Many of you, my dear readers, have asked about a Caroline/Gresham follow up book. Well, my dears, it's on its way! Likely out in September (stay tuned!) I think it's a really fun read and hope you'll think so, too. Here, for your enjoyment, is a sample:
Caroline Ansley, Countess of Eskmaine, sat on a satin-covered, spindle legged chair against one wall of the ball room at Devonshire House, fanning herself and gazing with a hint of scorn at the assembled crowd. Despite the beauty of the room and the elegance of the throng, she was bored. Perhaps, she reflected, she had spent one too many Seasons in London. Surely there was something more amusing to do than dance, pay afternoon calls, and ride in the park.
Out of the corner of her eye she saw someone approaching, and turned her head to see Viscount Barford hovering nearby, a determined look on his face. She sighed. While he was a perfectly pleasant young man, Lord Barford’s pursuit of her over the past few weeks had left her cold. He was several years younger than her, and clearly found Caroline, an attractive and wealthy widow, intriguing. Caroline, however, had no desire to listen to his juvenile platitudes.
“Lady Eskmaine, I am delighted to find you here,” said Lord Barford. He bowed low, and availed himself of the opportunity it offered to eye the neckline of her gown, which revealed the swell of her breasts. “Would you honor me with this dance?”
Caroline hoped she didn’t look as impatient as she felt. “I’m sorry, my lord. I am not dancing tonight. I—I have a headache, and am only waiting for my brother and his wife to be done, so that we can return home.”
Disappointment was reflected in the young man’s eyes, but he bowed politely. “Some other time soon, I hope,” he said.
“Perhaps,” said Caroline repressively.
Lord Barford moved away, and she looked after him with a tinge of regret. She could have been more pleasant, but he clearly was enamored of her, and she had no wish to encourage him. She was not a heartbreaker, and had no desire to entangle someone so susceptible. If she had danced with him, no doubt there would be gossip the next day of a possible match. A young widow needed to be careful of the watchful eyes of Society.
There was movement next to her, and, with a flurry of turquoise silk, her sister-in-law, Allegra, Duchess of Gravesmere, sat down in the adjoining chair.
“Good heavens, Caroline, why are you sitting here alone? “ she demanded. “It is a lovely evening and so many amusing people are present. I know I just saw Lord Barford asking you to dance; surely you can’t want to mope the entire evening away.”
Caroline shook her head at her irrepressible sister-in-law. No one would know to look at Allegra that she was a duchess and the mother of a one-year-old son. The woman fairly glowed with energy, her deep blue eyes shining against her porcelain skin, out-competing even her enormous powdered coiffure for attention.
“I’m sorry, Allegra. I’m bored, though I don’t know why. As for Barford, I have no desire to encourage him to think that I have an interest in him.”
“Why not?” Allegra sounded exasperated. “You’re young and beautiful, Caroline. You act as though you are one hundred years old, hunchbacked and lame, and have no desire to ever talk to a man again.”
“I’m not sure I do,” responded Caroline. “I have plenty to do taking care of the estates for Jonathan, who won’t inherit for many years. Why would I want a man hanging about?”
“Surely you miss….well, surely you miss—intimacy,” said Allegra.
Caroline raised her eyebrows. “Intimacy?” she asked, though she knew precisely what Allegra was talking about.
“Yes, intimacy.” Allegra’s eyes searched the ballroom and came to rest on her husband, Adam, Duke of Gravesmere. A spark lit in her eyes as she gazed at his slender figure and handsome face. “I know I would miss it dreadfully if I were deprived of Adam’s….attentions.”
“Yes, well, you and Adam are quite an unusual couple,” said Caroline. “Not all of us are as lucky as you.”
“I know you were very fond of your husband; Adam has told me, so don’t try to convince me otherwise.” Allegra put a gentle hand on Caroline’s arm. “Truly, I wish you would have the same happiness Adam and I have. You must promise me you will try harder to meet people and be pleasant to gentlemen who have an interest in you. I hate to think of you wasting your youth and beauty. Besides, there are so many men in desperate need of your undoubted management skills. They will be happier and wealthier, if none the wiser, and you will not be bored. “
Caroline laughed at the truth of Allegra’s final remark, and smiled warmly at her sister-in-law. It was odd to have Allegra counseling her; the younger woman had, over the years, needed a great deal of advice from Caroline.
