Tingling heat curled around my stomach, taking me by surprise. It had been a long time since any handsome, reckless, young rake had given me butterflies. Even as a girl in her first London season, I’d known to avoid such men. At the age of thirty-one and newly widowed, I saw no reason not to foster the pleasant sensation by looking a little longer.
He was quite sinfully handsome. Striding into the assembly room at the centre of a rollicking group of young men, he couldn’t help but draw every eye. Exotically dark with his hair and collar in a state of romantic disorder, he could have been a pirate prince or a rampaging soldier. The latter, I thought, as I glimpsed the faded braid of a foreign military uniform. His dark eyes glittered with not entirely sober fun as he scanned the room, searching, no doubt, for entertainment.
Another young man spoke to him in a language I didn’t know, and he threw back his head with an uninhibited shout of laughter, which didn’t slow his roving gaze. It glided over me and halted, perhaps because I sat alone. But since I saw no reason to look away, there was an instant when our eyes met and held.
The butterflies in my stomach dived lower. With the laughter just dying on his wicked lips, he really was breathtaking. From my side-on view, black, sloping eyebrows lent him a vaguely satanic appearance which the glittering dark eyes did little to dispel. Strong, high cheekbones, a thin, straight nose, sensually full lips and a wilful chin all added to his undoubted charm.
After a pregnant instant when he simply stared, the smile on his lips began to grow again, and he actually swerved towards me, before one of his friends caught his arm and tugged him in the opposite direction. He even resisted for a moment before a few more words from his friends seemed to draw him back to himself. With a shrug, he tore his gaze free and swept on towards the gaming room.
Of course he did. And yet he glanced back once, over his shoulder, allowing me a shocking glimpse of the other side of his face: an angry scar ran all the way down his left cheek, from the edge of his eyebrow to his chin, tugging the corner of his eye slightly upward and adding to the faintly diabolical look I had already observed.
Then he vanished into the gaming room and I released my breath in a rush. The orchestra struck up after their brief rest, and couples spilled onto the dance floor once more. I let the music, and the colourful motion wash over me.
This public assembly was not quite what my stepsisters called “the thing.” Even the worthiest patrons were not out of the “top drawer,” and I suspected several, such as the young men who’d just entered, were not worthy at all. Because of the proximity of the ballroom to the gaming room, young ladies were liable to rub shoulders with inveterate gamblers and rakehells, and the public nature of the rooms admitted several obvious members of the demimonde—courtesans and predators of all kinds. I loved it. I had chosen well.
For me, the French spa town of Lescloches had two important advantages over its more respectable rivals. It wasn’t dull, and I was anonymous here.
Boredom was a part of grief that I hadn’t considered until it overcame me. The first month after Neil, my husband, died, I was too busy to acknowledge more than the dull ache of loss. Neil’s heir, his nephew, Sir George Jordan, was kind enough to offer me accommodation in my old home, but knowing that would never work, I had gratefully declined and bought myself a snug little house in London, for Neil, most thoughtful and understanding of men, had willed me everything that wasn’t entailed and had taken care I would be independently wealthy without him.
However, although my new home was small by comparison with Manleigh Place in Yorkshire, it seemed it wasn’t small enough. Plagued with kind visits from friends and family, who seemed to have made it their business that I should never be alone to mope, I had quickly reached the screaming point of boredom and irritation. There are only so many conversations one can have with people determined to skirt around what is currently consuming one’s life.
I would have welcomed a visit from my favourite stepsister Guin, who never skirted, but she was in Germany, having suddenly and inexplicably married the insane Duke of Silberwald. My old friend and very first love, Patrick Haggard, with whom my name had been scandalously linked in the spring, refused to be seen with me too often for the sake of my reputation; and his betrothed, the intriguing and never-boring Barbara Darke, had just taken the post of governess in a bizarre and massive family that took up all her time.
