Authors: Anne Stuart
He was the second of five childrenâthree boys and two girls. His older brother, Laurent, had always been a bit of a prigâhe'd taken his role as eldest brother seriously, and tended to preach down to his four siblings. After Christian came Helene, and it was clear from the age of two on that she was going to rival her mother's great beauty. Then Jacqueline, plump and freckled and so mischievous that their father would toss her in the air
and call her the spawn of the devil, to which she'd reply, “Then you must be the devil,” much to the amusement of Geoffrey and Madeleine and the disapproval of Laurent.
And then there was baby Charles-Louis with golden curls, wide blue eyes and the sweetest disposition. While Laurent might have felt responsible for the rest of the children, with Christian it was his baby brother with whom he had the strongest connection. He'd had great plansâhe would teach him to ride, fight, how to flirt with girls and not listen to little prigs like Laurent.
A happy family they'd been, the seven of them, with Madeleine's elderly grandmother joining them, and various cousins coming and going in a vast, casual open house.
He should never have left. No one talked about what was going on, as if such news was distasteful, but he should have known somehow. Laurent had been sent to England to meet his disapproving grandfather when he reached the age of fourteen, and had actually met with the old man's approval before returning to the family home. It was little wonderâthey were both disapproving, self-righteous toads, young Christian had thought mutinously.
And then it had become his turn. He hadn't wanted to leaveâhe knew he would hardly meet with the same kind of fellow-feeling. Laurent (or Laurence, as the viscount referred to him) was the good son, obedient, respectful. Christian was the bad one, always getting into trouble, much to his father's amusement and his mother's despair. She would cry over him, sometimes. He could remember that. She cried when he got into a fight
with three farm boys and they'd beat him to a bloody pulp. They hadn't looked so good afterward, but he'd refused to give their names. A peasant who laid a hand on the aristocracy was risking his life, even if he was only a child. And Christian had been ten years old and looking for a good dustup.
He did everything he could to keep from getting on the boat to England, including sneaking off one and walking all the way back to St. Matthieu while his mother wept with anxiety. It was the only time he remembered seeing his father angry with him, and the next time when they took him to the boat he stayed on it, mutinously. Not that they'd had any choiceâthey'd sent him with one of the burly footmen who deposited him at his grandfather's estate in England, turned around and headed straight back to France before Christian could manage to follow him.
He hated his cold, miserable grandfather almost as much as the old man hated him. Christian was too much like his mother, the old man told him. Pretty and useless and too French. And Christian had shouted back that he was much happier being a Frenchman than a stuffy, pale, stupid Englishman with too much pride and no heart.
The viscount had backhanded him across the face. The altercation had unfortunately taken place at the top of the stairs, and Christian had fallen, breaking both his arm and leg, keeping him from returning to France when it had been originally planned.
He always blamed his grandfather. Not for the slap,
not for the broken bones. But for keeping him away from France, just long enough that he couldn't go back. The Terror was sweeping over the nation, and it even reached the peaceful beauty of the Normandy countryside.
He knew how his family died, though he didn't like to think about it. He'd often wondered whether the guillotine would have been kinderâit was a swift death, but the long ride in the tumbrel would have filled his sisters with panic, knowing what awaited them.
And how would they manage to put a baby like Charles-Louis in such a contraption? Surely he was too small?
But burning to death in the chÃ¢teau must have been worse. All of them, the servants, his family, his grandmother, the strong footman who'd brought him to England, the plump young housemaid who'd let him kiss her. All of them dead, while he was safe in England, doing nothing to save them.
He often wondered if the three boys who'd pummeled him had been in the crowds of blood-hungry animals. Most likely. There were rights and wrongs on both sides, he knew that. But he still hated the French with all his heart and soul, ignoring that half of him.
It was twenty years agoâhe seldom thought of it anymore. He had no idea why he was thinking of it this morning. Perhaps because, despite the very Englishness of him, he couldn't bring himself to face sirloin and ale first thing in the morning. He drank chocolate, nibbled a brioche and stared out the window at the sky that was as blue as his baby brother's eyes.
By the time Crosby Pennington showed up at his doorstep, lamentably prompt as always despite the copious amounts of wine he imbibed, Christian was already bathed, dressed and ready to face the world, with nothing more on his mind than the far too easy challenge of Miss Hetty Chipple's substantial portion. And the far more interesting prospect of dealing with the fire-breathing dragon.
