Never underestimate your first impression on a lady.
-The School of Gallantry
THERE IS USUALLY ONE defining moment in every woman’s life when she realizes she is destined to fall in love with the wrong man and there is absolutely nothing she can do to save herself. For Lady Caroline Arabella Starling, the daughter of the notoriously scandalous Earl of Hawksford, it happened late one morning in London in the year of 1824, when she was an impossible, impressionable, and most passionate thirteen years of age.
She was teetering on the library ladder, on the tips of her satin-slippered toes, trying to reach a pornographic book her brother had cleverly hidden behind the bible, when a young gentleman with golden wavy hair and dark brown eyes appeared beside her.
“Might I be of assistance?” he rumbled out.
Startled at seeing a man she didn’t know, her foot slipped. “Aaah!”
He jumped toward her and grabbed her waist hard, keeping her from falling down all eight wood-lacquered steps.
Her heart popped as she savagely clung to both him and the ladder. It took her several ragged breaths before she realized she wasn’t on the floor with a broken neck.
He steadied her, leaned in and chided, “You really ought to more careful.”
She glared. “I was being careful. What are you— I almost died! A man should never sneak up on a lady unannounced. Especially if she is on a ladder.”
He released her corseted waist, a gruff laugh escaping him. “I didn’t mean to startle you. You appeared to be in need of assistance.” Reaching up beyond the ladder with a well-muscled arm that strained his coat, he retrieved the leather-bound book from behind the bible. “Was this what you wanted?”
She paused, realizing he was holding the book she had been trying to read for weeks, and prayed it wasn’t too pornographic in nature. Though knowing her brother it probably was. Not that it ever kept her from reading his books. She was always looking for new words she couldn’t find in the dictionary. And pornographic books were full of them. “Uh…yes. Thank you.”
“Of course.” He smiled and lowered the book toward her. “Is there any other book you needed?”
“No.” She stared.
Though he was dressed in perfectly tailored, evening attire, it appeared to have been slept in. And most likely it had been. It was, after all, morning. Even his linen cravat was lopsided against his throat and his blond hair was a wind-blown mess whispering of a man who used his fingers as opposed to a comb to tidy himself. He did, however, smell splendidly of soap and hair tonic.
“Are you coming down?” He gently tapped the bottom of the ladder with his large leather boot. “I don’t want you to fall.”
She had no idea who he was. She should have screamed, given there was a stranger in her home, but her upbringing was such that very few things caused her to scream. “You have eight breaths to tell me who you are and what you are doing in my home before I call in every last footman.”
He quirked a brow. “I just saved your life.”
She pursed her lips. “After you almost ended it.”
He smirked. “You must be one of Baxendale’s sisters.”
“I’m certainly not his mother.”
He laughed. “No. Most certainly not. She doesn’t have quite as many freckles on her nose.” His dark eyes mockingly brightened. “It’s a pleasure to meet you. The name is Lord Caldwell. I’m an acquaintance of your brother’s.”
Oho. She knew that name. She’d been hearing it for years. And annoyingly, he was better looking than she imagined he would be. “Well, well. If it isn’t the Marquis of Caldwell from Devonshire. A man notorious for always getting my brother into trouble. Since you and he became friends, my father has whipped his backside approximately fourteen times. Fourteen. What do you have to say for yourself?”
He eyed her. “That your brother probably deserved it.”
She sighed. Yes. Her brother probably did. “Well, at least he isn’t a criminal.”
“Ey. And what is that supposed to mean?”
“Alex told me you robbed His Majesty of his lucky sovereign a few weeks ago.”
He snorted. “I didn’t rob him. I won it fairly at a game of cards.”
She rolled her eyes. “I find it very difficult to believe the King, who is pre-occupied overseeing the whole of this country at all hours of the day, would grant you an audience merely to play cards.”
“He didn’t grant me an audience. I was invited to join in on a game when he visited my club.”
She squinted. “The King makes random visits to clubs? Since when?”
“What do you mean since when? The man has to occasionally get out of the palace and live life outside of duty, doesn’t he?”
That actually made sense. She hesitated and softened her tone, realizing she was being needlessly rude. “It must have been incredibly exciting to have met him.”
His features brightened. “It was. I actually met him once before at a formal levee when I was presented as the new Marquis. A greater honor I have never known.”
It appeared he loved his King. Good. They had something in common. “Might I ask what His Majesty was like?”
“Incredibly witty, forthcoming and generous. I liked him.”
If only she could have met the King. “Was he tall?”
“No. He was rather short.”
“Oh.” How sad. A short King? “But he was incredibly good looking, yes?”
