Some people in this world (fools) were happy minding their own
Miss Carissa Portland wasn’t one of them.
Seated between her cousins, the formidable Denbury Daughters, with their governess, Miss Trent, snoring softly on the end, she trailed her dainty opera glass slowly over the capacity audience of about a thousand souls in attendance
that Saturday night at Covent Garden Theatre.
To be sure, the little dramas, comedies, and farces playing out among the Quality present were far more intriguing than anything happening on the stage.
Besides, knowing everybody else’s secrets in the ton seemed the safest way to guard her own.
Perusing the three gilded tiers of private boxes, she scanned along at a leisurely pace, while the lenses of other ladies’ opera glasses winked right back at her.
Fluent in fan language, as well, she watched for those coy signals a lady could discreetly send her lover.
Hmm, over there. Lady S--, sitting with her husband had just flicked her fan in an arc to Colonel W--, who had come with his fellow officers from his regiment. The uniformed coxcomb
smiled slyly in receipt of the invitation. Carissa narrowed her eyes. Typical tomcat male. She’d better be careful with him.
Drifting on, she picked out the subjects of other various rumors here and there: the jeweled countess said to be dallying with her footman; the political lord who had just sired twins on the mistress he swore he didn’t have.
From opposite ends of the theatre, two branches of a feuding family glared at each other, while on the mezzanine, a notorious fortune-hunter blew a subtle kiss to the heiress of some encroaching toadstool who owned coal factories.
Tut, tut, poor man, she thought when her casual spying happened across the sad figure of a cuckolded husband who had just filed a crim-con case against his wife’s seducer.
Well, the demireps preening in their box and putting their wares on display in low-cut gowns seemed more than happy to comfort him.
Humph, thought Carissa.
All of a sudden, her idle scan of the audience slammed to a halt on a particular box, second tier, stage left.
A gasp escaped her. He’s here!
At once, her foolish heart began to pound. Oh, my.
Encircled in the lens of her dainty spyglass, there he sat, lounging in his chair, his muscled arms folded across his chest...
He was staring right back at her.
A wicked smile slowly crept across his face, and just to confirm that, oh, yes, he saw her ogling him, the handsome hellion sent her a cheeky little salute.
She let out an almost feline hiss and dropped her lorgnette onto her lap as though she had been burned.
She vowed not to touch it again--at which the audience let out another wave of rumbling laughter.
Oh, bother. She shifted in vexation in her seat and looked around uneasily. Of course, they weren’t laughing at her, though she probably deserved it.
Devil take him, that rogue’s glance made her feel like one of the
To her own dismay, Carissa Portland had secretly become fascinated by a libertine.
Where this weakness in her came from, this shameful susceptibility to a well-made man, she quite despaired to guess. Perhaps it was her auburn hair to blame.
Redheads were notorious for their more passionate nature. Probably hogwash, she admitted, but to her it sounded as good an excuse as any.
What his excuse was, well, he didn’t bother making one. A golden demigod striding the earth like a wayward son
of Aphrodite didn’t have to.
Charming, quick-witted, unbelievably handsome, with
a smile that could have melted ice floes across the Nordic Sea.
Sebastian Walker, Viscount Beauchamp, could have got away with murder if he fancied. He was the Earl of Lockwood’s heir, known to the ton as Beau.
They had been introduced some weeks ago by mutual acquaintances: Her closest friends, Daphne and Kate, were married to his fellow Inferno Club members, Lord Rotherstone and the Duke of Warrington. So they moved in the same
circles, and of course, she’d heard his reputation.
He had lived up to it in spades with her not long ago. The scandalous beast had actually kissed her.
She had made the mistake of stopping him when he was in a hurry on his way somewhere. She had been leery about confronting him, but she had needed a simple answer to a very serious question: Where the dash has everybody gone?
Both Daphne and Kate had been missing from Town for weeks without explanation. This was totally unlike them.
Because of Lord Beauchamp’s friendship with their husbands, she was sure he must know something. The aforementioned husbands had also disappeared, supposedly on some hunting trip to the Alps.
But Carissa was starting to doubt everything she thought she knew about her friends. Everyone in their set had been acting so mysteriously before they all had vanished. It was all very upsetting.
She had no firm information yet (maddening!) but clearly, something was afoot. Most of all, she did not understand why she should have been excluded.
The truth was, frankly, it hurt.
Thankfully, she had received a letter from Daphne at last, confirming she was safe, but her friend’s verbiage seemed deliberately vague. And so, with relief had come even greater annoyance.
