Read To Charm a Naughty Countess Online

Authors: Theresa Romain

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

To Charm a Naughty Countess (3 page)

BOOK: To Charm a Naughty Countess
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“Persistence?” He had not considered this tool for capturing a wife.

“More than persistence, sadly. He’s not above using threats. But then again, neither am I. Last time Stratton proposed, I
accidentally
hit him in a sensitive area with my knee.”

Michael winced.

“Exactly. He did not soon forget that, but it hasn’t kept him from proposing again. He wants the fortune left to me by my late husband. This time, he knew enough to shield his sensitive area when he asked, though my answer was no different. Men can be so single-minded when it comes to retrieving property they regard as rightfully theirs.”

He managed a clipped, disinterested voice. “I suppose.”

When he had said she hadn’t changed at all, that had been untrue. The planes of her face were stronger than he remembered, or maybe memory had softened the hard edges. Now her features were as beautifully constructed as a draftsman’s plans—the arc of her brow over tilted eyes, a straight nose, and high cheekbones.

At the age of nineteen, she had been fresh-faced and turbulent, the diamond of her debut season. In her way, as brilliant an engineer as any pioneer of steam power: balancing friendships between the wealthy, the notorious, and the bright. Maintaining a clockwork-perfect state of checks and balances.

Such brilliance had always tugged Michael like a lodestone. But he could not afford to become distracted by fleshly desires. He kept such urges soldered up, for they were ready to vaporize him if given the slightest weakness.

Caroline tossed him a grin, and he felt a rivet pop.

“You suppose,” she repeated. “For my part, I
suppose
that you are also seeking a bit of property. If the scandal sheets are to be believed, which they sometimes are, you are in London to find a wife. Perhaps you and Stratton can share ideas, not that he has any that are worthwhile.”

“That makes two of us.” Ah, he could have bitten his tongue.

But she didn’t laugh; she simply looked at him. “You have had no luck yet?”

He did not perceive any pity or mockery in the question, and so he answered it. “Very little luck of any sort this year.”

As if to underline his sentence, a blast of chilly wind slapped their faces, then subsided again.

She turned to lean against the balustrade next to him, then tilted her head back, faint moonlight limning her profile. In the breeze, wisps of flaxen hair fluttered around her face. A faint floral scent wrapped around Michael like a scarf. Somehow the air seemed lighter, cooler.

Maybe because, for a few seconds, he had served as Galahad instead of Merlin—though his thoughts were none so pure as those of the fabled knight. He felt Caroline next to him as surely as he’d have felt a fire; heat seemed to prickle up and down his body. His disobedient heart stuttered, speared by a shaft of desire, then resumed pounding all the more quickly.

“The weather is strange this year,” she said. “So cold, for so long. It has complicated matters for you, has it not?”

“A man who hangs his fortune on irrigation must have something to irrigate.”

“Or another fortune with which to build?”

“Or that.”

“I should have known that nothing but business and dire need would draw you back to London.” She cut a glance at him, and her lips bowed into a bewitching smile that made him forget his surprise. He forgot everything except the color, plum-dark in the warm lantern light, and their shape. She was a promise and a threat. She gave him a siren’s smile, and he would be crushed on the rocks, gladly, for a taste… the mere possibility of a taste.

No
.

He would not. He had already been crushed, in the economic sense; that was why he was here in London to begin with. Nothing could come from reckless desire except disaster. Nothing could save him—save his dukedom—except careful thought.

“Business and dire need are among the most worthwhile reasons for visiting a city.” True, but even to his own ears, he sounded stuffy.

“I’ve no doubt of it. I didn’t intend to mock you. Those aren’t the only reasons one might visit, though.” She kept her gaze trained on the moon, now almost obscured by a passing cloud. “You know, you never told me good-bye.”

“If you are referring to the last time I was in London, I bade no one good-bye. As my father was in desperate health, I left in a hurry. I was understandably preoccupied with other matters.” Still stuffy, but now he sounded annoyed too. That was acceptable. Better she think him annoyed with her than with himself.

Because his father’s health had been no more than an excuse. The late duke had been dreadfully ill for a long time, and there was no reason to think he would ever improve, nor any reason to expect that he would suddenly die. No, Michael hadn’t left London for his father’s sake, but for his own.

His time in London had been an escape, a chance to prove the rumors wrong. But in the end, he had proved them right, and Lancashire was not far enough to flee from this dreadful knowledge.

After a long silence, Caroline spoke. “The reason should hardly signify at this distance in time. I understand that a duke, or even the heir to a dukedom, has many responsibilities. Far too many to grant him space to think of those he leaves behind.”

“I left no one of significance behind.”

Too harsh—far too harsh. He realized that even before her head snapped back, almost as though he had slapped her.

“I see,” she said calmly. “As we are not friends, then, and never were, it only remains for me to thank you for your service tonight in freeing me from Stratton.” She dipped into a curtsy. “I shall return to the ballroom now, Your Grace.”

Was there a tremor in her voice? Had he wounded her feelings? Michael had no idea how to tell. But he had gone wrong somehow, for she was already walking away.

