Read Nothing but Trouble Online

Authors: Allegra Gray

Tags: #Romance

Nothing but Trouble (3 page)

“My fault,” Charity told her
. Was she such a terrible person, then, to seek this single night’s release from the invisible prison that had held her for so long?

Penny adjusted the draping at Charity’s shoulder once more, then nodded in satisfaction
. “Lovely, miss. The gentlemen at Almack’s won’t be able to take their eyes off you.”

. Almack’s. Charity dragged her mind back to the present. “Mary Summers is acting as chaperone to her younger sister tonight. She hopes Bess’s impeccable deportment will convince the patronesses to grant her permission to dance the waltz.” She turned to meet Penny’s eye, satisfied by the maid’s quick nod that—though they both knew Charity wouldn’t be anywhere near Mary or her younger sister that night—Penny knew how to respond if questioned about her mistress’s whereabouts.

That took care of one part of the evening’s escapad
e. As to being recognized…she eyed a discarded blue scarf dangling precariously over the edge of her dressing table as an idea began to take shape.

“Penny, one more thing
?” She explained what she had in mind, pulling the blue scarf from the table and grabbing a similarly-hued one from the drawer underneath. “If you help me pull this off, the scarves are yours at the end of the night,” Charity promised.

The maid’s eyes
widened and she ran a caressing finger across the silk. Such finery would either make her the envy of all the other maids or fetch a pretty penny at a resale shop. Any uneasiness the poor girl had felt at being party to such illicit behavior had, Charity suspected, just vanished.

pinned the last veil into place, and Charity breathed a sigh of relief. Between the jade-colored mask and the scarves, nearly her whole face was covered.

Now, she just had to give the slip to the men who constantly shadowed her
, protected her. One would certainly be waiting downstairs, or in front of the townhouse, ready to follow wherever she went. Guilt pricked her, but she shook it off. Tonight she would be surrounded by throngs of merrymakers, not stupidly sneaking around alone. She’d learned
lesson. Disguised as she was, she was safe enough. For the next few hours, she could dance and drink champagne to her heart’s content.

slipped out the side entrance, unseen. Lords Edwards and Blythe, two young rakes, and Miss Allison Hart, an heiress with a wild streak, were her chosen companions thus far this Season. They had two advantages over Charity’s previous, more staid group of friends—first, they knew how to cavort from one soiree to another until they dropped from sheer exhaustion, and second, they rarely asked questions. For tonight, they’d already promised to have a carriage waiting down the block.




Chapter 2

The best laid plans…


Charity entered the Wicked Baron’s ballroom surrounded by a Roman gladiator, a Grecian goddess, and an aspiring Lancelot
. No one announced their arrival. No line of guests waited to greet their host, either, the Wicked Baron not being one to stand on ceremony—or perhaps the baron was simply astute enough to realize a good portion of his guests would not appreciate having their names announced.

took a deep breath and firmly quashed the little niggle of unease that rose at the unprecedented lack of decorum. It wasn’t as though she’d planned to give her real name, anyway. She’d promised herself one night free from worry, and nothing was going to stop her.

A few steps
further, and they entered the ballroom, where Charity took in a scene that spoke of far more than a mere lack of decorum…it spoke of decadence, pure and unbridled.

Instead of the pristine flower arrangements and brilliantly-lit chandeliers found at a typical
event, the baron’s ballroom was filled with softly-glowing, colored lanterns and swaths of exotic fabric not too unlike Charity’s own costume.

The effect was seductive, multiplied tenfold by an informal stage at the end of the room where two
scantily-clad young women swayed and jiggled their hips in a manner that had the male occupants gawking and crowding closer.

Charity, too,
found it difficult to tear her eyes away. This masquerade undoubtedly qualified as the most risqué event she'd attended. Not that she would allow anyone else see her shock. The swath of veils arranged artfully over her hair and face were proving useful at hiding more than just her identity.

If this was how the
behaved when they thought no one was watching, then all those girlhood lessons in propriety were a sham. Dancing the waltz too soon? Or favoring a particular partner with a second or—gasp—even third dance? Heavens. How about dancing half-naked and plastered to one’s partner, as a good number of the women in this ballroom seemed to be doing? Clearly, this masquerade was not for the faint of heart.

Someone handed her a glass of
wine. She adjusted her veil and sipped, then frowned. Sniffed. She caught the spicy aroma of cloves, and beneath it, something more.

