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Authors: Maggie Robinson

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Mistress by Marriage

BOOK: Mistress by Marriage
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Mistress by Marriage
 
M
AGGIE
R
OBINSON
 
 
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.
www.kensingtonbooks.com
 
All copyrighted material within is Attributor Protected.
Prologue
 
London, 1820
 
E
dward Christie had been an utter fool six years ago. True, he’d had plenty of company. Every man in the room gaped when Caroline Parker entered Lady Huntington’s ballroom. Conversation stilled. Hearts hammered. Shoulders straightened. Chests and areas lower swelled.
There were many reasons for those changes. Her hair, masses of it, red as lava, was swirled up with diamonds. Diamond earrings, a diamond necklace, and diamond bracelets were festooned all over her creamy skin—skin so delicious every man whose tongue was hanging out longed to lap it. Her eyes were liquid silver, bright as stars and fringed with midnight black lashes, so at odds with her hair. And her dress, a shocking scarlet for an unmarried woman—for
any
woman—had a diamond brooch hovering over the most spectacular assets he’d ever seen. The jewels were all paste, as he was later to find out, but her breasts were very real.
There were known drawbacks, which quickly circulated about the room, prodded along by spiteful cats who were quite eclipsed by Caroline’s magnificence. She was old, at least twenty-five, and her family—what there was of it—was dirt poor and touched by scandal. Some said her brother died in a duel; others said he was killed by one of his many mistresses. She had a sister in Canada, living in some godforsaken outpost in the snow with her lieutenant husband and howling wolves. Her parents were long dead and she was clinging to the ton by the weakest of threads. The distant cousin who had inherited her brother’s title was anxious to get her off his hands before he put his hands all over her and irritated his irritable wife.
Edward had obliged in a courtship of less than five days. Baron Christie had spent his first thirty-four years never, ever being impulsive, and his sudden marriage by special license to a woman who looked like an expensive courtesan was the
on dit
of the season. He had buried one wife, the perfectly staid and proper Alice, whose brown hair would never be compared to living fire and whose brown eyes could only be compared to mud. Alice, who’d quickly and quietly done her duty had provided him with an heir, a spare, and a little girl who looked just as angular and forbidding as her father. Alice, who’d caught a chill one week and died the next was no doubt rolling over in her grave to be supplanted by Caroline Parker.
Edward had no one to blame but himself. He didn’t need more children, and Caroline hadn’t any money. But what she did have—what she
was
—had upended Edward’s life for one hellish year before he came to his senses and put her away.
Caroline had no one to blame but herself. It was her pride, her dreadful Parker pride that had prevented her from saying one simple word—no. If only her rosy lips had opened and she had managed to get her tongue to the roof of her mouth and expelled sufficient air, she would not find herself living on Jane Street, home to the most notorious courtesans in London.
When Edward asked her to marry him after less than a week’s acquaintance, she should have said no. When he’d asked her that horrible, vile,
impertinent
question five years ago, she should have said no. But instead she’d said yes to the first question, rather gratefully if truth be told, and hadn’t said a word to the second, just cast her husband the most scornful look she could conjure up and showed him her back.
Caroline was no man’s mistress, despite her exclusive Jane Street address and rumors to the contrary. In the five years since she and her husband separated, he had come to her door but once a year, the anniversary of the night she was unable to utter that one syllable word. They took ruthless pleasure in each other, and then Edward disappeared again. She, however, remained, ostracized from polite society, completely celibate, and despite her ardent hopes, a mother only to the curious contingent of young women who shared her street. The children changed, but the game remained the same. From experienced opera dancers to fresh-faced country girls who had been led astray by rich gentlemen, Caroline watched the parade of mistresses come and go. She passed teacups and handkerchiefs and advice, feeling much older than her almost thirty-one years.
But when she looked in her pier glass, she was still relatively youthful, her red curls shiny, her gray eyes bright. She might have been stouter than she wished, but the prideful Parkers were known to run to fat in middle age. For some reason Edward had let her keep some of the lesser Christie jewels, so there was always a sparkle on her person even if there was no spark to her life. She made the best of it, however, and had some surprising success writing wicked novels that she couldn’t seem to write fast enough. Her avocation would have stunned her old governess, as Caroline had showed no aptitude whatsoever for grammar lessons or spelling as a girl. Fortunately, her publisher was grammatical and spelled accurately enough for both of them. Her
Courtesan Court
series was highly popular with society members and their servants alike. There were happy endings galore for the innocent girls led astray, and the wicked always got what was coming to them. She modeled nearly every villain on Edward. It was most satisfactory to shoot him or toss him off a cliff in the final pages. Once she crushed him in a mining mishap, his elegant sinewy body and dark head entombed for all eternity with coal that was as black as his heart.
Of course, sometimes her heroes were modeled on him, too—men with pride nearly as perverse as the Parkers, facile fingers that knew
just
where to touch a girl, and particularly long, thick, entirely perfect penises. Caroline missed Edward’s penis, although she didn’t miss his conversation much. He was so damned proper and critical, and had been beyond boring to live with. Controlled. Controlling. Humorless. Once he’d installed her as his baroness, it was as if he woke up horrified at what he’d actually done, and whom he’d actually married. It was no wonder that she—
No, she couldn’t blame him. She had no one to blame but herself.
Chapter 1
 