Why on earth were they keeping her in the dark? Didn’t they trust her?!
In an effort to get answers, she had cornered Beauchamp in a safe (so she thought) public place. But when she had delayed him too long with her, as he put it, “nagging,” the gorgeous brute had simply snatched her up in his arms and put a stop to her questions with a lusty kiss.
As if she were some wanton trollop on the corner!
If it had not been raining . . . if he had not shielded them from public view with his umbrella . . . she was sure the scandal would have been so calamitous, she’d have hanged herself by now, or (more fashionably) drowned herself in the Serpentine.
Well, the blackguard clearly did not understand the first rules of decent behavior. Though he certainly knew how to give a woman one hell of a kiss.
She put him and the whole discomfiting episode out of her mind with a will, redirecting her attention toward the stage.
The evening’s program had begun with a concert of Vivaldi’s exuberant “Spring,” followed by a mediocre tragedy called The Grecian Daughter.
The comic afterpiece, The Fortune of War,was the one everyone had been waiting for. It was the latest bit of hilarity by the popular Mr. Kenney, a notable wit of the day and founding member of the gentleman’s club, Boodle’s.
Though the play lacked Mr. Kenney’s beloved recurring character, the rascally Jeremy Diddler, the crowd seemed to be enjoying it.
Waves of laughter washed over the audience as the characters bantered back and forth across the stage.
Carissa did her best to pay attention, but from the corner of her eye, she was acutely aware of Lord Beauchamp.
When the curtain whisked closed briefly for the stagehands to change the scenery, she could not resist another cautious peek in his direction.
Her curiosity instantly perked up as she spied one of the orange-sellers stepping into his box to deliver a message to the viscount. Carissa saw him take the little note and read it while the orange-girl waited for her coin.
Well, Carissa had no choice. Her innately nosy nature compelled her. She snatched her opera glass up from her lap and lifted it to her eye just in time to see the smoldering look that gathered on his chiseled face. Lord Beauchamp glanced across the theatre with a suave nod, acknowledging the sender: Carissa
zoomed her opera glass in that direction, too, trying to follow his gaze.
To no avail.
Whoever had sent him the note was lost amid the crowd.
Indeed, it could have been any of Society’s highborn harlots wanting to take her turn with him tonight. Scowling, she searched the tiers across from him. Honestly, she did not know if she was more vexed at Beauchamp for having all the morals of a blood stallion, or at herself, for being jealous at how free
he was with his meaningless affections.
She swung her opera-glass back to the viscount to see what he’d do next. Beau turned to the orange-girl and asked for something; she handed him a pencil.
While he scrawled his reply, Carissa memorized what the orange-seller looked like: a tall, weary lump of a peasant girl. Then the libertine handed her his note along with a coin, and sent her off to deliver his answer.
As the orange-girl disappeared through the small door of his private box, questions gnawed Carissa. Who was he involved with these days? Of course, she knew there were many women around him as a rule, but was there any one in particular?
And why do you care? her better sense inquired.
I don’t know. Do I need a reason?
Yes, it answered.
She shrugged, refusing to admit to anything. I just want to know because--because I want to know!
Suddenly, she was seized with a wicked inspiration.
Why, she could either sit here festering on it, burning with curiosity about which feckless female meant to hurl herself into his clutches tonight, or do something.
And go find out.
After all, as a lady of information, she had long since discovered that orange girls . . . could be bribed.
Right. Instantly rising from her chair, she excused herself with a whisper. Miss Trent awoke with a disoriented jolt, while the Denbury Daughters rolled their eyes. Which was the spoiled beauties’ response to most things, actually.
“What are you doing?” Lady Joss, age nineteen, complained at
“I have to go to the ladies’ lounge.”
“Can’t you just hold it?”
“That’s disgusting,” Lady Min, age seventeen, opined.
“Sorry.” Dismissing her cousins’ perpetual irritation with her, she slipped out of the Denbury box and closed the little door behind her.
At once, Carissa swept off down the third-floor hallway, her slippered feet pattering busily in the quiet.
She had to find and intercept that orange-seller.
She knew she should not care who Beauchamp would be bedding tonight, but everything in her had to get a look at that note.
Seeing it with her own eyes, she reasoned, would surely help remind her of certain cold realities.
(Continue in second column....)
Gorgeous rakehells like Lord Beauchamp were nothing but trouble. They chased after pleasure and did not care who got
She should know.
