Excerpt: Seducing Charlotte
Book 1: The Accidental Peers
Sweet angels in heaven. Where ever did she learn to do that?
The Marquess of Camryn lost his line of thought as Maria Fitzharding’s expert ministrations began to have an impact on him. One hand resting atop her head, he fell back against the tree, oblivious to the evening chill, and looked down at the woman kneeling before him. The full moon cast a blue glow over her form, treating Cam to glimpses of an impressive décolletage. He’d met Maria a time or two at one of the few social affairs he’d attended this Season. The lady had been the one to seek him out this evening and now, well, he discovered she had her charms.
Turning his head to the side, he glanced up at the baroque manor glittering in the velvet darkness, its imposing stone belvederes standing rooftop sentry against the night sky. Muted sounds of music and laughter wafted into the boundless gardens where the pungent aroma of cultivated blooms engulfed them. Fruity fragrances and darker, somber aromas intermingled with the sweet and sharp.
His body tensed as pleasurable sensations shot up the back of his legs. Closing his eyes, he tilted his head back against the rough bark, shuddering when physical release came to him.
“I suppose we shouldn’t dawdle, my dear,” he said sometime afterward, offering a hand to help her up. “Someone is bound to notice our mutual absence.”
Coming to her feet, she cast a satisfied look in his direction. “No need to worry on that account,” she said. “My husband is no doubt paying court to his mistress this evening.”
Husband? A dull pain throbbed at the nape of his neck, threatening a headache. He helped brush leaves from the lady’s skirt, her heavy perfume, a mixture of cloves and rosemary, stung his nostrils. “Allow me to escort you back.”
“Lud.” She laughed, patting her coiffed golden curls into place. “Let’s not make more of this than it is. I shall return first so we are not seen together.” Maria turned to go. “Oh, and Camryn?”
Her eyes glimmered in the darkness. “I look forward to our next meeting.”
Cam bowed, his polite smile fixed, knowing he would not pursue a liaison with a married woman. “You honor me with your attentions.” As she faded into the shadows, he finished fastening his breeches, still somehow unsatisfied.
Hollowness stretched inside his chest. The physical exhilaration of sexual release had never seemed so fleeting. The empty sensation reminded him of why he hadn’t been with a woman in months. He pressed the palms of his hands against his eyes to counter the pounding in his head. Such associations had once been vastly entertaining.
The sound of a tiny hiccup punctured the air. Stilling, he cocked his head. It happened again, only this time it was the muffled squeak of someone trying to contain a sneeze. Someone in close proximity.
His skin prickled. “Who’s there?” The words, low and unfriendly, were met with silence, except for the strains of music and conversation floating through the darkness from the main house.
“Ah choo!” There it came again, this time louder and unrestrained. “Ah, choo! Ah choo!” Distinctly feminine sneezes. A guest? The brisk evening air kept most people from strolling this deep into the garden. And no innocent maiden would venture this far alone. Perhaps it was a servant out for a liaison of her own.
Cam released the breath he’d been holding. “Come now, you’ve already been detected.” He eased his tone, injecting his usual amiability into it. “You may as well show yourself.”
The bushes rustled, followed by sounds of swishing skirts and skittish footsteps bounding away. Shrugging, he turned to stride onto the path toward the manor, ignoring the delicate blooms he trampled underfoot until their heady perfume enveloped him, chastising him for his indifference. He rubbed his throbbing temples and thought again of the mystery girl somewhere out there in the dark. Whoever the chit was, he regretted she’d witnessed such a show.
Muffled sounds drew his attention once he neared the manor. He strained to see two people struggling by the white marble fountain just below the terrace. A tall, lanky man in uniform clutched a much smaller, slender female form in plain servants’ clothing.
“No, please, sir,” she pleaded in a wobbly voice.
A gruff laugh followed. “You’ve got lovely bubbies, my dear. I’ll wager no one else has had a look at them yet.” The man wrestled with the girl’s arms, causing the gold spangles and tassels on his uniform to dance in the glimmering torchlight.
Cam blinked hard and focused; his flesh crawled when he recognized the military officer in the crimson coat. He’d never had much use for Titus Boyle, one of the Earl of Townsend’s many sons. They’d been together at Eton, but Cam hadn’t seen the man since he’d joined the fight on the continent. From the looks of things, Boyle hadn’t changed much.
The girl fought to free herself, but Boyle wrenched her against him, his free hand yanking up her skirts to expose slender, waiflike limbs. “Let’s see what delights you have hidden under here.”
