Dashing looks, an old-blooded title, and an annual income that could feed the whole country are all attributes considered well worthy of marriage. It amazes this writer that those in possession of all three qualities are often the most jaded pleasure seekers in society, and often the most dangerous for a young lady of marriageable age to dare court.
—The Mayfair Chronicles, May 26, 1846
If anyone were to guess what wickedness was going through Lady Charlotte Lindsey’s mind, they’d usher her away from the ball and lock her in a room where she could cause no trouble to anyone, including herself. Thank goodness her thoughts were her own. Because the very moment society’s biggest rogue strode into the ballroom, her plan moved from imagination to reality.
She hadn’t thought she’d ever be given the opportunity to take her future into her own hands; she had only hoped for the possibility.
The Marquess of Castleigh was tall and handsome with hair nearly as black as the evening sky and cut longer than fashionable. It was long enough that she wanted to run her fingers through it to see if it was as silky as it looked.
No, that didn’t seem right. She did not want to do any such thing.
She tried to focus on her task and not on how his presence was throwing her off balance. Though they’d never been formally introduced, she knew precisely who he was. It helped that she read all the rags that described the exploits of the ton’s deviants with regularity. For once, they’d done his appearance justice.
She had to force her gaze away from him to see who he had arrived with. His companions had reputations nearly as depraved as his, but she wasn’t interested in any of them. She returned her attention to the marquess.
When she and Ariel had come up with a list of potentials to aid in her ruin, the marquess had been at the top for a number of reasons: he liked nothing more than biting his thumb at society; he had yet to reach the age of thirty so he wasn’t likely to offer marriage; and—although she realized the point was shallow—he was devastatingly handsome. Perhaps the most sinfully attractive man she’d ever laid eyes upon. She would try not to allow that to unsettle her plan.
When she’d made up her list of roués, pulled from her three-year collection of The Mayfair Chronicles, the gossip surrounding the marquess was less … damning than that printed about the others. While some gentlemen were said to “make some misses puffy, rounded, and unmarriageable, if not forced to retire permanently to the country, or devastate the reputations of whole families by way of their charades,” she thought the Marquess of Castleigh more interested in poking fun at society than in causing real injury to a lady’s standing. And while she sought ruin, she didn’t want to be hurt in the process of said ruin.
And how convenient for her was it that he was attending the duchess’s ball this evening?
Of the three gentlemen to step into the room—the fourth in their set was the Dowager Countess of Fallon—Castleigh was by far the most arresting with his strong, sleek form and striking blue eyes that were accentuated by a fan of thick lashes and dark sculpted brows. Charlotte was convinced that his smile could melt a woman from the inside out in under a minute. Perhaps less, since she was halfway besotted although she’d laid eyes upon him only a few moments ago. She shook her head and tore her gaze away from his face to inspect the rest of him.
Aside from the heavily starched white cravat that was elaborately knotted at his throat, he wore black from head to toe. She doubted many men could pull off such a bold look. But he did it superbly.
With a flick of her wrist, Charlotte opened her fan and leaned closer to her dearest friend, Ariel, to whisper, “Look who has arrived.”
Ariel’s eyes widened, not with reservation but with anticipation of the events that were about to unfold.
“Oh, my.” Ariel laughed behind her fan. “Mother will be having conniptions when she sets eyes upon them.”
Ariel’s mother was the biggest gossip in society and hated the slightest impropriety. If Lady Hargrove ever learned of the lengths to which Charlotte would go to stop her marriage to Mr. Warren—a man of her father’s choosing—Charlotte would be sent to the country and hidden away until her wedding day.
Charlotte’s focus returned to the young men vying for her and Ariel’s attention. She gave Mr. Ellis, the youngest son of an earl and third in line for the title, a demure flutter of her lashes as he released her dance card with a shy smile. His hair was dark, his nose overly large, and his height admirable, but he was her age and probably only attending the ball because his mother had bid him to do so. He was also too kindhearted to be of help in stopping her marriage to Mr. Warren.
Mr. Torrance, a man of strong form and decidedly masculine features, stood next to Ariel. He had been by her friend’s side since the season started. Though he was not titled and prattled on far too often in downright embarrassing verse, his feelings for Ariel seemed genuine. More importantly, both gentlemen were fine companions for enduring a dull ball.
Yet, how could she consider this a tedious affair when four well-known society degenerates had just joined the party? And, as luck would have it, the one she was interested in seemed to be heading directly toward her.
Charlotte clutched Ariel’s wrist, trying to convey a silent message that this was her chance to change the course of the life her father had thoughtlessly mapped out for her. She was sure many young ladies would love to marry a man in line to inherit a title as blue and lucrative as that of the Earl of Fallon. They might even be willing to endure a solitary life—she’d heard Mr. Warren tell her father that she’d reside in the country after they were wed while he remained in London. It hurt that her father wanted to pair her with such a cruel, unloving man.
