England, 1802

1

"Move your bleedin' arse," Miss Charlotte Spenser's maid, Meggie, said to her.

"Isn't that a little too graphic?" Miss Spenser inquired. "I have visions…"

"Don't think about it. Just say it."

"Move your bleeding arse," Charlotte said in the polite tones of a well-bred female.

"Bleedin'."

"Bleedin'," she repeated dutifully. "So let me get this straight. Bloody hell, move your bleedin' arse, that's a pile of shit, or shite if I happen to be in Ireland, and," she swallowed, "fuck you. Do I really say that?"

"If you want to. You 'ave to be really mad to say it, and you might get backhanded by your man if you do, but sometimes it's worth it."

"Backhanded?"

"Slapped. With the back of the hand, which hurts more, 'cause of knuckles and rings and such like."

Charlotte looked at her maid curiously. "Did your husband ever do that?"

"Oh, that and far worse. Too bad he took a tumble out that window when he was too drunk to know what he was doing," she said, cheerfully callous. "It'll be a cold day in hell before I ever let a man near me again. They're untrustworthy bastards. Try that one."

"Bastards," Charlotte said, liking the taste of it on her tongue. "Bloody bastard. Bleeding bastard arse."

"No, Miss Charlotte. It has to make sense in English. Arses aren't bastards."

"True. Arses and bastards are nouns, bloody and bleeding are adjectives. Do you say 'fucking' as well?"

"Oh, most definitely."

"Splendid," said Miss Charlotte Spenser. "I'll practice." And they continued down the sidewalk, maid and mistress in perfect accord.

They had just attended the weekly meeting of the Richmond Hill Bluestockings and Viragos, a most enlightening afternoon during which Meggie had proceeded to instruct the highborn members how to curse. Charlotte, to her dismay, had been an utter failure, but she was improving with private instruction.

As she climbed the steep marble stairs to Whitmore House, the door was flung open and she was presented with a scarcely controlled chaos. Servants were rushing to and fro, carrying baskets of flowers and gilt chairs and great silver platters. Her cousin Evangelina was throwing a ball, and Charlotte had forgotten about it entirely.

"Drat," she muttered to Meggie. "My cousin is entertaining tonight."

"Try for 'bloody hell,'" Meggie suggested helpfully. "And her's not just entertaining," she added darkly. "Her's got two hundred people coming tonight or I miss my guess."

"She's," Charlotte corrected automatically. "Bloody hell."

Meggie laughed. "Not fierce enough, Miss Charlotte. You need to practice if you want to sound like you mean it." She started toward the side alley that led to the servants' entrance, but Charlotte didn't make any attempt to stop her. She'd learned her democratic ideals were not appreciated by everyone. Charlotte was an egalitarian, and she'd plucked Meggie from the slums, determined to save her. In the beginning Meggie had flatly refused to be saved, but for the last two years she'd become Charlotte's trusted companion. Meggie, fresh from her life as a fallen woman, flat out refused to enter by the front door, even though, as Charlotte's maid, it was perfectly acceptable, and the one time Charlotte tried to join her and the army of servants belowstairs for a cup of tea the atmosphere had been excruciatingly uncomfortable. Charlotte had learned, to her sorrow, that there was no one more snobbish than a British domestic servant, and her lack of welcome was glaringly obvious. She hadn't attempted it again.

She sighed. She would have so much rather have sat and had a cup of tea and a biscuit, her feet up before the fire in the servants' gathering room, than wind her way through the back stairs to the upper floors of Whitmore House, but she had no choice. She nodded as she passed the footmen draping garlands of fresh spring flowers over the massive doorway, handed her hat, pelisse and gloves to the maid who was waiting. Hetty, her name was, and she bobbed a curtsy, eyeing her nervously, as if afraid of an unwelcome gesture of friendship.

But Charlotte had learned her lesson. "Where is Lady Whitmore?" she inquired in a cool, distant voice.

"In her dressing room, Miss Spenser," Hetty said. "She left word that you were to come to her as soon as you returned home."

Charlotte didn't bother to hide her grimace. "Any idea why?"

"I'm sure I couldn't say, miss."

"No, of course you couldn't," Charlotte said with a genteel snort, heading for the stairs. She tried to will a wan expression into her face, wrinkling her forehead in a semblance of pain, opening her eyes wide. She was a terrible liar, and Lina would most likely see through her immediately, but it wouldn't hurt to try.

