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Miss Emma Stockton looked around Lady Jersey's filledto-overflowing ballroom. Everyone who was anyone in the ton milled about, some dancing, many talking. It was a fashionable crush.
She felt Amy shift beside her. "Em, might I go to speak with Miss Julia? She's with her mother."
Emma glanced in the direction her younger sister indicated. "Yes, but remember, if anyone asks you to dance, you may only do so twice and then not consecutively. And no waltzing."
Amy pouted but nodded before moving away.
Emma watched her headstrong sister as worry gnawed at her stomach. It seemed they went nowhere that Amy did not flaunt Society's rules. Had she thought more about it, she would have never told her not to do something. It only provoked Amy's stubborn streak into action. But it was done. She would keep a close eye on her spoilt sister.
She sighed and cooled herself with a delicate ivory-andlavender silk fan that had belonged to her mother. The torpid air moved slowly.
She stepped farther into the room, thinking she would get a glass of punch, when she spotted him"the Honourable Charles Hawthorne. Although in her jaundiced opinion there was nothing honourable about the man.
He moved with an animal grace few men possessed. His hair, as dark as Whitby jet and just as glossy, was cut short in a Corinthian style that suited his masculinity to perfection. His broad shoulders seemed even wider than normal in the perfectly fitted black evening jacket, and his narrow hips and strong thighs could not have looked better if he padded them with sawdust. He was everything a maiden might want in a man.
Too bad he was a rake of the first water. Even worse that he pursued her younger sister in a manner guaranteed to ruin Amy before she even had a chance to meet an acceptable young man. And more than anything, Amy needed to meet an eligible party.
Their brother and father continued to gamble what little was left of the family wealth and to sell off land and homes as fast as others sold horseflesh in an effort to keep ahead of their debtors. Had her engagement to Lord George Hawthorne, Charles Hawthorne's older brother, ended in marriage things might be different. But that had not happened.
As she looked at him, Charles Hawthorne turned to look at her as though her attention drew his. His dark eyes met hers and a frisson skittered down Emma's spine. She told herself it was apprehension. Nothing more.
She stood and watched him move in her direction. Part of her wanted to turn away and run, fearing the fascination he held for her. But a stronger part wanted to confront him and tell him to leave her sister alone. Either way, by the time her feet seemed capable of moving, he was upon her.
"Miss Stockton,' he drawled, making a leg that showed his physical attributes and natural grace at their best. "What a pleasure to see you here."
She grimaced at him and managed to incline her head in what she hoped was a superior nod. No matter how her stomach twisted in what might be attraction as easily as dislike, she could not bring herself to return his compliment. She settled for, "Mr Hawthorne."
He smiled as though he understood perfectly her dislike for him, his fine lips quirking at one corner. "I hope Miss Amy is with you?'
She scowled even as she felt a flush of anger mount from her neck to her freckled cheeks. Being a redhead was not easy when one tried to appear collected.
"Amy is here under my protection. I do not wish you to approach her."
His smile turned into something calculated. "Of course you don't."
"I don't suppose you would consider leaving?' Even as the words left her mouth she regretted them. They made her look weak, as though she could not control her sister.
"I could. But I have no plans to do so"yet. Perhaps later. There are other haunts where my presence is more appreciated."
She nearly choked on her indignation. "A gentleman would not allude to such establishments in front of a lady."
He shrugged. "I am sure you don't consider me a gentleman." "No, I don't." "Then we understand one another."
Her eyes narrowed. Before she could say the scathing words welling in her mind, Lady Jersey joined them and put black kidleather-covered fingers on Charles Hawthorne's forearm.
"There you are, Charles." She smiled graciously at Emma. "And Miss Stockton. I am so glad you were able to come. I saw your sister with Julia Thornton."
"My lady, thank you for inviting us." Emma made a short curtsey to the older woman, who was also one of the patronesses of Almack's, the ton's most sought after arena for introducing young ladies to marriageable gentlemen. Lady Sally Jersey was a woman no one wanted to alienate.
Lady Jersey waved the thank-you away. "If you will excuse us, Miss Stockton, I have something to discuss in private with Mr Hawthorne."
Emma forced a gracious smile to her lips and backed away. She hoped the woman was going to take away Charles Hawthorne's entrée to Almack's and have him booted out of this ball. It would be safer all around for Amy, who was too young and flighty to go against her own desires where the wretched man was concerned.
