The Study of Seduction
“You have lost your bloody mind.”
When every member in the reading room of St. George’s Club turned to look at Edwin Barlow, Earl of Blakeborough, he realized how loudly he’d spoken.
The place was more crowded than usual, now that everyone was back in London and night was falling. Gentlemen wanted a few drinks before they plunged into the maelstrom that was the Season.
With a quelling glance that sent the curious onlookers scrambling to mind their own business, Edwin returned his attention to Warren Corry, the Marquess of Knightford. “This plan of yours can’t possibly work.”
“Of course it can.”
Warren was Edwin’s closest friend. Really, his only friend, aside from his sister’s new husband, Jeremy Keane. Edwin didn’t make friends easily, probably because he didn’t suffer fools easily. And society was full of fools.
That was precisely why Edwin, Keane, and Warren had started this club—so they could separate the fools from the fine men. So they could protect the women in their lives from fortune hunters, gamblers, rakehells, and every other variety of scoundrel in London.
In a matter of months, the club had swollen from three to thirty members, all good men eager to share information about which of their peers couldn’t be trusted with women. Until now, Edwin hadn’t realized that so many gentlemen’s female relations needed protecting from sly and not-so-sly attempts on their virtue . . . and fortunes.
Warren was clearly taking that mission very seriously. Perhaps too seriously.
“Clarissa will never agree,” Edwin said.
“She has no choice.”
Edwin narrowed his gaze on Warren. “You actually believe you can convince your sharp-tongued cousin to let me squire her about town during the Season?”
“Only until I return. And why not?” Warren said, though he took a long swig of brandy as if to fortify himself for the fight. “It isn’t as if she hates you.”
“No, indeed,” Edwin said sarcastically. “She only challenges my every remark, ignores my advice, and tweaks my nose incessantly. The last time I saw her, she called me the Blakeborough Bear and said I belonged in the Tower of London menagerie, where ordinary people could be spared my growls.”
Warren burst into laughter. When Edwin lifted an eyebrow at him, Warren’s laugh petered out into a cough. “Sorry, old boy. But you have to admit that’s amusing.”
“Not nearly as amusing as it will be to watch you try to talk her into this,” Edwin drawled as he settled back in his chair.
Rather than giving Warren pause, that made the blasted idiot ask, “Does that mean you’ll do it?”
“The point is moot. She’s not going to agree.”
“Don’t be too sure. You mustn’t take her pokes at you as anything more than her usual mischief-making. You let her exaggerations get under your skin, which only tempts her to plague you more. You should just ignore her when she starts her nonsense.”
Ignore Clarissa? Impossible. He’d spent the past few years trying unsuccessfully to unwrap the mystery that was Lady Clarissa Lindsey. Her barbed wit fired his temper, her provocative smile inflamed him, and her shadowed eyes haunted his sleep. He could no more ignore her than he could ignore a rainbowed sunset . . . or a savage storm.
For three months now, she’d been isolated at Warren’s hunting lodge, Hatton Hall, and Edwin had felt every second of her absence. That was why the idea of spending time with her sent his blood pumping.
Not with anticipation. Certainly not. Couldn’t be.
“What do you say, old boy?” Warren held Edwin’s gaze. “I need you. She needs you.”
Edwin ignored the leap in his pulse. Clarissa didn’t need anyone, least of all him. Thanks to the fortune left to her by her late father, the Earl of Margrave, she didn’t have to marry for love or anything else. Apparently, the woman had some fool notion she was better off without a husband, given that she’d reportedly refused dozens of marriage proposals since her debut years ago.
But it wasn’t her fortune that had men falling all over themselves trying to catch her eye. It was her quick wit and effervescent personality, her ability to draw a man in and put him off at the same time. It was her astonishing beauty. She was the fair-haired, green-eyed, porcelain-skinned darling of society, and she almost certainly knew it.
Which was why he rather enjoyed the prospect of watching Warren attempt to convince her she should go about town with a gruff curmudgeon like himself. “Assuming that she and I both agree to this insanity—how long would I have her on my hands?”
“It shouldn’t be more than a month. However long it takes me to deal with her brother in Portugal. I can’t leave Niall stranded on the Continent with all the unrest there right now.”
“I suppose she’s already heard why you’re going.”
“Actually, no. She doesn’t even know about his letter yet, which was waiting for me when we arrived from Shropshire for the Season. I wanted to be sure you would agree to keep an eye on her before I told her. But once she learns that this involves Niall, she’ll want me to take this trip, and she’ll realize I won’t do that unless I’m sure she’s safe.”
