Stuart Drake wasn't opposed to a plain bride, but he didn't want an ugly one. He didn't require a witty girl, but he couldn't bear a stupid one. Her disposition was negotiable, depending on her dowry, but he couldn't see himself tolerating a shrew. His single inflexible condition was wealth; tall or short, plain or pretty, sweet or sour, she must be rich, exceedingly rich if at all possible. If he had to marry for money, then by God, he meant to marry a lot of it.
He didn't think it would be difficult. What he had to offer a wife was not inconsequential: one of the oldest and most distinguished viscountcies in England, as soon as his grandfather and father shuffled off their mortal coils. Granted, it might be years before his wife lived as Viscountess Belmaine in the fine house at Barrowfield, but barring his own death, it was an absolute certainty, and when the title came, it would bring enough wealth and status to satisfy any female.
Fortunately he had come across a fine girl at what passed for a ball here in the wilds of Kent. Miss Susan Tratter, and her fortune of eighty thousand pounds, was everything he was looking for in a bride. She was pretty, in the rather pale tradition of English girls; clever, at least enough to sneak away from her chaperone for private strolls on the terrace; and more than wealthy enough. She was quite simply perfect, as well as completely infatuated with him almost from the moment they met.
The only obstacle to his courtship was her guardian. Susan was convinced her guardian, who was also her aunt, didn't want any joy in her life. Aunt Charlotte had traveled all around the Continent in her youth, but refused to take Susan even to London. Aunt Charlotte had kept company with any number of men when she was young—scandalous men, even—but refused to allow Susan to take so much as an afternoon drive with a gentleman. And, most damningly of all, Aunt Charlotte wore anything she wanted, much of it highly inappropriate for a woman of her age and widowed status, yet forced Susan to dress like a child in plain, girlish frocks that weren't at all fashionable. Aunt Charlotte, in fact, did Stuart's cause a world of good, all the more so by being out of town and leaving only a hired companion to chaperone her niece. In her absence, Stuart was free to console and sympathize until he found himself on the brink of a marriage proposal he knew would be accepted.
And that was perhaps part of the problem, he reflected one evening. There had been nothing challenging about his pursuit, and Stuart could never believe it when anything fell into his lap so easily. He was always certain the benefits would be offset by some hidden deficiency. Now that he had Susan Tratter, he was beginning to doubt he wanted her. On the surface he did, no question; his father had cut off his funds and told him not to come back, an action Stuart still thought way out of proportion even to his supposed offense, let alone to the truth. There was no way he could possibly earn enough in time to satisfy his banker, even had he had a profession. Marrying an heiress was the quickest, easiest way out of his financial problems—or so he had thought.
He sighed and resumed pacing the Kildairs' library. This was supposed to be his triumphant hour. Aunt Charlotte had returned to town, and tonight he would meet her, charm her, and ask for her niece's hand in marriage. Susan would accept his formal offer tomorrow, and within a month he would be a wealthily married man, no longer subject to his father's rigid dictates and an object of amusement to the gossips. He would be financially secure for the first time in his adult life, and should be reasonably content; Susan was a nice girl, and he was sure they would get on well enough. But even though Stuart couldn't quite put his finger on it, there was just something… wrong.
He reminded himself that he was mad to reconsider now. He ought to be happy the plan had gone so well instead of questioning the plan itself. If only it were done already, and he didn't have the luxury of wondering if it were the right thing instead of the least objectionable thing. He forced aside his doubts as the door clicked open behind him.
Susan hurried forward, wringing her hands. "Oh, Drake!" she said with a little sob. "What are we going to do?"
"Come, my dear," he said in surprise, taking her hand. "What's the trouble?"
"It's Aunt Charlotte," she wailed, gazing up at him with wet eyes. "She'll never let us marry, never! She's a spiteful, dried-up old witch!"
Stuart's eyebrows shot up. "I've not even asked for your hand yet. How can you know she'll refuse?"
"Because I hinted you were going to ask, and she told me she wouldn't allow it. She said terrible things about you—as if she would have the slightest idea, when she's never even met you. Please, Drake, please, say we shall run away together! I'll go with you tonight, I will!"
"That would ruin your reputation," he reminded her. "I don't want to do that to you."
