Be wary of the flirtations you engage in. No matter how
respectable a man may appear, he cannot and should not ever be trusted.
-How To Avoid a Scandal
Late evening, 11:31 p.m.
16th of April 1829
Grosvenor Square - London, England
After the carriage had clattered off into the silence of the night, back toward the coach house, Tristan Adam Hargrove, the fourth Marquis of Moreland, continued to linger on the shadowed doorstep of his town home. He eyed the entrance door before him, knowing full well that when he opened it and stepped inside, there would be no Quincy scampering over to greet him. There would be nothing but a large, empty foyer and eerie silence he wasn’t in the mood to embrace.
Re-adjusting his horse hair top hat with the tips of his gloved fingers, Tristan turned and descended the paved stairs he had just climbed. With a few strides, he crossed the cobblestone street and veered beneath the canopy of trees dimly lit by several gas lampposts.
Though the hour suggested he retire, with the recent death of his revered hound Quincy, it had become far too quiet in the house and punctuated the reality of his own life: that he was still a goddamn bachelor with or without Quincy. Fortunately, he knew how to occupy himself well enough from day to day not to muse too much over his lack of prospects or the fact that his dog was dead.
On Mondays, after a long ride through Hyde Park, he met with his secretary for the day. On Tuesdays, he visited his grandmother. On Wednesdays, he tarried at Brooks’s, almost always evading discussions with fellow peers pertaining to the debates plaguing Parliament. No one ever pestered him about it because they all knew his political views weren’t held by the majority anyway.
On Thursdays, he spent the entire day at Angelo’s Fencing Academy, relentlessly scheduling match after match against the best opponents in an effort to remain fit. On Fridays, he roamed the British Museum, the National Gallery or the Egyptian Hall, never tiring of the same exhibits, although he did pester the curators more than any decent man should.
On Saturdays, he answered correspondences, including any letters forwarded by his publisher, and though he designated most evenings to balls, soirées and dinners, in the hopes of meeting marriageable women, the invitations were usually sent by individuals he either detested or didn’t even care to know. He was desperate for a companion, but not that desperate. On Sundays, he became a moral citizen and went to church. There, he prayed for what all men prayed for: a better life.
Tristan scanned the grouped homes around him, the endless rows of darkened windows reminding him he ought to retire himself. Just as he was about to turn and do exactly that, his gaze paused on a brightly lit window high above, belonging to the newly let townhome opposite his own. His brows rose as he came to an abrupt halt, the soles of his boots scuffing the pavement.
There, lounging in a chair at the base of a window whose curtains had been pulled open, was a young woman brushing unbound, ebony hair. She brushed with slow, steady strokes, the oversized sleeve of her white nightdress shifting and rippling against the movement of her slim arm. The elegant curve of her ivory throat erotically appeared and disappeared with each movement, displaying an exceedingly low neckline. All the while, her gaze was dreamily fixed up toward the cloudy night sky above.
In that single breath of a moment, mad though it was, Tristan’s intuition insisted that this stunning vision before him was the divine intervention he’d been waiting for since he was old enough to understand a woman’s worth. Hell, golden light was spilling forth from above with enough glorious intent to make the blind notice. All that was missing were the soft notes of a flute and the yearning strings of a violin. It really couldn’t be anymore obvious what God was telling him to consider.
Love thy neighbor.
Though the realist corrupting his soul demanded he retire and avoid his moronic intuition, the romantic that occasionally peered in from time to time whispered for him to stay. Wandering closer, he moved beyond the shadows of the trees and focused on the features of that oval face as it came into better view. The vast amount of light in her bedchamber illuminated her entirely, tinting one side of her smooth, porcelain face and the edges of her dark hair with a soft, golden hue that was mesmerizing.
Who was she? And what sort of woman left her curtains open at night for the world to see her in a state of undress? Damn if he knew.
Weeks earlier, he’d noted the house which had been standing empty for months had finally been let, and that various footmen, attired in royal livery, had been carrying in furniture and trunks for days. Prior to tonight, however, he’d never once seen this woman either leaving or entering the residence.
Reaching the pavement leading to the entrance of her home, he lingered, oddly sensing he would remember this night for years to come.
The woman paused. She lowered her hair brush, shifting toward the window. Sections of her face faded into soft shadows, making him keenly aware that she was officially privy to his presence.
