Authors: Christine Merrill
“You cannot mean it.” He smiled and reached
for her again.
She stepped clear of his arms. “The contact
is unwelcome. You no longer have the right to manhandle me, at a whim.”
He looked at her, as surprised as a little
boy who had been scolded. “You used to enjoy my kisses.”
She nodded. “That was when we had an
arrangement. That time is over. To accost me in public, you are treating me as
a common whore.”
She could see by the pained look in his eyes
that it had not been his intent. Then he turned sullen. “If you do not want
people to think thus about you, you should not publically flaunt your new
“Flaunt?” She laughed. “Is it really so
scandalous to attend a play with Mr. Howard?”
His mouth flapped in a way that was most
undignified, before he settled on an argument. “People knew of our
“Of course they did. It was of some duration,
and no secret.”
“They knew of the end of it, as well.” He was
glaring at her.
She hid her smile. “I made no effort to keep
that a secret, either.”
“And now, you have taken up with this… this…”
He gave a vague gesture in the direction of the box were Mr. Howard slept. “He
is nothing like me.”
“Perhaps there is a reason for that,” she
Now he did not simply look confused, he
looked wounded. The idea that she would not seek some pale imitation of the
love they’d shared did not seem to occur to him. He shook his head. “You cannot
mean it. We were perfect together. We were happy. Then it was over, and I still
do not understand why.” He stared at her, waiting for an answer.
“That is why it ended,” she said, softly.
“Because you did not understand that happiness would not be enough.”
“You are talking rot,” he said, trying to
cover his confusion with contempt. “You might blame me for my ignorance.
But at least I am certainly not the novice with women that Howard is. He will
never satisfy you.”
If all she had wanted was to see him jealous,
it would have been enough, for Blackthorne was burning with it. Mr. Howard had
assured her that there was a greater reward in store, if she could be strong
just a little longer. “Perhaps, Aubrey is a trifle naïve,” she said, with a
cat’s smile. “But one thing is
he will not be
ignorant of women, once I am through with him.” She gathered her skirts and
swept around the speechless earl and continued down the hall to the retiring
Vauxhall Gardens was a marvelous mix of the
magical and the tawdry. If Caro were to be honest, it suited her well. She had
not seen it in over a year, since the night her future had been decided for her
in the dark walks at the back. When Mr. Howard had suggested it, she’d feared
that the memory of that night would have spoiled it for her. Perhaps Vincent
had assumed so as well, for he had been adamant that they would never set foot
in the place again.
It had been but one more place that Vincent
had not taken her, in the time they’d shared. Now that she was here, the
encounter with Mr. Worthington faded to insignificance. It could not compete
with the lights and laughter, the jugglers, and the lady performing acrobatics
on the back of a prancing horse.
She smiled up at Mr. Howard, almost
forgetting the purpose of the visit. “Thank you for bringing me here. It is a
most delightful evening.”
“I am glad you are enjoying it,” he said,
then noticed her interest in the couples crowding the floor in front of the
pavilion. “Would you like to dance?”
She nodded eagerly.
“That is a shame,” he said.
“For I am not very good at it.”
He saw her face fall, and
smiled. “Still, if you wish it, I shall attempt it.” In a few moments, he had
proved that his opinion of his abilities was accurate, by treading on her toes.
It hardly mattered. At least they were
dancing. It had been so long that she had forgotten how much she enjoyed it. It
was yet another pastime that she had been denied while with Vincent. She
frowned. If he truly wanted to marry her, things would need to change. Perhaps
they would not be welcome in some homes. But that was no reason to quit society
But she must not take it out on her current
escort. She smiled in encouragement at Mr. Howard. In response, he flushed pink
and stumbled again. It was a shame that he was not searching for a woman of his
own, who might admire his better qualities. Though he was kind, and pleasant
company, he truly was not the right man for her.
Perhaps, if he’d had money, she might have
felt differently. The thought shocked her. Were wives and mistresses really so
different, if both chose their men based not on character but on the size of
He seemed to sense her scrutiny, and flushed
even more. “I am sorry you had to pay for the tickets. It was such a small sum,
and yet…” he shuffled his feet in a way that was more embarrassment than
dancing. Then he laughed. “That is why I am yet unmarried. A sensible woman
much as talk to me. What would be the
point of cultivating an attachment to a man devoid of poetry, looks and money?”
