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Scandal Is Only The Beginning…
Charlotte Fallon let her guarded virtue fall once—and she’s paid dearly for it ever since. She swore she’d never succumb to men’s desires again. But even a village spinster’s life miles from temptation can’t save her from a sister with no shame whatsoever. Or a heart that longs for more, whatever the cost…
Sir Michael Bayard found more than he expected in his bed when he finally joined his new mistress. He’d fantasized about her dewy skin and luscious curves, assured her understanding that what passed between them was mere dalliance. But he didn’t expect the innocence and heat of her response in his arms. Nor her surprisingly sharp tongue once she was out of them…
A few days of abandon cannot undo the hard-learned lessons of a lifetime. Nor can an honest passion burn away the restraints of society’s judgments. Unless, of course, one believes in nonsense like true love…
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Jane Street, London, 1820
“Honestly, Charlie! You’re ruined anyway! What difference does it make?”
Charlotte felt the room spin every time her sister said the words “honestly, Charlie.” Honesty had very little to do with Deborah Fallon. She was a mistress of prevarication. She was a mistress, period.
Charlotte Fallon looked at her sister, her beautiful, selfish, stubborn younger sister. The sister she was always trying to save in one manner or another, not that she’d been successful. Charlotte wished she had tossed her letter into the fire without opening it. “I should never have come.”
“Nonsense. This is the ideal solution. Arthur wants to marry me, Charlie. I’m not getting any younger, you know. And neither are you. Surely you cannot stand there all stiff and disapproving and deny me happiness.”
No one of importance had ever denied Deborah Fallon anything. One look at her cloud of black hair and mischievous sky-blue eyes, her bee-stung lips and spectacular bosom, and they had fallen at her feet. Since the age of sixteen, she had flaunted her assets and traded one rich man for another. Now twenty-six, she was still lovely and in possession of a very tidy fortune, even tidier now due to the recent infusion of money from the coffers of Sir Michael Xavier Bayard. He was expected to arrive in London from his Dorset estate any day now and fall into Deborah Fallon’s bed. His own bed, actually. This house, every stick of furniture, every carpet, every lacy curtain belonged to him, as did the woman who was packing a sleek new trunk.
Charlotte Fallon did not belong to anyone. She also had black hair, only it was confined by hairpins and covered by a starched linen cap. Her sky-blue eyes were not mischievous at present, but dismayed. Her bee-stung lips were drawn into a frown, and her spectacular bosom heaved in indignation. “You cannot take Sir Michael’s money and run off with Arthur Bannister!”
Deborah continued to fold clothes into the trunk. Charlotte took inventory of her sister’s impropriety. Wispy, sensuous underthings trimmed with frivolous ribbons and bows. Low-cut silk dresses in every color of the rainbow. Embroidered slippers. Sheer stockings. Velvet jewel bags filled with precious stones.
“I shall leave you some of my wardrobe. And my pearl and sapphire necklace.” Deborah sighed with sacrifice. “It’s not as though I’m taking everything. I thought for a moment to take the paintings, but after consideration I just couldn’t do it to the man. He is very fond of his art, even if they’re only minor works by obscure painters. And I’ll leave him you.”
“I don’t want to be left! You cannot just install me in your bedchamber and expect Sir Michael not to notice!”
“Of course Bay will notice. He’s a very noticing kind of fellow. Those eyes! So black and knowing. They quite gave me shivers. But you and I are much alike, or would be if you didn’t look like such a prude. Honestly, Charlie, where is the harm? He’s a wonderful lover, and Lord knows you could do with a bit of amusement.”
Charlotte felt a wave of revulsion. “You—you’ve slept with him already?”
Deborah tossed her black curls. “Don’t be absurd. I never let him touch me. Not even a kiss. That’s why he paid so much. I was absolutely unattainable without his contract. But,” she said, closing the trunk latch with finality, “I’m on good terms with Helena Colbert, my predecessor. It was she who decorated this bedroom.” Deborah looked around at the grotesquely chubby cupids that lurked on every surface. “Granted, she does not have much imagination, but she assured me bedding Bay was not a hardship. She said he’s quite masterful.”
“If that is true, why have you chosen Arthur?” Charlotte had met Arthur Bannister. Charlotte doubted Arthur could master anyone, let alone Deborah. He was the prematurely balding third son of an earl, obviously not destined for the clergy if he married her sister the famous courtesan.
“Arthur is very sweet. He loves me. His family will come round in time.” Deborah gave her an assured smile. Everybody always loved her; it was inconceivable to her that one could not.
“You don’t love him, do you.” Charlotte did not tack a question mark to her words.
“Honestly, Charlie! What is love anyway? You thought you were in love and look how that turned out. You’re thirty years old and live in the country with cats.” Deborah pulled on her gloves. Pale yellow kidskin. How ridiculous for traveling, but they matched her slippers and flimsy striped dress. Charlotte envisioned her sister discarding the whole outfit in the carriage on the way to Dover just to ensure Arthur continued the journey. “We haven’t much time. Thank goodness Bay’s grandmother got sick and died and he was called away.”