Evangelina, dowager countess of Whitmore, was sitting at her dressing table, regarding her reflection in the mirror as Louise, her French maid, fussed with her hair. Clearly her countenance failed to please her, a fact which Charlotte could only find extraordinary. Evangelina was widely renowned to be one of the most beautiful women in England, from her glossy black curls to her vivid blue eyes with just the tinge of violet, her creamy skin, delicate nose and smiling, sensuous mouth. She'd never seen a freckle in her life, Charlotte thought dangerously. She was tiny, delicate, exquisite and two years younger than Charlotte's thirty. She was staring at her reflection the way Charlotte usually surveyed her own.

"I am looking positively haggard," she greeted Charlotte in a disconsolate voice. "Why is it, whenever I throw a party I end up looking fagged to death?"

"You look gorgeous," Charlotte said briskly, then remembered her plan. "I only wish I felt well enough to join you," she added in a more plaintive voice.

"Oh, no, you don't!" Lina said, turning to glare at her, much to her hairdresser's distress. "You aren't crying off at the last minute on some trumped-up illness. That only works the first three times. I need you with me."

"You aren't going to even notice whether I'm there or not," Charlotte said, sitting down at the end of her cousin's bed, her reflection appearing beside Lina's in the mirror.

She'd long accepted her very ordinary appearance, but seeing it side by side with Lina's beauty couldn't help but be lowering.

Charlotte had no delusions about her shortcomings. She was too tall—at a good six feet she towered over most men. She had awful ginger hair and freckles, she had an over-abundance of bosom, and to top everything off she was shortsighted enough that she needed to wear glasses when she read.

As if these biological indignities weren't enough, she was also poor, unmarried and too smart for her own good, as most gentlemen, including her father, were wont to tell her. Women were supposed to be short and pretty and never dare contradict a man, even if he was spouting utter nonsense. And if they were troubled by shortsightedness, they could damn well get through the season by recognizing people's voices. Who needed to read?

Or so her late father had told her.

It was halfway through the miserable year of her coming out that she had put her gold-rimmed glasses firmly on her nose—another point against her, it tending toward the aquiline rather than the more popular snub—refused the milk treatments that were supposed to make her freckles fade, but which only left her smelling faintly of sour milk, and decided to be an old maid. The glasses weren't necessary, but they went well with her acquired scowl, and she wore them everywhere, even when they gave her a headache.

In truth, becoming an old maid had been decided for her during the first disastrous months out, but her stern father had still harbored hope. Until she put on her glasses and trampled on her dance partners, making her an object to be feared.

There had been no second season.

"Of course I'll notice," Lina said. "At least, for the first half hour," she added with her usual honesty, the honesty she kept for Charlotte and few others. "Besides, if you're not there backing me up how can I possibly indulge in a little discreet flirtation with Viscount Rohan?"

Charlotte ignored the iciness in the pit of her stomach. "You could wait for a better time," she suggested. "For instance, next week, at the gathering at Hensley Court."

"Ah, but by then he'll doubtless have discovered some other sweet thing to entrance him. And I'm quite determined to have him. He's gorgeous, he's delightfully wicked and he's rumored to be the very devil in bed," she added with a convincingly lascivious sigh.

"I'm sure he is," Charlotte said, moving away, not even blinking. "However, the amatory prowess of my lord Rohan is of no possible interest to me."

Lina settled back, letting her dresser once more attack the artful array of curls. "You're such a stick-in-the-mud, Charlotte." She sighed. "You really don't know what you're missing. I'm enjoying my widowhood immensely."

Charlotte had her doubts about that, but she wisely said nothing. When her favorite cousin had begged her to come live with her once her horrendous elderly husband died, she'd accepted gratefully. She'd been an only child of distant parents, and their deaths had left her penniless and, if it weren't for Lina, friendless.

Even if the choices open to a poor relation weren't many, sharing a house with Evangelina had been Charlotte's idea of heaven. The only problem had been Lina's feverish gaiety: about as genuine as Charlotte's professed lack of interest in Viscount Rohan. But she wasn't going to think about that.

"I much prefer it that way," Charlotte said, hoping she didn't sound unbearably prim. "Half an hour, standing quietly in the background while you greet your guests, and then I'm off."

"Make it an hour," Lina pleaded. "Rohan might prove difficult. It's always possible I'll need you to help direct him."

