Authors: Anne Stuart
But she was going to make every effort to ensure that there was not going to be a next time.
“Who the hell was that?” Crosby demanded. “You told me you were meeting the heiress.”
Christian Montcalm turned to look down at his slightly inebriated friend. Crosby had never been the most reliable of his cronies, but then, Christian didn't tend to consort with reliable people. “The dragon got in the way. Don't worryâthere'll be other chances.”
“You're the one who should be worried. If you don't come up with some money soon you'll be in the river tick.”
“Nonsense.” He shoved the loose strand of hair away from his face. “There'll be cards tonight, and I can make more than enough to tide me over until the engagement can be announced.”
“But you can't always count on the cards, old man. They don't always fall your way.”
Christian smiled. He wasn't about to point out to Crosby that not only was he absurdly lucky when it came to cards, he was also skilled and unscrupulous enough to do something about it if the cards misbe
haved. “I don't expect to have any problem.” He turned his gaze back to the tall figure of the woman marching away from them. She was almost out of sight, which was a pity. She was really quite divertingâmore interesting than the tiresome beauty was. His conversation with Miss Chipple, when he wasn't stopping her mouth with temptingly chaste kisses, consisted of an unending line of compliments. For such a beauty she demanded constant reminders that she was, indeed, unmatchable. It was very tedious.
The dragon was far more interesting. True, she was no young maiden, but he'd had mistresses far older than she and enjoyed them tremendously. She couldn't be much more than thirty, making her younger than he was, a thought that amused him. She spoke to him like a maiden aunt, scolding a naughty boy.
Ah, but he was a naughty boy. And he had every intention of becoming a great deal naughtier. And the dragon was just the sort of woman he could make mischief with.
He wouldn't, of course. He was a pragmatic man, and he'd set his sights quite clearly on Miss Hetty Chipple, the underbred, over-rich, delectable morsel who'd just been snatched from him. Marriage to a compliant young heiress was just the thing to smooth his way for the time being, and even if Hetty seemed to have a mind of her own he had little doubt that he could control her. He had enough tricks up his sleeve to keep her docile and well behavedâsex always had the most interesting effect on virgins, and there were any number of ways he could
manage to throw her off balance. And it would be most pleasant, given that trim little body of hers.
Then, when she grew tiresome, as they always did, he could further his acquaintance with the dragon, which he suspected would be far more interesting and a much greater challenge.
How would she look without her spectacles? How would she look without her clothes? She would have long legs to wrap around him, and he was connoisseur enough to see that despite her general skinniness she had a decent bosom. Yes, she'd strip quite nicely.
As soon as he could talk her into it.
But first things first. “We'll go play cards, Crosby,” he said pleasantly. “And then perhaps I'll decide to attend Lady Bellwhite's soiree so I can further my suit.”
“With the heiress? Or the dragon?”
Christian glanced down at him. Crosby was never the brightest of men, but every now and then he was surprisingly astute. Or perhaps Christian had been too transparent. No, that was impossible. He'd spent years perfecting his charming, impassive facade.
“How well do you know me, Crosby?”
“Then you know I am, in all things, a practical man. Miss Chipple will become the future Viscountess Montcalm, and if the dragon gets tumbled somewhere along the way, then so much the better.”
“You're an inspiration,” Crosby said fervently.
“Indeed,” Montcalm murmured as the dragon disappeared from sight. “I know.”
he last thing Annelise was in the mood for was a formal soiree at Lady Bellwhite's, particularly after her unpleasant encounter in the park. Hetty was nowhere to be seen when Annelise returned to the house, and even the maid had disappeared. At that point she didn't know which room belonged to her young charge, and she had no intention of asking. She'd been busy enough for one morning. Presumably Hetty had locked herself in her room, sulking. If she'd managed to slip out the back way and go off chasing after Montcalm again, so be it. For the time being she was on her own.
Lady Prentice had been less enthusiastic about this little visit than she had the previous ones. “I don't like sending you to someone who smells of the shop,” she'd said archly, “but Mr. Chipple has so much money it could sweeten even the rankest odor. He seems a pleasant enough man, and while his daughter is undoubtedly pert and ill mannered, I have every confidence that you can help marry her off to someone suitable, thereby putting yourself in Mr. Chipple's
debt. He's known to be a generous man when someone does him a boon, and if you're able to turn his daughter into a titled young lady he might be persuaded to secure a small income for you. It would mean nothing to a man like him, and while living in London would be ruinously expensive, you've always said you prefer the countryside, and his generosity might even run to a small cottage on one of his holdings.” She shook her head briskly. “Heaven knows, I'd love to have you here with me, but I can barely scrape by with the little portion I have left. These men of ours, dear Annelise. Gambling ruinously, leaving their women bereft of both a man's protection and the security of a comfortable income. Your father should have been horsewhipped.”
