Improper advances, p.1

Improper Advances, page 1

 

Improper Advances
 



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Improper Advances


  Pursued by many

  Darius Corlett assumed the beautiful woman paying him a late night visit was a lady of dubious reputation sent by his friends. But when he learns that Oriana Julian is a respectable widow on holiday in the countryside, he suspects she’s just a scheming adventuress after his fortune. The mysterious beauty stirs up an undeniable passion that Dare is powerless to resist, though, and suddenly he’s pursuing the captivating beauty as vigorously as he’s ever been pursued. The more he succumbs to her temptation, the more he is determined to uncover Oriana’s deepest secrets.

  Desired By all

  Hiding behind an assumed name, Ana St. Albans has come to this secluded hamlet to escape the unwarranted scandal that plagues her life in London. She never expected to meet such a handsome and intriguing man as Dare, nor to be swept off her feet by his unrelenting desire. But even as she sinks into his arms, Ana knows that their tryst is not meant to last. For though many of the ton’s noblemen have desired her, Ana has sworn never to marry without love, and Dare is not a man to speak of love…

  Dare dropped his voice to a suggestive whisper.

  “Be patient but a little while. My friends will soon depart.” He pulled Oriana close and kissed her parted lips. Her sudden intake of breath expressed surprise. He was conscious of her generous curves, his own superior size—and a simmering arousal.

  Swiftly, she pulled away, her face expressing stunned dismay. “You’re very bold, sir.” She stepped back and bumped into a bookcase, but his hands seized her slender waist, and his mouth again locked on hers. Her body was rigid, unresponsive—then she trod sharply upon his foot. Startled, he released her.

  In a cool, collected voice she inquired, “Are you drunk?”

  “No. Did my friends advise you to play games with me? I’m a straightforward man; I prefer a bedmate with experience. You needn’t feign virginal innocence to whet my appetite.”

  “I’m not a virgin,” she stated with remarkable candor, “or a trollop. I am Oriana Julian. Mrs. Oriana Julian.”

  Margaret Evans Porter

  Improper Advances

  AVON BOOKS

  An Imprint of HarperCollinsPublisher

  Copyright © 2000 by Margaret Evans Porter

  Map courtesy of Denise Robinson/Granite Image

  ISBN: 0-380-80773-4

  Acknowledgments

  I must express my gratitude to the following people, whose contributions to this author and this novel were numerous.

  Margot and Robert Pierson, for more reasons than I can list, including the technological assistance provided at the very earliest stages of this project in England and encouragement from afar as I neared the end.

  Lisa and Dave Nixon, who have shared the Isle of Man in so many ways, and especially for a memorable and inspiring ramble through Glen Auldyn in the rain.

  Alan Franklin of the Manx Museum, for a wealth of information on minerals and mining.

  The Theatre Museum in London’s Covent Garden and the National Horseracing Museum, Newmarket, Suffolk.

  To Charles Beauclerk, the Right Honorable the Earl of Burford, for genealogical guidance as I pursued my interest in the St. Albans dukedom.

  The talented Denise Robinson, for yet again creating the perfect map.

  My most abundant thanks go to my husband, for all the joys we’ve shared, the endless support that smooths out my rougher days, and the companionship that brightens every moment of my life.

  Prologue

  London

  May 1, 1799

  “You’re leaving town?”

  Oriana could hardly believe it herself. “I decided that would be best—for everyone.” She didn’t know whether the earl disapproved of her decision or welcomed it, because his neutral tone and habitually austere expression revealed no emotion. Turning to her other guest, she said serenely, “Harri, please fill his lordship’s glass.”

  When the pretty, black-haired young woman brought him the bottle of claret, Lord Rushton’s keen, dark eyes studied her prominent bosom, thrust upward by her stays and spilling over her low neckline.

  While he was thus distracted, Oriana unfolded the letter in her hand.