"I don't care!" She flung herself on his neck, sobbing loudly now. Stuart patted her back for a moment, suppressing another sigh. Everything would be fine if only she'd let him handle things instead of rushing off to bungle them by herself. What had she accomplished by telling her dragon of an aunt they wanted to marry? Nothing good; now the woman had made up her mind against him without even the courtesy of meeting him. While he still had every confidence he could persuade her—elderly ladies were always impressed by a title, even a future one, and Stuart did move in the most elegant circles in London—it would have been far easier had he taken her by surprise.
"Come, calm yourself," he said when the sobs seemed to be dying down. He extricated her arms from around his neck. "You must put on a cheerful face and go back to the party."
She sniffed, and rubbed her face with the handkerchief he offered. "A sad face is the least of my problems, thanks to her. I can't imagine what my papa was thinking, to make her my guardian."
"None of that is within our control, so we must simply try to make the best of it. You promised to introduce me this evening; let me meet her, and see if I can charm away her doubts."
"Oh, Drake." She hiccupped. "If anyone could do it, you could, but I think even you will find her as receptive as a stone."
"Are you implying my charm can't touch a stone?" he demanded lightly. She smiled up at him, starry-eyed.
"Well, perhaps. Come, I'll introduce you, and if she doesn't consent tonight, we can run away tomorrow."
Not bloody likely, Stuart thought as he chuckled for her benefit. He couldn't afford to marry her without her dowry, and it would serve neither of them to elope into poverty. She hesitated, then leaned forward slightly, her lips pursing in his direction. He almost recoiled in alarm, then recovered enough to kiss her lightly on the forehead. Her mouth turned down in disappointment. "Not until you are my wife," he whispered. "It would be improper."
She brightened. Stuart felt another pang of misgiving. It was frankly embarrassing how quickly she had fallen for him, how open she was about her infatuation. It only served to remind him how young and innocent she was.
He couldn't do it. He hadn't committed himself yet, he could still walk away. She would feel hurt and mislead, as she had been, but he would still be free… free… Free to watch everything he had slip away. Stuart gave himself a mental shake. Oakwood Park needed only another year or two to become profitable, and Stuart refused to let it go now without exhausting every possible salvation.
He had discovered the modest estate last spring. The house was a wreck, with a leaky roof and a crumbling east wing, but it still had a certain charm, and Stuart could see renovating it into a very comfortable manor—for a sizable sum of money, of course. The real draw, though, was the land itself: gently rolling hills, prime forest, and the richest soil he had ever seen. Though not large, the property would more than support itself, if properly managed. Stuart had borrowed the entire purchase price from a friend and bought it four days later. Then he had turned around and mortgaged it, to pay back his friend, and borrowed some more to get the estate running again. For over a year he had been pouring everything he had into Oakwood Park, growing more and more attached to it and to what it meant for his life. Stuart was tired of being dangled on a string by his father; with his own estate he would be a landed, respectable, independent gentleman. Unfortunately, he needed money to pay the mortgage until the farms were profitable, and his father had suspended his only income without warning. If he didn't marry Susan, he would marry another heiress, and nothing would be different except that he would have wasted this time courting her. He couldn't back out now.
Stuart reached into his pocket. If he gave her the ring, he would be as good as engaged. "I cannot bear to see you sad. Perhaps this…" He unfolded his hand to show her. "Perhaps this will bring a smile to your face," he whispered. "It would be yours tomorrow. I have great confidence in my persuasive ability."
Her blue eyes opened wide, and her lips parted in a soundless gasp. "Oh, Drake," she breathed. "Really?" Stuart nodded. She took the ring reverently, cradling it in her cupped hands. "It's beautiful." She looked up, her eyes swimming with tears again. Stuart touched one finger to her lips.
"Now go back to the ballroom, my dear. Your aunt will be missing you."
She smiled, holding the ring close to her bosom. "I am sure she'll consent. And if she doesn't, we shall run away at once. I would do anything to be with you."
"Go on," he said gently. "But it must be a secret until tomorrow. Your aunt might not appreciate it, and we must do what we can to secure her blessing."
She nodded, looking as if she would throw herself into his arms again, but then turned and slipped out the door. He smiled until she was gone, then dropped into a nearby chair the instant the door closed.
