The Luckiest Lady in London
Felix Rivendale, the Marquess of Wrenworth, is The Ideal Gentleman, a man all men want to be and all women want to possess. Felix knows very well his golden image is a hoax. But no one else suspects the truth, until Miss Louisa Cantwell comes along.
From their first meeting, Louisa has mistrusted his outward perfection. But even she could not have imagined that The Ideal Gentleman would propose—to make her his mistress.
Yet she cannot ignore the pleasure his touch ignites. Nor can she deny the pull Lord Wrenworth exerts upon her. But dare she get any closer to a man full of dark secrets, any one of which could devastate her?
“You should not give my sponsor such hope,” said Miss Cantwell, as they left Lady Balfour’s earshot.
She really did have a pretty walk, as if she were gliding, with just enough sway to her hips to give interest to her movement.
“I can truthfully avow I have never done anything to give her hope,” Felix answered her charge, a tiniest bit of smugness to his tone.
She heard it. “I have noticed. At the end of the Season, when she looks back and wonders why there is no proposal from you, she will see that every time we have been thrust together, it has been as a favor either to Lord Tenwhestle or herself—and that you have never sought me out on your own.”
“I hope you would approve—that a man in my position does what he can to avoid marrying by accident.”
Her parasol twirled. “I have no doubt you will be ultimately held blameless, but you cannot convince me that you are not aware of the hope you are sowing in Lady Balfour’s heart.”
“I will hold myself forgivable as long as I am not sowing those hopes in your heart,” he answered glibly. And then, in a moment of genuine curiosity, “Am I?”
“I do not pretend to understand what drives your interest in me, save to know that it is not the kind that leads to a church.”
Clever, clever girl. He beamed at her. “Then I need have no fear.”
They passed the cluster of young men and women playing blindman’s buff. Mr. Pitt was among them, standing next to Miss Lovett. He cast a glance of unhappy longing toward Miss Cantwell.
“Any—” Felix began.
“No,” Miss Cantwell said simply.
“A pity. When Parliament repealed the Corn Laws, I’m sure all the eminent gentlemen who voted in favor never thought their decision would have such repercussions on your marital aspirations.”
“You forgot to mention the gentlemen who made rail and steam transportation ever faster and cheaper, as well as those who modernized agricultural machinery,” she replied glumly. “They, too, were not thinking of the future impoverishment of all the English squires who would have otherwise made wonderful husbands for me.”
“The entire course of recent history seems to have been conspiring against you.”
“At this point, I would not be surprised.” She was silent for a few breaths. “And why, exactly, are you, sir, interested in my progression—or lack thereof—toward matrimony? You do not wish to marry me yourself, so that cannot be a reason. Despite our unusually frank discussions on the topic, you are no friend of mine, so that also cannot be a reason. Try as I do, I cannot think of anything else.”
At last, an open salvo. They were reaching quite another level of intimacy, he and Miss Cantwell. “Do you spend a great deal of time pondering my motives?”
The handle of her parasol turned faster. “Sometimes. Does that gratify you?”
Yes. And how. “Sometimes.”
“And my misfortunes—my inability to attract a suitable proposal—does that also gratify you?”
She had lobbed similar charges at him before. It tickled him that The Ideal Gentleman was accused of such a rampant case of schadenfreude. “It would make me a terrible sort of man, Miss Cantwell.”
“But I am correct, am I not?” she asked, staring straight ahead. “Does it amuse you to see me founder like this?”
He lifted a low-hanging branch for her to pass. “It does not amuse me, per se. But I cannot deny it opens an opportunity for me to exploit.”
She cast him a wary glance. “I do not see how you can possibly benefit from my inability to marry.”
“I have been doing some calculations concerning your future circumstances, should you return home at the end of the Season without having secured an engagement.”
“And did those calculations arouse compassion on your part, or scorn?”
“I did note that the sums required to keep all your sisters and yourself in a state of reasonable comfort—a state of minor luxury, one might even say—consist of an amount that is negligible to my ledgers.”
“My, how did I already know that a day’s income for you, sir, would feed, house, and clothe my family for an entire year? It is too bad that rich men do not become—or remain—rich men by rescuing genteelly destitute ladies.”
