It was the worst and best thing she’d ever done.
Miss Charity Sparkler was not one to break rules, and yet here she was in the Spitalfields slum, a place no proper middling class miss had any business being. She paid the indifferent hackney driver, her heart thumping as she approached the squalid tenement. For once, she was grateful for her invisibility. Being plain, small, and quiet by nature, she blended unnoticed into most any landscape, and it proved no different here than anywhere else.
As out of place as she was, no one paid her any mind. She walked by weary-faced women toting laundry on one hip and a babe on the other. She squeezed past jug-bitten men playing cards on an overturned crate. Her face shielded by the brim of her bonnet, she clutched her small basket and ascended a rickety flight of steps, recalling her bosom chum Persephone Fines’ instructions:
My brother has the room on the top floor at the end of the hallway. You can’t miss it—one more step and you’d sail straight off the building where the railing is rotted away. But, Charity, —worry had flashed in Percy’s blue eyes—are you certain you wish to do this? I would check on Paul myself, but the cutthroat who holds his vowels is having me followed. I cannot risk giving away my brother’s hiding place.
Charity had insisted on taking the mission for Percy was her very best friend in the world. Despite their differences—Percy was an uncommonly pretty and spirited girl whereas Charity possessed modest looks and a sensible nature—the two of them had gotten on like peas and carrots since their days at Mrs. Southbridge’s Finishing School. Yet Charity had to admit to herself that loyalty to her chum was not the only reason she’d agreed to embark on the risky undertaking.
Like a caged bird, the truth fluttered within her breast. As far as she was concerned, it would remain there, forever and anon, for there was no point in releasing that foolish creature from captivity. Why set something free, only to have its wings clipped at first flight?
You’re nothing to look at, Father’s stern voice reminded her, but we Sparklers take no stock in vanity. Prudence and self-discipline are what matter. Keep your head down and do as you’re told—that’s how you’ll get by in life, daughter.
For the first time in her two-and-twenty years, Charity was defying her papa’s rules. Guilt and fear shivered over her. She knew her current actions were reckless, highly improper, and if her father found out, he would never forgive her. Uriah Sparkler was a man who did not suffer fools lightly, and everyone—from the employees of his jewelry shop to his only daughter—knew better than to incur his wrath.
But it was too late to turn back now—and she didn’t want to.
Because she loved Paul Fines. She’d do anything to help him.
At least she’d had the wisdom to keep her unrequited feelings locked within the deepest chambers of her heart. She’d never confessed her secret to a single soul—not even Percy, though she was certain her friend suspected her wayward infatuation. ‘Twas far too embarrassing for Charity to admit aloud so impossible a tendre: the object of her yearnings was as handsome and virile as Apollo, the bright, shining god for which he’d been aptly named whereas she …
She climbed the steps, the boards silent beneath her slight gravity. I’m invisible. Or at least exceedingly easy to overlook.
Stopping before the appointed door, she told herself she would be content to admire Mr. Fines from afar. And if, from time to time, she could be of service to him, a friend when he needed one … Throat cinching, she tamped down her deeper longing.
Don’t be foolish. Friendship is all you can hope for.
Straightening her sturdy grey skirts, she took a breath and knocked. When she received no reply, she looked this way and that before reaching for the knob. The door swung open, its rusty hinges heralding her arrival.
Venturing into the windowless chamber, she said in a hushed voice, “Mr. Fines? Are you there? ‘Tis me, Charity Sparkler—Percy’s friend.”
A rustling noise drew her eyes to the far corner of the room. As her vision adjusted to the gloom, she saw a pallet on the floor and upon it … Pulse thrumming, she quickly shut the door behind her and headed straight for the makeshift bed. Paul Fines lay on his side facing the wall, huddled beneath his greatcoat. As she knelt beside his prone figure, her heart lurched.
A bruise darkened one of his perfect cheekbones. Dried blood clung to his upper lip.
“Mr. Fines,” she whispered, “are you alright?”
