Man of Her Affairs Ch. 02bylepetiterose©
ton - a colloquial french term used in the 1800s to describe high society, or the aristocracy.
James strode into his club later that same day, refreshed after a few hours sleep, a piping hot bath and a change of clothes. He would have been perfectly happy to have stayed in his bed, completely naked beneath the soft white sheets whilst day dreaming of the surprisingly lovely Miss Grey, but he wanted information: and there was nowhere better to get it than his club.
As he stepped across the threshold, he remembered an observation his mother had made after watching his father with a bunch of his friends. 'Men like to gossip just as much as women, dear, the only difference is that women are unafraid to admit to it.'
His mother had always been wise, he reflected, as he allowed his gaze to sweep across the crowded room.
Immediately, Michael and Richard waved him over to where they lounged, ensconced in deep, leather chairs beside a roaring fireside. They, too, had changed and refreshed themselves, both looking the part of bored lords of the realm. Something, however, told him that they had been more active in the past hours than he.
He was not disappointed.
As he sat down, Richard gave him a toothy grin. 'So,' he drawled, eyes bright with mischief, 'that was quite a performance this morning.'
'Good afternoon to you, too.'
'I have never seen you put so out of joint,' Richard continued, ignoring James' sarcasm. 'But then again, I have never seen a female stand up to you either.' He leant back in his chair with a smirk of satisfaction, and slowly took a sip of his drink. 'And now, if I know you, you are looking for information on your mysterious Miss Grey.'
James stayed silent for a moment, watching his friend. 'Are you done?'
'Yes.' Richard nodded, sagely.
'Right. Well, first off, I hate you.'
'I love you, too.'
'And secondly, if I know you, you have already obtained information on Miss Grey. So, save me the trouble of having to beat it out of you and tell me.'
Even Michael raised his brows at that, thought he hid his amused smile behind his glass. James was probably the only man in England who could beat Richard in an out and out pugilist match.
Richard put on a look of mock disappointment. 'You are no fun when you are determined, you know that?'
James answered with a sickly sweet grin.
Finally, Michael could not stand it anymore. With a dramatic sigh and a role of the eyes, he leaned forward with a very purposeful air. 'If you two are done, perhaps it would interest you, James, to know that Miss Grey is actually the daughter of Lord Henry Grey, and the granddaughter of Lord Archibald Gainsbourgh.'
James nodded thoughtfully, settling into the deep chair. So she was a lady of the ton, except in even higher circles than he had thought. Her connections jarred slightly with her very independent behavior, however. 'Lord Henry Grey. I do not believe I am acquainted with him. Has he traveled over the last few years?'
Richard continued nonchalantly, before Michael could carry on. 'More than a few years. Six to be more precise. He set off from these shores after the death of his wife, taking Miss Grey with him. He was so distraught, poor man, that he signed up as a royal merchant and traveled to places I haven't even heard of. A bit unorthodox, but he seemed to become quite successful.' Placing his empty glass down, Richard signaled for another. 'Only recently did he realize he had a yet unmarried daughter still in tow.'
James did not mistake his friend's act for a moment. 'So, Miss Grey has arrived for the Season, to look for a husband?' He shook his head in disbelief. 'Somehow, that just does not fit with what I deducted from our...encounter.'
'You mean the gun totting, astride riding, female horse acrobat who looked as if she would rather kill you than court you?' Michael remarked dryly.
Unbidden, the image of Miss Grey's desire dazed face as she ground against him floated through James' mind. 'Amongst other things, yes.'
'It may not be what she wants, but her grandmother, Lady Gainsbourgh, is set on marrying her off by the end of the Season.'
'I think it will take a bit more than mere will power to get her paired up.'
'That is why Lord Grey has put a very generous dowry on his only daughter. Besides which, though unusual, she will inherit his business upon his death. She is every fortune hunter's wish come true, and it helps that she is very beautiful.' Michael paused for effect, a sly smile stealing across his face, 'I'm sure you noticed.'
James grunted in reply. He knew his friends were waiting for the reason for his interest in this uncommon female. Never before had he even hinted at interest in any woman from the ton, preferring to keep his affairs firmly entrenched in the demi mode. He himself did not know why he craved to learn more about his innocent wanton, besides from his obvious and undeniable physical attraction to her.
