.”
“And a man’s, as well,” interjected Lucia with another nod. “One can hardly fault him for speaking truth. What else?”
Charlotte stopped at the window and pulled back the drape. “I told him I would never consent to the marriage, and he made the most insulting remarks about my fitness as Susan’s guardian.”
“Ahhh,” said Lucia with increased interest. “What did he say?”
“He called me a hypocrite, and said I was no virgin.”
“Well, this is true, is it not?” Charlotte glared at her. Lucia shrugged. “What man has any use for a virgin, anyway?”
Charlotte snorted. “Englishmen do. So long as they’ve money, at least.” Then she sighed. “Perhaps I am a hypocrite—I did marry Piero for his money, in part—but I’ve learned from my mistakes. I’m just trying to keep Susan from making those same mistakes.”
“You married Piero for his protection. And his money, of course, but think why he married you. Let us not even pretend he was man enough for a woman who could have been his granddaughter. He wanted a beautiful woman on his arm, and he got one. What would this Stuart Drake give Susan, besides his lovely self?”
“His grandfather is a viscount,” muttered Charlotte, staring blindly out the window. Stripped to the bone like that, it didn’t sound like a bad match: the handsome heir to a respectable title would be a fine catch for a girl whose father had been merely a gentleman. Only the details revealed the ugly truth.
“So she would be a lady someday, and he would be rich now. What other sound reason do people have to marry?” Lucia took a long drag on her cigarette, waxing enthusiastic. “Such a pity it is the English feel compelled to marry to enjoy each other. It is much better to leave marriage out of the picture. Why tie yourself to one man when there are so many in the world?”
“Naturally I won’t tell Susan your opinion,” said Charlotte dryly. “She sees only one man right now.”
Lucia laughed. It was the one time the glory of her lost voice shone through, and always made Charlotte a little bit sorry for introducing Lucia to the Turkish prince who had in turn introduced her to his tiny, addictive cigarettes. What a waste, for Lucia to smoke herself hoarse. “Well,” said Lucia with a meaningful glance, “at least he is a delight for the eyes to see.”
Charlotte refused to discuss that. No matter what Lucia thought, Stuart Drake was dangerous; Susan was an innocent, naïve girl with romantic dreams of love, not a worldly woman who knew what men were really like. “Her infatuation wouldn’t last a week if they were separated.”
“What love affair would?” Lucia sat up, her face brightening. “If you do not wish to seduce him, perhaps I shall. Do you think that would help? I offer for Susan’s sake, of course.”
“No!” Charlotte didn’t want to think about his hot mouth on Lucia’s throat, his long fingers caressing Lucia’s body. She stirred uncomfortably at the memory of his mouth on her throat, and his hands on her body. Then she forced herself to remember he had almost made love to her minutes after assuring Susan of his desire to marry her. Stuart Drake did not deserve to be seduced, he deserved to be shot.
“No, Lucia, I don’t think that would help. Besides, he’s too old for you.”
“Oh? How old is—?”
“Older than I am,” said Charlotte sharply. She was reasonably sure that was true, from his expression when she told him Susan considered thirty to be the brink of death. Lucia sat back, mildly disappointed, and Charlotte began pacing again, thinking furiously. Contrary to what Susan thought, Charlotte
remember what it was like to be seventeen and in love. Of course she also knew a great deal more about the world, and men, now, and couldn’t possibly allow Susan to throw her heart away on a mercenary cad like Stuart Drake. She knew all too well the heartache and ruin that followed.
But she also knew Susan would resent any interference, particularly from her. Mr. Drake needed to go, and preferably on his own. If only some outside force would act on him and let him know he was no longer welcome in Tunbridge Wells. Surely there were others in town who would appreciate Charlotte’s reasons for wanting rid of him, someone who could take actions Charlotte didn’t dare try herself, for Susan’s sake.
And then Charlotte stopped pacing, with a faint breath of relief. “No matter, Lucia; I have an excellent plan to deal with the charming Mr. Drake.”
Stuart’s morning was turning out to be almost as wretched as his previous evening had been. First, it was rent day, and his landlord had proven distressingly prompt in asking for his money; today, he required it before breakfast. Stuart counted it out with a pained sigh, trying not to think how depleted his funds were becoming. He had expected to have a wealthy bride, or at least a wealthy fiancée, by now, which would be enough to get credit from the suspicious merchant populace of Tunbridge Wells. If word got out that he was even further from solvency than he had been yesterday, they might start requiring payment in advance.
Second, the post brought another letter from his mother. Even though Stuart loved his mother dearly, he dreaded her letters. She never wrote a word of reproach, which only deepened his guilt at being such a disappointment to her. He had long since realized it was impossible to please his father, and had given up trying, but that had hurt his mother. Stuart no longer worried about his father’s good opinion, but he did regret losing his mother’s. He read her letter quickly, allowed himself a pang of remorse at leaving London for the two months a year she lived there, and then put the letter and its guilt aside.
Third, he discovered his fascination with Charlotte Griffolino hadn’t died the sudden death it should have after she publicly cut him during the waltz. He had spent the rest of the evening thinking about her, mostly how he would like to paddle some manners into her perfectly rounded bottom. He had tried not to think too much about other perfectly rounded parts of her, with limited success, but the moment he saw her while out on his morning ride, that battle was lost.