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Authors: Anne Stuart

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Christian Montcalm took the seat beside her, laughing. “Now, that's hardly the language for a dragon,” he said. “Does Mr. Chipple know that the Honorable Miss Kempton swears like a fishwife?”

“That wasn't my fishwife language,” she said. “You haven't annoyed me enough to deserve it. Yet.”

A man shouldn't be that handsome. The faint lines around his eyes had to be from dissipation, not laughter, but knowing their cause didn't lessen their appeal. It was no wonder an impressionable young thing like Hetty had succumbed to his charm. What woman wouldn't?

She wouldn't, Annelise reminded herself. She looked at him. “So I assume that Hetty's reluctance to come for a walk was because she'd already planned to slip out and meet you?”

“Not at all. This was pure happenstance. If she was planning to meet me she wouldn't be off with another young man, totally unchaperoned.”

“She's not unchaperoned—I can see them very clearly from here, and besides, I'm the one who sent them down there so they could talk.” Unfortunately they were sitting a bit too close, and Will's arm was around her. She should get up and intervene, but then Montcalm would follow her, and that was the last thing she wanted. It would make matters even more complicated than they already were.

“You sent her? Why am I not surprised? And what does this stalwart young swain have to offer that I do not?”

“He's a decent, honorable man. You're a wicked, wretched—”

“Hush now, Miss Kempton. You have better manners than that. I don't understand why you've taken me in such dislike—I'm a perfectly charming gentleman.”

“A bit too charming,” she said tartly.

“Merci du compliment,”
he murmured. “However, I must tell you that I don't like it when people interfere with my plans, even pretty little dragons like you.”

Fury bubbled up inside her. “Let us be perfectly clear on this, Mr. Montcalm. I don't like being mocked. We both know I'm neither little nor pretty, and I don't need you reminding me.”

The laughter left his eyes abruptly. “How very interesting,” he said, half to himself. “I've found your weak spot. And such a misguided, silly one it is.”

Annelise opened her mouth to deliver an even more effective curse but he simply put his gloved hand against her lips, silencing her. It shouldn't have been disturbing—the thin leather of his glove kept his skin from touching her mouth, but her stomach still knotted at the sudden memory from last night of another, much more intimate touch.

“Never mind,” he said. “We'll work on that later. In the meantime, what am I to do about love's young dream down there?”

William had put his arm around Hetty's delicate shoulders, and their heads were resting together, and
Annelise suspected they weren't talking at all. “It's no concern of yours.”

“Ah, but it is. My intentions are honorable matrimony—that's my future bride down there, behaving in-discreetly. So the question is, should I do nothing and let her tarnish her reputation, thereby making my less-than-stellar self more acceptable to her father? Or do I interfere, saving Miss Chipple from making a cake of herself, and thereby earn her father's undying gratitude?”

“You should go away and let me deal with it,” Annelise said crossly. “They're young and in love but not totally lacking in morals. As some people are.”

“By some people you mean me. Ah, Miss Kempton, you are so harsh in your judgments. And the young lovers do touch me. It will sadden me to break them apart, but I need Miss Chipple's fortune, and I fully intend to marry her, no matter what her young man or you or even her father say.”

“Her father could cut her off without a penny.”

“Unlikely. He seems very indulgent, and who else would he be spending his money on? Unless you're thinking of marrying him yourself and supplanting his daughter in his affections.”

Annelise shuddered. “Perish the thought.”

“Very good. You're not as practical as I thought you were, which gives me hope.”

“Hope for what?”

He smiled mysteriously but didn't answer. “Besides, it would be a terrible waste to see you married to a man like Chipple.”

“All that money out of your reach?” Annelise suggested.

“It isn't the money that I'd mind.”

“Stop it!” Annelise said, reaching her limit. “You may flirt with everything on two legs, male or female, but I'm not susceptible to your meaningless, flattering lies. You can't charm me into supporting your pursuit of Miss Chipple. She deserves better.”

“Perhaps,” he said, “but she'll have me, whether she likes it or not. I will marry her—she's too choice a prize to let escape. You, however, are another matter entirely.”

