The first two chapters of Ironvine are here for you to enjoy….
- Charles -
Who is that woman?
“You sure you’re not coming?” His brother’s hand squeezed his shoulder, pulling his attention away from the flare of feminine glory he’d spotted in the distance.
“This one’s mouth is not to be missed, I tell you. She’s a damned good piece. I’m going to hire her to come to the house tonight for us both.” On a laugh, Hugh left his side and headed down one of the many intricate dark walks of Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens, winding shadowy paths which were a favourite haunt of lovers, prostitutes, pick pockets, and all sorts of colourful villains.
“I’ll come with you.” Matthew, a friend of theirs from the country, darted after Hugh.
Charles didn’t want to be serviced by a whore. He wanted to find out who this girl was.
He and Hugh had been coming to Vauxhall, London’s leading venue for public entertainment outdoors, almost every night this week like everyone else, and Charles hadn’t seen any such sample of feminine splendour. Splendour, in fact, had been hard to come by, but he was a picky bastard.
This one was sheathed in a glowing blue gown, just a rise of bosom exposed, elegant jewels dripping from her earlobes, jewels in her hair, not gaudy, simple. Lovely ringlets of hair, a long neck. An elegant profile withal.
She’d do nicely, wouldn’t she?
He pushed up against the wall. Something was familiar about this one. The torches lighting the many pathways of the Vauxhall gardens cast a peculiar magical glow everywhere. Perhaps he was seeing a vision. But no…something else, it was something else, he was sure of it. He’d have to point her out to Hugh once he finished with the prostitute.
Hugh had joined Charles in London over a month ago to attend every damned social event the ton had to offer. His brother, the newly named Earl since their father’s recent death, was on the prowl for a wife.
But not because he wanted to marry. He had to in order to inherit the rest of his money. Their father had left that particular point in his will a surprise. If Hugh had gained the title and still wasn’t married by the age of thirty, he would lose half his income and would not regain the other half for another ten years.
Hugh had been livid, and although Charles, too, was shocked, he had been secretly amused. Their father had been quite a scoundrel himself, yet he always upheld the responsibilities to the family title above all else.
And everyone else.
Hugh had two weeks left. Still, no girl had caught his eye for a bride. “If I’m going to be stuck with some woman for the rest of my days, she’d better be pleasing to my eye and pleasant to be with,” he’d remarked.
Hugh had been out of the swirl of the ton in London the past two plus years, and his return was heralded by all, especially the ladies, and most especially their ambitious mothers. He’d swiftly made up for lost time on the social carousel: a bored Marchioness, a couple of young widows, a married Portuguese noblewoman whose husband had come to England to speak at Parliament this week, and of course, plenty of whores at his favourite clubs and at private parties with their friends.
It had become a tedious task to scout for candidates at every single social occasion, at every morning walk in St. James Park, but he did it. It was his duty to his brother, to their family.
Father had been pushing Hugh to marry for years to prepare to take on his role as the Earl of Ryvves, but Hugh had refused. He was much too busy enjoying his longtime mistress, the very married Duchess of Oakley.
However, upon discovering father’s deadline for marriage, Hugh promptly broke things off with Her Grace and set on a course for hunting down a bride and marrying immediately. Great wealth was a mighty motivator.
The crowd was thick here tonight. So many making merry, as if the pleasure gardens offered something so incredibly fresh and novel. He liked being out of doors rather than inside a crowded ballroom or someone’s home, but he’d grown accustomed to Vauxhall’s offerings and weary of the endless procession of well-dressed people he knew and knew of.
“Montclare.” William Treharne, an old friend from the country, dipped his head at him as he and his wife, Amanda, walked past. She caught his eye, lifting her chin as she shot him a sharp look dripping with disdain. He averted his gaze.
Since their dalliance had ended badly almost two years ago, Charles had shown Amanda only indifference, and she had shown him that cold disdain. He’d known her and William forever; they’d all grown up together in the country. Amanda had been the prettiest girl, the most accomplished, the wittiest, and the vainest and arrogant. She had been almost engaged to his best friend, Brandon. But when Brandon’s father had suddenly sent him on a trip to the West Indies, she’d gotten impatient and bored and married his cousin William.
