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"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'," 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."
"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."