“Well, I know it,” Annelise said unflinchingly. If he was about to catalog her deficiencies it would be nothing new to her. And she had already listed his. “But it is no concern of yours. Miss Chipple is a beautiful, wealthy heiress and I'm a very determined, strong-minded spinster who's not going to let Hetty throw her life away on a rake and a scoundrel and a…a…degenerate.” The last insult came out a little desperately, and she had the sudden feeling she'd gone too far.

Apparently she hadn't. Mr. Montcalm merely smiled lazily, despite the darkness in his eyes. “And what do you know of degeneracy, Miss Kempton?”

“Nothing at all.”

“Then leave it to me to instruct you. Once I marry Miss Chipple I'll have more than enough time for your education. You'd be surprised how…stimulating certain experiences can be.”

Before she could gather her wits and reply he was
gone, strolling away from her and the duck pond, most likely dismissing all thought of her. And she would have given anything if she had been able to dismiss him and his words as easily.

7

M
iss Kempton really was the most delicious creature, Christian thought as he ambled away. He couldn't remember meeting such a prickly, defensive, yet charmingly vulnerable woman in his life. Most of his female acquaintances were either great beauties or women of a certain…er…moral laxness, and the Honorable Miss Kempton was neither.

He'd touched a raw spot quite accidentally when he'd been flirting with her. She seemed to have no difficulty with him calling her “dragon,” but “pretty” and “little” seemed to bring forth her rage.

Well, in truth, she wasn't little. At least not in height. But although her dull clothes were fairly shapeless, even the evening dress last night, he'd been able to ascertain that she was slender in the right places, full in the others.

The fact of the matter was, he considered her pretty. Not a great beauty, as was more his usual style. He loved her eyes, even when they flashed lightning at him, and he'd been wanting to taste her mouth since he'd first seen her using it to castigate him. It had been everything
he'd wanted, and if her insults hadn't been so diverting he would have been tempted to kiss her again.

He wanted to see her with her hair loose around her shoulders and out of those wretched clothes. He was tempted to crush the spectacles beneath his boot heel—he suspected she used them more as a defense than a tool to aid her vision. When people were truly shortsighted the glass distorted their eyes. Annelise's eyeglasses seemed far too thin to be of much use.

But he was getting distracted from the main prize. He needed to secure the impressionable Hetty first, then he could concentrate on the far more challenging dragon. In the meantime things were moving along quite nicely. Josiah Chipple would be extremely displeased with the arrival of Hetty's childhood love, or so he assumed the young man to be. Once Christian had settled on the heiress he'd made it his business to discover everything he could about her and her family, though some information had been frustratingly hard to come by. Mrs. Chipple had died when Hetty was quite young, according to Hetty. Mr. Chipple had amassed his fortune through shipping, though how he had advanced from a simple importer to someone with the dazzling fortune he now possessed was shrouded in mystery. Christian didn't particularly care where the money came from, as long as he could get his hands on it.

Which he planned to. His debts were getting more pressing, and his luck at the cards last night had been less than usual. Probably because he'd been unduly distracted by his encounter on the terrace and the damp
piece of lace tucked in his coat. A weakness he couldn't afford.

For the next few weeks he would concentrate on his financial salvation. And then he'd allow himself to play.

 

She was still clutching the lacy handkerchief in her hand, Annelise realized. She should throw it on the ground, stomp on it to express her total rage and disgust with Christian Montcalm. But in the last few years economy had been drummed into her, and it was too fine a handkerchief to wantonly destroy, she told herself virtuously. She reached under her cloak and tucked it into her bodice, next to the folded note that still lay there. At this rate she was going to become quite top heavy, she thought with a trace of grim amusement. She could only hope Montcalm didn't take it into his head to present her with anything bulky.

He wasn't going to present her with anything at all. As soon as she got back to the house she was going to give the lovely handkerchief to one of the maids, burn the note and toss the flowers out the window. Well, perhaps she might leave the flowers—they were lovely, and not to blame that they'd come as a mocking salute from a wastrel.