Charles had found her to be exquisitely challenging at the beginning of their brief affair. She’d made it quite a game between them. He enjoyed games, and together they played a number of them. But then one of those games hurt Brandon and his new wife, Justine, which led to Brandon and his cousin William having a terrible falling out that had never been repaired.
Charles had not been proud of the consequences of his selfish actions and that was when he’d broken off with Amanda. He’d kept his distance from her and her husband ever since.
But Amanda enjoyed casting him a dismissive look or a sardonic comment in society. He knew it gave her a sense of power to do those things for she was attempting to maintain a connection between them, a bitter one. He knew she could not fathom a man no longer being consumed with her, especially one who’d ridden her.
He brushed all those thoughts away and kept his focus on the delightful girl in the distance. Fireworks burst and crackled in the sky over them. Laughter and shouts rang out, and she turned her face upward, laughing at the artificial starlight over her.
He’d like a bite of her himself.
Charles groaned inwardly. He recognised the young lady she was with—Alice, Alice Dunsmore, who he knew all too well. She was the stepdaughter of his Aunt Vivian. His aunt had wanted Hugh to marry Alice, but Hugh had refused and rudely so. “Are you joking? I cannot marry that!”
Alice was not pretty, yet she was not too plain a creature. A somewhat giddy and very innocent girl, she had a chirping laugh that both Hugh and Charles found irksome. She smiled shyly, blushed often, and could barely hold a conversation worth having. Alice and her friendwere greeted by a male. He knew that male, another childhood friend from Gloucestershire, Thomas Hackelton. Thomas took Alice’s arm in his and entreated the perfect girl to do the same. He knew her? She turned at last.
A red hot poker pierced Charles’s chest. “Well, I’ll be damned.”
The perfect girl, the exquisite young lady, the splendid woman was none other than Thomas’s sister, Georgina, who he knew. “Damn me,” he muttered to himself.
He hadn’t laid eyes on Georgie—as she was fondly called by their mutual friends, Brandon and Justine—in months and months. She hadn’t been here in town this season, that was certain, although her brother had been at almost every party he and Hugh had attended.
Where had she been? He knew she’d never missed a season since she’d come out, and she dazzled at every dinner and dance she attended. His back straightened as he took her in from head to toe. How she’d grown.
She was only two and twenty at most, but since he’d seen her last, she’d altered. Perhaps it was the more revealing gown she wore so well tonight, or the stylish turban wrapped around her gleaming dark hair instead of the more delicate hairstyle favoured by most of the girls? She’d always been graceful and elegant, even as a girl, but tonight her demeanor seemed even more sophisticated if that were possible.
They had sparred much in the past. She was close with Justine, his best friend’s wife. And he and Georgina had run into each other many times over the past two years. Her cleverness, her sharpness of tongue, her directness he’d found refreshing. He always knew she’d become a fine lady, and she had indeed.
He smiled to himself. Had she reined in that tongue, he wondered?
Matthew approached, and Thomas greeted him, bowing his head. Was Matthew done with the prostitute already?
Matthew bowed at Georgina in an exaggerated fashion, and she dipped her head and smiled gently, which he was sure masked her great delight. His jaw tightened. If he remembered correctly, she’d always been sweet on that fool.
Matthew said something to her, she laughed, and he immediately gestured for her to accompany him on a walk. Charles’s jaw tightened as Georgina joined him, the two of them strolling together behind her brother and Alice.
Matthew had dark good looks that he used to his advantage. On one occasion he’d told Charles he’d perfected a particular glance that was “full of mystery” in order to lure ladies into his sphere, and that Charles should practice one as well.
For fuck’s sake.
Matthew worked hard to lure Georgie. He talked incessantly, pausing frequently to shoot her this odd smirk, and she only continued to smile at him and attempt to reply. Charles followed them in the crowd. They rounded a corner where they stopped to admire a group of jugglers. Thomas and Alice hadn’t noticed they’d stopped and kept walking, and Matthew now had Georgina to himself.