“I know you have my best interests at heart, my dear, but you must allow me to make my own way,” Caroline answered. “But I will try my best to follow your advice; you may be right that I am not being fair to myself.”
“Then promise me you will dance with the next gentleman who asks you!” Allegra challenged her.
“I can’t do that,” protested Caroline. “I have no idea who that might be.”
“That is why you should do it! You have become far too staid, Caroline. I never before thought of you as dull.”
“I am not dull!” protested Caroline, though she privately wondered if Allegra was right.
“Then dance with the next man who asks you!” repeated Allegra. “For me? Please?”
“Very well, you tiresome child.” Caroline laughed. “If that means you will leave me alone.”
Allegra smiled warmly. “Since I have won, you have earned your solitude.” She looked up and saw Adam was looking around the room. He saw her, and their eyes locked across the vast space. She flushed slightly. “Adam wants me, I must go. But remember, the next man who asks!”
Caroline sighed. “Yes, I remember. Now, go to your husband. Really, the two of you are positively tiresome.”
Allegra hugged her briefly and rose, her skirts again billowing about her. “We are, aren’t we?” She disappeared and was next seen going down a reel with her husband, hands locked, and a smile on both of their faces. Caroline shook her head, but allowed a smile to cross her lips. It was good to see them so happy after the trials they had been through.
A deep voice cut through her thoughts. “How pleasant to see you again, Lady Eskmaine.”
Caroline hesitated. The voice was familiar to her, but she couldn’t quite place it; it made her both uncomfortable and oddly excited. She turned her head, and her eyes widened as they took in the tall, slim man standing over her, exquisitely garbed in a coat of burgundy silk, with breeches of the most delicate beige, an amused expression on his handsome face.
“Lord Gresham,” she breathed as her fan slipped from her suddenly nerveless fingers and fell unheeded to the floor.
“The very same.” The man bent gracefully and picked up her fan, returning it to her with a bow. “Your fan, my lady.”
“Oh. Thank you.” Caroline took the fan, being careful not to touch his fingers. She gazed up at him again and he smiled, his amusement at her befuddlement apparent.
“What are you doing here?” Caroline asked as the silence between them lengthened. “I thought you were on the Continent.” Even to her own ears her voice sounded peevish.
“I was. But I found my heart yearned for England’s shores,” Lord Gresham responded. He waved one hand. “My home, my family, that sort of thing.”
“Nonsense,” snapped Caroline. “As long as you can drink, gamble, and wench, you are doubtless happy anywhere.”
The insult left him unfazed. “Perhaps. But it had been so long since I had drunk or gambled in England, that I felt the need for change—and for an English wench.” He smiled at her, a slow smile that made her uncomfortable, and his eyes lingered on the neckline of her dress. For the second time that evening Caroline cursed her modiste for talking her into such a low-cut gown.
“Don’t let me stop you from finding one,” said Caroline tartly. She gestured at the glittering throng. “I’m sure there are at least a dozen women here who would gladly succumb to your renowned, if somewhat shopworn, charms.”
“Ah, yes.” Lord Gresham nodded. “I saw your delightful sister-in-law is here.”
Caroline’s hand tightened on her fan. “I’m afraid she will be impervious to you, so you needn’t waste your time. Adam and Allegra are more in love then ever.”
“Are they? How tiresome of them. And so unfashionable. But then, she always preferred her husband to me, something I never understood.”
“A blow to your pride?” asked Caroline.
Lord Gresham bowed slightly. “A blow indeed.”
“You deserved it.”
The silence between them once again grew thick, and Caroline hunched one shoulder impatiently. “Pray, don’t let me keep you from finding your wench,” she said. “I have no idea why you persist in hanging about me.”
Lord Gresham smiled warmly, making his face breathtakingly handsome. Caroline blinked in surprise. “I came to ask you to dance,” he said. “ I saw you reject poor Barford a few minutes ago, but perhaps he was too young for you. I thought you might be convinced to accept a gentleman closer to your own age.”
“Closer to my age?” snapped Caroline. “Barford is three and twenty, and I am barely five years older than he. You must be at least five and thirty, my lord.”
“I am corrected,” he replied meekly. “Then perhaps you, as a young woman, would take pity on an elderly person such as myself and dance just once with him?”
