Read To Charm a Naughty Countess Online

Authors: Theresa Romain

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

To Charm a Naughty Countess (8 page)

BOOK: To Charm a Naughty Countess
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Caroline finally managed to coax the Weatherby women back to the card table. Hart had slipped into a seat in their absence; as he stood, he caught Caroline’s eye. If expressions could be written in words, this was as bold an
I
told
you
so
as she’d ever seen.

She hoped he could read her own expression:
oh, shut up.

“Everything all right, Caro?” Emily lifted her eyebrows.

Caroline had too much pride to entrust her old friend with complete honesty in this case. “Of course, darling. His Grace has been edifying me, that is all.”

Emily’s mouth crimped. “Do let me know if he has any luck. I’ve never held out the slightest hope for your edification, myself.”

“I hold out as much for mine as I do for yours,” Caroline said sweetly, patting Emily on the shoulder. “Brutus, darling.”

“If I’m to be called a traitor, I prefer Benedict Arnold.” Emily picked her cards back up and rearranged a few. “A much fresher reference.”

“Bond Street,” said her husband, his brow furrowed as he searched his own cards. “Em, what was trump again?”

Hart laughed; Emily sighed. Caroline said, “What about Bond Street?”

Jem looked up from his cards. “That’s where we got the lamp. Can’t think of the shop name, but Sowerberry can help you with that. Our butler, you know. Wyverne seems to like the lamp. He should get one.”

He looked down at his cards again. “Can’t think how I’ve got so many cards left. Are you sure you’ve dealt correctly, Hart?”

Caroline slipped away, back to Michael, who was still fitting gears together.

She had called him her ward. A joke, yet she did feel responsible for him. She’d brought him tonight. She had asked him to trust her, to place his future in her hands. It was a great deal to ask of any man, much less a duke. Much less of Michael.

As he struggled to fit two gears together, his hand bumped the lamp’s glass shade. It smashed on the carpeted floor much more loudly than Caroline would have expected.

“Damn,” said Michael. In unison, Mrs. Weatherby and her daughter gasped.

Damn, indeed
, thought Caroline. With that single unguarded syllable, he had ensured that Miss Weatherby would never consider his suit.

That stupid lamp. Caroline would have hidden it as soon as dinner was over had she known what it would cost: not only a glass shade, but a wealthy bride. A maiden who could afford anything in the world except the unexpected.

Caroline rolled her annoyance into a tiny ball. “Michael, please call on me tomorrow morning. I have much business to discuss with you.”

He bent to pick up the shards of a formerly beautiful frosted glass sphere. “Business? How so?”

“For business you have come to London, and for very particular business, we have made a pact. I
am
capable of deeper thought than flowers and flirtation, you know.”

“I’ve never doubted that.” He stood, setting the pieces of glass gently atop the pianoforte. “Will your other suitors be there tomorrow morning?”

She noticed the word
other
and tucked it away for closer examination later. “If you call early enough, we will be alone.”

He nodded, then looked over the pieces of the lamp, still spread out before him. “I know I can figure this out,” he muttered. “It will just take more time than I thought.”

I
feel
the
same
way
, Caroline thought.

But all she said was, “Tomorrow, then.”

Seven

Despite the ridiculous buff on his fingernails, Michael was not a vain man.

Oh, he knew he had a knack for some things, such as totting up columns of figures or finding the problem with a rickety chair.

He also knew he was quite bad at some things.

Such as, apparently, charming the daughter of one of his creditors. Or putting a Carcel lamp back together upon a moment’s notice.

So when he called at Caroline’s house the next morning—quite early, as she had suggested—he expected that she would shout at him a bit. He had blundered. He had let himself get distracted at exactly the wrong time. All in all, yesterday hadn’t contained his finest efforts at reputation redemption. Or bride capturing.

Really, he deserved to be shouted at.

But she greeted him with a smile when he entered the sunny-walled morning room. As she stood, the shiny green beads on her gown clicked faintly.

“Michael, do you prefer coffee or tea? Or chocolate? I think the kitchen has some chocolate too.”

He looked at her warily. “Nothing. I don’t need anything.”

With a nod, she ordered tea and biscuits from a servant. Turning back to Michael as the door closed them in, she said, “It’s not for you; it’s for me. I’ve a feeling I’m going to need all my energy this morning.”

He looked at her closely; never a hardship. Today her blue-green eyes appeared shadowed. “Are you tired?”

“I’m all right. But if today goes as yesterday did, I will soon become very tired indeed.”

Ah. There it was. “Go ahead. Shout at me. I don’t mind.”

She motioned him to a chair. “Sit, sit. I had it checked for soundness.” Did she wink at him? Seating herself in a matching chair, she added, “Now, what would be the purpose of shouting at you if you don’t mind it? It would be a waste of air and would probably unnerve the servants.”

“Then you aren’t annoyed with me?”

“I didn’t say that. Respectable and wealthy heiresses are hardly as thick on the ground as horse droppings. If you wish to catch one of them for yourself—an heiress, I mean—then I’ll thank you to behave yourself in a reasonable manner.”