She glanced again at the exotic, Eastern flavor of the décor, considering. The laudanum that had first aided her sleep, she’d learned, was a product of the Orient
. A sister to opium. And opium, she knew, could be added to wine. Given the apparent theme of tonight’s event, it seemed unlikely Lord Madrigal had stopped with mere decorations.

hesitated, then gulped it down. Just this once. If nothing else, the liquor would give her the courage to see this evening through. If her suspicions proved correct and the wine had been spiked, she might even sleep well when it was over, free of the nightmares that so often plagued her. She feared how easily it could become a habit, but she’d endured so many restless nights that the mere thought of a few peaceful, uninterrupted hours brought tears of relief to her eyes. She blinked them back.

Beside her, Miss Hart eyed the dancers
, whose raised arms and undulating hips seemed to hold a promise that extended beyond the stage. “Do you suppose,” she asked in a fascinated whisper, “they are…ahem…birds of paradise?”

“Do they sell their favors
?” Charity mused over the question, swallowing the last of the spiced wine. The dance ended, and one of the performers sidled up to a man in a black domino. She couldn’t hear their exchange, but the man’s raised eyebrow and brief jerk of his head toward the door that led to the private rooms of the house—followed by the woman’s satisfied smile—told her all she needed to know.

“I should say,” she answered slowly, “that if they do not exactly
their favors, they are certainly forthcoming with them.”

Miss Hart fanned herself vigorously
. “I’ve seen members of the demimondaine before, at the theater and such, but never have I actually mingled with them.” She giggled. “I daresay this shall be a most educational evening.”

,” Charity agreed, though she couldn’t claim to share the heiress’s goals when it came to that sort of “education.” She desired nothing more than an evening free of the scrutiny that normally accompanied her every move, making the past impossible to forget.

The opening strain of a
familiar waltz sounded from the small orchestra. Lord Edwards, her companion in the gladiator costume, turned and bowed gallantly, flinging out one arm—causing a waiter bearing a tray of glasses a momentary look of sheer terror. Fortunately, the servant executed a neat sidestep, and his usual polite mask fell back into place.

“A dance, princess?” Lord Edwards asked.

Charity nodded. This, she could handle. The stuffy patronesses of Almack’s might consider waltzing too amorous for some, but compared to the dancing she’d just observed, the waltz was as dry as unbuttered toast. She set her glass aside and followed the young lord as other couples paired off and streamed onto the dance floor around them.

As the
waltz began in earnest, Lord Edwards yanked her against him. Charity gasped as her breasts brushed his chest. How dare he be so forward!

But a
quick glance around confirmed that her partner had acted no more forward than any other in the ballroom. She should have expected as much. If only she were attracted to Lord Edwards, she might not even mind. But she knew the young nobleman well enough to know his attentions were fleeting at best.

She pressed her lips together as h
is hand drifted lower on her back, drawing her hips against his. Astute enough to recognize the hardness she felt there, Charity quickly revised her opinion about how much waltz she could handle.

She’d knowingly attended this masquerade
—had plotted and schemed her way here. How foolish and naïve would she seem now if she acted outraged by a mere dance? She sighed. Causing a scene would only make matters worse.

They whirled past another couple, and she realized that,
intentional or not, she
drawing curiosity. She dared another look, and this time locked eyes with the male of the couple she’d just whirled past.

Clad in a domino the shade of rich burgundy wine, he made the gladiator against whom she was pinned seem more gaudy than gallant
. His half-mask gave way to a firm jaw, and the domino did little to conceal his massive build. A wide chest and strong arms tapered to a trim waist. Strong thighs. Heavens. She was staring at his thighs. She quickly averted her gaze.

The stranger
quirked a brow. Appraising her, in turn. At least
danced like a gentleman, she noted, his partner a respectable arm’s distance away. Why couldn’t she be partnered with him? Who was he? The baron himself? As yet, none of her companions had been able to identify their host.

squirmed. Lord Edwards was beginning to sweat on her. Maybe this evening had been a mistake after all.

The next turn brought them around the other couple, and she observed wryly that
her mystery man’s restraint in dancing might be attributed to the fact his partner was at least twice his age—though dressed just as scantily as the birds of paradise Miss Hart had commented upon earlier.

This time
quirked a brow, smugly satisfied that her veils hid her smile.

Mercifully, the
waltz ended.

“I really must see to my hair,” Charity begged off,
before her partner could suggest they visit the refreshment table, the terrace, or anywhere else.