Needless to say, she and Mr. Warren had not started off on the right foot. They were two completely opposing personalities; they did not share one hobby between them, and more importantly, she had a strong impulse to push him out of the carriage every time he took her through Hyde Park. Mr. Warren was high-handed, unkind, and she couldn’t recall a single occasion where they’d had a decent conversation without one of them insulting the other. She’d rather meet some horrible end than be forced to marry him.
Hence the necessity of her plan.
She pasted on her most playful smile and lowered her fan marginally in coy invitation. Not only was the marquess headed in her direction, but his target seemed to be her and not the punch table she stood next to.
Ariel, her best friend since the age of five, understood precisely what Charlotte intended. Her friend nudged her forward with her shoulder. Not so hard that anyone would notice, just enough for Charlotte to take the hint that she needed to take action, not stand around fluttering her lashes like an infatuated fool.
Why should she give up the life she’d always thought to have because her father wanted a political alliance? Worse yet, her father well knew that she and Mr. Warren did not enjoy each other’s company. She might have a great deal of respect for her father, but he’d gone too far this time.
It was now or never.
It was simple, really: the Marquess of Castleigh was a means to an end.
As though she needed a sign that she was taking the right step, the orchestra started a quadrille, which would be suitable for introducing herself and last long enough for her to make a good impression on the man. She hoped.
It was true that she was known for her outrageous boldness, but this move was monumental and had the potential to drastically change the course of her life. All for the better, she had to believe.
The marquess was quite focused on her, as if he had but one plan. She stepped forward with her heart in her throat, boldly threaded her arm through his, and turned them in the direction of the dance floor. This was pure insanity.
He stood quite a few inches taller than her, and he matched her gait smoothly as they walked into the throng of dancers and took their places.
“Good evening, my lord.” She tried to find the words to introduce herself but the moment she looked into his icy blue eyes, she was suddenly speechless and her mouth as dry as the Saharan Desert. Goodness, he certainly was handsome, devastatingly so.
He quirked one brow and gave her a sinful smile that turned all her thoughts and intentions to mush.
With difficulty, she tore her gaze away from his once again and tried to suppress any vestige of nervousness that remained. It wasn’t working. She felt a fine sheen of sweat on the palms of her hands inside her gloves and at her temple. The hair on her arms exposed to the air stood on end.
“I hope you don’t mind that I’ve borrowed you for this dance.” Her voice sounded whispery and pathetic to her own ears. This wasn’t going as planned.
“Not at all, my lady.” The timbre of the marquess’s voice was as decadent as strawberries dipped in chocolate. “Shall we make introductions ourselves, or should we wait to be formally introduced despite our risqué partnering in this dance?”
A nervous laugh escaped her lips on hearing his teasing tone. She felt she was botching their first meeting, but couldn’t seem to pull her wits together long enough to fix it.
“I do suppose we can skip formalities.” She glanced at him from beneath her lashes, bewildered by her visceral reaction to his presence. She was never shy and nervous. What was it about the marquess that affected her in that way?
“A lady after my own heart.” He bowed and she curtsied hesitantly as they took their positions amid the circle of dancers. Her stomach fluttered, causing her to miss the first steps into the dance. He would think her a buffoon before long if she didn’t focus on her plan.
With a deep breath, she gathered what remaining courage she had and pulled on his arm, bidding him to lean closer to her ear. “Were you headed directly for me, or did I prevent you from reaching the punch table?”
She had to know whether he’d been the one to seek her out, that it wasn’t her imagination.
His hand spanned over the small of her back as they walked forward. He kept a respectable distance so he wasn’t touching her directly, but she could swear she felt the heat of his hand through her dress. They took their opposing partners’ arms, turned in the center, and then met again on the other side.
“Perhaps I intercepted you before you could search out a family member.” He looked around the room, as though wondering if she’d be stolen away by a concerned parent or chaperone.
Searching the sea of faces, she looked for her cousin who acted as her chaperone. Charlotte wasn’t going against Genny’s wishes by dancing with the marquess. Genny had only told her not to leave the room unattended. And she hadn’t left the room …
“My cousin attended the ball with me.” Why was she telling him that?
“Ah,” he said, unable to say more when their formation changed again. Perhaps this type of dance wasn’t the best way to introduce herself to him after all.
They moved forward with the other dancers, switching partners to spin around the center of the circle. Each time the marquess’s arm snaked around hers, Charlotte’s heart jolted with a shock of excitement.
“Allow me to present myself.” They were still paired and turning arm in arm in their own private circle. “Tristan Bradley, the Marquess of Castleigh.” He dipped his head with his introduction.
She gave him a slow smile, knowing her dimples were showing and hating that she couldn’t better school her features in his presence. “I know precisely who you are, my lord.”
They stopped on the outskirts of their circle as they waited their turn to join in the dance again.
“Does my reputation precede me even among the young misses moving in society for the first time?”
“I doubt there is anyone in the room who doesn’t know of you.” She inched close enough to him for her shoulder to press against his chest. He was very firm and didn’t seem to mind their proximity. However, she thought it odd that no one had noticed her dancing with the marquess.
