Read To Charm a Naughty Countess Online

Authors: Theresa Romain

Tags: #Fiction, #Romance, #Historical, #Regency

To Charm a Naughty Countess

Copyright © 2014 by Theresa St.Romain

Cover and internal design © 2014 by Sourcebooks, Inc.

Cover art by Robert Papp

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The characters and events portrayed in this book are fictitious or are used fictitiously. Any similarity to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental and not intended by the author.

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One

June 14, 1816

Lancashire seat of the Duke of Wyverne

“The money is gone, Your Grace.”

Finally
. After eleven years in Michael’s service, his steward had abandoned the vague diplomacy favored by the previous Duke of Wyverne. Michael’s father had been offended by bitter truths, preferring them sweetened into a palatable pap.

Michael was never offended by the truth, especially not a truth so obvious.

He wiped his pen and placed it next to the inkwell, almost hidden between ledgers and stacks of correspondence. “Of course the money’s gone, Sanders. I have more titles to my name than guineas this year. I must simply borrow more.”

He sanded his just-completed letter to the engineer Richard Trevithick. Only a few years before, the man had overcome financial ruin to introduce steam-powered threshing in Cornwall. A brilliant innovator. Michael requested his opinion on whether steam power could be made useful in irrigation.

This year, of all years, his dukedom needed as many brilliant and innovative opinions as Michael could lay hands on.

Sanders cleared his throat, then hesitated. The familiar headache began to prod at Michael’s temples.

“Yes?” His voice came out more sharply than he intended. Tidying a stack of papers on the battered leather surface of his desk, Michael ignored the steward’s gaze. Sanders’s sympathetic manner was a bit too personal, as though the older man knew about the headaches or the slipping control that brought them on.

Another cough from Sanders. “The usual sources of credit have dried up, Your Grace.”

Michael’s head jerked up. “Impossible. Has every bank in England run out of money?”

As pallid as sand itself, Sanders’s only color came from gold bridgework he wore in place of three teeth lost during a youthful altercation. Now his face drained paler than usual, and he looked as pained as if he’d had another tooth knocked out.

“England remains solvent, Your Grace, but… I regret that your financial overextension is now common knowledge. I have been unable to secure further credit on your behalf. In fact, it is likely that demands may be made for a repayment of your existing loans—ah, rather soon.”

The headache clamped tight on his temples. Michael sat up straighter. “Dun me for payment, as if I’m a common cit? With whom do they think they are dealing?”

Sanders drew a deep breath. “With a man who has no hope of paying his debts, Your Grace. I believe they have lost trust in your judgment, if you’ll forgive the frank speech.”

Michael stared. “Yes, do continue.”

“As long as the prosperity of the dukedom appeared inevitable, securing credit for your estate improvements was not a problem. But with the unusual climatic circumstances… that is to say, the weather has changed so much that… ah…” Sanders trailed off in a defensive flurry of careful language, his old habit of roundaboutation returning.

“My improvement plans remain unchanged, despite the persistence of winter,” Michael said.

The damned winter. Until this year, Michael trusted two things in the world: his own judgment and his land. But this year, spring had never come, and it seemed summer would also fail to make an appearance. For months, the world had lain under a chilly frost. And now Michael couldn’t trust the land, and no one else trusted his judgment.

“Exactly, Your Grace. This is what they find worrisome. During an unusual year, there is less tolerance for…” Sanders shifted his feet on the threadbare carpet of Michael’s study. “Unusual behavior.”

“This is an utterly unreasonable response,” Michael muttered. “When infinite credit is extended to fribbles with silk waistcoats and clocked stockings.”

“Waistcoats and stockings require a smaller outlay on the part of a creditor than do speculative mechanical constructions, Your Grace.”

Michael’s mouth twitched. “My speculative mechanical constructions, as you call them, will be the making of Lancashire.” Or should have been—
would
have been.

He had planned so carefully, overseeing every detail himself to make sure it was perfect: plowing moorland into canals; researching steam power. And finally, finally, he had a chance of reclaiming land no one had ever thought would be useful.

If his creditors were reasonable. Or if the world hadn’t frozen solid. Now there was nothing to irrigate; all the crops were dead. There was nothing with which to water them; the canals were troughs of icy mud.