He mumbled something unintelligible. Stripping off her gloves, she smoothed away a gilded forelock and found his brow clammy, but thankfully not feverish to the touch. His long eyelashes lay in shadowed crescents against his pale skin, and dark gold stubble covered his jaw. He’d fallen asleep in his shirtsleeves, his laces undone and throat bare. A faintly sweet odor drifted up.
It didn’t take a physician to diagnose Mr. Fines’ ailment: he was utterly tap-hackled.
“Oh, dear. We must set you to rights,” she murmured.
She left his side to gather supplies. Using a towel and water from a cracked ewer, she cleaned him up as best she could. Her heart squeezed at his disgraceful state, a far cry from his former impeccable self. In her eyes, however, he remained the most splendid being of God’s creation. She cleaned up the dried blood and was relieved to find no cut beneath. She guessed that he’d gotten into a brawl, incurring a temporary nosebleed as well as the bruise on his face. With tender care, she wiped the towel over his damaged cheekbone, patrician nose, and lean jaw, experiencing a frisson of guilty pleasure as she did so.
At the same time, worry flooded her: was there no way to halt Mr. Fines’ cycle of self-destruction? According to Percy, he had wagered away his fortune and was now hiding from the gaming hell owner to whom he owed money. For how long could he continue to evade his debtor? He couldn’t run from his problems forever, and his drinking was definitely not helping matters. There had to be a better solution.
“Thirsty … water.”
Her heart leapt at his hoarse request. “Yes, of course,” she said quickly.
Reaching into the basket, she located the bottle of barley water she’d brewed earlier. Flavored with citrus, mint, and a touch of honey, the beverage was a remedy for everything from indigestion to megrims. She poured out a cup. Mr. Fines appeared to have fallen into a stupor again, and when he would not rouse, she eased his head onto her lap.
“Here you go.” She held the drink to his lips. “Try to take a few small sips. Slowly now.”
Eyes closed, he drank greedily. “More,” he rasped.
She refilled the cup and again he downed the liquid. When he was finished, his lashes lifted; even the dimness could not obscure the brilliance of his regard. His pupils were bluer than the heavens, their vivid purity contained by rims of midnight. From years of discreet observation, she’d learned to read his mood from the balance of bright and dark and the gradations of opacity in his eyes. Clear azure reflected amusement and playfulness. Deeper, cloudier shades forecasted darker feelings. At present, his gaze smoldered with smoky intensity.
“You came to me,” he said huskily.
His rich, smooth voice never failed to stir her. Her skin prickled as if caressed by a silky feather. Her heart thumped faster when he reached out a hand. His palm, roughened by hours spent sparring at Gentleman Jackson’s, cupped her cheek with startling intimacy.
“Your sister … she sent me, sir,” Charity blurted. “I came to ascertain your safety.”
“My own guardian angel,” he murmured.
His heavy-lidded eyes made her pulse skitter like a spilled basket of buttons. In truth, he’d always been kind and charming toward her and never more so than during the years when she’d been afflicted by spots. One time, as she’d stood planted in her usual position against the back wall of a ballroom, her hands clutching her lilac skirts and the hateful blemishes burning upon her cheeks, he’d approached and swept her a gallant bow.
“A violet by a mossy stone, half-hidden to the eye.” His smile had spurred her heart into a wild and ungoverned rhythm. “My dear Miss Sparkler, would you honor me with a dance?”
She’d been certain that Percy had put him up to it. Even so, Charity had floated through that set with him and purchased a copy of Mr. Wordsworth’s poems the very next morning. She’d read the ballad that Mr. Fines had quoted to her until the verses were branded upon her soul. To this day, “She Dwelt Among the Untrodden Ways” remained her favorite work of poetry.
Yet despite his many kindnesses, Paul Fines had never gazed at her in the way he was doing so now. As if he was truly … seeing her.
“Angel of mercy,” he whispered. “I have waited so long for this moment, my love.”
Shock and joy collided, exploding with the glory of the famed Vauxhall fireworks. ‘Twas as if her innermost dreams had been illuminated and brought to vivid life. Disoriented, dazed, she couldn’t think, couldn’t breathe as her suppressed longing spread its wings. Before she could react, Mr. Fines sat up and brought his mouth to hers.