“From this Durand fellow.” After all, there was a reason for this charade Warren was proposing.
Warren’s jaw hardened. “Count Geraud Durand, yes.”
Settling back into his chair, Edwin drummed his fingers on his thigh. “If I’m to do this, you’d better tell me everything you know about this Frenchman.”
“Haven’t you met him?”
Edwin lifted an eyebrow.
“Oh, right. Not your circle of influence. But surely you’ve heard of him.”
“He’s the French ambassador’s lackey.”
“If he were a lackey, he wouldn’t be a problem. He’s the man’s first secretary. And because the ambassador had to return to France right after Christmas, Durand is now running the embassy as the charge d’affaires. The position gives him a great deal of power.”
“Then what the devil does he want with Clarissa?”
“A wife. He asked her to marry him in Bath some months ago.”
That stunned Edwin. Warren had initially described Durand as an admirer who’d been plaguing her.
Not that Edwin was surprised at anyone’s desiring Clarissa to distraction. Most men did. But men in the field of diplomacy generally preferred wives who were . . . well . . . not inclined to speak their minds and flirt outrageously.
“She turned him down,” Warren went on. “That’s why we had to return to London. Unfortunately, he followed us here. He seemed to have made it his mission to gain her, no matter what. He was at every public event we attended. Twice, he tried to accost her on the street.”
“Accost her? Were those your words or Clarissa’s? Because even you said she’s prone to exaggeration.”
“This was no exaggeration.” His lips thinned into a grim line. “The bastard frightened her enough that she started avoiding going out in public, and you know that’s not like her. So after we spent Christmas at your brother-in-law’s, I whisked her and her mother off to Shropshire where I knew he dared not follow, since by then he had to serve as charge d’affaires here. I’d hoped our absence would give his ardor time to cool.”
“And has it?”
“I don’t know. We’ve only just returned, so it’s not as if I’ve had time to assess the situation. But I’m not taking any chances. She has to be protected while I’m trying to sort out her brother’s troubles.”
Edwin cast him a measuring glance. “You don’t mean to bring Niall back to England, do you? They’ll arrest him for murder as soon as he sets foot on English soil.”
“I know. Damned fool, fighting a duel over some woman. He ought to have known better.” Frustration furrowed Warren’s brow. “To be honest, I have no idea what to do with him. But I must work out something. He can’t continue abroad like this indefinitely. And I can’t continue to manage my properties and his, even with Clarissa’s help.”
Edwin snorted. “Clarissa helps?”
“There’s more to her than you realize.”
Ah, but Edwin did realize it. Granted, he wouldn’t have expected her to have any skill at estate management, but despite her outrageous manner, he sometimes glimpsed a seriousness in her that reminded him of his own.
Or perhaps she merely had periodic bouts of dyspepsia. Hard to know with Clarissa. She was entirely unpredictable. Which was why she always threw him out of sorts.
Warren waved over a servant and ordered another brandy. “Honestly, accompanying her won’t be as trying as you think. Don’t you need to go out into society this Season anyway? Aren’t you bent on marrying?”
“Yes.” He was bent on siring an heir, anyway, which required wedding someone. Though God only knew who that might be.
“You see? It’s perfect. You have to go on the marriage mart. Clarissa wants to enjoy the Season, and I want her to find a husband. It’s an ideal situation.”
“If you say so.” How he could successfully court anyone with Clarissa hanging about was anyone’s guess, but he supposed it might improve his stern reputation if he had a lighthearted woman on his arm at the usual balls. Assuming she would even agree to take his arm. That was by no means certain with Clarissa.
“You were still recovering from the loss of Jane last Season, so this will be your first real attempt to secure a wife since Jane jilted you. Do you have any particular lady in mind?”
“No. I know what I want. But God only knows if I can find a who to go with it. I haven’t made a serious search, because I had my hands full with Samuel and Yvette. And then there was the false start with Jane.” Edwin sighed. “But I suppose I must begin looking.”
“And what are your requirements for a wife? Other than that she be of breeding age, I suppose.”
Chafing at Knightford’s astute perception that this endeavor was about finding a woman to bear him an heir, Edwin glanced out the window that overlooked Pall Mall. “I would prefer a woman who’s responsible and uncomplicated.”
“Like your mother, you mean.”
He didn’t answer, preferring not to lie. His mother hadn’t been remotely uncomplicated, but no one knew that except Edwin and his brother Samuel. Not even their sister Yvette was aware of how complicated their mother had been . . . and what had made her so. Edwin had worked hard to spare Yvette that awful knowledge.