Charlotte froze. Horror was too mild a word for the emotion that suffused her. "I'm not going anywhere near Viscount Rohan."

Lina batted at Louise's hands and turned to look at her. "Why not?" Her voice was sharp. "I wasn't aware that you were even acquainted with him. Has he done something to offend you?"

"Apart from his appalling lack of moral fortitude?" Charlotte said icily. "No. I've only spoken with Viscount Rohan once in my life, and I've never been alone in his presence, thank heavens." This time she allowed her voice to be as prim as possible, filled with disapproval. Because if Lina guessed the truth it would be unbearable.

"Thank heavens," Lina echoed. "Then why won't you…?"

"I'd rather keep my distance."

Lina shrugged, turning back to face her reflection, and Louise returned to her work, muttering French imprecations beneath her breath. "Suit yourself. If you've taken him in aversion then I'm certain one of my friends will help. I just can't be certain they wouldn't take him for themselves." She made a moue of distress.

"From what I've heard of Viscount Rohan, he's probably had them already."

Lina's laugh was low and earthy. "Most probably. If he hadn't spent the last year on the continent he would have had me. Ah, well, if not tonight, then most definitely at the gathering. I absolutely cannot wait! The Heavenly Host, in all their wicked glory!"

The familiar knot in her stomach tightened. "Nor can I," she said, secure in the knowledge that her cousin's dresser wouldn't understand.

Lina looked up at Charlotte for a long moment. "Are you certain this is the wisest choice, darling?" she said finally. "I'm all for broadening your education, but going from sheltered spinsterhood to a gathering of the Heavenly Host is rather like moving from St. James Palace to the stews of London. I do admire your scientific mind and interest in observing the baser instincts of mankind, but perhaps that might be going a bit too far. You might wish to start a little more slowly."

The fact that Charlotte wanted to agree with her made her even more forceful. She wasn't going to turn craven at this late date. "I understand the basics of animal husbandry and fornication, Lina. I've lived in the country for a great part of my life, and there are no mysteries there. But if I'm intending to spend my life in celibate comfort I wish to observe exactly what it is that you tell me I'm missing. Besides, I have a certain scientific curiosity. The practices I've heard mentioned seem either unsanitary or anatomically impossible, and I'm interested to see just how one manages it." It had all sounded extremely reasonable when she and Lina had first come up with the notion, and she told herself there was nothing untoward about it. To think so would be ridiculously missish.

Lina chuckled. "I can't promise your curiosity will be satisfied if you choose to come merely as an observer."

"You think I should participate?" Charlotte inquired, careful to keep her voice sensible.

"Good God, no! Hardly the proper introduction to the pleasures of the bedroom, my dear cousin," Lina said with an uneasy laugh. "And I suppose there's nothing to be concerned about. If you wish to observe some of the more interesting sexual practices then a gathering of the Heavenly Host is the place to do it. There are always a fair number of guests who derive their primary excitement from watching others, and you'd be dressed in an enveloping monk's robe, with a hood pulled down to obscure your face and hair. No one will know whether you're male or female, and no one would think of accosting you as long as you wear that strip of white around your arm. It's perfectly safe."

"You sound as if you're convincing yourself. Perhaps this is a bad idea," Charlotte said evenly.

"And it was mine in the first place, rather than answer your questions. No, I think it will be good for you. If you don't witness anything too bizarre it may even help you overcome your aversion to men."

"I have no aversion to men," Charlotte said. "Only to the institution of marriage, which enslaves women as surely as—"

"Yes, I know," Lina said, having heard it all before. "And in truth, you'll see men at their basest—it could put you off them entirely. Not that I'm in favor of marriage, quite the opposite. I just have different reasons."

"Since no one seems likely to offer for me then that's probably just as well. And you know what a lively intellect I have. This is one area I can't study in books."

"Depends on the book… Never mind, love. We should have a great deal of fun once we're back home, discussing what the great men of London look like without their drawers. In most cases it's not a pretty sight."

"Then why—" Charlotte began, honestly curious.

"It's not the looking, dearest. It's the touching. Not that you're to let anyone touch you. If they try I'll cut off their…ears. You're my dearest cousin and I intend to protect you." She looked at her for a long moment. "Wear your green sarcenet tonight, and I'll have Louise come and do your hair as well. You may as well give it one last go before all your illusions are shattered."