The whole thing made him feel vaguely pathetic. Here he was, a grown man, strong in body and sound in mind, reduced to charming a young miss barely out of the schoolroom. He told himself that if he had already inherited his title, young misses would be lining up to be charmed, heiresses and otherwise, and society would applaud the one who caught him. There was absolutely nothing exceptional about his actions. Stuart told himself this even as he knew it was different, to him at least. It was one thing to marry well, and another to marry well because the alternative was ruination. Stuart had never liked being cornered.
But the die was cast now. He had declared himself and given her his mother's ring, the one thing he wouldn't sell to support himself or Oakwood Park. Although, in a way, it felt as if he had just sold something dearer than a ring.
He leaned forward, reaching for the decanter on the table close at hand. He needed a drink before going out to charm grumpy old Aunt Charlotte. Perhaps two drinks.
"Has she gone? Goodness, the child belongs on the stage." Stuart nearly choked on his brandy at the husky voice, tinged with amusement. He swung around and peered into the shadows.
"I didn't plan to," she said with a low laugh, coming forward. "I only sought a quiet moment alone with my thoughts. Libraries are usually quiet, are they not?" She stepped into the light, and Stuart's interest came to full alert in an instant.
Dark curls gleamed mahogany in the candlelight, diamonds glittering in their midst. Her skin was as golden as her gown, giving the material the appearance of being transparent. In fact, it almost was transparent, as he could clearly see when she crossed in front of the lamp, revealing the curves underneath the silk. A long narrow shawl draped over and around her shoulders, drawing attention to the swell of her breasts, full, enticing breasts that swelled above a tiny waist and made her rounded hips all the more voluptuous. She strolled into the light, stopping in front of the lamp and leaning back against the table. She braced her hands on either side of her hips, and tilted her face up to his. Stuart realized he had come to his feet without thinking.
A smile lit her face. It was a beautiful face, even without the smile, but that mischievous look made her entrancing.
"I don't believe we've met," he said, his senses sharpening. This sort of woman was much more to his liking.
Another mysterious smile. "No, we have not, Mr. Drake." He considered her a moment longer, then put down his glass.
"How flattering that you know who I am. How I wish I could return the favor."
"Oh, I daresay we would have met eventually. The society in Kent at this time of year is rather limited." There was a suggestive lilt in her voice. Stuart could hardly believe his ears.
"That is not altogether a bad thing. Often I find myself wishing to limit my society to one person entirely."
She arched her brow, dipping her head in a thoroughly seductive way. "Do you? How very decadent."
His blood thrumming with excitement, he moved a little closer. She didn't retreat at all. "Do you like decadence?"
Her laugh was throaty. "I've known a bit in my day," she admitted. "But what would your betrothed think?"
He paused, disconcerted, then remembered Susan. "She's not my betrothed."
"But you do plan to marry her?" The mystery woman twined one finger in the lone curl lying across her shoulder.
"That's surely a private matter, isn't it?" Stuart leaned against the table beside her, not wanting to discuss his marriage plans. Her pose emphasized her bosom, and Stuart couldn't stop himself from admiring it.
She tilted her head toward him, with another coquettish smile. "I just wondered. She seems to think you do, although I admire your forbearance in refusing to run off with her."
He smiled, no longer caring what they talked about. He wasn't accustomed to flirting so aggressively with someone he didn't know at all, but if she were willing, so was he. Being seduced by a mysterious beauty would do a great deal to restore his humor this evening. His country exile looked suddenly brighter; even wooing old Madame Dragon wouldn't be half as dreadful with this lovely piece on the side. He wondered if she were widow or matron, and why the hell he hadn't met her before. "What is your name?"
Her smile faded. "Does it really matter?"
He met her smoldering glance with one of his own. "I would like to know it."
"Sometimes, don't you think things like names and station are irrelevant? Sometimes, isn't it only important what we desire deep in our hearts?" she whispered, her dark eyes glowing with intensity.
For a moment neither moved; Stuart could not recall when he had been so aware of a woman, so hot with desire for someone he hadn't even met ten minutes ago. He wanted her, as much as he had ever wanted any woman, and unless he read every sign wrong, she wanted him, too. "No," he whispered back, leaning closer. "Sometimes it really doesn't matter at all."
