Authors: Christine Merrill
He jerked away from her, almost losing
“Language,” she said, sweetly.
“You still think, after what has occurred
“Almost, occurred,” she corrected.
“If I object to you taking another lover, it
is purely from a love for mankind. I would not see a friend, or even an enemy,
fall into your claws, that you might torture him as a cat does a mouse.”
“Torture?” she said, and had the nerve to
“It is one thing to put me off, Madam. It is
quite another thing to track me down so that you might remind me of what we no
longer share.” He yanked the flap of his trousers up, hands trembling on the
buttons as he did them up. “We are through, as you say. But I do not need to be
told twice. I did not seek you out. I ask that, in the future, you do me the
She rose gracefully, then touched her hair
and straightened her garments, obviously more interested in her appearance than
the ruin she’d made of him. When she bothered to look up, she was smiling,
distant, disinterested and unaffected by what had just happened between them.
“I am glad we understand each other. Now, if you will excuse me?”
Then, she turned and left, shutting the door
Blackthorne waited in silence until the front
door of the club had opened and closed and he was sure that Caro was gone. Then
he waited a few moments longer, listening for the sound of others in the foyer.
The silence assured him that he could exit the room without incident. He was
mistaken. The membership stood silently in the door to the lounge, watching
him. Before he could request it, a servant handed him a brandy. He took it and
drank, then addressed the crowd. “What are you waiting for, gentlemen? Does no
one wish to make merry at my expense?”
There was no response, other than the prompt
refilling of his half empty glass. Then, Edenvale said, “Certainly not. Let us
all return to our seats, and our drinks. I am sure there are others here who
can share stories of a similar and equally embarrassing nature, should you want
to hear them.”
They walked through the door with the servant
at their heels, and Blackthorne responded. “You can be assured, this will be
the last such story you will hear from me.”
Massey laughed. “What makes you so sure of
the fact, my Lord? When ladies are involved there can be no guarantees. As was
just demonstrated, that gender is notoriously erratic.”
Blackthorne took another drink. “You
are right, my dear sir. That is why, for the sake of my sanity, I mean to have
no more to do with them.”
At this outlandish statement, the room burst
into laughter. “Given your reputation with the ladies…” Tripp gasped, choking
on his own mirth. “You mean to swear off of them? You will not last a week.”
His friend was right. There was only one
woman he truly needed to avoid. Without her, what was he to do? “I will take
pleasure where I find it,” he admitted. “But while I might have the wife of another,
I most certainly will not seek one for myself.”
This was greeted with another laugh from the
“Women,” Blackthorne announced, feeling the
warming effects of the brandy, “are a pestilence.
I have had enough of mistresses, and their unreasonable behavior. I had
decided, even before the recent difficulties, that I would never marry. To that
end, a lifetime ban from Almack’s is hardly a hardship. What is there in that
establishment but weak lemonade and desperation?”
There was still laughter around him, but it
was mixed with murmurs of agreement.
“Think of the title,” Lockland reminded him.
“You must have an heir at some point.”
“I have cousins enough,” Blackthorne said,
with growing relief. “Let it fall to one of them.”
Tripp spoke next, and there was no laughter
in his voice. “Stop talking nonsense, Vincent. I am beginning to think you are
“I am,” he said, feeling freer with each
word. “I will never marry or engage my heart in pursuit of a woman.” He tapped
his chest. The hollow sound of his finger hitting the breastbone made him
wonder if he had a heart left to lose.
There was a moment of doubtful silence. Then,
Edenvale scoffed. “You will see a pretty face soon enough, and change your
tune. We all do, eventually.”
He shook his head. “It is not necessary
to marry to gain the only thing that women are good for. Before taking up with
Miss Sydney, I did not lack for comfort. I was happy, and life was simpler.” It
had been as empty as his heartless body.
It was clear his words were firing the
imaginations of his comrades. “Would you be willing to make book upon your
bachelorhood?” Lockland asked. “Such a dramatic proclamation sounds like a
reason to wager.”