He sighed. Even now, hours after their encounter, he still had to control his thoughts, otherwise he found himself painfully aroused in a matter of moments. Even innocent thoughts over how her hair draped down the column of her neck led to less safe thoughts over her soft skin and the taste of it, which led to thoughts on how she would taste if he could have lifted her skirts, knelt down and-
James felt his jaw tense. He was going to go mad.
'Something the matter?' Michael asked.
'Nothing at all,' he bit out.
'Oh, temper, temper.'
'So, if she's such a catch, why has she not been properly introduced into Society?' he asked quickly. He did not really care about the answer; he just wanted to distract his friends away from any uncomfortable questions.
They looked at each other, identical smug expressions dawning across their features. That did not bode well.
'Well,' Michael mused, affecting an air of thought.
'Her coming out ball is...tonight!' Richard said in false realization, continuing the act.
'And what a coincidence, I believe we have been invited.'
'Oh, then we must attend.'
James looked in disbelief at his two companions. Together, they could have run the country's secret service and ended the War years in advance. Sometimes, even he underestimated the skill through which they obtained their information.
'I believe your talents have been wasted in peerage. Either the stage or the War Office would have been better suited,' he muttered irritably, finally signaling for a drink. Double. Neat. He would need it.
Richard smirked at the comment, but it slid slowly from his face as his eyes were caught by something behind James. Curios, James turned slowly in his seat, just in time to watch the retreating back of a tall, blonde haired gentleman. Twisting back to his companions, he noted that Michael had also watched the gentleman leave, his mouth pressed tight in distaste.
'What?' James demanded.
'I know a gentleman who would also like to attend the ball tonight,' Michael commented softly, his eyes still trained on the space where the man had exited. 'Lucian Farnshill, the Viscount Thorsby. He was eavesdropping on our conversation the entire time. If anyone is in the market for a wealthy heiress, its him.'
'Do you know him?'
Michael shrugged. 'He arrived in town a few months ago. Society mamas love him, and on the surface he is all things charming and complimentary.'
'But you do not trust him.' James had learnt long ago to heed Michael's opinions on people. His friend had a gut instinct that had never been proven wrong.
'Indeed. He has gained a reputation for ruthlessness in the gambling hells, often playing against drunk, young men who have nothing to gamble with but their inheritance. There have also been reports that he beats his mistress.' Michael tapped his glass softly against a side table, creating a steady beat as he thought. 'He is smart, though. He indulges his vices - women, horses, betting and such - through funds generated by businesses, which he first invests in and then sucks dry, leaving his ancestral estates untouched.
Richard's expression was grim. 'If he is looking for a rich wife, it is not so he can save himself from financial ruin, but so he can use all his spouse's money to fuel his activities.'
It was a situation that occurred in most Society marriages, but somehow imagining Thorsby setting his sights on Miss Grey as his next meal ticket filled James with dread. The woman would not be prepared for such an attack: she was too stubborn and headstrong, unaware of the dangers London held. He had a feeling that it would take a while for her to understand the subtle politics and maneuverings of the ton, and by then it might be too late.
She was nothing to him. He had no responsibility towards her and she should be left to her fate. He should leave her care to her guardians like most young women were. She did not need his protection.
James tried to convince himself not to get involved in her life. But it burnt like acid in his stomach. However skilled she was at wielding a gun and however confident she was in her ability to predict danger, he knew she would be vulnerable in a crowded ballroom. There would be no bullets, no muggings, no kidnappings, but men and women alike would wish to use her for their own gains. Especially Viscount Thorsby.
James conveniently forgot that he would like to use the delectable Miss Grey for his own, pleasurable gains.
He would have to attend the ball, just to make sure she was not in any danger, he assured himself. Looking up from the fire that he had been staring into unconsciously, he met the eyes of his two friends.
'We best get ready for tonight, then.'
'Hold still if you do not want it to hurt.'
'My hair was perfectly alright the way it was.'
'No, it was not. It was too simple!'
'Elegant. The word you are looking for is elegant.'