The astonishing sensation rendered her immobile. She’d had vague notions of what a first kiss might be like, and this was nothing like the peck she’d imagined. For one, his lips lingered, warm and firm, the pressure gentle yet drugging. For another, she found herself kissing him back. Her mouth molded to his like wax yielding to a flame. Her lungs pulled for air, her insides blooming with heat.
Heavens, what is happening?
Dimly, she noted the faint thud of her bonnet hitting the ground, her thoughts growing foggier as the kiss continued. It was so sweet and fantastic that surely this had to be a dream. If so, she never wanted to awaken. Her blissful sigh turned into a gasp when she felt a nudge against her lower lip. Goodness, surely he didn’t mean to put his tongue there … But he licked again at the seam, the caress coaxing her lips to part. Another sound escaped her as his tongue swept boldly inside her mouth. The taste of honey, mint, and male made her senses spin.
“Devil and damn, I’ve wanted you for so long,” he said roughly.
Fire rushed over her, rendering her thoughts to ashes, leaving nothing but the hot, urgent magic of the moment. He wants me, her heart rejoiced. His hands drove into her hair, holding her steady, angling her for his deep exploration. She kissed him back with all of her pent-up longing, all of her trembling heart and soul. He groaned and the world tilted, taking her with it. Her spine arched against the pallet as his kisses blazed along her neck.
Her blood turned to honey, her entire being suffused with sweetness and heat. She clutched at his shoulders, helpless, whimpering in the wake of the exhilarating sensations. So many of them, layer upon layer of delight. He caught her earlobe between his teeth, suckling it, making her squirm and pant. Her breath hitched when his hand covered her breast, his fingers finding the straining peak beneath the layers of fabric. He strummed her nipple, and stars flashed.
“Please,” she heard herself whimper.
“Yes, love.” Rolling and pinching the sensitive bud, he breathed, “You make a man burn.”
She was the one burning, her skin itching with desperate heat. For so long, she’d watched him from afar; now she couldn’t get close enough. He muttered an endearment and then his thigh wedged shockingly between her legs. Even through all the barriers of clothing, the heat and hardness of him set off sparks at the core of her being. With sudden panic, she registered how far things had gone, but then his leg ground against her and the wicked, exquisite sensation obliterated all reason, all thoughts save … more.
“Will you come for me, my darling?” he rasped.
What does he mean …?
His leg left her, and she wanted to weep. Fabric rustled, layers pushed up and away. She couldn’t even think to protest as his hand travelled up her stocking-clad leg, past her garter, over her bare thigh, and then—dear God, then.
A moan escaped her; her thighs locked together on instinct.
“Poor little puss is weeping,” he whispered. “I know just what it needs to feel better.”
Only then did she register how wet she was … down there. Mortified, she tried to close her legs again, but he kept stroking her with skillful fingers, showering her with guttural praise.
“Never hide from me, darling. I love how lush and wet you are—it makes me want to pet your sweet cunny all the more. And here especially …”
Fiery pleasure streaked through her as he touched a transcendent place. Her lips parted on a soundless cry. Her hips bucked helplessly.
“You like that,” he breathed. “How about this?”
Merciful heavens. Her eyes squeezed shut as the unfamiliar thrills intensified with each circling stroke, each flicking caress. Too much.
“Oh, please, I can’t …” she gasped.
“Yes, you can.” His eyes were dark, glazed with passion. “Let go, my love. Fly for me.”
The chains of caution and self-doubt fell away. She soared, climbing higher and higher, incoherent words spilling from her lips. I love you. I always have and always will … She hit the sun, and the blinding brilliance made her cry out. Heat shimmered through every nerve, searing and cleansing, leaving nothing but her shining adoration—
“Rosalind, my only love, don’t ever leave me again,” he groaned.
Charity lay there, dazed. Tremors of delight still coursed through her body as her heart crumbled. Not into pieces, but ashes. The deadening weight settled in her chest. As the mix of pain and pleasure grew too intense to bear, numbness spread through her. An eerie calm. In the silence, she could hear her disordered breaths and feel his steadier ones striking rhythmically against her neck.