“It sounds like no wager at all, to
me,” Blackthorne said, “because it holds no risk of failure.” He had found the
perfect mate, and could not settle for less. But Caroline Sydney had refused
both his name and his body. He would not give her a third chance to hurt him.
Tripp shook his head. “Where is the novelty
in your suggestion, Lockland? They bet on marriages all the time at the other
clubs. It always ends with orange blossoms.” He looked at his friend in
disappointment. “I had hoped for better from you, Blackthorne. Where is the
“You wish novelty?” Blackthorne said,
draining his glass. “Then I must not simply announce my intent. I must convince
the rest of you to follow me. Bring out the betting book, for I assume you have
one. Put me down next to whoever else is so likeminded in their bachelorhood,
and we will see who lasts the longest.”
“There was a moment of silence, as the
room considered this.
“What you seem to be suggesting,” said
Howard, “is a tontine. If each of us invested a set some against the
possibility of marrying, with the last man to take the pot…”
“It would not be fair,” announced Massey. “I
would bet that you, Howard, are the least marriageable among us. Blackthorne is
both handsome and rich. Despite his protests, a woman will trap him eventually.
But you are such an odd duck as to be unclubbable. It is why I put you up for
membership here. You have not a penny to your name. If no woman would have you,
how difficult can it be to take the prize?”
“I do not know, admitted Howard. “I have not set
my mind to find a woman. Therefore, I have no scientific proof that it is
difficult. I should think old Pennyworth is the one to beat us all. He is
nearing seventy, and a Molly. What reason would he have to seek a wife?”
The old man in the corner bowed his head in
acknowledgement. “True enough. It should be easy money. But then, I am more
likely to die than you lot. In such a scheme, I would see to my health and
wait. All the same, some things are not preventable. I may be the first to drop
from the rolls, should the good Lord take me.”
The group gave a thoughtful pause at this.
But it had less to do with a moment’s respect at the thought of a death, than a
re-figuring of the odds. The air hummed with mental calculations, as each man
there weighed his chances against the others.
“By Jove,” said Massey, almost to himself.
“We have fifty members. Of those, not quite half are married.”
“They could hold the money,” suggested Tripp.
“And there might be side bets, as well. An initial investment of ten…”
“No, a hundred,” suggested Edenvale.
A thousand pounds from any man who can
I will stake any who cannot, since I am attempting to win
converts. We all must have good reason not to falter. The loss of a substantial
sum, weighed against the possibility of great reward, will be a bolster against
the rough seas of the marriage mart. I have announced my intentions and am
ready to write the check.” He raised his glass and drained it. “The question
has the nerve to follow me?”
The tears were still drying on her cheeks as
Caro watched the sunset from her bedroom window. It was not surprising, since
she had been crying the better part of the day. She had managed to make it out of
the club on Jermyn Street without the final humiliation of breaking down in the
foyer, had walked the last few steps to the carriage, taken her seat and drawn
the curtains. Only then did she release the flood of emotion she’d contained.
How could she have been so stupid? She had
believed Alene’s assumptions without further questioning because she had wanted
them to be true. The loss of physical intimacy left an aching void inside her.
It was even worse to know that they would never again share a joke or a meal,
or read together before the fire comforted by the knowledge that there was
another who shared their most secret thoughts.
Surely, Vincent was as affected as her by
their parting. If he was seeking solace in the arms of countless strangers, at
least he had not immediately replaced her with a wife, or worse, a new
She wiped her eyes with the back of her hand.
If she were not careful, she would be crying again. Better to think on the
humiliation at the club, than the loss of happy times. Vincent had been
managing quite well without her, when she had sought him out. He was not sunk
in sin but enjoying an ordinary afternoon at his club.
To cover her embarrassing mistake, she had
tortured him, just as he’d said. She’d used the only power she had as a weapon,
denying him all over again. She had
taunted him with the idea that he would be easily replaced with one of his
friends. If he had not before, he must hate her now. It had been beneath
“Miss Sydney, there is a visitor.