And so, isolated and yet plagued, I had the bright idea of fleeing the country. I decided to visit Guin in her fairy-tale castle, vividly and variously described to me by Patrick, Barbara and my other stepsister Augusta who was also, confusingly, a Duchess of Silberwald. But I would travel there in easy stages, gloriously alone to pursue whatever did not bore me on the way.
Paris, although rarely dull, held too many acquaintances. So too did the first spa town I visited. And so I had arrived at Lescloches and settled into my comfortable hotel with almost blissful relief.
Lescloches did not boast the best or the most respectable society. Its main attractions were its gaming halls and its public assemblies, its patrons hardly of the first—or even second —consequence. Which suited me perfectly. My name meant nothing here and no one would ever find me unless I wished it. Besides which, there was a slightly seedy kind of fascination about the place. It was colourful, lively, uninterested in me, and just what I needed.
I whiled away my days drinking the waters that were meant to restore energy, walking in the town and its pretty environs, admiring the churches and watching the world go by from coffeehouses and the hotel restaurant. It all helped me to relax and deal with my grief in my own way.
In truth, the anonymity was liberating, not to say exhilarating. After dining alone in my hotel, I often collected my shawl against the chill of the evening and strolled around the town once more. Frequently, drawn by the music, I even wandered into the assembly rooms to watch the dancing. I always sat alone, and declined all the bold invitations to dance that I received. I never felt threatened. As the young wife of an old man, I’d learned very early on how to depress the attentions of amorous young men who assumed I was fair, or even grateful, game.
I hadn’t long sat down when my rakish young soldier had swaggered in with his friends, but he had certainly served to pierce my numbness. I closed my gloved fingers around my glass of wine and silently toasted him before I drank. Whoever he was.
As had become my habit, I sipped my wine until it was gone and then ordered a cup of coffee. Occasionally, I was obliged to repel male attention, but less often than on my previous visits. Word had clearly circulated that the strange English lady was not open to offers of any kind and therefore not worth the effort. While waiting for my coffee, I rose and strolled around the edges of the ballroom, observing the interactions and the gowns and the little sadnesses and triumphs that made up other people’s lives. As I passed the door to the gaming room, I glanced in. Through the fog of cigar smoke, I glimpsed tables of concentrated card players, a busy roulette wheel, and people crowded around both to watch.
Forced to pause for a middle-aged couple in my path, I took a second look at the gamers and finally saw my soldier seated at a card table. A young woman all but hung over his shoulder, while most of his friends huddled behind with a mixture of desperation and avidity. The soldier himself was entirely concentrated on his game. When he lifted the glass at his elbow, he didn’t so much as glance at it, merely knocked the contents down his throat in one swift movement and rattled it on the table, presumably to request a refill, before throwing his cards on the table, face-up.
I couldn’t tell from his studied expression whether or not he’d won. But, despite the liberty of my anonymity, I had no intention of going in to find out. I passed on, returning to my table to find my coffee already delivered. I sat down and sipped it. When it was finished, I would stroll back to the hotel and go to bed.
The dance was in full swing. Several budding romances were going well, although I foretold disaster for at least two. The lady at the next table threatened to return to Paris. I felt like offering her the train fare to leave her odious companion.
My young soldier emerged from the gaming room with the same girl still hanging on his arm. As if he didn’t notice her, he was clapping one of his male companions on the back and grinning. He’d won, as was clear from his expansive order to the waiter in passing as the disreputable gaggle made its way to a vacant table some distance from mine. Although his gold braid proclaimed him an officer, his coat looked faded and too well-worn. I sipped my coffee and discovered that by shifting in my seat very slightly, I could keep them in my sphere of vision.
“…Hungarian exiles,” I heard from the table in front of me. The occupants there were gazing in the same direction as me. “Noblemen who sided with the revolution and can’t go home. The scarred one is Count Andrassy. Wild as they come. He’s only here because they tried to arrest him in Paris.”
“What for?” asked one of the curious ladies beside the speaker.
