There was no light in the room other than that given off by the flames in the ornate marble fireplace. The fire was low, but managed to throw the couple on the divan into deep silhouette. Still, Caroline was able to make out their features.
She knew who they were. She knew who they were very well indeed. She had, after all, recognized her fiancé's laugh through the closed door, which was why she'd opened it in the first place.
Unfortunately, it appeared she ought to have knocked first, since she'd obviously interrupted a moment of utmost intimacy. And though she knew she should leave -- or, at the very least, make her presence known -- she found she could not move. She was riveted where she stood, staring quite against her will at the Lady Jacquelyn Seldon's breasts, which had come out of the bodice of her gown, and were now bouncing vigorously up and down in rhythm to the thrusting hips of the man who lay between Lady Jacquelyn's thighs.
It occurred to Caroline, as she stood there with one gloved hand gripping the doorknob, and the other clutching the frame, that her own breasts had never bounced with such wild abandon.
Of course, her breasts weren't nearly so large as Lady Jacquelyn's.
Which might explain why it was the Lady Jacquelyn, and not Caroline, who was astride the Marquis of Winchilsea.
Caroline had not previously been aware of her fiancé's predilection for large-breasted women, but apparently Lord Winchilsea had found her lacking in that particular category, and had therefore sought out someone better suited to his tastes. Which was certainly his right, of course. Only Caroline couldn't help thinking he might have had the courtesy not to do it in one of Dame Ashforth's sitting rooms, in the middle of a dinner party.
I suppose I shall faint, Caroline thought, and gripped the doorknob tighter, in case the floor should suddenly rush up to meet her face, as often happened to the heroines of the novels her maids sometimes left laying about, and which Caroline sometimes picked up and read.
Only of course she didn't faint. Caroline had never fainted in her life, not even the time she fell off her horse and broke her arm in two places. She rather wished she would faint, because then she might at least have been spared the sight of the Lady Jacquelyn inserting her finger into Hurst's mouth.
Now why, Caroline wondered, did she do that? Did men enjoy having women's fingers shoved into their mouths?
Evidently they did, because the marquis began at once to suck noisily upon it.
Why hadn't anyone ever mentioned this to her? If the marquis had wanted Caroline to put her finger into his mouth, she most certainly would have done so, if it would have made him happy. Really, it was completely unnecessary for him to turn to Lady Jacquelyn -- with whom he was barely acquainted, let alone engaged -- for something as simple as that.
Beneath Lady Jacquelyn, the Marquis of Winchilsea let out a groan -- rather muffled, with Lady Jacquelyn's finger in the way. Caroline saw his hand move from Lady Jacquelyn's hip to one of those sizable breasts. Hurst had not, Caroline saw, removed either his coat or his shirt. Well, she supposed he'd be able to rejoin the dinner party more quickly that way. But surely with the fire -- not to mention the heat Lady Jacquelyn's body was surely generating -- he must have been overly warm.
He didn't seem to mind, however. The hand which had gone to cup Lady Jacquelyn's breast moved to the back of her long neck, where fine tendrils of dark hair had escaped from the complicated coronet of curls atop her head. Then Hurst pulled her face down until her lips touched his. Lady Jacquelyn had to remove her finger from his mouth in order to better accommodate her tongue, which she placed there instead.
Well, Caroline thought. That's it, then. The wedding is most definitely off.
She wondered if she ought to declare it, then and there. Suck in her breath and interrupt the lovers in their embrace (if that was the correct term for it), make a scene.
But then she decided that she simply wouldn't be able to endure what undoubtedly would follow: the excuses, the recriminations, Hurst ranting about his love for her, Jacquelyn's tears. If Lady Jacquelyn could cry, which Caroline rather doubted.
Really, what else could she do but turn around and leave the room as quietly as she'd entered it? Praying that Hurst and Jacquelyn were too preoccupied to hear the latch click, she eased the door gently closed behind her, and only then released a long-held breath.
And wondered what she ought to do now.
It was dark in the corridor just outside the sitting room door. Dark and cool, unlike the rest of Dame Ashforth's town house, which was crowded with nearly a hundred guests and almost as many servants. No one was very likely to come this way, since all the champagne and food and music was a floor below.