He had been the coldest man in England. They called him Frozen Frazier. How fitting it was for him to be encased in ice at the bottom of the alp.

The Count’s Courtesan
 
“I
f you don’t do something about your wife, we will.”
Edward looked at the two gentlemen, viscounts both, who had already helped themselves to his best conciliatory brandy. He knew as soon as he’d received Lord Pope’s note he was in for it. Caroline had gone too far. But when hadn’t she?
“It’s libel. Or slander. I cannot remember which. But we’ll sue you for every groat you’ve got, Christie, and the publisher too, unless you control that woman. We’ve got friends in high places.”
Edward wore his impassive Christie face. His grandfather had been known for it. His father had been known for it. Now it was his turn. The house could be engulfed in flames, the ship sinking, the heart breaking, but a Christie was always cool and collected. He’d heard the sobriquet “Cold Christie” a time or two and wasn’t offended. It suited him perfectly most of the time. “I have very little influence over Caroline. We’ve lived apart for years.”
“But you keep a roof over her head and the clothes on her back!” Lord Douglass objected. It was rumored he was to appear in the much-anticipated
The Senorita’s Senor,
and he wasn’t clacking his castanets about it. His ex-mistress Victorina Castellano had apparently described Douglass’s masculine equipment in an entirely unflattering but anatomically correct way.
Edward shook his head. “That’s not precisely true. She earns enough to dispense with her allowance. My man of business tells me she hasn’t touched much at all since she’s been writing her books.”
“Books! As if the trash she writes deserves such elevation. She’s worse than the worst scandal sheet,” Pope blustered. “Because of her my wife left me!”
“Surely the fact that you caned your mistress nearly to death had something to do with that,” Edward murmured. He watched as Pope’s fist clutched his brandy glass, expecting it to shatter at any moment. The fist or the glass, he wasn’t sure which.
Each of the so-called gentlemen in Edward’s library was the thinly-disguised villain in one of Caroline’s wildly successful novels. He didn’t read them himself, of course, could only reluctantly permit himself to imagine their lurid content, but his sister Beth gave him regular book reports on their irregular content. The slender books came out monthly, and Beth was amongst the first who lined up eagerly to buy them. Edward was quite sure Beth lived to torture him with every salacious revelation. But he couldn’t throw his widowed sister out, as she was helping him raise his children. Not that either one of them was doing a particularly creditable job. The boys, and especially little Alice, were nearly as bad as when Caroline was their stepmother. Perhaps in some ways worse.
He’d made a dreadful mistake—just the one—and was paying for it every day. A dutiful son, when he was one and twenty he’d married the sweet seventeen-year-old girl his parents picked for him from her cradle. They were neighbors, grew up together. He’d liked her well enough. Alice had been raised to be his perfect wife. Her behavior was faultless, her conversation unexceptional, their lives organized. They’d been lucky with his heir Neddie, a honeymoon baby, and then two years later Jack came along. Little Alice didn’t even remember her mother, and all three had needed a new one.