He didn’t know why he continued to stand there like some perverted dolt, but he did. He supposed limiting his association with women throughout the years had led him to do very strange things even he did not understand.
She hesitated, only to then wave, as if there was nothing amiss with waving to an unknown man lurking outside her bedchamber window at this time of night.
His pulse thundered as he stared up at her. Was she mistaking him for someone else? She had to be. Did he care she was mistaking him for someone else? God, no.
Unable to resist, he touched his gloved hand to the curved rim of his hat in a gentlemanly salute, and hoped there wasn’t a husband there in the room with her. A husband who could already be loading lead balls into a pistol whilst enlisting his wife’s assistance in setting up the target.
The woman snapped up a forefinger, wordlessly requesting his patience, then unlatched the window and to his astonishment, pushed it wide open. She leaned out, her wavy black hair cascading past the window in a single sweep, and casually propped herself against the sill as if she were Rapunzel in the flesh. The ruffled décolletage of her billowy, white nightdress shifted and spilled forward, exposing the golden glint of a locket swaying on a chain as well as pale round tops of the most stunning breasts he’d ever had the pleasure of encountering.
Tristan fisted his gloved hands, forcing his mind and his body to remain calm.
She smiled flirtatiously down at him and supplied in a sensuous, foreign accent he couldn’t quite place, “’Tis a pleasure to finally meet you, my lord. You live in the house directly across from mine. Do you not?”
He couldn’t help but be flattered knowing she had been waving to him, after all. Trying not to stare up at those lovely breasts that taunted him beneath that low hanging scoop of her nightdress, he offered, “Yes. I do.”
Awkward silence hung between them.
Should he ask for her name? No. That would be crass and insinuate far too much. So what should he say? Stupid though it was, he couldn’t think of anything.
She half-nodded and glanced up toward the cloudy night sky above, tapping the brush against the bare palm of her other hand. “A rather pleasant evening despite all the clouds. Is it not?”
Weather was death to any conversation. Why couldn’t he be more dashing? Why couldn’t he be more...debonaire? Why couldn’t he-- “Yes. Yes, it is.”
“And is it always this cloudy in London?”
“Unfortunately.” Christ, he was pathetic.
Awkward silence hung between them again.
A playful, melodious laugh rippled through the night air. “Is that all I am worth? Two or three words at a time and nothing more?” She wagged her silver hairbrush down at him. “You British are so annoyingly coy. Why is that?”
He cleared his throat and glanced about the quiet darkness of the square, hoping that no one was watching him make an oaf of himself. “Coy? No. Not coy. Curt. Curt best defines us.”
She laughed again. “Yes. Curt. That certainly explains everyone’s apparent lack of conversational skills. Might I venture to ask how a woman, such as myself, is ever to befriend a man, such as yourself, when all forms of conversation here in London appear to be so...stilted?”
Though the last thing he wanted was to expose this sultry foreigner to any gossip by continuing their conversation, the ass that he was, he couldn’t resist. There was a playful intelligence in her demeanor that was as bold as it was fortifying. Even more intriguing was that delectable, soft twang of an accent. Unlike most foreigners whose English was irregular, course and difficult to understand whilst they struggled to find words, hers was clipped, perfect and beyond well versed.
Moving closer, Tristan grabbed hold of the iron railing lining her home. Propping his leather boot onto the ledge between the railings, he hoisted himself up, wishing there weren’t three whole floors separating them.
He observed her heatedly, admiring the way her long, dark hair framed her pale face and how it swayed past the window against the soft breeze. A sharp nose and wide, full lips, made her exotic in a subtle way, though he couldn’t quite make out the color of her eyes against the shadows and the light filtering out from behind her.
Damn, but she was alluring. A bit too alluring. “I am afraid, Madam, even if my conversational skills were to exceed all of your expectations, we still couldn’t be friends.”
Her lips parted. “Why ever not?”
Because friendship is not what I have in mind for us, he wanted to say. Instead, he smiled tauntingly and tilted his head, the weight of his top hat shifting. He wished he could reach up and glide his fingertips across her exposed throat. “I think it best I not comment on any of my thoughts.”
She arched a brow. “Are you flirting with me?”
“Attempting to.” And failing miserably...
“Shall I assist you in your attempt?”
“No. Please don’t.” Unlike most men, who eagerly chased after beautiful women who riled all of their God given talents, he avoided such stupidity at every turn because he knew what it would lead to: disaster. He had to be sensible whenever it came to women and do things properly to ensure nothing fell outside of his control. And this was not proper. Nor did he feel as if he were in control. He needed to retire and weigh how to go about pursuing this in a civil manner.
