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Forever Mine

Forever Mine

Now Available!

Book #2 of the FOREVER series

CHERYL HOLT continues her FOREVER saga with another gripping tale of drama, betrayal, and love forevermore…

CATHERINE HENLEY was raised as the rich, spoiled daughter of the Earl of Middlebury.  But when tragedy struck and distant relatives inherited the family estate, she was cast out into the world and forced to make her own way.  She works as a lady’s companion, assisting and chaperoning various young ladies who are engaged to be married.  She watches as they march through the swirl of parties and balls leading up to their grand day.  Always she laments the fact that she will never be a bride herself…

CHRISTOPHER WAKEFIELD spent fifteen years in the army, but with his older brother’s death, he’s inherited his family’s bankrupt estate.  He resigns his commission and returns to England where he quickly realizes he must marry an heiress to save his home.  He agrees to wed his rich, unpleasant cousin, but when he meets poverty-stricken Catherine, he begins to wonder how he can do his duty to his family…

He’d thought it would be simple to wed for money.  After all, marriages were never contracted for fondness or affection.  But with love in the balance and a fortune on the line, how can Christopher ever choose the correct path…

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CHAPTER ONE

“It’s our very own marriage market.”

Catherine Barrington Henley smiled at her companion, Libby Markham, and said, “Our own marriage market?  Really?”

“Why shouldn’t we call it that?  Girls find husbands here all the time.”

“Name one who has.”

Of course Libby couldn’t think of a single person, but Catherine wasn’t about to be disheartened by Libby’s inability to substantiate her claim.  In Catherine’s view, every young lady ought to have the chance to wed.  Why should spoiled, rich girls—who possessed fat dowries—be the only ones allowed the security of matrimony?

She and Libby were at the entrance to the public pavilion at Vauxhall, and they handed over their pennies and went inside.  The orchestra was up at the front, instruments being tuned, the first dance set about to begin.

The large room was packed with people, which had heated the June air to what could have been a stifling degree.  But there were huge doors that opened out into the gardens.  They’d been pulled back, and an occasional gust of wind blew in.

Normally, she wouldn’t have dared such a risky venture, but it had been two years since she’d attended a dance.  When Libby had mentioned the event, when she’d encouraged Catherine to go with her, Catherine had been seized by the most pressing desire to join in.

She’d just suffered the most frustrating day, in what had been a lengthy string of frustrating days.  She often felt as if she was suffocating, as if she was becoming invisible.  It had been an eternity since she’d had a Saturday night free, and the idea of spending a few hours flirting and laughing and perhaps chatting with a handsome gentleman had been too intoxicating to resist.

They were with a group of Libby’s acquaintances.  Catherine was a very elderly twenty-four, Libby eighteen, and the other women were in between those two ages.

They were all in a similar condition:  unattached females of limited means.

They were governesses or nannies or—if they didn’t toil away to earn a wage—they were educated and appealing and might eventually be excellent wives, but they had no dowries to attract a spouse.

Catherine was working for Miss Priscilla Bolton who was engaged and marching toward her wedding in September.  Catherine served as her chaperone, confidante, fashion adviser, and nag, but it was a thankless situation.

Priscilla was arrogant and stubborn, and she treated everyone—Catherine included—like a low sort of vermin.  There was no task Catherine could complete in a satisfactory manner and no word she could utter that didn’t draw a stinging rebuke.

Luckily, the job would end after the wedding, and she would move on to yet another post, to observe and assist another wealthy, snooty debutante who was preparing to marry the man of her dreams.

Libby was a ward of Priscilla’s father.  Her own father had been a poverty-stricken vicar who’d left her orphaned and penniless.  Her greatest wish was to wed despite her lack of a fortune, and she’d devised many creative ways to cross paths with potential beaux.

The dances at Vauxhall were just one place where she might garner what she craved, that being a home of her own and an escape from the tedium of the dreary Bolton household.

Catherine was older and more pragmatic than Libby so she’d given up any hope of ever being a bride.  With how her life had fallen apart a decade earlier, she’d lost any benefit she might have offered in nuptial calculations.  But she liked to make new friends and would deem it an enormous boon if she could simply stumble on a charming fellow who didn’t annoy her to death.

“What now?” she asked Libby.

“Now we locate our table.”

“A table!  My goodness.”

“I didn’t reserve it,” Libby said.  “I know some young men who come here regularly.  They invited us to sit with them.”

Catherine scowled.  “Should we, Libby?  Are you sure?”

“It will be fine to socialize with them, Catherine.  I met them at church.”

Catherine was trying not to sound like a prude, but in light of her being a lady’s companion, her behavior had to be above reproach.  She obtained her positions through Mrs. Ford at her employment agency, and the persnickety matron sent out females with the highest reputations for moral character and probity.

Catherine had been on her own for many years so she didn’t require a chaperone and didn’t have anyone to scold her over her choices.  She could pick her activities, and she was very sensible.  She would never participate in conduct that might get her into trouble with Mr. Bolton or Mrs. Ford, and she’d traveled to Vauxhall with six other women.  What could happen?

Still though, she couldn’t help being skeptical.  “You met them at church, Libby?  Seriously?”

“Well, maybe outside a church.  They were standing right next to it.”

Catherine chuckled and shook her head.  It was her first adventure with Libby.  In the month Catherine had lived with the Boltons, Libby was the only one who’d been kind or cordial.  She was also funny and caustically blunt, and Catherine liked her.

But she didn’t necessarily trust her.  A housemaid had whispered that Libby had a penchant for landing herself in jams.  Apparently, she’d had a very strict upbringing and was shucking off the remnants of a difficult childhood.  Yet Catherine never listened to rumors, and so far Libby hadn’t demonstrated any traits that would leave Catherine uneasy.

