Authors: Virginia Henley
Cat’s sense of humor came to her rescue. “Well, I must admit the thought of turning the tables on some wealthy swine is tempting. My brother could help me to fleece him. Poor Spider is a lord whose life has been more meager than a stableboy’s.” The smile evaporated. “I couldn’t do it,” she decided firmly.
“No, darling, you’re quite right, you couldn’t do it,” said Lil. “Why, you’ve never even held a fan in your hand. The fan has a whole language of its own dedicated to flirtation. You don’t know how to dress or how to dance. You probably don’t even know how to walk in high-heeled slippers, and I bet you couldn’t giggle if I paid you,” said Lil, using reverse psychology. “No, I doubt you could become a man’s mistress, let alone receive a respectable offer of marriage.”
Cat was stung by her words. If she set her mind to it, she could wrap a man about her little finger, aye, and get him to propose. Then she laughed out loud as she realized Lil was teasing her. Ruefully she said, “It’s the only way to save Roseland, isn’t it? Much as I hate the idea, I fear you’re right. I’ll have to learn all the tricks. I’ll have to learn how to become a lady. I’m a wonderful mimic…. Let me show you.” She grabbed Lil’s ivory fan and spread it flirtatiously. Then she drawled huskily, “I could be particularly partial to a rich gentleman.”
Lil laughed. “Oh, darling, you have me exactly!”
“That’s because you fascinate me! Everything you say sounds deliciously suggestive, even when you’re talking about strawberries.”
Lil laughed delightedly, then she said practically, “We’ll sell his horses and carriage to pay for the burial and we’ll get you some pretty clothes with whatever is left over. In the meantime I’ll lend you whatever you need.”
“Oh, I shouldn’t waste money on clothes,” said Cat doubtfully.
“It isn’t a waste, Summer. If you are to catch a gull, you must first bait the trap. Get some sleep now. Tomorrow afternoon I’ll take you to see a play. ’Tis about a maid who masquerades as a titled lady and manages to catch an earl. That lesson shouldn’t be lost on you, and then,” she drawled without taking a breath, “in the evening I’ll take you to a party Lady Shrewsbury is giving. If you keep your mouth closed and your eyes and ears open, you will see how to conduct yourself in society. The rest will be up to you. I know you are anxious to return home and I think your prospects for marriage would be much greater in Cornwall than in London, darling. The men at Court are rather jaded where women are concerned. They are onto almost every female trick in our vast repertoire.”
“Good night, Lil. I appreciate all the help and advice you can give me. I’m woefully ignorant.”
“Well, darling, starting tomorrow you are to drop the ridiculous name of Cat. Summer is a beautiful name; a name to make a man remember you.”
Summer climbed into bed and picked up the small book her father had left for her. She glanced through the pages with a slight frown, not knowing exactly what all the prominent names meant and then suddenly it struck her. As soon as she read the words “Lizard Point” and the date, a sickening feeling of revulsion swept over her. It was one of the nightmares she had tried to blot out of existence, but here it was all neatly listed, page by sickening page.
A few years back she had followed her father one night as he’d ridden from Roseland. She had been insatiably curious about what lured him out on a night when a gale was blowing up. They had ridden to Lizard Point, where the lighthouse warned mariners of the treacherous rocks. A southwest gale always drove ships inshore and she watched in horror as her father joined a group of wreckers. They had put out the light of the beacon atop the cliffs and built signal fires below on the treacherous shore to lure a ship onto the rocks.
She threw the book aside and closed her eyes. She could still hear the screams of the victims when the great ship broke and
splintered as it was driven aground. At dawn when the gale had subsided, she looked down a hundred and eighty feet from the cliffs above and saw all the poor drowned bodies. Her father hadn’t said “black man,” he’d said “blackmail.” She could use this book to blackmail prominent families. As if she’d make money from wrecking! Now she remembered why she hated her father so much. All men were created evil.