No one except pathetically abandoned fiancées, like herself.
Her knees suddenly feeling a little weak, Caroline sank down onto the third and fourth steps of the narrow servants' staircase just opposite the door she'd closed so quietly. She was not, she knew, going to faint. But she did feel a little nauseous. She would need some time to compose herself before going back downstairs. Leaning one elbow upon her knee, Caroline rested her chin in her hand and regarded that door through the slender bars of the banister, wondering what she ought to do now.
It seemed to her that the thing any normal girl would do was cry. After all, she had just caught her fiancé in the arms -- well, to be accurate, the legs -- of another. She ought, she knew from her extensive novel reading, to be weeping and storming.
And she wanted to weep and storm. She really did. She tried to summon up some tears, but none came.
I suppose, Caroline thought to herself, that I can't cry because I'm terrifically angry. Yes, that must be it. I am livid with rage, and that's why I can't cry. Why, I should go find a pistol and come back and shoot Lady Jacquelyn in the heart with it. That's what I ought to do.
But the thought left her feeling more physically weak than ever, and she was quite glad she'd sat down. She didn't like guns, and could not imagine ever shooting anyone with one -- not even Lady Jacquelyn Seldon, who quite thoroughly deserved it.
Besides, she told herself, even if I could shoot her -- which I quite positively couldn't -- I wouldn't. What would be the point? I'd only be arrested. Caroline, finding a loose crystal bead on her skirt, pulled on it distractedly. And then I'd have to go to jail. Caroline knew more than she'd ever wanted to know about jail, because her best friend Emmy was a member of the London Society for Women's Suffrage, and had been arrested several times for chaining herself to the carriage wheels of various members of Parliament.
Caroline did not want to go to jail, which Emmy had described for her in all its lurid detail, any more than she wanted to put a bullet through anyone.
And supposing, she thought, they find me guilty. I'll be hanged. And for what? For shooting Lady Jacquelyn? It would hardly be worth it. Caroline didn't have anything particularly against Lady Jacquelyn. Lady Jacquelyn had always been perfectly civil to Caroline.
Really, Caroline decided, if she was going to shoot anybody -- which she wasn't, of course -- it would have to be Hurst. Why, not even one hour ago he'd been whispering into Caroline's ear that he couldn't wait for their wedding night, which was only one month away.
Well, evidently he was so impatient for it that he'd been forced to seek out someone else entirely with whom to rehearse it.
Cheating bastard! Caroline tried to think up some other wicked words she had overheard her younger brother Thomas and his friends call one another. Oh, yes. Whoremonger!
It would serve that whoremongering cheating bastard right if I shot him.
And then she felt a rush of guilt for even thinking such a thing. Because of course she was perfectly conscious of how very much she owed Hurst. And not just because of what he'd done for Tommy, either, but because out of all the girls in London, he'd singled her out to marry, her to be the sole recipient of those slow, seductive kisses.
Or at least, that's what she'd thought up until very recently. Now she realized that not only was she far from the sole recipient of those kisses, but that the ones she'd been receiving were quite different from the ones Lady Jacquelyn was apparently used to.
Damn! She brought up her other elbow, and now rested her chin in both hands. What was she to do?
The correct thing, of course, would be for Hurst to call it off. The marquis was invariably correct in all of his activities -- well, with the exception of this one, of course -- and so Caroline thought it was not unreasonable to hope that he might be the one to break off their engagement, thus sparing her the embarrassment of having to do so. Darling, she pictured him saying. I am sorry, but you see, it turns out I've met a girl I like a tremendously lot better than you....
But no. The Marquis of Winchilsea was nothing if not polite. He would probably say something like, Caroline, my sweet, don't ask me to explain why, but I can't in good faith follow through with it. You understand, don't you, old sport?
And Caroline would say she understood. Because Caroline was an old sport. Lady Jacquelyn Seldon was a strikingly attractive woman, who sang and played the harp quite beautifully, as talented as she was lovely. She would make any man a wonderful wife, although she hadn't any money, of course. Everyone knew that. The Seldons -- Lady Jacquelyn's father had been the fourteenth Duke of Childes -- were an ancient and very well-respected family, but they hadn't a penny to their name, only a few manor houses and an abbey or two scattered here and there.
