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Authors: Eloisa James

Potent Pleasures

BOOK: Potent Pleasures
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Critical raves for Eloisa James and
Potent Pleasures
“An intriguing Regency romance by a vibrant new voice.”
—Romantic Times
“[KEEPS] THE READER INTRIGUED RIGHT UP TO THE VERY LAST PAGE … James makes a fine debut with this Regency romance that brings to mind the best of Amanda Quick and Judith McNaught.”
—Booklist
“Humorous dialogue … love scenes that are warm and tasteful … Eloisa James has made a brilliant debut.”
—Romance Communications
“SENSUAL … HUMOROUS … Ms. James is a new author and definitely one to watch.”
—Rendezvous
“MARVELOUS … I COULDN’T PUT IT DOWN … a very satisfying love story that makes you wish for more.”
—Belles and Beaux
“BRIGHT AND FUNNY.”
—Kirkus Reviews
“The depth of characterizations, the steady progression of the plot and the tongue-in-cheek title will attract readers who may just greet James as the next Amanda Quick.”
—Publishers Weekly

For Sharon Kosick,
of the wonderful bookstore
The Book Rack, Too,
who guided my reading and
encouraged my writing.
Thank you
.

Chapter 1

Kent, England
March 1798

C
harlotte was one week short of seventeen when her life changed, falling into two halves like a shiny child’s ball:
before
and
after
. In the time before, Charlotte was staying with Julia Brentorton, her dearest friend from school. Julia and she survived boarding school together: the dreary grind of everyday Latin instruction, music instruction, dance instruction, art class, etiquette with the school mistress, Lady Sipperstein. Etiquette was really the only unpleasant class.

“Julia!” Lady Sipperstein would suddenly appear behind her left shoulder. “Cross your legs at the ankle when you sit in a low sofa.

“Walk up the stairs again, Charlotte, and do
not
sway your hips this time! You are wiggling in an inappropriate fashion.”

Lady Sipperstein was a terrifying woman with a bosom that extended forward like the prow of a ship. She knew to a hair how low one must bow to a duchess as opposed to a king, and she drilled her students as if they would do so every day.

She was full of maxims: “One dismisses a servant as if he were a young child: with firmness, brevity, and uninterest…. The appropriate gifts for the sick depend on where they live: If they live on your estate, instruct the cook to make bone-marrow jelly and bring it yourself, with fruit; if they live in the village, instruct the servants to deliver an uncooked chicken instead. And of course be sure to ascertain that any illness is not contagious before you enter a house: While it is important to show feeling, one must not be foolish.”

Etiquette was an hour of unnerving questions. “Julia! If a footman enters the breakfast room with an obviously swollen jaw, what is the appropriate response?”

“Send him home?” Julia would suggest tentatively.

“No! Information first. Is the swelling the result of a distressed tooth or an improper brawl the night before? If he has been brawling, dismiss him. If not? Julia?”

“Ah, send him to a doctor?” Julia stammered.

“Incorrect. Inform the butler that he should be put on duties that will keep him out of public view. There is no point in coddling servants.”

For Charlotte, art class was the focus of the day. She was happiest in the white square room furnished only with twelve easels. They painted the same groupings over and over: two oranges, one lemon; two peaches, one pear. Charlotte didn’t mind.

Julia did. “A pumpkin today!” she would chortle, mimicking Miss Frollip’s excited tone when she introduced the latest still life.

For Julia, there was dance class—and that not because of dance, but because of Mr. Luskie. He was a rather hairy man, a family man: robust, friendly, not a bit of danger with the girls, the teachers all agreed. But Julia thought his whiskers were dashing, and she read messages in the gentle pressure of his hand as he directed her through the steps of a cotillion. “I
adore
him,” she whispered to Charlotte at night.

Charlotte would wrinkle her nose: “I don’t know, Julia, he’s rather … well, he’s not …” It was hard to put into words. He was common. But how not to insult Julia? She thought a bit uneasily of Julia’s passionate vows of love: She wouldn’t
do
anything, would she? Of course, Mr. Luskie wouldn’t … but Julia was so beautiful. She was like a peach, Charlotte thought: golden and sweet-smelling and soft-looking. Would Mr. Luskie?

