Read To Charm a Naughty Countess Online

Authors: Theresa Romain

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

To Charm a Naughty Countess (2 page)

BOOK: To Charm a Naughty Countess
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Hart stared up at her like a child who could not believe he had just been offered another serving of apple tart. “By God, Caro, you’re a wonder.”

Despite her fast reputation, rare was the man Caroline welcomed to her bed. She chose lovers by toting up the positives and negatives, choosing the man with the most of the former and the fewest of the latter. Hart had won her over with a combination of a handsome face, a fine figure, and indomitable persistence.

And with dark hair and green eyes—ah, she had a weakness for those. Though just why, and of whom Hart reminded her, she hadn’t allowed herself to consider for a long time.

Nor would she consider it now. Wyverne had no place in her life anymore. Really, he never had. He had made that clear enough eleven years earlier.

With determined force, Caroline pressed Hart to the bed and drew from him the fleeting oblivion of her own pleasure.

Two

Bump.

In Lady Applewood’s crowded ballroom, it was impossible not to jostle others. The slim maiden who had just backed into Michael, giggling and chattering, was the seventh to do so.

And as with the previous six, the smile on her lips disappeared as soon as she saw who was behind her. “Oh. Your Grace? Do pardon me—I didn’t—that is…”

Fan aflutter, eyes darting wildly, she skittered away into the crowd. Such was her haste that she left a torn flounce behind.

And they called
him
mad. At least he could complete a sentence.

“Think nothing of it,” he muttered. He quashed the urge to shudder off the close contact, the press of so many bodies. A London ballroom was the best hunting ground for a wealthy wife—if only the women didn’t scatter like partridges whenever he came near.

This afternoon, he had seen a caricature posted in a printshop window: a wild-eyed hunchback wearing a ducal coronet of gold strawberry leaves. In one hand, the creature held a shovel; in the other, an empty purse. He lunged, slavering, for a lily-pale maiden in court dress.

Nonsense of the lowest order. Michael had never been the sort to lunge for maidens, and his shoulders were perfectly square. And he hadn’t dug his land’s canals himself—though what would be the harm if he had?

Great harm, evidently. The scandal rags had done their work, and thoroughly: the women of London were convinced of his madness. They wanted a Lancelot or a Galahad, not an eccentric Merlin.

A swat stung his forearm. Michael sucked in an impatient breath, the “it’s quite all right” waiting upon his lips.

“I vow, Wyverne, I wasn’t sure how you’d turn out, given the talk of… well. Well!”

Someone was actually addressing him. How novel. He looked down at the small, rounded form of his hostess, the Marchioness of Applewood. Once a slender beauty, she had retained her good cheer far better than she had her figure.

With another swat on his forearm, she beamed up at him. “It’s lovely to see you after all these years, dear Wyverne.”

“Thank you.” He tried to draw his arm out of her reach. “For the invitation.”

The middle-aged marchioness dimpled, reaching up to pat his cheek. “Of course! As I was your last hostess when you were in London so long ago, I wanted to be your first hostess this time.
Wicked
man!”

Michael flinched—from the unexpected touch or the mention of that long-ago ball. Or both. Despite the world’s whispers, he had never felt truly mad until that single night. After he took Caroline Ward in his arms…

He crushed that thought as he would a walnut shell. No.

“You are the absolute
image
of your father, you are.” Lady Applewood flushed rosy under her face paint, and she spoke low beneath the din in the ballroom. “He was a handsome devil too, and he always did have a
tendre
for me. Such a flirt! Only do not tell my husband I said that, I beg you. Applewood is such a jealous creature.”

“Ah.” Any further reply was made unnecessary when her ladyship batted him on the arm yet again.


Such
a wicked man!” She beamed at him. “But I knew you’d understand. Now, we ought to find you someone to dance with, shouldn’t we? I would
love
to stand up with you myself, but—”

“Applewood is such a jealous creature,” repeated Michael. This earned him another giggle, another bat upon the arm.

“Precisely! Ah, just like your father.”

The headache sounded a warning gong in his temples. “I resemble my late father in very little besides appearance,” he ground out. Then stopping himself, he tried to formulate a pleasant smile. “This was much to his dismay.”

Of all the women in the
ton
, he would have considered Lady Applewood least likely to extend him an invitation. But perhaps she hoped for another serving of gossip, such as he had given rise to at her ball all those years ago. Or maybe her mummified affection for his departed father led her to look on him kindly. Whatever the reason, he needed every scrap of such goodwill until he found his footing in society.