Cam stepped out of the shadows. “Boyle.”
The man jerked in Cam’s direction. Disheveled, dark curls fell onto a flushed face drawn with refined features. He dropped the girl’s skirt, his wary, bloodshot eyes homing in on Cam. “Arthur Stanhope? Is that you?”
“In the flesh.”
“I say, you shouldn’t sneak up on a gentleman like that.” His voice grew louder. “I hear you’ve come into your title.”
“Yes, I’m Camryn now.”
“Some culls have all the luck.” The words had a bitter edge. “Bloody fortunate thing for you that your uncle could only spawn wenches.”
Cam recalled hearing rumors of Boyle’s preference for innocents. “Allow the girl to return to her post.”
Boyle yanked the girl hard against him. She shrieked and jerked. The despair in her eyes reminded Cam of an animal caught in a trap, one who knew the fight was futile.
“No, please!” She appeared no older than fourteen, perhaps younger.
“Mind your own affairs, Camryn. This fresh one is mine.” Scorn twisted Boyle’s smile. “You’re welcome to the chit once I’m done tupping her.”
He wanted to shove that smirk down Boyle’s throat. “I strongly suggest you release her.”
“Bugger off. This is none of your concern.” Boyle rubbed the girl’s bottom. She squeezed her eyes shut, her chest heaving. “This one should count herself lucky one of her betters is willing to give her a tumble.”
“The chit is young and appears unwilling.” The pain drumming inside his head sharpened. “You will let her go.”
Boyle’s sneer snapped what little was left of Cam’s patience. He smashed his fist into the man’s face, his knuckles screaming in protest when they made contact with Boyle’s nose. The man teetered for a moment, his arms swinging about in a futile effort to keep his balance. His eyes rolled back in his head, and he crashed to the floor with a heavy thud.
Cam shook his head. Boyle must be foxed out of his mind to go down cold after one chop. Cradling his throbbing fist, he turned to the girl. “Are you injured?”
She shook her head, her gaze fixed on the heap of man lying inert on the floor.
Cam suppressed the urge to give the scum at his feet one last swift kick. Instead, he gentled his voice. “Go on then. And don’t wander alone when your master is entertaining.”
With a shaky smile, the girl curtsied before scurrying away. Cam watched her for a moment before trotting up the terrace stairs and slipping inside through an arched door.
“There you are, Cam.” His cousin Willa, Duchess of Hartwell, narrowed in on him the moment he reentered the ballroom. No small feat given the crush of dancing and chattering guests in the immense columned chamber. “Where have you been? What use is it to have London’s most eligible bachelor in attendance if he will not take to the dance floor?”
“My apologies.” Trying to ignore his smarting knuckles, Cam bowed over her hand. “I promise to locate the nearest wallflower and take her for a turn.”
Her husband, the duke, lifted a dark eyebrow. “I suppose we should feel honored by your attendance,” said Gray Preston. “You’ve been conspicuously absent from social gatherings of late.”
Cam took a glass of champagne from a passing footman. “There are several matters involving the Luddites in the Lords that require my attention.”
“Is there someone on the terrace who requires your undivided attention as well?” Hart asked with a sardonic twist of his lips.
“One Titus Boyle.” Cam sipped champagne to wash the sour taste out of his mouth. “He might require assistance to reach his coach.”
“Boyle?” Hart grimaced. “I won’t even ask what that jackanapes did this time to draw your ire.” Turning to a nearby footman who stood at the ready, he murmured a few quiet instructions.
Willa’s mind seemed to be on other matters. “You look fatigued, Cam. You mustn’t work so much.”
“I was loath to leave work for several days in the country. But as I’m never able to deny you, here I am.”
“Imagine all of the hearts that would break if you neglected to attend,” she teased. Marriage to the duke agreed with Wilhelmina. With her chestnut curls and alabaster skin, she had an innate grace befitting a duchess.
Sipping his drink, Cam surveyed the crowded ballroom. The orchestra played on a balcony mezzanine which overlooked the crush of dancers below. Clinking glasses and the loud murmuring of dozens of conversations filled the air which, despite the open terrace doors, grew warm and humid.
“What you require is a wife,” his cousin said. “I shall make it my mission this season to find one.”
“Count on trouble now, my friend,” the duke said, dismissing the footman and returning his attention to them. “My duchess is unshakable once she sets her mind to something.”
“Willa is determined to fell me with the same marital bliss from which you are unable to recover.”
“Quite right.” The harsh angles of the duke’s face softened into a contented smile. “There is no hope of a cure for my affliction.”
