Chapter TenIf you require faithfulness, buy a cocker
spaniel. No mistress ever gains it from
—Anonymous,Memoirs of a Mistress
Christabel awakened alone after a tempestuous night of erotic dreams. Byrne—curse his soul—figured prominently in every one, him and his searing kisses and stealthy caresses. How would she make it through the next few weeks? Or, for that matter, a week at Lord Stokely’s, where everyone would expect them to behave as if they were intimate? Byrne would certainly take advantage ofthat situation—kissing and touching her at will, rousing her passions at every opportunity. Turning onto her side, she crumpled her pillow into a ball that she cradled against her breasts…her too-sensitive breasts that ached—
Lord help her! What was she doing? What secret potion had the man given her to make her so aware of her body? She never wanted to touch herself wickedly before, yet last night she’d actually stuck her hand under the covers to stroke herselfdown there .
Worse yet, she’d liked it. Weren’t respectable women supposed to dislike such things? She’d always Generated by ABC Amber LIT Conv known she wasn’t like other women, but she’d never guessed she was secretly a wanton. Not until Byrne came along.
With a sigh, she pressed her flaming cheek to the pillow. Perhaps she should simply let matters go where they would. The important thing was getting the letters, and wouldn’t it be easier if she didn’t have to fend him off constantly?
She groaned. Oh, Lord, it was already happening. She was already letting him persuade her into lowering her guard. Next she’d be confiding in him about Papa and His Highness and that fateful day twenty-two years ago…
A shudder wracked her. She mustn’t let that Prince of Sin sway her with kisses and caresses, no matter how enticing. It was too dangerous. She would lay down some firm rules. No physical contact except when absolutely necessary. Their whist lessons would take place with the doors of the parlor open. He couldn’t continue his seductions even if—
A tap at the door prefaced the arrival of Rosa with a breakfast tray. “Good morning!” the maid said cheerily as she set the tray down and went to open the curtains. “I do hope the extra sleep did you good.”
Christabel shot up in bed. “Extra sleep—what time is it?”
“Oh, blast,” she muttered as she threw the covers aside. “He’ll be here any minute, him and the dressmaker! I have to get ready.”
She dared not let him guess what a restless night she’d spent. A rogue like him would know exactly why she’d overslept. And what—who—had consumed her dreams.
“If you are speaking of your Mr. Byrne,” Rosa said, “a message came for you from him early this morning.”
Christabel glanced at the tray, where a sealed note was indeed propped up between the coffee she couldn’t live without and the plate containing the buttered scones that she ought to live without, but never did.
Why had he written a note? He’d be here himself in a few moments. The note got right to the point:
My dearest Christabel,
I regret that I will be unable to accompany you to the theater tonight. Urgent business calls me to Bath. I am uncertain of how long I will be gone, but I will call on you directly upon my return. In the meantime, you may wish to read the books about whist that I am sending along. You may also wish to practice your Patience.
Generated by ABC Amber LIT Conv She gaped at the note, then balled it up in her fist. Of all the arrogant, presumptuous—They’d made a bargain, blast it, and now he’d trotted off to Bath without even considering her lessons!
Lessons. “Rosa? Were there books included with the note?”
“I believe so. The footman has them.” Smiling to herself, Rosa gathered up the clothing Christabel had tossed onto a chair the night before. “So what does your Mr. Byrne have to say?”
“He’s had to go to Bath on business.” She tossed Byrne’s note aside. “Lord only knows when he’ll return.”
“It will not be long, I wager, not when he left these behind.” With a smirk, Rosa held up a pair of obviously male drawers. “Shall I have them cleaned and kept for his future visits?”
A blush rose in her cheeks. “You can burn them as far as I’m concerned.” Leaping from the bed, Christabel paced the room. “I won them from him in a card game last night.”
“You bested the gambler?”
“Yes, for all the good it did me.”
Rosa started to smile.