“Wait, Caro.” The words burst from deep within him. “Please.”

She stopped but did not turn to him. Her shoulders were squared, held high and confident. They looked far too small to carry all his burdens.

This was a mad idea. Or perhaps it was genius. Or perhaps it was nothing but a frail hope.

“Will you marry me?”

Three

Two ludicrous proposals in less than half an hour. Even for Caroline, this was developing into an unusual evening.

“I beg your pardon.” She turned on her heel and faced Wyverne. “You are making me an offer of marriage? After telling me that you have long found me insignificant?”

“I didn’t intend to single you out. I referred to everyone I knew in London.”

“That does not improve the matter.” She suppressed a laugh of disbelief. “Why are you proposing marriage to me, Wyverne?”

His gaze caught hers, then turned back toward the garden of Applewood House. “Just as you suspected. I need a wealthy wife.”

He offered to share her life but would not even look at her. Typical Wyverne. There was no comprehending the man.

But Caroline could comprehend his response easily enough. It was what all her suitors would say if they were honest. Usually they gilded their intentions in fine words or sweetened them with lavish gifts, but Caroline knew what lay at their hearts.

Nothing.

For Caroline was wealthy; therein lay her appeal. This was, at least, a change from her debut season, when she had possessed no currency but a flawless face. Even after a near-disastrous brush with scandal, she had parlayed her beauty into a marriage beyond anyone’s dreams but her own. In her nine years of marriage, she had earned every farthing of the generous income her late husband had willed to her. Now many men of the
ton
wished to relieve her of it.

She had never expected Wyverne to be among that number. Actually, she had never expected to see him again.

“I’ll give you credit for honesty,” she said.

Wyverne’s mouth flexed. “I owe my future wife nothing less. My dukedom requires funds and quickly. Would you consent to be married quite soon?”

If only the words had been spoken eleven years earlier and in quite a different tone of voice. Caroline was impervious to such an offer now.

He had told her she had not changed much, and on the surface he was correct. She had taken great pains to retain her looks over the quiet years of her marriage and the raucous span of her widowhood. Though she’d recently reached the age of thirty, she could hold her own against any maiden. What the passing seasons had taken in freshness, they had replaced with luster.

The years had treated Wyverne less gently. Oh, he was still a handsome man: his profile cleanly cut, his hair waving and dark. Under the sultry light of a hanging lantern, she could tell the unique shade of his eyes, a dark green touched with brown, like evergreen needles at the end of summer. But time had sharpened his cheekbones, had sunburned faint lines on his forehead and at the corners of his eyes, broadened his shoulders, stretched him taller. He looked large enough to bear any burden, and as careworn as if he carried the troubles of the world.

It suited him, this look of strain. Dewy youth had never laid on him smoothly as a superfine coat, as it did so many young men in London. Now his face matched who he had always been inside.

Even in his frankness, proposing to her for her money, he was different from others. He sought her wealth not for his own gain, but for the sake of his dukedom. It was not any more flattering to Caroline, but it was noble in its way.

“No, Wyverne. Thank you for the honor of your offer, but I will not consent to be married anytime soon.”

He looked puzzled. “You wish to wait to be married, then?”

She shook her head slowly. It felt lighter than usual. “I do not wish to be married at all.”

“If you marry me”—Wyverne’s eyes now focused an inch above hers—“you shall be the most powerful woman in Lancashire.”

“Ah, but I like to live in London.”

“You will be a duchess; that’s more prestigious than a countess.”

“I am aware of the order of precedence. However, a widowed countess has freedoms that even a married duchess does not.” She raised her chin. “Have you any other arguments, Wyverne?”

“This is not an argument,” Wyverne said in a clipped voice. “It is a proposal.” At last, he looked her in the eye.

Her skin felt overheated under the cool caress of the night breeze, and her throat caught on something painful.

Drat. She clearly wasn’t as prepared for Wyverne as she’d thought. How could she build a defense against him when there was no one like him on whom to practice?

But this was hardly a reason to toss away everything she had worked to gain for herself. If her youthful fascination—if Wyverne himself—could be mastered, then nothing and no one would have a hold on her.

“As I have already told you, Wyverne, I do not accept your proposal,” Caroline said. “Instead, I offer you one of my own.”

His brows lifted. “An investment? I had not thought of making a financial bargain.”

“That is exactly what you
did
think of when you deigned to offer me your hand in exchange for my money. But I am not interested in marriage, especially for financial reasons.”

“What do you propose, then, if money is of no interest to you?”

“Money is of great interest to me, but not in relation to you.”

“Then we have nothing more to talk about.”

“But we do, Wyverne.” She was blurting the words almost before she knew what she intended to say, knowing only that she could not let Wyverne dismiss her again. “I could help you with a more personal arrangement. If a fortune is what you desire, I can put you in the way of a few wealthy fools with whom you might gamble.”

A hint of a smile; just a slight dent at the corner of his firm mouth. “Fortunately for those fools, I cannot afford the time or risk of gaming tables. No, it must be a sure thing.”