He shifted from boot to boot. “Only if you like the hefty sort. He barely fit into the chair he sat in.”
A short, stubby King who couldn’t fit into a chair? So much for her fantasy of marrying into royalty. An exasperated sigh escaped her. “How disappointing. I had imagined His Majesty to be glorious. As all Kings ought to be.”
“Oh, he was glorious,” he drawled. “Though not in the way you are thinking.”
“Ah.” She hesitated. “So do you have it on you?”
“The sovereign you won off of His Majesty. Do you have it on you?”
“Yes. Why?” He patted his embroidered waistcoat pocket.
She almost jumped off the ladder and into his arms in excitement. “Might I see it? Given it belonged to His Majesty?”
He paused. “After being accused of stealing it? Why would I?”
She held his gaze. “I didn’t mean it.”
He kept his rugged face and tone serious. “Something tells me you did.”
She winced. “I’m always prickly toward people I don’t know. It’s a terrible trait of mine. But I’m learning to overcome it.”
“At least you know the sort of traits your guilty of.” He smiled. With the hand that wasn’t holding the book, he dug into his pocket and snapped up the gold sovereign between this thumb and forefinger. He held it out toward her. “Go on.”
A gushing grin tugged her lips. Leaning over the side of the ladder, she carefully retrieved the coin. The gold surface glinted against the morning sunlight streaking into the library. The fading date of 1732 was stamped into it center, its worn edges whispering that it had been carried around in many a pocket for more than a generation. “If it belonged to the King, why is it so worn?”
He lowered his voice as if imparting a secret. “Because as you can see by the date, it’s almost a hundred years old and has passed through many hands since it was minted. According to His Majesty, it was carried in the pocket of many a great man, including that of Wellington himself, when he fought against Napoleon. The duke gifted it to the King as a token from the war. I don’t know why His Majesty wagered it, but it’s priceless. Do you know how many men have tried to buy this off of me since it came into my possession? Countless. But I can assure you, no amount of money will make me part with it. Because if this coin can bring a man enough good fortune to produce a victory at Waterloo, imagine what it can do for me.”
How extraordinary. “So you think it’s lucky?”
“I don’t think. I know. This coin is going to change my life. Great things lay ahead for me.”
She glanced toward him, sensing he actually believed in its ability to change his fortune. It was endearing and reminded her of the way she wished upon stars at night. “What sort of great things?”
“For one, I intend to buy back my father’s estate in Essex.”
She blinked. “You don’t own an estate?”
His features sombered. “No. My father lost it. When I was a boy.”
“Oh.” Fingering its worn gold surface, she decided it was best to divert the conversation. She could tell it made him sad. “I hope the King’s sovereign brings you luck and more. I truly do.” She held it back out.
“I appreciate the sentiment.” Re-claiming the coin, he smoothed it against his hand, admiring it, before tucking it back into his pocket. “It’s the first time I ever won anything.”
His words and his demeanor hinted that this Caldwell wasn’t the rakish snob she had imagined he would be given his high station in life. It was humbling. “You seem very amiable. Which surprises me.”
A laugh cracked his somber appearance. “Does it?”
“Yes. From all the stories I heard about you shooting decanters of cognac with your pistols, I thought you were crazier than my brother.”
He leaned in. “Don’t believe everything you hear. No man is crazier than your brother. And I would never shoot decanters of cognac with pistols. It’s a waste of my favorite drink.” He slowly grinned.
That overly inviting grin crinkled not only the edges of his mouth but his eyes in a way that made her inwardly melt. She liked this Caldwell. He seemed warm and genuine. And handsome. She liked the way his sunlit blond hair fell toward his smoky, dark eyes. The contrast between light and dark was striking. “How old are you? Twenty?”
He eyed her, his grin fading. “Why do you want to know?”
She shrugged. “Ah, you know how it is. A girl has to start considering prospects and you seem intelligent and amiable enough for me to consider.”
He lowered his chin. “I’m three and twenty. Which is a bit old for your tastes.”
She attempted to keep her voice mature and breathy. “Oh, I wouldn’t say that. According to Mama, a man needs to be at least ten years older than a woman if their minds are to ever meet. And Mama knows a thing or two about men, having dealt with Papa’s rakish and wild antics for well over twenty years. So tell me. Are you on the market for a wife yet? Or are you still debating?”
He smirked, searching her face. “Are you always like this?”
“Annoyingly adorable?” she echoed. “Is that supposed to be a compliment?”
He dabbed her nose. “It is. I rarely find anyone to be both. Might I ask which sister of the five you are?”
Her pulse lurched. Why did she feel her life was about to change with this introduction? Was this how it felt like when a lady met a gentleman at a social gathering? “I’m Lady Caroline. I’m the oldest of my sisters.”