Suddenly she was filled with a burning need to even the score. She would accept Lil’s challenge to get the money she needed from some wealthy man. She was sick and tired of being a victim. She would enjoy turning a man into one for a change.
here isn’t a woman alive who can be trusted,” said Ruark Helford, picking up his cards negligently.
“I’ve known since I was in my cradle that only a fool would trust a woman,” answered Charles Stuart in his lazy, cynical way.
Buckingham had just let Ruark know that his mistress had been seen flirting with the Duke of York. They were all playing cards in Her Majesty’s drawing room, the gaming tables piled with gold crowns. Catherine’s rooms had become the fashionable gathering place for the courtiers and ladies only because Charles chose to spend his evenings there lately. He was doing his very best to be a dutiful husband and had succeeded admirably except for the one bone of contention which stood between him and his queen, namely his long-standing mistress, Barbara Palmer.
Charles looked across the room at Barbara now and she raised her eyebrows to him in a mute question. He did not commit himself and merely lowered one lazy eyelid in a wink. He sighed. She had such a voluptuous beauty, how could he resist her mahogany-colored hair spread across the pillows or her generous breasts, which filled his hands to overflowing? If only she were a little less tempestuous, a little more malleable … a little less domineering,
a little more submissive … a little less extravagant, a little more prudent … a little less demanding, and a little more faithful.
Lord Helford’s face was impassive but beneath the facade he was irritated by Buckingham. He had never liked the man, but knew he made a better friend than enemy. As for Ruark’s current mistress, Ann Ashley, he didn’t disbelieve that the jade had been flirting with the King’s brother James. He had told her he was leaving for Cornwall soon, but dammit, he thought irritably, she could let the sheets cool off before replacing him in her bed. Ann had asked him to take her with him, hinting at marriage. The fact that he’d politely but firmly declined was doubtless the reason for her blatant behavior with James. He had more good sense than to marry his mistress. Women were all alike, he thought cynically—every last one of them looking to sell themselves to the highest bidder.
His mind went back to the first young woman he’d ever kept. It seemed impossible, looking back, that he’d ever been that naive, but he’d been taken like a trout on a hook. He’d paid over a year for the child she had borne until one night when too much liquor had been imbibed, his friend Sandwich admitted he’d gotten the girl with child before he introduced her to Ruark. Well, that had been the first and last time he’d ever let a woman make a fool of him.
It didn’t take Buckingham long to see that the King and Helford were preoccupied with their own thoughts, and he took instant advantage until the pile of gold crowns on the table became his. The money he won meant little to him, but the sense of power he experienced as he stretched out his hand for his gains, observing his opponents’ faces, gave him deep satisfaction.
Disgusted, Charles rose from the game and went to stand behind Her Majesty. Catherine had acquired a taste for gambling and knew herself to be very wicked because of the habits she had picked up at her husband’s court. He bent low to whisper into her ear and she took his advice and immediately won.
It was close to midnight and Charles bent again to her ear with a more amorous suggestion. The company could not leave before the Queen, so when she reluctantly arose and summoned one of her ladies, not a few of the assembled guests were relieved. It was fortunate there had been no dancing planned or it might have gone on until five or six in the morning.
More than an hour had elapsed before the King’s last gentleman of the bedchamber departed. In brocade dressing gown Charles
made his way to Her Majesty’s privy apartment, his beloved spaniels at his heel. To his consternation Catherine knelt at the small altar she had had set up in her dressing room, and two of her ladies she had brought from Portugal were still in attendance.
He coughed discreetly, hoping they would take the hint and depart, but they did not. Charles, usually good-natured and well mannered, patiently waited another twenty minutes while his devout little wife finished her prayers. Finally he opened wide the door between the bedchamber and dressing room, affording the dogs entrance to the other chamber. He knew full well her attendants did not have the inborn love of dogs that most English did and he hoped to chase them away by this gesture. Obviously it was not working, and feeling irritated, he went through the adjoining door to expedite matters.
Catherine knelt in her voluminous nightgown, her face uplifted to the cross upon the wall.