That Hurst, whose family was just as noble but likewise just as poor, would have chosen to align himself with the Seldons wasn't surprising, though Caroline wasn't certain it was the most prudent thing he had ever done. What did he and Lady Jacquelyn imagine they were going to live on, anyway? Because unless they rented out all of those magnificent properties to some wealthy Americans, they hadn't any source of income to speak of.
But what did income matter, to two people in love? It wasn't any of Caroline's concern, anyway, how the pair of them got on. Her problem was this:
What was she going to tell her mother?
The Dowager Lady Bartlett was not going to take this well. Not by any stretch of the imagination. In fact, the news was likely to send her into one of her infamous fits. She quite thoroughly adored Hurst. Why shouldn't she? He had, after all, saved the life of her only son. The debt Caroline's family owed the marquis was enormous. By agreeing to marry him, Caroline had hoped, in some small way, to repay his kindness.
But now it was quite clear that winning Caroline's hand hadn't been any particular accomplishment for the young marquis. How humiliating!
And the invitations had already been sent out. Five hundred of them, to be exact. Five hundred people -- the best of London society. Caroline supposed she was going to have to write to all of them. She began to feel a bit like crying when she thought of that. Five hundred letters. That was a bit much. Her hand usually cramped up after only two or three.
Hurst ought to be the one to write the letters, she thought, bitterly. After all, he was the one who'd broken the rules. But Hurst, who was much more of an outdoorsman than an intellectual, had never written anything longer than a check, so Caroline knew counting on any help from him in that quarter was foolish to the extreme.
Perhaps she could merely put an announcement in the paper. Yes, that was it. Something tasteful, explaining that the wedding of Lady Caroline Victoria Linford, only daughter of the first Earl of Bartlett, and only sister of the second, and Hurst Devenmore Slater, tenth Marquis of Winchilsea, was regretfully called off.
Called off? Was that the right term for it?
Lord, how embarrassing! Thrown over for Lady Jacquelyn Seldon! What would the girls back in school say?
Well, Caroline consoled herself. It could have been worse. She couldn't think how, but she supposed it could.
And then, quite suddenly, it was.
Someone was coming. And not out of the sitting room, either, but down the corridor. It was someone who was looking for Lady Jacquelyn, Caroline realized, as soon as the light from the candelabra he was holding illuminated his features enough for her to recognize them.
And when she did, her heart stopped beating. She was quite sure of that. Her heart actually stopped beating for a moment. It hadn't done that when she'd opened the sitting room door and seen her fiancé making love to another woman. No, not at all.
But it did so now.
In spite of the candelabra, his foot hit the leg of a small table, on which rested a vase of dried flowers. When Braden Granville's foot hit the table, the vase wobbled, and then fell over, sending a number of dried petals floating down onto the carpet runner below. He cursed beneath his breath, and leaned down to right the vase. Caroline, watching him from between the banister bars, saw that he looked more annoyed than he should, for someone who'd only accidentally knocked over some dried flowers.
He knows, she thought. Good Lord, he knows.
This just might end in bloodshed after all.
Without conscious thought, she rose to her feet, and said, "H-hullo." Only her voice came out sounding extraordinarily breathless.
Braden Granville looked up sharply. "Who's there?" he asked.
"It's only me," Caroline said. Whatever was the matter with her voice? It sounded ridiculously high-pitched. She made an attempt to lower it. "Caroline Linford. I sat next to you last month at a dinner at Lady Chittenhouse's. You probably don't remember...."
"Oh. Lady Caroline. Of course."
There was no mistaking the disappointment in his deep voice. As she'd been speaking, he'd raised the candelabra and looked at her. She knew perfectly well what he'd seen: a young woman of medium height and medium weight, whose hair was neither blonde nor brown, but a sort of sandy color, and whose eyes were neither blue nor green, but quite emphatically brown. Caroline knew she did not possess anything like the stunning dark beauty of Lady Jacquelyn Seldon, but she also knew -- because her brother Thomas had told her, and brothers were nothing if not brutally honest -- that she wasn't a girl to pass over without a second look, either.