Libby took her arm, and they wandered through the crowd.  After a bit of searching, a man waved at them.  He was seated at a table on the verandah outside the building.  There was a little fence around it to block it off from other revelers.

Libby waved back, and they hastened over.  Introductions were made, and Catherine did her best to memorize names and faces.  There were a dozen men present who all looked to be in their twenties, and her trepidation vanished.

They would be from the world she’d previously inhabited before disaster had struck.  They were probably third or fourth sons, freshly graduated from university and living in London on meager allowances.  Some would be studying law or commerce.

Eventually, they would have incomes and homes of their own.  They would be seeking wives like Libby who were pretty and vivacious and sufficiently educated that they could run a house and keep the ledgers up to date.  Libby was very popular with the group.  Everyone knew her and was glad she’d arrived.

The orchestra began to play, and most of the girls were whisked off to dance, Libby included.  Catherine wasn’t asked for the initial set, but she didn’t mind.  She wanted to relax and assess the surroundings as she mentally debated whether it had been wise to accompany Libby.

Priscilla had been sick in bed with a headache, and Catherine’s job was to escort women to social functions.  Why shouldn’t she have escorted Libby?

Except that—just as she was persuading herself all would be fine—she saw Libby slip away from the pavilion with a man who must have been a decade older than she was.

The furtive pair was swiftly swallowed up by the shadows, and Catherine hesitated, wondering if she should chase after them.  She wasn’t Libby’s nanny, and she hadn’t come as a chaperone.  What was her role?

If Libby snuck off with a sweetheart, was it any of Catherine’s business?  She didn’t think so, but if Libby suffered a mishap, Catherine would never forgive herself and she’d definitely be blamed.

She sighed with exasperation and left the relative safety of the enclosed box.  There were many groomed paths leading into the gardens, and very quickly she was away from the noise and the crowds.  It grew dark and quiet, and she had no idea which direction Libby had gone.  It would be madness to stroll about, hunting for her.

She spun to return to the safety of the lights and the party when a female laughed seductively.  She froze, assuming she’d located Libby after all.  Brazenly eavesdropping and feeling like the worst voyeur, she tiptoed into the trees.

“You are such a flirt,” the woman murmured, “and you’re cruel to torment me.”

“You love my torment,” a man replied.  “It brightens your day.”

“You’re vain too.  And horrid.”

“Vain and horrid?  Can I be both?”

“Yes.”

The woman wasn’t Libby so Catherine should have crept away, but suddenly the duo started kissing, and she couldn’t stop herself from watching them.  The episode was strangely thrilling, like nothing she’d ever witnessed before.

They were both stylishly dressed, but the female’s face wasn’t visible so Catherine couldn’t discern if she was fetching or not.  But she figured she probably was.  If she wasn’t pretty, why would he bother?

She had a clearer view of the man.  He was tall, six feet at least, with black hair worn longer than was proper.  It hung over his collar and was tied with a ribbon.  He was slender and muscular, and she was betting he was very handsome.

She’d seen people kissing in the past, and she had been kissed several times back in the era when she’d been a rich man’s daughter.  But she’d never seen anyone kissing as they were kissing.

The man was holding the woman very close—his hands were actually gripping her bottom—so her entire body was pressed to his.  His lips moved over hers in a mesmerizing way, as if he was drinking her in, as if they were locked together and he couldn’t free himself.

They were moaning, sighing, giving and receiving an enormous amount of pleasure, and Catherine’s pulse was racing.  The sight was exhilarating, and she could have stood there all night, gawking and spying, but off in the distance a sharp summons rang out.  “Mary Anne!  Mary Anne!  Where are you?”

The woman drew away and frantically whispered, “That’s my aunt.  I have to go.”

“No, not yet,” he insisted.

“I have to!  She’s looking for me.”

“Mary Anne!”  The person sounded much nearer.

“When can I be with you again?” the man asked.

“I’m not sure.  Next Saturday perhaps?  I’ll try to come for the dancing.”

“I will pine away until then.”

He clasped her palm and kissed the center of it, then she yanked away and ran toward the pavilion.  Catherine ducked behind a tree or the fleeing woman might have bumped right into her.

She glanced over her shoulder, and the man was still standing where he’d been.  To her stunned surprise, he was staring at her—and grinning.  Had he noted her presence?  Had he known she was dawdling?

She’d never been more embarrassed, and she hurried away.  For a dangerous moment, she was afraid he’d call out to her or chase after her, which would be alarming.  She dashed to the pavilion, rushed into their box, and sat down.

Someone had laid out refreshments.  There were bottles of wine and glasses on the table.  Catherine wasn’t much of a drinker and never thought a female should imbibe in public, but she was unnerved by what she’d just observed.

She poured herself some wine and sipped it as she fanned her face and steadied her breathing.  Blindly, she peered at nothing while she worried about Libby and when she’d return.  Why, oh, why had Catherine agreed to the reckless enterprise?

She’d certainly learned her lesson, and the next time Libby suggested an outing, Catherine would be smart enough not to participate.

People entered behind her, and she peeked at them, hoping it would be Libby.  But it was three of the couples that had been dancing.  Another man sauntered in with them, and it was the roué from the woods!

Viewed in the brighter lights, she could verify her prediction that he would be very handsome.  Tall and broad shouldered, with a thin waist and legs that went on forever, he had aristocratic features—high cheekbones, strong nose, generous mouth—and he was very fit, his arms muscled from strenuous endeavor.

He oozed confidence as to his place in the world, and he strutted into the box as if he owned it.  The others shifted out of his way, and he plopped down beside her.   He took the glass from her hand and swallowed down most of her wine.  She was so shocked she couldn’t form the words to scold or stop him.

“Hello.”  His voice was a soothing baritone that tickled her innards.  “Will you swoon if I introduce myself?”