  “This, my lord, will allay your concerns.” Skipping over the fond salutation— My dearest, loveliest Ana—she read out all that followed. “My behavior last night was reprehensible. An excess of brandy is no excuse for my many indiscretions. I crave your pardon, and shall grovel before Liza when begging her forgiveness. When next you see me, I sincerely hope I’ll be her husband. Yours faithfully, Matthew.”

  She gave the earl a brilliant smile. “So you see, I pose no danger to your daughter’s betrothal.”

  “I’m not convinced of that.”

  “Nor I,” added Harriot Mellon. “Just because a man takes a wife, it doesn’t mean he gives up his mistress.”

  “I’m not Matthew’s mistress,” Oriana defended herself. Their relationship was difficult to define; none of the usual terms seemed to apply.

  “Few will believe that, after his outrageous behavior in your box at Covent Garden,” Rushton pointed out.

  “I tried to send him away.”

  “She did,” Harriot confirmed. “But he was drunk and quarrelsome, and would not go.”

  “Is it true,” the earl asked Oriana, “that he followed you out of the theater and climbed into your hackney?”

  “I’m afraid so. I couldn’t toss him out without making a bad situation much worse,” she said reasonably.

  Once inside the vehicle, the distraught and lovelorn Matthew had cursed and moaned. He was the unhappiest man in London. His debts were mounting. He’d grievously offended Lady Liza—who had never really loved him. His engagement was as good as over. At the conclusion of his woeful litany, he had burst into boisterous laughter and demanded that Oriana marry him.

  Said the earl severely, “Until Powell and my daughter are standing in front of the vicar, hand in hand, I shall be very uneasy. His carelessness has done irreparable harm to your reputation. Your involvement with him has concerned me for many months, and I’ve repeatedly warned you not to encourage him.”

  Twisting one trailing auburn curl round her finger, Oriana responded, “Matthew needs no encouragement. Don’t be such a bear, Rushton. I can remedy this problem by removing myself from town.”

  “Where exactly will you go?”

  “To Chester.”

  Her reply startled him. “So far as that?”

  “The Ladies’ Benevolent Institution is sponsoring a charitable benefit concert—the money raised will support poor women who have recently become mothers. Mrs. Billington is unable to perform, and Mrs.

  Crouch won’t. Ana St. Albans has been called upon to sing.” She made a low curtsy.

  “It is a worthy cause,” he conceded.

  “Afterward, I shall proceed to Liverpool to perform at the Theatre Royal—for my own enrichment.

  Harri’s friend Mr. Aickin offers a salary large enough to defray the costs of my entire journey.” With her brightest smile, Oriana concluded, “I expect the females of Cheshire and Lancashire to copy my attire as slavishly as any here in town.”

  She glanced down at the silk flowers and flowing ribbons—the St. Albans corsage—decorating her bodice. The hem of her gown was trimmed with a deep ruffle, a pale pink ribbon threaded through it—the St. Albans flounce. The shoes peeking out from under it were a shade known all over London as St.

  Albans blue. Her ability to create new fashions was unparalleled.

  To the earl she said, “My friendly effort to repair your daughter’s engagement is the reason I shall be absent from Epsom and Ascot. My one consolation is that I’ll finally be able to see the horses run for the Grosvenor Gold Cup at Chester.
I mean to return before July Meeting at Newmarket.”

  “Racing mad,” he muttered. “I blame your Stuart blood.”

  Three sets of eyes turned to a portrait of King Charles II hanging on the wall near that of his much-loved mistress, Nell Gwynn of Drury Lane. Confronted by her famous great-great-grandfather’s image, Oriana recalled that he had often disregarded the common good and followed his own selfish desires.

  She was sacrificing her own pleasure, banishing herself at the very height of the social and theatrical and racing season. The prospect of leaving her confidante Harriot, her amusing friend Matthew, her comfortable Soho Square house, and all her many cherished possessions was a bitter one. But if she remained, she’d become enmeshed in a scandal like the one three years ago. Its damage had been lasting.

  Moving to the sofa, she picked up her Neapolitan mandoline. Plucking the strings, she declared, “All my songs will be melancholy ones, and the audiences will be reduced to tears.”

