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It had been a mistake to come. In fact, Charlotte decided crossly, it would have been better if she had never left her post at Miss Thibett's select academy for young ladies in Bath in the first place. She'd been perfectly content with life as an ordinary teacher until the new Countess of Carnwood had offered her the position of governess to her younger sisters. How she wished now that she'd refused to listen to Miranda Alstone's persuasion and was still a humble schoolteacher. As a schoolgirl herself, she'd been in awe of the lovely and vivacious Miranda, a year older than she was and a world away in looks and confidence. When Miranda had turned up at Miss Thibett's two years ago, married to her late grandfather's scapegrace heir and very distant cousin, Charlotte should have recalled that spoilt young miss Miranda had once been and hardened her heart against this much more likeable Miranda Alstone and refused point blank to leave her job and her sanctuary.
Charlotte had enjoyed teaching her classes more than she had expected when she had become a schoolmistress out of dire necessity seven years ago. Miranda's little sisters, Katherine and Isabella Alstone, were delightful young women of course and her lot was much happier than that of the average governess, but she had her future to consider and even the youngest Miss Alstone was now fifteen. Already they were in town for Kate's début and that fact alone might prove Charlotte's undoing.
She surveyed the overheated ballroom and tried not to wish for delicate muslins or a mere satin slip with a light gauze over-gown, instead of the acres of suffocating grey crepe she now wore. How much better off she would have been marking essays and contriving next day's lessons in her last employment, she thought disgustedly. Instead here she was, reluctantly accompanying the Honourable Katherine Alstone, granddaughter of the last Earl of Carnwood and sister-in-law to the current one, to this society crush in the Countess of Carnwood's stead and enduring the company of the most infuriating male she had ever had the misfortune to encounter, which only added to her miseries.
When Mr Ben Shaw joined herself and Kate in the carriage tonight he had looked at her as if she were akin to a piece of furniture astray from its rightful place. A side table, suddenly putting itself forward in the centre of the room perhaps, she decided crossly, or more likely a plain deal kitchen table trying to pass itself off as something far more elegant in a lady's drawing room. Well, she certainly hadn't asked to come, and if he didn't like her company he should never have forced her into the role of chaperon for the night. Doubtless he'd only remembered her existence once he had exhausted every other possibility and it wasn't her fault if she looked more like an antiquated quiz than a lady a man like Ben Shaw would be proud to accompany to a ball. After all, she was an antiquated quiz and perfectly content with her lot. Yes, of course she was; the sort of ladies Mr Shaw normally accompanied had very different ambitions from hers, and she had no wish whatsoever to end the evening in his bed, thank you very much.
They might not have been more than nodding acquaintances at school all those years ago, but she and Miranda had become good friends over the last two years and she knew that, while Ben Shaw was rich and astonishingly successful now, he'd grown up on the same squalid streets as the new Earl, but without the benefit of legitimacy to protect him from some of the slings and arrows thrown his way. Even Charlotte had to secretly admit he was a powerful and handsome man who gathered beautiful women like bees did honey, but, Miranda had cautioned unnecessarily, he'd long ago forsworn marriage and regarded the idea of fatherhood of any sort with unswerving revulsion. Yet despite all that tonight, as he handed her up into the carriage she'd felt a ridiculous flutter in her usually cynical breast and briefly longed to be beautiful, so she could at least wipe the bland, condescending smile off his handsome face and make him take notice. Not that she would know what to do with it if he centred that formidable will and intellect on her, but it would have been satisfying to see him rocked back on his heels by admiration and desire for someone he couldn't have for once, instead of the mild surprise she had detected behind that social smile that such a plain and spinsterish female was about to share his exotic company for an entire evening.
To soothe her ridiculous agitation over such a masculine and utterly maddening irritation as Mr Shaw, Charlotte let nostalgia for her former quiet existence overtake her for a moment, if only to blot out the discomfort of sitting in this noisy ballroom, trying desperately hard not to be noticed. After all, she had been content over the last two years to be invisible to the world outside the schoolroom and Mr Ben Shaw, so why should tonight be any different? No reason at all, she reassured herself and went back to reviewing her career as a schoolmarm. It had begun with awe at the task ahead and sheer hard work, as she learnt her trade from a mistress of the art. Not for Miss Thibett the perfunctory education and insipid accomplishments most establishments for the education of young ladies insisted upon. No, a young lady who graduated from her elegant academy in Queen's Square would have an unusual grasp of mathematics, literature and the world around them, as well as more ladylike skills such as water-colour painting, music and fine needlework. Not that many people here tonight would appreciate such a breadth of knowledge, Charlotte mused cynically.
She observed the haut ton at play and concluded that they took their amusement as seriously as those less fortunate did the hard work needed to keep the wolf from the door. At least she had escaped the chaperons' benches for this quiet niche, she decided, trying hard to see a silver lining to her current cloud, and she wondered how many of the duennas present tonight understood they were as wrapped up in commerce as a Lord Mayor's banquet. Instead of silks, perfumes and spices, or raw materials to feed the voracious manufactories in the north, they were the purveyors of delicately brought up young ladies of course. Even so, it was a commercial transaction and Charlotte sat a little further back in her alcove as she tried to reassure herself that her particular young lady was very much her own person and would have something very pungent to say to anyone who suggested she sold herself in return for a fine house and a title.