Charles rubbed his eyes. He’d had a lot to drink this evening and had welcomed the warmth and looseness to his limbs, but now he desired full clarity. Charles moved in their direction, his every instinct demanding they be followed.
“Ah, there you are–” A familiar voice stopped him in his tracks.
“Aunt? Good evening.” He bowed at his mother’s sister, a tall, slender woman elegantly dressed in black and silver. She’d recently lost her husband.
“I was hoping I’d see you here tonight.”
His eyes darted to where Matthew and Georgina walked. “We’re here every night.”
“I was most insulted by Hugh’s reaction to my proposal that he marry Alice.”
“He has a rather indelicate temper, as you know.”
“Indelicate temper? He’s a spoilt, selfish brat. Much like your father was.”
“May he rest in peace.”
“May he not.” She sniffed in air, fluttering her fan. Aunt Vivian detested his father, always had done. “Alice would make you a fine wife, Charles.”
“She is indeed a lovely girl, Aunt, but I have no intention of marrying. In truth, I have never considered it.”
“Of course you haven’t.” She narrowed her eyes at him, letting out a bitter sigh. “Mark me, soon enough, all your usual entertainments shall become tiresome to you.”
On a grin, Charles took her arm in his, and they walked in the direction Matthew and Georgina had taken. “You were most fortunate, Aunt, to have married someone you had fallen in love with.”
Her face beamed at him. “Very true, very true. Quite a shame t’is so rare a phenomenon.”
“Indeed.” His thoughts went to his close friends, Brandon and Justine. Although their marriage had been arranged, they had fallen deeply in love and shared a very close, trusting bond.
“Perhaps one day you shall meet a girl you find you cannot do without.”
“What a shocking idea.”
“It is, isn’t it?” she said. “And when that happens, I shall have the last laugh.”
“You certainly shall,” he murmured. The women he preferred were the married kind who were bored with their husbands, eager to be bedded, and could make no claims upon him. Brief affairs where he could walk away whenever he liked without censure or responsibility.
“Once your brother marries, you will be living at Penrose Park, will you not? Hugh did promise the house to you?”
His lips pressed into a firm line. No, Hugh hadn’t.
Penrose Park was his mother and aunt’s and their brother’s family estate. His mother had been born there, she’d grown up there, and when she’d left his father, she had gone to live there. Met her end there. It was at Penrose Park that she was buried.
That estate was the one thing of his mother that remained, and he’d always wanted that piece of her. It was important to him. Significant. And now upon the death of his uncle, it was Hugh’s, the eldest remaining male relative.
Charles cleared his throat. “Certainly, Hugh has no use for the estate.”
“Are you quite sure of that?”
He shifted his weight. It hadn’t occurred to him that Hugh would not give him Penrose Park, for it was the logical, practical thing to do. But when was Hugh ever logical and practical?
Aunt Vivian squeezed his arm. “I very much appreciate Hugh’s allowing me and Alice to stay there when we are in the country.”
“Come now, of course. It is your family home. You will go there after London?”
“We will, yes, in about a week’s time.” Aunt Vivian brought a hand to his cheek, her expression softening. “Charles, your owning Penrose one day was your mother’s wish, and it is mine too.”
Revelers bustled past them, laughter and shouts resounded, but they all faded, as Charles held his aunt’s clear gaze. That sentiment meant more to him than anything. Taking her hand in his, he cleared his throat. “Perhaps I can be of use to you, Aunt. May I help you find a suitable husband for Alice?”
“Oh, my darling, would you? It was her father’s dearest wish for her to be secured with a good and kind gentleman, and on his deathbed, I promised him I would see to it. She is almost two and twenty.” She let out a sigh, her lips twisting.
“Alice is a gentle, sweet girl with an extremely healthy dowry. Leave it to me. Shall I join you both tomorrow morning at St. James?”
“Yes, wonderful. I look forward to it. Thank you, Charles.
“Has your brother found himself a suitable bride yet?”
She let out a sharp laugh. “He’d best get on with it. That pendulum blade of your father’s is swinging.”
A grin swept his lips. “It most certainly is, and I assure you, Hugh feels its sharp edge.” They laughed together. He and his aunt shared the same biting humour.
