Authors: Christine Merrill
Blackthorne’s box at the Theater Royal was as
a comfort to him for he enjoyed the performances there. When he’d had Caro’s
full attention, he had not used it as often as he’d liked. Bringing her to such
a public place would expose her to the gossip and ridicule of her former
friends. He abhorred the shallow ugliness of polite society, and it pained him
that their relationship might cause her pain.
But when he’d left her at home and escorted
another, he’d felt even worse. When compared to Caro, any female he chose seemed
dull company and even an innocent evening without her felt like a betrayal.
When he returned to her on the following night, he could not help but tell her
where he had gone and who he had been with. It was almost as if he needed
But none of that mattered anymore. Now that
he had lost her, there was no reason not to attend a play. He glanced at his
current companion, who must have been a disappointment to the scandal mongers.
They’d been expecting an opera dancer, or a notorious courtesan. Instead, he
had made the most innocuous choice imaginable. The dowager Countess of
Blackthorne occupied the position at his side, her jewels sparkling against
satin, her grey hair arranged in a coronet, and her lorgnette firmly fixed on
the box to their right. It was one he had been purposefully ignoring all
evening, though it seemed to have been chosen in a way that made gazing into it
“Is that Caroline Sydney sitting just across
the circle from us?” his mother asked, without lowering her glass. “She was
your favorite for quite some time, was she not? Now that I can admire
her, I know why.”
,” he said,
staring fixedly at the stage.
“I have not spoken with her in ages. It is a
shame. When you introduced us, she was perfectly charming.”
Now, his mother was being purposely
difficult. He had introduced them in Bath, and again during the brief and
unfortunate courtship of last season. There had been no recent meetings because
one did not take one’s mistress to meet one’s mother. “The performance is on
the stage beneath us,” he remarked. “I was told that the soprano is
His mother glanced at the girl on the stage,
turned back to him. “You are interested in her as
“Mother,” he tried a warning tone. Now
that he was head of the household, she owed him obedience.
She was having none of that.
“Because she is not the equal to Miss Sydney.”
“I did not say she was,” he said, squeezing
the program in his hands.
“But I expect you will be choosing another mistress
soon. It is all over town that Caro cast you off.”
He balled up the program and tossed it to the
floor. “You are not supposed to know of that, much less speak of it.”
She dropped the glass and looked at him with
mock sympathy. “Everyone in London knows of it, Vincent. It has caused me
to worry that you do not understand how these things work. Is it not usually
the man who parts with the woman? When your father was alive…”
“I would prefer that we not speak of father’s
His mother laughed. “Your father had no
problem with it, nor did I. Of course, times were different then…”
Vincent pinched the bridge of his nose, for
the conversation was likely to degenerate into another discussion of the freer
morality in the last generation and his need to relax. Perhaps it was true. But
it was damned awkward to hear it from one’s own mother.
She’d raised her glass again. “At least I do
not have to worry about Miss Sydney. She seems to have found a new protector.
How very sensible of her. Who is the fellow?”
“Aubrey Howard,” he muttered. “We share a
club.” But if that was the normal behavior at the Hephaestus, they would not
share it for long.
“Well, good on her,” his mother announced.
“It does not do to stay in one’s house, brooding. She must be relieved to have
found a man who will indulge her taste in theater.”
“Why would you think that?” he asked,
wondering if it was true.
“Because I never saw you bring her here.”
“Because it was an embarrassment.”
“To be seen in public with a mistress? It does
not bother the other men here,” his mother gave a lighthearted wave of her fan.
“Nor did it bother you to bring opera dancers here, in her stead.”
“Only when I wanted to see the performance,”
he said hurriedly. “There was nothing between me and those young ladies.”
“I was not asking you,” his mother added. “I
simply find it strange that you did not bring Caro to share a thing that you so
He had done.
It had been early in their relationship, and he had been foolish, and in love,
unwilling to be parted from her for even a moment. Then, he had seen the
reactions of the other theater goers. Girls who had been Caro’s friends, only
weeks before, had cut her dead. Matrons whispered behind their fans and nodded
in disapproval. Quizzing glasses and lorgnettes had been raised, just as they
were now, to examine the new mistress of the Earl of Blackthorne.
He had burned with shame on her behalf. He
had turned her from a respectable young lady into an object of curiosity. He
should have offered properly, when he’d had the chance. Perhaps she would have
rebuffed him again. If she’d accepted, she’d have been sitting at his side in a
place of honor, the envy of her friends. In a moment of thoughtlessness, he had
reduced her to a curiosity in the eyes of the
“I did not think she would enjoy it,”
he muttered, feeling like a petulant child. After the first, disastrous public
appearance, he had vowed to be more careful with what was left of her
“Well, she is happy with tonight’s play. She
He did not need a glass to see that it was
true. Caro leaned forward, watching the action on the stage with rabid
interest, ignoring the glances of the curious.
Now, his mother would not stop speaking of
it. “It is a pity that her companion does not. He appears to be asleep.”
How dare he?
Vincent could not decide which annoyed him
more: that the man could not stay awake to appreciate what he had taken, or the
possibility that he was enjoying a well earned rest after bedding Caro. The
last thought made him a little sick. Had she forgotten him so soon? She was not
even looking in his direction, as she might have been, had this been an attempt
to make him jealous.