Her worried maid was standing at the door of
Caroline sat up quickly, embarrassed to be
caught crying by the poor girl, yet again. “Who is it?” She touched her face,
which was hot and damp. If Vincent had returned, at least he would see her
remorse, for it must be written plain on flushed cheeks.
“A Mr. Aubrey Howard.”
When Caroline came down to sitting room a few
minutes later, the strange man she had accosted at the club was waiting for
her, perched awkwardly on a settee. He sprang to his feet at her
“Mr. Howard?” she said, with a raise of her
“Miss Sydney,” he responded. Then he smiled
and removed his spectacles, polishing them as though he needed to take a better
look at her. “I have come in response to your offer.”
“My offer,” she said, trying to think what
she had said that would bring about a visit from a stranger.
“You came to the club today, searching for a
new protector,” he said, as though she had done nothing exceptional. “I am
willing to take you on, if we are able to agree on terms. Will you wish to come
to my home, or may I visit you in yours? And I must know how much will you be
requiring from me, in the way of time and money. I am afraid I do not have very
much of either.”
“I beg your pardon.” He must be as awkward as
he seemed, if he thought he could come into her home and her life and be
accepted without question. “I am sorry Mr. Howard,” she said, letting a chill
creep into her voice. “But there is a bit more to it than, as you put it
. There is normally some attraction between the parties involved.”
He gave an understanding nod. “But I thought,
in this instance, we would be dispensing with that, since you are obviously
still in love with Blackthorne.”
“I am not!” Dear God, let her denial be
convincing. It would be the final embarrassment of the day to think that it was
so obvious such a man as this could see it.
Now, he was smiling sympathetically and
adjusting his spectacles, yet again. “It does no good to deny it, Miss Sydney.
Though you might think me foolish, I am not actually a fool.”
“Really sir, I protest…” But hadn’t she
thought him foolish, when she had gulled him into escorting her? He was smiling
as though it did not matter, but it had been unfair of her. “I am sorry,” she
said, in a small voice.
He waved the apology away. “Do not concern
yourself with my feelings. I understand your actions, perfectly. In fact, I
sympathize with them. I want to help you.”
“You understand?” Then he must be prescient,
for she was not sure she understood them herself.
“As I said, you are in love with
“I am not.” Her interruption was as weak as
“—and you wished to make him jealous. To do
this properly, it will be best to choose the least likely candidate for your
future affections.” He spread his arms as though presenting himself.
“I did not mean…” Anything
crass as that, she was sure. She did not wish to hurt either man any more than
she already had.
“I find no fault in the plan,” he said. “I am
the very antithesis of Blackthorne: neither rich nor powerful, nor particularly
attractive. I have no town bronze, nor any experience at all with ladies of
And now, it was she who was the butt of the
“Beautiful,” he said, as though this should
be self evident.
He ignored her
response. “In my opinion, you could not have chosen another man more likely to
inflame his emotions. Well done, Miss Sydney.”
“Thank you. I think.”
“You’re welcome,” he said, as though this
settled everything. “I am only too happy to help you to your goal.”
“And that is…” If her plans were so obvious
to others, she had best find out what they were.
“Why, to be Countess Blackthorne, of course.”
She gasped. Then she hurried to correct him.
“I do not see how you came to such a conclusion, Mr. Howard. I must say, it
paints me in a most unflattering light. I did not seek Vincent out from a
desire to bag a title, like some sort of fortune hunter.”
“Of course not, Miss Sydney.
You love the man, not the title.” He paused.
“But you confuse me. You speak as if fortune hunting is in some way ignoble. As
a man with no fortune, I find marrying for wealth to be the most sensible thing
not encouraged to work
for money, how else are we to get it?”
“You and I are nothing alike,” she argued,
though he was quite correct.
Once again, he ignored her protestations. “If
you do not wish to marry him, people will think you a whore. Is it not better to
marry the man for his money, than to accept gifts for submitting to him?”