She could be quite scathing, this girl. He enjoyed that.
“Indeed, rich men do not finance poor ladies out of the goodness of their hearts. However, I could see myself offering a similar sum to you, for a fair return.”
She stared at him.
He had to refrain from smiling. “Keep walking, Miss Cantwell. I see your mind has already gone down one particular direction.”
She resumed putting one foot before the other, though she stumbled a little. “How many directions are there for such things?”
“True, not many. So let me be blunt: I will give you a house, not far from your family’s current residence and superior in every way. It will be yours to do with as you wish, though I recommend putting it up for let, so that it will generate an income in addition to the annuity I will settle on you for the remainder of your life, one thousand pounds a year.”
He had to remind her again to keep walking.
“For . . . sleeping with you?”
“For the pleasure of your company.”
She looked as if she were barely holding back from whacking him with her parasol. “No.”
Of course she would reject his proposition immediately. Of course she would be offended and outraged. His aim for the day, however, was not instant success, but the planting of the seed of possibility in her mind.
“Why not?” he asked, as if she had turned down not a particularly salacious sale of her person, but merely a chance for a game of lawn tennis.
His question took her aback. When she answered, it was almost a sputter. “I will not sacrifice my reputation. Or disgrace my entire family.”
“Who said anything about loss of reputation? Surely you do not think I aim to make a fallen woman out of a respectable young lady in broad daylight.”
He had anticipated few moral objections from her. Still, it was heartening how quickly they were moving on to the practical aspects. “Very easily, in fact. I host two house parties a year at my country seat, each one lasting from ten days to two weeks. I will invite you and a chaperone for you—then proceed to keep your chaperone busy.”
She blinked at his facile answer. “What you propose is madness. There is a reason self-respecting young ladies do not consort with gentlemen in such a manner. There are consequences. What if I should become”—she flushed—“with child?”
“Who said anything about acts that would lead to procreation?”
She looked stumped for a moment, then flushed even more furiously. “So we are to engage in unnatural acts, then?”
He laughed softly. “Is that what you call amorous activities that do not result in a self-respecting young lady being in the family way?”
She took a deep breath. Both of her hands gripped the handle of her parasol. “I did not have a high opinion of you before, sir, but even so I could not have expected anything so obscene on your part.”
Her rebuke stroked him pleasantly. “It isn’t pretty, what I propose, no flowers or valentines. But it will prevent Miss Matilda from ending up in a poorhouse, when the rest of your sisters must each scramble to keep a roof over your heads.”
“She will not go anywhere near a poorhouse,” Miss Cantwell replied vehemently. “She is a wonderful girl, and we have relatives who will gladly take her in.”
“And which relative is that? Lady Balfour might not outlive your mother. And even if one of her daughters is willing to take in an invalid who must be looked after around the clock, do you think her husband would not object? Do you really want to count on their kindness when you can instead count on a fortune in pounds sterling and a house built to last?”
A horrible thought struck Louisa. “You’ve done this before, haven’t you? Lured otherwise respectable young women in difficult circumstances into prostituting themselves.”
He looked genuinely shocked at her accusation. “Of course not.”
“Why me, then?”
He looked directly into her eyes. “Because I’ve never been wanted so much by a woman who dislikes me so. And I would like to experience that fully.”
God damn his beautiful eyes. And the good Lord really ought to answer for why He so often chose to bestow comeliness upon the most corrupt souls.
“What is wrong with you?” she huffed.
“An aristocrat with degenerate tastes—how shocking,” he murmured, not at all chastened.
She was rendered momentarily speechless by his gleeful embrace of his own wickedness. The Ideal Gentleman, her arse.
“You are possibly the most rational and pragmatic young woman I have ever met,” he went on. “Think about what I have offered—and I do not mean merely security for Miss Matilda. You will not have to endure marriage to a man you do not love. For eleven months out of the year, there will be no man around to disrupt the peace and quiet of your existence. You can travel, if you wish. You can choose to never step out of your house. Or you can spend all your waking hours in the Reading Room of the British Museum.