  The earl’s expression was milder when he said, “I stable my own carriage horses at the chief posting houses along the Chester Road. You may help yourself to them-I insist.”

  Although Oriana could afford to pay her own way, she saw no reason not to accept his generous offer. “Thank you. My maid and I can look forward to a most comfortable journey. Suke goes with me—her family live near Chester, and she’s eager to see them again.”

  After Rushton wrote down the posting houses where she and her servant should stop, and supplied the name of the best inn in Chester, he took her hand. “To obtain the best service while visiting my shire, mention my name.” His dry lips brushed her knuckles, and after a curt bow for Harriot, he departed.

  “He’s so cold and forbidding,” Harriot commented as his lordship’s town coach rolled past the drawing-room window.

  “Before I knew him better, I shared that view. But he stood by me and supported me during my darkest days—as you did—and I can never forget it. I do understand his dismay at all this trouble Matthew has caused.”

  Harriot sighed. “Mr. Powell is so lively and full of fun—he’s the perfect match for you. And you’re so fond of him.”

  “Fond enough to help him salvage his marriage to an heiress whose father intends to pay off his debts.

  He’s desperately in love with Lady Liza; he merely threw himself at me to make her jealous. Six years a widow, and I’ve received only one honorable proposal—made in jest.” With a soft laugh, she admitted, “I was tempted to accept, just to see how Matthew would wriggle out of it.”

  “You’ll marry again,” Harriot cheerfully predicted.

  “Who will have the bastard daughter of Nosegay Sal, Covent Garden ballad singer, and the Duke of St. Albans? My great-great-grandparents were an actress and a King of England. My pedigree isn’t likely to attract a respectable gentleman, and my profession only enhances my ineligibility. I’m ‘that St.

  Albans creature,’ whose every gown and hat becomes the rage among females who don’t deign to notice or speak to me.”

  “Their husbands and their sons do.”

  “For all the worst reasons.”

  “I don’t much care what sort of man I wed,” Harriot confided, “so long as he’s fond of me. And very rich.”

  After a brief silence, Oriana mused, “Perhaps I should copy the heroine of that absurd play we saw at Covent Garden, the night all this trouble with Matthew started. If I escape to a quiet, remote village and live there under a different name, I might impress some dashing fellow with my gentility and air of mystery.”

  “Silly, it’s your beauty he’ll notice first,” said her friend. “When the Drury Lane season ends, I’ll join you in Liverpool. All the merchants and manufacturers from miles around attend the theater. We’ll each find a wealthy gentleman who will woo us and wed us and satisfy our every whim, no matter how expensive!”

  Oriana’s merry, high-spirited friend made her laugh away her cares and stave off despair. Unlike Harriot, it wasn’t money she wanted. She craved companionship, understanding, affection—and the romantic passion described in the arias she sang. After so many years of waiting for the hero of her secret dreams, she was convinced she’d never meet him in her beloved London.

  PART I

  The wisdom, Madam, of your private life,

  Wherewith this while you live a widowed wife,

  And the right ways you take unto the right,

  To conquer rumour, and triumph on spite;

  Not only shunning by your act, to do

  Aught that is ill, but the suspicion too….

  —Ben Jonson

  Chapter 1

  Ramsey, Isle of Man

  May 1799

  This birthday, Sir Darius Corlett reflected from the head of the long table, was the last he would spend in his town house.

  Within weeks, he’d move into the countryside villa he’d designed and built for himself. His spirits soared higher as he imagined some future dinner party in its elegant, oval dining room. He and his guests would converse and play cards in the spacious drawing room, surrounded by paintings of the Manx landscape—scenes of mountains and seaports and coastal cliffs.

  As if guessing his thoughts, his architect cocked a grin and lifted his glass and they shared a silent toast. David Hamilton, a canny and talented Scotsman, had transformed Dare’s rudimentary sketches into an impressive structure of locally quarried stone, with plenty of tall windows to take advantage of the views from Skyhill.