On the other hand, in all fairness, she supposed, she had to admit there sometimes seemed to be more to him than just charm and charisma. And broad shoulders. Lovely muscles. Mesmerizing eyes the color of sea-foam that danced when he laughed, which was often, a rugged jaw-line, and extremely kissable lips...
She shook herself back to the task at hand, hurrying on.
Indeed, physical appeal aside, he had actually done a few interesting things in his life.
Using her usual methods, she had managed to ferret out a number of interesting tidbits about him, including some highly colorful exploits in his past.
Of course, his origins came from a lineage as excellent as her own. His mother, Lady Lockwood, had been a great beauty of her day, indeed, still was, now in her fifties. His father, the Earl of Lockwood was said to be a brusque curmudgeon who did not often come to Town, but preferred the “huntin, shootin’”
life of a country lord.
She did not know where Beau had spent his childhood, but as a young man, he he had gone to Oxford, studied Greek and Latin, and excelled in his classes without having to try--so she’d heard. Too smart for his own good, according to her sources, he had been easily bored and had preoccupied himself with carousing and all manner of wild adventures.
And even from his teens, there had been women.
An indecent number of women.
But apparently, the lusty young aristocrat had his heroic moments, too. On one occasion, at age twenty-one, according to the rumor mill, he had been heading home in the wee hours after a long night’s revelries, when he had come across a lodging house on fire.
Whether the whiskey he’d been drinking all night had made him foolishly brave, or if he was always like that, she could not say. But he had rushed into the burning building and rescued everyone inside before the fire company could even get there.
He’d saved some twenty people’s lives.
Not long after that, his father, the earl, had made him a Member of Parliament for one of the pockets boroughs he controlled. He had thrust the post upon his son so he might gain experience to help prepare him for one day taking his seat in the House of Lords.
Little had the earl expected the young MP to stand up and outrage the leaders of both parties with his fiery idealism, his blistering reproaches, and his regrettable refusal to compromise.
It was nice to know he had not always been a cynic, she supposed, and that he had a sense of civic duty despite his many romantic peccadilloes. By the time he had resigned his post a year later in angry disgust and returned to his rakehell ways, he had made enough political enemies to last a lifetime.
These, in turn, got their revenge on the bold young viscount in due time, when word got out that he had fought a duel against some hot-headed rival for the favors of one of Society’s highborn wantons.
Beauchamp, universally acknowledged as a crack shot, had not deigned to kill the man who had challenged him, but had wounded him. As a result, his opponent had to have his leg amputated below the knee, and unfortunately, he had turned out to be the nephew of a Cabinet minister.
Of course, there were rules on the books against dueling, but as a courtesy to the upper class, who lived and died by honor, these laws were almost never enforced.
Unless one had enemies in high places.
The bureaucrats had come down on Beauchamp like a hammer, claiming they must make an example of him to teach other young Englishmen that they could not simply go around shooting each other.
It was all Lord Lockwood could do to keep his merry scapegrace
son out of Newgate. Instead, after a very large fine and damages paid to the now one-legged hothead, the handsome young duelist had been sent off, unsurprisingly, to travel. Sow his wild oats abroad, as it were. He was given some post loosely attached to the war effort, she’d heard, but on his father’s
insistence, was generally kept out of harm’s way, well behind the lines.
It was rather hard to imagine that one staying out of trouble, she mused, but somehow the war had ended, and here he was, back again, unscathed.
Rumor had it he had now returned home for good.
Of course, he was scarcely back in England three
months before he was in trouble again.
She wasn’t sure yet what the hell-raiser had done this time, but she had first caught wind of his latest scrape while snooping in her uncle’s study.
She knew that her guardian, Lord Denbury, and his cronies in the House of Lords kept each other informed about the goings-on in their various committees. One of these Parliamentary briefs sent to her uncle had revealed that Viscount Beauchamp was under investigation by a secret panel from the Home Office.
No details were given beyond that.
It was altogether perplexing--and just another piece of proof that behind that sunny smile, he was one beautiful, bad seed.
Hurrying down the empty stairwell, Carissa pressed on to the mezzanine level, glancing here and there, hunting for that particular, weary-looking orange-girl.
Muffled dialogue from the stage and swells of laughter from the audience poured through the walls from the play in progress. Mr. Kenney was obviously killing them with his famous sense of
Carissa had no time for mere entertainment, however, bustling down the mezzanine corridor, all business.
“Can I help you, Miss?” one of the uniformed attendants whispered as she passed.
She shook her head, gave what she hoped looked like an innocent smile, and hurried on.
