The Archer Mansion
“This is the worst idea you’ve ever had,” Clarissa moaned. “I can’t believe I let you talk me into wearing this scandalous gown! I look like a demi-rep on display at Covent Garden.”
Her best friend, Lillian, Lady Montegue, gave an irritated huff. “Nonsense. You look absolutely beautiful. That dress is divine, and your hair and jewels are exquisite. Everything is just as it should be except for that grimace you call a smile.”
Clarissa, better known to the ton as the widow of Captain Jeremy Middleton, felt the muscles in her jaw contract another notch. It seemed like forever since she’d last attended a ball. She’d never been enamored with large crowds and overheated, cavernous rooms, and this particular event was proving to be worse than anticipated. But Lillian had refused to listen to Clarissa’s excuses, roundly declaring that it was time, after a year and a half, to come out of deep mourning.
Clarissa cast her friend a reproachful glance. “You told me to look happy. That’s what I’m trying to do.”
Clarissa gratefully dropped her feeble pretense. If only she could cover her bosom as easily as she could transform her face with a smile—or the lack of one. It would be a miracle if she didn’t pop out of the top of her gown before the evening was over.
Resisting the urge to tug the gauzy muslin up over her breasts, she wondered again how she had allowed Lillian to persuade her to wear so revealing a gown. Or, for that matter, to attend the biggest crush of the Little Season. After all, it wasn’t as if she had to attract a husband. She had a substantial widow’s portion and still had the funds Jeremy had settled on her when they were married. Over a year had passed since her husband’s death, and the initial, searing pangs of grief had finally subsided. But Clarissa couldn’t escape the dull ache that filled her chest every time she thought of Jeremy.
She swallowed hard, forcing down a childish rush of tears. A sea of scarlet uniforms and vibrantly colored gowns swam before her blurred vision, a dazzling display of gaiety and wealth set off to advantage in the splendid ballroom of the Archer family mansion on Brooke Street. But to Clarissa, the red of the soldiers’ uniforms throbbed and pulsed under the blazing chandeliers like a gaping wound—a sickening reminder of all she had lost on the blood-soaked ramparts of a Spanish fort.
Even in the heat of the ballroom, cold prickles raced over her flesh and her heart thudded with a stuttering rhythm. She found it hard to catch her breath.
“What am I doing here, Lillian?” she forced out, barely able to keep her seat. Every muscle in her body urged her to flee to the quiet safety of the town house she shared with her elderly father-in-law, Colonel Middleton. “I’m too old for this kind of thing. It was very kind of you to invite me tonight, but I’m just coming out of mourning. And everyone is staring at me. I’m sure I’m making a complete fool of myself.”
Lillian shook her head in gentle reproof.
“Clarissa, you must stop thinking like that. You’re thirty-two—the same age as me. You don’t see me wearing those wretched gowns you’ve grown so fond of. It’s time to stop dressing like an old widow with one foot in the grave.”
“Sometimes I think I was buried in that grave in Spain,” Clarissa sighed. “Right alongside Jeremy.”
Lillian’s blue eyes grew misty.
“I know you feel that way, darling. But you’re very much alive, and more beautiful than ever. That’s why people are staring. You cast every other woman in this room into a complete shade—especially in that gown.”
Clarissa rolled her eyes, but the tight feeling inside her eased. Her friend rewarded her with a teasing smile.
“Jeremy used to love it when you dressed up,” Lillian said. “Do you remember? He was so proud of you, forever telling me how lucky he was that you chose him over all the fashionable young bucks who vied for your hand.”
Clarissa smiled at that, even though the memory of Jeremy’s ardent admiration brought her as much pain as pleasure. “I remember. He used to tease me about it, and tell me that he could never understand why I fell in love with such an ordinary fellow. But Jeremy was anything but ordinary. I’ve never known such a kind, wise man—before or since.”
Lillian nodded. “If he were here now, he would tell you not to spend the rest of your life pining for him. You’re still a young woman, Clarissa. You deserve to love, and to be loved again. That’s what Jeremy would want for you.”
Lillian studied her through narrowed eyes. After several considering moments, she seemed to reach a decision. “He would certainly not want you to molder away in that gloomy house, turning yourself into a nurse for his invalid of a father. Colonel Middleton is as rich as Croesus. He could hire ten nurses to attend him, if only you would agree to it.”
Clarissa shook her head. “But—”
Lillian waved away her attempt to protest. “You know it’s true. And you know part of you wants it, too, or you wouldn’t have come here tonight.”
Clarissa let out a grudging laugh. “I never could hide anything from you, could I?”
“Nor can you resist me. I’ve known what’s best for you since the day we met. I was the one who introduced Jeremy to you, wasn’t I? You must trust me to know what you need.”
Clarissa tamped down a flare of irritation. People always claimed to know what was best for her. And they never had any compunction about telling her what to do.
Not that she could blame her friends and family. Always, she’d been painfully shy. A milksop, her father used to call her. Only Jeremy Middleton had made her feel confident and happy. But her husband had gone off to war and to his death, leaving her alone and frightened once more.
Meeting Lillian’s troubled gaze, Clarissa dredged up a brittle smile. She hated it when her friends fussed over her. It made her feel resentful, and that resentment made her feel guilty and ungrateful.
