Edward Christie had been an utter fool six years ago. True, he’d had plenty of company. Every man in the room gaped when Caroline Parker entered Lady Huntington’s ballroom. Conversation stilled. Hearts hammered. Shoulders straightened. Chests and areas lower swelled.
There were many reasons for these changes. There was her hair, of course, masses of it, red as lava and swirled up with diamonds. Diamond earrings and a diamond necklace and diamond bracelets were festooned all over her creamy skin, too, skin so delicious every man whose tongue was hanging out longed to lap it. Her eyes were liquid silver, bright as stars and fringed with midnight black lashes, so at odds with her hair. And her dress—a shocking scarlet for an unmarried woman—for any woman—had a diamond brooch hovering over the most spectacular assets he’d ever seen. The jewels were all paste, as he was later to find out, but her breasts were very real.
There were known drawbacks, which quickly circulated about the room, prodded along by spiteful cats who were quite eclipsed by Caroline’s magnificence. She was old, at least twenty-five, and her family—what there was of it—was dirt poor and touched by scandal. Some said her brother died in a duel; others said he was killed by one of his many mistresses. She had a sister in Canada, living in some godforsaken outpost in the snow with her lieutenant husband and howling wolves. Her parents were long dead and she was clinging to the ton by the weakest of threads, the distant cousin who inherited her brother’s title and was anxious to get her off his hands before he put his hands all over her and irritated his irritable wife.
Edward had obliged in a courtship of less than five days. Baron Christie had spent his first thirty-four years never, ever being at all impulsive, and his sudden marriage by special license to a woman who looked like an expensive courtesan was the on dit of the season. He had buried one wife, the perfectly staid and proper Alice, whose brown hair would never be compared to living fire and whose brown eyes could only be compared to mud. Alice, who’d quickly and quietly done her duty and provided him with an heir, a spare and a little girl who looked just as angular and forbidding as her father. Alice, who’d caught a chill one week and died the next and was no doubt rolling over in her grave to be supplanted by Caroline Parker.
Edward had no one to blame but himself. He didn’t need more children, and Caroline hadn’t any money. But what she did have—what she was—had upended Edward’s life for one hellish year before he came to his senses and put her away.
Caroline had no one to blame but herself. It was her pride, her dreadful Parker pride, which had prevented her from saying one simple word—no. If only her rosy lips had opened and she had managed to get her tongue to the roof of her mouth and expelled sufficient air, she would not find herself living in Jane Street, home to the most notorious courtesans in London.
When Edward asked her to marry him after less than a week’s acquaintance, she should have said no. When he’d asked her that horrible, vile, impertinent question five years ago, she should have said no. But instead she’d said yes to the first question, rather gratefully if truth be told, and hadn’t said a word to the second, just cast her husband the most scornful look she could conjure up and showed him her back.
Caroline was no man’s mistress, despite her exclusive Jane Street address and rumors to the contrary. In the five years since she and her husband separated, he had come to her door but once a year, the anniversary of the night she was unable to utter that one-syllable word. They took ruthless pleasure in each other, and then Edward would disappear again. She, however, remained, ostracized from polite society, completely celibate and despite her ardent hopes, a mother to only the curious contingent of young women who shared her street. The children changed, but the game remained the same. From experienced opera dancers to fresh-faced country girls who had been led astray by rich gentlemen, Caroline watched the parade of mistresses come and go. She passed teacups and handkerchiefs and advice, feeling much older than her almost thirty-one years.
But when she looked in her pier glass, she was still relatively youthful, her red curls shiny, her gray eyes bright. She might have been stouter than she wished, but the prideful Parkers were known to run to fat in middle age. For some reason Edward had let her keep some of the lesser Christie jewels, so there was always a sparkle on her person even if there was no spark to her life. She made the best of it, however, and had some surprising success recently writing wicked novels that she couldn’t seem to write fast enough. Her avocation would have stunned her old governess, as Caroline had showed no aptitude whatsoever for grammar lessons or spelling as a girl. Fortunately, her publisher was grammatical and spelled accurately enough for both of them. Her Courtesan Court series was highly popular with both society members and their servants alike. There were happy endings galore for the innocent girls led astray, and the wicked always got what was coming to them. She modeled nearly every villain on Edward. It was most satisfactory to shoot him or toss him off a cliff in the final pages. Once she crushed him in a mining mishap, his elegant sinewy body and dark head entombed for all eternity with coal that was as black as his heart.
Of course, sometimes her heroes were modeled on him, too—men with pride nearly as perverse as the Parkers, facile fingers who knew just where to touch a girl. Caroline missed Edward’s fingers, although she didn’t miss his conversation much. He was so damned proper and critical, and had been beyond boring to live with. Controlled. Controlling. Humorless. Once he’d installed her as his baroness, it was as if he woke up horrified at what he’d actually done. Whom he’d actually married. It was no wonder that she—
No, she couldn’t blame him. She had no one to blame but herself.