He paused, his brows momentarily flickering. “You’re Lady Caroline?”
He said it as if there was something wrong with her. She really hated her brother sometimes. “Whatever Alex told you about me is a lie. I’m incredibly well mannered.”
“I don’t doubt it.” He switched the book he was holding into his other hand, intently searching her face. “Your brother, however, tells me you like to collect...words,” he stated ominously. “And not very nice ones at that.”
Leave it to her brother to snitch. “And? What of it?”
“Shouldn’t you be occupying yourself with more respectable activities?”
“Such as?” she countered.
“Such as singing and playing the pianoforte.”
She dubiously eyed him. “Have you met my family? We only sing and play the pianoforte when champagne is involved.”
He chuckled. “You’re too young for champagne.”
“What little you know. I’ve had it twice.”
He tsked. “Why does that not surprise me given who your family is?” He tapped the ladder. “Hold on with both hands, will you? You’re making me nervous. Or better yet, come down. There is no need for you stay on the ladder.”
She set her chin. “I prefer being at this height. I dislike looking up at people during a conversation.” Re-adjusting her grip on the ladder, she glanced toward the vast open doorway of the library behind them. “Where is my brother? Do you know? I haven’t seen him all morning.”
“He and I were out all night.”
“Oh. Were you and he at a party?”
He rolled his tongue on the inside of his mouth before blurting, “Something like that.”
He must have thought she was stupid. “He debauched himself again, didn’t he? And apparently, you did, too. Though hopefully not together.”
His brows rose. “You did not just say what I thought you did.”
She sighed, realizing that despite the fact he and her brother had known each other for some time, he was still rather new to the ways of her crazy family. “I know full well what goes on in the male world and have since I was eleven. In my humble opinion, and I do mean humble, my lord, you ought to be a better friend to him and cease encouraging him to chase women. Because it’s all he ever does. I ask of you, what if he gets the pox? What then? There is no cure for it and he is the only heir to the Hawksford estate. My father says if a man is fortunate enough to survive any and all mercury treatments, the pox still causes things to fall off. Important things.” She lowered her voice. “If you know what I mean.”
He stared. “You know far too much for your age.”
She rolled her eyes. “One can never know too much.”
He hesitated. “I should probably go.”
Her stomach dropped. No one ever liked talking to her. “I’m overly forward in nature, aren’t I?”
“Oh, no. I was enjoying our conversation. Until we got on the topic of the pox.”
She cringed and knew she had to learn to keep her mouth shut. She simply wasn’t used to associating with anyone outside her family.
He blew out a breath and glanced around. “Do you know where the cards are at? Baxendale said they would be in here and I don’t want to keep him waiting.”
She blinked.“You and my brother plan on playing cards after being out all night? Aren’t you tired?”
He shrugged. “I’m used to being up all night.”
“Oh.” She eased her grip on the ladder and remembered to breathe. “The cards are in the game box. Beside the window.”
“Thank you.” He stepped back with the book.
She inwardly winced, realizing he still had her brother’s pornographic book in his hand. “Might I have my book back, please?” She tried to be casual about it.
“Of course. What are you reading? Anything good?” He glanced at the leather bound book that read Confessions of a Voluptuous Young Lady and paused, brows coming together.
Paging through it slowly and then quickly upon realizing there were nude sketches of individuals in every compromising position possible, he eyed her. “You plan on reading this?”
For the first time in her life, she felt her entire face burn. She wasn’t used to explaining herself to people. Her parents were incredibly liberal and forgiving. Perhaps a bit too liberal and forgiving. As a result, they weren’t exactly popular with the ton. And she doubted she would be, either, when she debuted. “It’s research.” It wasn’t a lie.
“Rearch?” He wagged the book at her. “For God’s sake, you aren’t old enough for this sort of research.”
He sounded like her brother. “I beg to differ. My age puts me at an advantage. It will take me years to record all of the words that go unnamed in a dictionary. Do you know how many pieces of pornography are published every month and how many renditions of disreputable slang there is in each one? I can barely keep up.”
His lips parted. “And why the devil are you recording disreputable words?”
“Because it’s fascinating and I plan on making a book out of it. A book of unsavory cant. I’m already alphabetizing all of the words in the way a dictionary does, whilst explaining the term of each one. ‘Tis never been done before and I have no doubt I could turn quite the profit. Though I suppose I should use a pseudonym. Lest I get arrested for it. Or hanged.”
He shifted toward her. “I hate to disappoint you, but a book like that already exists. It’s called The Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue. I own a copy.”