“I’m always happy to be singled out.”
“Perhaps I shouldn’t have been so bold as to dance with you?”
His hand stroked the length of her arm as their positions changed. “I couldn’t agree with that. I suggest you dance the night away to your heart’s content.”
He had both her hands so she ducked her head again. “My name is Charlotte Lindsey. My father is the Earl of Ponsley.”
“It is a pleasure to make your acquaintance, Lady Charlotte.” With a gentle squeeze of her hand he continued to lead her through the dance.
When she partnered with him again on the other side of the circle, he placed his hand firmly over the small of her back in what could not be mistaken as simple positioning for their dance. This time she knew it was not her imagination; she felt the warmth of his hand through every layer of silk and linen and even through the boning in her corset. His fingers ran the length of the buttons that disappeared under the bow tied at the base of her back, and she felt herself sway a little closer to him. She was not the swooning type, but the very idea of this man carrying her away stole all the breath from her lungs.
She had a moment of clarity when she recalled the reason she was dancing with the marquess, and put a few inches between them. She simply wanted him to regard her favorably so she could ask for his assistance in her ruin. And if she was to accomplish that, she must remain in control of her errant thoughts. She would not be swayed from her goal, despite being unsettled so easily by this particular man.
Perhaps she should look over the other names on her list again? She rejected the idea just as quickly as it had come to her. No one else would do now. And why was that?
“Now that introductions are out of the way, may I request a favor?” she asked, feeling brave and bold again.
“I aim only to please you.” As they turned, he reached up quickly and pushed one of her wayward curls back from her forehead.
Each touch made her falter. He was a step ahead of her in the game they played, and it was supposed to be the other way around.
“I don’t think anyone is as shocked as they should be that you stole a dance from me not three minutes into your arrival.” She pouted her bottom lip in a show of disappointment. “Will you take another dance with me?”
He laughed; the sound was deep, reverberating through the length of her body. Admittedly, her knees weakened for the briefest of moments, but her resolve to succeed in her goal made her back stiffen and her arms grow rigid.
“So your only desire is for our names to be printed side by side in the gossip sheets?” He hitched her closer so that she was nearly pressed against the solid warmth of his body. They might not be touching, but his heat surrounded her like a much-needed blanket on a cold winter’s night. When she took in a deep breath, her chest surged against his unintentionally. This time it was he who seemed shocked by her boldness, for his hand briefly tightened around hers.
“Well, not necessarily with you.” She winked at him and spread her fingers over his shoulder, feeling the latent strength and muscle beneath. “I suppose any of your friends would do for what I have in mind.”
She glanced over toward the outskirts of the dance floor at one of his friends who was conversing with her cousin.
She missed a step and the marquess had to right her direction. How could her cousin possibly know that man? Genny looked irritated and a flush colored her cheeks as she spoke to the marquess’s friend. If there was one thing Charlotte knew well it was that Genny never did something so simple as converse; she lectured, and all the while the man standing with her merely smiled.
The marquess’s hand tightened around hers again, drawing her attention away from her cousin. “You’re far too young to understand the game you’re playing.”
His smile slipped for a moment and the intensity in his eyes felt dangerous and had her breath stilling in her lungs as she studied him.
“I wouldn’t call this a game.”
A game implied unmitigated amusement. This was more like a mission, or better yet a goal and a desire so deep she couldn’t imagine not accomplishing her ruin by the time the summer season ended.
“Then why did you seem so insistent that we dance?”
“I’m merely experiencing all that life has to offer.” Though she wasn’t so sure about that sentiment, courting the marquess was not about self-indulgence—all right, that wasn’t quite true, either, because she was sure the marquess would be far more amusing and a lot more fun to spend time with than Mr. Warren.
“You’re young. What makes you rush life along when it happens regardless?”
“Am I a mere child in your eyes?” She suddenly felt gauche.
Perhaps this task wouldn’t be as easy as she had originally thought. Maybe he wasn’t interested in debutantes, but women more experienced with intimacy? Now that she thought about it, she couldn’t remember a single debutante being tied to his name.
“Definitely not a child.” There was an assurance in his words that settled her flagging nerves. “But I am curious to know what secrets you harbor, my lady.”
“If we ladies weren’t mysterious, men might grow bored with us.”
“That’s simply not possible.”
The marquess turned her suddenly, his leg going between hers as they neared the edge of the dance floor and approached her cousin. The position was intimate and telling, but his direction baffling. If he wanted to act daring and shock her with bold behavior, why not whisk her out of the room altogether?
She tightened her hold on his hand and pressed the front of her body against his before they parted on another turn. She would not give him the opportunity to think her inexperienced. She must be brazen, and she could not waver in the path she’d decided on for even a moment. The simple truth was: the Marquess of Castleigh would play his part. And she’d find a way to endear him before she could change her mind and before he could think better of his actions.
She needed to act quickly because she had only two choices and each would lead her down very different paths. She could face ruination with the marquess or marry a man she loathed.
Copyright © 2013 by Tiffany Clare