Willa’s ears turned red as they always did when she was embarrassed. Her gaze swept beyond them. “Splendid. Charlotte has arrived. Cam, you must take a turn with her.”
“Must I?” He couldn’t see why. The humorless bluestocking likely had as little interest in dancing with him as he had in engaging with her. He drained his glass as Miss Livingston approached. The smooth liquid slid down his throat, its warmth radiating into his chest.
She wore a plain, dark-colored frock, which did nothing for her tall, shapeless frame. Their eyes met for a brief moment before both hurriedly looked away, but he caught the way her disdainful little nose wrinkled at the sight of him standing next to the duchess.
Careful to maintain a neutral expression, he said to Willa, “Perhaps Hart would care to dance with her.”
The duke chuckled. “I wouldn’t dream of denying you the pleasure. Besides, I shall be taking a turn with my lovely duchess.” He inclined his head at the approaching lady. “Miss Livingston.”
“Your Grace.” She curtsied. Willa barely gave the woman time to exchange the usual pleasantries before pulling her aside for an animated conversation. He wondered what his cousin saw in the cold, strident Miss Livingston.
Admittedly, the lady’s looks improved a bit upon closer inspection. Some might even consider her handsome in a lackluster sort of way. Tall for a female, she had the bluest eyes he’d ever seen. Definitely her best feature, they were like an island sky, clear and cloudless against her fair skin and firm patrician nose. Her unremarkable brown hair parted down the middle and was pulled into an austere bun at the nape of her neck. His gaze dropped to the modest neckline of her simple gown, which suggested little in the way of curves. She wasn’t to his tastes at all, which ran to buxom females with ample hips and an abundance of feminine slopes and valleys.
“You do remember meeting my cousin in town,” Willa said to Charlotte, drawing the gentlemen back into the conversation. Cam certainly recalled meeting the baron’s daughter once, several months ago at one of Willa’s salons, where the lady’s ardent diatribe on the importance of public education for the masses had been difficult to forget.
What he recalled most about Miss Livingston was her utter lack of feminine interest in him. Not that it mattered to him, of course. But if there was one thing to which he was unaccustomed, it was being ignored by the opposite sex. He knew he had a certain appeal to women and, except for the strange sexual doldrums he’d experienced of late, had been more than happy to return their attentions.
“My lord.” Miss Livingston regarded him with a courteous expression, but Cam detected a flash of discomfort in those soft blue depths.
“Miss Livingston, what a pleasure it is to see you again,” he lied, bowing over her hand.
Hartwell took his wife’s elbow. “Darling, let’s dance, shall we?” He glanced back over his shoulder as he ushered his wife toward the dance floor. “Cam, perhaps Miss Livingston will honor you with a turn as well.”
Left on their own, they faced each other in silence for an awkward moment. Then he donned a cool and polite smile since anything more would no doubt be wasted on this particular female. “Miss Livingston, will you do me the honor of standing up with me?”
She pursed her lips. “I suppose there’s nothing to be done for it. After all, the duke has practically commanded it.”
“Indeed.” He suppressed a sigh of irritation. Normally, his dutiful attentions toward wallflowers, spinsters, and bluestockings met with blushing, delighted gratitude.
Proceeding to a spot among the humid, perfumed throng of dancing couples, he placed his hand at the lady’s lithe waist and led her into a waltz. At least her height complemented his, and she moved across the floor with graceful ease. Surprising. Her subtle floral scent teased his nostrils, triggering an unexpected urge to lean forward to inhale it more fully. “You are quite an accomplished dancer, Miss Livingston.”
Extraordinary azure eyes considered him. “It is hardly gentlemanly of you to appear so thoroughly surprised.”
He was though. She didn’t seem the type to spend an abundance of time in ballrooms. He assumed she devoted most of her days to her causes. “Not at all,” he said with practiced gallantry. “No doubt your dance card is always full to bursting.”
Her even forehead rose in obvious amusement. “Hardly. You would not have asked me to dance had His Grace not badgered you into it.” Her voice did not match that prim exterior. It was smooth and rich, with just a touch of spice, a resonant sound that satisfied the senses like a fine, warmed liqueur on a lonely winter evening.
“Do you always speak so plainly, Miss Livingston?”
Her answering laugh was that of a woman, ripe and throaty, not the girlish tittering cultivated by most gently bred maidens. “Much to my mother’s chagrin. Unfortunately, there are times I simply cannot stop the words from slipping out.”