“No.”

“I am Christopher Wakefield.”

“Hello, Mr. Wakefield.”

“I haven’t seen you here before.”

“No, it’s my first time.”

“How are you enjoying the sights?  Have you stumbled on anything interesting?”

She was glad it was night, that there were lamps hanging but none of them were near her.  At his question, she flushed such a hot shade of scarlet she was amazed she didn’t ignite.

“Yes, I stumbled on a sight that was incredibly scandalous,” she said.

“What was it?”

“You know what it was.”

He chuckled.  “Are you about to faint?”

“As you’ve already been apprised, I’m not the fainting type.”

“Good.”  He took another swig of her wine.  “Didn’t anyone warn you not to wander the grounds?  There are all kinds of activities occurring out there that you oughtn’t to witness.”

“I told you it’s my first visit.”

“So you did.”

She glanced at the path that split off in all directions.  Was Libby engaging in salacious activity?  Most likely yes, and again Catherine was torn over her responsibility to intervene.

“Are you expecting someone?” he asked.

“Ah…no.”  She wasn’t about to mention Libby.  If she was misbehaving, it wasn’t this stranger’s business.

“Tell me,” he urged.  “Is it a shameful person?  If so, I can keep a secret.”

“I’m simply wondering about my friend.  She’s walking with a gentleman.”

“Are you suddenly afraid she might be a strumpet?”

“No!” she huffed.  “She’s just been gone for quite awhile, and I’m concerned about her absence.”

“Has she been here before?”

“Yes.”

“Then she knows better than to sneak off so you shouldn’t fret over her.  It can be perilous out there, but she went anyway.  These long summer nights and the balmy June weather have a peculiar effect on people.”

“Is that your excuse?  The weather and the balmy temperature?”

“My excuse for what?”

“Don’t pretend to be unaware of what we’re discussing.”

He smirked with a very male sort of satisfaction.  “I hardly need an excuse to kiss a pretty girl.”

“Was she pretty?  It was so dark I didn’t get a good look at her.”

“Yes, she’s very pretty.  I wouldn’t bother with one who wasn’t.”

“She seemed particularly fraught over having to part with you.  How about you?  Will you pine away until next Saturday?”

“No.”

“You’re simply toying with her affections?”

“Probably.”

“Are you a libertine?”

He considered the accusation, then shrugged.  “I won’t admit to being a libertine, but I’m certainly a flirt.”

“Is there a difference?”

“Definitely,” he said.  “If I were a libertine, I’d have bad motives.  As a flirt, I merely want to enjoy myself.  What’s wrong with that?”

“You were a bit beyond enjoyment.”

“I notice you didn’t stomp off in a snit.  In fact, you were entranced by the whole encounter.  You watched us forever.”

“I didn’t watch,” she claimed.  “I was embarrassed and I meant to leave you in peace, but I couldn’t tiptoe away without being observed.”

“No, you watched us, and I understand why you were intrigued.  British girls are so sheltered.  Have you ever been kissed in the moonlight?”

She sucked in a sharp breath.  “You just might be the most impertinent man I’ve ever met.”

“You could be right about that, and you haven’t answered me.  Have you?”

“Have I what?”

“Been kissed in the moonlight.  I’m betting you’d like it very much.”  He waved toward the trees.  “Shall we find out?”

“Are you suggesting I stroll with you in the woods?”

“Yes.”

“Not only are you impertinent, but you might also be a tad deranged.”

“You sound jealous of that little tart who was with me.”

“Jealous!  Don’t be absurd.  We’re not acquainted.  Why would I care if you carry on with strumpets?”

“Are you simply a prude then?”

“A prude!”

“You seem upset by my antics.”

“Again, Mr. Wakefield, why would I care what you do?”

“Why indeed?”

He scooted nearer so that his thigh was pressed to hers, their feet tangled together, and she was finally able to discern that his eyes were very blue.  They twinkled with merriment, providing every indication that he was amused by her prim tendencies.

“What is your name?” he asked.

“I don’t believe I’d like to tell you.”

“Don’t be grouchy.  I don’t like it.”

“Oh, you poor thing.”

“Why aren’t you dancing?”

“We’d just arrived, and my friend wandered off.  I was looking for her.”

“Were you?  Really?  I could have sworn you were spying on me.”

“I was looking for her!  Then I saw you with your trollop, and I was startled.  I’m calming myself so I haven’t had a chance to dance yet.”

“Will you dance with me?”

“No.”

“Why wouldn’t you?”

“Because I don’t like you, and I’m sure you’re much too fast for me.”

“You don’t like me?  How ridiculous.  Everyone likes me.”

“Let me be the first to say I don’t.”

“The orchestra is about to play a waltz.  Will you sit and twiddle your thumbs.”

“Yes.”

“Coward.”

“I’m not a coward.”

“Yes, you are.  You’re here for the dancing, but you’re too timid to accept an invitation.  What if no one else asks but me and you end up a wallflower?”

“I’ll risk it.”

He laughed, and he filled her glass to the rim.  He sipped the wine and stared at the people passing by in the park while the orchestra struck the chords to announce the waltz.  She yearned to be out on the floor so badly her teeth ached.

“You still haven’t told me your name,” he said.  “What is it?  Don’t be cruel and refuse to apprise me.”

“I’m sorry, but I don’t wish us to be cordial.”

“You’re being positively silly.”

He was gazing at her in an enticing way, as if she was exotic and special.  It was probably a practiced look that he used on every woman to get what he craved—that being a dalliance—so she was shocked to find herself quite spellbound.

She couldn’t recall a single occasion in her past when a man had studied her as he currently was.  Though it was horridly wrong to be enthralled, she was basking in the glow of his intense scrutiny.