He leaned against the railing he continued to balance himself on. “Before I say good night, madam -- which I am afraid I must -- being the gentleman that I am, I feel compelled to say something that I hope will not offend.”
She smiled. “I rarely find myself offended.”
“Good.” He lowered his voice. “Setting aside my pathetic attempt to be dashing, which I can only apologize for, you really shouldn’t be flaunting yourself like this. ‘Tis indecent. Come morning, regardless of whatever does or does not happen between us, everyone in this square will assume we are lovers. Is that what you want for yourself?”
She shrugged. “What others have to say about my character does not concern me. After all, I am foreigner and a Roman Catholic, and as such, everyone will seek to condemn me in whatever it is I do. Though I suppose if a man of your size quakes at the thought of what others will think, perhaps we should end this conversation. I most certainly do not wish to place your reputation at risk.”
He tightened his hold on the railing, squelching his need to scale the wall, grab her and drag her over to his house for the night. “I suggest you cease being so flippant. London is extremely vicious when it comes to the reputation of a woman.”
She rolled her eyes. “If you are so worried about my reputation, why ever did you initiate this conversation?”
“Me?” He laughed. “I beg your pardon, but I didn’t initiate this conversation. You did.”
“In theory, yes, I did. But in fact, no, I did not. You did.”
“What?” he echoed, his brows coming together.
“You wandered over to my window, not I to yours. Whether my curtains were open or not, ultimately, it was your decision to stay and watch me in a state of undress. Upon discovering you still had no intention on departing, even after you had noticed that I had noticed you, I was therein compelled to open my window and offer you conversation, because I did not want any of our neighbors to think the worst of you. Regrettably, that makes you accountable for tarnishing both of our reputations. Would you not say?”
Damn. That actually made sense.
He dug the palm of his hand harder against the rail, the sting relieving his tension. “I assure you, I don’t usually wander the streets at night seeking to--”
“There is no need to apologize.” She grinned, her cheeks rounding. “I am well aware of your respectability, my lord. Do you think I would have opened my window if I had any doubts as to who you were or what you were capable of? Gump, I am not. And although this may be our very first formal meeting, I know everything about you and your renown gentlemanly ways.”
He smirked at her adorable naïveté and leaned back, allowing a gloved hand to fall away from the iron railing he remained perched on. “I recommend you not place too much faith in thinking you know anything about me. I play the role of a gentleman for a reason, and I assure you, it has nothing to do with respectability.”
She tilted her head to one side, observing him intently. “You are utterly fascinating.”
“Yes. I ardently hope that you and I will be able to pursue this to the fullest extent.”
Tristan’s grip almost slipped. He grabbed hold of the railing with his other hand to quickly balance himself and glanced up at her. Was she...? “The fullest extent? The fullest extent of what?”
She playfully rocked back and forth against the window sill, swaying her hair along with it. “Must I say it? Our neighbors might be listening.”
This was officially getting out of hand. And he was entirely to blame for it. “No. Do not say it. Do not even think it. We either go about this civilly or not at all.”
She shifted her weight against the sill, swaying the locket around her throat and met his gaze. “You obviously think the worst of me.” She sighed. “Though I cannot blame you. Allow me to confess what it is I hope for us.”
“I am in need of a husband by summer’s end and you, my lord, fit all of the qualifications I seek.”
“Oh, do I?” He let out an exasperated laugh, released the iron railing and jumped back down onto the pavement with a solid thud. It was time to leave. Or by God, he would end up married to a foreigner and a Catholic by the end of the night. His overly Protestant grandmother would have a fit.
Stepping further back, he met her shadowed gaze and confided in a low, raw tone, “Here in London, there are rules as to how things are conducted between men and women, and I confess as of right now, you and I are breaking every single one of those rules.”
She sighed. “You British have rules for everything. How did this country ever populate itself?” She winced, shifting against the sill, and then set her chin. “Advise me as to how we should go about progressing this and I promise to adhere to whatever rules there may or may not be.”
There had to be something wrong with her. Beautiful, intelligent women didn’t miraculously appear into a gentleman’s neighborhood and enthusiastically offer relationships through a window in the middle of the night. Not respectable relationships, anyway.