“What areyou smiling about?” Christabel said peevishly.
“Nothing.” Rosa folded the waistcoat very carefully. “It is just…curious that you would win. Perhaps he was distracted?”
He’d been distracted, all right—with plotting how to get her out of her clothes and into his arms. And when that hadn’t brought quite the success he’d expected, he’d rushed off to Bath without one whit of concern for the fact that Lord Stokely’s party was less than two weeks away. Had he done it because she’d refused to share his bed? Horrible thought. Could his passions be so powerful that one denial would send him off in a temper?
Somehow, that didn’t sound like the controlled Byrne she knew.
“Do you wish to dress?” Rosa asked.
“Yes, of course.” No matter what Byrne did, she still had to continue with their plan. And that meant meeting the dressmaker.
As Rosa helped her don another ugly mourning gown, Christabel’s mind wandered back to Byrne’s defection. What was in Bath that he might consider “business”? She’d never heard of his owning a club there. So if it didn’t have to do with his gambling affairs—
She paled. What if it concerned a woman? He might very well have a mistress hidden away there, one who wouldn’t hesitate to satisfy the urges Christabel had refused to satisfy exactly as he’d wished. She waited impatiently as Rosa did up her buttons. So help her, if Byrne had a mistress in Bath—
Generated by ABC Amber LIT Conv And if he did? She had no hold on him. She’d never said he couldn’t be with other women. He’d never protested Lady Jenner’s claim that he was incapable of fidelity. So why should she assume that just because he’d kissed and caressed her, it meant anything?
Blast him! This was precisely why she hadn’t wanted him to touch her. She’d known exactly how it would affect her foolish heart.
No, not her heart. Just her pride and sense of fairness. How dared he run off to Bath in the middle of their bargain? Practice her Patience indeed—when he returned, she would give him a piece of her mind, she would. The audacity of the man—to preach patience to her when he was ignoring their agreement!
A knock at the door jerked her from her thoughts. “My lady,” said one of the lower maids, “the dressmaker is here.”
“Tell her I’ll be there shortly,” Christabel called out.
Rosa forced her to a chair so she could put her hair into some semblance of respectability. As the brush flew through Christabel’s tangles too swiftly for comfort, she tried to calm her irritation with Byrne. At least she could have a sensible discussion with the dressmaker today, without having to deal with the man’s searing glances that said he wanted to fondle and kiss every inch—
She let out an oath as her knees went weak. Blast him for turning her into this silly female, capable of falling into a faint just because he smiled at her. Philip had never done that to her.
“There,” Rosa said. “Good enough for the dressmaker, is it not?”
“Yes. And you should probably stay out of her way. She doesn’t like having ladies’ maids around.”
Before Rosa could protest, Christabel jumped up and hurried from the room. Today Mrs. Watts had an assistant with her, a pretty young woman with riotous brown curls who dropped into a deep curtsy as Christabel entered the parlor. That was something Christabel would never get used to—the courtesies that came to her because of her now lofty station. She didn’t reallyfeel like a marchioness. She felt more like a general’s daughter—his wayward daughter who had let him down. Certainly not deserving of any curtsies.
“My lady,” the dressmaker said, “I’ve brought the gown Mr. Byrne wanted for tonight. Do you still need it now that he’s had to rush from town on business?”
Did Mrs. Watts mean the altered mourning gown? But wasn’t that supposed to be ready fortoday ? Not that it mattered, with Byrne gone. “No, I don’t suppose I need it for tonight.”
“Because I can have it ready if you require it. After you try it on, we can make the necessary adjustments before we leave. Indeed, that’s why I brought Lydia—she’s quickest with a needle.”
The name Lydia teased Christabel’s memory. “It’s fine, really. I don’t intend to go out tonight.”
“As you wish,” Mrs. Watts said deferentially. “Then we shall just see how they fit. Move aside, Lydia, so her ladyship can see the evening gown.”