“It’s Miss Barrington,” she muttered before she could stop herself.

“And what is your Christian name?  Will you make me guess?”

“You needn’t guess.  You may simply refer to me as Miss Barrington.”

“I’d rather not.”  He assessed her, his warm, alluring appraisal taking in her golden blond hair, her big blue eyes.  “You’re so pretty.  Your name must match how beautiful you are.”

At hearing him declare her to be pretty, she was rocked by a spurt of feminine vanity.  She knew she was fetching.  She could clearly see herself in a mirror, but she’d never had such a handsome, virile man tell her.

She figured it was another practiced affectation, but she couldn’t deny it was very effective.  She wanted to babble like a brook and share all sorts of information he had no business learning.

She scowled her most chastising scowl.  “I’m sure it will disappoint you to discover that my Christian name is very common.”

“There’s nothing common about you, Miss Barrington.  What is it?”

A strange energy had flared, almost as if their proximity was generating sparks.  She’d never felt such a bizarre sensation and had had no idea humans could create such a commotion.  She didn’t comprehend why it was occurring and didn’t like how she was all jittery on the inside.

She leaned away, determined to put some space between them.  “You’re very sophisticated, aren’t you?”

“Yes, very.”

“And extremely confident.”

“I always have been.”

“I can understand why a certain type of female would be enchanted by you.”

“It’s not a certain type.  It’s every type.”

“Is it your habit to sneak off with unsuspecting young ladies?”

He snorted with derision.  “If you assume my partner was unsuspecting, you’re mistaken.  She has initiated every tryst.”

She scoffed.  “You’re a roué so you would say that.”

Apparently, she’d vexed him, and he wasn’t very patient.  He glanced down the table toward the rest of their party.  “Frederick, what is this woman’s Christian name?”

The dolt, Frederick, pondered, then said, “I believe she was introduced as Charlotte.  Or was it Cassandra?  It might have been Constance.”

Mr. Wakefield turned back to her.  “I see you’ve made quite an impression.”

“I didn’t remember his name either,” she griped.

“I don’t blame you.  He’s hardly worth remembering.  So which is it?  I like Charlotte and Cassandra both.  Constance too.  Any of them would suit you.”

She rolled her eyes.  “If you must know—“

“I must.”

“It’s Catherine.”

“Catherine Barrington…”

Her name rolled off his tongue as if he was tasting it.  It was just a name—and a fake one at that—but his pronunciation had it sounding unusual and mysterious.  Her tummy tickled, butterflies swarming.

“Tell me your life’s story, Catherine Barrington.  Tell me every single thing about you.”

“No.”

“Ooh, you are so difficult.  Let’s start with a few small details.  How did you wind up at Vauxhall?  Who did you come with?  What possessed you to visit?”

“I came with my friend.”

“The one who immediately left with a beau?”

“Yes.”

“What’s her name?”

What could it hurt to admit the identity of her companion?  “Libby Markham.”

“Ah…Libby.  I know her well.”

Catherine bristled.  “How well?”

“She’s a renowned tart.”

“She is not.”

“She is,” he insisted.

She studied him, wondering if it was an honest remark.  If it was, then Libby was the very last person with whom Catherine should socialize.

“Have you ever kissed her?” she asked.

“Not yet.”

“But you would?”

“If she showed the slightest sign of encouragement?  Yes, probably.”

His gaze was steady and firm, but his eyes were twinkling with merriment again and she couldn’t guess if he was being candid.

“Would you kiss just any woman?” she asked.

“Not any woman.  I’m a bit discerning.  And now that I think of it, Miss Markham is awfully young and flighty.  I like to suppose my standards are a tad higher.”

“You don’t like girls who are young and flighty?”

“No, I like women who are interesting, mature, and beautiful.  Like you.”

The cad shifted so he was even nearer than he had been.  If she wasn’t careful, he’d pull her onto his lap.

“Would you stop flirting with me?” she said.  “I don’t like it.”

“What female doesn’t like a man to flirt?”

“This female doesn’t.”

“You’re being completely ridiculous again, and you’re lying to me.”

“Why would you imagine I am?”

“Because Catherine Barrington, you face is an open book.  I can read every thought that’s passing through that pretty little head of yours.”

“If that was true, you’d have slinked away in shame shortly after you sat down.”

He pushed back his chair, and he extended his hand to her.  “Come, Miss Barrington.”

She gasped with offense.  “Into the woods?  Absolutely not.”

“No, not the woods, you outlandish ninny.  Let’s dance.”

“I told you I don’t wish to.”

“Yes, and you’re being absurd.  Come.”

He stared her down, his demeanor commanding and compelling.  He had a very imposing nature, and she suspected he’d been a soldier in the past.  He seemed adept at giving orders and expecting them to be obeyed.

“I won’t dance with you,” she churlishly said.

“Coward.”  He smirked.  “I bet you don’t even know how.  I’ll bet your father never had the money to hire a dance master for you.”

His taunt about her father was her undoing.

Her father had been the Earl of Middlebury.  He’d been wealthy and acclaimed and marvelous in every way.  She’d grown up rich and spoiled, had had dance masters and tutors and riding instructors.  She’d been showered with every boon a cosseted, adored daughter could ever receive.

But her father was dead.  Her mother too.  As well as her older brother, Hayden.  Her cousin, Jasper, had inherited everything, and naught had been the same since he did.

“I know how to dance, Mr. Wakefield,” she snapped.

“Prove it.”

His hand was still dangling there.  She glared up at him, incensed that he was so smugly certain he could coerce her.

She should have refused his request.  She should have shoved him away and not allowed him to bait her, but she was very proud.  She’d been reared with every advantage and could probably waltz better than any woman in the pavilion.