She hurried toward the retiring room, but when a backward glance confirmed Lord Edwards had turned his attention to a more receptive subject, she veered off
, aiming for the card room instead. She’d had enough of dancing—an activity she could partake in at any one of dozens of events during the Season.

The Wicked Baron, absentee host that he was,
was said to offer indulgences and amusements far more unusual. Charity had a mind to explore. Not necessarily to partake—she wasn’t
bold. But after the effort she’d gone to just to get here, she at least wanted to see what all the rumors were about. Aside from the few companions she’d arrived with, no one here knew who she was. No one to judge her. No one to question. No one to be disappointed if she didn’t live up to their expectations.

She swallowed thickly, knowing she
deserved the mess she’d made of her life. She was all too aware that her own foolish actions had resulted in her capture last year. It had been her ambition to spy on men she knew to be dangerous, just so others would see as much value in
as they did in Beatrice Pullington, who’d deciphered a message meant for one of Napoleon’s spies and earned the trust of the British government.

Charity hadn’t been successful like Bea. She couldn’t even live up to her own expectations, let alone those of others. And ever since, it was getting harder and harder to stay afloat in the whirlpool she’d set in motion.

. Tomorrow, Charity promised herself as she adjusted the veil that protected her identity, she would get her life back under control.

Tonight, there were too many opportunities to pass up



“You thought
would be a likely place to meet my future wife?” Graeme scoffed.

Ewan MacPherson, his longtime friend and his reason for attending this absurd masquerade
, held by an even more absurdly-nicknamed English noble—the Wicked Baron, indeed—caught Graeme’s expression and gave a disgusted snort. “Don’t look so pained, man. If a wife is all you’re after, get yourself to Almack’s and have done with it. I just thought you might actually want to have some fun whilst doing the looking.”

h. A valid point,” Graeme conceded. Fun was a commodity he’d had precious little of in recent years. The two men had forsaken the ballroom for the card room, but after a few hands of five card loo, men at the various tables began standing up and drifting toward the adjacent room.

Standing at its edge now, Graeme could see why
. The room was darkened, save for a single lamp positioned to illuminate a screen. In the corner, a turbaned man sat cross-legged, playing softly on a reed flute. Behind the screen stood a woman, her silhouette clearly outlined as she danced to the foreign tune, touching herself in ways no lady would dream of.

The remainder of the parlor was littered with sofas, benches, and chaises, upon which an assortment of Grecian goddesses, faerie queens, and
woodland nymphs perched, some attending to a nearby gentleman, others gazing beckoningly toward the doorway.

rolled his eyes and whispered, “Somehow, I doubt any of
are likely to make a good wife and mother.”

“You never know,” Ewan shot back
. “You know what they say about certain widows…”

Graeme just shook his head
. He was here now. There would be other, more appropriate engagements at which he might meet a wife. In the meantime, the masquerade
an ideal venue for honing his skills at flirtation. It had been an age since he’d courted anyone seriously, and, earl or not, he’d need some finely honed skills to tempt a woman once she realized how far from civilization he lived.

He squared his shoulders. “
Very well. Upon which of these mythical creatures shall I lavish my attentions?” He kept his voice low—not that the crowd captivated by the screen woman was paying him any attention.

His friend
laughed. “You look prepared to do battle. Just pick a pretty lass and I daresay you needn’t do more than sit down and the rest will take care of itself. Not that brunette over there, though—I’ve my eye on her already. Hell, Graeme, I know you’ve done this before.”

Graeme just grunted in response
. Off course he had. Quite a lot of it, actually. But that was before his father had died. Before he’d inherited an earldom and all the responsibility that came with it. Other lairds had cleared their lands of crofters, making way for sheep to graze and tolling the death knell for the old clan way of life. Graeme had worked long and hard to prevent his own people from having to leave. Not to mention the responsibilities of caring for his young ward, Nathan. He wouldn’t trade any of it, but the days of his youthful exploits seemed terribly distant. Ewan, as the second son of a wealthy Lord of Parliament, the Scottish equivalent of the English title of baron, had far fewer responsibilities.

Ease off,” his friend advised him. “One night of fun can’t hurt ‘ere you consign yourself to matrimonial bliss.”

Ewan’s tone made clear the two men shared at least one opinion: matrimony rarely had anything to do with bliss
. Graeme’s own parents had been a rare exception, though that had made his father’s death doubly hard on his mother.

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