The Importance of Being Wicked: Excerpt
They’d reached the rump of the evening. Caro Townsend surveyed the remains of another dinner party. No one had much to say, but no one wanted to brave the cold streets of London in the small hours. How small the hour was she had no idea; the mantel clock was unreliable at the best of times and had no chance of being right when she forgot to wind it. Half a dozen guests remained in the drawing room of Caro’s Conduit Street house. In one corner, an argument between two painters and a writer on the superiority of their respective arts had degenerated into desultory insults. Adam and Lydia Longley, exhausted by their roles in a reenactment of Hogarth’s Rake’s Progress, had collapsed on the sofa like a pair of puppies. And Oliver Bream was drunk.
“May I tell you a secret, Caro?” he asked, sprawling on the floor at her feet.
“Of course.” Caro tried not to laugh. She knew what was coming, and it was no secret to anyone.
“I’m in love,” the young artist said earnestly.
She rolled her eyes and fortified herself with another gulp of wine in preparation for an oft-told tale.
“I’m in love with Lady Windermere,” he said, then lowered his voice to a reverent whisper. “With Cynthia.”
“I would never have guessed.”
Oliver was too far gone to detect sarcasm. “She’s the loveliest, sweetest woman in the entire world. She’s perfect.” He looked around the room, puckish disappointment creasing his face. “But she left.”
“She owns a carriage, Oliver. When you order a carriage for a certain hour, you have to leave.”
“That’s dreadful. We’re lucky not to keep carriages.”
Caro had always found a coach most convenient. But since she preferred not to dwell on her reduced circumstances, she emptied her glass and continued to listen to Oliver’s ramblings. She needed to send the rest of the party home or face the wrath of Mrs. Batten in the morning. Her few servants were immensely tolerant, but the housekeeper became tetchy about sleeping bodies when the maid had to clean the room. Caro never wished to speed the parting guest. She hated the moment when the last one left and she was alone again.
Oliver finally ran out of words to laud the charms of his latest inamorata. “Now you know my secret. It’s your turn to tell me one.”
“My life is an open book. I’m widowed, disreputable, and poor. What else is there to know?”
“Everyone has secrets.”
There was something, one thing that she, and no one else, knew. She’d kept it to herself for over a year now, since the day she was widowed. She’d never even told Oliver, her best friend and supporter since Robert’s death.
Caro looked about her; no one else paid any attention to them. She bent over Oliver’s tousled head and whispered, “Promise you won’t tell anyone.”
“If I tell a single soul, may I be doomed forever to paint nothing but children and dogs.” Coming from Oliver, who had very definite notions of the proper subject matter for a serious artist, this was a powerful oath.
She knew she shouldn’t, but suddenly the knowledge was like a weight on her spirit. “I own a Titian.”
Oliver shook his head sadly. “No, Caro. You’re confused. Robert sold his Titian. Shame, because it was a great painting.”
“He didn’t. I just told everyone he had.”
“Truly? Why isn’t it hanging in its old place, then? May I see it? Where is it?”
Damn! Oliver was much too interested. She recalled now how much he’d always admired the naked Venus. “It’s hidden. I shouldn’t have told you. Remember! No word to anyone.”
She stood abruptly, praying Oliver was too drunk to remember in the morning. “Friends,” she commanded, clapping her hands smartly. “This evening has become a bore.”
The company sprang to bleary attention, even the Longleys waking from their doze.
“As you know, my cousin arrives next week to stay with me. Annabella is a young lady of imp-impeccable breeding and is being courted by a duke.”
The artistic set affected Jacobin tendencies, so the statement evoked a chorus of “No duke, no dukes.”
Caro raised her hand. “Since I am shortly to become a chaperone and respectable”–jeers of disbelief–“I propose a little excursion. We’ll climb over the railings into Hyde Park and bathe in the Serpentine.”
Cries of horror echoed throughout the room. “You’re mad, Caro!” “We’ll die of cold.”
“Very well. If you’re all such old ladies, I shall sing to you instead.”
“Spare our ears.”
“Death would be preferable.”
So the evening ended, like so many before it, with an act of dubious legality and undeniable insanity. The cold-water bath stirred Caro’s blood. Shivering in her cloak on the bank of the lake, she thought how lucky she was to have such wonderful friends.
