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Authors: Anne Stuart

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BOOK: The Devil's Waltz
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She flounced out of the room, not even bothering to glance over her pretty little shoulder to see if Annelise was following her.

“She's a high-spirited filly,” Mr. Chipple said fondly, “but she's a good lass. I'm sure the two of you will be best friends in no time.”

“I'm sure you're right,” Annelise said faintly, and started after the obstreperous young creature.

Indeed, it was a shame she was too well bred to earn a living, Annelise thought as she slowly climbed the wide marble stairs. Hetty was waiting at the top of the flight, tapping her tiny foot impatiently, and Annelise had the fleeting notion that the little brat might try to shove her back down those stairs.

If she tried, she'd be going with her, she thought grimly. She reached the landing and gave the girl her
coolest smile. The chit came only to her shoulders—making Annelise feel like a hulking giant.

Hetty looked up at her with her wide blue eyes. “My, you are a big one, aren't you?”

Hetty's comment had the opposite effect from what she'd intended. At least the girl was smart enough to know where to twist the knife. Very few people knew she was self-conscious about her height, but Hetty had homed in on it immediately. She was going to be a worthy challenge.

“Quite large, in fact,” Annelise said briefly. “But I trust you have enough sense not to make personal remarks to strangers. I'm more than aware that you are none too happy with my arrival, and plan to demonstrate just that in any way you can. However, in polite society one does not comment on another's physical attributes. A general compliment usually suffices.”

Hetty stared at her. “I don't have to be polite to you. You're a mere hireling.”

“In fact, I am not. People of my station do not work for a living. I am merely helping out as a favor to my godmother. I consider you my charity work.”

Hetty blinked, and Annelise wisely moved farther from the treacherous marble staircase. “You dare…” Hetty sputtered.

“My dear child, I am the Honorable Miss Annelise Kempton, daughter of a baronet, granddaughter of an earl, with my family's name emblazoned in the Domes-day Book long before anyone in your family learned to read. I would suggest you consider carefully what
you
dare. I don't expect your father would be pleased to hear that you insulted your guest. He went to a great deal of trouble to arrange this visit.”

Hetty's lower lip trembled, and Annelise remembered that for all her arrogance, Hetty was just seventeen, and far less sure of herself than she appeared.

“Pax,” she said gently. “I only want to be of assistance, and I promise you I'm neither a governess nor an ogre. My task is to help you attract the right sort of attention, secure the marriage you deserve. Your fortune is astonishing, particularly considering you are your father's only heir, and of course it's unentailed. Beyond that, you know perfectly well that you are very pretty.”

Hetty was rousing herself to fight back. “I'm not pretty, I'm beautiful! One of the greatest beauties of all time, better than the Gunning sisters, better than—”

“You don't need to be more beautiful than the Gunning sisters—they had no money to lure a well-bred husband. With your face and your circumstances you should do very well indeed, once I've given you a little polish.”

“I don't need—”

“Even a rare diamond needs a bit of polish,” Annelise said firmly. “Now show me to my room and you can tell me about the young men you've met, who might be a good prospect. I don't need to ask who has fallen at your feet—I'm certain they all have. But you can afford to be very picky when it comes to a mate. He needn't have money, but your father would prefer a title, and he must be of good character.”

“I've already chosen,” Miss Hetty said firmly. “And no one is going to tell me I can't have him!”

That was what she'd heard them arguing about earlier, she thought. “Has the gentleman made known his intentions?”

“He doesn't need to. You said it yourself, every man in London is at my feet. I can choose whomever I please, and I choose him.”

“And who, exactly, is this paragon who has captured your heart?” she inquired, following her charge down the wide, unfortunately-papered hallway until they came to a bedroom door. Hetty flung it open with a dramatic gesture that was entirely wasted, since there was nothing dramatic about the large room she was being offered.

“He's a viscount,” Hetty said. “Or at least he will be once his uncle dies. And he doesn't have a penny, but he does very well at cards. Besides, I'll have enough money for the both of us.”