Rosalind Drummond, she thought dully. Of course he loves her—he always has. How could I be such a fool?
Moments passed—she didn’t know how long—before she came to her senses. Her mind took note of the fact that she was lying wantonly beneath the man of her shattered dreams whilst he … The faint snore snapped her fully back to reality.
Dear God … he’d fallen asleep?
Humiliation and panic imbued her with stealth. With care, she eased from under him; he remained lying upon his stomach as if he’d been passed out the entire time and she’d never been there at all. As if this had all been a terrible dream … With shaking hands, she attempted to straighten her rumpled gown. She gathered up her things and tiptoed toward the door, freezing at the sound of his voice.
“Sick of hiding.”
Turning, she saw with relief that his eyes remained closed—he was mumbling in his stupor. But his next words chilled her.
“Bastard can have my vowels.” His head rocked against the pallet, his face contorted. “Don’t care—nothing matters anymore. Failure … all I am. March over and hand ’em over myself first thing …”
Breath held, Charity waited until he quieted. Only then did she slip out the door. She hurried down the steps, making her way back as she’d come … unnoticed.
Country Seat of the Marquess of Harteford
Nine months later
Reclined against cushions in the guest chamber, Paul Fines reflected that house parties were a deuced bore. Then again, that was the case with life in general, and ’twas only the alternative to living that made boredom more palatable. Tedium over death … that could be his motto. It was a pragmatic philosophy: for while he knew of no antidotes to the sweet hereafter, he was well acquainted with those for ennui.
“You were splendid,” a female voice breathed in his ear.
His attention returned to Lady Augusta Beaumont, who lay naked next to him in bed. From her profusion of red curls to her bountiful curves, everything about her was excessive. Subtlety had never been his strong point.
“I must return the compliment,” he said.
She traced a coy circle on his chest. “I daresay your prowess in bed exceeds even your abilities in the boxing ring.”
Last month, Paul had participated in a series of exhibition matches sponsored by Gentleman Jackson’s Boxing Academy. The tournament had paired students with seasoned prizefighters to show how gentlemen could benefit physically and mentally from training in the “sweet science.” Despite his status as a gentleman student, Paul had won all five of his bouts. The papers had capitalized on the crowd-pleasing outcome, hailing him as a symbol of The Fighting British Male (clearly, they knew nothing about him). Overnight, he’d become a sensation and all the rage amongst the ton.
And, in particular, amongst the upper class ladies. Although he’d never lacked for female companionship, Paul now found himself plagued by fashionable females. Not that he was complaining. He never looked a gift horse in the mouth or an attractive bed partner in the … well, no need to extend that particular analogy. The point was that sex provided only a temporary remedy; already he could feel the restlessness creeping back.
As if she sensed his withdrawal, Augusta rubbed her cherry-tipped breasts against his arm. “Ready for another round, lover?”
“You wore me out, pet.” His hand squeezed her plush bottom; his mind worked on a polite exit strategy.
“Well, it was a challenge.” She fluttered her lashes. “I don’t believe I’ve ever sported with such a well-endowed partner before.”
Though the jaded part of him doubted the flummery—she hadn’t had the least bit of trouble handling him, no matter his size—he gave her an easy smile. “You flatter me.”
“And you were well worth the wait,” she purred. “With so many ladies vying for a fuck, I despaired of ever having my turn.”
“You’ve never been good at sharing, sister dear,” another voice chimed in.
His head turning on the pillow, Paul met the limpid gaze of Lady Louisa Parkington, who lay on his other side. The wife of a conveniently absent earl, she was Augusta’s twin sister, and, arguably, the more voracious of the two. Which was saying something.
“That is untrue,” Augusta protested. “You had your turn.”
Louisa’s plump lips formed a pout. “But you received his prime attentions. As usual, I received an inferior seat at the table.”
Inferior? Paul’s brows inched upward. Being a gentleman, he always saw to his partners’ satisfaction before his own. Pleasuring two ladies simultaneously had been no simple business: he’d expended more effort than usual. And unless he’d been mistaken—which he doubted, given his level of expertise in the matter—the sounds that Louisa had made as she’d perched over him had hardly been complaints.