Behind his aunt, the jugglers finished their performance to great applause, and he spotted Matthew leading Georgina around the performers. His jaw tightened. Charles knew there was another dark walk in that direction reserved for private pleasures. Was Matthew hoping to take advantage of the girl? Insanity. No, he wouldn’t let him try.
“Forgive me, Aunt. I must take my leave.”
“Yes, yes, off with you.”
Charles pushed through the thick crowd, torches lighting their faces like unnatural beasts. The smells of bodies, heavy perfumes, grease-laden food cooking, and spilt liquor becoming unbearable.
He’d lost them.
- Georgina -
“Matthew, where are you taking me?” As if I didn’t know.
“Darling, Georgina, I’ve missed you so much. When you managed to write me, which was most illicit of you, and said you would be coming to London at long last, I could not sleep for craving your company.”
“You did not send a letter back. I waited.”
“I did not wish to put you in any danger, my sweet. What if your sister or brother were to intercept my passionate missive?”
“It would have been passionate, your letter?”
“But of course.”
“Well, I’ve always taken the risk of being found out, but you’ve never once written back to me.”
They were in a shadowy aspect now, rows of hedges and tall trees secluding them from the crowds milling about the gardens. She knew of these areas of Vauxhall used for intimate privacy.
Guttural moans and manic cries rose in the distance. Mutterings filled the space.
“Yes, sir, yes. Oh, yes.”
“That’s it, wench.”
“Where have you brought me, Matthew?” She knew very well where they were, but she wasn’t about to betray that she knew.
“I am rendered powerless before you, Georgina, and act with great recklessness. You must forgive me with a kiss of those most beautiful lips.”
Yes, yes, yes, she’d wanted a kiss from him for so long. She’d been infatuated with Matthew, her brother’s closest friend, for as long as she could remember. And now, at last, he was seeking her favours. Yes.
She’d been looking forward to returning to town, not only for its usual entertainments but for the chance to see Matthew again. He and Thomas had been in London since the very beginning of the season.
His fingers pressed into her sides, and she let out a small gasp. Eager, she leaned in closer to him. The warm skin of his lips touched her cheek, brushing her skin toward her lips. Yes. Finally. She’d been dreaming of this moment for so lo—
“Get your hands off her,” came a deep, sharp voice, separating her and Matthew like the slicing swoosh of a sabre.
“Who’s there?” Matthew pushed Georgina to his side.
Georgina recognised the voice immediately. “Charles Montclare, is that you?
“What?” Matthew moved toward the tall figure in the dark.
Charles moved forward, his sculpted features visible in the muted light. “Penry, how dare you risk Miss Georgina’s reputation and well-being by bringing her here? Are you daft or only supremely selfish?”
“How dare you speak to me this way, Montclare. We were watching the jugglers, and Miss Georgina became overwhelmed with the heat and the wild doings, and I took her away.”
“And I’m taking her right back.” He held out his hand. “Come, Miss Georgina.”
She knew he was right. Her skin heated as she brushed past Matthew and went to Charles.
“Montclare, damn you, you’ll answer for this.” Matthew stomped out of the pathway leaving them alone.
Charles turned to her. “You know better. I know you do.”
Her face heated, but she did not avert her gaze.
“Where have you been, dear girl? Did the earth swallow you up? I have not laid eyes on you for nigh upon a year, I think. Could that be right?”
“You missed me?”
“Terribly. Had no one to tease, no one to share a good laugh with.”
“I have been at my sister’s in Devonshire. She was with child, and I stayed with her until the birth of her son.”
“Yes. But having missed most of the season was trying.”
“I, on the other hand, did not miss a single event this year. Hugh surprised me with a visit. Wanted to attend everything, so we have.”
“I haven’t seen your brother in years, I don’t think.”
They both laughed.
“Did Matthew kiss you?”
“You ruined it.”
“Good. I’d bet twenty pounds sterling that he wouldn’t kiss you the way you should be kissed.”
“That’s quite a lot of money. You’re so sure of yourself, or you’re an utter spendthrift.”