Just before his lips met hers, she turned away, trailing her fingers along the polished surface of the table as she walked. "I find myself wondering what you see in the girl. She seems far too… innocent?" Her shawl slipped from one shoulder, artlessly. Entranced, Stuart followed, toward the darker end of the library. "I never understand what men see in children. I find it quite off-putting."
He stopped her by catching the edge of the shawl, his fingers brushing her bare shoulder. She smelled of something foreign and exotic, not the usual rosewater English girls drenched themselves in. Did she taste as warm and spicy as she smelled? He was suddenly wild to find out. "You are not a child."
She laughed softly. "Certainly not." She took another step forward without turning around. Stuart kept his hold on the shawl, and it slid over her shoulder with a whisper.
"What a lovely gown." She took another step. The shawl tightened across her body, leading his eyes over very pleasing contours. Stuart let it drop to the floor as the end slid free. She glanced over her shoulder, her eyes gleaming.
"Thank you. You didn't like my shawl, I take it."
"Indeed," he murmured. He touched one finger to the nape of her neck and let it drift down the furrow of her spine, bumping over the buttons he was already thinking of unfastening. "I could hardly bear the sight of it." A slight tremor shook her shoulders, and white-hot desire roared through his veins. He slid his palms up her arms, easing her back until she was almost against his chest.
With one movement, she ducked her shoulder out from under his hand and stepped away, taking three short steps to the sofa. "Isn't your fiancée waiting for you?" she asked teasingly.
Stuart shrugged, not at all upset by the progress she was leading him on. "We are not formally betrothed."
She studied him, an odd little smile playing around her lips. "You'll break her heart."
He stopped, took a deep breath. "Not by design."
"Ah." She nodded sagely, and sank down on the sofa in a flowing motion, reclining against the side and casting one arm above her head to toy with the dark curls. "But you don't love her. Is it only desire that drives you into her arms, then?"
It was desire hammering away at his gut right now, screaming inside his head to spread himself on top of her and accept the invitation in her eyes. "No, not at all."
She crossed her legs with a flick of one ankle that belled out her skirt for a moment. That foot continued to swing, drawing his attention to her legs. Legs explicitly outlined by thin silk. Was this woman wearing any undergarments at all? Stuart lowered himself to the sofa beside her. "What did you intend, when you spoke to me a moment ago?"
Her smile was arch. "To meet you."
Better and better. He braced one hand beside her head, and when his face was merely an inch from hers, whispered, "Let us become acquainted, then."
"Oh, I am already acquainted with you," she purred. He tried to capture her lips, but got her cheek instead. "You have already proved yourself everything I thought you to be."
He laughed against her hair, nuzzling her ear. "And the night is only beginning." He brushed the loose curl back over her shoulder, letting his fingers linger on the slope of her shoulder, tracing the neckline of her gown. She stopped his hand there.
"And are the things you've heard about me true, Stuart?"
He paused. Her chest was rising and falling rapidly under his hand, but the teasing note was gone from her voice. "I do not know who you are," he said in a cooler tone. "And I begin to wonder what you've heard of me."
"You do not know my name, and yet I think you would make love to me if I released your hand. Am I right?" He said nothing, and she moved, rubbing her hip against his erection. "Your silence speaks louder than words."
"Who are you?" he demanded, rolling completely on top of her. Her eyes widened for a fraction of a second, then became hard and opaque again. She didn't move, and even though the feel of her body under his sharpened the desire coursing through him, he ignored it in a belated burst of suspicion. Who was this woman, and why was she here in the library, waiting to lead him on like this? "What exactly do you believe you know about me?"
"Why, Stuart," she said softly, "I've heard as much about you as you've heard about me. Do you want to make love to me? Would you be curious to learn my name after? Or would you go back to the party in search of still another woman to seduce?"
"If anyone seduced, you did," he growled. "What game are you playing?"
"I told you." She smiled again, sly and triumphant. "I was curious about you. I came to the library to think, before meeting you. Because we were destined to meet this evening, you know; Susan told you so herself."
He stared at her, unmoving. Her smile widened.
"I am Charlotte Griffolino," she whispered. "Spiteful, withered, stone-hearted old witch. As well as Susan Tratter's guardian."
He released her hands. "You can't be. Her aunt is old."
