On occasion, Lord Charlemagne Griffin wished he had been an only child. It wasn’t that he resented his older brother, Sebastian, the Duke of Melbourne, and it wasn’t that he was unhappy for younger brother Zachary’s marriage or that of his sister Eleanor. At times, however, the large and ever growing brood could be exceedingly . . . loud.
“Bugger this,” he muttered into the general chaos of the Griffin House drawing room, and stood to collect his hat and gloves from the butler in the foyer. “If anyone should miss me,” he said to Stanton as he shrugged into his caped greatcoat, “please inform them that I left for the Brinston party.”
Stanton nodded. “Very good, my lord.”
The quiet of the front portico felt as welcome as the cool evening breeze, and Charlemagne paused on the granite steps to enjoy both. The frustration in his chest loosened a little, but didn’t vanish completely. He drew a deep breath before he shook out his shoulders and stepped into one of the waiting coaches.
What did it matter if he’d laid the groundwork for a very lucrative business deal and couldn’t get a word in edgewise to tell anyone? At eight-and-twenty he certainly didn’t need anyone’s approval – though a little acknowledgment would have been nice. Of course it was his business and his pending profits, but at least Sebastian would have appreciated the circumstances. Charlemagne smiled as he pulled a cigar from his pocket and lit it on the coach lantern. Well, the duke would have to settle for being envious at the outcome.
The Brinston butler announced him as he entered the ballroom, and Charlemagne found himself engulfed by the crowd. When he finally emerged at the refreshment table on the far side of the room, he’d put his name on three chits’ dance cards, agreed to meet Lord Polk and Lord Shipley for luncheon the next day, and given the Prime Minister, Liverpool, a pair of his best American cigars.
He glanced toward the door as he signaled for a glass of claret, but the remainder of the extended Griffin clan hadn’t yet arrived. Sebastian would probably be annoyed that one of the group had fled the house, but as far as Charlemagne was concerned, a bachelor could only stand so much talk of infants and holiday plans. When the discussion had turned to Zachary’s new herd of cows, that had been his sign to depart. He grinned. On second thought, Sebastian would probably be more put-out that he hadn’t thought to flee, himself.
Someone gripped his elbow, and he nearly spilled the claret. His older brother had a reputation for being a mind reader, but he could not simply materialize. Probably not, anyway. As Charlemagne turned around he smiled, inwardly cringing. This was worse than Sebastian. “Harkley,” he said, reaching out to grip the hand of the portly gentleman before him. “I thought you still in Madrid.”
The viscount made a face, his jowls wobbling. “Too damned much talk about Bonaparte. Came back for a bloody taste of civilization.”
“I’m afraid you’ll find that much of the talk here is about Bonaparte, as well,” Charlemagne returned.
“Your brother about?”
“Melbourne? He hasn’t arrived yet.” For a moment he weighed the level of annoyance he would face from Sebastian against the amusement of seeing the Griffin patriarch pursued all night by Reginald, Viscount Harkley. “When he does appear, you may want to avoid him,” Charlemagne suggested, deciding he preferred the idea of Melbourne owing him a favor. “He’s been a bit sour-faced the last few days. Tariff disagreements, a new war with the Colonies. Mostly annoyances, but there is all that possible bloodshed and loss of life.”
Harkley, obviously too dim to recognize sarcasm when it hit him in the face, clapped him on the shoulder. “My thanks for the warning. I certainly don’t want him snarling at me before I can even say hello.”
“Glad I could help. You . . .”
A goddess stood across the room from him. No, not a goddess, Charlemagne amended after a moment. Definitely a female of flesh and blood. Lightning shot from the back of his skull to his groin.
“–who can afford that without a partner to invest some additional blunt?” Harkley was saying.
Charlemagne handed him his half-empty glass of claret. “Excuse me.”
Before the viscount could utter another word, Charlemagne was halfway across the room in pursuit. Hair black as midnight coiled about her head and ended in a tail banded by a long narrow shaft of gold running down the small of her back. Gold sparkled on her eyelids, the soft glitter taken up by beading throughout the length of her deep red gown. Eyes as green and deep as pools of emeralds flicked past him and then returned as he approached.