He blinked. “Let me understand you clearly. Are you referring to Miss Weatherby as a horse dropping?”

Caroline folded her arms. “No, of course not. It was merely a figure of speech. Miss Weatherby is a lovely girl. If anyone is to be tagged with the epithet of
horse
dropping
, it shall not be her.”

Just then, a servant entered the room with a tray of biscuits, a covered teapot, and a few fragile little cups. Michael was forced to bite his tongue until they were left alone again.

As soon as the door glided closed again, he spoke up. “I am not so unbearably thick-witted as you seem to think me, Caro. I understand your meaning perfectly well. But I cannot imagine what I’ve done to be called unreasonable.”

“Are you certain? You thought there was reason enough for me to shout at you.” She poured out a cup of tea for herself, then inhaled its fragrance. “If you’ve forgotten what happened yesterday—”

“I have
not
,” he ground out, “forgotten. I broke a Carcel lamp, which was an accident.”

She raised her eyes to the ceiling. “I suppose that’s not false. But it would not have broken if you’d never taken it apart during a dinner party. Could I recollect a thousand more
faux
pas
you had committed last night, that single one would stand as reason enough for my displeasure.”

Michael held himself rigid in his chair. “Dinner was over. And there is nothing unreasonable about finding something sensible to do, given that I had chosen not to play cards.”

“Indeed there is not, though we disagree on what
sensible
means.
Sensible
means that you play the pianoforte. It does not mean that you dissect the lighting atop it.”

“I don’t play music.”

“Then
talk
to someone, Michael. Make a new acquaintance. Use that title of yours for your own benefit. Or if you can’t bear to do that, simply stare out the window as though every pastime is tooth-grindingly dull and far beneath your notice. But for God’s sake, do not take apart your host’s lamp.”

Michael crossed his arms, holding himself steady. Any second now, a headache would erupt, burying his control under a lava flow of pain.

“I realize,” Caroline continued, “that my advice to you not to dismantle lamps will not apply to many situations. But we will take it as a starting point: the host controls the lamps. Bear that in mind. If you ever hold a house party at Callows, you may lead your guests in a cheerful disassembly of every lamp in the house.” Her eyes widened. “I say, that’s a good idea.”

Her tone made Michael suspicious. “Taking apart my lamps?”

A ghost of a smile bent Caroline’s mouth. “Hardly. I mean, convening a house party in Lancashire after the season. If we haven’t already got you betrothed by then, that is. I’m sure you’d be irresistible in your own environment.”

Ah, here came the headache, knocking at his temples. It was late to arrive; he had expected it minutes ago.

“My steward informed me that the polite world thinks me…” Michael choked on the word
mad
, then cast about for a substitute. “Ungracious.”

“I agree with him completely, and after last night, I think Miss Weatherby does too. It is indeed ungracious to ignore a gently bred young lady, then dismantle a lamp in a fit of childish boredom. And then break its fine glass globe and allow a curse to slip out in that same young lady’s hearing.”

“I was not bored at the time I took apart the lamp.”

She shook her head, then made a complicated ordeal out of sipping her tea, adding a bit more milk and sugar, then drinking again.

He wished he could interpret her face. He understood the elevation of land, but how to read the elevation of an eyebrow? He knew how to grade for the best growth of different crops, but what did the different grades of a smile mean? Why did a cheek bloom rosy?

He could not ask her. But he had to trust her to some degree. She had offered him help.

Long ago, she had offered him much more than that.

Warmth shot through his body at the memory. The very thought of it ached; it was so sweet and so terrible.

“I wasn’t bored,” he repeated. “I was—well, tense. You weren’t there. You were talking to that other fellow.”

Clunk
. She set down her teacup so hard that tea sloshed into the saucer. Her hands pressed to her mouth. With pity?

“And,” he added more loudly, “I’ve always wanted to know how those lamps work.”

“Yes.” It sounded as if she were answering a question.

All those years ago, passion had bloomed as swiftly as it had been killed. Michael had thought he’d go mad from the conquest—
her
conquest—and the loss. But still, against all logic, he wanted to touch her cheek, to see if it was really as pliant as the skin of a peach. He wanted to rub a thumb over the arch of her brow and slide his hand down her neck, her shoulder, the smooth length of her arm. If he could wrap his hands around her form, maybe he could wrap his mind around this pull, this want, and master it.

But he must not touch her. The idea was ridiculous. Completely out of the question.

He laced his fingers together so they wouldn’t become disobedient.

“You’ve gone away again,” Caroline said.

Michael looked up from his carefully arranged hands. “Pardon?”

“You.” She swiped a hand through the air. “You’re sitting here, but you’re not really listening to me. You’re thinking of something else. Worrying about your dukedom, aren’t you?”

“Of course,” Michael blurted. Better she think he was preoccupied with Wyverne than by the curves of her face and body.

“Tell me, Michael. Is your steward competent?”

Michael watched her lips form the words, the tip of her tongue peeking forth on the liquid consonants. How did they taste to her? Was speech sweeter in the mouth when one always had honeyed words?

He had to repeat her words in his mind before he could divine their meaning. “Competent?”