She lifted one shoulder. "In Susan's eyes, I am, having celebrated my thirtieth birthday this spring." Stuart said nothing; she was only two years younger than he was. A terrible fury knotted in his chest. Susan had deceived him about her aunt—frightful old crone, indeed—and her aunt had deceived him about her true identity. And now he had lost all chance of Susan Tratter—and her fortune. He sprang to his feet.
"You must be quite pleased with yourself."
"In what way? To have learned beyond a shadow of a doubt that my niece has fallen prey to an adventurer? That the man who nearly ruined two other young heiresses in London nearly ruined my own brother's daughter, while she was in my care? No, I am far from pleased."
"You deceived me!" He thrust his finger in her face. She lifted one eyebrow.
"Mr. Drake. I never said anything to encourage you."
Stuart shook with the force of his anger. She damned well had led him on, knowing exactly who he was when she invited him to make an advance, deliberately entrapping him. "You knew who I was!"
She laughed at him. "And I told you so, didn't I?" In a flash, he caught her arm. He wanted to shake her and punish her, and he still wanted to make love to her. He settled for the shake, but ended up dragging her against him.
Her eyes searched his, superior and disdainful. "Stooping to forcing yourself upon a woman?"
He released her in a heartbeat. "I have never forced myself on a woman. You invited me."
Her eyebrow arched mockingly. "Did I? The way Miss Eliza Pennyworth invited you to take her driving from London to Dover? The way Miss Anne Hale invited you to molest her in her own grandmother's garden?"
Stuart swore. "You know nothing about what happened to either of those two young ladies. I never ruined them."
"No, not at all. Tales of their disgrace reached the wilds of Kent purely by chance."
Stuart seethed. The gossips had seized hold of two incidents that were only unfortunate in their timing—mere days apart—and convicted Stuart of worse sins than he had ever committed. That gossip in turn had sent his father into a fury, and led to his banishment. But this woman made it sound as though he deliberately debauched innocent maidens for sport. "I have nothing more to say to you." He turned toward the door.
"I am very glad to hear it," she said behind him. "Do show some trace of decency and leave without speaking to Susan again."
Stuart stopped, one hand on the doorknob. He should do it, turn the knob and leave without a word to anyone, especially Susan. But he had never been able to leave without the last word, had never had the discipline to keep his mouth shut when all reason dictated it was best, particularly when his temper was raised. There was nothing to be gained by taunting this woman, and yet… "She pleaded with me to run off with her."
There was a rustle behind him, a shrug, no doubt. "You won't agree." Damn, but he hated that faintly patronizing tone, from his father and now from her. Especially from her, especially now.
Still holding the knob, he turned slowly. In the dim firelight, she looked warm and golden, just the slightest bit rumpled, as if recently from a lover's embrace. Thwarted lust mixed with anger in a dangerous combination. "You're very sure of yourself."
She tilted her head, studying him thoughtfully. "Yes. Or rather, I am very sure of men like you."
"Oh?" Stuart hated few things more than being taken lightly, dismissed out of hand and relegated to some category beginning 'men like you.' "Why is that?"
She smiled, her full mouth pulled down in scorn. "Because you haven't the slightest interest in Susan, even though you've seduced her into thinking she loves you. It's all about her money, and if you run away with her, you'll not have a single shilling. I can and will assure it."
"You would deny your own niece the comforts she's accustomed to, just to spite me? How loving, Aunt Charlotte."
She shrugged at his sarcasm. "What would you have me do, admit to soft-heartedness when it will give you license to do as you wish? Do you think me simple? Don't ever mistake me that way again, sir; my heart is as cold and as unmoving as marble. The day you take Susan for your wife, I'll invest her every pound in long term ventures in places you'll never track down, if you spend the rest of your days looking."
"It is her inheritance," he reminded her. She collected her shawl from the floor and draped it lightly over one shoulder, catching the other end around her elbow.
"Left in my care, by her father. George would agree wholeheartedly with my decision; he abhorred fortune hunters as the lowest creatures on earth. They care nothing for stealing a young girl's hopes and dreams, crushing her heart and leaving her reputation in tatters. Her life means nothing to them. It's all a grand illusion, and when it ends they are in possession of a fortune they did nothing to earn, and a wife they cannot abide."