If he was honest, Edward had been lonely, too. Alice had been good company, soothing and steady. Then he laid eyes on Caroline Parker, glittering, glossy, and entirely unmotherly. Steady as a fault line. Soothing as a razor blade at one’s throat.
It had been a disaster. Nearly every day of it, if not the nights. He and Caroline disagreed on the most fundamental things. She babbled incessantly at breakfast; he wanted nothing more than to be left alone with his toast and the
Times.
She encouraged the children to mischief—they’d gone through five governesses in the year she lived with them. And even though Caroline had indulged their every whim, the children hadn’t really known what to make of her. She was nothing at all like his wife. She was nothing at all like anyone he’d ever known.
Now she was writing about lords and their ladybirds, books that were so—so—
graphic
they’d put a blush to a whore’s cheek. Or at least that’s what Beth said.
Edward put his glass down. It was June 14. He’d see Caroline tonight; it wasn’t as if he had to make a special trip. It was their night to remember their last. “I’ll speak to her. That’s the best I can do. I hear most Jane Street gentlemen are flattered by her work.”
Pope was crimson. “Well,
we
are not. She can’t be allowed to destroy lives and champion those whores. Why, she’s just a whore herself.”
Edward’s long fingers were suddenly wrapped around Pope’s cravat, whose knot he inconveniently tightened. “I suggest you leave now, both of you. If I hear from my wife you have threatened her in any way, I shall do more than this.” He shoved Pope down on his arse. He’d have to get the carpet cleaned tomorrow.
Hell and damnation.
It wasn’t as if Caroline needed the money to write such rubbish. He’d piled an enormous amount in her account the past five years. Guilt money. Guilt for asking such an unsuitable woman—a
stranger
—to marry him. Guilt for letting her down, because he couldn’t, wouldn’t,
shouldn’t have to
change. Guilt for still wanting her as much as he ever had. Guilt, because unless one of them died, their lives were absolutely ruined by his single, mad, impulsive mistake.
He shouldn’t go to her tonight. He could send a note, or simply not turn up at all. Perhaps she didn’t even mark the date. Maybe she was still in the country with her sister. But no, he knew she’d been back for days, probably came back just to see him . . .
Or have one of her damn tea parties, where the courtesans confessed. He really should warn Conover now that he had set up his mistress. But maybe Con wouldn’t care if his tattoo turned up on some poor chump’s shoulder in the next installment of the
Courtesan Court
series.
Edward picked up his glass, then set it down again. He needed to be clearheaded, though one minute with Caroline turned him into a prize idiot. In her company, the only head he thought with fought to get free of his breeches at the earliest opportunity.
It was time to discuss a bill of divorce. It would be criminally expensive, embarrassing, endless, and, if successful, a scandal even worse than the one they were living. But he had the letters, and right was on his side.
Or he could step in front of a fast-moving carriage.
Or go on as he was.
What he could not do was live with Caroline. That had been tried, and found wanting.
 