“Down lad,” he muttered at himself, slowing before her.
She’d never been to a London Society gathering before. He knew that, because he attended most of them. If she’d shown her face, he would have seen her. And if he’d seen her, he would have remembered.
“You’re staring at me,” she said, a slight, exotic upturn of an accent buried beneath her proper English tones.
“Yes, I seem to be,” he returned. Not just her voice, but the whole of her felt almost tangibly exotic, foreign, familiar, and enticing all at the same time. Epithets like goddess or Aphrodite or Venus flew through his mind, but he just as swiftly disregarded them. She’d probably heard them all before, and such flattery wasn’t his style, anyway. Getting what he wanted – and taking whatever steps were necessary to accomplish that goal – that was his style. “I’m Charlemagne Griffin.”
She lifted a glittering eyebrow. “‘Charlemagne’?”
He liked the way she said his name. Suppressing another faint shudder of his muscles, he smiled. “My mother’s idea. My friends call me Shay.” He took a slow step closer, reaching out for her hand and brushing her knuckles softly with his lips. “And who might you be?”
At that she blinked and glanced about as though she’d just realized she was missing something. He didn’t know who or what she might be looking for, however. Certainly no one else in the room was dressed to match her. Finally she faced him again. “Shouldn’t a mutual acquaintance be introducing us?”
Charlemagne shrugged, disliking the idea of adding a third party to their conversation. “In the grand scheme of things, I doubt anyone will notice that we’ve done it ourselves. Pray tell me your name.”
She bit her lower lip, then seemed to think better of that. “My mother warned me about men like you, very forward and sure of themselves and uncaring of a lady’s reputation.”
Now she seemed to just be baiting him. “Then tell me your mother’s name,” he returned. “Then I would at least have a clue as to your identity.”
“Very well. My mother is Helen Carlisle, Marchioness of Hanover.”
This time Charlemagne frowned. He knew England’s peers; with his family’s connections, he doubted there were any nobles he didn’t know. “The Marquis of Hanover died a bachelor, just over a year ago.”
The temptress nodded. “My father Howard was his younger brother.”
Now things were beginning to make sense. “Your father lived in India.”
“As did my mother and I. We’ve only been in London for ten days.”
He’d been right about her being exotic rather than merely looking that way. Unable to resist, he brushed a finger along the beading at the shoulder of her gown. He could swear he scented cinnamon in the air around her. Considering that I now know your entire family history and both your parents’ names, might you give me yours, princess?”
This time her smile lit her eyes to glittering emerald. “I suppose, since it would be easy enough now for you to discover it. Sarala. Sarala Anne Carlisle.”
Charlemagne drew a slow breath, absorbing the information. “‘Sarala’?”
“My father’s idea. Mother thought it was too native, but we never expected to leave Delhi.”
“Sarala,” he said again, savoring the way it rolled along his tongue. Just the sound of it conjured images of brightly-colored saris and spicy curry and naked, sultry nights. “It suits you.”
“Hm. As I’m beginning to believe Charlemagne suits you. You seem very regal.”
Shay laughed, a little surprised that she would say that to him. Obviously, though she didn’t have the least idea who he was. “I’m not sure that’s a compliment, though certain members of my family might appreciate it.” He chuckled again. “My older brother, especially.”
“And who might your brother be, then? I’ve told you my family history. It’s only fair that you divulge yours.”
Generally Charlemagne had no objection at all to being the second son and heir-apparent to the Melbourne title. It was simply the way things were, and he upheld his position proudly and efficiently. Earlier this evening, though, he’d arranged to lay the groundwork for a small but lucrative business deal, and no one had even bothered to ask him about it because they’d been too busy talking about his younger brother Zachary’s cows and Egyptian-style wallpaper. And if Lady Sarala Carlisle knew his heritage, she might not speak to him with the same refreshing freedom.
“Don’t tell me you’re a tailor masquerading as a nobleman,” Lady Sarala said into the relative silence.
“Hardly.” The orchestra began a waltz, and he took her hand again, placing it over the dark blue sleeve of his superfine jacket. “I’ll tell you while we dance.”