“What husband will give you freedom of such quality and quantity? What husband will be more generous with the pin money he offers? And what husband will, even if he is perfect otherwise, let you be your calculating and not so truly agreeable self?”
The man spoke with the devil’s own sweet, forked tongue.
“No,” Louisa said again, but with more difficulty this time.
He raised a brow. “Not even for dear Matilda?”
“Dear Matilda would never want me to subject myself to such degradation, especially not for her.”
“You are so sure of her love?”
“I am. And if it should be the case that she does not love me enough, then why should I martyr myself for her?”
He smiled again. “Well said.”
She felt a warmth that had nothing to do with the utter impropriety of the subject of their discussion, but everything to do with his approval of what the world might consider selfishness on her part.
She kept it hidden, that consideration for herself. Even her mother and her sisters did not quite understand it—they all thought her the good, self-effacing daughter who would be glad to do anything for her family.
But he liked her that way. In fact, he seemed to like her far more for her flaws than for any virtues she might possess.
“Then let me speak more to you of your own gains to be had. The house I will settle on you currently fetches rent in excess of five hundred pounds a year. Think of everything you can do with such sums. Or, knowing you, think of the pleasures to be had in watching your bank account grow fatter by the month.”
She would like that, wouldn’t she? She would eagerly compute the month’s various revenues—rents and interests and perhaps dividends from prudent investments—a pleasure she’d never had in all her years of being impoverished. Then she would calculate how much her income exceeded her expenditures and giggle to herself at the cushion of comfort and security she was accumulating.
This time she had to struggle to speak with prim objection. “My lord, the only way a man will sleep with me is by marrying me first. And you are no exception.”
“Tempting, but alas, I have no plans for marriage,” he answered firmly. “However, are you sure I cannot entice you with a core collection to start your own library?”
The merest of trifles, yet she felt as if she had been struck by lightning: All of a sudden she understood the game in a way she hadn’t before. To start, it was a game to him. He asked from her everything that was worth anything, but he had put up nothing more than—how had he phrased it earlier?—an amount that was negligible to his ledgers.
Two, he would not consider her response today to be her final answer. He had, in fact, given himself several weeks before the end of the Season for gradually wearing down her resistance, a process he would enjoy the way the master of Château Lafite Rothschild savored his own best vintage.
Three, there must be a way for her to play this game. Except she did not yet know how. She had heard his initial offer. Could she bargain for two houses? Or two thousand pounds a year?
And more important, did she want to? He asked for only four weeks a year, but she was not so naive as to believe that should they become lovers, thoughts of him would not dominate her waking hours the rest of the year. Was a house and a thousand-pound annuity—or even double that—enough compensation for being in thrall to him for as far as she could see into the future?
Don’t forget the jealousy that is certain to come, added a voice inside her head. You don’t suppose he would remain celibate the other eleven months, do you? He will enjoy affairs upon affairs. Not to mention, one of these days he will marry.
At the thought of the future Lady Wrenworth, a strange numbness spread in her chest. She could so easily imagine an accidental meeting of the three of them, which would of course take place well after he had tired of her. With an amused smile he would present his former plaything to his lady wife, who would be young, fresh, and beautiful, while Louisa would be approaching middle age, the very picture of dowdiness.
“And have I mentioned that I am a competent and considerate lover?” said the present-day Lord Wrenworth, dangling yet another lure before her.
“I do not doubt that,” she answered. “In fact . . .”
Her voice trailed off.
“In fact what?” he prompted her.
She had very nearly mentioned those erotic thoughts that besieged her nightly. Under normal circumstances, it would have been a huge blunder. But was there such a thing as normal circumstances left, when Lord Wrenworth was involved?
“In fact”—she pushed on before she could stop herself again—“I lie awake at night, imagining you watching me in the darkness. And when I finally fall asleep, I dream that I am naked before you, unable to stop you from . . . many liberties.”
This time it was he who stopped in his tracks, though he did not need any reminder from her to resume moving. “Miss Cantwell, are you trying to arouse me?”
Her heart had been beating fast for a while, but now blood roared in her ears. “I only speak the truth. I quite despise myself for these desires that run amok. But run amok they do. I daresay for the rest of my life I will dream of being fondled by you.”