She'd probably thrown his flowers out the window, he thought. He knew who she was nowâdaughter of Sir James Kempton, who'd gone through his inheritance and killed himself with his reckless riding, leaving three daughters behind. Two married, one impoverished, unmarriageable, with only an Honorable to her name.
The dragon. She'd had a season, someone told him, but she hadn't taken. He'd probably seen her on some occasion or other, but despite her impressive height he hadn't noticed her. But then, he seldom noticed anything but astonishing beauties, and the dragon, though possessed of a certain charm, was no diamond.
The woman wore spectacles! Astonishingâhe'd never met a woman under forty who wore them. They usually squinted at the world ingenuously, preferring to exist in a blur than ruin their looksâwhen most of them didn't have looks to ruin.
It wasn't that Miss Kempton was unattractive. She had lovely gray eyes behind those intrusive spectacles, and a surprisingly delectable mouth. Her beautiful creamy skin made him think of the rest of her body, and
if she was a bit too stubborn looking for most men, then they would be missing a most interesting challenge.
Something he ought to skip, as well, he reminded himself. He needed to concentrate on securing Miss Chipple's hand in marriage and make sure the vows were said before something could put a stop to itâ¦like her chaperon, who could see him far too well out of those soft gray eyes. She looked at him and saw the wretch that he was.
And as usual, it just made him want to behave even more wickedly.
She'd be his reward and his challenge. Once Hetty Chipple was wedded and bedded, though not necessarily in that order, then he could concentrate on the very proper Honorable Miss Annelise Kempton.
And he could find out if dragons really had claws.
espite the folded note that seemed determined to burn its imprint onto her breasts, Annelise faced the day with equanimity. It was a lovely day, and she had no intention of spending it indoors, any more than she was going to allow Hetty out on her own. A refreshing walk in the park along public paths would be just the thing to put roses back in the cheeks of her young chargeâ¦erâ¦friendâ¦
Annelise scowled. She had always been most unfortunately outspokenâher elder sister had chided her for it, her father had laughed at it. She believed in facing things head-on, in calling things what they were and not prettying things up. Which, unfortunately, was not the way things were done in society. At the advanced age of twenty-nine she'd reluctantly learned to hold her tongue, but it still chafed.
She was Hetty's unpaid chaperon but Annelise had a job to do nevertheless, even though the details were unspoken. In return for a roof over her head, decent meals and the vague possibility of some help toward her
future, she was little more than a governess shepherding her charge through the rough seas of society.
Except one didn't shepherd anything through seas, did they? The poor sheep would drown. She laughed at the notion. There was her imagination and her tendency to dramatize going awry again, tossing her into mixed metaphors that would have done her silly younger sister proud. She was spending far too much time thinking, and not enough time acting. Fresh air would clear her addled brain and sweep away any lingering thoughts about last night.
She found Hetty in her overripe bower, reading something. She quickly shoved it out of sight, but not before Annelise could recognize the look of it. It was a French novel, of the type Annelise favored. She hid them, too, knowing the kind of contempt they garnered from the rest of the world. She wondered if Hetty's was one she hadn't yet read.
She wasn't about to ask and lose her dignity completely. “I thought a walk in the park would do us both good,” she said abruptly. “We both could benefit from the exercise.”
Hetty glared at her. “I had plenty of exercise last nightâI danced every dance while you sat in the corner. Take a walk by yourself.”
Annelise was torn between relief that Hetty apparently didn't know she'd danced with Christian Montcalm and annoyance with her rudeness. Her temper won out.
“I had a very pleasant dance with a very handsome man,” she said. At least half of that wasn't a lie. “And you need fresh air as much as I do.”
“I'll open a window.”
“You'll put your shoes, your hat and your cloak on and come with me, young lady,” Annelise said sternly. “Or I'll inform your father who sent these gaudy flowers.” Blackmail had always been an effective tool.
“He probably knows,” Hetty said in a sour voice, but she moved off the chaise and reached for her discarded shoes. “And I told you, I can talk him into anything.”
“Including marrying a murderer?”
She'd said it for shock value, but to her dismay Hetty simply shrugged. “Don't be ridiculous. I don't believe he killed anyone.”
“He's killed at least three people in a duel.”
“That's different. Though I'm going to have to change his waysâ¦the crown frowns on dueling and I don't fancy having to go abroad until some scandal dies down.”
