Authors: Prideand Petticoats
Charlotte’s gaze met Dewhurst’s, then he turned and strode to the dressing room door. He paused, winked at her, and was gone.
Freddie closed the door to the dressing room and almost collapsed against it. It had been a mistake to enter Charlotte’s room, a mistake to risk seeing her in a state of dishabille. He’d thought he was safe. His mother and sister were in the room with Charlotte, dash it. But the pope could have been in attendance and it would not have tempered Freddie’s arousal at the sight of her in a paper-thin petticoat and nothing else.
He’d seen many women undressed. He’d seen many beautiful women undressed, but he’d never experienced such a jolt of arousal as he had upon entering Charlotte’s room. She stood on a white pedestal, a lick of fire rising out of a cool winter snowbank. The room’s froth of white decor surrounding Charlotte had served as a cold contrast to the warmth of her peachy skin and the cherry spill of her hair. Arms outstretched, eyes slightly closed, lips parted, she was the most innocently sensual creature he’d ever seen.
And that was before his eyes had fallen on her generous curves, the sweeping, lush landscape of her body. The mourning dress she’d been wearing
had been more ill-fitting than he’d realized. It hid the creamy slope of her breasts, rising above the rounded neckline of her petticoat. It hid the small circle of her waist and the proud jutting of her hips. The petticoat was tattered and old and undeniably alluring. It was so thin he could see the shape of her legs through the material, and if his eyes—already dazed by the assets displayed before him—were not mistaken, her legs were long and round, tapering into a sweet derriere.
Dash it, but if he did not remove the image of his half-naked wife from his head soon, he might end up married in truth.
He should have gone to his club. He should never have listened to a foolish American who knew nothing of the inner workings of the
And he would have gone—if her reasoning hadn’t made so much sense. How many times had he seen a newly betrothed couple at a ball or dinner party and known the match was at the wish of their parents? How often had he watched married couples at the theater, sitting next to each other and yet virtual strangers?
That would not do for him. If the story of their marriage was to be believed, Freddie could afford no doubt, no question as to his affections for Charlotte. And yet somehow he had to keep those affections a ruse. He had to keep his emotions toward her in check. Already he thought of her too often. Reacted to her too intensely.
He needed to temper all of it, regain control of himself, and play his part to the hilt. He would make Society believe his unlikely match was genuine. The gossips and social commentators would talk loudly and freely of the stylish baron and the fiery American. And then Pettigru would find her. The spy would not slip through Freddie’s fingers again. He would have the man, and he’d do whatever it took to catch him.
harlotte smiled when she learned that Dewhurst had decided to change his plans and spend the evening at home. So he would not be visiting his mistress after all.
It had been a long time since she’d thought of dressing for dinner. For the past few years she’d mainly been concerned if there was to be any dinner, but fortunately Madam Vivienne had left several gowns behind to hold Charlotte over until her own gowns were made.
Charlotte pulled several dresses from the armoire and tried to remember which were which. She discarded a pretty muslin frock as a day dress and a heavy gown with as much embellishment as a ball gown, and that left her one choice.
The gown had obviously been made for an
older woman and was, Madam Vivienne assured her, only a temporary selection as Lord Dewhurst had not seemed to think she would shine in green. But Lady Dewhurst had called her son’s pronouncements nonsense. Her one concern with the gown was that the vibrant green-colored crepe over the ivory satin slip was too matronly.
Charlotte thought an objection to the neckline might be more appropriate, but when she’d slipped the gown on for a few alterations, no objection had been forthcoming. Now, with Addy’s help, Charlotte donned the gown again, then went to the mirror to observe the effect. The neck was still objectionable—round and low, the mantua maker having explained that the current style was to show as much of the bosom as possible—but the sleeves were full and slashed. Charlotte liked the sleeves and only wished that some of the overabundance of material gathered there had been used to form the bodice.
Looking in the mirror, she pulled the dress higher in an effort to keep her breasts from spilling out, then adjusted her mother’s emerald necklace, which actually looked nice, set off by the color of the dress. Addy came to stand behind her, shaking her head and pursing her lips. “That dress ain’t proper, Miss Charlotte. How you going to go around showing so much flesh? You be put in jail for a loose woman.”
Charlotte frowned in the mirror. “First of all, Addy, I won’t be out and about in the city. I’m having dinner downstairs with Dewhurst. Secondly,” she said as she settled behind the dressing table and handed Addy a brush and several hairpins, “I am supposed to be a married woman. Married women are allowed more liberty in their dress than unmarried women. Lastly, if you had been paying any attention to the conversation between the Dewhursts and Madam Vivienne, you would know—ow!” Charlotte put a hand to her stinging scalp, where Addy had just ripped through a particularly vicious tangle.
“Oh, sorry, Miss Charlotte. I forgets you’re such a tenderhead.”