She leaned closer, to whisper something in
Howard’s ear, and realized his state. But instead of pouting or slapping him to
consciousness, as she should have, she smiled and stroked his sleeve. Such
obvious fondness was even more annoying. It was clear that, though she might
have seemed to be forced into desperate straits by her actions, she was quite
happy with her current circumstances.
Leave well enough alone.
That was what a sensible man would have done.
Recognize that the woman no longer wants you.
The reason did not matter.
He was not owed an explanation for it. If he was honest with himself, their
relationship had never been more than temporary.
But he was not a sensible man. He was a proud
one. The same pride that had landed them in this impossible situation drove him
forward now. She was rising, to exit the box.
In less than a heartbeat, he was on his feet
as well, ready to seek her out.
The stress was unbearable. For the better
part of an hour, Caro had managed to keep her eyes pointed forward, and all she
had to show for it was a stiff neck. She had missed these trips to the theater,
in the months with Blackthorne. But never had she simultaneously attended a
performance and given one. Although the man was unfailingly kind, it was a
challenge to pretend that she was Aubrey Howard’s light-of-love when he put no
returning effort into his role.
Currently, Mr. Howard was
or at least pretending to be so. It was possible he was shamming to avoid her
whispered questions about what was occurring in the Blackthorne box.
She had murmured that, if he’d meant to sleep,
she could have left him at home. At least, she could have saved herself the
extra money for a box, and bought them tickets for the pit.
With a smile and a sigh, he had assured her
that the money was an investment against the future. While it was enjoyable to
watch the performance from any seat, the object was to be seen. There was no
better way to do this than renting a box.
Then, he’d informed her that Vincent was
escorting his mother this evening, which should have been a comfort. At least
he had not already chosen a new mistress.
That had only replaced one fear with another.
She had not seen that woman since Vincent’s unsuccessful attempt at courtship.
Was the Dowager gloating now? Reminding him of it, and telling him that it had
been most fortunate that there had been no marriage? Remarking that she had
grown old, and making a joke about the wages of sin?
courage to look into those particular eyes, what would she have seen? They were
the only ones she really feared. To that particular woman, how would she ever
Caro had worked herself into such a state
worrying over it that she had broken the handle of her fan. In frustration,
she’d quit the box to seek out the lady’s retiring room, to repair the thing,
and soothe her nerves.
She had forgotten that the hall that ran the
length of the dress circle was as open to her lover as it was to her. Here was
Vincent, rounding the curve in front of her, ready for a confrontation. For a moment,
she considered darting into the nearest box and trying to come up with a polite
explanation for it. But he was the sort of man likely to follow her, should the
mood take him, and create a proper scene.
The mood certainly seemed to be taking him.
His eyes blazed, his body was tense and his stride long and quickening, as
though he suspected she might bolt and meant to run her down like a dog with a
Very well, then.
She would maintain her dignity. She greeted
him with distant courtesy. “Good evening, my Lord.”
He gave a stiff bow from the waist, as though it were possible
to pretend this was a casual meeting.
She made to go around.
He stepped into her path again.
She looked up at him. “If you mean to detain
me, you had best tell me the reason, or we shall be dancing in the hall all
night. You remember what happened the last time we played this particular
There was a long, hot pause, as they each
thought of the incident in the cloakroom. Then he spoke. “I merely wish to know
why you are here, making a public spectacle of yourself.”
Now she laughed. “I was doing nothing of the
“People were staring. I do not like it.”
“Of course they look at you,” she said
patiently. “You are notorious and have made no effort to be otherwise. If I
have added to that notoriety, I am sorry. I will not allow you to make a list
of the places that I may and may not go, to save you embarrassment.”
“That is not what I meant at all. They are
staring at you,” he said, with a frustrated growl.
“I had not noticed,” she said. It was a
relief to find, after all this time in virtual seclusion, that society’s
opinion did not bother her. But then, if she had doubted the rightness of her
decision, she would not have been able to face herself in the mirror, much less
do not like the way they look
at you.” Apparently, Vincent was less certain on the matter.
“I fail to see what concern it is of yours,”
she said, honestly frustrated.
“It is my concern because I caused it,” he replied.
His expression changed from simple annoyance to a dark mix of emotions. To see
the desire in his eyes was no surprise. But was that regret? Before she could
ask what troubled him, he had grabbed her wrist and pulled her forward, into
his arms. And then, he was kissing her.
In her rush to control him, on their last
meeting, she had forgotten the simple pleasure of his lips on hers.
Warm and wet, gentle, but firm.
He knew her mouth, as he
knew her body. The languid touches of his tongue warmed her heart, and she
leaned into him, twining her arms around his neck, wanting nothing more than to
be near him.
His voice was a breathless sigh. “Darling, how I have missed
And missed you.”
And I, you.
She stifled the answer before it escaped.
“Enough of this foolishness.
Let me take you home.”
Then, she remembered why she had not kissed
him before. She almost agreed. To go home with him now meant she had gained
nothing at all. She pushed him away.
He was still holding her wrist, and she jerked it out of his grasp. “Do not
touch me again, my Lord. I did not give you leave to.”