The Dukes of Castleton always married money. Since the first duke, a child of two, had been granted the title by his father Charles II, the family had been responsible for its own prosperity. The Merry Monarch was generous with titles and honors for his numerous mistresses and ever-growing crop of bastards, but he was also short of money. So the first Thomas Fitzcharles, son of an actress named Mary Swinburne, had a duke’s title but an income scarcely worthy of the average baronet. He found himself a rich wife with a handsome estate and house in Hampshire, which he rechristened Castleton House.
His successors added to their holdings through judicious marriages until, a hundred years later, the family had amassed estates worthy of an earl and, better still, the income of a prosperous London merchant, but without the unfortunate necessity of anyone having to work for it. Not for the Dukes of Castleton the distasteful tasks of service to the Crown in the army or government. Instead, their talents were directed to the onerous business of seeking, pursuing, and winning the very best heiresses.
The fourth duke had always felt it keenly that his bride brought good blood but a mere twelve thousand pounds. In a moment of weakness, he’d been distracted by a pretty face. The marriage had not been a success. His son, he swore, would do better. It was with the greatest satisfaction that, on his deathbed, he heard of the demise of the only male heir to the enormously rich Earl of Camber, leaving the earl’s granddaughter with a huge inheritance and no fiancé. “She’s the one,” he said happily, and expired.
His son, another Thomas Fitzcharles and the fifth duke, was on his way to meet his destiny: the Honorable Anne Brotherton. The fact that she was to be found in this plain gray brick house on a quiet street in Mayfair was surprising. But he supposed that Mrs. Townsend, Miss Brotherton’s cousin, was a widowed lady of advanced years and retired habits. He’d never encountered her during his occasional incursions into the ton. She probably owned cats and rarely went out in society. Good. It was a trifle tiresome that Miss Brotherton insisted on coming to London at this time instead of letting him visit and woo her at her country estate. Thomas wasn’t fond of London. And in the country there’d be no competition for the heiress’s hand.
He paused on the steps and frowned, reluctant to request admittance despite a chilly drizzle. He wished he could summon more enthusiasm for the task at hand. But he’d always been a dutiful son and a dutiful Fitzcharles. And if he had it in mind to shirk either duty, his father’s legacy had deprived him of the possibility of defiance. There was an irony in there somewhere should he wish to disinter it. But the Fitzcharleses didn’t go in for irony, or any other fancy attitudes. Thomas was first and last a Fitzcharles, the Duke of Castleton, and his prime duty was to find a duchess. A rich duchess. The richest of all. He was sure he and Miss Brotherton would understand each other and deal very well. A spark of a notion that life and matrimony might hold something more was ignored. When he had time, he’d make sure it was snuffed out completely.
He grasped the brass door knocker and rapped it sharply. The manservant expected him and led him upstairs to a drawing room. He had an immediate impression of bright colors and a warm atmosphere that came from something more than the fire in the grate. The room held but a single occupant, a young woman. Was Miss Brotherton receiving him alone? It seemed most improper, though a hopeful sign for his courtship.
She set aside an embroidery frame, rose from the sofa, and moved forward to greet him, her hand outstretched.
“Your Grace,” she said. He’d been a duke for over a year, but it was as though he’d never heard those two familiar words before. Her voice was a melody played on a clarinet, a fine brandy on a cold night.
As she dropped into a curtsey, he took her slender white hand and, instead of merely bowing, he raised it to his mouth, unthinkingly brushing his lips over soft skin. An indefinable scent tickled his senses, and he wanted to pursue it. He didn’t want to let her go.
She retrieved her hand and stepped back, leaving him a touch bereft. His spirits soared as he examined his intended bride. He saw a small woman–not much below average height, but he was a large man—clad in a soft white gown that displayed the pleasing proportions of her figure. Her only adornment was a thin red ribbon about her neck, but the simplicity of her dress enhanced her prettiness. Golden red curls framed a delicate face with a faint dusting of freckles over a sweet little nose. Both her eyes, somewhere between gold and brown, and her dark rose mouth sent the message of humor and enjoyment of life. The smile that animated her expression roused a warm tightness in his chest and a certain heat farther down his body. He felt his lips stretch into a foolish answering grin. Then she spoke again.
“Anne is at the dressmaker’s. I am her cousin, Caro Townsend.”
The Importance of Being Wicked will be released in print and ebook on November 27, 2012.
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