I love Tessa Dare’s books and I adore her Spindle Cove and Castles Ever After series. I absolutely adore Charlotte Highwood so when I found out that this new book was Charlotte’s book and that it blends both the Spindle Cove and Castles Ever After series, I was over the moon! I’m so in for this one.
During a ball, Charlotte Highwood has discreetly followed Piers Brandon, Marquess of Granville into a room while everyone else dances the quadrille…and then shenanigans.
“Don’t be alarmed,” she said, closing the door behind her. “I’ve come to save you.”
“Save me.” His low, rich voice glided over her like fine-grain leather. “From . . . ?”
“Oh, all kinds of things. Inconvenience and mortification, chiefly. But broken bones aren’t outside the realm of possibility.”
He pushed a desk drawer closed. “Have we been introduced?”
“No, my lord.” She belatedly remembered to curtsy. “That is, I know who you are. Everyone knows who you are. You’re Piers Brandon, the Marquess of Granville.”
“When last I checked, yes.”
“And I’m Charlotte Highwood, of the Highwoods you’ve no reason to know. Unless you read the Prattler, which you probably don’t.”
Lord, I hope you don’t.
“One of my sisters is the Viscountess Payne,” she went on. “You might have heard of her; she’s fond of rocks. My mother is impossible.”
After a pause, he inclined his head. “Charmed.”
She almost laughed. No reply could have sounded less sincere. “Charmed,” indeed. No doubt “appalled” would have been the more truthful answer, but he was too well-bred to say it.
In another example of refined manners, he gestured toward the settee, inviting her to sit.
“Thank you, no. I must return to the ball before my absence is noted, and I don’t dare wrinkle.” She smoothed her palms over the skirts of her blush-pink gown. “I don’t wish to impose. There’s only one thing I came to say.” She swallowed hard. “I’m not the least bit interested in marrying you.”
His cool, unhurried gaze swept her from head to toe. “You seem to be expecting me to convey a sense of relief.”
“Well . . . yes. As would any gentleman in your place. You see, my mother is infamous for her attempts to throw me into the paths of titled gentlemen. It’s rather a topic of public ridicule. Perhaps you’ve heard the phrase ‘The Desperate Debutante’?”
Oh, how she hated even pronouncing those words. They’d followed her all season like a bitter, choking cloud.
During their first week in London last spring, she and Mama had been strolling through Hyde Park, enjoying the fine afternoon. Then her mother had spied the Earl of Astin riding down Rotten Row. Eager to make certain the eligible gentleman noticed her daughter, Mrs. Highwood had thrust her into his path—sending an unsuspecting Charlotte sprawling into the dirt, making the earl’s gelding rear, and causing no fewer than three carriages to collide.
The next issue of the Prattler had featured a cartoon depicting a young woman with a remarkable resemblance to Charlotte, spilling her bosoms and baring her legs as she dove into traffic. It was labeled “London’s Springtime Plague: The Desperate Debutante.”
And that was that. She’d been declared a scandal.
Worse than a scandal: a public health hazard. For the rest of the season, no gentlemen dared come near her.
“Ah,” he said, seeming to piece it together. “So you’re the reason Astin’s been walking with a limp.”
“It was an accident.” She cringed. “But much as it pains me to admit it, there’s every likelihood my mother will push me at you. I wanted to tell you, don’t worry. No one’s expecting her machinations to work. Least of all me. I mean, it would be absurd. You’re a marquess. A wealthy, important, handsome one.”
Handsome, Charlotte? Really?
Why, why, why had she said that aloud?
“And I’m not setting my sights any higher than a black-sheep third son,” she rushed on. “Not to mention, there’s the age difference. I don’t suppose you’re seeking a May-December match.”
Lord Granville’s eyes narrowed.
“Not that you’re old,” she hastened to add. “And not that I’m unthinkably young. It wouldn’t be a May-December match. More like . . . June-October. No, not even October. June-late September at the very outside. Not a day past Michaelmas.” She briefly buried her face in her hands. “I’m making a hash of this, aren’t I?”
Charlotte walked to the settee and sank onto it. She supposed she would be seated after all.
He came out from behind the desk and sat on the corner, keeping one boot planted firmly on the floor.
Have out with it, she told herself.
“I’m a close friend of Delia Parkhurst. You’re an acquaintance of Sir Vernon’s. We’re both here in this house as guests for the next fortnight. My mother will do everything she can to encourage a connection. That means you and I must plan to avoid each other.” She smiled, attempting levity. “It’s a truth universally acknowledged that a titled man in possession of a fortune should steer far clear of me.”
He didn’t laugh. Or even smile.
“That last bit . . . It was a joke, my lord. There’s a line from a novel—”
“Pride and Prejudice. Yes, I’ve read it.”
Of course. Of course he had. He’d served for years in diplomatic appointments overseas. After Napoleon’s surrender, he helped negotiate the Treaty of Vienna. He was worldly and educated and probably spoke a dozen languages.