But Braden Granville certainly passed her over, quite without a second look. As if he were anything much to look at himself, Caroline thought, with some indignation. Conceited pig. After all, he wasn't nearly so handsome as Hurst. Whereas the Marquis of Winchilsea was a golden Adonis, with his curly blond hair, blue eyes, fair complexion, and tall, arrow-straight frame, Braden Granville was dark as sin, broad across the shoulders to the point of being barrel-chested, and always looked as if he needed a shave, even, Caroline was quite certain, right after he'd just had one.
Braden Granville lowered the candelabra and said, "I don't suppose you've seen Lady Jacquelyn Seldon come this way, have you?"
Caroline's gaze darted toward the sitting room door. She hadn't meant it to. She hadn't meant to look anywhere near that door. But her gaze was drawn to it as surely as the moon drew the tide.
"Lady Jacquelyn?" she echoed, stalling for time.
What would happen, Caroline wondered, if she told him she had seen Lady Jacquelyn? That she was, in fact, just inside that door?
Why, Braden Granville would kill Hurst, that's what. Thomas had told her all about the man he referred to admiringly as "Granville." How "Granville," who'd been born in Seven Dials, the poorest, seediest district in London, had made a fortune in the firearms business. How "Granville" was as ruthless in his personal life as he was in his business affairs. How "Granville" was known for considering a bullet the swiftest way to handle problems in either area, a fact which was not hurt by his being a world-renowned crack shot with a pistol.
Why, Hurst couldn't have hit the side of Westminster Abbey with a pistol, even by throwing the silly thing.
"Yes," Braden Granville said, eyeing her curiously. "Lady Jacquelyn Seldon. Surely you know her."
"Oh," Caroline said. "Yes, I know her...."
"Well," he said. The patience in his voice sounded quite forced. "Have you seen her go by here? With a...gentleman, perhaps? I have reason to believe she was not alone."
How odious this was! Perhaps much more for him than for her. Because of course there was the fact that "Granville" had supposedly bedded more women than any man in London. This was not something Caroline's brother had announced at the breakfast table, but something she'd overheard him discussing with his friends. According to Thomas, "Granville" apparently had as many lovers as the infamous Don Juan. In fact, Thomas and his friends called him -- with straight faces, no less -- the Lothario of London.
Only lately had the Lothario finally settled down, and made an offer of marriage to the most beautiful and accomplished woman in all of England, Lady Jacquelyn Seldon. Who at that very moment was straddling Caroline's fiancé, the Marquis of Winchilsea.
Just imagine how a proud, self-made man like Braden Granville -- a man who was universally admired for his skills as a lover -- would feel when he found out his own fiancée had betrayed him. And with the Marquis of Winchilsea, of all people, who hadn't a penny to his name, only his very pretty face to live upon! Why, all Caroline had to do was say a word -- just one word -- and she wouldn't need to worry herself again with the wording of the Times announcement: Her wedding to the Marquis of Winchilsea would have to be called off due to his untimely death.
She shook herself. Good Lord, what was she thinking? She couldn't allow Braden Granville to shoot Hurst. Not after the way Hurst had saved Tommy.
"I did see her," Caroline admitted, finally. She pointed toward the far end of the corridor. "She went that way."
Braden Granville's face hardened. He hadn't a very handsome face to begin with, in the traditional sense of the word, and it had not been treated kindly by life -- he bore the deep scar of what looked like a knife wound in his right eyebrow.
But when that face hardened with determination, it became almost frightening to look at -- like looking at the face of the devil himself. What in heaven all the women he'd bedded had seen in him, Caroline couldn't imagine. She looked away, and concentrated instead on a vision in her mind's eye of the face of the Marquis of Winchilsea, which was every bit as angelic as Braden Granville's was...not.
"Was she with anyone?"
Caroline scissored a glance in his direction. "I beg your pardon?"
"I asked -- " He took a deep breath, as if for patience. "Was Lady Jacquelyn with anyone? A man?"
Caroline replied, "Why, yes, she was." There, she told herself. That ought to get rid of him in a hurry. And thus keep him from discovering the truth, which lay just beyond that door, a few feet away.