“I imagine he was, on occasion,” Annelise had replied, not bothering to rise to her father's defense. She had loved him dearly, but there was nothing she could say that would make his misbehavior acceptable. Particularly when it ended in his death. “And I won't count on anything until it happens. I may not be able to assist Mr. Chipple in his paternal endeavors.”
“Oh, I am certain you can. I have no idea what happened to the girl's mother, but apparently there's been no sensible female presence in her life for many years. You can fill that gap, explain to her the little details of society that are so terribly important, and who knows, you might end up getting Chipple to marry you. I could wish better for you, but the money covers a lot of drawbacks.”
“I have no intention of marrying, Lady Prentice,”
she'd replied, scarcely hiding her shudder. “I don't care how much money he has.”
“He'll doubtless be knighted before long. Maybe even a higher rank. Money like that can buy a lot of favor from the crown.”
“No, thank you.”
“Just a thought, my dear,” Lady Prentice had said, signaling for the maid to remove the tea tray. “Keep it in the back of your mind.”
The memory of that conversation was almost enough to make Annelise pack her bags and walk straight out of the house. She could take shelter with her sisters for at least a short period of time, and the day had gone from bad to worse. All the money in the world wouldn't make Josiah Chipple an appealing husband, Hetty was a brat, and as for her unsettling encounter with Christian Montcalmâ¦
She could hope that was the only time she'd have to deal with him, but she was far too practical to entertain such a thought. He had his avaricious eyes set on Hetty, and he wasn't going to give up without a fight. One she was entirely ready to offer him.
No, if she left this garish house and its spoiled mistress it would be tantamount to handing her over to the man. A dedicated wastrel could go through even the most extraordinary sum of money, and all reports concluded that Montcalm was dedicated indeed. When he'd used up Miss Chipple's money and her beauty he'd have no choice but to move on to another conquest. He'd have the hindrance of a wife, tucked away in some country estate to interfere with his fortune hunting. But there
were things that could be done about that, accidents that could be arranged, and she wouldn't put anything past the man with the cool, laughing eyes.
“Enough, Annelise!” she said out loud. She was a practical woman, full of common sense, accepting of her lot in life and embracing it without complaint. Her one failing was an excess of imagination. Few people knew she read lurid novels whenever she was alone or that she could embroider the most fantastic tales about total strangers in a matter of moments simply for her own amusement. At least she had the sense to know it was only a fantasy. Christian Montcalm might be a fortune hunter and a scoundrel, but that didn't make him a murderer.
She was blowing things out of proportion again, she reminded herself. There would be more than enough handsome young men at Lady Bellwhite's this evening, and with any luck at all Hetty would turn her sights elsewhere.
Or at least one could hope.
Annelise dressed for dinner in one of her two best gowns. It was black, of course, and very simple. The advantage to that was she could make it appear as if she had a veritable wardrobe, simply by the addition of lace and shawls and other gewgaws. The neckline was un-fashionably high, and she could only be grateful for the extra coverage, the skirt narrow, and the waist loose enough that she could dress herself without needing a maid to lace her. Lady Prentice had been very practical when she had seen to Annelise's wardrobe. If only the
clothes weren't so drab. But it had already been decided by the world in general that Annelise would never marry, and why waste money on flattering clothes when they still wouldn't be enough to attract a mate?
She joined Josiah and the rebellious Hetty in the library before dinner. Hetty was sitting by the fire, dressed in a perfect concoction of pink lace, and she tried to ignore Annelise's arrival, staring into the flames with fierce concentration.
“You look lovely tonight, Miss Kempton,” Josiah said in his booming voice, and Annelise was uncomfortably aware of her godmother's matchmaking maneuvers. “Where are your manners, girl?” he demanded of Hetty. “Say good evening to Miss Kempton!”
“Good evening,” Hetty muttered, still staring at the fire.
“And has my daughter been behaving herself? She's a bit headstrong, you know, and she thinks she knows what's best for her. I'm counting on you to keep an eye on her for me, make sure she meets the right kind of young gentlemen. I don't much care whether they've a fortune or notâI've more than enough money to keep my Hetty in style for the rest of her life, including whoever she chooses to marry. But she'll be wanting a title, don't you know, and I expect she'll insist on someone young and handsome. She's too flighty to recognize the worth of an older, more established gentleman. I'm sure you're not so unwise,” he said with a knowing look that was far too familiar.
Oh, God, he was flirting with her, Annelise thought. She managed her best smile. “Oh, a girl with Miss Het
ty's qualities can certainly expect to find someone of a compatible age and nature. In truth, I think she'd be best off with someone closer to her own age, perhaps in his early twenties.” A good ten years younger than Christian Montcalm.
Neither of the Chipples looked pleased with that statement, though oddly enough Hetty seemed less disturbed than her father.
“She's marrying a title, and that's all there is to it,” Josiah said flatly, and there was an ugly expression around his mouth that Annelise didn't quite like. “She's had enough of country living and local squires. She needs some town bronze, and then she can have her pick of anyone I deem suitable. She's moved way past childhood friends.”