“It is all right,” she said. “You possess
kindness, which is a quality much rarer than gold. And intelligence,” she
added, as an afterthought. “That is important as well, for it will sometimes
lead to money.”
“I can but hope so,” he agreed.
“You have time on your side,” she said,
giving his arm an encouraging squeeze as he led her from the dance floor. “With
age, a man grows more dignified and desirable. But an unmarried woman with a
dubious reputation is called a stale.”
“As if you were
made of bread.
“I am on the shelf already,” she reminded
“Nearly two and twenty, but with enough scandal for a
woman twice my age.”
“Nonsense,” said Mr. Howard. “You will be
married in no time. It will do you good, and put me one step closer to solving
my problems. Our association is driving Blackthorne near to madness. I suspect,
should we see him tonight, it will be the end of it.” He glanced into the
crowd. “And there he is.”
She gave a guilty start before remembering
that it had been their object to meet him. “However did he find us here?”
“It should not have been difficult. Today, at
the club, I remarked on my intention to bring you here.”
“You told him?”
“Not in so many words. I did not mention you,
of course. That would have been most disrespectful.”
She wanted to correct him. There was no
reason that a man could not talk about his mistress when with other men.
If that was not to be her future?
She smiled. “That was most
kind of you.”
In response, he shrugged. “But I am sure,
when I described my plans for the evening he knew who I intended to escort.
Thus, we find him here, looking most foreboding. If you will excuse me, I will
leave you alone, under the guise of procuring a pair of those miserably sparse
ham sandwiches they sell here. If you would please stray a trifle too close to
the dark walks so Blackthorne may meet with you, the matter will be settled in
no time.” As if by afterthought, he leaned forward and kissed her on the cheek.
“Mr. Howard!” She could not help herself. She
blushed, and giggled like a school girl. Despite all that she had done with
Vincent, this kiss from another was most unexpected.
She might have been mistaken, but there was a
deeper flush of pink in his cheeks, when he responded, “Miss Sydney.” Then he
gave an awkward half bow, and went off to seek refreshments.
She did as he suggested and purposefully
wandered away from the crowds, in the direction of the back of the park. The
bustle and gaiety of the entertainments gave way to a more natural and romantic
setting. The water of the canal ran dark beneath the little cast iron bridge
she crossed. The sound of a waterfall muffled the sounds of the dance music,
of lovers stealing kisses in the dark.
Perhaps it muffled the sound of footsteps as
well. Blackthorne was beside her, before she heard him approach. “You should
not be here,” he said, taking her arm though she had given him no invitation to
“It is not your decision to make,” she said,
pulling her arm away. “But since you seem to know so well, just where do you
think I should go?”
There was a pause as he tried to come up with
an answer. “Well, not here.”
She sighed. “Not here, or the theater, or
your club… I will admit
entering a gentleman’s club
was a mistake. The other locations are unexceptional.”
“But to come here, of all places…” he said
“It is a public venue, is it not? And I do
enjoy the entertainments. There was a man, near the gate, walking on a wire,
ten feet above the ground.” She glanced back, over her shoulder, as though
wanting to go back.
He took her arm again, and pulled her further
down a serpentine path and into the darkness. “You have not been here since
that night, with Worthington. I made sure of it,” he said, firmly.
“London has all but forgotten that particular
incident,” she said. “They are far more interested in what has happened to me
“That is why you must take care when you are
in public.” He sounded surprisingly sanctimonious for a rake.
“My reputation was forfeit the moment I took
to your bed,” she said. “Because you wished to avoid scandal when it was
already too late to do so, I was near to a prisoner in my own home.” She had
not noticed how it had annoyed her, until it had stopped. At one time, it had seemed
a fair trade to give up dancing at balls and going to the theater for Vincent’s
But no longer.
She scoffed. “You had the
nerve to talk to me of love, when it was clear that you were ashamed to be seen
with me. That was why I put you out, Vincent. I could not bear it another
This was greeted with silence, but his grasp
on her arm gentled, though he continued to propel her forward, to a wooden
gazebo surrounded by carefully trimmed shrubbery. Once they were inside, he
pulled her forward, into his arms and murmured, “It was never my intent to hurt
“Intent does not matter,” she said weakly.