“There’s no need to be a spoil sport. Look at him.” Augusta’s gaze roved downward over his person, and she licked her lips. He had the unsettling sensation of being eyed like a meaty bone by a ravenous mongrel. “Clearly there’s plenty to go around.”
“I don’t care. I’m getting first dibs,” Louisa said, “for I deserve to make the most of my lord’s absence. I mean to have my fun whilst Parkington is off dallying with his string of whores.”
“At least your lord can cock up something other than his toes,” Augusta shot back. “The only stick that old Beaumont is capable of using is the one that helps him walk. I definitely deserve first choice next time.”
As the sisters bickered, Paul felt faint stirrings of alarm. Next time? Devil and damn, he’d already gone several rounds with the insatiable wenches. In truth, he was beginning to regret choosing bed sport over the honest trading of blows. His host and close friend, Nicholas Morgan, the Marquess of Harteford, had an excellent sparring chamber next to the study, and a few rounds would have battled monotony just as well as sex.
Being a man of sizeable appetites, some means, and no purpose whatsoever, Paul found that his greatest enemy in life was restlessness. Fending off boredom was like fighting the Hydra of legend: each time he managed to lop off one head, two sprung back in its place. It seemed that nothing could defeat that monstrous sense of … emptiness.
Although his papa Jeremiah had resided with the angels for some years, Paul could still see the look of befuddled disappointment on the old man’s face. He could hear his sire’s lecturing refrain as well.
What is the matter with you, Apollo? No Fines has ever lacked in fortitude and purpose. If you fail, you must buck up and try again.
Without a doubt, Jeremiah, esteemed founder of Fines & Company Shipping, had been the most industrious and determined fellow who’d ever lived. He’d built an empire from nothing but blood, sweat, and ambition. Yet the poor sod had somehow managed to produce the ultimate prodigal offspring.
Shame clamped Paul’s insides. He thanked the Gods that his father had not been around to witness his ultimate disgrace. A year ago, he’d taken leave of his senses or, more accurately, pickled them in spirits. His drinking and gambling had spiraled out of control, and at his lowest point, he’d wagered his shares of Fines & Company—his papa’s legacy—on a round of hazard.
That wasn’t even the worst part. Drunk and desperate, he’d resorted to hiding like the veriest coward from the cutthroat who’d held his vowels. Only the intervention of his sister Percy and Nicholas had saved him from the abyss of ignominy.
When it came to personal virtues, Paul could claim only one: he had the ability to see his own faults clearly. Like Cassandra, he could forecast his own doom, and his biggest flaw lay in his neck-or-nothing personality. He was incapable of doing anything in half-measure. Either he couldn’t lift a finger toward it—as in the case of his father’s company—or he threw himself into the endeavor with such abandon that he lost himself entirely.
As had been the case with Rosalind Drummond.
Heartbreak had been the beginning of the end for him; even now, two years after losing Rosalind to another man, he tasted the bitterness of regret. The pain had dulled, however, to the point where he no longer had to mask it with spirits or gaming, vices that had turned his situation from bad to worse. A lack of self-discipline was a despicable weakness, but it was his. To retain what remained of his self-respect—and it wasn’t much—his only choice was to avoid temptations of the heart, bottle, and wallet entirely.
This, unfortunately, left few options with which to slay time. Thus, he’d turned to pugilism, spending his days training at Gentleman Jackson’s Saloon. And since his unexpected triumph at the exhibition, an opportunity had recently presented itself. For the first time in a long time, anticipation stirred in him as he contemplated the future.
If properly executed, his new plan could provide a means to rebuild his fortune. For though he’d recovered his shares of Fines & Co., he’d gambled away what savings he’d had. Now he would have a shot at redemption. Not only at getting his money back, but at proving, for once, that he could get things right. That he was a winner.
But first, he wanted to discuss this new development with Nicholas. Perhaps he should go now to hunt the other down for conversation and a few rounds. But now that Nick was a husband and father—and amusingly devoted to the roles—the old chap probably had better things to do than to talk and spar into the wee hours of the morning.