With a vain, dismissive gesture of disdain, she rose.  He was very tall, and with her being five-foot-five in her shoes, he towered over her.  Though she didn’t like him and deemed him to be a wretch and a rogue, she liked how handsome he was, how she felt young and petite next to him.

He made her remember the girl she’d once been, the one who’d been sure she’d have a life filled with prominent, striking swains just like him.

He raised a brow.  “Should I take this to mean you can waltz, Miss Barrington?”

“Yes, and I’m wearing my best slippers, you rude oaf.  Don’t you dare step on my feet and ruin them.”

“I’ll try not to.”

Like a regal queen, she swept by him and out onto the floor.

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CHAPTER ONE

“It’s our very own marriage market.”

Catherine Barrington Henley smiled at her companion, Libby Markham, and said, “Our own marriage market?  Really?”

“Why shouldn’t we call it that?  Girls find husbands here all the time.”

“Name one who has.”

Of course Libby couldn’t think of a single person, but Catherine wasn’t about to be disheartened by Libby’s inability to substantiate her claim.  In Catherine’s view, every young lady ought to have the chance to wed.  Why should spoiled, rich girls—who possessed fat dowries—be the only ones allowed the security of matrimony?

She and Libby were at the entrance to the public pavilion at Vauxhall, and they handed over their pennies and went inside.  The orchestra was up at the front, instruments being tuned, the first dance set about to begin.

The large room was packed with people, which had heated the June air to what could have been a stifling degree.  But there were huge doors that opened out into the gardens.  They’d been pulled back, and an occasional gust of wind blew in.

Normally, she wouldn’t have dared such a risky venture, but it had been two years since she’d attended a dance.  When Libby had mentioned the event, when she’d encouraged Catherine to go with her, Catherine had been seized by the most pressing desire to join in.

She’d just suffered the most frustrating day, in what had been a lengthy string of frustrating days.  She often felt as if she was suffocating, as if she was becoming invisible.  It had been an eternity since she’d had a Saturday night free, and the idea of spending a few hours flirting and laughing and perhaps chatting with a handsome gentleman had been too intoxicating to resist.

They were with a group of Libby’s acquaintances.  Catherine was a very elderly twenty-four, Libby eighteen, and the other women were in between those two ages.

They were all in a similar condition:  unattached females of limited means.

They were governesses or nannies or—if they didn’t toil away to earn a wage—they were educated and appealing and might eventually be excellent wives, but they had no dowries to attract a spouse.

Catherine was working for Miss Priscilla Bolton who was engaged and marching toward her wedding in September.  Catherine served as her chaperone, confidante, fashion adviser, and nag, but it was a thankless situation.

Priscilla was arrogant and stubborn, and she treated everyone—Catherine included—like a low sort of vermin.  There was no task Catherine could complete in a satisfactory manner and no word she could utter that didn’t draw a stinging rebuke.

Luckily, the job would end after the wedding, and she would move on to yet another post, to observe and assist another wealthy, snooty debutante who was preparing to marry the man of her dreams.

Libby was a ward of Priscilla’s father.  Her own father had been a poverty-stricken vicar who’d left her orphaned and penniless.  Her greatest wish was to wed despite her lack of a fortune, and she’d devised many creative ways to cross paths with potential beaux.

The dances at Vauxhall were just one place where she might garner what she craved, that being a home of her own and an escape from the tedium of the dreary Bolton household.

Catherine was older and more pragmatic than Libby so she’d given up any hope of ever being a bride.  With how her life had fallen apart a decade earlier, she’d lost any benefit she might have offered in nuptial calculations.  But she liked to make new friends and would deem it an enormous boon if she could simply stumble on a charming fellow who didn’t annoy her to death.

“What now?” she asked Libby.

“Now we locate our table.”

“A table!  My goodness.”

“I didn’t reserve it,” Libby said.  “I know some young men who come here regularly.  They invited us to sit with them.”

Catherine scowled.  “Should we, Libby?  Are you sure?”

“It will be fine to socialize with them, Catherine.  I met them at church.”

Catherine was trying not to sound like a prude, but in light of her being a lady’s companion, her behavior had to be above reproach.  She obtained her positions through Mrs. Ford at her employment agency, and the persnickety matron sent out females with the highest reputations for moral character and probity.

Catherine had been on her own for many years so she didn’t require a chaperone and didn’t have anyone to scold her over her choices.  She could pick her activities, and she was very sensible.  She would never participate in conduct that might get her into trouble with Mr. Bolton or Mrs. Ford, and she’d traveled to Vauxhall with six other women.  What could happen?

Still though, she couldn’t help being skeptical.  “You met them at church, Libby?  Seriously?”

“Well, maybe outside a church.  They were standing right next to it.”

Catherine chuckled and shook her head.  It was her first adventure with Libby.  In the month Catherine had lived with the Boltons, Libby was the only one who’d been kind or cordial.  She was also funny and caustically blunt, and Catherine liked her.

But she didn’t necessarily trust her.  A housemaid had whispered that Libby had a penchant for landing herself in jams.  Apparently, she’d had a very strict upbringing and was shucking off the remnants of a difficult childhood.  Yet Catherine never listened to rumors, and so far Libby hadn’t demonstrated any traits that would leave Catherine uneasy.

Libby took her arm, and they wandered through the crowd.  After a bit of searching, a man waved at them.  He was seated at a table on the verandah outside the building.  There was a little fence around it to block it off from other revelers.

Libby waved back, and they hastened over.  Introductions were made, and Catherine did her best to memorize names and faces.  There were a dozen men present who all looked to be in their twenties, and her trepidation vanished.

They would be from the world she’d previously inhabited before disaster had struck.  They were probably third or fourth sons, freshly graduated from university and living in London on meager allowances.  Some would be studying law or commerce.