“I want a woman who’s quiet and sensible,” Edwin went on.
“In other words, someone you can keep under your thumb. The way your father kept your mother under his thumb.”
A swell of painful memories made acid burn his throat. “Father didn’t keep her under his thumb; he ignored her.” For reasons that Edwin unfortunately knew and had difficulty accepting. “I will never do that to my wife.”
“You will if she’s as dull as what you describe.” Warren leaned back in his chair. “When I get around to choosing a wife, I want a lively wench who will keep me well entertained.” He winked. “If you know what I mean.”
Edwin rolled his eyes. “Remind me again why we asked you to join St. George’s? You’re as bad as the men we’re guarding our women against.”
“Ah, but I don’t prey on innocents. Any woman who lands in my bed jumped there of her own accord. And I daresay that’s true of any number of fellows here.”
It probably was. Even Edwin had taken a mistress in his twenties when the turmoil within his family had kept him too busy to look for a wife and his loneliness had grown too acute to endure. That hadn’t, however, been very satisfying. Knowing that a woman was with you only for your rank and money was somehow more lonely than not having a woman at all.
Although with Yvette married and out of the house, he’d started to feel the disadvantages of a solitary life. So once more he’d be looking for a wife, always an awkward experience. Women expected a man to gush about being in love, and he simply couldn’t. Love was a fictional construct dreamed up by novelists. His parents’ marriage had proved that.
But it wasn’t wise to tell a woman his philosophy. Unfortunately, neither could he lie about it. He wasn’t like his scoundrel brother, who was presently serving a sentence of transportation for kidnapping. Edwin couldn’t spin a clever yarn or hide an opinion beneath a facile compliment.
Sadly, most women seemed to prefer facile compliments to blunt truths any day. For that matter, some men were like that.
Hence, his dearth of friends and his difficulty finding a suitable wife. “When will you broach this with Clarissa?”
Warren looked at his pocket watch. “At dinner, which should be in . . . oh . . . half an hour. I was hoping you’d come.”
“Why not? Might as well get it over with, eh? And I am leaving for Portugal in the morning.”
Devil take it. Edwin would have liked more time to prepare. He wasn’t the spontaneous sort. “Planning to have us join forces against her, are you?”
“That wasn’t my intention initially, no.” Warren gulped some brandy. “When we left Hatton Hall for London, I’d hoped that by now Yvette and Keane would have returned from America, and they could simply take her under their wing. Yvette can talk Clarissa into just about anything.”
Edwin smiled. His sister could talk anyone into anything, even him.
“But I gather they’re still abroad,” Warren said.
“It may be a few more weeks before they return. Sorry.”
“Well, it can’t be helped. At least my aunt will be there to help persuade her.”
Edwin suppressed a snort. Lady Margrave, Clarissa’s mother, was a flighty female who rarely offered sound advice, so Clarissa rarely heeded her. He doubted that this time would be any different.
Warren surveyed the reading room. “You know, this place turned out quite cozy. It’s not as sophisticated a setting as some clubs, but it’s comfortable. You and Keane ought to be pleased with yourselves. Between Keane’s artistic eye and your mechanical ingenuity, the place doesn’t even look like a tavern anymore.”
“We had plenty of help with the practical aspects of décor from Yvette and her mother-in-law.”
“That explains the female touches,” Warren said, “which are refreshing. I mean, the dark woods and leather give it a nice masculine feel, but there’s something to be said for decent draperies, too. The ones at White’s are funereal.”
“I’m glad you approve.”
Warren’s gaze snapped back to him. “I’m sorry I couldn’t be around to help. And that I have to run off again.” He rose. “So, are you coming or not?”
The casual words were belied by Warren’s tight expression.
They both knew that Edwin hadn’t yet agreed to the plan. And why hadn’t he? Because the thought of spending weeks in Clarissa’s company put him on edge as nothing else could.
But it didn’t matter. Warren was his friend and wouldn’t hesitate to help if the shoe was on the other foot. So neither would Edwin.
He stood. “I’m coming.”
As soon as the door to Clarissa’s bedchamber closed behind the servant who’d left a message for her mother, the aging widow turned to her daughter in a panic. “I cannot believe your cousin did this!” She leaned heavily on her cane. “Warren knows better than to invite an eligible bachelor for dinner with no warning. What was he thinking?”
Clarissa raised an eyebrow at her mother’s reflection in the looking glass. “He was thinking that it’s just Edwin, whom we’ve known for ages. And who has come to dine before.”