One glance at their laughing faces, the glow of pleasure on Lady Jersey's features and the way her fingers remained on Charles Hawthorne's arm, told Emma she was going to be disappointed. The older woman seemed to be reveling in the charm only Charles Hawthorne could exert.
Emma snorted in disgust.
Charles allowed Sally Jersey to steer him away from Emma Stockton, but he watched the younger woman long enough to see her snort. He nearly laughed.
"Now, Charles Hawthorne,'" Lady Jersey said, drawing his attention back to her. "I hear your business establishment is making you a very wealthy man. How long has it been? A year now? Two?"
He looked down at the slightly plump and very socially powerful woman and gave her his best smile, the one that promised secret things. Two, but Lady Jersey, surely you should not be talking to me about something like that. Trade is so dirty."
Her mouth pursed but her eyes danced. "I suppose if I were a strait-laced chit like Emma Stockton I would not mention it to you. Or her headstrong sister, Amy, whom you pursue so brazenly and who, I must admit, encourages you shamefully. But I am a matron of the world. I know that sometimes we do things considered unacceptable by society in order to survive."
"Ah, so experience has its privileges and its delights." He allowed the look he gave her to speak volumes.
She flushed, a feat not easily accomplished by someone of her character and experience. "You are a rogue, Charles Hawthorne. And a rake. But charming in all cases."She tapped him lightly with the closed fan she held. "I find I cannot bring myself to bar you from Almack's"in spite of your unusual method of feathering your nest. Just yet. But be careful. There are others who feel more strongly than I, who would prefer to see our doors closed to you. They say your family name and personal attributes aren't sufficient to overlook your involvement in trade. Were you a woman your fate would already be sealed."
"How fortunate for all involved that I am not a female,' he murmured.
She chuckled and again swatted him with her fan.
He bowed deeply to her. "But you are not small-minded, and I thank you for defending me. Life would be vastly boring without Almack's to entertain me every Wednesday."
She laughed up at him. "Take a care, my fine young buck, that you don't allow your sarcasm to overcome the honey of your words."
"I shall,' he promised, returning her amusement with his own. "Would you care to dance? It is a waltz."
Her eyes narrowed appraisingly. "Perhaps. It certainly would do much for my standing as a woman."
He guessed at the cynicism underlying her words. "You need no increase in your standing, Lady Jersey. But I need to boost mine."
"Nicely said."She inclined her head regally. "I believe I will endeavour to help you."
He held his arm for her to place her fingertips lightly as he guided her to the floor. Several heads turned. Some people smiled. He noted Emma Stockton was not among those who approved. No matter. He did not live his life to please her. Actually quite the opposite. Her pique at him over her sister was one of the few things he looked forward to. It seemed every other woman toadied to him to some degree. She was a breath of fresh air with her disapproval.
He smiled at the woman in his arms, but his thoughts were on a particular ginger-haired woman.
Emma watched the byplay and wondered at his skill. With no visible effort he was charming one of the most important women in London society. How could she expect someone of Amy's inexperience to resist a man who could bring a woman of Sally Jersey's age and experience to heel?
When he led Lady Jersey out for the waltz, it was all she could do to keep her mouth from dropping. He was the most audacious creature. If rumour were true, and she found there was normally a kernel of truth in everything, he was as wild with his money as he was with women.
She watched the couple, unable to turn her attention elsewhere. Whatever else she thought of the man, he was a delight to behold. A sigh escaped her. He was not for the likes of her or her sister. Just as his older brother had not been for her.
Emma forced her gaze elsewhere as she smoothed the lavender folds of her evening gown. She had purchased it many years before, the fine damask silk and simple lines perfect for half-mourning. She was fortunate the subdued colour complemented her complexion and hair even though it was not the first crack in fashion. But that was as far as her vanity would go. Having only received one offer of marriage and then having had to decline because her future groom carried on openly with another woman, she accepted her lot as a spinster. Many married men kept mistresses, but most were more discreet than her former fiancé.
When she had Amy respectably settled in marriage she would look for a job as a governess. Her education had been thorough, and by then she fully expected the males in her family to have gambled away everything.
In the meantime, she must find Amy.
A quick look around showed Amy in the midst of a group of young men and women close to her age. They all seemed to be enjoying themselves immensely. Emma decided to find the punch she had originally been interested in before Charles Hawthorne had sidetracked her.
She found the refreshments in a side room and filled a cup with punch before returning to the ballroom. The waltz was just ending. Automatically, before she even realised what she was doing, her gaze found Charles Hawthorne.