His signet ring weighed heavy on his finger; he rubbed at the worn gold band. “Well. Even if I am short of funds, Sanders, I will find a way to fix the situation.”

“I can think of one possible way, Your Grace.” The steward hesitated.

Michael’s eyes flicked to Sanders. “Judging from your overlong pause, I’m not going to like it. Do tell me at once.”

“You could marry an heiress.” Sanders shaped the words as delicately as if he held glass beads between his precious gold teeth. “An alliance with a wealthy family would restore your creditors’ confidence, as well as providing the necessary infusion of cash to restart work on the canals.” He paused. “Or even build those steam-powered pumps you are interested in, Your Grace.”

“Bribery, Sanders?”

The steward’s mouth turned up at the corners. “Good sense, Your Grace.”

Michael leaned back in his chair and allowed his eyes to fall closed. Mentally, he pressed the headache into a ball and threw it to the side of his awareness. What was left?

The facts. The money was gone, and if Sanders were right, no more would be coming. Crops were scarce this year. There was barely anything to feed the tenants, much less their livestock or his own sprawling herds of sheep. The duchy was dying.

Sanders made a fair point; credit depended on appearances. Social power depended on appearances. If a man could maintain the appearance of wealth and power, it didn’t matter if he had two sous to rub together.

Michael had little use for false appearances, but the polite world had little use for this eccentricity—so they had avoided one another for the past eleven years.

But if Michael’s goal was to save the dukedom, he must get more money. And one day, he must get an heir. The steward’s suggestion was perfectly logical: a wife would be simply the latest of Wyverne’s improvements.

“Very well. I shall marry.” Michael opened his eyes, and the headache roared back into his consciousness. Over its pounding, he said, “Shall we convene a house party, then?”

Now Sanders looked as if the glass beads had been shoved up his posterior. “I regret that that is impossible, Your Grace. I have, as you know, kept in contact with your London household over the years, and I hesitate to inform you that they have come into the possession of certain articles of interest regarding—”

Michael held up a hand. “Speak plainly, if you please.”

The steward’s gaze darted away. “The
ton
thinks you’re mad, Your Grace. It’s a frequent source of amusement in the scandal rags.”

“Is it? After all the time I’ve been away, they still talk about me. How fascinating I am.”

A good reply. Such words sounded carefree, belying the headache that now clanged with brutal force, or the queasy pitch of his stomach. Michael could ignore these distractions, could do and say what was needed. But that word,
mad
—he had heard it so often that he had come to hate it.

He had never known he was
mad
as a boy—never, until he was sent off to school. If there had been nothing to do but study, he would have excelled, but the close quarters, the games, the initiations others handled so easily had turned Michael ill and shaking. Always scrambling for solitude, he was eventually sent home. A sin for which his father had never forgiven him; a type of son his father had never accepted. But hard-won solitude had been Michael’s, save for a brief interlude in London more than a decade before.

A wholly unsuccessful interlude that revived whispers about the old duke’s mad son. Michael had hoped these whispers were silenced after so many years. But no: if the polite world was again questioning his sanity, that was undoubtedly why no more credit was forthcoming. Anyone would loan to a genius, but no one would risk a farthing on the schemes of a madman.

Unfortunate that the line between the two was slim and easily crossed, especially this year. Snow in summer could transform even the most brilliant man into a lunatic.

“If I might make a suggestion,” Sanders ventured.

“Go on.”

“If you travel to London at once, Your Grace, you may take part in the final weeks of the season. You will find many potential brides there and can determine which lady would suit you best.” Sanders’s thin, sun-browned face softened under its thatch of grayish hair. “Once they meet you in person, Your Grace, they will surely be charmed, and all scurrilous gossip will be refuted.”

“Charmed, Sanders? I haven’t charmed anyone since I learned to walk and talk.” Except for that brief, bright flash of time in London.

Years ago. Unnecessary even to recall it. At this stage of life, he was as likely to charm a wife as he was to plop a turban on his head and charm a cobra.

“I would be delighted to travel to London in your stead, Your Grace,” Sanders said, “but I doubt I should answer the purpose to the young ladies of town.”

“Shall I, though?” Michael rubbed a hand over his eyes. “A madman. The mad duke. ‘The mad duke’s bride hunt.’ Why, the scandal-rag headlines almost write themselves.”