She glanced down at the duck pond. They were sitting far too close together—Montcalm had been right about that. And perhaps Mr. Chipple wouldn't be pleased, but once she told him of the danger his daughter was courting he might be more amenable to the safe, reliable comfort of someone like William Dickinson.

They didn't even notice her approach. Hetty had been crying, the tears making her china blue eyes even more beguiling. She was one of those rare females who looked even lovelier when she cried. Her nose didn't drip and turn red, her eyes didn't swell, unlike Annelise's. It shouldn't come as a surprise and it wasn't the least rancorous—Hetty was simply everything Annelise was not.

They jumped up guiltily when she appeared in front of them, and Hetty fumbled in her lap for her discarded glove. It was a good thing no one had seen them but the ducks, Annelise thought, or Hetty might have done real damage to her reputation. And it was all Annelise's fault.

But it wasn't too late to mend. “I think you should come back to the house with us after all, Mr. Dickinson. It's almost teatime, and I'm certain you'll want to renew your acquaintance with Mr. Chipple. I expect Hetty will welcome the chance to restore amity between the two of you.”

Hetty didn't look as if she welcomed anything. “He can't come home with us,” she said flatly. “You don't know my father—he doesn't like to be thwarted.”

“No one's thwarting him, my dear. And I suspect he would dislike subterfuge even more, and word will certainly get to him of this afternoon's accidental meeting.”

“How would he know?”

“Because I would tell him. I have a certain responsibility, and it was my choice to allow you to have some time in relative privacy.”

“You don't have to…” Hetty began, but Annelise continued smoothly.

“Besides, if I don't, you can be sure Christian Montcalm will. He saw the two of you, and he would find it to his advantage to inform your father.”

“Who's Christian Montcalm?” William asked. His ruddy cheeks were the complete opposite of Montcalm's pale handsomeness, and Hetty's face flamed at the mention of her suitor.

“He was here?” Hetty said in a choked voice, clearly horrified.

Annelise didn't wait for Hetty to come up with an explanation. “He's simply one of her many suitors. The most determined and the least desirable of them. If he has the chance he'll cause trouble, and I need to circumvent that.”

“He wouldn't do such a thing!” Hetty protested.

William looked down at her in surprise. “Hetty, are you in love with this man?”

“Of course not, Will!” she said in a cross voice. “I just want to marry him.”

William looked tempted to bolt at this artless confidence, so Annelise simply took both their arms and herded them back up the path. Mr. Chipple could scarcely be as difficult as Hetty warned, but it wouldn't hurt to be as honest as possible. The sooner they faced him, the better.

“We'll have tea in the green salon,” she informed the maid when they arrived back at the house. “And ask Mr. Chipple to join us if he's able.”

In fact, the green salon was a bilious color designed to make any inhabitant look like a corpse, with the no
table exception of Hetty. As far as Annelise could tell, nothing could lessen her incandescent beauty. Perhaps she was being too cynical—Christian Montcalm might have fallen desperately in love with the exquisite creature and her fortune was merely a happy adjunct, despite his crass avowals.

And the moon might be made of green cheese, she thought. If it were, it was probably the hideous color of Josiah Chipple's parlor. After all, if Montcalm was really in love with the heiress why had he kissed her on the terrace? He should be focusing all his efforts on winning his beloved, not tormenting her protectors.

William and Hetty seemed to have exhausted their entire conversation, though Annelise suspected the mention of Christian Montcalm had put a decided damper on things. Therefore it was up to her to keep matters going, and she prattled on like a total idiot, serving tea, discussing the weather, asking polite questions, which resulted in monosyllabic answers except when she happened on the topic of country living. William became almost voluble, and to her surprise Hetty joined in. Since Annelise herself preferred living in the country things loosened up for a bit, until Mr. Chipple appeared in the open door, glowering.

Hetty didn't help matters by looking nervous and guilty, but William jumped to his feet, instantly polite, and took the proverbial bull by the horns by starting up a conversation.

“Good afternoon, sir,” he said, his voice betraying his nervousness only slightly. “I ran into Miss Chipple and
Miss Kempton in the park, and Miss Kempton was kind enough to invite me back for tea. I hope you don't mind that I trespassed on your hospitality, but I wanted to renew my acquaintance with both of you during my short time here in the city.”