The heat of the ballroom pressed upon him all at once: candle flames, wool coats, and hundreds of bodies. A clamor of laughter and chatter in his ears. Perfume, sweet and cloying over the earthy odor of perspiration.

The headache cracked its figurative knuckles and settled in for a long visit.

No. He must ward it off. Fresh air, that was what he needed. There was a terrace to one side of the ballroom.

“I thank you for your hospitality, Lady Applewood,” he blurted, remembering to bow over her hand. “Please excuse me.”

Twisting aside to avoid the woman’s farewell swat upon the forearm, he threaded through the crowd in the direction of the terrace. Dandies and matrons and maidens drew away from him as he passed, whispering, their wide eyes searching his own for wildness. Looking over his form for evidence of a crooked back, no doubt, or inspecting his hands for the roughness of shocking labor.

His arms were painfully tense from shoulder to fingertips. He hadn’t expected the rumors to take root so deeply, to outweigh the lure of his title. Nor had he predicted that the only woman to look on him kindly would do so for his damned father’s sake.

At last, he reached the edge of the high-ceilinged ballroom. Making fists of his aching hands, he pushed open a French door and stepped onto the terrace.

He drew a deep breath through his nose, expecting clean, cool night air to clear the pounding from his head. But London air did not bite and wake him with its crispness, as did the air on the Lancashire moors. Even in this freakish, chill summer, the air hung heavy and oily with coal smoke. It coated Michael’s lungs and further fogged his head. It reminded him how far he was from where he ought to be.

Still, the quiet was welcome. And the cheerful marchioness had gone to great effort to make the outside of her London mansion as welcoming as most people found the inside. Hanging lanterns warmed the sweep of stone with mottled light, their glass painted with red and gold scrollwork.

As he should have guessed, the effect was irresistible to couples in search of seclusion. His eyes adjusting from the dazzling ballroom to the starlit sky, he could see several shadowy blobs, each the shape of two bodies pressed tightly together. As silently as he could, he crossed the stone terrace and sank onto a bench away from the sight of would-be lovers.

Another deep breath, and the headache began to loosen its grip. A few more minutes of silence and it would slink away. Then he would decide what to do next.

But the silence ended almost at once. “No, Stratton. I will not allow it.”

A woman’s voice rang out, cool and formal, much louder than the murmurs of lovers in the twilight.

A deeper, placating rumble, then the ringing female voice again. “It wouldn’t be proper, Stratton, and you know how concerned I am with propriety.” The voice held a bubble of laughter this time, but it popped abruptly. “Now you must excuse me. I have to return to my friends.”

Friends. Fortunate lady. Likely she had a dance lined up, and this fool was keeping her from someone whose company she preferred. Michael shut his eyes and wondered how long it would take for an eligible woman to agree to marry him, or even to agree to speak with him. For how long were caricatures posted in the windows of printers’ shops?

The voice was louder now. “Stratton, this is unwise of you. Remember what I did last time you wouldn’t release me as I asked.”

A pause. “You mistake the matter if you think I am bluffing.” The sweet tone had gone steely.

Michael opened his eyes. The woman sounded as though she could take care of herself, but the man was insistent. And no one seemed to hear them except Michael. He squinted back at the bright, whirling ballroom. Indoors was a genteel chaos of music and laughter, heedless of the unfolding drama outside.

Michael deliberated for an instant. He must not do anything that seemed mad, for God’s sake. But he could not let a woman be menaced.

He stood and strode forward out of the shadows, allowing his feet to thump on the stone of the terrace. Moving directly under a painted lantern, he leaned on the sturdy balustrade, allowing his presence to become known to the too-persistent man.

From here, he could overlook the great house’s gardens. They looked tranquil and still, the darkness broken only by the firefly wink of tiny lanterns.

A hand touched his arm. “Ah, here you are. It is time for our dance. I’ve been looking forward to it with such anticipation.”

The female voice that had bitten so coldly at the unwanted suitor. Now it was warm, even flirtatious. Michael’s skin prickled under the pressure of the slim, gloved hand. He turned his head to the side, to see who had approached him.

“Caroline Ward.” His numb lips shaped the name before consulting with his brain. His brain conjured delight and dread, then was unable to decide between the two.

His eyes alone were unbothered, gulping the sight of her. She was still a vision of loveliness, tall and curving and fair-haired, with light eyes and a cherry-ripe smile.

And she was
touching
his
arm
.