“I don’t know if pigeon pie is quite suitable enough for guests,” Mama said, as if Clarissa hadn’t spoken. “Oh, dear, and we are fresh out of Madeira! Edwin loves his Madeira, you know.”
“And the pickled onions were entirely too sour the last time we ate them. I was hoping to use them up tonight, but if Edwin is coming—”
“Mama, calm down! It’s not as if we’re expecting the Tsar of Russia.” She smiled into the mirror. “Although Edwin would make a fine tsar. All he’d have to do is be his usual autocratic and dictatorial self.”
Thankfully, that observation broke her mother out of her fretting. “And he would look quite the part, too, wouldn’t he? All that black hair and that chiseled jaw.”
And broad shoulders and regal bearing and slate-gray eyes as coldly beautiful as a Russian night spangled with stars.
Clarissa scowled at herself. She must be addled to be thinking of Edwin so poetically. Though he was sinfully handsome. In a sort of standoffish way. And she hadn’t seen him in ages. Absence makes the heart grow fonder, and all that.
“Why, I can almost imagine him in an ermine cape and one of those tall, furry hats,” Mama said.
Clarissa laughed. “Edwin would only wear such a pretentious thing to a coronation, and then only because he had to.”
His manner of dress was always correct, but terribly sober.
Unlike hers. She examined her gown in the mirror and smiled. Edwin would probably look sternly upon this confection of lace and lavender bows. Secretly it wasn’t her favorite, either—a bit too fussy for her taste—but she’d expected to be dining only with Warren and Mama, and had just thrown on the first thing she’d found in her closet.
Oh, well. No time to change, and besides, she would never change her gown for him. Let Edwin give her one of his ruthlessly critical glances; she would not be cowed.
Indeed, it was merely force of habit that had her pinching her cheeks until they glowed nicely pink. It was not because she wanted to look pretty for Edwin. No, indeed.
“You know, my girl,” Mama said, “if you were a bit nicer to that man, you could probably have him wrapped about your finger in a matter of weeks.”
“Oh, I doubt that. Edwin is far too inflexible to be wrapped about anything. More’s the pity.” Clarissa would dearly love to see the woman who could manage that.
But it wouldn’t be her. Edwin, of all people, would never accept her as she was, especially once he knew the full extent of her youthful mistakes. And her narrow escape from the obsessive attentions of Count Durand a few months ago had only made her more determined to avoid bending to any man’s demands of what a wife should be.
You can never escape me, my dearest Clarissa.
A shudder swept her as she thrust the count’s final words to the back of her mind. They were just the sort of dramatic nonsense men thought women wanted to hear. But to her knowledge, he hadn’t hunted for her. He hadn’t been loitering in the street outside Warren’s town house once they arrived. No doubt he’d moved on to another pretty woman.
And if he hadn’t?
Then she would be firmer in her refusal this time. Years ago she’d allowed a man to bully her, and it had shattered her life.
Pasting a brilliant smile to her lips, she whirled to face her mother. “Shall we go down?”
“Not yet, my angel. The servant said the gentlemen are already here, so we should keep them waiting. You must never let a man be too sure of you.”
“It’s Edwin, Mama,” she said tightly. “He’s sure of everything and everyone, no matter what I do.” With her usual coaxing smile, she offered her arm to her mother. Mama had broken her hip in her early forties and it hadn’t knitted properly, so navigating stairs was difficult for her. “Come now, I know you’re dying for a glass of wine. I certainly am.”
“Oh, all right.” Leaning on Clarissa’s arm, Mama let herself be led to the door. “But you must promise to give him a compliment first thing. Men like that.”
“Right,” Clarissa said noncommittally.
“And don’t contradict him all the time. Men despise fractious women.”
“And do not spout your witticisms incessantly. It’s very mannish. Not to mention . . .”
As they made their slow way down the stairs, Clarissa let her mother drone on, only half listening to the usual recitation of little tricks designed to hook a man and reel him in. Those might have enabled her Cit of a mother to snag an earl, but they smacked of deception to Clarissa.
If a man couldn’t like her as she was, what was the point? Clarissa could barely hide her true opinions from Mama. How was she to do it with a husband?
Not that she ever intended to have a husband. Granted, she wouldn’t mind having children, but that required taking a man into her bed—and the very thought made her hands grow clammy and her throat close up.
No. Marriage was not for her.
“. . . and do be sure to save the biggest slice of cake for Edwin,” Mama said as they reached the bottom of the stairs.
“Nonsense. I’m not saving anything for Edwin.”