“True enough.”

“And he's absolutely beautiful. I deserve a beautiful husband, do I not?”

“There is no reason why you shouldn't have one,” Annelise replied, wondering how she was going to broach the possibility that extremely beautiful men were often not particularly interested in women.

“So I'll have him.”

“Who?”

“Christian Montcalm.”

And if Annelise had been the type to swoon, she
would be flat on the garish carpet at that very moment, dead to the world.

Fortunately Annelise had never swooned in her life, so she simply shut the door, leaned back against it to look at the defiant Miss Hetty and said, “No.”

2

“I
beg your pardon?” Miss Hetty said in a frosty voice that would have done Annelise justice.

“Christian Montcalm is out of the question. His reputation is notorious, and he is no sort of match for an innocent young girl like yourself,” she said. “I know he's a very handsome man—I've seen him. He's also a shallow, degenerate wastrel, a gambler, a seducer, a charlatan, and if even half the stories that are spread about him are true then you'd be better off dead than married to such a depraved monster.”

“Don't be ridiculous—he's not a monster at all. He's absolutely charming.”

“That's what's so dangerous about him,” Annelise said grimly. “His face and his charm lure people into trusting him. Much to their misfortune.”

“What in the world did he ever do to you?” Hetty demanded.

“Not a thing,” Annelise replied truthfully. “We have never been formally introduced, and I hope never to be. He's a man who doesn't belong in the kind of circles
your father aspires to. I'm astonished he would even countenance such a match…”

“Oh, he says I can't have him,” Hetty said airily, tossing herself onto the damask-covered bed with a total lack of decorum. “But I know my father. I'm his only child—of course he'll want me to be happy, as long as I manage to secure someone with a title. If I want to marry Christian Montcalm then I shall. After all, I'd be a viscountess—not quite as nice as a duchess but all the dukes I've met have been old and ugly. Besides, I expect all Christian needs is the love of a good woman.”

Annelise laughed. “I'm afraid Mr. Montcalm has availed himself of the love of a great many good women, leaving them the worse for it. You'll find someone else just as charming and far less dangerous.”

The moment the word was out of her mouth she could have bit her tongue.
Dangerous.
What impressionable, romantic, headstrong young girl wouldn't be fascinated by a dangerous man? Annelise had never been that young or that stupid, but Hetty Chipple was ripe for trouble, and clearly she was not going to be listening to common sense for the time being.

She would just have to make certain Hetty wasn't in Montcalm's company until she came up with a suitable alternative to distract her. Girls Hetty's age fell in and out of love quite easily. London society was certain to be able to produce at least one attractive contender to distract her from Montcalm's dubious charms.

A demure expression crossed Hetty's lovely face. “I suppose you're right,” she said with a soulful sigh that
Annelise didn't believe for a moment. “I'll just leave you to get settled in, shall I? I need a bit of a rest myself—have to be beautiful for tonight.”

“Tonight?”

“We're going to Lady Bellwhite's. I'm sure you'll enjoy it.”

“I've always enjoyed her gardens,” said Annelise, remembering the opportunities for mischief that ran rampant in the place. “I'm certain I'll appreciate it even more with your company.”

Hetty almost made a face but she stopped herself in time, clearly remembering that she was trying another tack with her unwanted friend. “I shall, as well,” she said sweetly.

Annelise waited until the door closed behind her to sit down on the now-rumpled bed. It was a good, solid mattress—at least there were some advantages that money could buy. She pulled off her bonnet and set it down beside her, catching a glimpse of her reflection in the mirror.

Having spent the better part of an hour staring at the perfection of Hetty Chipple, the vision was even more disheartening.

She glanced down at her feet. It was really unfair that she be cursed with big feet, particularly when compared to Hetty's tiny ones. Of course, her feet were in proportion to her ridiculously long legs, but even so, fate could have been kind enough to make at least something out of proportion.