“What if I’ve given this dance to someone else?”
He looked down at her. “You haven’t.”
“You’re very sure of yourself.” Again she glanced about. “And I’m not at all certain this is proper.”
“It is,” he returned, drawing her closer. Whatever nonsense had overcome him this evening, he intended to enjoy it. Charlemagne slid his hand around her slender waist – and stopped as a hand clamped over his shoulder.
“I’m occu--” he began as he looked behind him. “Oh, it’s you.”
Sebastian glanced from him to Lady Sarala and back again. “What’s amiss?”
Charlemagne tried to set aside his own mental debate over whether Melbourne had fantastical or abysmal timing. “Nothing’s amiss. I was tired of hearing about cows.”
“I believe you were going to tell me about that silk sh–“
”Later,” Charlemagne interrupted, flashing a grin at his brother. “As I said, I’m occupied.”
With a lifted eyebrow and one of his unreadable looks, Sebastian backed off. Ha. Let him wonder how the meeting had gone. Charlemagne swept Lady Sarala into the dance. The silks Melbourne suddenly wanted to hear about weren’t part of the general Griffin family business, anyway. They were his own venture, his own risk, with his own blunt.
“Who was that?” Lady Sarala asked, looking from him to Sebastian.
“My brother, Melbourne.”
Her green eyes widened a little. “Melbourne, as in Sebastian Griffin, the Duke of Melbourne?”
So the foreign princess did know something of London Society. “I told you I wasn’t a tailor.”
“Yes, but I didn’t realize you were . . . one of those Griffins. You’re famous. Your brother married a painter last year.”
“Not that brother,” Charlemagne returned, indicating Melbourne, “but yes. Zachary did.”
Her gaze went to Sebastian again. “He doesn’t look very pleased with you. It’s not because we’re dancing, is it?”
“I daresay I may dance with whomever I please,” he noted, trying to find again the humming, expectant energy between them. Damn Melbourne, anyway. At five-and-thirty Sebastian looked exactly like what he was – the very wealthy head of a powerful and well-favored family, and obviously a distracting personage to a naive and exotic foreign beauty. “He’s only annoyed because I have better business contacts than he does, and tomorrow I’m going to make a very lucrative deal with him not knowing anything about it. He hates being kept in the dark.”
Green eyes returned their attention to him. “How exciting,” she breathed, her chest rising and falling with her quick breath. “Is this deal a secret, then?”
So now she found him interesting again. Good. “No. Not really.”
Her lips formed a slight, disappointed pout. “Oh.”
Damnation. “I mean in a sense, I suppose it is a secret,” he amended. Zachary was right; sometimes he could be very obtuse. He hardly considered it to be his fault, however, that most females found business far beyond their ability to comprehend or appreciate. In this one case he could decorate the canvas a little, he supposed. “If the wrong people should hear about it, the price of the shipment would treble.”
“‘Shipment’?” she repeated in a low voice. “Is it from America?”
“No, from China.”
“Oh, I’ve always longed to visit China,” she exclaimed, though she kept her voice low.
She did take the “secret” silliness seriously, then. It all did seem rather more exciting, the way she put it. Charlemagne smiled at her. “Just between you and me, then, the ship Wayward just docked at Blackfriar’s this afternoon. Her cargo is five hundred bolts of the very finest Chinese silk I’ve ever set eyes on. The captain’s sold cargo to me before, so I’m the only one he contacted.” He lowered his voice still further, though with the noise from the orchestra and the guests around them, he doubted anyone could overhear even if they wanted to. It sounded very conspiratorial, at any rate, and it gave him an excuse to hold her a little closer in his arms.
“Blink,” he continued, “bought the bolts outright rather–“
”Blink?” she broke in at a whisper.
“Peter Blink. The Wayward’s captain. He bought the shipment outright rather than taking a percentage for the transportation of the cargo . . .” Charlemagne trailed off, realizing that he was getting carried away again. She probably had no idea about the intricacies of business, and even less interest in them. She wanted to hear about intrigue and secrets. Little as he liked flights of fancy, tonight Charlemagne definitely felt in the mood to continue indulging this particular Indian princess.