Only Deborah could say such a thing and look like an angel doing it. Charlotte wanted to throttle her sister’s slender white neck. “You are attempting to perpetrate fraud, Deb. Theft. For all I know the man will lock me up in prison in your place before he finds you.”
“Pooh. He’s quite besotted with me. And even if he doesn’t like you, you can explain this whole affair far better than I can in a letter. I should be quite thoughtless if I just left a note on the pillow.”
An understatement. Deborah had always been thoughtless. She had broken her late parents’ hearts when she ran off to London with George, although they did manage to spend the money she sent home at irregular intervals. Charlotte was ashamed to acknowledge that without Deb’s help, her cats might go hungry. Of course, the cats weren’t really her own. The half dozen or so were ferociously feral and only visited her out of habit, not gratitude. They would not dream of curling up on the hearth or resting upon her bed pillow or being helpful mousers. No, they yowled for their scraps and milk at the cottage kitchen door when hunting was poor or the weather problematic. They would be perfectly fine until she returned to Little Hyssop after she put her sister’s ridiculous scheme behind her.
Deborah patted the feather bed. “Come. Sit down. I have many instructions to give you.”
Charlotte blushed as brightly as a virgin, although she could not claim the title. Surely her sister was not going to subject her to courtesan lessons. She was most certainly not going to take Deborah’s place in anything but conversation with Sir Michael, who was at least owed an explanation once he returned to town.
Charlotte reflected it had ever been thus—Deborah would do something impetuous and Charlotte would pick up the pieces. She dearly hoped that Deborah’s new protector was not too badly smitten, for she was not good at mending heartbreak, especially her own. She listened with half an ear as Deborah recited a litany of practicalities and positions. Charlotte felt the beginnings of one of her vexing headaches. Any amount of time spent with her little sister was sure to produce such a result. She was never more relieved than when Irene, the young maid hired by Sir Michael to attend to whichever mistress was in residence, announced that Mr. Bannister was below and his driver on his way up for the luggage.
Charlotte was tugged downstairs and reintroduced to Arthur, who was a few years Deborah’s junior despite the hair loss and beginnings of a paunch. These shortcomings were more than mitigated by the recent death of his great-uncle, who had remembered young Arthur kindly in his will. A pity that the old man had died after Deborah had come to her arrangement with Sir Michael Xavier Bayard. But then illness and another fortuitous death occurred, keeping the baronet in Dorset these past six weeks. Charlotte was afraid that Arthur Bannister had already slept beneath Sir Michael’s sheets and could not like him for it.
“Come, my love. The carriage awaits, and I’ve a special license.” Arthur patted his breast pocket smugly. Deborah said he’d spared no expense to make London’s fairest Cyprian his own. By the time Sir Michael came home, she would be Mrs. Bannister. Of course, they were to travel on the Continent first, just to give his family and Sir Michael a while to calm down. Then Deborah would be mistress only of Arthur’s late uncle’s estate in Kent.
Deborah kissed her sister good-bye, and to her horror, Charlotte discovered her eyes were filling with tears. Truly, she wished her sister happy. If she thought for a moment that Arthur Bannister could control Deborah’s dishonorable impulses, she might feel very differently about this hasty wedding. Deborah might make a poor wife, but at least one of the Fallon girls would be a bride at last.
Deborah left in a flurry of swishing skirts and lavender water. Suddenly the little house was quiet as a tomb. Somewhere below Irene and Mrs. Kelly, the cook-housekeeper, were engaged in dinner preparations for her. Charlotte didn’t think she could eat a bite. A glass of sherry, on the other hand, would steady her nerves for the task ahead. She poured a healthy tot from a crystal decanter and drank it down in one gulp.
To think that her sister wanted her to become a harlot! As if she were at all suited to the position Deborah had cut out for herself almost a decade ago. To foist her on a stranger, to leave Charlotte holding the bag when Sir Michael returned made her heart skip erratically. She should have known to read between the lines of Deb’s badly spelled letter. Anything Deb considered to be an emergency was really a catastrophe.
Charlotte poured another drink. It would not do to get foxed. It was a family curse. Both the Fallon parents had drowned their financial sorrows in a bottle, then drowned in reality when they had the drunken idea to go for one last midnight sail before their beloved boat was repossessed. Charlotte had disposed of their crumbling manor house, paid off their debts, and moved as far inland as she could. She had been scrupulous about sharing the pitiful proceeds with her sister. Judging from the contents stuffed in her trunk and stored in the country, Deborah had never needed a farthing. Her gentlemen had been generous from the start.