When she woke up, Caroline knew perfectly well what day it was and wished she’d never come back from her sister’s home in the country. Not only had her garden completely gone to seed and weeds, but she’d pulled a muscle in her back trying to fix it which had made solid sleep the past few nights nearly impossible.
But Mary had been much too happy with her decorated major, who had been knighted for his frostbitten Canadian service to the Crown. Their twin boys and two daughters were the most adorable children on earth, their puppy well behaved, their small manor house charming. And Mary was pregnant again, swollen and beautiful. It had been three weeks of absolute, unadulterated, harmonious hell. Caroline thought she’d turn green with envy, and toward the end she could barely lift the corners of her lips to smile. Even her cat Harold had enough and coughed up an enormous hairball on Mary’s new brocade settee.
She hated feeling this way, so base, so jealous. Her sister had endured dreadful hardships—blizzards, wild Indians, wars—and deserved every idyllic minute of her new life. Mary’s husband Sir Jared was missing two toes and three fingers, for heaven’s sake. How dare Caroline begrudge her sister the happiness that would never be hers?
So she’d plunged right into her Jane Street life when she came home, met her new neighbors, hosted her tea, and felt an enormous pit of emptiness, which would only get deeper when Edward came tonight. And he must come. If he didn’t—
Well, she’d simply go on. Alone, alone, alone.
My, but she was being maudlin. Positively lachrymose. Lugubrious. Sepulchral. She spent much of her time with a dictionary handy trying to broaden her vocabulary for her novels. After all, one had a duty to educate one’s readers.
How ironic that she, Queen of the Happy Ending, was stuck somewhere in the mucky middle of a never-ending tragedy. No, that wasn’t right—it was a farce.
She would ask Edward to divorce her. He had the evidence; it was only his prickly, nearly-Parkerian pride that was holding them back from any sort of resolution. Then she might leave the Jane Street house and move where no one had ever heard of her or her novels.
Or she might become exactly what everyone thought her to be.
She doubted she could find a worthy man to sleep with her. Edward only seemed to do it for some sort of punishment. Whether he intended to punish himself or her, it had the same result. Caroline pulled the sheet over her face to block out the infernal sunshine, not at all ready to face the day or the night.
Her maid tapped timidly on the door, as she did every morning. Poor Lizzie had once been mistress of her own Jane Street house, until Lord Pope had scarred her body and scared her witless. Caroline had offered her protection, and done what she could to ensure that no other girl would fall victim to the appetites of Randolph Pope. Although she’d called him Randy Poop (quite juvenile of her, really), everyone in the ton and beyond now knew of the viscount’s unnatural proclivities after they read
The Vicious Viscount
. He’d once had the audacity to come round to Number Seven, but Caroline had kneed him in his withered balls just as her brother Nicky had taught her to do, then poked him out the front door with her best parasol from the umbrella stand. It had not been nearly enough, but it had been a satisfying start.
“Good morning, Lizzie. How are you?”
“Just fine, Lady Christie. Will you be wanting your breakfast in bed?”
Caroline didn’t want to step out of bed for a week, but she supposed she could laze away the day tomorrow, doing a postmortem on Edward’s performance, reliving each glorious inch of his penile perfection. It simply wasn’t fair that at forty, he was more handsome than he’d ever been, the dusting of silver at his temples so distinguished, the planes of his cheeks so sharp, his chin completely resistant to doubling. She had seen him standing ramrod straight on the street quite by accident four months ago, his head bare against the winter wind, his hazel eyes keenly fastened upon a very attractive fur-clad woman with whom he was conversing. Caroline had crossed the street and hidden in a tobacco shop until he kissed the woman on the cheek and walked away. She’d had to buy a box of Spanish cigars for her publisher to kill the time.
But what if there was no penile perfection to savor? Caroline had gained at least a stone this year, worrying over Lizzie, writing six books, untangling her girls from unwise entanglements, stewing in Surrey with her sister and her family. It was probable that Edward would not find her at all attractive, or even kiss her on the cheek.
Hell and damnation
. She was crying over milk that hadn’t even had a chance to spill yet. And anyway, she wanted a divorce. It wouldn’t do to keep sleeping with a man who despised her and broke her heart every June 14.
“I’m up, I’m up,” Caroline muttered. “Tell Mrs. Hazlett I’ll be downstairs in an hour. Poached eggs, please. Toast, but no butter or jam.”
Lizzie lifted a blond eyebrow. Her face was as fair as ever; Pope had at least spared her that.
“Oh, very well. Jam.
And
butter. But no bacon. And kippers are out of the question. I mean it.”
Lizzie curtsied, grinning just a bit at her victory. “Very well, my lady. I’ll bring up your washing water in a trice.”
“Don’t hurry. You know I’m working on my special project.” Caroline stretched and reached for an old but exquisite Chinese robe embroidered with giant red poppies. Edward had hated it. It did not match her plain white muslin night rail, but she considered it her writing uniform. For the next forty-five minutes she sat at her desk and poured ink on the pages of the notebook she currently called
Pride and Artifice
. No doubt her publisher would want to change the title, but she thought it very clever, if a bit derivative. The hero, a widower with three children and an enormous sense of self-consequence, was soon to meet a shallow red-headed vixen who would change his life forever in one turn around a ballroom.
When she was done, she washed the ink off her fingers and face and went downstairs to eat. The rest of the morning was spent revising
The Harlot’s Husband
, as her publisher wanted her to be more explicit. Caroline wasn’t sure she could use all the naughty words he suggested, but she’d try.
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