'Charlotte, let Anne do her job,' commanded Lady Gainsbourgh, as she glided into Charlotte's bedroom, adorned in ice blue silk. 'She knows what she is doing and has been a lady's maid for over ten years. Now stop fidgeting!'
Charlotte calmed down reluctantly, not wishing to anger her grandmother further. The woman ran her household with an iron fist and often refused to soften her touch when it came to dealing with her outspoken granddaughter.
'Now,' the older woman sighed, moving across the lavish room to peer into the looking glass beside Charlotte, 'how are you doing, dear? Nervous, excited?' She preened slightly, touching her flawless hair and straightening her wrinkleless skirts. 'Perhaps tonight is the night you meet your future husband, hmm?'
Charlotte kept silent. Her wish to stay unmarried was an ongoing tension between them. After her father dumped her unceremoniously in London, she had cried for hours, something she had never done in her life. She had never wanted to marry, never wanted to leave her life of traveling, and had never wanted to give up her independence. And after a few weeks in the metropolis, she felt her reluctance validated.
But on that first night in London, her grandmother had entered the room, looking as regal as royalty, to lay down the law. After a half an hour lecture on what was acceptable and what was risqué as well as the duties expected of her, Charlotte was nearing the end of her patience.
What her grandmother said next nearly drove her through the wall.
'Now, my dear, I know your father has been rather lenient with you over allowing you do your own thing, but you must come to the realization that independent women do not fare well in Society. They are scorned, suspected of the most salacious scandal and spurned by most of the ton. You cannot hope to lead a respectable life without the guidance of a husband.'
'Then I will have to leave and continue my life outside Britain,' she stated matter-of-factly, trying to keep her composure.
Ice blue eyes narrowed in disbelief. 'And how will you do that, Charlotte? Your dowry is not your own to use and it will be ages until you inherit your father's business.'
That was enough. What did her grandmother think she was? A vegetable? 'I have my own finances.'
Lady Gainsbourgh stopped cold at that. 'Your own...finances? My girl, how is that possible?'
'Grandmama, father was and is a successful royal merchant. I did not spend my time traveling with him embroidering!' She tried to tone down her exasperation, but her voice still held an edge.
Shocked, Lady Gainsbourgh had held still for a full minute. Charlotte counted. Eventually, the tension left her body and she relaxed. With a heart felt sigh she had sunk into the nearest chair and put her head in her hands. Her shoulders began to shake.
Worried, Charlotte had rushed to her side. 'Oh, please do not cry.' But her eyes widened in shock as her indomitable grandmother burst into laughter.
'Oh, my dear, I am so sorry. It is just, you are so like your mother. Always determined and never ending in her surprises.' She continued chuckling as she gently patted Charlotte's hand.
Finally, she had lent back in her chair and regarded her granddaughter with a mixture of worried indulgence and trepidation. 'I want the best for you, Char. I have seen the loveliest women fall into disgrace because they could not stand the scorn of the ton. But then again, you have proved, even to me, that perhaps you will not allow Society to manipulate you. Instead, I have begun to fear for them.'
But her expression became stern again almost immediately. 'I have a duty to your father, Charlotte. To look after you and give you the best chance at happiness as possible: and I will do my duty as I see fit.'
After that, they had come to some sort of unspoken truce.
Charlotte winced as she remembered the incident. She had not meant to divulge her secret finances. Besides, it had only been two weeks since their conversation: she did not want to know what her grandmother would say to her secret morning ride.
The woman in question finished off her perusal. Her sharp eyes caught the flicker of emotion on Charlotte's face and narrowed. She straightened up sharply but did not comment.
'I expect you downstairs in precisely one hour,' she said, crossing to the door, where she paused to look back. Her features softened. 'You look beautiful, dear.'
And before Charlotte could reply, she disappeared into the hallway with barely a rustle of silk.
Charlotte's teary-eyed attention was drawn back to the mirror, where she was met with Anne's beaming face and her own reflection.
'And, the piece de resistance!' With a flourish, and a really bad French accent, her maid clipped a pair of drop diamond earrings to Charlotte's ears, stepping back to enjoy the finished look.
Twin images of the copper-haired woman stared at each other.