  Wingate, the butler, opened a mahogany cellaret containing several decanters—cognac, brandy, rum, port. Familiar with each guest’s preference, he served them with brisk efficiency. Then the birthday toasts began. Dare accepted congratulations on attaining his thirtieth year and endured many a jest about his advancing age. He received two bottles of whiskey, one from the Scotsman and one from the Irishman, and each of his fellow islanders presented him with a rock.

  “For your collection,” said his cousin, Tom Gilchrist.

  Dare held the specimens close to the candelabrum. “Granite, veined with quartz. Graywacke, a common form of Manx slate.”

  “We couldn’t think what else to offer the man who has everything,” Tom explained.

  “Buck and I considered providing you with another present,” George Quayle stated, “which was certain to excite you—and satisfy you. But young Tommy disapproved of our plan.” He sipped his rum, then asked, “What name have you chosen for that fine new dwelling of yours, Dare? Mr. Hamilton’s plans and drawings are labeled Villa for Sir Darius Corlett. Surely you can improve upon that.”

  Tom leaned forward. “You say you’ll not be happy till you’re living up there on your hill. Perhaps you should call your place Happiness.”

  Dare frowned. “Sounds like something a woman would choose.”

  Accustomed to his habit of plain-speaking, Tom laughed.

  Buck Whaley said, “When I christened my mansion, I chose a name with military connotations: Fort Anne.”

  The suggestion had merit. “My property was the site of a great battle, hundreds of years ago.

  Unfortunately, the Manxmen surrendered to the victorious Godred, who proclaimed himself king of the island. I wouldn’t care to commemorate their defeat by an invading force.”

  “It’s the new fashion to give island houses English names,” George Quayle pointed out. “The Elms, perhaps. Or if you prefer Manx, Ny Lhiouanyn.”

  Dare smiled. “That would be a cruel trick on my Sostnagh friends from across the water, whose tongues would never get round the Gailck. I’ve no prejudice against an English name. After all, the money that built the villa was carved out of my Derbyshire lead mines.”

  “Now that you’ve got the home of your dreams,” said Hamilton, his voice thickened by a Scots burr, ”

  ‘tis time you found yourself a wee wife to share it.”

  “Dare? A wife?” Tom chortled. “He won’t have one. His betrothal gave him a distaste for matrimony.”

  The architect, a dev
oted husband and proud father, wanted to know why.

  “The young lady fancied my money more than she did me.” Dare made a joke of it, yet his voice retained a hard edge. “If ever I marry, my bride’s wealth must match mine. Better still, exceed it.”

  In a tone of reproof, his cousin said, “If you were wed, you wouldn’t need to visit the house of pleasure in Douglas town.”

  “And if you ever went there yourself,” he retorted, “you’d find out that most of the clientele are married gentlemen.”

  “Now that his building project is completed,” said Whaley, “Dare has more time for his favorite diversion. What a pity there’s no brothel here in Ramsey.”

  Quayle gave a rude guffaw.

  Wingate entered on silent feet and approached Dare’s chair.

  “A visitor requests your immediate attention, sir. Should she return another time, or do you prefer to receive her now?”

  A female, at that hour? “Who is she?”

  “She seemed to regard the question as an impertinence. I can tell you only that she’s English, and elegantly dressed.”

  “Old or young?”

  “The latter, sir.” The butler’s meager lips stretched into a semblance of a smile. “Her features are most appealing.”

  “He’ll see her,” Buck Whaley stated.

  Curiosity got the better of Dare. “I believe I will.”

  Wingate nodded, as if he’d expected that response. “She waits in your study.”

  Promising to return momentarily, Dare carried his brandy glass out of the dining room.

  She stood before his desk, this unnamed visitor who had breached his well-guarded privacy, and frowned down at the jumble of handwritten papers. The elegance his butler had discerned was striking.

  Coils of auburn hair were intricately arranged atop her dainty head. Her profile was as pale and as cleanly cut as a cameo; her neck was long and white. She wore a long, flowing cloak of deep blue velvet, its hood hanging down her back. Her gown, doubtless very costly, was cut from a dark, shiny fabric and ornamented with a frivolous flounce at the bottom.

 
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