“Yes, competent. I assume he is, or you would surely have dismissed him by now.”

“True. Yes, he is.”

“Then you have nothing to worry about. As long as you have funds to pay him—you
do
pay him, do you not?”

“For now,” Michael muttered.

“Then you can trust him to serve you, and you need not worry about things you are unable to influence, fix, or oversee.” She smiled, as if she thought this was reassurance.

But it was not. It turned lust to anxiety, reminding Michael that he was far away from Wyverne and that everything lay in Sanders’s hands now. All he could do was write letters: letters that took too long to arrive and were not answered nearly often enough.

Hectic darkness flickered before his eyes, and he tried to pull in a deep breath without Caroline noticing.

She did notice, though. “Good heavens, what is the matter?”

“Just… tired,” Michael managed.

“If you are merely tired, then I am the Prince Regent’s favorite horse. Are you ill?”

“Of course not,” Michael rasped, remembering to tilt his chin up and stare along the length of his nose.

“Then it must be that you didn’t like what I said,” Caroline murmured. “About not being able to oversee every—well, I’d best not repeat it. Michael, I know the doing isn’t as easy as the telling, but you must trust your steward. Has he been with your family long?”

“Yes. But I’ve been…”

He trailed off. He could not admit to her the neglect his father had bequeathed him, having gambled away the livelihood of Wyverne’s tenants and mortgaged their future. He could not, in this bright, brocaded morning room, talk about slogging through debt, dredging his land, excavating canals. Anything, anything to squeeze a bit more life from the chilly, rocky land.

He had given his land his whole life, and it was still not enough. Even now, his mind ticked with tasks like an over-wound pocket watch.
Should. Must. Need to. Ought.

Caroline’s voice seemed to come from far away. “In your absence, will your steward be able to cope with whatever arises?”

How could he know? Nature was in charge, as always, and she would not be gainsaid. What did it matter whether he built the most advanced irrigation system in the world if the earth denied him a growing season? “No one can possibly know the answer to that question,” he ground out. “Why have you requested that I come this morning? Is it to harangue me about things you know nothing about?”

Too harsh by far. He knew she meant well. But where another woman might have crumpled, she only raised her eyebrows.

“No, it’s so that you’ll tell me more. Do understand, Michael, my intention is not to make you uncomfortable.” She flashed a grin at him. “That is only an unexpected benefit.”

Her grin died, and she added, “Only teasing, of course. So touchy, aren’t you? What I mean is that you must trust me, and you must trust your steward, and that will only come through offering each other honesty.”

“I do not care to trust anyone but myself.”

“Truly?”

“Yes.”

Caroline looked the way Michael had felt when he first saw a Cornish steam engine: fascinated yet a bit appalled by its strangeness. “If so, I don’t wonder you are in financial trouble. Why should bankers trust you if you don’t trust them?”

“If others choose not to trust me, that is their right, and indeed they are exercising it this year. But I know that I can be trusted. For my part, I lend only to people who rely on me, such as my tenants.”

“Because they are your responsibility, and therefore in a way the money is still under your control. You really
don’t
think you trust anyone, do you?” She paused, teeth pulling at the fullness of her lower lip. “Yet I wonder if it has occurred to you that you are trusting me now. And your steward too.”

“I—” He slammed his mouth shut before he could say something ungracious again. She was right, and he disliked that she knew that. He could not be in two places at once, or live well in two worlds.

So yes, he had to trust her for now. He had called on her this morning, after all. And he had accepted her help because he could not quite manage to deny himself every part of her.

Caroline poured out another cup of tea. “I don’t mean to wake your anxiety again.”

“I am
not
anxious.”

She shot him a Look.

“I’m not. I simply get headaches sometimes.” Damn it. He hadn’t intended to admit that.

She handed the cup to him. “Drink that. Then tell me about the headaches.”

“There’s nothing to tell. Everyone gets headaches sometimes.” He felt oafish, blunt fingers cradling an eggshell-thin china cup. Since she was still watching him, he sipped at the tea.

And sipped again. And again. Before he realized it, he was looking at the dregs in his cup.

“The warmth is pleasant,” he said to excuse himself. “Thank you.”

With a knowing smile, she refilled his cup and handed him a plate of biscuits. “Some people get headaches when they forget to eat and drink.”

“Ridiculous. That’s not why I get headaches.” In less than a minute, his cup and plate were somehow empty.

Again, Caroline replenished both. “So you’re neither anxious nor hungry. Yet these headaches distract you? Might you be ill?”

“I’m not ill either. I simply prefer to retain control of my surroundings, because if I do not, I get a headache.”

She blinked at him.

“I assure you, it is
not
due to anxiety.”

She raised one eyebrow.

“It’s
not
. And I do not have a problem.”

“But you do,” she said. “You need money.”

“Oh.” With a clatter, he set his cup and plate down. “Yes. True. I do have that problem.”

“You probably won’t find your future bride until you stop thinking of this time in London as a brief chore to be escaped as soon as possible. A duke can never be completely forgotten by society; at most, he can be contorted in the minds of others.”

“I know that well enough,” Michael said grimly. “People love to whisper about me.”

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