But fate had been busy elsewhere. She had long legs,
long arms, a long neck and a long face. She knew her physical attributes far too well—she had fine gray eyes, but they were usually covered by her spectacles. Her hair was an indeterminate shade—a mixture of brown, blond and red hues, and the only thing she could do was pin it tightly to the base of her neck and hope no one would notice its odd color. At one point she'd tried to wear lace caps to further disguise it, which also had the benefit of proclaiming her old-maid status, but the caps tended to flap in her face and itch, or catch on the rims of her spectacles, and she'd given them up regretfully.

The cut of the dress was suitably shapeless, disguising her small waist as well as her large chest. Indeed, she wouldn't attract attention from anyone, which was just as she wanted it…Unlike Hetty Chipple, who would draw trouble to her like a magnet.

On impulse Annelise stood up and went to the window, looking across at the rambling downs of Green Park. In time to see Miss Chipple, totally without chaperon, disappear into the shrubbery.

Annelise didn't waste time with her hat. She raced out the door, grabbed the first maid she saw and tore down the steep marble stairs and into the street, dragging the poor girl behind her. Fortunately Josiah Chipple was nowhere to be seen. While Annelise was there as a favor to the shipping magnate, she still had a strong sense of responsibility, and letting a young girl run through a park unchaperoned was not going to happen while she was a member of the household.

It was a cool day, and there were doubtless strange
looks being cast their way, but Annelise was too determined to catch Hetty before she caused a complete scandal to even notice. She plunged into the bushes where she'd last seen Hetty, dragging the hapless maid with her.

She could see Hetty up ahead, alone, seemingly waiting for someone in the shelter of one of the overgrown bushes. There was no doubt who she was waiting for, and no doubt that Annelise would have to move fast.

She sped up, just as Hetty started to step through a narrow break in the hedge, and caught her by the back of her gown, hauling her backward.

Hetty was too astonished to let out more than a little squeak, but when she saw who'd grabbed her, her bright blue eyes filled with a murderous rage.

“You!” she said, her voice rich with bile. “Leave me alone.”

There was one advantage to being almost a foot taller than Hetty—they were no even match. Annelise turned her around and shoved her at the maid. “Get back to the house, now!” she said. “And perhaps I won't tell your father that you're out to ruin all his careful plans.”

Hetty opened her mouth to protest, then shut it again. So there was something that still had power over Hetty. “I'll never forgive you for this!” she hissed, and then flounced off, the maid rushing to keep up with her.

Annelise stood there in the chilly air, watching the pair of them, and she sighed. Challenges were all well and good, but her godmother had failed to tell her what a handful the girl was going to be. She might have to go to Mr. Chipple with her concerns, but not before she
tried to talk Hetty out of her infatuation. Chipple might not know of the depth of Montcalm's depravity—he wouldn't have traveled in circles where Montcalm's unsavory reputation was bandied about, but Annelise had heard more than enough tales of the absolute perfidy—

“I take it that's Miss Chipple being dragged away?” a voice, rich with amusement, sounded in her ear. It was a warm voice, the same voice she'd heard earlier at the Chipples', but Annelise froze. She considered her options. She could ignore the voice, follow the two women and never look back. Or she could turn and face the cause of all this trouble and put him in his place.

She had never been a coward and she wasn't about to start now. Even though some small, sneaking part of her felt like someone turning to face a Gorgon, she knew perfectly well she wasn't going to be turned to stone, or a pillar of salt, or anything at all. But when she turned, she felt herself stiffen like one of Chipple's marble statues.

She had never been so close to him before. Her previous acquaintance, such as it was, had been across crowded ballroom floors, where she'd heard whispers about the women he danced with, the women he flirted with. She was well out of her league with someone like Christian Montcalm, and he would have been totally unaware of her existence—just another awkward wallflower. She had watched him, fascinated, and told herself “pretty is as pretty does” with a deprecating sniff.

But, oh my heavens, he was pretty! His dark hair was long, tied back simply, but one lock fell forward to caress his high cheekbone. She'd always had a
weakness for well-defined cheekbones. His faintly tilted eyes were a deep, fascinating green—she'd never been close enough to see them before, but they held a hint of laughter that was undeniably appealing. And his mouth, his lips…It was no wonder he seduced every woman he met, talking them into doing unspeakable things. His rich, full mouth alone could seduce a nun.