His eyes darkened; his hand tightened on the top of his walking stick. Her innards shook. With nerves, yes, but also with something that was almost exhilaration.
This was how she played the game.
“What do you have against making your dreams come true?”
“My entire upbringing, needless to say. But there is also something else, something that you, with your vast wealth, cannot possibly understand.”
“Do please shed some light on the matter.”
“We are poor, you see. Not indigent, as my mother still employs a cookmaid and has one-third share of a gardener—so we get by. But getting by means not buying much of anything beyond food, tea, and coal.
“There is a shop in Cirencester that had a telescope in its shop window. Every month for ten years, I stopped before the window to admire the telescope. I wanted that telescope more than I had ever wanted anything else in my life—I dreamed of it by night and I schemed for it by day.
“The telescope had been put there on consignment. The shopkeeper secretly revealed to me the lowest price he was allowed to accept for the instrument. But I couldn’t afford it—any spare penny we had went into an emergency cache for Matilda. Then one day the telescope was gone. It had been bought by a gentleman for his ten-year-old son, for the original owner’s full asking price.”
Belatedly she noticed that they had both come to a stop. He watched her, his gaze unwavering.
“And?” he prompted.
“And nothing. I carried on. I was so accustomed to not having it that my life changed not at all. And so it will be with you. No matter how much I might want you, I will manage to endure it. And I will carry on as if nothing is the matter.”
Melodramatic. But it was good melodrama, if she said so herself. He certainly seemed riveted.
She began walking again—they were beginning to attract attention from the blindman’s buffers, standing there like that. A few steps later, he caught up with her.
“Why did you want the telescope?”
It was not the comment she had been expecting—not that she knew anymore what to expect from him. “That is of no relevance to the discussion at hand.”
“I’d like to know.”
“I will tell you when we are in bed together, but not before.” She flushed with the image that brought to mind.
“And we will be in bed together only after I have pledged my name and protection before a man of God.”
“You are a devious woman, Miss Cantwell,” he said.
She felt the warmth of his tone all the way to the pit of her stomach, as if he had licked her. “Only by necessity,” she answered, feigning modesty.
“You would have been wasted on Mr. Pitt. And even more so on Lord Firth—that man would ask for a divorce were he to realize who you truly are.”
“I would have made sure he didn’t.”
“And is that any way to be married?”
“It is how you will be married, with your lady wife never knowing who you truly are,” she pointed out, to another surprised look from him. “So please don’t say what you consider an excellent idea for yourself isn’t good enough for me.”
“Touché,” he admitted.
He said nothing else. The silence was at once nerve-racking and electrifying. Had she been convincing? Or had she been too convincing? Had she further piqued his interest or merely managed to give him second thoughts?
Lady Balfour was all smiles upon their return. “I could see that it was an intense and intensely interesting conversation between the two of you.”
“Miss Cantwell was fascinated by the house parties I give,” Lord Wrenworth said smoothly. “She didn’t realize gentlemen without wives or sisters entertained, both grandly and respectably.”
Lady Balfour pounced. “Well, then, it behooves you to issue an invitation to Miss Cantwell. You cannot dangle such a lure before a young lady and then deny her the experience.”
Louisa sighed inwardly as Lord Wrenworth said, with much innocence, “Oh, I do not intend to deprive Miss Cantwell of the experience at all. But she has declared that she intends to head back home at the end of the Season and recuperate for a good long while, without setting foot beyond her front door.”
“Bosh, Louisa. I know you miss your family, but one should never pass upon a chance to enjoy the master of Huntington’s hospitality, if one at all could.”
“Indeed. My hospitality is the stuff of legends,” said Lord Wrenworth with a seemingly guileless glance Louisa’s way. “But the end of the Season is still far away and there is plenty of time for Miss Cantwell to change her mind.”
“And change her mind she will,” Lady Balfour said gruffly.
“I am sure you will prove prescient, my lady.” He bowed. “Good day, Lady Balfour. And good day, Miss Cantwell.”
Copyright © 2013 by Sherry Thomas. Excerpted by permission of Berkley Books, a division of Penguin Publishing (USA), Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.