Charlotte sighed. Her sister had not been so very indiscriminate. She’d had only four lovers in ten years, each of whom had showered her with jewels, money, and clothing. Deb had not been able to wheedle anyone out of a house yet—save for poor Arthur. Charlotte should turn tail and go right back home. A note on the pillow would do as well as any stuttering excuse she could give Sir Michael for her sister’s behavior.
She returned to Deb’s bedroom to regroup, shoving a plaster Cupid away to set her drink by the bedside. Lord, but she was tired. The flying trip to town when she imagined her sister dying—or worse!—had sapped every bit of strength she had. And then to discover what Deborah planned—well, it quite took one’s breath away.
She lay in the Cupid-infested room, nervously bunching the scarlet satin coverlet between her fingers. She would not unpack her own trunk but to pull out her tattered night rail and robe later. She could not move in and assume her sister’s life. She didn’t even want to consume her dinner. But an hour later, fresh-faced Irene was at the door informing her that supper was on the table. Charlotte imagined it tasted delicious, but was too distracted to tell. Despite her earlier pledge, she gulped a great deal of wine in order that she might actually fall asleep in her sister’s bed. Woozy and warm, she allowed Irene to help her undress and bathe, then crawled under the covers, closing her eyes to the grinning statues. How Deborah had borne them for six weeks was a wonder.
She slept as if dead, having the most delightful tipsy dream somewhere past midnight. But when morning came and she found her nightgown hanging from a fat angel’s head and a naked man with his lips planted firmly around her left nipple, she knew her dream was now a nightmare.
Bay had done his duty. When news of his grandmother’s illness had arrived, he’d left immediately for Bayard Court, his oceanfront boyhood home. Grace Bayard had raised him, and he owed her everything. She’d been a little bit of a thing, but her tongue and wits were sharp, and she’d done her damnedest to set him on the proper path. It was not her fault that he had strayed more than a time or two. She had wanted to see him settled again and a father, and perhaps one day he would be. But at present he had the divine Deborah Fallon waiting for him in his little house in Jane Street, the most exclusive enclave of kept women in London. Deb was the third mistress he’d set up there. The first, Angelique Dubois, had not been much of an angel of any kind or even French, despite her name. His last lover, Helena Colbert, had served him well for a year, but things had wound down to their natural conclusion. His friend Viscount Marlow was happy to take her off his hands, gushing his gratitude in disgusting fashion at every opportunity.
Bay had been ready for a change, and his choice was the most alluring Deborah Fallon. Those full lips, those fuller breasts, those tip-tilted blue eyes. She looked like a naughty cream-fed kitten. She had some wit, and if she were a bit of a prima donna, it was only because she knew her own worth. Her last protector had to reluctantly marry to further the family line, and nothing he could say would make Deborah part of a triangle. She had her standards—her lovers had to be rich, of course, and completely unattached. Along with several others, Bay pursued Deb for weeks before he persuaded her to move into Jane Street, and he hadn’t gotten to warm the sheets even once before he was called away.
He’d stopped at his town house to make himself presentable after his long journey, pleased to see that someone had thought fully hung a mourning wreath upon the front door. He was truly sad that his grandmother had passed, but she had been nearly ninety-five, a very great age. He was three and thirty— and would be happy indeed to treble that if he remained as shrewd as his grandmama up till near the end. She had fallen in her garden, tending to her beloved roses. The doctor thought she had had a series of small strokes, and by the time Bay arrived, she was sleeping most of her days away. She had rallied briefly at the sight of him, then went to bed one night and never woke up. Bay had stayed to see to the disposition of her faithful servants and shut up most of the house for the time being. He was a city man now. One day he might try to raise a family again in the stone manor house, but now he meant to raise his spirits in Deborah Fallon’s arms.
Perhaps he’d been foolish to ride back to London. Every inch of him hurt, but he was damned if he was going to wait any longer for Deborah. He wondered how she’d amused herself while he was away. He let himself in to the dark house with his own key and climbed the stairs. He could have been blindfolded and still have found Deborah’s bedroom. She had changed her perfume to a delicious harmony of orange and lemons, and her fresh scent filled his head. He stood by the bed, not wanting to startle her awake, dropping his clothing quietly to the floor. This was not how he pictured his first night with his new mistress, but he was stiff as a poker and could not wait to seduce her over champagne and strawberries.
Angelique’s revolting cherubs were still gleaming in the moonlight. Helena had been too superstitious to remove them and had actually acquired several more. Poor Deborah had probably waited for him to return before she made any changes. He fully expected her to make the bedchamber her own, although the rest of the house was exactly to his taste.
Their liaison had not gotten off to a good start. The carters had no sooner delivered Deborah’s trunks before he’d left her in tears in the marble hallway. He had sent letters and flowers weekly, of course, and news of his grandmother’s death. In a foolish fit of lust he had discovered a ruby necklace in his grandmother’s jewel case and sent it to London, with the understanding that Deborah could wear it as long as she was his mistress. He was longing to see it around her white throat—it, and nothing else adorning her luscious body.