"I have no illusions, I have no interest in 'giving it one last go' as you so delicately put it, and Meggie can take care of my hair."

"You're impossible!" Lina said with a sigh. "At least wear the green and not that hideous peach thing. It looks dreadful with your hair."

Charlotte rose from the bed and kissed Lina's pale, delicate cheek, resisting the impulse to tell her everything looked dreadful with her hair. Except, perhaps, the sarcenet, which made her eyes green. "I'll meet you downstairs," she said, promising nothing, and took herself off.

Lina watched her cousin disappear, then turned her attention back to her reflection, trying to ignore Louise's ministrations. Surely they were doing the right thing. One glimpse of the goings-on of the Heavenly Host and innocent cousin Charlotte might be so revolted she'd never again countenance the idea of marriage. Keeping her safe from making the same mistake Lina had made.

She knew her cousin much better than Charlotte realized. She understood perfectly well the look in Charlotte's eyes when Viscount Rohan entered the room. Adrian Rohan was enough to tempt even Charlotte, who persisted in saying she had no interest in men in general or the viscount in particular. And in truth, she was probably safe. Rohan could have anyone he wanted, and usually did. He'd have no appreciation for an over-tall young woman with copper hair who wasn't quite comme il faut, one so firmly on the shelf that she may as well start wearing lace caps and sitting with the dowagers. Which Charlotte would, if Lina would let her.

And just in case, once Lina had finished with him he would no longer hold the faintest allure for her cousin.

No, Rohan wouldn't be likely to go near her, and Lina was reasonably certain that Charlotte would be immune to anyone else, no matter how handsome, charming or affluent. As for the kind of man she might be more likely to attract—some plump, elderly widower or, even worse, some pious vicar—once she saw the sort of thing men were capable of she would reject even those unappealing aspirants. In truth, she was taking her into the wilds of Sussex, to Hensley Court and the libertine gathering of the Heavenly Host, to protect her.

Charlotte knew only a bit of the horrors of Evangelina's marriage to the elderly earl of Whitmore, and Lina had absolutely no intention of telling her any of the unpleasant details, details that were better left in the shadows where they belonged. Those were times she refused to think about, except in the dark of night when she couldn't help it, and she could stuff her pillow over her face to keep from screaming out loud. It was over, it was past. But she wasn't going to chance letting the same thing happen to her darling Charlotte.

Perhaps this wasn't necessary. After all, Charlotte was unfortunately right: no man was likely to make her an offer. She was thirty years old, well past her prime, too tall and too curvy to wear the current fashions well, too strong-minded, too unwilling to flatter the preening males. Observing a few nights of the Revels of the Heavenly Host should be enough to scare her away from ever contemplating changing her stance on love and marriage.

It was a shame, because Charlotte would make a wonderful, loving mother. But motherhood came with husbands, and price was too dear.

"Voilà, enfin!" Louise cried, stepping back, clearly well satisfied with what she had wrought

Lina stared at her reflection. She was exquisite. A work of art. A creation cold and lifeless and beautiful. Good enough to lure the dissolute Viscount Rohan into her bed, further ensuring the necessary demise of Charlotte's hopeless daydreams.

"Eh bien," she said tonelessly. And she rose from her dressing table, ready to finish the job.

2

Charlotte only considered the green sarcenet for a moment before dismissing it in favor of the insipid peach that turned her ivory complexion to ash. She ignored Meggie's objections, waiting until the last minute to head down to the ballroom. Lina would be more than capable of sending her back to change, if it weren't already too late. The first guests had already begun to arrive, and Lina looked resplendent in clinging pink silk that molded her delicate curves. She gave Charlotte a look, then shrugged, as if her poor sartorial choice was no more than she'd expected, and Charlotte took up her place behind her.

Had it been up to Lina she would have been by her side, greeting the guests as an equal, but Charlotte staunchly refused. There were few advantages to being a poor relation, but this was one of them. She didn't have to stand in line and smile and simper at idiotic young men and elderly villains. This was going to be one of the major crushes of the season—Lina had invited everyone, and Charlotte held her place as long as she could. It was only when she could see the black-and-silver mane of Etienne de Giverney overtopping everyone else's as he moved toward them that she panicked. Where the dashing Comte de Giverney went, his younger cousin, Viscount Rohan, was likely to follow, and she wasn't going to take that chance.