Charlotte didn’t have many accomplishments, as society counted them—but she did have her good qualities. She was a good-natured, forthright person, and she could laugh at herself. In conversation, she generally put other people at ease.
Those talents, modest as they were, all failed her now. Between his poise and that piercing blue stare, talking to the Marquess of Granville was rather like conversing with an ice sculpture. She couldn’t seem to warm him up.
There must be a flesh-and-blood man in there somewhere.
She stole a sidelong look at him, trying to imagine him in a moment of repose. Lounging in that tufted leather chair with his boots propped atop the desk. His coat and waistcoat discarded; sleeves uncuffed and rolled to his elbows. Reading a newspaper, perhaps, while he took the occasional sip from a tumbler of brandy. A light growth of whiskers on that chiseled jaw, and his thick, dark hair ruffled from—
She startled. “Yes?”
He leaned toward her, lowering his voice. “In my experience, quadrilles—while they may feel interminable—do, eventually, come to an end. You had better return to the ballroom. For that matter, so had I.”
“Yes, you’re right. I’ll go first. If you will, wait ten minutes or so before you follow. That will give me time to make some excuse for leaving the ball entirely. A headache, perhaps. Oh, but then we have a whole fortnight ahead. Breakfasts are easy. The gentlemen always eat early, and I never rise before ten. During the day, you’ll have your sport with Sir Vernon, and we ladies will no doubt have letters to write or gardens to pace. That will see us through the days well enough. Tomorrow’s dinner, however . . . I’m afraid that will have to be your turn.”
“To feign indisposition. Or make other plans. I can’t be claiming a headache every evening of my stay, can I?”
He extended his hand and she took it. As he drew her to her feet, he kept her close.
“Are you quite sure you’ve no marital designs on me? Because you seem to be arranging my schedule already. Rather like a wife.”
She laughed nervously. “Nothing of the sort, believe me. No matter what my mother implies, I don’t share her hopes. We’d be a terrible match. I’m far too young for you.”
“So you’ve made clear.”
“You’re the model of propriety.”
“And you’re . . . here. Alone.”
“Exactly. I wear my heart on my sleeve, and yours is clearly—”
“Kept in the usual place.”
Charlotte was going to guess, buried somewhere in the Arctic Circle. “The point is, my lord, we have nothing in common. We’d be little more than two strangers inhabiting one house.”
“I’m a marquess. I have five houses.”
“But you know what I mean,” she said. “It would be disaster, through and through.”
“An existence marked by tedium and punctuated by misery.”
“We’d be forced to base our entire relationship on sexual congress.”
“Er . . . what?”
“I’m speaking of bedsport, Miss Highwood. That much, at least, would be tolerable.”
Heat bloomed from her chest to her hairline. “I . . . You . . .”
As she desperately tried to unknot her tongue, the subtle hint of a smile played about his lips.
Could it be? A crack in the ice?
Relief overwhelmed her. “I think you are teasing me, my lord.”
He shrugged in admission. “You started it.”
“I did not.”
“You called me old and uninteresting.”
She bit back a smile. “You know I didn’t mean it that way.”
Oh, dear. This wouldn’t do. If she knew he could tease, and be teased in return, she would find him much too appealing.
“Miss Highwood, I am not a man to be forced into anything, least of all matrimony. In my years as a diplomat, I’ve dealt with kings and generals, despots and madmen. What part of that history makes you believe I could be felled by one matchmaking mama?”
She sighed. “The part where you haven’t met mine.”
How could she make him see the gravity of the situation?
Little could Lord Granville know it—he probably wouldn’t care if he did—but there was more at stake for Charlotte than gossip and scandal sheets. She and Delia Parkhurst hoped to miss the next London season entirely, in favor of traveling the Continent. They had it all planned out: six countries, four months, two best friends, one exceedingly permissive chaperone—and absolutely no stifling parents.
However, before they could start packing their valises, they needed to secure permission. This autumn house party was meant to be Charlotte’s chance to prove to Sir Vernon and Lady Parkhurst that the rumors about her weren’t true. That she wasn’t a brazen fortune hunter, but a well-behaved gentlewoman and a loyal friend who could be trusted to accompany their daughter on the Grand Tour.
Charlotte could not muck this up. Delia was counting on her. And she couldn’t bear to watch all her dreams dashed again.
“Please, my lord. If you would only agree to—”
In an instant, his demeanor transformed. He went from cool and aristocratic to sharply alert, turning his head toward the door.
She heard it, too. Footsteps in the corridor. Approaching.
Whispered voices, just outside.
“Oh, no,” she said, panicked. “We can’t be found here together.”
No sooner had she uttered the words than the library became a whirlwind.
Charlotte wasn’t even certain how it happened.
Had she bolted in panic? Had he swept her into his arms somehow?
One moment, she was staring in mute horror at the scraping, turning door latch. The next, she was ensconced in the library’s window seat, concealed by heavy velvet drapes.
Pressed chest to chest with the Marquess of Granville, The man she had meant to avoid at all costs.