Too close. She was
too
close.
His muscles went into spasm, painful twitches that yanked at his bones. “I beg your pardon, Miss Wa… madam.” Was she married? Surely she had married by now. “You must have mistaken someone else’s dance for mine.” Michael rolled his forearm in an attempt to remove it from her grasp.

“Nonsense, Wyverne. I could never mistake you.” Her voice was sweet and warm, but her gaze remained flinty. Her fingers tightened on his arm as a man drew near them.

Anyone observing her from a small distance would see only the brightness of her smile, the intimacy of her possessive hand. But Michael stood close enough to see the plea in her eyes. Ignorant though he might be of the
ton
’s rules and foibles, this message was clear enough.

She needed his help. That was all.
Wyverne
, she called him. He was used to being Wyverne, to offering help to his tenants. He could help her too.

If only she would stop touching him. The sensation was too unsettling to be borne.

“Of course,” Michael choked out. “It would be my honor… ah…”

“Wyverne, I’ve told you time and again. You absolutely must call me Caroline, or Caro if you like. There’s no need for this silly formality of
Lady
Stratton
between us.”

Clever woman, to supply him with her name so smoothly. “As you wish, Caro.” So. She
had
married, and married an aristocrat. He supposed that was what she had always wanted.

Her unwanted companion drew alongside Michael and Caroline. He made an unlikely predator: mild featured, of middling height, with light brown hair that was beginning to race away from his temples and forehead. His clothing was fashionable without being flamboyant.

“Who have you here, Caro?” said the new arrival, a haughty expression sitting oddly on his rounded cheeks. “Another of your little friends?”

Michael lifted his chin. “You may refer to me as the Duke of Wyverne.”

Caroline smiled. “Your Grace, might I present the Earl of Stratton? My late husband’s great-nephew.”

Late
husband, she said.

Before Michael could tease out more meaning from her words, the earl was bowing to him. “Earl of Stratton, Your Grace, as Caro said. Well, well. This is a pleasure. I’ve heard a great deal about you.” He smirked his way upright again. “You have just arrived in Town, I think?”

Michael acknowledged the bow with a tilt of his head. “Very recently. Yes.”

Stratton seemed unsure whether this was a snub or not. After a pause, his smirk folded into a fair approximation of good cheer. “Well, society stands ready to offer you a welcome. No doubt we will all enjoy your stay. Caro, come inside with me.”

“I think not.” Caroline fired a gleaming smile at the earl. “Wyverne and I might not dance after all; it is so pleasant out here. I am inclined to stay on the terrace for quite some time. But there is no need for you to wait for me, Stratton. Do go inside and find someone to dance with.”

Unmistakable dismissal. Though he glared, the earl had no choice but to slither away. Michael fixed his eyes on the cleverly chased buttons of his own coat sleeve but monitored the sounds of Stratton’s retreat. Footsteps decreased in volume as he crossed the terrace; then a burble of voices spilled through the French doors from the ballroom and was muffled when the doors clicked shut again.

At once, Michael shook his arm free from Caroline’s grasp.

“What was that ridiculous lie about a dance, madam?” He should not bark at a woman, he knew, but the prickling tension in his arm was about to drive him mad.

No. Not mad. It was just… uncomfortable.

She folded her hands, serene as a saint. “Ought I to apologize for that? I suppose it wasn’t well done of me to put you in such a position, but I needed an excuse to escape Stratton. You needn’t worry that I expect you to dance with me. In fact, now that Stratton is gone, you can be on your way as well.”

She turned away from him, dismissing him.

And he realized where they stood: on Lady Applewood’s terrace, mere feet away from where, as a fool of twenty-one, he had allowed her to tear him so beautifully apart.

“So.” His jaw clenched. “You use me as an excuse, then walk away. I see that nothing much has changed about you,
Lady
Stratton
.” He laid his heaviest stress on these final words.

“As a widow of advanced years, I shall take that as a compliment.”

“Take it as you like.”

“Oh, I shall. I am accustomed to doing what I like.” Slowly, she turned back and met his eye. “But I cannot say you have remained unchanged, Wyverne. I remember you as being much more pleasant.”

This startled a laugh from him. “Do you? I wasn’t aware I had ever been known for being pleasant.” Brusque, yes. Mad, undoubtedly. Pleasant? Never.

“I did not say you had been pleasant, only
more
pleasant. But if you are capable of laughter, perhaps there is hope for you yet.” She smiled, this time without the flinty look. “And I do thank you for your help in disposing of Lord Stratton. He is extremely tiresome about trying to convince me to marry him—as if persistence alone would ever change my mind.”

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