Sanders shuffled his feet. Michael made a dismissive gesture. “It doesn’t matter,” he lied. “There is nothing I wouldn’t do to save the dukedom.”

That much was quite true.

Was it mad to care for one’s legacy? To make the well-being of his tenants his purpose in life? To trust his land more than the people who had betrayed him so often, so long ago?

Society thought so, and back into its maw he must go—though his escape last time had been narrow indeed. But to save Wyverne, he would do anything. Even go to London; even sell himself for coin.

He only hoped he would fetch a high price.

***

July 3

London

“Wyverne has reopened his house in St. James’s Square,” drawled Andrew, Baron Hart, as he pulled on his breeches. “First time in at least a decade he’s come to Town during the season. Should be amusing to see what he gets up to, don’t you think?”

Caroline Graves, the widowed Countess of Stratton, paused in twisting her wheat-colored hair into a loose chignon. She stared at Hart’s roguish reflection in the shield-shaped glass above her dressing table. “Wyverne? That’s impossible. Everyone knows he never leaves Lancashire.”

Ignoring the startled thump of her heart, she poked a pin into her coiled locks, then adjusted her expression until it reflected nothing more than mild disbelief and milder amusement.

“Back he is, though,” Hart said. “Wonder what drove him here? I’ve heard his pockets are completely empty nowadays. Might be something to do with that.”

“I cannot imagine, Hart,” Caroline said in a carefully careless tone, turning her head to check the effect of her upswept hair. “You might be right. He could be seeking investors for… whatever scheme it is he’s pursuing nowadays.”

It was a system of irrigation canals into moorland, she knew, though there was no reason she should know such a thing.

“Rather prosy, that. I hope it’s something more colorful than a hunt for capital. You once got in a bit of trouble over him, didn’t you?”

She shrugged; the cap sleeve of her chemise slipped from one shoulder. “Nothing to speak of. I’ve since been in far worse trouble over far better men than Wyverne.”

The first part was certainly true. The second part—she wasn’t sure. She’d never been sure, where Wyverne was concerned, whether his carelessness was the simple arrogance of the aristocracy or whether it cloaked something far deeper.

Maybe it didn’t matter. The damage he caused was the same either way.

In the glass, Caroline saw Hart stretch, then approach her. He knew the effect of his person quite well. His torso was lean and muscled, like a sculpture. And just as if it were a sculpture, she stroked his contours with her eyes without being the slightest bit aroused.

But he would expect her to be aroused, would he not? She thought of Wyverne and allowed her cheeks to flush.

Hart grinned. “Can’t blame a man for getting into trouble with you, Caro. But Wyverne’s mad, isn’t he?”

“He’s harmless enough,” Caroline answered in a voice as smooth and colorless as cream. This was false, though his harm did not come from lack of sanity.

“They’re betting at White’s that he’ll be committed to Bedlam before the season’s out.”

“Impossible,” she said again, turning to face Hart. “He has no close relatives. Who would dare try to have him committed?”

Hart blinked in surprise, and Caroline added swiftly, “One never knows, of course. It’s possible he’ll create a scandal.”
Again.

Hart looked gratified to have Caroline enter into his game.
Scandal
was one of his favorite words. “Didn’t think of him as a ladies’ man, Caro. Do you suppose he’ll come join your court? Be one of your admirers?” He reached out a questing forefinger, his roguish grin confident and possessive.

Caroline allowed him to stroke her arm, caress her collarbone. Such small intimacies held no true intimacy at all when they were shared among many.

This was protection of a sort. As a wealthy widow, she held as much power as a woman could hold in society. She played her admirers against one another without the smallest intention of letting any of them draw truly close to her.

In a way, Wyverne had made her what she was. And now, after all these years, Wyverne was back.

This time, she was prepared for him.

“I doubt His Grace will concern himself with me.” Caroline increased the brightness of her smile until Hart staggered back, dazzled, and sat on the edge of her bed. “And I am certainly not concerned with him. Especially not now.”

“What do you mean?”

“Just what you think. Just what you might be hoping.” She rose from her seat before the dressing table and sashayed to the bed. With a sweep of her arm, she threw back the green damask bedcovers and the bed sheets.

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