Generated by ABC Amber LIT Conv Lydia moved and Christabel spotted what was behind her, draped over the settee. It was the beautiful rose satin, done up in the most stunning gown imaginable.
“Dear Lord,” Christabel whispered.
Mrs. Watts stiffened. “Does it not meet with my lady’s approval?”
“No…I mean, yes…It’s lovely. Just lovely.”
The dressmaker relaxed. “Mr. Byrne will be pleased, then. He was most intent upon having it ready for tonight.”
Their trip to the theater. He’d planned the gown for that. Despite herself, she turned to mush. He’d probably paid an exorbitant amount to have it ready quickly, just because she’d admired it.
Tears filled her eyes. Just when she wanted to hate him, he went and did something like that.
“Do you wish to try it on?” Mrs. Watts asked.
“Yes, please,” Christabel replied, not even bothering to hide her delight. Once it was on and Mrs. Watts had turned her toward the mirror, her mouth dropped open. Who was that…that gorgeous creature staring back at her?
She’d never cared much about gowns, but then she’d never had a gown that made her look…pretty. The rose lent color to her cheeks, and the subtle cut of the skirt hid her rounded belly, drawing the eye instead to her nicely displayed breasts. And when she turned, the satin swirled around her hips, then clung lovingly to the curves.
A blush touched her cheeks. She felt naked and wicked, even though the gown showed no more than those of Lady Draker and Lady Iversley two nights ago. But something in how it accentuated her
“assets,” as Byrne had put it—
“If the lack of embellishment disturbs my lady,” Mrs. Watts said, apparently misinterpreting her long silence, “it will only take a day to add some satin roses around the hem.”
“No, it’s perfect,” she whispered. “Absolutely perfect.” And perfect forher . As Byrne somehow had known it would be.
“Once you add the matching reticule and the adorable little hat—” Mrs. Watts looked around. “Oh, dear, I must have forgotten them in the carriage.” She frowned. “Unless I left them entirely—”
“Shall I fetch them, ma’am?” Lydia asked.
“No, no, I can’t remember if I even brought them. I’ll go myself, and if need be, I’ll send one of the footmen back for them.”
The dressmaker hurried out, leaving Christabel alone with young Lydia. The girl ventured near. “It looks Generated by ABC Amber LIT Conv lovely on you, my lady. Mr. Byrne will be entranced.”
Entranced. An oddly sophisticated word for a mere seamstress’s assistant. “Do you know him, then?”
The girl blushed. “Yes, my lady. He got me this position with Mrs. Watts.”
Christabel blinked. Then it hit her all at once.He said his little Lydia left him to work in some dress shop. Lord help her, this wasthat Lydia, the fetching young thing Byrne had been “taken with.”
“Of course he did,” she said sarcastically. Strange that Lady Jenner hadn’t roused jealousy, but this young woman did.
Her tone sent alarm flitting over the girl’s features. “Did he…that is…your ladyship knows how I met Mr. Byrne?”
“Playing whist, wasn’t it?” she said dryly.
The girl looked positively panicked. “Oh, my lady, please don’t have me turned out! I will do anything you wish, only don’t tell Mrs. Watts about how Jim and I were card cheats. Please, I beg you, don’t have me sent to the magistrate—”
“No, certainly not! Why would you think I’d do such a thing?”
The woman eyed her warily. “You’re Mr. Byrne’s mistress, aren’t you?”
Christabel colored. “What has that got to do with it?”
“The mistress he had before—that Lady Jenner—she would have had me turned off for sheer spite.”
“No doubt,” Christabel muttered. “I, however, am not so beastly. But I admit to being confused. Doesn’t Mrs. Watts know of your past already? I mean, since Byrne got you the position—”
“He told her I was the daughter of a tenant. From his estate in Bath.”
She gaped at the woman. “Byrne has an estate?”