“That’s only fair,” drawled Edwin from somewhere in the shadows to the right of the staircase. “I’m not saving anything for you, either.”
Striving to hide her surprise, she halted as he came into the light.
“Edwin!” Mama cried. “My dear boy!” She held out her hand.
Dutifully, he came forward to take it. “You’re looking well, Lady Margrave.” He bent to brush a kiss to Mama’s cheek.
No kiss for Clarissa, of course. He was too much the gentleman for that.
“You’re looking rather fine yourself,” Mama chirped as she drew back to survey him.
And Lord, but he was, in his tailcoat of dark-blue wool and his waistcoat and trousers of plain white poplin. Even his cravat was simply tied, which only accentuated the masculine lines of his jaw and sharp planes of his features, so starkly handsome.
How had he managed to grow even more attractive in a mere three months? And why on earth was she gawking at him? This was Edwin, for pity’s sake. It would swell his head even more if he knew what she was thinking.
Instead, she teased him. “Don’t tell me—you were so impatient for us to come down that you’ve been pacing the foyer in anticipation.”
The idea was ludicrous, of course. Impatient wasn’t even in Edwin’s vocabulary. If ever a man believed that slow and steady won the race, it was he.
And he clearly recognized the irony, for he flashed her one of his rare smiles. “Actually, I was fetching this from the library. Warren told me he was done with it.” His eyes gleamed in the lamplight as he held out a book. “Of course, if you wish to read it yourself . . .”
“Doubtful,” she said. “Any book you loaned him has to be deadly dull.”
“You mean, because it lacks gallant highwaymen rescuing virtuous ladies.”
“Or virtuous ladies rescuing gallant highwaymen. Either would be preferable to one of your dry tomes on . . . what? Chess? Engineering? Philosophy of the most boring sort?”
“Clarissa,” Mama chided.
But Edwin merely laughed, as she’d hoped he would. She took great pride in the fact that she could sometimes make him laugh. No other woman seemed able to. No other woman dared try.
“Mechanical engineering,” he said. “However did you guess?”
“Because I know you all too well, sir.”
He sobered, his gaze turning oddly intense even for him. “Do you? I’m not so sure.”
The words hung in the air a moment in frozen silence before that was shattered by her cousin’s approach.
“I found another book you might enjoy, old boy,” Warren said as he bent to kiss first his aunt, then Clarissa. “It’s about automatons.”
She rolled her eyes as Warren handed it to Edwin. Of course, keen interest leapt in Edwin’s face the moment he scanned the cover. The earl did love his automatons, to the point where he even made his own, though Clarissa had never been deemed worthy enough to actually see one.
“Looks intriguing, thanks. I’ll get it back to you as soon as I’m done.”
“No hurry.” Warren shot her a veiled glance. “As you well know, I won’t need it anytime soon.”
Whatever was that about?
Before she could ponder it, Warren offered Mama his arm. “Come, Aunt, let’s get you off your feet while we have our wine before dinner. Don’t want to tax your hip overmuch.”
“Thank you, my lad,” she cooed, and let him lead her to the breakfast room. “That is ever so thoughtful of you! But then, you always were a dear. Why, I remember when . . .”
As Mama prattled on, Edwin was left to come behind with Clarissa. “So,” he murmured, “exactly what were you refusing to save for me?”
It took her a moment to remember that he’d overheard her earlier. “The biggest slice of cake.”
“I don’t like cake.”
“I know. That’s why I’m not wasting it on you. You won’t appreciate it, and you’d probably eat it just to be polite.”
He slanted a serious glance at her. “Perhaps I’d give it to you, instead.”
“I doubt that, but we’ll never know, shall we?” she said lightly. “I’m saving it for myself, regardless.”
“So I heard.”
“Because you were eavesdropping.” Mischief seized her. “How rude of you.”
As they passed into the breakfast room, he shrugged. “If you don’t want people hearing your pronouncements, you shouldn’t talk at the volume of a dockworker.”
Mama paused while settling onto the settee. “A dockworker! For shame, Edwin—what a thing to say to a lady! Have you no pretty compliments to offer?”
When he stood blatantly unrepentant, Clarissa said, “If Edwin knew how to compliment ladies, Mama, he would be too popular in society to settle for having dinner with the mere likes of us.”
“There’s no settling involved, I assure you,” he said irritably.
She was congratulating herself on getting beneath his cool reserve again when Warren stepped in. “Play nice now, cousin. We need him.”
“For what?” Clarissa asked.
Instead of answering, Warren gestured to the settee. “You’d better sit down. I’ve got something to tell you and your mother.”