She slipped away without a word to blend into the mass of guests, making her way toward the back of the ballroom. The only safe way to escape to her bedroom would be to take the servants' stairs. The main staircase stood just outside the ballroom, and she would be in full view of the arriving and departing guests if she tried to disappear by that route. Not that anyone would notice the movements of a poor relation, but she didn't want to take the chance.

At least she was fortunate enough to have escaped before she had to endure Viscount Rohan's lazy glance, if she even got that much from him. The less she saw of that particular gentleman the better off she was. Adrian Rohan was fully as wild as his father had been, and while most women loved rakes, she did not. She threaded her way through the crowds, invisible as a woman of no wealth, beauty or youth could be, the door to the back stairs almost in sight, when a tall male figure suddenly loomed up in front of her, and she barreled into him, too intent on escape to stop herself in time.

Strong hands caught her arms to steady her, and she found herself looking up into Adrian Alistair de Giverney Rohan's beautiful, exquisite face. He was one of the few men tall enough to make her actually have to crane her neck, and she was too startled to watch her tongue.

Luck was most definitely not on her side. For the first time in her life Meggie's coaching paid off and Charlotte uttered the fateful words "Bloody hell."

His lordship had already released her, had murmured a polite apology beneath his breath in instant dismissal and was about to move on, her existence barely acknowledged, when her low-voiced but clearly enunciated words stopped him, and his hard blue eyes focused on her for what she was certain was the first time, despite the fact that they'd been introduced at least half a dozen times during the season and danced on one notable, horrible occasion.

He blinked. And then a slow smile curved his mouth, and it was truly the most wicked, deceitful, appealing mouth, and his gloved hand reached out again to catch her elbow before she could escape. It was just the lightest of touches, perfectly within the bounds of propriety, there was cloth between his flesh and hers, and yet this touch burned.

Bloody hell, she thought again, having finally grown comfortable with the phrase. Of all people, why did it have to be Rohan that she barreled into?

"Miss…?" He clearly racked his brain. "Miss Spenser, isn't it? Have I done something to offend you?"

She dropped a swift curtsy, difficult enough in the swirl of guests, and surreptitiously tried to pull away. How in heavens did he remember her name? She was hardly part of his world. His long fingers tightened. "Of course not, my lord. I do beg your pardon. I have no excuse for such appalling language."

Now that he was actually looking at her, the plague of emotions was even worse, she thought, scowling. It had been bad enough, always watching him from across crowded ballrooms, fighting off the foolish daydreams that went all the way back to the fairy tales of her youth when she knew full well that this was no handsome prince—this was a wicked wizard, an evil faerie out to cast a binding spell on her.

Up close it was far, far worse. The warmth in her belly, the tightness in her chest, the tingling in places she wasn't even going to think about. And the burn where his hand touched her arm.

He was looking down at her. "You're Lady Whitmore's companion, are you not?"

"Cousin," she snapped before she could stop herself. And how in the world did he know that much? She'd counted on her own invisibility.

Again that faint smile. "I stand corrected. Though aren't poor relations often required to serve as companions?"

It was a rude question, but nothing compared to the shock of her language. And he still wasn't releasing her. "If you'll excuse me, Lord Rohan," she said firmly, yanking her arm free a bit too roughly.

He released her arm, only to catch her gloved hand in his. Then he smiled at her, a smile faintly tinged with malice. "I think I must insist upon a dance, Miss Spenser. Penance for your shocking breach of manners."

That was all she needed, she thought. She'd danced with him a hundred times, beneath the starry sky, dressed in a gown that suddenly turned her into an irresistible beauty, all in the dreams she'd wickedly allowed herself. Dreams she'd known better than to indulge in, but which she'd allowed herself anyway, and now she was paying the price. She knew from watching him that his grace on the dance floor was something quite extraordinary, his form perfect. And yet there was a certain something in the way he moved that had more than one chaperone shaking her head, looking for some reason to bar him from the innocent young ladies who clamored around him.

She had no chaperone, though at the advanced age of thirty she was too old to be considered innocent, she reminded herself.

"I don't dance," she said. "Please release my hand."

He didn't, not for a long moment. He truly had the most unsettling eyes, she realized. Usually his lids drooped down lazily, hiding his gaze, but she could see their deep blue depths, summing her up quite handily, and she thanked God that years of practice kept her blushes from showing on her pale skin, no matter how she squirmed inwardly.

"Now, why do I get the impression you disapprove of me, Miss Spenser?" he said.