She officially felt stupid. “You do?”
She hesitated. “Is it any good?”
She perked. “Might I borrow it from you sometime?”
He widened his stance. “No. Absolutely not.”
She sagged. “Why not?”
“Because I don’t loan inappropriate books to girls who are still in the nursery.”
“I’m not in the nursery anymore,” she quickly pointed out. “I’ve had my own room since January.”
He slapped the book shut. “You aren’t reading this. Find another book. One more suited to your sex and your age.”
Caroline clomped down the ladder, annoyed with him for not cooperating. “And who are you to say what is or isn’t appropriate to my sex and my age?”
“Aren’t you only thirteen?” he pressed.
“Only?” she tossed back. “Thirteen is no small feat, my lord. I am but five years from being a debutante and have had my menses for a whole month. A whole month! I can already have children if I willed it.”
He winced. “I really don’t need to know that.”
“Clearly, you do. Because you’re treating me like a child.”
“Maybe because you are a child.” He angled toward her. “What would your father say if I told him you were reading this?”
That sounded like a threat. She hopped off the last step of the ladder, landing onto the floor beside him and stared him down despite his imposing height. “My father says being ignorant to the ways of men can create problems for a girl like myself. There are men in society who seduce naïve girls under the age of sixteen all the time. And guess what? I won’t be one of them.”
He shifted his jaw. “Your father should have waited a few more years.”
“Tosh to that, I say. My parents believe in liberation through proper education, for which I am endlessly grateful for. Now can I have my book please? Because I am permitted to read any book in this library as long as I can reach it. Ask my father.”
He tapped the book. “Then I suppose this is off limits. Because you weren’t able to reach it on your own, were you?” Tucking the book into the large pocket of his evening coat, he turned and strode toward the game box. Opening the box, he dug out a deck of cards.
For a man who gallivanted with her brother, he was incredibly tight laced. “That isn’t your book,” she called out.
“It is now,” he called back. “Confessions of a Voluptuous Young Lady, my nose. It was probably written by some lice-infested old man sitting in a cellar with his trousers around both ankles. I’ll be sure to dispose of it so you can’t read it.”
She gasped. “I would say by the way you tucked it into your pocket, you plan on reading it yourself, not disposing of it.”
He captured her gaze. “I don’t read pornography. It’s a waste of time.”
She blinked, feeling a blush coming on knowing they were actually discussing pornography. “What sort of books do you read?” She actually wanted to know.
“Ones that inspire me to see past my nose.” With a long legged stride that took him toward the door, he tossed over his broad shoulder, “Read Persuasion. You will never be the same.” With that, he left the room.
She jerked toward the shelf. Her mother had read that. “Persuasion?” she echoed after him. “Isn’t that a romance?”
He re-appeared, leaning in against the doorframe. “Yes. And it happens to be one of my favorite books. Only don’t tell your brother or I’ll refute it.”
His favorite book was a romance written by a woman? Unbelievable. “I won’t tell him.”
“Good.” He thumbed toward the corridor behind him. “I have to go. I shouldn’t keep your brother waiting.”
He was leaving? Already? She tried to hide her disappointment. She rarely got to meet anyone outside her family. “It was a pleasure to meet you, my lord.”
"Call me Caldwell.”
“Only if you call me Caroline.”
“Done.” Still leaning against the doorframe, he added, “You brightened my morning. Which I confess I needed. Thank you.”
Her breath caught, realizing that his tone was incredibly sincere. “I did?”
“Does that mean you intend to visit with me again?”
He smirked. “Men my age don’t visit girls your age.”
She tried not to be offended. “Why not? I could be a good friend. Unlike my brother, I enjoy talking about everything. And I would never disappoint you by making you feel unwanted. If you needed me, I would be there to assist you in any manner you required. Ask any of my sisters about the sort of person I am.”
He gave her a pointed look. “I’m certain there are many girls your age you can be friends with.”
She slowly shook her head and miserably countered, “I don’t have any friends. Nor do we hardly ever get visitors. Society avoids us. They always have. They say very bad things about my mother. Though I am quite certain you know that.”
He captured her gaze, his rugged features softening. After a long moment, he asked, “Do you play whist?”
She stared. “I do.”
“Then we shall have to arrange a time to play. How are Thursdays for you?”
She almost fainted. “Lovely. Thursdays are lovely.”
“Good. Now chin up. You just made your first friend.” He smiled and with the push of his propped arm against the doorway, he disappeared, his booted steps fading.
A breath escaped her. By all that was great and good.
Leaning a cheek against the cool wood of the ladder beside her, Caroline longingly gazed after him. She was smitten. And she knew it was for life.