In awe, Charlotte touched one earring lightly, watching as it caught the light and shimmered. Catching her own gaze, she saw her eyes sparkle, in tune with the diamonds. They were framed by whimsical wisps of hair Anne had allowed to elude the hairpins, providing a contrast to her dark blue eyes.
Glancing at the controversial hairstyle, she had to admit it looked lovely. The complicated up do laid bare the long, graceful column of her throat, its elegant line leading down to her shoulders, where the cut of her dress allowed the skin to lie exposed. The material dipped to expose the expanse of her chest, her breasts pushed up to swell enticingly.
The dress itself was made up of a material that she had carefully brought back from India. When she had seen the meters of ivory silk shot through with gold and edged in an eye-catching design of interlocking leaves, she could not resist buying it. And, now, as she stroked the golden design, she was so happy that she had indulged in the impulse.
She was the most beautiful she had ever felt, and looked, in her life.
Standing up slowly, she stepped away from the dressing table and pulled Anne into a warm embrace. 'Thank you,' she whispered, her voice breaking slightly.
'It's a pleasure, Miss.' Anne answered softly, hugging her back.
Before she could get too emotional, Charlotte broke their contact and swept to the door, much like her grandmother had done a quarter of an hour before. 'Wish me luck!' she called over her shoulder, before disappearing into the dim hallway.
'Miss!' Anne called out, but was too late. 'You still have forty five minutes to go...'
Where was she?
James was not a patient man. And normally his friends were patient with his impatience, especially when he conceded into attending a ball. However, when he sent yet another group of debutants scuttling away from them with an icy stare, they were obviously coming to the end of their good humour.
'Good God man, I think you actually growled that time!' Richard was staring moodily after a pretty debutante, whom he had been making seductive eyes at.
James shot him a glare.
'My, we are in a fine mood tonight.'
' 'We' are in no mood, whatsoever,' he snapped
'James, you cannot be in no mood, that is ridiculous.' Richard began sternly. 'You have to be in a good mood, or a bad mood, because in the absence of one there has to be another, as without the other there can never be the one and--'
His friend bit back a smile. A muscle in James' jaw began to twitch. He glanced at Michael in hope of respite, but one look at his knowing smile arrested all hope of that avenue of escape.
Glancing around the crowded ballroom, he looked for some sort of salvation away from his two, far too perceptive friends.
Instead, he found his damnation.
From across the room his eyes found Miss Grey. She stood like a pearl amongst rocks, shimmering from the top of her burnished copper head to her gold-brushed toes. She was the perfect dream on English womanhood.
She was his most seductive nightmare.
Suddenly, James felt it hard not to cross the room, jerk her to him, and kiss her senseless: she was that alluring. And after having tasted her, after knowing what sensual power and need lay behind those blue eyes...
James gritted his teeth as his body tightened. He had not even known the chit for a day and already he felt a strong, make that overwhelmingly strong, desire to see her in his bed.
She was the cruelest seduction. From across the room, she seemed to call to him with every swish of her wrist, every movement of her hips and every smile that twisted her full mouth. His eyes burned as they followed the gentle line of her throat...neck...shoulder, swooping down to caress the enticing swell of her breasts. Her skin looked so delectable in the low light, not a blemish. Untouched.
Except by him.
Before he knew it, he was crossing the room towards her, leaving his friends behind and ignoring the openly curious stares of the other guests.
'This is becoming a habit,' Michael observed.
'May I beg an introduction?' said a deep voice from behind her. Low, and sensual, it licked a hot shiver up her spine. She knew that voice, had yearned to hear it these past hours even as she feared her next meeting with Mr Rochester.
Slowly, she turned around and found herself staring up into dark, golden eyes.
Her heart quickened with desire.
'Lord Earlsford!' The surprisingly tremulous voice of her grandmother cut through the air like a rusty knife. Bustling up to Charlotte, she took her grandchild's arm in a claw like hand, subtly trying to draw her away from the man next to her. 'What a surprise. The last time I saw you at a ball was at least five years ago.'
'Always so direct, Lady Gainsbourgh.'
'Always so evasive, Lord Earlsford,' she shot back pertly and raising a brow. 'The War is over, my dear, and you were not always on the battlefield. What brings you here tonight, when you have been absent from our parties for nearly half a decade?'