“We are agreed then, Augusta?” Louisa was saying. “We’ll toss to see who rides where.”
Paul stifled a sigh. Like cheap gilt, the novelty of the twins had worn off. Besides, he had a suspicion that if he didn’t make his exit soon, he might not make it out alive.
Thus, he said in an appropriately regretful tone, “Ladies, as lovely as you both are, I must admit that you have humbled me. How can a mere mortal keep up with goddesses … and a pair of them at that?” Patting the voluptuous hips on either side of him, he sat up. “It has been a true pleasure, but now I must bid adieu.”
He blinked as two pairs of hands pushed him back against the pillows.
“We are not yet finished with you, sir,” Louisa said.
Good God. “But I’m afraid I am finished. Done in. Tapped out.”
“I doubt it. Your stamina is legendary,” Augusta said. “Lady Eugenie claimed that at the Yardleys’ hunting party you did not leave her bedchamber for the entire weekend.”
Damn his own libidinous ways. The trouble was that he liked women, their perfumed company and plush embraces. He’d learned to choose lovers who sought the same things as he did: pleasure, a few moments of forgetfulness.
Love was a vice he couldn’t afford.
“There was only one of Lady Eugenie,”—he pried Augusta’s fingers off of his chest—”and I was a younger man back then, pet.”
“But the Yardleys’ party was only two weeks ago,” Louisa said, frowning.
He swung his legs over the edge of the bed. “Nevertheless, a man needs time to recover. Along with my sex’s other failings,” he said, “we haven’t the endurance of ladies—”
Determined hands clamped onto his shoulders and yanked him backward onto the bed. His back met the mattress, and, giggling, the wenches pinned him, each sitting atop one of his arms. Mildly entertained by their antics, he allowed it.
“Nonsense. All you need is a restorative.” So saying, Augusta applied her mouth to his torso. Despite his mind’s flagging interest, her practiced licks caused the bands of his abdomen to tauten. “And I do so enjoy a challenge.”
“Me, too,” Louisa said.
Her breasts brushed against his thigh as her explorations took her southward. Egad, she had an adept mouth. Paul exhaled slowly.
“Oh, goody. You’re rising to the occasion already.” With a cat-got-into-the-cream smile, Augusta nudged her sister. “Make room for me as well, Louisa. Let’s see if our combined efforts can hasten the process.”
Louisa made a noise which seemed to indicate agreement—he couldn’t be sure as her mouth was rather occupied. Augusta joined the fray, and his thoughts began to blur. Mindlessness beckoned … and he had nothing better to do at present anyway.
Staring up at the ceiling, he lay back and endeavored to think of England.
Sometime later, Paul left the satiated pair. At one in the morning, the darkened hallway had as much traffic as Rotten Row on a weekday afternoon. He exchanged nods with gentlemen returning from a night of frolicking and avoided the frankly inviting gazes of several ladies draped in the latest boudoir fashions. Devil and damn, what he wouldn’t do for a brandy. But he’d sworn off liquor and getting cup-shot would do nothing to improve his disposition on the morrow.
He heaved a sigh. Might as well get a book and try to bore himself to sleep.
Too lazy to trek to the library downstairs, he stopped by the parlor on the present floor. His hostess was a bit of a bluestocking, so books could be found in most public areas. Wandering in, he saw that a fire lit the large stone hearth at the center of the room, and a few lamps burned at a low flicker. Wingchairs and couches were scattered throughout in cozy configurations.
Ah, excellent: bookshelves claimed the entire back wall.
Paul browsed indifferently through the shelves. Socrates, Plato, Aristotle … all the old boys from his Cambridge days were present and accounted for and no livelier a bunch now than they’d been back then. He stifled a yawn. Ye Gods, his plan was working already.
A quiet rustle made him spin around. He blinked: a female had materialized, seemingly out of nowhere. A second passed before he recognized her. Charity Sparkler, his sister’s bosom chum from finishing school.