She was feeling curiously light-headed and she deepened her scowl. Her expression was usually sufficient to scare men away, but clearly Viscount Rohan didn't scare easily. "I don't know you, Lord Rohan. How could I disapprove of you?"

"Perhaps my reputation precedes me. You've got that starched-up look like you tasted something particularly nasty."

People were watching. She'd never held a public conversation with a man for more than a few brief moments, and never with a pink of the ton like Rohan. She was supposed to be invisible, for heaven's sake.

And he certainly had never paid any heed to anyone other than his most recent flirts, all of them stunning beauties. A plain old maid such as Charlotte Spenser would never qualify as the type of woman to interest someone like Adrian Rohan.

He was still holding her hand, she realized with horror. "Where is your dance card?" he persisted.

"I told you, I don't dance," she said through gritted teeth. Lina had long ago ceased insisting she carry a dance card, knowing it was a lost cause. In addition to never being asked, she had two left feet. She tugged at her hand again, but he held fast, stronger than she would have guessed. "Release me. Now."

Her peremptory tone wasn't the wisest choice, she realized as his eyes narrowed. "I think not."

Her slippers were light and soft, made for the dancing she refused to participate in. She gave him a deceptive smile, moving closer, and stomped on his foot with all her weight.

With her light slippers she couldn't have done nearly the damage she would have wished for. Had it been up to her she would have broken his foot—but it was enough of a surprise to have him momentarily loosen his grip, and she pulled free, whirled around and escaped.

She was half-afraid he'd follow her past the green baize door to the servants' passageway, but she'd overestimated her fascination. By the time she dared look back he was gone.

She'd made it up to the servants' narrow staircase when she heard the music start. She was three times a fool, but there was a spot from the second-floor staircase with a perfect view of the ballroom. She'd done just that in her own house with Lina when they were both young girls, fascinated by the workings of society and the behavior of their shallow parents. At that point the two of them had judged it deadly dull.

Lina had changed her mind, sailing through a glittering first season, capped with an extravagant wedding to the aging but extremely wealthy and still-handsome earl of Whitmore.

Charlotte, on the other hand, had retreated in abject failure. Her ordinary looks, lack of fortune and unhappy tendency to speak her mind had made her part of a commodity that society had no value for, and she retired back to her family's ramshackle estate, her parents' only child a total failure.

She remembered Viscount Rohan from that disastrous first season, though she'd presumed he'd forgotten entirely. He'd been presented to her as a suitable partner by one of the well-meaning hostesses, and bored though he was, he'd done his duty, standing up with her and displaying barely the trace of a martyred air.

She had never been a good dancer—her family had had no money for a dancing master and she'd had to rely on Lina's lessons. Her nervousness at being in the presence of her secret crush had completely undone her. She'd trampled all over his elegant shoes, missed her cues, throwing the complicated country dance into total disarray.

He'd said nothing, his elegant mouth growing more grim as he tried to rescue the figure, to no avail. When the supreme torture was finally over she'd curtsied to him, and he'd bowed politely.

And then he'd murmured, "I hadn't realized dancing was a blood sport, Miss Samson. You might consider warning prospective partners that they're taking their lives in their hands if they dance with you." His light, casual words were accompanied by a faint glint in his eye that she couldn't read.

She hadn't tried, as her shame overwhelmed her. The fact that he didn't know her name was a relief rather than an added insult, and she'd never danced again. At least never in public, and never with a partner.

There were times, after Lina had chosen to retire to the countryside, that Charlotte would find herself alone in the sprawling manor house. She'd find an empty hallway or a deserted field, and she'd realize she was humming a melody beneath her breath, and it had naturally evolved into a carefree dance, moving with the wind, free and happy.

Still, even Rohan's cruel, casual words hadn't managed to give her a disgust of the man. On the rare occasions when she accompanied Lina to evening parties her eyes would hungrily seek him out, and when he left for the continent her relief had been faintly tinged with disappointment.

She'd come face-to-face with him twice since his return, and his blue eyes had swept over her with the same bored disinterest he evinced toward all and sundry, with the occasional exception of the great beauties. Charlotte Spenser was just a part of the anonymous horde of plain virgins desperately seeking a husband.