“Oh dear, oh dear, I wasn’t supposed to tell, but I thought you would know, you being his mistress and all!” Tears filling her eyes, Lydia pleated and repleated her apron between her fingers. “He told me and Mrs. Watts not to tell anyone, and now I’ve gone and—”
“It’s all right—I’ll keep his secret safe,” Christabel reassured the girl, but her mind was awhirl. Byrne reallyhad gone to Bath on business. But who would have guessed that he possessed land, and outside of London, too? In all the gossip she’d heard about him, no one had ever mentioned it. “I’ve only recently become acquainted with Mr. Byrne.” And clearly the man shrouded whole portions of his life in secrecy.
“I suppose you’ve visited his estate?”
“No, my lady. Why would I?”
“Because you…that is, you and he have…”
The girl’s eyes went wide. “Oh no, we have never—I mean, not that I would mind, he’s been so kind to Generated by ABC Amber LIT Conv me; but he never expected it, not even that night when Jim was so cruel as to leave me to him.”
The blood pounded in Christabel’s temples. “I thought you and your friend Jim played a rather wicked game of cards with Byrne and Lady Jenner.”
The girl blushed. “Yes, we did. And when that awful woman—” She stopped herself. “Forgive me, I shouldn’t speak of her like that.”
“It’s all right. She’s a nasty sort, isn’t she?”
“She enticed my Jim off to her bed,” Lydia said hotly, “and left me to Mr. Byrne.” Her tone softened.
“But he was a gentleman, didn’t lay a finger on me, even though I was…well…naked. He could tell at once that I—” She thrust out her chin. “I was raised for better, you see. My father was a gentleman farmer. Nearly broke his heart when I ran off with Jim. But I thought Jim meant to marry me, and once I was ruined, it just got worse and worse until…”
She trailed off with a heartbreaking sigh. “Anyway, Mr. Byrne said he could get me a respectable position if I wanted. That’s how I came to work for Mrs. Watts.”
“I see.” Yes, she saw a great deal. Byrne talked like a scoundrel, but somewhere buried in his cynical soul was a kernel of good.
Mrs. Watts bustled back in with the other items, but as Christabel tried on the “adorable little hat,” her mind was elsewhere.
What was she to make of the rascal?The girl was just a night’s entertainment. She snorted. What a liar. He spoke as if he were the greatest debaucher in the world, yet he hadn’t tried to force young Lydia—or Christabel—to his bed.
And he had an estate—an estate, for pity’s sake! Next she’d be hearing that the man regularly attended church.
Careful,her conscience whispered.This is how it begins—you soften toward a gentleman because he shows some merit, and next thing you know you’re sunk. Byrne keeps secrets—that should be reason enough for caution. And he’s helping you with this only so he can gain a barony. Don’t forget that. She wouldn’t. But neither would she assume that Byrne was entirely the devil that he seemed. They were done, so she walked out with the dressmaker and Lydia as the woman babbled on happily about the gowns and when they’d be finished. Mrs. Watts climbed into the carriage, but as Christabel started back up the steps, Lydia excused herself to return to her side.
“Thank you, my lady, for keeping my secret,” she whispered. “Mr. Byrne is lucky to have you for…a friend.”
“I hope you’re right.” She waited until the girl entered the carriage, then strode back inside and found the nearest footman. “I understand that Mr. Byrne left some books for me.”
“Yes, my lady, I have them right here.”
As he handed them over, she said, “I’ll also need a deck of cards. Do you know what happened to the Generated by ABC Amber LIT Conv ones I had last night?”
“They’re in the study,” the footman said. “I’ll fetch them at once.” When he limped back with them, he said, “Going to play a little Patience, are you?”
She gaped at him, then groaned.Practice your Patience . Of course. It wasn’t whist, but at least it was cards. Byrne would consider that better than nothing.
Fine, she wouldn’t disappoint him. Because when he returned, she meant to show him she could make him proud, even at Lord Stokely’s.