Tenderhead, my foot
, Charlotte thought. Even a woman in a wig would have protested at that harsh treatment. It had been some time since she and Addy had engaged in this ritual. Hairdressing had seemed unimportant when they were faced with so many other obstacles in their daily lives, but Charlotte had no doubt Addy, who had been dressing hair for longer than Charlotte had been alive, had not slipped with her hairbrush.
“As I was saying,” Charlotte continued when she’d blinked away the tears and the burning in her scalp had receded to mere smoldering, “you would know that ladies in London have different standards and styles of dress. What is fashionable, even appropriate here, is not necessarily what we
in Charleston would consider appropriate. But when in Rome…”
Addy snorted. “We ain’t in Rome, Miss Charlotte. But we ain’t in Charleston no more neither.”
“Addy, I have to try and fit in here. This is what the upper-class ladies in London wear.”
“It ain’t right.”
Charlotte didn’t answer. It was all well and good to dress the part of a fine lady, but she wanted to show Dewhurst and all his snobbish friends that her blood ran as blue as theirs. As yet, she’d few encounters with the loftier class, but the sketches and styles Madam Vivienne had shown her had been eye-opening. From what Charlotte could tell, the ladies went about the city practically naked, the cuts of their dresses so low that the necklines provided no cover for their often abundant bosoms. The fashionable materials were light and clingy, leaving absolutely nothing to the imagination. On top of this, apparently most ladies wore only a thin wrap or none at all. Charlotte did not see how they could stand it in such a cold, damp climate.
Looking at Dewhurst and his male servants, Charlotte had ascertained that the male fashions were just as bad—pantaloons so tight the men could barely walk and certainly not bend over, cravats and stocks starched as stiffly as a chaperone’s spine, and colors so glaring and mismatched that Charlotte could do little but gawk.
Addy continued to sweep Charlotte’s hair into a simple style, and Charlotte stared unseeing into the mirror and sighed. There was nothing for it. It was she who had coaxed the reluctant Addy into coming to Europe, she who’d been the one to go without in order to scrape together the funds, and she who had made this deal with Dewhurst even the devil would think twice before accepting.
She was well and truly mired in a quicksand of her own making, and she’d only sink deeper if she couldn’t make this work. She needed that one thousand dollars. Addy stuck the last pin in Charlotte’s hair, stepped back, and said, “Oh, my.”
“What is it?” Charlotte glanced at herself in the mirror and then stared.
“Oh, my,” Addy said again. “I always knew you looked like her, but I never seen the resemblance so strong.”
Charlotte nodded, her voice having deserted her as she stared at her own reflection—a reflection that looked so much like the portrait of her mother that had hung over the mantel of their house in Charleston that Charlotte thought for a moment that she was actually looking at that painting. She took a deep breath, and her gaze met Addy’s.
Addy’s eyes were cloudy and watery with tears. Addy had been Katherine Burton’s maid and confidante long before Charlotte had even been born, and Charlotte knew Addy still mourned Kather
ine Burton’s passing. Charlotte could only imagine the despair she would feel if she lost Addy, who was practically the only mother she could remember, and she saw the pain and loss reflected in Addy’s weathered face in the mirror.
Charlotte wished there was something she could do to comfort her friend, but she couldn’t bring her mother back any more than she could have stopped her father from gambling away his portion of the business or convinced Thomas that the benefits of running the British blockade were not worth the risks. But through it all, she’d kept the family together, then taken care of herself and Addy, and she would take on the whole of London if that’s what it took to restore her life to even a shadow of what it had been.
“Addy,” Charlotte said, reaching back and taking her friend’s hand. “We’re going to get back. Just you wait. We’ll sail home in style, march into Porcher’s library, slap Dewhurst’s money on his desk, and buy back what was always ours. The business, the house, everything. Before you know it, we’ll be back on top of the world. Just give me a week or so.” Charlotte rose and straightened her skirts. “I’ll get these British titles and rules down if they kill me. You’ll see. Proper English lady.” She shook her head. “How hard can it be?”
She walked to the door, threw her shoulders back, and started for the dining room. As the door
closed behind her she thought she heard Addy murmur, “Lord help us now.”
Freddie had paced the dining room from top to bottom exactly seventeen times, when Charlotte threw open the door and stumbled breathlessly inside. He paused mid-stride, a scathing reproach on his tongue for her tardiness, but one look at her and his voice failed him.
She caught his eye and straightened immediately, brushing a strand of her hair back into place. “Please forgive my late arrival, Lord Dewhurst.”
Freddie raised a brow. She was using his title.
“I’m afraid I got a bit turned around and ended up in the library. But no need to worry. Andrews found me and showed me the way.”
Freddie glanced at the footman holding the door, then looked back at Charlotte.
“What?” Charlotte said, turning to glance first at Andrews and then down at her gown as if there were some defect. “What have I done now?”
Freddie wished she had done something wrong. How the devil was he supposed to wrest control of his emotions if she kept surprising him? First the tantalizing view of her fitting with Madam Vivienne. Now the sight of her in all her glory.