Charles let out a laugh. “You wanted a kiss from that arrogant boy?”
“You’ve always been infatuated with him.”
His thumb stroked her chin, lifting her face to meet his, and her pulse ticked up. “You’re all grown up now, Miss Georgina.”
There was a gleam in his eye that had her shifting her weight. Charles was her brother’s friend, a few years older than the rest. Both Thomas and Matthew had always looked up to Charles because he was the experienced, sophisticated, polished gentleman they both wished to be, even if they didn’t have the lavish income nor the titled family Charles did.
“Is that a rakish compliment, Mr. Montclare?”
“Whatever do you mean, young lady?”
“If it was a typical gentleman’s compliment, you would say what mesmerising velvety eyes I had. How my cheeks are the very bloom of spring, my lips the promises of sweet delights. That sort of thing.”
His lips twisted into a smirk. “Is that the sort of florid rubbish Matthew said to you?”
“Did you like it?” He grinned at her, that sardonic grin of his, and she took in a slight breath at the sight. Had she missed it all these months? “I am not florid, Georgie. Never have been, never will be.”
“I know.” She’d always liked that about him.
He moved closer to her, closing her in around the tall hedges. “Was that your first kiss?”
“It would have been, but you interrupted us.”
His eyes flashed at her, stinging her flesh. “And I’m glad I did.”
“I saved you from mediocrity just now with Matthew.”
“And such arrogance.”
“I know that a kiss is not merely a meeting of lips, Miss Georgina. A first kiss, most especially, should leave you with a wild, mad impression on your senses.”
“I am aware.”
“Are you? A good kiss is a taste of the illicit that you didn’t know you needed, a rush of feeling.” He stalked her with his wild words, his tone fierce.
Her breath stalled. “Illicit?”
“Yes. And a shared promise.”
“A promise of what exactly?”
“A hint of the bliss that awaits. A prelude to many more sensual delights.”
“Ah, I see…”
“No, you don’t.” His gaze had landed on her mouth as he shook his head, and in one swift movement, his cool hands slid around her jaw, cradled her face. Pulling her to him against his hard body, his lips pressed against hers. Warm and firm. His tongue, wet and sleek, demanded entry and sought hers. She gave herself freely. A groan rose in his throat, and it vibrated through her as her tongue danced with his. Every inch of her flesh blazed. She tasted him. Tasted his wild fervour.
Tasted Charles Montclare.
Music blared around them, the rousing chorus surging in her veins. He released his tight grip on her, his lips leaving hers, and their gazes met. His was positively troubled. Both of them breathed hard as if they’d been running across a field.
Her hand reached out and touched his heaving chest. “Charles?”
“What the devil is going on here?”
Both of them turned, and a chill raced up her spine. Her brother, Thomas, stood at the end of the pathway. “Montclare, how dare you take my sister and bring her here?”
“No, Thomas, Charles was helping me. I’d wandered off to see the fountain and lost my way.”
“Matthew told me you left him and took up with Montclare. That was quite ill-mannered and presumptuous of you.”
That double dealing…
Her brother moved forward, the dim light exposing his tight features. “And look where he’s taken you. Have you no sense, girl? You know very well what he’s about.”
Georgina took in a breath. “Matthew had stopped to speak with friends, and I wandered off to see the fountain. Luckily our friend, Mr. Montclare, found me and was about to leadme back into the gardens.”
Scoffing, Thomas grabbed at her, pulling her next to him. “You will not leave my side for the rest of the evening. And you, sir—to divert yourself with my young, innocent sister? I know you have no bounds, but this goes beyond the…”
Charles said nothing in his defense as Thomas rattled on. He only glared at him, a muscle along his jaw ticking.
Georgina met his gaze. “Thank you for your assistance, Mr. Montclare. For your kind words. It is lovely to see you again after so long.”
Giving her an appreciative smile, Charles bowed his head as Thomas pulled her out of the dark pathway. Away from him.
Away from the dangerous beast and back into polite society’s roaring carnival.
©️ Cat Porter 2022
IRONVINE, a Steamy Historical Romance Novel
releases on September 16