She cast about for another idea. “Names, then. The names of a few women you might court. I’m certain I can think of someone who would serve your purpose better than I.”

“You are certain of that, are you?” Evergreen eyes caught hers. That was all he said, and as she looked at him, the air seemed to lay sultry over her, like a satin shawl.

“I’m certain, yes. I am not the same woman you knew, Wyverne. And I know more than you realize.”

There was something coiled and intense in his stance. Caroline saw his gaze float down her body, then back up to her face, and he swallowed. His fingers began a jittery dance on the balustrade. “I must marry,” he said in a strangled voice, “and soon, and for money. I can pursue nothing else.”

“I know that too.” Some sweet edge within her began to crumble.

He was as unyielding as she remembered. Though awkward, he was completely certain of his own rightness. He was difficult to be around, and perhaps that was why he was so difficult to forget.

As swiftly as Wyverne shook off her touch, slanted a reluctant glance over her face, Caroline’s old fascination had bloomed again. She wanted to caress away those fine lines, tease his troubles off his soul, feel his skin sliding under hers, hot and tight with desire. She wanted to shake up his sense of honor, unsettle him, enchant him.

She had always wanted that.

But she would not let him know. If he cared only for a fortune, any woman with plump pockets might do.

“Names,” he said at last, “will do me no good. All the names you might suggest, unless they be yours or Lady Applewood’s, belong to people who think me mad and will not speak to me.”

“Dear me. And neither of us is available for matrimony at present.”

He turned away from her, leaning on his elbows and looking out over the garden.

“Wyverne, this is ridiculous. You’re no more mad than…”

“The king?” His voice dropped low, like stones into water.

“Certainly not.” The poor king raved and frothed. Wyverne, as Caroline remembered him, simply didn’t fit into a neat corner of society. But was that the fault of the man or of the corner into which he didn’t fit? “You make a fair point, though. We must not discount the power of reputation.”

“We?” He darted a glance at her. It might have been a trick of the feeble light, the deep shadows, but Caroline could have sworn something kindled in his expression.

“Yes,
we
.” The idea was sudden but perfect. If she could make him need her, why, he wouldn’t be a mystery anymore, or a fascination. He’d be nothing but a man, and one under her power. It would be easy, then, to lift him from her heart and mind. As neatly as a cook coring an apple. “I shall help you, Wyverne. Give me a free hand and five outings in society, and we shall have every woman in London wanting you.”

“Every woman?”

Caroline raised her eyes to heaven. “All right, give me
six
outings, then. And give me more than two words by way of reply.”

“I don’t need to be wanted. I only need to be accepted.”

“Ah.” So simple, so tragic. Caroline had always needed both. “Well, we can arrange that too.”

When he turned away from the starlit garden to regard her again, his attention made her insides swoop. She wanted to reach out a hand, stroke the fine, high planes of his face, but as soon as her hand lifted, she thought better of it. She had felt his tension earlier when she only touched his sleeve.

“Why should you do this for me?” His tone was clipped, suspicious.

“Consider it a token of the friendship we long ago abandoned.”
He
abandoned. He would not leave her again, not unless it was on her terms.

“I cannot accept that honor from you.”

“Why not?”

“No matter what one desires, I neither expect nor offer something for nothing.” His lashes lowered, shadowy crescents on his cheekbones.

“Did you think I would help you for nothing?” Caroline’s trill of laughter sounded breezier than she felt. “You give me too much credit for selflessness. Wyverne, if I find you a bride, I shall be the toast of London society. Not to put too fine a point on the matter, but it really will be quite a challenge as long as the caricaturists keep creating their abysmal prints of you. With my aid, though, I am certain you will gain the hand of a suitable bride.”

It would be perfect.
Perfect.
The man who had almost destroyed her reputation eleven years earlier would now become the making of it.

“You are certain, you say.” His jaw clenched, and Caroline again felt the slippery urge to run a finger over the clean angles of his profile.

“Yes.”

In actuality, she was not. Wyverne was not like other men, and for this reason, the world thought him mad. Maybe Caroline was mad too, for she sought to repeat history, even though her plans had gone so far awry the first time.

“Then I would be honored by your assistance. I shall call on you tomorrow.” His mouth bent into an awkward shape that approximated a smile. He looked down at his gloved hand, then slowly extended it.

“Oh, for heaven’s sake, Wyverne.” Caroline covered a swell of glee with briskness. “Don’t bother. I know you don’t like to shake hands.”

At once, his expression relaxed and his hand dropped to his side. Caroline could not resist adding, “Instead, we shall seal our bargain with a kiss. Isn’t that what this terrace is for?”

She stepped closer to him, and his chin drew back, his brows furrowing.

“I’m only teasing,” Caroline murmured—not that she had truly expected him to step closer instead of away.

“I know,” Wyverne replied, soft as a sigh. “I was merely surprised. When I spoke of desires earlier, I referred not to your own responses, but to mine.”

His lips twisted, though the expression looked more sad than joyful. He sketched her a bow before excusing himself and withdrawing into the shadows.

He had not touched her at all. And yet, he had.

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