He’d best pretend to be indifferent until he knew more about her. “I regret to inform you, madam, I am not interested in pursuing this.” Not yet.
“I disagree.” She gestured toward him with the tip of her brush. “You appear to be very interested. Otherwise you would have never stayed this long.”
He snorted, realizing she’d called his bluff. “Allow me take my leave before you drown in all that vanity. Good night.” He gave her a curt nod, turned and strode away, chanting to himself to keep walking. He needed to keep walking before he did something ludicrous. Like turn around, walk back and ask her if he could come up for the night.
“I am not vain!” she called out. “I was simply making an observation based off of your mannerisms!”
He quickened his pace before she figured out anything else based off of his mannerisms.
“Might we at least part amiably?” Her voice echoed across the entire square. “We are neighbors, Lord Moreland. Or might I call you Tristan? Or Adam? Or do you prefer Hargrove?”
He jerked to a halt. How the devil did the woman know his entire list of names? Who had she been talking to?
He turned and stalked back toward her, determined to instill a flick of sense and respectability into that head. “Keep your voice down. And for the sake of whatever reputation you may or may not have, do not ever call me or any other man by their birth name. It insinuates far too much. Now I suggest you retire and that we avoid each other until I say otherwise.”
She looped a shorter section of her hair behind her ear. “Avoid each other? Why?”
“We don’t want others to think we are involved.”
She lowered her voice. “But I want us to be involved.”
He stared up at her, wishing he could dig into that mind and understand what it is she really wanted. His money? His title? What? Because he wasn’t that attractive. “You, my dear, appear to be on a path of self-destruction.”
She tartly stared him down. “You know nothing about me or the path I am on.”
“Oh, I know more than enough. You are overly determined, a bit too fond of yourself and sadly, possess far more beauty than you know what to do with.”
She eyed him. “You are very odd.”
He pulled in his chin and pointed to his chest. “You find me odd?”
“Most men usually do not see beauty as a vice.”
“Yes, well, I am not like most men.”
“So I have noticed. Would you care to elaborate as to why that is?”
He pointed at her. “Do not make me climb that wall and nail your window permanently shut. This conversation is over. We avoid each other unless I say otherwise. Good night.” He heaved out a breath and swung away.
She tapped her brush against the sill of her window like a judge demanding order from him with a gavel. “I have one last thought to convey. Might I?”
He swung back, agitated with himself for even wanting to stay and hear it. “Of course. What is it?”
She hesitated, lowering her gaze to her slim fingers which were skimming across the bristles of her brush. “Do you believe in the existence of intuition and fate?”
He drew his brows together, surprised to find her taking on a much softer tone and a more serious demeanor. It lulled him into wanting to take on a softer tone himself. “Yes. Very much so. Why?”
Her fingers stilled against the brush. “Intuition tells me, despite your air of indifference, at heart, you are anything but. I confess that I used to be very much like you until I learned to embrace what matters most. What you are witnessing is a woman seeking to bring change to the world through strategic planning that involves marrying into a perfect political platform. You being that perfect political platform. ‘Tis fate that brought me into your neighborhood. ‘Tis also fate that brought you here to my window tonight as I have been seeking an introduction between us for weeks. Grace me with an opportunity to prove my worth, my lord, by getting to know me and my aspirations, and I vow you will not regret it.”
He rumbled out a laugh. Parliament could make use of her. She was relentless. He pointed up at her. “I want a wife. Not a politician.”
She paused. Glancing over her shoulder, she slid off the sill and leaned back into the room. “Our conversation must end,” she whispered down at him, yanking up her hair and shoving it back over her shoulder. “Call on me tomorrow at four. I insist.”
His chest tightened. “I am afraid my schedule will not allow for it and would prefer--”
“Shhhh! Tomorrow at four. Be punctual.” Flinging her brush over her shoulder, she yanked the window shut, latched it and leaned over to the side, fumbling with the curtains around her. She yanked at the nearest curtain in an effort to close it, but appeared unable to. A robed elderly woman breezed toward her side to assist.
He cringed and spun away, forging his way back home. Tomorrow at four? Not bloody likely. He hated re-arranging his schedule for anyone or anything. It only led to chaos and lack of good judgment. Which is why, tomorrow at four, in his stead, he would have the footman deliver a copy of his etiquette book, How To Avoid A Scandal. Hopefully, it would be a polite enough message for her to understand that despite his morbid little penchants, he was still a very respectable man.