Annelise must have imagined the chill that had emanated from the door. Mr. Chipple stepped into the room, affable enough. “It's good to see you, Will. What brings you into the city? You're a country boy, born and bred. I wouldn't think the likes of society would suit you very well.”

“I had a commission for my father,” Will said with only a slight stutter. “I thought I would take advantage of the trip to acquire a bit of town bronze. I expect it's a lost cause.”

“It's smart of you to recognize when a cause is lost,” Chipple said with a pleasant smile that somehow failed to warm. “When are you going back home?”

“I'll be here for a week.”

The obvious, polite response would have been to invite him to stay in the house, or at least proffer a dinner invitation. As titular hostess Annelise was about to do just that, something stopped her: the unspoken tension in the room. The usually friendly Mr. Chipple suddenly seemed a great deal less hospitable.

“Then perhaps we'll run into you again,” Chipple said. “Though I doubt we'll travel in the same circles. Hetty, I think you should have a rest before Lady Helton's ball tonight. You'll be up all hours and you need your beauty sleep. Hetty has a great many suitors, William, and it's
quite exhausting for the dear girl. Miss Kempton, could I see you in the library at your convenience?”

The dismissal was clear and abrupt, and there was nothing to be done. Even Hetty didn't argue. She merely murmured a listless farewell to her devoted swain and left the room, followed by her father.

There was nothing Annelise could do to redeem the situation, but she at least managed to put a softer sheen on Chipple's rudeness, forcing him to drink another cup of tea and discuss the merits of sheep versus cattle. He was obviously longing to unburden his heart to Annelise, but she was determined that he not. As long as she wasn't officially privy to their clandestine affair she could feel righteous in her social choices. Once she knew this unacceptable young man was a determined and ineligible suitor, at least to Mr. Chipple's eyes, then she would have no choice but to keep him away.

And she was still hoping for something, anything, to save Hetty from the dire mistake of a man like Christian Montcalm.

It was probably no more than half an hour later when Annelise presented herself at Mr. Chipple's study. If he was unhappy with her delay he failed to show it, or even to acknowledge her presence just inside the doorway as he pored over his books, leaving her to wait awkwardly.

But Annelise was not the sort to wait. She walked into the room and seated herself in one of the chairs opposite the desk and said, “You wished to see me, Mr. Chipple?”

There was no missing the astonishment in his small, dark eyes. He'd probably never had a woman fail to be cowed by him. Annelise had never been fond of bullies—when confronted they were usually full of harmless bluster, and she expected Josiah Chipple to be the same.

He slammed his book shut, leaning back in his chair. He hadn't risen since she'd appeared—a notable insult that was doubtless designed to express his unhappiness with her. She would have to find a tactful way to explain to the man that manners and displeasure could coexist, but at the moment she was beginning to understand some of Hetty's caution as far as her father was concerned. So she sat still and held her tongue, her hands folded in her lap, waiting.

“Will Dickinson is not welcome in this house,” he said flatly.

“Indeed? I gather he's a childhood friend of Hetty's, and he certainly seemed quite unexceptional. I thought it might relieve some of her homesickness to spend time with an old friend.”

“She's not homesick! This is her home now, and she loves being the center of attention.” Annelise could scarcely dispute the latter, so she stayed silent. “Her affection for William was simply that of a child. She knows her duty and she's more than happy to fulfill it, as it benefits her as well as me.”

“And what is her duty, Mr. Chipple?”

“I thought you were already clear on this, Miss Kempton. She is to marry well. A titled gentleman. His fortune is not important, but his standing will ensure that
she and my descendants will be unquestioned members of society despite her working-class father. She has the face and the fortune for it, and I'm not about to be contravened at this point. There are any number of possibilities available, and I don't want Dickinson confusing her about who she should marry. Women are easily distracted, and she's not that bright to begin with. She has the sense to do as I tell her, but I need to make certain that there's no unfortunate temptation from her former life.”

BOOK: The Devil's Waltz
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