The smile Braden Granville's lips curled into upon hearing this sent a convulsive shiver up Caroline's spine. So pleased -- so diabolically pleased -- did he look, that for a moment, Caroline's breath caught in her throat. Why, he really was a devil!
"Thank you, Lady Caroline," Braden Granville said, sounding a good deal more cordial than he had before. And then he started down the hallway, and Caroline tried to breathe again.
And found that she couldn't.
This was alarming, to say the least. But she was determined not to let Braden Granville know of her distress. No, what was important was not that she could no longer breathe, but that he go away, far, far away, so that Hurst might have a chance to escape....
Only her efforts to hide her discomfort did not appear to have been very effective, since just as he passed the staircase upon which Caroline stood, Braden Granville turned and looked back at her, inquisitively.
"Are you quite all right, Lady Caroline?" he asked.
He knew, though she didn't know how. She'd made no sound. How could she? She couldn't breathe.
She nodded vigorously. "Perfectly well," she managed to wheeze. "You'd better hurry, or you might miss her."
But Braden Granville did not hurry. Oh, he looked very much as if he might have liked to. But instead he remained exactly where he was, looking at her with what, if she hadn't already caught a glimpse of that wicked smile, she might have thought was concern.
But no one with a smile as evil as that could be capable of feeling concern.
"I think you're lying," Braden Granville said, and Caroline felt as if her heart might explode.
He knows! she thought, frantically. Oh, God, he knows! And now he's going to kill Hurst, and it will be all my fault!
But then he said, "You aren't perfectly well. You've lost all the color from your face, and you seem to be having difficulty drawing breath."
"Nonsense," Caroline gasped. Though she was lying, of course. She was gulping in enormous amounts of air, only none of it appeared to be actually getting into her lungs.
"It isn't nonsense." Braden Granville retraced his steps. When he'd reached the stairs on which Caroline stood, he leaned over and laid a hand upon the back of her neck, just as, a few moments before, Caroline had seen the Marquis of Winchilsea lay his hand upon the back of Lady Jacquelyn's neck.
Caroline's heart, which had skipped a beat when she'd first seen Braden Granville come down the hall, now started to beat so fast, she was certain it might burst. Good Lord, she thought, irrationally. He's going to kiss me. He's going to do to me whatever it is he's done to all those women he's supposedly bedded. And I shall be perfectly incapable of stopping him, because he's the Lothario of London.
Oddly, Caroline found the thought of being kissed by Braden Granville not in the least upsetting.
Only instead of tilting her head up so that he could kiss her, the Lothario of London said, commandingly, "Sit down."
Caroline was so startled that she sat without question. She didn't suppose there were many people who would dare to disobey an order given by the great "Granville," which was undoubtedly why he was so successful a businessman, not to mention lover.
Then Braden Granville's hand on her neck tightened, and, incredibly, he pushed her head down until it was between her knees.
"There," he said, with some satisfaction. "Stay like that, and you'll be better in no time."
Caroline, staring at the beading on her skirt, said, her voice muffled against the stiff white satin, "Um. Thank you, Mr. Granville."
Her disappointment that he hadn't tried to kiss her or molest her in any way, despite her dislike of him, was profound. And disturbing.
"Think nothing of it," Braden Granville said.
Whoremonger! Caroline thought to herself, as she stared into her own lap. I suppose I'm not good enough to seduce. After all, who am I? Oh, only the daughter of the first Earl of Bartlett. A nothing. A no one. I'm certainly no great beauty, like Lady Jacquelyn Seldon. And I don't have any manor houses in the Lake District.
But there's one thing I jolly well do have that Lady Jacquelyn doesn't: the common decency not to sleep with another woman's fiancé.
Oh, she added, mentally. And a bit of money, too, of course.
She expected him to go then, but he did not. The strong hand remained on the back of her neck. It was surprisingly warm.
"Ridiculous things, corsets," Braden Granville went on, conversationally. "Ought to be abolished."
Caroline, perfectly astonished that a man as great as Braden Granville should be standing in a hallway with his hand upon her neck -- and even more surprised that he should have brought up a subject as indelicate as her corset -- said, into her lap, "I suppose some people think so...."