Freddie wished her gown was ugly or prim or a
yard too big. He wished he hadn’t a very good idea of what the gown concealed. As it was, the emerald gown highlighted all her assets and hid her flaws—if there were any. The gown was cut so that he had an excellent impression of her figure, and he had yet to find an imperfection in her lush form. If anything, she was too perfect—too much the epitome of the women he always found himself drawn to.
There was the hair—that cinnamon color sprinkled with gold and dancing in the candlelight. There was her roses-and-cream complexion—offset to perfection by the lustrous green satin of the gown. Finally there were her eyes—dark and warm, like a good sherry. He followed a loose curl of her hair down her cheek, past her rosy lips, down her almost-bare shoulder, past the small cut emerald she wore at her neck, and rested his gaze on the swell of her breasts, rising like ripe half moons from the low-cut bodice of the gown. He allowed his attentions to drift lower, over the folds of the gown, draped so that they hinted at the lush treasure beneath.
Freddie took a long, deep breath. “You’ve done nothing wrong,” he said, his voice sounding low and gravelly in his ears. “You look—” Words failed him momentarily. She looked alluring, sensual, like a ripe fruit begging to be peeled and savored. He had to remember her association with
Pettigru. She was the enemy, and her allure was part of her armory. “You look…appropriate,” he finally managed.
Her eyebrows came together. “Appropriate? How generous.”
Freddie nodded at the chair at the far end of the table. “Please, be seated.”
Andrews moved to pull out the chair for her, but Freddie waved him away. Instead he himself slid her chair out with a flourish and made a sweeping bow. “Your servant, my lady.”
She raised a brow but took the proffered seat, and he took the opportunity to walk behind her, running a hand over the curve of her chair so that his fingers slid against the silk sweep of her hair. He paused to take in the enticing view of her décolletage his vantage point offered, then proceeded to his seat.
Dawson, his butler, was waiting, and as soon as Freddie’s fingers touched the chair, the footmen with the first course appeared. As was the custom, the soup tureen was placed before Charlotte, and the fish—a large eel tonight—was set before him.
The footmen stepped back, and Charlotte gazed down at the tureen with a perplexed look. Freddie was sorely tempted to issue instructions for ladling the soup, but he kept quiet. Once in Society, he would not always be present to smooth her way. Better if she learned now to rely on her own
wits. Charlotte lifted the top of the tureen and sniffed. “What is this?” she asked, making a face. Freddie prayed her grimace would not be relayed back to Julian, his cook.
Freddie lifted the carving knife and sliced into the eel. “Soup,” he answered. He placed a portion of eel on one of the Wedgwood china plates and handed it to the footman to carry down the table to Charlotte. She sniffed the soup again.
“As your housekeeper ignores every request I make to see the day’s menu, can you enlighten me as to what kind of soup?”
Freddie hadn’t bothered to look at the menu, so he glanced at Dawson for assistance. Dawson cleared his throat and said in an authoritative voice. “The soup tonight is
la garbure aux choux.
Charlotte nodded. “I see. Sounds delicious.”
To Freddie’s relief, she lifted the ladle and began spooning the broth into a bowl. The footman placed her slice of eel before her and took the bowl of soup to deliver to Freddie. He smiled. Perhaps the chit was not hopeless after all. She waited until he lifted his soup spoon before sampling her own, and as Freddie brought the first sip to his lips, he closed his eyes and inhaled.
“Hellfire and damnation! Cabbage!”
Freddie jumped, dropped his spoon, and soup splattered all over the fine tablecloth, the rug on the floor, and his waistcoat, shirt, and breeches.
Dash it! Wilkins was still in a pet about the soiled breeches from breakfast. How was Freddie going to show him this mess?
“Yech. Yech. Yech.” Charlotte had her napkin to her mouth, her complexion almost as green as the broth.
“What is the matter?” Freddie yelled and immediately swore under his breath. He was supposed to be in control. He was the master. “Swearing like a sailor is not appropriate behavior.”
Charlotte dropped the napkin and downed her wine instead. Freddie raised his brows. That was expensive French burgundy—hard to come by with the war on.
“I’m sorry,” she gasped after finishing off the wine. “You didn’t mention cabbage. I have a violent reaction to cabbage.”
Freddie shut his eyes and prayed for patience. “That is what
means. With cabbage.”
Charlotte shook her head. “I don’t speak French.”
The footmen had moved in to remove the soup bowl and spoon as well as dab away some of the residue from his clothing. Freddie brushed the napkin Andrews wielded away from his ruined waistcoat. “No French? Not even a rudimentary understanding?”
Freddie felt his stomach heave, much as it did whenever he boarded a ship. Everyone in the
knew French. Whole conversations were often
held in French, and many of his favorite bon mots were impossible to appreciate without a thorough understanding of both languages. This disastrous turn of events he had not foreseen. There was no means to hide her lack of the language from those who came into even casual contact with her.
Freddie rubbed the bridge of his nose. His head had been steadily drumming since he’d met this Yankee chit, and he had a feeling relief was not in sight. What could he do? Could he teach her French in the space of a few days?