He made his bow to Lady Jersey and added a kiss to the back of her hand as she laughed up at him. When he took his leave, he sauntered toward Amy, who turned to him with a brilliant smile on her face. Amy's full red lips and sparkling blue eyes, framed by golden curls, seemed to make her shine in the warm glow of hundreds of candles. He took her proffered hand and raised it to his lips.
For an instant only, Emma nearly felt the pressure of his flesh on the back of her hand before she shook off the unsettling sensation. She moved toward the couple without conscious thought. She was Amy's chaperone and she had a duty to protect her.
Helplessness settled over her like a heavy mantle as she watched the couple move to the dance floor. Knowing she could not reach them through the throng of people, she bit her lip in consternation as Amy curtseyed and her partner bowed in the opening moves of the dance. All she could do now was wait"and be thankful it wasn't a waltz. The dance was only done in private homes and considered too fast for a young woman in her first season.
She tapped her foot and waited for Charles Hawthorne to return Amy to her side. Instead, when the dance ended, the couple headed to a pair of open French doors. She wasn't surprised, yet still, fury clawed up Emma's spine. That man and her sister flaunted her dictates at every turn.
Even if she ignored every person between herself and the doors, they would still be outside much longer than she liked and by the time she got there, they might have moved on. If she remembered correctly, Lady Jersey had a beautiful garden. She had to follow them.
Charles escorted the young minx into the cool night air. A dimple showed in her cheek and her brilliant blue eyes peeked up at him through thick blond lashes. He knew he should have refused to bring her out here without a chaperone, but Amy Stockton intrigued him. As experienced as he was, and he was very experienced, she always managed to amuse him with her hoydenish ways. Very often she crossed that fine boundary between acceptable and not, and she seemed to care nothing for the consequences.
Then there was Emma Stockton. He found it very entertaining to watch Amy's older sister sputter and futilely try to clip the wings of this chick.
He settled Amy near a wrought iron bench close enough that the light from the ballroom fell onto the girl's skirts. A damask-red rosebush climbed the stone balustrade behind her, scenting the warm air.
"What can I do for you, Miss Amy, that is so secret we must come out here?'
She gave him a smile nearly as roguish as the one he was famous for. "Wellyou are a rake and you do flout conventions all the time."
He nodded, wondering where this was leading and beginning to think he was going to have to bow out of her proposed escapade"and he didn't even know where her wiles were heading. Not even he would compromise a girl barely out of the schoolroom.
"I am all those things, but that does not mean I am your pet monkey to do as you bid me." He kept his tone light to counterbalance the baldness of his words.
She sat down and beckoned him to join her. He shook his head and propped one elegantly clad foot on the base of the balustrade. "I think not,' he murmured.
She pouted. "But you won't be able to hear me if you insist on staying so far away."
"You amaze me with your audacity, Miss Amy. Don't you know well-bred young ladies keep their distance from men of my reputation?'
"Oh, pooh! As though I care about that. I am in London to enjoy myself."
"And to find a suitable husband." "You would do very nicely."
He shook his head and wondered what he had got himself into. "I have no intentions of marrying anyone, let alone someone as young as you are."
"You are not being very gallant."
Her brows drew together into a ferocious frown that he was sure normally got her whatever she wanted. He had used that ploy himself when he was younger and it had always worked. It was time to burst her bubble before the two of them got into something he could not extricate himself from.
"I am being blunt and honest." "Then why do you always come to my beck and call?' He pondered that. "For the pleasure of doing as I please. You see, like you, I have been spoilt and am used to having my own way."
"Exactly." She gave him a triumphant smile. "That is why I know you are just the one to do this."
He raised one brow. "Oh, yes."She was so excited her breath came as though she were running. "There is a masquerade tonight. I want to go."
He stepped back from her. "Then go." "Don't be stupid. I need someone to take me." "Ask your sister." "Ask me what,' Emma Stockton said.
Her voice was so cold that Charles immediately decided to see how far he could provoke her. It was a pastime he found entertaining.
He turned and watched her stride across the balcony until she stood barely a foot from them. Her auburn brows formed a tight V and her usually full, peach-tinted lips formed a thin line of anger and disapproval. He found himself delighted.
It always amazed him that he reacted to her this way. She was not voluptuous or even particularly beautiful, but she was striking and for some reason he couldn't understand" didn't want to spend the time trying to understand"she always made him want to bait her.