He drew a breath. “So our captain is very eager to sell and recoup his expenses so he can pay his crew before they mutiny.”
“Oh, definitely, if he can’t pay them. But since I am very eager to take possession of the silks, I doubt anyone will be gulleted.”
Lady Sarala clutched his fingers. “And when is this duel to prevent a gulleting to take place?”
“At ten o’clock tomorrow, which is why I won’t make an appearance until three-quarters past.”
“Goodness,” she breathed. “And that will make Captain Blink even more anxious and cause him to lower his price further.”
“That’s the idea,” he responded. Zachary’s theories about chits were clearly wrong. Women might not have an interest in business, but they did appreciate power and confidence. Lady Sarala obviously realized that he had those qualities in spades.
“That’s brilliant.” She smiled again, her teeth white against skin tanned by the Indian sun. “And you do this sort of thing all the time?”
Charlemagne nodded. “All the time,” he murmured.
“Your brother the duke must rely on you for so much.”
And now back to Sebastian, damn it all. “He does rely on me, but these silks are my affair. I have my own business in addition to shares in the family enterprise.”
She continued to gaze at him admiringly. “Your mother did name you well, Lord Charlemagne.”
If he’d been a female, he would have blushed. For the briefest of moments, though, Charlemagne wished the Indian princess had more to contribute to the conversation than compliments and a pleasantly-heaving bosom. The one-sided chat had eased his frustration with Sebastian; at least someone had listened to his tale and expressed appreciation of his business acumen. Understanding the intricacies, he supposed, would be too much to ask of such a beauty.
The waltz ended, and at her request he escorted her to the refreshment table. One-sided conversation or not, he still couldn’t seem to make himself tell her good evening. “Are you residing at Carlisle House, then?” he asked.
“Perhaps you wouldn’t object if I called on you there.”
She lowered glittering lids. “Perhaps I wouldn’t.”
Charlemagne’s partner for the country dance cleared her throat from a few feet away, and he blinked. “Then perhaps I shall see you soon, Lady Sarala,” he murmured, kissing her knuckles again before he reluctantly released her.
As he moved through the country dance he noted that his princess remained unpartnered by the sweetmeats. It made sense; just in from India, she and her family probably had few if any London acquaintances. And her appearance, while definitely . . . stimulating, could be a bit off-putting to some of the younger bucks. She might be naive, but he wouldn’t precisely classify her as demure. Electrifying, perhaps, but not demure.
When he’d discharged his obligation for the next two dances, Charlemagne went out to the balcony for a breath of air. All evening long he could swear the scent of cinnamon clung to him, and it continued to leave him distinctly distracted.
“I’m not going to resort to dancing with you to get an answer,” Sebastian said, joining him at the balcony railing.
“Good God, I should hope not,” Charlemagne retorted.
“If you’d stayed home for another five minutes, I would have gotten to you, you know. Zach’s just very excited about his cattle-breeding program.”
“I’m aware of that.” He gave the duke a sideways look. “And I hope I haven’t given the impression that I require your approval before I venture any of my own blunt.”
“You never have before,” Sebastian conceded. “You’re a fine businessman, Shay, and I look forward to hearing about your conquest.” He sighed uncharacteristically. “Honestly, when the choices are cattle from Zach, wallpaper and potential infant names from Eleanor and Valentine, or ponies from Peep – well, my daughter comes first, of course – or your exploits, it’s not much of a contest.”
Charlemagne grinned. “So I may tell Zach and Nell that other than your own daughter, I’m your favorite?”
“Very amusing. At times you are the only one with any sense. I’ll grant you that. So tell me about the silks.”
“Not much to tell yet,” Charlemagne returned, shrugging, “except that I should be the proud owner of five hundred bolts by eleven o’clock tomorrow morning.”
“At a good price?”
“Seb, do you really need to ask?”
The duke clapped him on the shoulder. “Let’s find some port to toast your success then, shall we?”
“By all means.”
And if Lady Sarala’s “perhaps” meant what he thought it did, they might very well be toasting his private success, as well. At any rate, he would have cinnamon in his tea in the morning.
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