Eventually, they would have incomes and homes of their own.  They would be seeking wives like Libby who were pretty and vivacious and sufficiently educated that they could run a house and keep the ledgers up to date.  Libby was very popular with the group.  Everyone knew her and was glad she’d arrived.

The orchestra began to play, and most of the girls were whisked off to dance, Libby included.  Catherine wasn’t asked for the initial set, but she didn’t mind.  She wanted to relax and assess the surroundings as she mentally debated whether it had been wise to accompany Libby.

Priscilla had been sick in bed with a headache, and Catherine’s job was to escort women to social functions.  Why shouldn’t she have escorted Libby?

Except that—just as she was persuading herself all would be fine—she saw Libby slip away from the pavilion with a man who must have been a decade older than she was.

The furtive pair was swiftly swallowed up by the shadows, and Catherine hesitated, wondering if she should chase after them.  She wasn’t Libby’s nanny, and she hadn’t come as a chaperone.  What was her role?

If Libby snuck off with a sweetheart, was it any of Catherine’s business?  She didn’t think so, but if Libby suffered a mishap, Catherine would never forgive herself and she’d definitely be blamed.

She sighed with exasperation and left the relative safety of the enclosed box.  There were many groomed paths leading into the gardens, and very quickly she was away from the noise and the crowds.  It grew dark and quiet, and she had no idea which direction Libby had gone.  It would be madness to stroll about, hunting for her.

She spun to return to the safety of the lights and the party when a female laughed seductively.  She froze, assuming she’d located Libby after all.  Brazenly eavesdropping and feeling like the worst voyeur, she tiptoed into the trees.

“You are such a flirt,” the woman murmured, “and you’re cruel to torment me.”

“You love my torment,” a man replied.  “It brightens your day.”

“You’re vain too.  And horrid.”

“Vain and horrid?  Can I be both?”

“Yes.”

The woman wasn’t Libby so Catherine should have crept away, but suddenly the duo started kissing, and she couldn’t stop herself from watching them.  The episode was strangely thrilling, like nothing she’d ever witnessed before.

They were both stylishly dressed, but the female’s face wasn’t visible so Catherine couldn’t discern if she was fetching or not.  But she figured she probably was.  If she wasn’t pretty, why would he bother?

She had a clearer view of the man.  He was tall, six feet at least, with black hair worn longer than was proper.  It hung over his collar and was tied with a ribbon.  He was slender and muscular, and she was betting he was very handsome.

She’d seen people kissing in the past, and she had been kissed several times back in the era when she’d been a rich man’s daughter.  But she’d never seen anyone kissing as they were kissing.

The man was holding the woman very close—his hands were actually gripping her bottom—so her entire body was pressed to his.  His lips moved over hers in a mesmerizing way, as if he was drinking her in, as if they were locked together and he couldn’t free himself.

They were moaning, sighing, giving and receiving an enormous amount of pleasure, and Catherine’s pulse was racing.  The sight was exhilarating, and she could have stood there all night, gawking and spying, but off in the distance a sharp summons rang out.  “Mary Anne!  Mary Anne!  Where are you?”

The woman drew away and frantically whispered, “That’s my aunt.  I have to go.”

“No, not yet,” he insisted.

“I have to!  She’s looking for me.”

“Mary Anne!”  The person sounded much nearer.

“When can I be with you again?” the man asked.

“I’m not sure.  Next Saturday perhaps?  I’ll try to come for the dancing.”

“I will pine away until then.”

He clasped her palm and kissed the center of it, then she yanked away and ran toward the pavilion.  Catherine ducked behind a tree or the fleeing woman might have bumped right into her.

She glanced over her shoulder, and the man was still standing where he’d been.  To her stunned surprise, he was staring at her—and grinning.  Had he noted her presence?  Had he known she was dawdling?

She’d never been more embarrassed, and she hurried away.  For a dangerous moment, she was afraid he’d call out to her or chase after her, which would be alarming.  She dashed to the pavilion, rushed into their box, and sat down.

Someone had laid out refreshments.  There were bottles of wine and glasses on the table.  Catherine wasn’t much of a drinker and never thought a female should imbibe in public, but she was unnerved by what she’d just observed.

She poured herself some wine and sipped it as she fanned her face and steadied her breathing.  Blindly, she peered at nothing while she worried about Libby and when she’d return.  Why, oh, why had Catherine agreed to the reckless enterprise?

She’d certainly learned her lesson, and the next time Libby suggested an outing, Catherine would be smart enough not to participate.

People entered behind her, and she peeked at them, hoping it would be Libby.  But it was three of the couples that had been dancing.  Another man sauntered in with them, and it was the roué from the woods!

Viewed in the brighter lights, she could verify her prediction that he would be very handsome.  Tall and broad shouldered, with a thin waist and legs that went on forever, he had aristocratic features—high cheekbones, strong nose, generous mouth—and he was very fit, his arms muscled from strenuous endeavor.

He oozed confidence as to his place in the world, and he strutted into the box as if he owned it.  The others shifted out of his way, and he plopped down beside her.   He took the glass from her hand and swallowed down most of her wine.  She was so shocked she couldn’t form the words to scold or stop him.

“Hello.”  His voice was a soothing baritone that tickled her innards.  “Will you swoon if I introduce myself?”

“No.”

“I am Christopher Wakefield.”

“Hello, Mr. Wakefield.”

“I haven’t seen you here before.”

“No, it’s my first time.”

“How are you enjoying the sights?  Have you stumbled on anything interesting?”

She was glad it was night, that there were lamps hanging but none of them were near her.  At his question, she flushed such a hot shade of scarlet she was amazed she didn’t ignite.

“Yes, I stumbled on a sight that was incredibly scandalous,” she said.

“What was it?”

“You know what it was.”

He chuckled.  “Are you about to faint?”