“The damage is done. There is nothing that will make me whole again, in the
eyes of society.”
“Perhaps not,” he agreed. “But society can be
damned. In my eyes, you are an angel and far too good for me.” Then he pulled
her fully into his arms and kissed her.
As it had at the theater, it felt wonderful.
His arms wrapped
around her body, taking the night chill away. She snuggled into them, letting
her fingers trail over the broad shoulders hidden by his coat. He was right.
Society could be damned, as long as these strong arms were there, to hold her
His voice was a low, seductive whisper. “I
will be better. I swear it, if you will only give me another chance.” His lips
teased the cord in her neck, and she arched her back, leaning over his arm to
urge them lower, over the hollow of her collarbone, until his kisses skirted
the edge of her bodice. “I do love you, Caro. If I do not love well enough,
then you must teach me how.”
Hadn’t she said something like that, a year
His lips on her skin were a reminder of all the wondrous
things she had learned since, as was the thrumming in her body, the weakness in
her knees, and the way her breasts ached to be touched.
“We shouldn’t,” she said, in answer to a
question he had not asked.
“You’re right,” he agreed. Then he cupped her
breast through the fabric of her gown.
When had they ever chosen the sensible path
over the pleasurable one? She slipped a hand under his coat, and ran it along
his ribs, stroking his chest through the opening of his shirt.
She could not see, but she was sure he was
damned, for I certainly am. You
are too great a temptation to resist.”
He bit her shoulder, and she gasped and
squirmed against him, wishing that there was no barrier of clothing between
their bodies. She could remind him later of his promise to love her better, and
tell him what she required of him. Then, he would offer again or he would not,
and that would be the end of it. But she would not ransom this moment of joy,
for it might be the last one they shared.
He was turning her now, leaning her back
against the wall of the gazebo, as he reached to lift her skirt. One hand found
its proper place between her legs, toying with her as he undid his trousers
with the other. Then he was sliding into her, inch by precious inch, moving
surely in the darkness.
stifled the sound with her fist. There were voices on the path, just beyond the
doorway. He thrust again, as though trying to coax a response from her, and she
felt every muscle in her tighten and release in a brief climax.
He felt it as well, for he covered her mouth
with his, to muffle his own growl of pleasure.
back so gently that there was not even the rustle of their garments to reveal
They moved like that for a time, a silent slide of skin on skin,
the tension growing between them, until they were both trembling with
Through the slats in the wood, she could see
fireworks by the pavilion, flashes of gold and silver in the darkness, and hear
the crackle and hiss of the powder. Perhaps she would still see them, if she
closed her eyes, like the fire in her blood, whenever Vincent was near.
The couple outside turned back up the path,
to see the display. Before they had gone very far, Vincent lost control, taking
her with him over the edge as a plume of sparks lit the sky above them. They
stayed for a time, holding each other, as the lights in the sky died away. Then
they did up buttons and straightened petticoats, silently helping each other as
they had done hundreds of times before.
Before they left the dark enclosure, he
paused to kiss her again, tenderly this time. As he mouthed ‘I love you,’
against her lips, she made no move to scold him for it. Something between them
had changed. It was for the better, she hoped. While this tryst had been
foolish, the fact that they would be walking back arm in arm in public was an
improvement over a month ago.
When they stepped clear of the building, Mr.
Howard was standing in the center of the dimly lit path, a pair of ham
sandwiches on the ground at his feet. He looked strange in the dark, the
shadows making him seem taller, more angular, even more of an animated
scarecrow than he appeared in daylight. Was that disapproval on his face, or
disappointment? He glanced past her, to Vincent. “Lord Blackthorne?”
“Mr. Howard.” Vincent was making matters
worse. His response was smug, and more than a little possessive.
“Aubrey,” she said, trying a conciliatory
smile as she disengaged herself from Vincent’s arm. “It is all right.”
Vincent said in a tone dripping scorn.
“There is nothing to concern you here.”
He tipped his head to the side, examining the
pair of them and drawing the obvious conclusion. “Actually, I do not think that
is so.” Then he pulled off one glove, stepped forward and slapped the Earl of
Blackthorne in the face with it.
Were duels really
ridiculously courtly as this? She doubted so, for Vincent laughed in response.
“Do you mean to challenge me, sir?