And he was taller than she was. She'd expected he probably would be, since he towered over most of his dance partners, but that his height made her feel suddenly delicate was simply one more unfortunate circumstance. The man was well-nigh irresistible, particularly as he looked at her steadily out of those laughing eyes.

But Annelise was made of sterner stuff than that. She swallowed, then found her voice, grateful that it came out calm and cool. “That was Miss Chipple,” she said. “And she had no business being out here meeting a gentleman without a chaperon. Though no gentleman would have ever agreed to such a meeting in the first place.”

He appeared unruffled. “And what business is that of yours? Hetty didn't mention she had an ogre spying on her every move. I would have been more discreet.”

“I doubt you know what discretion is,” she said. “—and I'm a friend of the family, keeping her company while she makes her debut.”

“No, you're not,” he said, tilting his head to survey her more closely. “The Chipples know very few members of society as yet, and you're clearly not of their world. You're not a governess—you're not meek
enough. If I guess right, you're a woman of breeding who's fallen on hard times. So exactly who are you?”

A number of retorts came to her, most of them originating from the stable. She had learned a very colorful vocabulary of curses from her father's stable lads, but she tried to keep them to herself. It was a cold spring day, but he was radiating heat, and those exotic eyes of his were very…disturbing.

“I'm someone who is going to make your designs on Miss Chipple impossible to carry out,” she said. “So cast your lures elsewhere.”

He laughed. Like everything about him, his laugh was enticing. “That sounds like a challenge. And a gentleman never resists a challenge.”

“But I thought we'd already ascertained that you're no gentleman.”

He didn't even blink after so heinous an insult. “I'd kill a man for saying that,” he said mildly.

“Then it's fortunate for me that you have some standards, despite all rumors to the contrary. Goodbye, Mr. Montcalm.”

Another figure stumbled through the bushes, this time a shorter, slender man, with his hair askew and a faintly bleary expression on his face that signaled either dim wit or too much wine at such an early hour. Annelise didn't care to find out.

“Who's this Long Meg, Christian?” the man demanded. “And where's the pretty little chit? I was going to keep watch for you but demme, I think I'd prefer to go inside and get something to warm me up.”

“Go right ahead, Crosby,” Montcalm murmured without moving his gaze from Annelise's. “I still have some business to conduct.”

“Not with her, old man!” Crosby protested. “The woman's a dragon. And a bit long in the tooth. Not your type at all.”

“I'm open to all possibilities,” Montcalm murmured in a silken voice. “She's not that old, and if I can get her to remove those spectacles she might be quite entertaining.”

“There'll be no getting beneath her skirts, old man. I know the type—too starched to even bend at the waist.”

Annelise had had enough. Bravery was all very well and good but standing so close to Christian Montcalm and listening to his friend insult her was more than she cared to endure.

“Good day, gentlemen,” she said, letting a lingering, ironic emphasis on the word
gentlemen
make her point. It sailed straight past Crosby, but Montcalm simply laughed that dangerously seductive laugh.

“You may be sure we'll meet again, dragon,” he said, and for some reason the term sounded more affectionate than insulting. No wonder the man was so dangerous—even she was not totally impervious to his wicked charm.

“I doubt it.” She wheeled around and took off, back stiff, shoulders straight, as dignified as she could manage, being outside without a coat or a hat. She wouldn't look back—they were probably laughing at her—and she wouldn't run. Though it would take forever, she would walk back up the hill to the street and across to
the Chipple mansion; she would not let him see that for the first time in what seemed like years, she was unaccountably close to tears.

“Bastard,” she muttered under her breath, liking the sound of the curse. “Goddamned rutting bastard.” Even better. Now she was feeling better. The tears had vanished, the house was in sight, and the next time they met she'd be better prepared.

BOOK: The Devil's Waltz
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