Stuart closed his fists. "You judge me quite harshly. Is your niece allowed no say in the matter of her own heart?"
"If her heart has chosen you, it's made a grave mistake, one she'll thank me for preventing some day." She picked up a fan from a nearby table and flicked it open, waving it once before closing it with a snap. "You were on your way, I believe."
He let out his breath in a gust. She was right; he should be on his way. He had only come tonight to meet and woo Susan's aunt, which was obviously out of the question now. The bitterness of how close he had come to his goal struck him then, and Stuart cursed himself for letting a woman cloud his mind. Whatever doubts he might have had about marrying Susan, she was by far the nicest, most suitable girl he had met so far.
"Yes, I am," he said at last. "But don't think our paths won't cross again."
Straightening her shawl, she barely glanced at him. "I hardly care whether they do or not, Mr. Drake."
"But I do," he murmured. "Very keenly."
Charlotte ignored his last veiled threat. The door closed behind him, and she calmly finished untangling her shawl.
"That was not a nice trick," said a voice from the shadows.
Charlotte shrugged. "It was no more than he deserved. A man of honor wouldn't have rushed to the assumptions he did."
"Cara, only a man with no blood in his veins would not have made his assumption."
Charlotte fussed some more with her shawl, ignoring Lucia's dry comment. It was not Lucia's niece hovering on the brink of calamity, and therefore it was not Lucia's place to criticize Charlotte's actions. "Nevertheless, it only confirms my suspicions about him. He doesn't care a fig for Susan or her feelings, if he would make love to another woman the moment her back is turned."
A thin plume of smoke wafted through the drapes that screened the terrace doors. "I do not think it was a good idea. That one will not take well to being fooled."
"I don't think it's a good idea for you to smoke, Lucia," she replied testily. "It's not good for your voice. I must see to Susan. Shall you come with me?"
"No, I think not." She blew more smoke. Charlotte waved one hand in protest, starting toward the door. "He is not as you told me he would be," Lucia said just as she put her hand on the knob. "I hope you do not underestimate him."
Charlotte paused. Stuart Drake was more dashing than she had expected, it was true; there was a feeling of pent-up energy and recklessness that made his charming smile and manner all the more tantalizing. What really lay beneath the gentlemanly veneer? It was a veneer, Charlotte was sure. She had known more devils in angels' garb than she could count, and Stuart Drake's halo radiated falseness. The way he had rolled on top of her, simultaneously exciting and alarming… Some women—and some girls—might find that attractive, but Charlotte knew better.
"No, he is just like every other man," she said, only adding very quietly, almost to herself, "fortunately."
She walked down the hall to the large drawing room where the rest of the guests were, summoning a gracious smile for her hostess. Lady Kildair beamed in reply; Charlotte knew it was craven delight at getting someone as scandalous as Charlotte and someone as rich as Susan in her drawing room. Those qualities tended to bring out the eligible gentlemen, something Lady Kildair would sell her left arm to do with three unmarried daughters of her own in the house.
Charlotte paused in the doorway, searching openly for Susan and covertly for Mr. Drake. She found him first; odd, since he was almost completely behind another gentlemen. He looked younger than she had first thought, but undeniably handsome, with dark hair and eyes and a tall, athletic body that even now sent a strange shiver up her spine. Because the man would have assaulted you on a library sofa, she reminded herself, just as he glanced up, over his companion's shoulder, and met her gaze.
She didn't move, just stood there, without a smile or a sniff or a melodramatic toss of her head. No sign that she feared him, just that she saw him. His gaze was dark, displeased but not defiant. Neither looked away, until the air between them seemed to sizzle with the ferocity of feeling on both ends.
"Aunt Charlotte?" She turned away immediately. Susan was beside her, plucking at the fringe of her shawl.
"Yes, dear?" She smiled at her niece. "Are you enjoying the ball? I went out to get a breath of air."
"Yes, I noticed you were gone." Susan looked a touch guilty, as she should, having sneaked off to meet a scoundrel. "Did Lucia leave?"
Charlotte laughed. "No, heavens, she's trying to assassinate Lady Kildair's garden with those cigarettes."
Susan wrinkled her nose. "They are quite vile." A giggle burst out of her, and she stifled it with a nervous glance. "I'm sorry, that was rude."