“You're going to change him?” Annelise repeated, skeptical.
“Of course. Once he settles down I suspect he'll be just as tame and boring as all the husbands I've met. Domestic life tends to have that effect.”
“So once he weds you he'll have no more interest in gaming, dueling and mistresses?”
“Why should he?” Hetty's blue eyes were guileless. “He'd have me.”
Annelise couldn't argue with such dedicated self-approval, so she didn't bother. “How pleasant,” she murmured, feeling the piece of paper burn against her skin. “But I have less faith in the redemptive powers of love.”
“That's because you're a spinster,” Hetty said with
no real malice. “No one wanted you, so you think that true love doesn't exist.”
“And you think Christian Montcalm loves you?”
“Of course. How could he not? I'm beautiful, lively, graceful and very rich. I'm irresistible.”
There was the trace of something in Hetty's voice that made Annelise listen a little closer. She kept underestimating the girl's intelligenceâthere was a note of cynicism in her voice that she wouldn't have wanted anyone to recognize. For some reason Annelise wanted to reassure her, but she resisted the impulse. Hetty might know her main allure was her dowry, but she had little doubt as to her own beauty, and that kept her very happy indeed.
It was a lovely day, just a bit cool, but the sky was bright blue and the park was crowded with strollers and riders. Annelise kept a wary eye out for a certain exceedingly tall gentleman, but he was mercifully absent. Besides, what was the likelihood of him appearing in the park at just the moment she brought her reluctant charge outside? He was hardly the type to lie in wait without a good idea that his efforts would be rewarded, and Hetty had had no interest in walking in the park.
They walked along the path in a surprisingly companionable silence. She should have spent the time with an improving lesson on sedate behavior when dancing, but then, given her own behavior last night, she was hardly the one to talk. Except that the trouble had begun when they'd stopped dancing.
Thank God Hetty hadn't seen her, she thought once more.
Annelise was so lost in her disturbing thoughts that she wasn't even aware of the voice. Only that Hetty had frozen in place with an unreadable reaction on her usually expressive face.
“Hetty! Miss Chipple!” A young man was calling her name, ignoring the neat pathways and moving toward them across the carefully manicured lawns. Annelise couldn't remember that voice from the night before, nor could she see him clearly. She pushed her spectacles up to her forehead and was able to focus on him as he hurried toward them. A perfect stranger wearing country clothes, his hair too long, his face too unguarded for anyone who'd spent time in town.
“Miss Chipple!” he called again, but the two of them had stopped, waiting for his approach, and he sped up, until he reached them, breathless.
To Annelise's astonishment the boy had manners. “I beg pardon, miss,” he addressed her first. “I'm an old friend of Miss Chipple's, and my enthusiasm got the better of me. If you'd allow me to introduce myself I'd be most grateful.”
Hetty was standing painfully still, her expression still unreadable, and Annelise nodded her permission, more curious than anything else. Who or what would turn Hetty into a white-faced, stone statue?
“I'm William Dickinson,” the young man said. “An old friend of the Chipples. We grew up together, Hetty and I.”
It was more than that, as any fool could see. Hetty finally broke her frozen pose. “What are you doing here,
Will?” she asked unhappily. “You know we weren't supposed to see each other.”
Hetty wasn't supposed to see Christian Montcalm, as Annelise was tempted to point out, but she was much too fascinated with the drama going on in front of her.
“Can't an old friend check to see how another old friend is doing? I just happened to come up to Londonâ¦”
“Just happened? You hate London. You hate cities, you told me. You want nothing more than to spend your entire life in Kent as the perfect country squire.”
“I thought I could change,” Will said in a quiet voice.
More and more interesting, Annelise thought. She should put a stop to this, invite the young man back to the house. If he were really persona non grata he'd come up with an excuse. But right now this was far too fascinating to interfere.
“It wouldn't matter,” Hetty said. “You can't change your family, and their estate is not nearly old or illustrious enough to suit my father. And you can't suddenly come up with a title when your future clearly lies in being Squire Dickinson of Applewood. I'm destined for better things in this life than living a dreary existence in the country with nothing to do but have babies and grow fat. I'm very happy here. I have more than a dozen suitors, I go out every night and dance until I'm exhausted, I hear music and go to the theater and have stimulating discussions about books and suchâ¦”
William Dickinson snatched his hat off his head in frustration, crushing it between his big hands. “You haven't changed that much, Hetty,” he said. “You never
cared much for music, you don't like plays unless there's a murder in them, and your taste in literature isn't the sort of thing people sit around and discuss. Most people despise novels. Your father has put too many grand ideas in your head, when you know you'd be happiest back home with a man who loves you.”