“Imagine that.” Plain as she was, upon closer inspection and acquaintance, Miss Livingston exuded an elusive allure, an indescribable something he couldn’t quite identify. Perhaps it was the translucent nature of her eyes that made them appear endless. It was almost startling to gaze into those plunging depths.
“Yes, indeed,” she said agreeably, inclining her head toward the blank-faced misses floating around them. “I look at the expression on their faces and wonder how they manage it.” She cocked her head, as if considering the thought. “Why do they insult themselves by pretending they haven’t a brain in their heads? Most women of my acquaintance are quite intelligent.”
“I believe they cultivate it quite purposefully.” He led her through another smooth turn, which she deftly followed. “A shy and gentle countenance is considered desirable for a young maiden of a certain station.”
“Hmm, then I am afraid Mother has the right of it. My cause is lost.” Mirth tinged her sparkling eyes. “I’m certain I couldn’t master that vacant stare, even if so desired. And holding my tongue might be a challenge.”
This time he was the one to laugh. “I’m beginning to see that.” She certainly was direct. Perhaps he’d been too rash in judging Miss Livingston’s appeal, having never engaged her in conversation before this evening. While her published essays on social reform hit a stentorian note, the lady herself apparently had a sense of humor. And she looked a little less plain floating in his arms, her cheeks flushed, those mesmerizing eyes shimmering with intelligence.
“I doubt you could look empty-headed, Miss Livingston. And even if you managed to pull off such a deception, your rather impressive writings would give you away.”
She crooked her lips, drawing his attention to her mouth. Unlike the lean, spare lines of her body, her lips were plump and succulently rounded. A sudden, unexpected urge to taste them assailed him. Startled, he shoved it away.
“As if you have read my essays.”
It took him a moment to refocus on their conversation. Ah yes, her essays. “Indeed I have. And I have enjoyed them.” Her obvious surprise amused him. They took another lavish twirl. “Even if your point is somewhat misguided.”
She stiffened, indignation shining in those brilliant eyes. “I beg your pardon?”
“Your essays on the Luddites are brilliantly written, of course. However, I find the sentiment in them to be rather naive.” He smiled to realize he was enjoying the conversation. “You have an unfortunate tendency to romanticize the machine wreckers. There can be no legitimate excuse for behaving in an unlawful manner.”
Her nostrils flared. “Machinery is driving down their wages at a time when food prices have never been higher,” she said heatedly. “The fires have died in their hearths, and their children are starving. I think you, sir, are the one who is naive.”
Her eyes were even lovelier when lit with passion. Desire warmed his groin. Devil take it. What was the matter with him? “The life of the operative class has never been ideal,” he responded, trying to ignore his twitching prick. “Machinery could ultimately be advantageous for everyone, including our working people.”
She wrinkled her nose. “It is certainly so for the factory owners who achieve higher profits by decreasing wages and reducing the number of hours worked.”
She was no empty-headed chit. Refreshing. The throbbing in his head began to ease. Eager to engage Miss Livingston in an animated debate on the subject, Cam began to respond, but the swelling music cut him short. The movement reached a crescendo making it difficult to converse at all.
As she danced with the Marquess of Camryn, Charlotte became acutely aware of the envious gazes burning into her back by the marriage-minded maidens in attendance. They needn’t worry. Camryn only danced with her out of courtesy, which suited her perfectly. She much preferred the forward thinkers in her circles, intellectuals who concerned themselves with pressing social problems. Even if they weren’t particularly exciting.
Unlike the Marquess of Camryn. With his gilded looks and lithely muscled form, he exuded a blatant physicality that made a girl’s insides quiver. Even when she should know better.
“Well, Miss Livingston,” he said when the music softened, the candlelight shimmering through the rumpled waves of his amber hair. “Clearly I have been negligent in not asking for a spot on your dance card. You must promise me a waltz each time we meet.”
She smiled with genuine amusement. “Are you taking pity on a wallflower, my lord?”
“Hardly.” Camryn regarded her through lowered lashes, drawing her attention to the tiny specks of gold glittering in his sea-green eyes. They were laughing eyes, which crinkled at the corners even when he wasn’t smiling, giving the impression of perpetual amusement. “Surely you are aware that you are the last woman deserving of pity.” He spoke softly as if his own words surprised him. “Rather, it is the gentleman who falls under your spell who deserves sympathy.”
“Oh?” To her annoyance, her heart fluttered. “Do tell, why is that?”
“I sense there are very few men who would be a match for you.” He answered in measured tones, as though the thought had just occurred to him. “Most would be helpless to resist your charms.”