He bent at the waist. “Beg pardon. I didn’t notice you, Miss Sparkler.”
“I know,” she said.
He must have imagined the wry edge to her reply. From their past interactions, he knew her to be a retiring little mouse. A marked contrast to his hoyden of a sister, yet the two were as thick as thieves. Indeed, a few Seasons ago Percy had begged him to dance attendance upon Miss Sparkler during the latter’s unfortunate episode of spots. Feeling sorry for the chit, he’d done his part and squired her through a few ballrooms. In truth, he had only a hazy memory of those instances: his mind had been engaged elsewhere.
Back then, all his thoughts had centered on Rosalind. An image of shining midnight hair and violet eyes crowded him even now. Beautiful, passionate Rosalind. He could still picture that vivacious smile she’d worn for all her suitors even as her gaze smoldered only for him. His throat tightened as he remembered their trysts and stolen moments—if only he’d acted on his heart’s desires rather than made a game of them. By the time he’d discovered his courage, it had been too late.
He’d lost the love of his life. Worse yet, he knew that she had chosen the better man. ‘Twas another failure to add to all the rest.
He pushed aside the bitter regret and watched as Miss Sparkler returned his courtesy. With some surprise, he saw that she had … changed. The past year had been good to her. Free of blemishes, her skin glowed like porcelain in the lamplight, and she’d subtly blossomed. Though she’d never be a classical beauty, her small, neat features and uncommonly large eyes possessed a delicate charm. She put him in mind of a wood nymph, actually—though a rather stern and Quakerish one.
If Miss Sparkler wanted for admirers now, it was not because of looks but style. Specifically, the lack thereof. Her scraped-back coiffure would pass muster in a convent; her dull brown topknot was so tightly wound that his temples throbbed just looking at it. Her ill-fitting gown dwarfed her waifish figure and, for the daughter of a jeweler, she had precious little to show for it. A plain silver locket appeared to be her sole bauble.
The most peculiar thing about her, however, wasn’t her appearance but her manner. Her stillness and the perspicacity in her gaze would discomfit any man. He had the disconcerting thought that although Miss Sparkler might escape the observation of others, she did plenty of observing of her own.
He became acutely aware that he was standing there in a state of undress; after leaving the twins’ company, he hadn’t bothered tying on a cravat or throwing on his jacket. His throat was bare above his shirt laces, his hair mussed, and the faint musk of sex clung to his skin. In Miss Sparkler’s quiet presence, he suddenly felt … dirty. Embarrassed, though as a hot-blooded and unattached male he had no reason to be. Besides, it wasn’t as if the prim miss would pick up on the post-coital clues. She probably didn’t even know what fornication was.
Hell, she’d probably never even been kissed.
Which brought to the forefront of his mind that she was an innocent girl—precisely the kind he avoided—and here they were standing unchaperoned in the parlor past midnight. He’d best exchange a few niceties and beg off for propriety’s sake.
For lack of anything better, he asked, “Did you arrive after supper?” Then he had the alarming thought that perhaps she had been there—and he’d overlooked her yet again.
“My journey was delayed. I arrived just an hour ago,” she said.
“I’m sure you must be peaked.” He hoped she’d get the hint.
“I sent my maid to bed,” she replied. “But then I couldn’t sleep so I thought to find something to read.”
“Find anything good?” He glanced politely at the volume in her hands.
She blinked … and then she did the oddest thing. She shoved the book behind her back.
“No,” she said. “Not really.”
Oh ho. Why was the chit prevaricating?
Surprised and a bit intrigued, he studied her more closely, trying to discern the reason for her little covert action. She returned his stare, her long, curly eyelashes fanning rapidly. Her irises were a shade of jade and shale that ought to have been dull … and yet he saw now that they produced a rare, subtly opalescent gaze. As the lamplight flickered, shards of amber and emerald flashed with sudden fire.
With a jolt, he wondered why he’d never noticed Charity Sparkler’s exceptional eyes before. Probably because in the past she’d kept them fixed in the vicinity of his chest or upon her tiny slippers. And he, himself, had admittedly been preoccupied by other matters. But now she had his attention because nothing piqued his curiosity more than a secret.