Who'd said anything about childhood friends? Hetty's pretty little mouth turned downward, but still she said nothing. So there was yet another unsuitable suitor in her life. Clearly someone young and rural had once caught her eye, and she hadn't yet dismissed him entirely.
Anyone would be better than a life with Montcalm and his cronies. She needed to find out more about this childhood suitor to see whether he might be a perfectly reasonable choice.
At least it showed that Hetty could be easily distracted. If she'd set her eyes on the exotic Christian Montcalm so quickly, then she could be gently urged in another direction without too much difficulty.
“If you're talking about William I assure you I've
completely forgotten him,” Hetty grumbled. “I'm much more interested in Christian Montcalm.”
“I'm not certain I like you seeing him, missy,” Josiah said. “I've heard rumors that he's not quite the gentleman he should be, and I expect you can do better. Perhaps we don't have to aim as high as a viscountcyâ¦”
“Titles are overvalued anyway,” Hetty said with a suddenly hopeful look in her blue eyes that Annelise found interesting.
“Not to me,” Josiah said flatly. “And if we don't go to dinner soon we'll be late for Lady Bellwhite's. I had to go to a great deal of trouble to get us an invitation, and it wouldn't do to arrive late.”
“Actually,” Annelise said gently, “it would be even worse form to arrive early. About an hour after the event is scheduled to begin is usually the optimum time to arrive. That way a great many people are already there to appreciate the lovely entrance your daughter makes, and yet it won't seem careless or rude.”
“Not everyone follows your silly rules. Christian Montcalm often shows up at the very end of the evening,” Hetty said.
Annelise smiled faintly. “My point exactly.”
“Then we'll arrive precisely at ten o'clock,” Mr. Chipple announced.
“And leave before the very end of the evening,” Annelise added, only to catch Hetty's glare.
“And I'll be a lucky man, squiring two such pretty ladies,” Josiah said gallantly.
The sound Hetty made was almost a snort, but her
father had already started toward the door. He paused to confer with the butler, and Hetty sidled up to Annelise. “You didn't tell him about the park, did you?”
“Are you planning to?”
“Not at this moment. I'm certain you saw the error of your ways. A young lady's reputation is of paramount importance.”
“You are such an old maid!” Hetty said. “Do you spend your entire life lecturing? Don't you get tired of it?”
Indeed, she did. There was nothing more tedious than pointing out social lapses to a spoiled little girl, and lecturing always suggested an air of superiority, which Annelise never felt she could quite carry off. “I'm here to help,” she said stiffly.
“And besides, my reputation doesn't matter. It'll be gone to the devil when I marry Christian Montcalm anyway,” she said cheerfully.
“Your language, missy!” Josiah Chipple rumbled, with sharper ears than Annelise would have thought.
“Yes, Father.” And she stuck out her tongue at Annelise as she sailed by, making her feel very old and tiresome indeed.
Josiah was a man of his wordâthey arrived at Lady Bellwhite's town house at precisely ten o'clock in the evening. The street was already crowded with carriages, the noise and the music from the elegant little mansion spilled out into the streets, and Annelise groaned at the thought of another crowd. At least there'd be suitors, she
told herself, already less than enamored of this particular visit.
And she was right. By the time they reached the ballroom they'd passed by three rather weedy young men, four elderly widowers, an earl with a weak heart and a bad reputation, and a bevy of other possible contenders for Hetty's delicate hand. And no Christian Montcalm, to Annelise's relief.
At the last minute Annelise had donned one of her discarded lace caps. It flapped down around her face, and while it was irritating, at least it gave her a dubious sense of protection. A woman in a lace cap was proclaiming that she was beyond the age of marriage and that the only gentleman importunate enough to ask her to dance was Mr. Chipple.
He was easy enough to dissuade and Annelise settled back in her corner amidst the chaperons and widows, gossiping pleasantly as she sipped the glass of punch Mr. Chipple had thoughtfully provided before disappearing in the direction of the card tables.
She wasn't quite sure what to make of the man. Chipple looked relieved when she refused his offer of a dance, but the delivery of the punch was a courtesy that was a bit too marked. If he started getting romantic notions she would have to abandon Hetty to her fate after all.
But then, half the women there seemed to have a great interest in the bluff Josiah. As Lady Prentice had said, money would perfume the stink of the shop quite effectively, and there were any number of widowed ladies casting curious eyes in Chipple's direction. He
seemed unaware of it, but once the ladies knew that Annelise was a part of his household, at least for the time being, she was besieged with questions.
Annelise nodded and murmured agreement and passed on whatever encouraging information she could think of. Yes, she'd answered numerous times, he was a most devoted father. Yes, his house by Green Park was quite large. No, he'd been widowed for a great many years, she believed, and had yet to choose a new wife. Yes, perhaps London was just the place for both Chipples to form new attachments. Shipping, was it? Not as bad as it could be. Really, shipping was quite a respectable trade, if one must have a trade, and he did carry himself quite well, didn't he?