One of Charlotte’s governesses had been stridently opinionated about men: “They want one thing, Lady Charlotte!” she would say. “One thing, and don’t you forget it and get yourself ruined, now!” Charlotte would nod, wondering what the one thing was.

So she would whisper back, “I don’t think he’s
so
handsome, Julia. Did you see that he has red veins in his cheeks?”

“No!” said Julia. “He doesn’t!”

“Yes, he does,” said Charlotte.

“How do you notice so much?” Julia said crossly.

Finally school drew to a close, and one by one the girls were taken off by titled relatives, or simply by maids: taken off to be fitted and prinked and “tarted up,” Julia said. It was time to start a process that would end in settlements and dowries, balls and weddings.

As the daughter of a duke, Charlotte was regarded enviously. Her coming out would be magnificent. Her elder sister Violetta had made her bow to society in a ballroom draped from top to bottom with white lilies.

It was only Charlotte who didn’t care much. She longed, if the truth be told, to stay in the white square room and paint another apple, or (if the market was particularly exciting that week) even a persimmon. She was
good
, really good, she knew she was, and Miss Frollip knew she was, but that was the end of it.

She had to come out; Julia had to come out; there would be little time for persimmons.

So when her mother picked her up at Lady Chatterton’s School for Young Gentlewomen, Charlotte felt resigned, but not excited. Her mother arrived in full armor, in Charlotte’s private opinion: in the ducal coach with four footmen behind. The duchess was shy and quailed at the thought of an interview with the formidable Lady Sipperstein. Poor Mama, Charlotte thought. She must have been in a terrible tizzy.

Finally Charlotte and her mother were regally dismissed by Lady Sipperstein and escaped in the coach. The duchess grinned in a most unduchesslike fashion, leaned back against the satin cushions, and said, “Thank goodness, you’re finished, Charlotte! I
never
have to see Lady Sipperstein again! We can be comfortable. How did the last picture go, darling—oranges, wasn’t it?” For Charlotte’s mama was a devoted parent, who lovingly kept track of her children’s latest exploits, even if in Charlotte’s case that had simply turned into a long progression of watercolor fruits.

“All right, Mama,” Charlotte said. “I’ll show you when we get home.” Charlotte frowned a bit. Her mama treated all her work the same: with reverence, delight, and a noncritical eye.

“Good,” said Adelaide comfortably. “I shall send it off immediately to Saxony. We’re doing quite well on that hallway, dearest. Why, two or three more and the walls will be full!”

Charlotte grimaced. Her parents seemed to view her painting as a decorating tool, a kind of wallpaper. Each new painting was sent out to the best framer (Messrs. Saxony, Framers to the Crown), fitted into a gold frame with an appropriate matte chosen personally by Mr. Saxony, Sr., and solemnly delivered back to the ducal mansion. Then it was hung up in a long, long row of fruit (and the odd vegetable) that decorated a long, long hall in the east wing.

“Now, Charlotte,” Adelaide said with resolution. “We must start planning for your come out immediately. Why, I happen to know that Lady Riddleford—Isabella’s mother—has already taken the weekend of April nineteenth, which was precisely when I was planning your ball, dearest. So we must choose a time immediately and make it known. I was thinking of the weekend after. What do you think, darling?”

Charlotte didn’t answer. She was thinking of her latest painting. But Adelaide was used to Charlotte’s lapses into inattentiveness; she simply returned to her plans.

When Charlotte visited what her brother, Horace, called the orchard (the long row of pictures in the east wing) she could see change: hours of painting under Miss Frollip’s tutelage had turned her oranges from misshapen to round; apples stopped being poisonously red and gained some reality.

What she was working on now was color. Color was so difficult: oranges, for example. When she closed her eyes, she saw groups of oranges, bright against her eyelids. She mixed and mixed for hours, a little yellow, blue, brown, but she couldn’t find the orange she saw in her mind’s eye. Oranges, colored the right way, had a slight brownish tinge at the top and streaks of blue: colors that smelled of the sun, of warm seas, of real orchards rather than of long halls or white rooms.