“People will think me a whore in any case,”
she argued. “I have done just that already, and there is no changing the past.”
“But it is possible to change the future.”
Mr. Howard made it all sound so very simple. “If you love the man, and he loves
you, and you do not wish to be his whore, your only
be to marry Blackthorne and become a countess.
he said, with a snap of his fingers. “It is obvious, even to me. And I am known
across the length and breadth of England for being surprisingly obtuse in
She fell silent.
He continued. “I posit you must marry him. I
mean to help you in your endeavors.”
“Why?” While it made sense that he might want
to take advantage of her vulnerability, what reason could he have to help her?
“A bet has been made,” he said. “At the
Hephaestus Club, after you left today. Because of my lack of funds and the
difficulty in gaining them, it is vital that I win it.”
“You are betting on the outcome of my
relationship with Blackthorne?”
I am a gentleman, Miss Sydney. If I bet on
your happiness, I would not be so crass as to tell you.”
That did not sound particularly gentlemanly.
She let it pass, waiting for further explanation.
“The bunch of us bet on the likelihood that
any of us would marry. The last man standing, so to speak, will take the prize.
I see no reason, given my lack of success thus far and my inability to make
improvements on my character that might attract the fairer sex, that I will not
be single, to the grave.” It was a sad thing, but he did not seem overly
bothered by it.
“But that does not explain what this has to
do with me.”
“Blackthorne was the cause of the bet. He was
swearing off women for good, as do many who come stumbling through the doors of
the club.” Mr. Howard gave another wave of his hand to denote tedious details.
“When a man makes such statements, it is because he wants to marry someone that
he cannot have. He will not marry if he cannot have you, and I am quite sure no
one else will satisfy him.”
She blushed at the choice of words, but Mr.
Howard did not seem to notice them.
“Because of this, he will be a formidable
opponent, unless I can succeed in yoking the pair of you. Then there will be
one less contestant between myself and my eventual winnings, and a weakening in
the resolve of those who looked to him for an example…”
“You wish to make matches?”
“I see no reason why I should not.”
She sniffed. “Then perhaps you should be
visiting Mary Holden. Once the scandal has died down, she will take him back
and he will offer for her.”
Howard shook his head. “He must not have been
too set on that union. He has not spoken of her once in the two weeks he has
been coming to the club. Nor does he seem to brood upon her absence, or make
wild proclamations of lifelong bachelorhood, as he did after your visit.”
“Well, he does not want to marry me, or he’d
have done it already,” she said, her hopes falling a little.
“He does not want to marry anyone else, or
he’d have done it already,” Howard replied. “How many women has he courted,
since you have known him? And how many offers has he made?”
She did not dare say what she was thinking.
In the two seasons she had been in London, he had been seen in the company of
nearly every eligible girl in town. But he had made only one proposal, and that
had been to her.
“He has not been able to marry,” Howard said
patiently, “because he knows that the pair of you
“We are not!” Despite her common sense, her
heart leapt at his assessment. She forced the emotion down. “It does not matter
if we are. Society would never accept a marriage between us.”
Mr. Howard looked at her with surprise. “Does
it really matter to you what society thinks if you can have Blackthorne?”
She could not even pretend that it did. “His
reputation…” she said, lamely.
“His reputation was ruined, long before he
made you his mistress. It is fortunate that titles are not base on morals. In
my opinion, there would be few of them left. Teach your son, the next Earl of
Blackthorne to keep a spotless rep. It is far too late for the current one.”
“If we are both already ruined…” The thought
had never occurred to her. She smiled.
“Then how much worse can it be?” he said,
holding out his hands again, as though presenting the solution to all her
problems. “Is it not better to be happy, than to be proper?”
Mr. Howard seemed to have an answer for
everything. And for the first time in a fortnight, Caro did not feel like
crying. She sat, and gestured him to a chair, “Please sir. Let me call for
refreshments. Then, as you suggested from the first, we will agree to terms.”