The idea was laughable. Charlotte considered Miranda's appalling misadventures after such a charmed beginning, and her husband Kit's early life at the mercy of a drunken, spendthrift father living precariously in the meanest part of town. They had both been forged into something more than they might have been if the fates had been kinder to them, and overcome their troubles magnificently, so forcing Miranda's sisters into marriage for the usual dynastic reasons was unthinkable. The Earl and Countess of Carnwood would never do that, even if they lost every penny of their vast fortunes, Charlotte thought wistfully, and tried not to wish her happiness had been of such crucial importance to her own relatives. No, she refused to sit about repining about the past, or she would do if there was only something better to do, she thought crossly, and wiped the frown off her face and tried to look inconspicuous as possible in this ill-lit corner of the ballroom.
It wasn't easy to efface yourself when you were about as tall as a lady could get without being publicly displayed as a curiosity, but she managed it more often than not nowadays. Charlotte fiddled with her snowy cap and adjusted a strategic piece of lace to conceal the suggestion of a curl that she pushed back into hiding with exasperated efficiency. She had a job keeping her rebellious locks in place at the best of times, but if they showed themselves here the results could be disastrous. It would never do for some sharp-eyed dowager to detect even a hint of the gangling débutante who had once sat out so many dances at her chaperon's side beneath the guise of a humble duenna.
'Ah, so there you are, Miss Wells,' a deep voice rumbled at her side and made her jump at least six inches. Charlotte shivered in the stuffy air of Lady Wintergreen's elegant ballroom with an infuriating mix of apprehension and excitement. How could such a very large man move so silently that she had no idea he was anywhere near her until he spoke? And where else did he think she would be when this entire fiasco was his fault in the first place?
'Go away!' she ordered rudely, even as she strained her neck to meet Mr Benedict Shaw's altogether too intelligent grey eyes challengingly.
He just laughed at her as usual, and gave her the quizzical smile that usually swept all feminine opposition before him so effortlessly, despite his dubious credentials as cavalier to an innocent young débutante. She had a very long way to look, she decided absently, and put a hand to the back of her head to make sure her cap stayed securely in place. Unused to being towered over by anyone and recalling the humiliation of looking down on nearly all her dance partners during her ill-fated Season, she firmly squashed the idea that to waltz with the very tall and broad-shouldered Mr Shaw could quite possibly feel a little too wonderful.
'May I not sit beside you for even a short time while I rest my weary bones then, Miss Wells?' he asked mildly and she wondered what he was about this time, for in her opinion Mr Shaw had never been meek or mild in his entire life and probably only slept when he could spare a few moments from his busy schedule to do so.
'What a ludicrous idea,' she dismissed tartly.
'Ludicrous?' he echoed contemplatively. 'I have been called many things during the course of my chequered career, Miss Wells, but so far that's not one of them. If you can tell me why my sitting beside Miss Alstone's very respectable chaperon whilst I politely await my dance with her charge could be construed as ludicrous by anyone but yourself, I might even oblige you and take myself off.'
'For the very reason that I am her chaperon and about as dull a female as you could find if you scoured every ballroom in Mayfair,' she parried crossly as he sat anyway, despite her embargo.
'Nonsense, you are very far from dull, Miss Wells, although it's plain to me, if to nobody else, that you study very hard to appear so,' he observed coolly and watched her steadily, trying to look as if butter wouldn't melt in his mouth and not succeeding at all well. 'I have the misfortune to be very tall, you see,' he said with a look of quite spurious innocence as she continued to glare back at him in a most unladylike fashion. 'You would have got a crick in your swanlike neck had I continued to stand, Miss Wells, and no doubt that would have been my fault as well.'
'Well, of course it would,' she answered and made herself look away from the suppressed laughter in his apparently guileless grey eyes.
Finding nothing fascinating enough to engage her attention, she shot him an even more irate glare and wondered how he knew everything about tonight's débâcle was to be laid at his door.
'You should never have sought me out in the first place,' she informed him grumpily and turned her head to find him watching her with amused speculation. Sometimes it seemed to her as if the wretched man had been regarding her so since they first met, and she was heartily sick of being the butt of some private joke. 'I am here as a chaperon, sir, not an idle guest with nothing on her mind but flirtation and gossip,' she added tartly, hoping he wouldn't realise she'd been covertly watching him flirt mildly with a lovely blonde widow for most of the evening.
'I really don't think it would be a good idea for me to indulge in an amour with you tonight, Miss Wells,' he murmured silkily, revealing that he was as conscious of her uneasy disapproval as she was of feeling it.
He gave a soft chuckle when she gave him a look that should have turned him to stone and sat on, as serene and content as an alderman at the Lord Mayor's banquet. No wonder her palm itched to slap that parody of a gentleman's politely interested smile in the face of small talk off his handsome face.
'I have no wish to indulge in such wanton behaviour at any time, sir, and least of all with you,' she said sharply and wished that last caveat were entirely true.
There was a silly, and usually firmly suppressed, side to Charlotte's nature that had never quite relinquished the romantic rebellion of her youth. That Charlotte had stood to attention the moment Ben Shaw hoved into view two years ago, and had annoyed her everyday self at the most inconvenient moments ever since. Now the silly idiot clearly yearned to become the sort of female who could exchange languishing glances with a gentleman in search of more sophisticated amusements, and lure him to heaven knew what wanton and forbidden rendezvous that a true lady shouldn't even know about, let alone consider in her wildest fantasies. She was rather foggy about how a femme fatale behaved once she had lured her quarry into her perfumed lair, of course, but that other Charlotte was quite willing to improvise, at least if the shortness of breath she suddenly suffered at the very idea was anything to go by. It was all utter nonsense, of course, sensible Miss Wells informed her fiery secret self, and met Mr Shaw's eyes with chilly resolution.
'I, sir, am a chaperon. It is my duty to watch over Miss Alstone and make sure nobody can level the accusation that she was so laxly chaperoned that her reputation might be in danger. That is my purpose and my destiny,' she finished rather wistfully and quite spoilt the effect of her first chilly statement.