It would not do for anyone to discover this secret method of hers for gaining information. Glancing into her reticule to make sure she had a few coins for the bribe, she whisked along the curve of the mezzanine hallway where it hugged the back contour of the closed auditorium.
As she came around the bend, she finally saw the orange-girl she was after, but she ducked into the nearest curtained alcove with a gasp. Someone had beaten her to it!
Ever so cautiously, Carissa peeked around the edge of the alcove. Blast it, who’s that? He stole my plan.
Then a chill came over her as she studied the man talking to the orange-girl.
He was beautiful, black-haired and wind-blown, as if he’d just come back from his travels; and from his muscled body to his dark scowl, he looked decidedly mean.
Her mouth went dry as she watched him bribe the orange-girl for a look at the note some lady, perhaps his lady, had exchanged with Beauchamp. Carissa’s heart pounded. Oh,
Beau, I hope you didn’t sign your name.
They never did, on those clandestine notes.
Surely he was too smart and experienced for that. But if he had
made that mistake, she feared the rakehell might be headed for another duel. It looked as though she might not be the only one feeling jealous tonight.
Huddling behind the curtain of the alcove, she watched in trepidation as the handsome, black-haired man read the note and scoffed.
A snort of cynical laughter escaped him. He shook his head with a bitter smile, then tautly asked the orange-girl for another piece of paper, which she gave him. He crumpled the original note in his fist and stuffed it into his breast pocket.
Then he wrote back another message of his own.
With a dark look, he handed his note to the orange-girl, laying a finger over his lips, warning her to secrecy.
He slipped a paper bill into her hand and sent her on her way. Still unaware of Carissa, the stranger watched the orange-girl hurry off, his arms akimbo, his feet planted wide. Then, with a cold smile, as though satisfied his trap was laid, he pivoted on his heel and stalked out of the theatre.
Carissa eased out of her hiding place a moment later, dread tingling through her body. Oh, Beauchamp, you’re being set up. She scarcely dared imagine what might happen to him if he went to meet his femme du jour, whoever she might be. He could be killed!
Once more, Carissa was in motion, chasing after the orange-girl to stop her from delivering that note, which was naught but a piece of treachery.
Beauchamp might be a bad, decadent libertine, but she was not about to let anyone murder him!
Rushing after the orange-seller into the quiet side hallway that backed the row of private theatre boxes, she skidded to a halt.
The lump had just stepped through one of the narrow doors, halfway down the row. Oh, no. What do I do now?
Heart pounding, she glanced around uneasily.
Merely standing here, unchaperoned, in a part of the theatre where she did not belong was something of a gamble.
Having missed the orange-girl, the thought of venturing into Beauchamp’s box to try to warn him--to risk being seen there by the other snoops in the audience--made her blood run cold.
She could not afford in any way to become an object of gossip herself.
She already had too much to hide.
With that, she realized the intelligent thing to do was to abandon this mad quest immediately, go fleeing back to her seat, and pretend she had seen nothing.
But a man’s life could be at stake.
And although he was entirely exasperating, the world would be a darker, duller place without him. Come to think of it, perhaps she could turn this little twist of fate to her advantage...
Oooh, she mused. An exchange of information. Yes!
If he’ll tell me where Daphne and Kate went and what the deuce is going on, then I will tell him what I saw. That’s fair, is it not? If he refuses, then maybe the rogue deserves what he gets.
Unsure what to do, she crept toward the door to his box, then stopped. He was probably reading the false note even now, getting drawn into the trap.
She stood there, torn and hesitating, as another little problem with all this occurred to her. If she tried to warn him what she’d seen, he’d realize she had been snooping into his personal affairs.
He’d notice she was jealous, and then, oh, then he’d laugh his head off and taunt her like a schoolboy--and then, never mind the jealous husband, she would murder him herself, wring the rascal’s neck.
At that moment, before she had quite made up her mind what to do, the little door to his theatre box opened and the orange girl scampered out.
Right behind her, the rogue himself emerged, tall and princely, en route to his assignation.
He stopped the second he saw her and, at once, his eyebrows arched high.
Carissa stood frozen, staring at him, tongue-tied.
She knew she was caught; he flashed a wolfish smile that made her want to shriek with mortified fury and run away. But she held her ground with a gulp while the orange-girl rushed off, leaving them alone in the dim, quiet hallway.
Close enough to touch.
“Well, my dear Miss Portland,” he purred, trailing his gaze over her in thoroughly male appreciation. “What a very pleasant surprise. Was there something you, ah,...wanted?”
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