"Well, the truth often is." Charlotte tucked her hand around Susan's arm. "Come, shall we have some champagne?"
"Really? May I?" Her niece brightened. "Papa never let me have champagne except on very special occasions."
Charlotte felt tonight qualified as such. "Let's treat ourselves, shall we?" Susan nodded eagerly, and they headed for the refreshments.
Charlotte, fond aunt that she was, thought Susan quite pretty. She had hair the color of ripe wheat, without any of the curl that plagued Charlotte's own hair, and clear blue eyes. But Charlotte was also objective enough to realize that Susan wasn't, and probably never would be, considered beautiful, at least by the world in general. Still, she was determined to see Susan wed to someone who cared for her happiness as well as for his own.
It wasn't until they were sipping their champagne, watching the floor clear for dancing, that Susan brought up the topic Charlotte knew had been on her mind all evening. She knew not only from the bits of conversation she had overheard earlier, but from all the clumsy intimations Susan had made over the last few days about a wonderful gentleman she'd met, and wouldn't Charlotte be so happy for her when she married. In many ways Susan was still a stranger to her, but in this she had been completely transparent.
"Aunt Charlotte, you said I could speak to you about anything," Susan began, her voice a little higher pitched than usual. "There—there is something I would like to tell you."
"Of course, dear, what is it?" Charlotte saw him approaching from the corner of her eye. Oh dear, he wouldn't go quietly. Susan gulped some more champagne, her eyes flitting toward him on every other word.
"I'm not a child anymore," she said in a rush. "I am almost eighteen, old enough to know my own heart, and I have met the man I intend to marry."
"Ah." Susan looked momentarily surprised by her meek reply.
"Please don't stand in my way. I love him and I want to marry him. Papa wanted me to be happy, and Mr. Drake will make me happy."
"Susan, I don't think this is the proper time or place," said Charlotte gently. Why couldn't the wretched man simply leave? Susan would be hurt, but at least it would spare them all a public scene. A confrontation in Lady Kildair's ballroom would only humiliate Susan as well as break her heart.
"Please meet him, Aunt Charlotte." Susan faced her with wide, intent eyes, her spine straight and her hands clenched. "Please listen to his suit."
Charlotte hid her sinking heart behind a serene face. "If you wish, dear." And then he was before her again, just as tall, just as devastating, just as wicked as before. Charlotte looked up, somewhat unsettled by the realization that he seemed even bigger and darker here than in the library. She had thought it all a trick of the light then.
"May I present Mr. Stuart Drake," Susan was saying. "Mr. Drake, my aunt, the contessa de Griffolino."
"Good evening." Charlotte inclined her head, and he bowed.
"Drake, I've told my aunt of how much we've come to care for each other," said Susan, becoming more nervous. "And that we wish to marry."
The man smiled at her, so warmly Charlotte could almost believe he meant it. "Indeed, you've stolen my best line."
Susan giggled, looking very, very young and vulnerable next to him. Charlotte's resolve firmed; over her dead body would this scoundrel marry her innocent niece. She adopted the cool, remote smile any Italian would recognize as a rebuff, wanting to tear a strip off his hide after all, scandal be damned.
"Perhaps you would honor me with a dance," Mr. Drake said, holding out his hand. "That I might argue my fitness for the honor of your niece's hand."
Charlotte looked at his hand, then at his face. The charming smile was still in place, but it didn't reach his eyes. She wasn't sure she wanted to put herself in his grasp again. Susan waited by his side, hands clasped in supplication. "Perhaps you would prefer to call," Charlotte said. "We will be at home tomorrow."
Susan caught her breath and turned anxiously to Mr. Drake, but his eyes never wavered from Charlotte's. "No, I would prefer to dance. In truth, I cannot wait until tomorrow. I would have my answer as soon as possible."
"Please, Aunt Charlotte?"
Charlotte hated him even more for the hope in Susan's voice. You have already had your answer, she promised him silently. Giving in, she handed her glass to Susan. "If you wish. Susan, will you wait for me?"
"Oh, yes!" Her niece beamed at both of them as Charlotte took his hand. Instantly his fingers closed over hers in a firm grip, and he led her to the center of the floor where couples were just gathering for the next dance.