Not her, though. Not ever. Her parents were dead, the ramshackle estate had passed on to the nearest male relative, a distant cousin she'd never even met. Evangelina had been widowed, and begged her to move in with her, and Charlotte had done so quite happily. She'd managed to assiduously avoid any social occasion that smacked of the marriage mart, and in truth she'd been happier than she'd ever been in her life. She had her dearest friend and cousin for companionship, the Bluestockings to keep her busy and Adrian Rohan had been abroad.

She knew it couldn't last. Rohan had returned unexpectedly as Europe once again braced for war. Charlotte's peace of mind was destroyed. She had no doubt that Lina would marry again, and despite her inability to give Whitmore an heir, Charlotte was certain a second, happier marriage would provide offspring. Perhaps she could become a helpful honorary aunt, if Lina's new husband would tolerate her.

She looked down at the ballroom for the last time. Adrian Rohan had already moved on, forgetting her, as he leaned over a buxom young beauty. Forgetting her, as he always did. Which was the only consolation her pride could find. She hated the thought of appearing ridiculous or needy. Rohan's attention was elsewhere, and she didn't have to worry about being mocked.

She moved slowly up the back stairs, ignoring the curious looks of the servants as they passed her. She reached the lavish apartments Lina had insisted she use and began to undress herself. There was no telling where Meggie had gotten herself to, but it didn't matter. Charlotte had made certain she had clothes that she could do and undo herself—the advent of a lady's maid had been a recently reacquired luxury. Though whether Meggie's rough ministrations could be called a luxury was something worth debating.

She let down her long, thick hair and brushed it, then fastened it in a braid to keep it from tangling too badly as she slept. The water in the basin was cool, blessedly cool, against her flushed face.

The sheets were cool as well as she slid beneath them. The spring air had been chilly, and a fire had been laid but not lit. She blew out the candle and burrowed deep under the covers, pulling the blankets up to her nose.

She could still feel his hand on her arm, strong, restraining her. She was a woman who couldn't bear to be forced, bullied, cowed. So why was she tenderly stroking the place where he'd held her?

She was moon-mad. Calf-brained, addlepated.

But in this one matter her formidable intellect was no match for the dismal, unpalatable truth. She was in love with Adrian Rohan, and had been for years, and nothing, not his rudeness nor tales of his outrageous excess, nor all her own rational self-discourse, could change her.

And once more castigating herself as an idiot, she fell into a deep, troubled sleep.

Adrian Alastair Rohan stared down the dress of the exquisitely beautiful, exquisitely silly Miss Leonard, bored beyond belief even as he said all the right things. Usually an amiable flirtation was as good a way to spend an interminable evening. He would get no more than a kiss from Miss Leonard, and while kissing had long ago lost its charm, he had it on good authority that Miss Leonard had had a great deal of practice at it and was considered something of an expert. It could be entertaining to see if he could manage to teach her something new.

He'd rather be teaching the nervous and thoroughly delicious Charlotte Spenser, though he wasn't quite certain why. Her clothes were atrocious, her manner less than cordial, and whenever he happened to see her she acted as if he'd committed some foul crime. Yes, his reputation was terrible, but in his experience most women found it irresistible.

It was the rest of the time that interested him. Because the honorable Miss Charlotte Spenser couldn't keep her eyes off him, a fact he found amusing. Despite her avowed disapproval of him and everything he stood for, he was fully aware she watched him whenever she thought no one would notice.

As a poor relation and a spinster of no particular beauty she tended to hang back at the edges of the crowds, where she thought she could remain unnoticed while she stared at him. As far as he could tell, she paid no particular attention to anyone else.

He was fully accustomed to having women watch him with appreciation and even longing. He was wealthy, heir to a title and possessed of more than average good looks, all thanks to his parents. His height, his pretty face, his deep blue eyes, so like his father's, had nothing to do with any accomplishment on his part, and he accepted the blessings of fortune with no particular vanity. Those blessings enabled him to indulge his varied appetites and interests, and for that he was casually grateful.

But he wasn't the prettiest young man in society—Montague held that particular office. Nor the wealthiest, and he was a mere viscount, not a duke or even a marquess, though that would come once his father died. And as the honorable Miss Spenser could attest, he was far from the most charming. He had a nasty tongue and was never known to suffer fools gladly.

And yet still she watched him when he danced with the newest beauty, when he laughed with his friends, when he snubbed upstarts and drank too much and occasionally made an ass of himself. And he wondered why.

One possibility, and by far his favorite, was that she was planning his murder. The poor relation, snubbed once too often, was out for revenge, and he might very well find his next glass of negus poisoned, or a knife between his shoulder blades.