“A man?” Hetty's laugh was derisiveâshe must have been practicing, Annelise thought cynically. “A boy, I think. A childhood playmate, and perhaps my first sweetheart, but I can look much higher when it comes to marriage. I'll be a viscountess at least.”
“And who's this viscount? Does he love you?”
“Of course. And he's handsome, not too old, and very witty. I've moved on, Will. It's time you did too. Go back to Kent. You don't belong here.”
Annelise would have given the fortune she didn't have to see what Montcalm's reaction would be to being called “not too old,” but then, life was never fair.
William Dickinson was a very handsome young man, in an honest, rawboned fashionâa far cry from Montcalm's faintly decadent elegance. His face was tanned by the sun, his strong jaw set with frustration, but the love in his blue eyes didn't waver. Their children would have the prettiest blue eyes, Annelise mused, before remembering her chaperon's duties.
“Mr. Dickinson,” Annelise said. “Perhaps it would be best if you come back to the house for tea, so you can continue this discussion.”
“I'm not welcome under Mr. Chipple's roof,” he said in a stark, dramatic tone that was perfectly suited to Het
ty's dramatic streak. “And I don't have much else to say. Except that you don't belong here either, Hetty. Come home with me. We don't need your father's moneyâwe don't need the fancy city people and all this foolishness. Come back home and marry me.”
“I already told you that was out of the question. As did my father, much more forcefully. I assure you, I'm where I belong and very happy about it. Go back home and forget about me, Will.” She didn't sound nearly as certain about it as her words suggested. Her lovely blue eyes were looking suspiciously moist, her plump lower lip seemed close to trembling. Annelise retrieved a handkerchief from her sleeve and presented it to her.
“I don't need it,” she said, grabbing it and dabbing at her eyes. “I'm just so angry. Why can't I make you understand, Will? It was one thing when we were young and foolish, but I'm grown up now, and I understand the way the world works. It wasn't to be.”
Annelise wished she had a second handkerchief with her because Will Dickinson looked as if he was about to burst into tears himself.
Montcalm or Dickinson? No matter what Mr. Chipple's grand ambitions were, it was more than clear that happiness lay with this raw young man from the country, at least in Hetty's martyred eyes. And what was Annelise's role in all this? To further her host's ambitionsâto ensure that Hetty married neither a scoundrel nor a nobody from the countryside.
And Annelise was a woman who knew her duty. And blithely chose to ignore it. “It's a beautiful day,” she said
in her calm voice. “Why don't the two of you walk down by the duck pond and sit. The benches there are emptyâif I sit here I'll be able to keep an eye on you and you'll both be very well chaperoned but yet able to converse without restraint.”
“Could we, miss?” Will said, some of the despair lifting from his eyes for a moment.
“Miss Kempton,” Hetty muttered, finally remembering her manners. But she wasn't objecting to the notion. She glanced in the direction of the duck pond longingly.
“Of course,” Annelise said, moving to the bench, wishing she still had her handkerchief to brush it off, but sitting anyway, giving them a serene, approving smile. “You need time to talk things out. I'll be right here.”
Mr. Dickinson held out his arm with all the stateliness of a royal duke, and after a moment Hetty put her tiny gloved hand on his sleeve, looking up at him. And in a brief instance all was clear. Hetty was just as much in love with Will Dickinson as he was with her, and the bucolic life could make her blissfully happy. She was young enough to enjoy the admiration of all those around her, but smart enough to eventually need more in her life. Will Dickinson would be steadfast, loyal, protective and devoted. What more could a woman ask for?
She watched them as they made their way down to the pond, and felt a sentimental dampness in her eyes. She fumbled in her pockets, but the handkerchief was already with Hetty, so she sniffled bravely, only to find a snowy white handkerchief proffered from behind her, the hand holding it strong and gloved and dripping with lace.
Annelise had learned some excellent curses from the grooms in her father's stable, as well as a few from her father when he was in his cups and indiscreet, and “hells bells” just slipped out before she could silence herself.