"You are wasting your time." She adjusted her shawl to a more secure position and waited for the dance to start. He said nothing, but caught her hand and pulled her close, right into his arms. Charlotte barely managed to restrain her gasp. "What—?"
"The next dance will be a waltz," he said, refusing to let her back away. Around them, she saw other people eyeing them in surprise. The musicians hadn't started yet, and the waltz was still rare in the country. Very rare.
"It will not. This is Kent, not London." His arm was like iron around her. She pushed as inconspicuously as she could, with no effect. Everyone was staring at them still, and even though it made her wildly uneasy to be this close to him, she didn't want to cause a scene by struggling with him on the dance floor. She settled for pinching the inside of his thumb.
His smile was wolfish, and he simply squeezed her hand until she had to relent. "And Lady Kildair has just learned no hostess in London does not include at least one waltz. I gather our hostess doesn't wish to be countrified, even if she lives in the country."
"Persuading Lady Kildair to play a waltz does not improve your standing with me." The musicians were, in fact, beginning a waltz. She hadn't danced it in over a year, but soon found it hardly mattered. He was a dominant partner, leading her through the steps with a forceful control Charlotte disliked. Even allowing for the fact that they were moving completely as one, she hated being steered along almost without any effort or will on her part. "You needn't turn so hard," she snapped. "I know the steps."
He quirked an eyebrow. "My apologies. Perhaps you would like to lead as well?"
"Mr. Drake," she said coldly, "I did not wish to dance at all. You have already had your answer to your suit. Leading Susan on in this manner will only make it harder on her when you leave."
"You're very sure I'm going to turn tail and run at the first black look from you."
Charlotte was surprised into a short laugh. "Black look? Goodness, I thought it was so much more! Have I mistaken the matter? Are you in love with Susan after all?"
"No. I have never professed such a thing, not even to her." He was still smiling, the wretch. "Not everyone willfully misrepresents themselves."
"I did nothing of the sort. You assumed a great deal." Something changed in his face, slight but significant, and Charlotte felt suddenly even less in control. Her hand was still tight in his, his arm was around her waist, and he was moving her around the ballroom so effortlessly Charlotte was sure they would continue waltzing even if she stopped participating altogether.
"I assumed what a normal man would assume. Surely you know that. Or perhaps you've never seduced a man before?"
"I didn't seduce you," she hissed, trying to wriggle her hand free. He refused to let go, and that unsettling light in his eyes burned brighter.
"Then you should learn not to tease a man. He might get the wrong idea."
"Oh, of course!" She pulled a face. "I might have known you would fail to comprehend what any sensible person would see at once. Let me make it clear, then: you shall never, under any circumstances, marry Susan. I hold fortune hunters in the lowest possible esteem. I will not change my mind."
"Every woman changes her mind, even, I daresay, withered old witches."
Charlotte jerked, but his grip tightened again. "You understand nothing of women if you think that."
He laughed under his breath. "I know a great deal about women."
"All men think that. Fools, every one."
"A fool for a woman? Why, yes, I believe most people would agree with that. I've been a fool for more than one woman, after all. I just can't help myself; I like them too much."
"Particularly those of good fortune."
Another wicked smile gleamed down at her. He was devilishly handsome with that smile. "Of course. Often it is a woman's finest attribute."
Charlotte gave him a condescending smile of her own. "Naturally. When that's all you want in a woman, it would of course be most important."
"Ah, but think of all it can atone for: a sour disposition, a shrewish temper, or looks fading with age." His hand shifted, as if he were testing her figure, and he cast an appraising glance downward. Charlotte went rigid.
"Release me at once," she said between clenched teeth.
"You," he said, his voice dangerously soft and calm, "are a hypocrite. You flaunt yourself to show how depraved I am, yet freeze up like an outraged virgin when someone else plays that same game. And yet, you're nothing like a virgin, are you?" Charlotte gasped in shock. He lowered his head to murmur the rest in her ear. "Don't think I consider this contest over. It's only begun."
Without regard for the social consequences, Charlotte drove the heel of her shoe into his toes, and whipped out of his grasp as he choked on a curse. The musicians were still playing, and although there were other couples on the floor, most of the guests were watching. In full view of eighty members of the best society Kent had to offer, Charlotte turned her back and walked away from a furiously angry Stuart Drake.