This time, her heart didn’t merely flutter; it thumped so hard she feared he’d notice it knocking beneath her gown. “I’m afraid I’ve never been accused of possessing charms before.”
“That’s just it. They are well hidden, but those fortunate enough to glimpse them would be utterly defeated long before they comprehended what was occurring.”
Irritated at herself for allowing him to fluster her, she forced a stilted laugh. “You have a very talented tongue, my lord.”
“I do give it my best effort,” he answered in a velvety tone.
Heat flooded her body. It didn’t seem like they were talking about the same thing anymore. Lord, it was better when he ignored her. The way Camryn regarded her now prompted a curious warmth to ooze through her.
“Goodness, it’s close in here,” she said, eager to be away from him. The man emanated an energy that made her nervous, which was absolutely ridiculous. She, of all people, knew what a rakehell he could be. Lawks, the images were branded on her brain.
Camryn’s bronze face creased into a frown. “Are you unwell? You do appear flushed.” He waltzed her toward the open terrace doors, coming to a stop in front of them. Releasing her, he offered his arm. “Perhaps some fresh air will do you good.”
Drat. Charlotte could think of no graceful way to disoblige him. Resigned, she took his arm, strolling across the terrace where other guests also mingled, their light chatter filling the night. She sucked the brisk air deep into her lungs, its cool sharpness filled her chest, contrasting with the warm, muscled arm beneath her hand.
He examined her face. “Better?”
No. “Yes, thank you. I am well. Truly.” She smoothed her free hand over front bodice of her dress. “I am not much for large routs. To be truthful, I avoid them whenever possible.”
He nodded in agreement. “As do I.”
“I came for Willa as she is my dearest friend. Is that the reason you are in attendance?”
“In part. I also have business to attend to.”
“Business? Cheshire is a long way from Town.”
“Not the lords. I have a factory near here.”
The brisk air turned icy sharp in her lungs. Halting, she pulled her hand from his arm. “A factory?”
He placed a hand against his chest. “Surely, you don’t hold to the Ton notion that engaging in enterprise is beneath a gentleman?”
Tension strained the muscles across the back of her shoulders. “What kind of factory?”
“I have a textile mill.”
“I should have known.” Her chest burned at the realization the Marquess of Camryn was far worse than a mere rakehell. “You are an industrialist.”
“You take offense because I dabble in enterprise?”
“Dabble?” Her voice rose. “Your so-called dabbling leaves textile artisans with no way to provide for their families.”
“Mechanized looms are the way of the future, as we’ve just discussed.” He spoke in a calm, almost offhand, manner, as if wrecking people’s lives came as naturally to him as strolling on the terrace. “Perhaps you’d care to visit one of my factories to investigate for yourself.”
“I know all about how workers are treated in those places, my lord.” It wasn’t as though she hadn’t visited factories before. She’d seen people working in filthy, overheated buildings with no ventilation. Dust choked the air, and floating fibers crept into the workers’ lungs, stealing their breath. The child laborers often fell ill from moving between the sweltering heat of the workroom and the cold, damp outdoor air. Many of the youngest gasped and wheezed, their lungs inflamed. He dropped his proffered arm. “You know nothing of my factories.”
Factories. As in, more than one. “I fully comprehend starving weavers are cheated out of their livelihoods by your mechanized looms. All so men like you can fatten their already considerable purses.” Charlotte’s entire body quivered. “And the deplorable working conditions in factories such as yours are well known.” She strode away, unable to bear being in the presence of a man responsible for devastating so many lives. She realized they’d walked well beyond the other guests and were quite alone on the section of terrace that hugged the side of the manor.
Long, implacable fingers closed around her upper arm, a vise impeding her departure. “How dare you presume to touch me.” She spun around, indignation swelling in her chest. “Unhand me this instant.”
Camryn leaned closer, until his flushed face was inches from hers. “What gives you leave to make ignorant assumptions about my character?” Although the words were low and contained, they simmered with power and aggression.
“I make no presumptions about the quality of your character. Your actions speak for themselves.”
“Do they now?” His musky, masculine scent blanketed her, making Charlotte aware of just how close he stood. She could smell the flinty, fruity aroma of champagne on his breath. Waves of tension vibrated off his body, rolling over onto hers. Something shifted in her belly.
Camryn’s consuming gaze held her captive, as surely as if her feet were rooted into the stone terrace. The air around them crackled, charged with something more than anger. Charlotte inhaled and tried to fill her lungs. Just before Camryn’s lips came crashing down on hers.