“If I promise not to make a grab for your evening’s pleasure,” he said in genial tones, “will you tell me what you’ve got there?”
“It’s nothing, really I …” Her throat worked. “It wouldn’t interest you.”
He was startled to discover that it did.
“We’ll only know if you show it to me,” he coaxed.
Her straight, fine brows drew together. “I’d rather not.”
She had more gumption than he’d expected. Another tactic was called for. “If you won’t tell me,” he said, raising his brows, “I’ll have to assume it’s because you’ve got your hands on something improper. Material a young miss has no business reading.”
“Such as what … exactly?” Her grey-green gaze gave nothing away.
Devil and damn, she’d outmaneuvered him. Had she done so intentionally or was she so innocent that she didn’t understand he was teasing her? At any rate, he couldn’t very well accuse her outright of filching a naughty book.
Raking a hand through his hair, he gave her an amused glance. “You win, Miss Sparkler. I have no argument left except a claim to friendship. We are old friends, are we not? As such, surely you would not leave a man dying of curiosity?”
“I do not think it possible to expire from curiosity, Mr. Fines.”
“I could be the first,” he said, “and then you would have to live with the guilt.”
“I’ll manage to survive.”
Hearing the dry edge to her tone, he realized that Charity Sparkler was not as placid as she first appeared. Beneath that calm surface, an agile mind shimmered. If there was anything he enjoyed, it was a duel of wits.
“As a personal favor to me,”—he gave her his best cajoling look, one that had reaped countless female favors (and all of them a great deal more intimate than the current request)—”will you please tell me what you have behind your back?”
‘Twas overkill, and he knew it. But now he was burning to know.
Her lips pursed, and then he was struck by the comeliness of her mouth. The top lip had a pretty bow shape that made him think of hearts and angels, the bottom a pouty fullness that made him think of the exact opposite. As if that heady balance of innocence and sin weren’t tempting enough, it seemed nature wanted to tip the scales: a tiny beauty mark floated just beneath her lower lip, the most wanton little speck …
He caught himself. What the devil was he about? Was he actually lusting over Miss Sparkler’s mouth? He shuddered. All the carnal overindulgence must be affecting his brain, making him see sex everywhere. Yet it seemed that the more one looked, the more one discovered with this odd little mouse.
So stop looking, you coxcomb.
Just as he was about to let her off the hook, she drew her hands from behind her back.
“Alright.” Her fingers clasping the leather volume as if it were a prized treasure, she held it out. “If you must.”
He couldn’t help peering at the cover.
“The Lyrical Ballads by Wordsworth,” he said in bemusement.
“Yes.” Her chin angled upward, her eyes searching his.
Why the deuce did she feel compelled to hide a volume of harmless poetry? And why was she gazing at him in that … expectant way? As if she’d just disclosed an extraordinary piece of information—like she’d been a spy for Bonaparte or some such thing—and was waiting for him to react accordingly.
Curious gel, no doubt about it.
Silence stretched between them. The ticking of the longcase clock grew louder in his ears.
“I’ve read it myself,” he said in pleasant tones to offset the awkwardness, “and, if you ask me, the verse is overrated. For its soporific qualities, however, I daresay the poems are first-rate. If you’re trying to fall asleep, Wordsworth should do the trick as well as laudanum.”
Silence greeted his witticism. As the tension grew, he let out a quiet laugh to emphasize that he was trying to be amusing. But her stricken expression—like a crack spreading through a fine Limoges plate—killed the sound in his throat. He had that incontrovertible feeling one got the instant one’s boot made contact with a steaming pile on the street. He felt an overwhelming urge to … apologize? Before he could open his mouth—to say what, he had no idea—she drew a sharp breath.
“I must go. It is late.” Her composure was back, and the only sign that he’d ruffled her was the faint quivering of her bottom lip. “Good night, Mr. Fines.”
Her eyes remained trained on the carpet.
“Er, the pleasure was mine, Miss Sparkler.” Baffled, discomfited, he bowed low.
By the time he raised his head, she was gone.