Caroline glared up at him, exasperated. What made a rake of Lord Gresham’s caliber imagine that a respectable widow would expose herself to the gossip that would inevitably arise if they were seen dancing together? She opened her mouth to give him a sharp set-down, but then an impish thought occurred to her. Allegra had made Caroline promise to dance with the next man who asked her. It would teach her sister-in-law not to tease her if she did exactly what she had promised.
She mustered a winning smile. “I would be happy to dance with you, Lord Gresham,” she said.
A hint of surprise crossed his formerly impassive countenance. “How delightful--and unexpected,” he said and held out his hand.
Caroline hesitated a moment, then placed her fingertips on it. His skin was warm and his grasp firm as he raised her to her feet. She felt a tiny shiver run down her spine. Had she just made a great mistake?
Lord Gresham seemed to have some inkling of her emotions, for he squeezed her hand gently as he led her toward the center of the room. “Don’t worry, I won’t ravish you. It’s far too public a spot,” he murmured.
“My lord,” she protested, trying to snatch her hand away.
“Hush,” he said softly. “It was a jest. I know you have a sense of humor somewhere. Perhaps if you search a bit you can retrieve it.”
Caroline glanced around. They were about to join the dancers; it would be noticed and remarked on if she were to flee now. She satisfied herself with shooting Lord Gresham a furious glance.
“Come, try to enjoy yourself,” he whispered. “It’s not so very hard.”
He grasped her hand more firmly as they moved into the dance. It was a formal measure, and Caroline was surprised at how gracefully he moved and how well he knew the ornate steps. Of course, she reflected dryly, he was a renowned seducer of women, and what better way to make a good impression than by excelling on the dance floor?
“What are you thinking about?” asked Lord Gresham. “You look as though you are sucking on a lemon. Surely dancing with me isn’t actually painful.”
Caroline started. She had been so intent on her thoughts that she had not realized the steps had brought them close enough for conversation. Lord Gresham reached out and took her hand, and she resolutely ignored the tingling sensation this caused.
“Of course not, “ she replied. “I was minding my steps. I dance so little these days.”
Lord Gresham laughed at that. “No, do try to think of another lie to tell me. I must suppose you have known these steps since you were a babe. You dance beautifully.”
Caroline flushed at the compliment and mentally berated herself. She was letting Lord Gresham’s practiced blandishments upset her. Perhaps Allegra was right, and she needed to be out in Society more, so that the admiring compliments of gentlemen weren’t so unfamiliar to her.
“Thank you,” she said repressively. “I might say the same of you.”
“An excellent partner always makes me appear at my best,” responded Lord Gresham, and Caroline was grateful that the steps of the dance moved them too far apart to talk. Really, the man was too annoying.
Lord Gresham made unexceptional conversation through the rest of the dance, but Caroline answered monosyllabically, hoping to dampen his interest. To her chagrin, she noted that he seemed to be increasingly amused by her attempts to block his conversational gambits.
“Why ever did you agree to dance with me?” he asked finally. “You look acutely uncomfortable. The ton will think I’ve lost my social graces.”
Caroline decided to make a clean breast of the matter. “I’m sorry if your reputation is suffering, my lord. If you must know, I agreed to dance with you because Allegra made me promise to dance with the next man who asked me.”
“Oh.” Gresham’s eyes twinkled. “So this is to solely to teach your meddlesome sister-in-law a lesson, is it?”
“I thought it might stop her from pestering me in the future,” Caroline admitted.
“I hope you may not come to regret your rashness.” His voice was teasing. “It seems to me you are being very adventurous tonight.”
“Don’t mock me,” said Caroline crossly. “You have no idea how eager the gossips are to find fresh topics of conversation.”
“On the contrary, I have vast experience with them, as you certainly know. I usually ignore them.”
“But you are a man, and gossip only enhances your reputation,” responded Caroline. “As a woman, mine would be ruined.”
“If you do nothing you are ashamed of, then you needn’t fear what the gossips say,” countered Lord Gresham. “They will talk anyway. The only person you need to please is yourself.”
“And so you have done nothing of which you are ashamed?” asked Caroline, thinking of the countless stories she had heard of his exploits.
“Perhaps one or two things,” he responded. “I have not always been kind, and I have frequently been selfish. But I didn’t say I took my own advice.”
The music stopped as Caroline’s blue eyes met his gray ones. The mocking look was gone from his face and for a moment the chatter in the room seemed to fade away.