But Charlotte didn’t have much time for painting after they arrived at the Calverstill House in Albemarle Square. She endured hours and hours of poking and prodding from seamstresses, and days of her mother’s planning.

“Dearest,” announced her mother. “Delphiniums!”

Charlotte stared at her.

“Delphiniums what, Mama?” she finally asked.

“Delphiniums! They’re
your
flower for the ball! I’ve been racking my mind … you know I did Violetta’s ball in lilies. I had to avoid colors for her because of her name, but delphiniums are such a lovely blue. They will set off your hair perfectly.”

Just now the rage was for blondes: blondes with curly locks and blue eyes, but Charlotte had jet-black hair, her mama thought despairingly. She did have green eyes, but her skin was so white—not a drop of color. True, with some coaxing her hair formed perfect ringlets, and her skin was creamy, but she was no sweetly pert debutante. Her eyebrows arched like question marks over eyes as green as the ocean on a cloudy day. In fact, her whole face was pointed like a question mark: Her chin formed a delicate triangle that simply led back to her eyes and those flying eyebrows.

The duchess sighed a little. When Charlotte was happy, she was the most beautiful of her daughters: She would simply have to see that she had a happy first ball, that’s all.

Charlotte stood rock-still through all the fittings, closed her eyes, and analyzed the oranges that appeared in her mind. Perhaps more red. Perhaps starting very red, and working back to orange, in layers?

“Charlotte!” her mother said. “Miss Stuart is trying to do up your hem. Please, turn around when she asks you.

“Charlotte! I’ve asked you twice; please raise your arms.

“Charlotte!”

Finally the fittings were over and the last pearls were painstakingly sewn into Charlotte’s presentation dress. Seventeen ball dresses fit for a duke’s young daughter were swaddled in tissue and hung in a wardrobe; the delphiniums were growing well, the duchess was relieved to hear; ten footmen were summoned from the country; the ballroom was polished and the chandeliers shined, and the watch notified of the extra traffic. The Calverstills were ready to launch their last child onto society. Invitations winged their way to the London
ton
. And the London
ton
accepted. The duchess may have been shy, but she was beloved, creative, and had money to spare. A Calverstill ball would never be slighted.

Perhaps most important, young men accepted, all of them—fops, courtiers, gallants, Corinthians—all the groups and cliques and sets of London. Charlotte was rumored to be beautiful (her two elder sisters were) and she was sure to have an excellent dowry as her father was plump in the pocket. And still two weeks remained before the ball.

So Charlotte was given permission to visit Julia in the country. Her mama didn’t worry much.

“Charlotte, you mustn’t be seen in public; this is a terribly delicate time,” she said brightly, looking at her dutiful but somehow detached daughter.

Could it be that Charlotte wasn’t really interested in her presentation? No, no, the duchess thought: Why, she loves talking about her dresses, and we had such a good time looking at all the silks. Charlotte is so
good
with colors! And she had a positive surge of affection for her youngest daughter, who had never caused her any real trouble or anxiety. Charlotte was reasonable, calm, and unexcitable.

Charlotte was driven, in the ducal coach but with only one footman, a few hours out of London to Squire Brentorton’s estate. Julia greeted her with glowing eyes. She too had ball gowns to show, with less embroidery and no pearls sewn in the hem, but beautiful all the same. And she had a passion—of course.

“He’s adorable, Charlotte! I adore him! He’s not at all like that old Mr. Luskie. He’s beautiful, really beautiful; you’ll love him—no red veins!”

Charlotte wrinkled her nose at her.

“What do you mean, beautiful? And who are we talking about?” She noticed with some dismay that Julia’s violet eyes were dreamy with love.

“His name is Christopher,” Julia said. “He has curls … he looks like Adonis, truly, Charlotte.”

“But who
is
he?” Charlotte was getting suspicious. There was something evasive about the way her friend’s dewy gaze kept drifting off into the corners of the room. Julia pouted, just a little.

BOOK: Potent Pleasures
3.74Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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