It was nothing more than he deserved, but he doubted she had that in mind. In truth, he knew exactly why she watched him, and it was for the same reason half the women in society, young and old, married and single, plain and beautiful, watched him. She fancied herself in love with him.

If she ever allowed herself to hold a civil conversation with him he would have been more than happy to explain that it was no such thing. Society would have it that women were pure and romantical and men filthy, lusting beasts. To his immense pleasure, he knew otherwise.

Miss Spenser wanted him. Oh, she wanted it wrapped up in posies and flattery and the marriage bed, but she wanted his hands on her starched-up body, stripping those ugly clothes away from her.

And he'd be more than happy to oblige, except that he never touched well-bred virgins. The very thought of finding himself leg-shackled to a scowling, disapproving creature like Miss Spenser was horrifying. And his hypocritical father would see to it that he did the right thing, entirely ignoring his own degenerate past.

Miss Spenser would just have to watch him covertly and sigh. And he'd have to resist the impulse to see if he could make those stern lips soften, and where he could make her place them. He'd be willing to wager that he could have her putting them anywhere he wanted, and he could think of several friends who'd be willing to take up that wager.

But he had a mistress for that sort of thing, or would have, as soon as he found someone to replace the divine Maria, who'd decided she'd rather have a fat old man with an even fatter pocket.

At least there was the gathering of the Heavenly Host. He was looking forward to seeing Montague again, looking forward to indulging his more base appetites. Perhaps he could persuade one of the ladies present to dress in something unflattering and lecture him like Miss Spenser. And then he could proceed to give her exactly what he wasn't allowed to give Charlotte.

The perfect name for her. Charlotte—such a prim, disapproving word. He couldn't imagine why he was interested, apart from the novelty of it all.

He heard Lady Whitmore's trill of laughter from across the room, and he smiled wickedly. Perhaps he would have to make do with Miss Spenser's exquisite cousin. A noble compromise on his part, one he'd make quite easily. And by the time he returned to London he'd probably forget all about Miss Spenser and her longing eyes.

Because he couldn't just play with the virgin, not if he valued his freedom. But he could have her cousin, and that would more than suffice.

"My dear boy, I have been looking for you everywhere." His cousin's heavily accented voice greeted him as he finished the dance and relinquished Miss Leonard and her impressive bosom to her next partner.

Adrian glanced at Etienne de Giverney. Actually his father's cousin, and closer in age to the old man than to Adrian, Etienne had a kindness for his young cousin, and Adrian found he quite enjoyed the man's company. For one thing, his parents disapproved of him, which was always a boon. For another, Etienne had a taste for things that bordered on the shocking. And while Adrian had sponsored his cousin's entrance into English society, it was Etienne who'd ensured he'd be admitted to the exalted ranks of the Heavenly Host, despite the fact that his father, who had once presided over their revels, now held the group in contempt.

But that was his father. The only man he knew more capable of administering a setdown than he was.

Etienne, being French, had more than a passing acquaintance with some of the darker practices shunned by polite society. He had introduced his second cousin to the pleasures of the opium pipe and ways he could gratify himself alone that were as inventive as they were dangerous.

Unlike his father, who seemed to have forgotten his own disreputable youth, he encouraged Adrian's love of curricle racing, and he played for stakes even higher than Adrian did, with more success.

Adrian never cared if he won or lost. His inheritance, even before his esteemed old man gave up the ghost, was huge, though not quite as impressive as Maria's fat gentleman, the nabob. And at least with Etienne he was never, ever bored.

No, he could look forward to three days of delicious debauchery, as well as a much-needed visit with his dearest friend Montague. He wasn't going to think about Miss Spenser again, he was certain of it.

"There is little sport here, enfin?" Etienne said. "Let us see if we can find something to entertain us at Le Rise."

Le Rise was quite the most daring of all the houses of ill repute, the second best thing to the gatherings of the Heavenly Host. The gaming stakes were extremely high and at times quite shocking, the wines were tolerable and the other entertainments were quite irresistible. It was almost impossible to gain entry unless one was of the very highest level. Adrian had been one of the first members, of course, and Etienne was admitted as his guest.

"If we can't then we're pitifully jaded indeed," Adrian said in his perfect French.

Etienne laughed. Leaving Adrian to wonder whether he might not have spoken the ugly truth.