“You’re right, Lillian,” she replied in an apologetic voice. “I’m sorry for being so petulant. Jeremy would be upset to see me sulking in a corner, pouring out my troubles to you. And I’m sure you’re longing to dance with Richard. I see him mooning at you from the other side of the ballroom.”
Clarissa smiled. “But it never works, does it?”
“Heavens, no!” Lillian said, giving her husband a cheerful wave. “What’s the good of being married if you can’t flirt? It’s just a bit of harmless fun, and Richard knows it.”
Suddenly, Lillian switched her assessing gaze to Clarissa’s face.
“No, Lillian,” Clarissa said firmly, recognizing that look. “Whatever it is, I’m not interested.”
Lillian gave her a sly grin. “You will be, once I’m through with you. I’m agreeing with you, Clarissa. You don’t need a husband—you need a flirtation.”
Clarissa gaped at her, rendered speechless. “Have you lost your senses?” she finally choked out. “I haven’t the faintest idea how to flirt! I never did.”
“For someone who never flirted, you always had a long line of suitors. It practically snaked round the block of your house in St. James’s Square,” Lillian replied dryly.
“It wasn’t because I flirted with them. It was because of Papa’s wealth.”
Lillian batted aside that objection with a wave of the hand. “There were a great many rich girls when you were out, but none held a candle to you. What’s more, you’re the sweetest woman in London.”
Clarissa grimaced. “Sweet, meaning boring.”
“Absolutely not. There are dozens of men in this room who would kill for your notice.”
“But I have no conversation,” Clarissa protested. “Truly, I don’t think I could flirt to save my life.”
“You’ve forgotten how, but it’s like riding a horse,” Lillian replied, scanning the room for likely prospects. “It will come back as soon as you climb into the saddle.”
“Oh, look,” her friend exclaimed, jumping up. “Christian’s finally arrived.”
Casting a silent prayer heavenward for the timely interruption, Clarissa rose and shook out her skirts. “Rather late, isn’t he? After all, this ball is in his honor.”
“I know. He’s a dreadful boy. But he was staying with friends in Kent and sent word he would be late. Apparently, he had a bit of an accident with his curricle.”
“Why does that not surprise me?”
Lillian wrinkled her nose at her. “Don’t be like that, darling. The only reason Christian agreed to this ball was to lure you out of that tomb of a house. He knew you couldn’t refuse to see him. Not after all these years. And especially since he’ll be returning to the Peninsula in just a few weeks.”
Clarissa frowned, finding it hard to believe that Lillian’s brother would spend any time thinking of her. Though she had known him all her life, she hadn’t spoken to him in years. Not since he’d joined the army at the age of nineteen. He had returned to England on and off over the years, but she and Jeremy had spent most of their time in Devon, more than happy to avoid the social rigors of the London Season. Their occasional visits to town had never coincided with Christian’s.
“I’m sure Christian rarely thinks of me,” she said.
“You’re wrong.” Her friend seized her hand in a firm clasp. “Chris specifically said to make sure you came. He’s always been very fond of you.”
Clarissa allowed Lillian to tow her through the press of bodies until they reached the edge of the dance floor. “I can’t imagine why. All we ever did was snipe at each other. He was the most rag-mannered boy I ever met. You said it yourself a thousand times.”
“That was years ago. Just look at him—he’s grown into such a handsome man. Doesn’t he look splendid in his uniform? He’s now an aide-de-camp to General Pakenham, you know. One of the youngest ever appointed.” Lillian leaned over, continuing in a confidential voice, “He’s up for a promotion—to Wellington’s command, no less. But don’t say anything. No one’s supposed to know. He expects to find out before he returns to Portugal.”
Clarissa could readily agree to Lillian’s request. The last thing she wanted to do was talk to a soldier about his military career, even if that soldier was Christian Archer. The scarlet-coated officers swirling about the ballroom reminded her far too much of Jeremy, lost forever to the random cruelty of a French bullet. But she bit her tongue and went up on tiptoe, trying to see over the dancers and the cheerful, gabbing mob on the perimeter of the room.
After a few moments of craning her neck, she gave up. Her short stature prevented her from seeing anyone but the guests in front of her. Papa had always called her a sad dab of a female, too small to catch the notice of any man worth his salt. That hadn’t proved to be the case, but the stinging memory of his words retained the power to make her cheeks burn with humiliation.
Lillian voiced a pleased exclamation and waved. The crowd parted in front of them, and a broad-shouldered man in an officer’s uniform appeared in the gap.
Clarissa’s eyes widened and her mouth dropped open as she gazed up into eyes the color of sapphires, so striking in a tanned, lean face. She would recognize those eyes anywhere—the eyes of the scrappy hellion five years her junior who had teased her mercilessly when she was a young miss. But the powerful, hard-looking man who loomed over her now was no boy, even though his eyes still glittered with devilment.
Her breath died in her throat as Christian’s gaze roamed leisurely downward, pausing to linger on her low-cut bodice before moving back to her face. His eyes caught and held hers, and her heart kicked into a racing gallop. She watched, dumbfounded, as his sensual mouth curved up in a roguish, devastating grin.
Clarissa had seen the same look on Christian’s face so many times before in the past—a look of unbridled mischief. But now he was a man, and a battle-hardened soldier at that. Whatever his game was, she instinctively knew it would involve a great deal more than pulling on her braids or putting a frog in her jewelry box.
That knowledge made her nervous, indeed.