Was this, she wondered, a prelude to taking her corset off her, and then -- Good Lord -- seducing her?
But Braden Granville only said, "I'm surprised you wear one at all. Aren't you friends with Lady Emily Stanhope?"
This was such a surprising question that Caroline heard herself say, "You know Emmy?"
"Everyone knows Lady Emily. She's become quite infamous for her involvement in the women's suffrage movement. I had assumed, being her friend, that you were, as well."
"Oh," Caroline said, into her skirt. "I am. I mean, I don't go to the rallies, or anything. I don't much like rallies. It's so much nicer to stay at home with a book than to go about shouting until you're hoarse and chaining yourself to things."
"I see that you are, at heart, a true freedom fighter, Lady Caroline," Braden Granville observed drily.
"Oh," Caroline said, realizing how foolish she must have sounded to him. "Oh, but I do support Emmy's cause, you know. Last month alone I paid her court penalties twice because her father won't do it anymore. And I only wear a corset because, well, I think I do look nicer in one than not."
"I see." He sounded amused. "Your suffragist leanings end where your comfort and vanity begin. At least you are honest enough to admit it."
He was making sport of her. She knew that now. So he certainly wasn't going to try to seduce her. Caroline didn't know much about men, but she strongly suspected they wouldn't bother seducing a girl they'd made sport of. She was relieved, she supposed. But it was a little insulting that he hadn't even tried. After all, he'd apparently seduced every other girl in London. Why not her? Caroline knew she wasn't an elegant beauty, but she'd certainly had her share of admirers, including, just that morning, a young man -- a complete stranger -- who'd chased her for nearly an entire city block after she'd roundly berated him for needlessly whipping his horse, only to tip his hat and say her smile was every bit as bright and pretty as a brand-new penny, and that he'd never whip another horse again.
But Braden Granville apparently hadn't noticed her smile.
And then the memory of the reason why she'd lost her breath in the first place returned in a rush. All this time they'd been in the hallway discussing her corset, Hurst had been in mortal danger of discovery! Whatever could she have been thinking?
"Hadn't you better go, Mr. Granville?" Caroline asked, trying to disguise the urgency in her voice. "If you mean to find Lady Jacquelyn, I mean."
"Yes," he said. There was no kindness in his voice now. "Well, I'm sure there's no chance of that any more."
Caroline, alarmed, asked, "No chance of what? Finding her? Oh, you're quite wrong. I'm sure she's still close." Then, realizing what she'd said, she thrust a finger toward the opposite end of the hallway. "I'm sure if you just follow her -- "
"No point," Braden Granville said, flatly. Then he added, almost as if to himself, "I lost any chance I might have had at catching her out in her little game when I took a wrong turn ten minutes back, and ended up in the kitchens."
"Little game?" Caroline echoed, faintly.
Like someone recalling himself, Braden Granville said, "Never mind. Feeling any better yet?"
Caroline inhaled. Her temples tightened with the beginning of a headache, but surprisingly, she found that she could breathe normally again.
"Much better," she said. "Thank you." And then, because she was worried he might know more about the details of his fiancée's faithlessness than he was letting on -- like, for instance, the identity of her secret lover -- she added, "I'm sure you're wrong, Mr. Granville. About your bride-to-be. I'm certain she isn't involved in any...little game. With anyone."
The laugh Braden Granville let out was every bit as wicked as his smile had been when she'd told him -- oh, why, why had she told him? -- that she'd seen his fiancée with another man.
"How very good-natured of you, Lady Caroline," he said, in a tone that wasn't the least bit complimentary. "But please allow me to assure you that your confidence in Lady Jacquelyn is sorely misplaced. And when I get the name of the fellow, I'll be only too happy to prove it, in a court of law, if necessary. You might mention that to her, when next you see her."
Quite openmouthed at this extraordinary declaration -- and at the thought that she and Jacquelyn Seldon were anything but the most distant acquaintances -- Caroline fought to think of some sort of reply.
She was saved, however, from making any when the door to Dame Ashforth's private sitting room opened and the Marquis of Winchilsea stepped into the corridor.
"Oh," Caroline said, finding her voice at last. "Dear."
Copyright © 2001 by Meggin Cabot