“As you’ve already been apprised, I’m not the fainting type.”

“Good.”  He took another swig of her wine.  “Didn’t anyone warn you not to wander the grounds?  There are all kinds of activities occurring out there that you oughtn’t to witness.”

“I told you it’s my first visit.”

“So you did.”

She glanced at the path that split off in all directions.  Was Libby engaging in salacious activity?  Most likely yes, and again Catherine was torn over her responsibility to intervene.

“Are you expecting someone?” he asked.

“Ah…no.”  She wasn’t about to mention Libby.  If she was misbehaving, it wasn’t this stranger’s business.

“Tell me,” he urged.  “Is it a shameful person?  If so, I can keep a secret.”

“I’m simply wondering about my friend.  She’s walking with a gentleman.”

“Are you suddenly afraid she might be a strumpet?”

“No!” she huffed.  “She’s just been gone for quite awhile, and I’m concerned about her absence.”

“Has she been here before?”

“Yes.”

“Then she knows better than to sneak off so you shouldn’t fret over her.  It can be perilous out there, but she went anyway.  These long summer nights and the balmy June weather have a peculiar effect on people.”

“Is that your excuse?  The weather and the balmy temperature?”

“My excuse for what?”

“Don’t pretend to be unaware of what we’re discussing.”

He smirked with a very male sort of satisfaction.  “I hardly need an excuse to kiss a pretty girl.”

“Was she pretty?  It was so dark I didn’t get a good look at her.”

“Yes, she’s very pretty.  I wouldn’t bother with one who wasn’t.”

“She seemed particularly fraught over having to part with you.  How about you?  Will you pine away until next Saturday?”

“No.”

“You’re simply toying with her affections?”

“Probably.”

“Are you a libertine?”

He considered the accusation, then shrugged.  “I won’t admit to being a libertine, but I’m certainly a flirt.”

“Is there a difference?”

“Definitely,” he said.  “If I were a libertine, I’d have bad motives.  As a flirt, I merely want to enjoy myself.  What’s wrong with that?”

“You were a bit beyond enjoyment.”

“I notice you didn’t stomp off in a snit.  In fact, you were entranced by the whole encounter.  You watched us forever.”

“I didn’t watch,” she claimed.  “I was embarrassed and I meant to leave you in peace, but I couldn’t tiptoe away without being observed.”

“No, you watched us, and I understand why you were intrigued.  British girls are so sheltered.  Have you ever been kissed in the moonlight?”

She sucked in a sharp breath.  “You just might be the most impertinent man I’ve ever met.”

“You could be right about that, and you haven’t answered me.  Have you?”

“Have I what?”

“Been kissed in the moonlight.  I’m betting you’d like it very much.”  He waved toward the trees.  “Shall we find out?”

“Are you suggesting I stroll with you in the woods?”

“Yes.”

“Not only are you impertinent, but you might also be a tad deranged.”

“You sound jealous of that little tart who was with me.”

“Jealous!  Don’t be absurd.  We’re not acquainted.  Why would I care if you carry on with strumpets?”

“Are you simply a prude then?”

“A prude!”

“You seem upset by my antics.”

“Again, Mr. Wakefield, why would I care what you do?”

“Why indeed?”

He scooted nearer so that his thigh was pressed to hers, their feet tangled together, and she was finally able to discern that his eyes were very blue.  They twinkled with merriment, providing every indication that he was amused by her prim tendencies.

“What is your name?” he asked.

“I don’t believe I’d like to tell you.”

“Don’t be grouchy.  I don’t like it.”

“Oh, you poor thing.”

“Why aren’t you dancing?”

“We’d just arrived, and my friend wandered off.  I was looking for her.”

“Were you?  Really?  I could have sworn you were spying on me.”

“I was looking for her!  Then I saw you with your trollop, and I was startled.  I’m calming myself so I haven’t had a chance to dance yet.”

“Will you dance with me?”

“No.”

“Why wouldn’t you?”

“Because I don’t like you, and I’m sure you’re much too fast for me.”

“You don’t like me?  How ridiculous.  Everyone likes me.”

“Let me be the first to say I don’t.”

“The orchestra is about to play a waltz.  Will you sit and twiddle your thumbs.”

“Yes.”

“Coward.”

“I’m not a coward.”

“Yes, you are.  You’re here for the dancing, but you’re too timid to accept an invitation.  What if no one else asks but me and you end up a wallflower?”

“I’ll risk it.”

He laughed, and he filled her glass to the rim.  He sipped the wine and stared at the people passing by in the park while the orchestra struck the chords to announce the waltz.  She yearned to be out on the floor so badly her teeth ached.

“You still haven’t told me your name,” he said.  “What is it?  Don’t be cruel and refuse to apprise me.”

“I’m sorry, but I don’t wish us to be cordial.”

“You’re being positively silly.”

He was gazing at her in an enticing way, as if she was exotic and special.  It was probably a practiced look that he used on every woman to get what he craved—that being a dalliance—so she was shocked to find herself quite spellbound.

She couldn’t recall a single occasion in her past when a man had studied her as he currently was.  Though it was horridly wrong to be enthralled, she was basking in the glow of his intense scrutiny.

“It’s Miss Barrington,” she muttered before she could stop herself.

“And what is your Christian name?  Will you make me guess?”

“You needn’t guess.  You may simply refer to me as Miss Barrington.”

“I’d rather not.”  He assessed her, his warm, alluring appraisal taking in her golden blond hair, her big blue eyes.  “You’re so pretty.  Your name must match how beautiful you are.”

At hearing him declare her to be pretty, she was rocked by a spurt of feminine vanity.  She knew she was fetching.  She could clearly see herself in a mirror, but she’d never had such a handsome, virile man tell her.