“My dear, come to bed, you will catch your death there upon your knees.”
“I won’t be a moment, Charles,” came the soft little voice, but he received a quelling look from the Countess of Penalva.
Charles’s lips tightened. “You ladies may withdraw,” he said firmly.
Penalva and Countess Ponteval, her constant chaperons, exchanged glances and raised their brows at Catherine.
Charles’s temper frayed a little, yet he spoke to them with humor. “’Sblood ladies, I don’t think Catherine needs protection from me. She is my wife and I get to use her seldom enough with you constantly standing guard over her.”
They disapproved of everything about Charles Stuart and made no effort to hide their feelings. With great reluctance they departed with an air of abandoning an innocent lamb to a wolf.
When they were alone, Charles strolled up behind Catherine and said softly, “My love, when you are without sin, why do you find it necessary to spend so much time on your pretty knees asking God’s forgiveness?”
She turned from the altar with a determined look of defiance on her face. “I’m not praying for myself, Charles; I’m praying for you.”
“Ah, my love, if you stayed upon your knees throughout eternity, I doubt me you could get all my sins forgiven.” He smiled at her and his swarthy good looks almost melted her heart. He took
her hands into his and firmly lifted her from her knees. Then he whispered, “Come to bed, Catherine.” His head dipped low to kiss her, but she turned her face from him and by doing so confirmed what he had suspected. The delayed bedding was a deliberate tactic, a prelude to an unpleasant matter she wished to discuss.
Charles sighed. All he wanted was a pleasant hour’s lovemaking, during which, if he was lucky enough, his seed would fill his little queen with an heir to the throne. God knows, he knew better than to expect passion from her. She could never satisfy his deep sensuality and he accepted that with a good grace and treated her with gentle kindness, but her reserve and reticence in all things sexual were beginning to weary him.
She allowed him to lead her into the bedchamber, but not to bed. “Charles,” she began bravely, “there is a course you are determined upon which will destroy my happiness completely.”
“Surely even I could not be such a brute, Catherine,” he demurred.
She flushed because Charles had been kindness itself to her. Others may have laughed at her foreign clothes, speech, and manners, but never Charles. A tiny sob escaped her lips. “It is
again,” she said, lifting reproachful eyes to him.
Charles kept a wise silence.
“It has come to my ears that she has demanded you make her a countess.” She stamped her slippered foot in determination. “I do not wish it!”
“My dear, if I choose to honor Mrs. Palmer, try to understand that it in no way dishonors you.”
“’Tis like a slap in the face to flaunt her before me.” Catherine’s sallow face flushed a dark red.
Charles glanced wistfully at the bed where the two spaniels had stretched out to make themselves comfortable, then he sat down on its edge. “Catherine, there is no dishonor to have been mistress to the King. You wish me to end the liaison, but it would be most unkind of me to simply cast her off. The whole court would ostracize her. Like a wolf pack they would rend her to shreds. By bestowing the honor of a title upon her, I fulfill my obligation to the lady. Surely you will be generous in this, Catherine.”
“What obligation?” she flared.
Charles had a dominant mother who had tried to bully him all his life. Simply because he was good-natured, most women thought
they could control him. They could not. “She has just borne me a son. It is no secret.”
Catherine burst into tears. “I’ve heard the whispers … you think I’m barren!”
He gathered her close and tipped her face up to his. “I think no such thing, sweetheart. I’ll put an end to the whispers tonight,” he said, drawing off her nightgown and removing his brocade robe. In the wide bed, he nudged the dogs over with his long thigh and took Catherine into his arms. She hid her face against his broad chest and bathed him with her tears. With infinite patience he cradled her until she had cried herself out. She was extremely slim and her breasts were as underdeveloped as a girl of eleven, but he stroked her gently and thumbed her tiny nipples. He kissed her a half-dozen times then murmured firmly, “The matter of Lady Castlemaine is closed.” He purposely used the title he was about to bestow upon Barbara.