She figured it was another practiced affectation, but she couldn’t deny it was very effective.  She wanted to babble like a brook and share all sorts of information he had no business learning.

She scowled her most chastising scowl.  “I’m sure it will disappoint you to discover that my Christian name is very common.”

“There’s nothing common about you, Miss Barrington.  What is it?”

A strange energy had flared, almost as if their proximity was generating sparks.  She’d never felt such a bizarre sensation and had had no idea humans could create such a commotion.  She didn’t comprehend why it was occurring and didn’t like how she was all jittery on the inside.

She leaned away, determined to put some space between them.  “You’re very sophisticated, aren’t you?”

“Yes, very.”

“And extremely confident.”

“I always have been.”

“I can understand why a certain type of female would be enchanted by you.”

“It’s not a certain type.  It’s every type.”

“Is it your habit to sneak off with unsuspecting young ladies?”

He snorted with derision.  “If you assume my partner was unsuspecting, you’re mistaken.  She has initiated every tryst.”

She scoffed.  “You’re a roué so you would say that.”

Apparently, she’d vexed him, and he wasn’t very patient.  He glanced down the table toward the rest of their party.  “Frederick, what is this woman’s Christian name?”

The dolt, Frederick, pondered, then said, “I believe she was introduced as Charlotte.  Or was it Cassandra?  It might have been Constance.”

Mr. Wakefield turned back to her.  “I see you’ve made quite an impression.”

“I didn’t remember his name either,” she griped.

“I don’t blame you.  He’s hardly worth remembering.  So which is it?  I like Charlotte and Cassandra both.  Constance too.  Any of them would suit you.”

She rolled her eyes.  “If you must know—“

“I must.”

“It’s Catherine.”

“Catherine Barrington…”

Her name rolled off his tongue as if he was tasting it.  It was just a name—and a fake one at that—but his pronunciation had it sounding unusual and mysterious.  Her tummy tickled, butterflies swarming.

“Tell me your life’s story, Catherine Barrington.  Tell me every single thing about you.”

“No.”

“Ooh, you are so difficult.  Let’s start with a few small details.  How did you wind up at Vauxhall?  Who did you come with?  What possessed you to visit?”

“I came with my friend.”

“The one who immediately left with a beau?”

“Yes.”

“What’s her name?”

What could it hurt to admit the identity of her companion?  “Libby Markham.”

“Ah…Libby.  I know her well.”

Catherine bristled.  “How well?”

“She’s a renowned tart.”

“She is not.”

“She is,” he insisted.

She studied him, wondering if it was an honest remark.  If it was, then Libby was the very last person with whom Catherine should socialize.

“Have you ever kissed her?” she asked.

“Not yet.”

“But you would?”

“If she showed the slightest sign of encouragement?  Yes, probably.”

His gaze was steady and firm, but his eyes were twinkling with merriment again and she couldn’t guess if he was being candid.

“Would you kiss just any woman?” she asked.

“Not any woman.  I’m a bit discerning.  And now that I think of it, Miss Markham is awfully young and flighty.  I like to suppose my standards are a tad higher.”

“You don’t like girls who are young and flighty?”

“No, I like women who are interesting, mature, and beautiful.  Like you.”

The cad shifted so he was even nearer than he had been.  If she wasn’t careful, he’d pull her onto his lap.

“Would you stop flirting with me?” she said.  “I don’t like it.”

“What female doesn’t like a man to flirt?”

“This female doesn’t.”

“You’re being completely ridiculous again, and you’re lying to me.”

“Why would you imagine I am?”

“Because Catherine Barrington, you face is an open book.  I can read every thought that’s passing through that pretty little head of yours.”

“If that was true, you’d have slinked away in shame shortly after you sat down.”

He pushed back his chair, and he extended his hand to her.  “Come, Miss Barrington.”

She gasped with offense.  “Into the woods?  Absolutely not.”

“No, not the woods, you outlandish ninny.  Let’s dance.”

“I told you I don’t wish to.”

“Yes, and you’re being absurd.  Come.”

He stared her down, his demeanor commanding and compelling.  He had a very imposing nature, and she suspected he’d been a soldier in the past.  He seemed adept at giving orders and expecting them to be obeyed.

“I won’t dance with you,” she churlishly said.

“Coward.”  He smirked.  “I bet you don’t even know how.  I’ll bet your father never had the money to hire a dance master for you.”

His taunt about her father was her undoing.

Her father had been the Earl of Middlebury.  He’d been wealthy and acclaimed and marvelous in every way.  She’d grown up rich and spoiled, had had dance masters and tutors and riding instructors.  She’d been showered with every boon a cosseted, adored daughter could ever receive.

But her father was dead.  Her mother too.  As well as her older brother, Hayden.  Her cousin, Jasper, had inherited everything, and naught had been the same since he did.

“I know how to dance, Mr. Wakefield,” she snapped.

“Prove it.”

His hand was still dangling there.  She glared up at him, incensed that he was so smugly certain he could coerce her.

She should have refused his request.  She should have shoved him away and not allowed him to bait her, but she was very proud.  She’d been reared with every advantage and could probably waltz better than any woman in the pavilion.

With a vain, dismissive gesture of disdain, she rose.  He was very tall, and with her being five-foot-five in her shoes, he towered over her.  Though she didn’t like him and deemed him to be a wretch and a rogue, she liked how handsome he was, how she felt young and petite next to him.

He made her remember the girl she’d once been, the one who’d been sure she’d have a life filled with prominent, striking swains just like him.

He raised a brow.  “Should I take this to mean you can waltz, Miss Barrington?”

“Yes, and I’m wearing my best slippers, you rude oaf.  Don’t you dare step on my feet and ruin them.”

“I’ll try not to.”

Like a regal queen, she swept by him and out onto the floor.

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