He shrugged. “Duelling over some woman, I believe. Or maybe just brawling. Whatever, it was with the wrong man, one with powerful friends who invoked the law. And so here he is.”
“And the woman fawning on him, is she the—ah—lady concerned?”
“No idea,” said the man carelessly. “Though apparently she did leave her Parisian protector to follow him.”
“Andrassy?” someone else at the table mused. “They’re a powerful family, are they not? I thought the count was in England.”
“Different Count Andrassy. This one has friends in the Emperor’s camp, so I would have thought he’d be given amnesty. Though maybe he won’t take it. I believe he fought to the end.”
He wasn’t fighting now. He’d wrapped a careless arm around the woman, and gave her a brief but unapologetic kiss on the mouth before dropping his arm and shoving a purse into her hands. Then he leaned back in his chair, tipping it up while he again surveyed the room.
Unexpectedly, he bumped the chair back down onto all four legs and stood up, frowning. He walked between tables in my direction, and for no very good reason, my heart began to beat faster. I averted my gaze just a little, although I could still see him from the corner of my eye. I sipped a little more coffee, but I was aware of the precise moment he noticed me again. I could swear the faint frown on his brow vanished. As if he’d been looking for me; as if I’d suddenly re-entered his erratic mind and he was glad to find the memory true.
Ridiculously, despite watching him kiss another woman, I liked the idea.
I didn’t even mind that he strode directly to my table, although I treated him to my best freezing glance.
Close-to, he was even more breathtaking. Everything about him shouted vitality, youth…and danger. The marred beauty of his face only enhanced this impression, perhaps because alcohol had lent that glitter to his eyes and darkened his cheek with the faintest flush. He was, clearly, used to managing himself in this state.
He smiled, and there was absolutely no slurring in his speech as he said in perfect French, “Good evening, madame. May I join you for a moment?”
“I’m afraid not,” I said, allowing my glance to encompass the table, which had no chairs but mine. It was a polite way of softening the blow, and it had always worked before. Count Andrassy, if that was indeed my soldier’s name, took it rather as assent, merely solving the chair problem by swinging one away from the table next to him and plonking it down beside me.
He sat, large and restless, yet with his entire attention focused on me. “Why does such a beautiful lady sit alone all evening?” he asked.
“Because she wishes it,” I said tartly.
His brow twitched. “You come to a place like this to be alone?”
It was a good question, and, foolishly perhaps, it took me by surprise. “I like to be alone to watch the world,” I said. I closed inexplicably nervous fingers around my coffee cup, discovered it was empty, and pushed it away from me. “And now I have seen enough.”
I made to rise, but he moved quickly, catching my shawl from the back of my chair, where it had fallen.
“Forgive me,” he said. “I don’t mean to chase you away. I’ll go, if you like.”
“That would be best.”
“No. Best would be if you’d talk to me for a little. Or dance with me.”
“I don’t dance,” I said coldly.
A smile curved his lips. His eyes had never left mine. “You come to a place like this not to dance?”
“Or to talk.”
“As you say.”
His smile broadened. “Then do you mind if I just look?”
Unexpected laughter tried to catch at my breath. “Sir, you are impudent. A cat may look at a queen, but may do so just as easily from a distance.”
“As you were looking at me?”
Annoyingly, I felt a flush rise at being discovered. Ignoring it, I lifted my chin. “I found you interesting,” I said frankly. “I find a lot of people here interesting.”
“Just not interesting enough to talk to.”
“Exactly.” I rose to my feet. I’d already been drawn into more conversation with him than with anyone since I’d arrived in Lescloches. “My shawl, if you please.”
Ignoring my outstretched hand, he stood and placed the shawl around my shoulders. Although he didn’t touch me, the act seemed too intimate, brought him too close to me. I risked a glance at him, saw that the sword, or whatever had cut his face, had also nicked his lower lip. I knew an insane urge to touch it. With my own lips.
Determinedly, I raised my eyes to his. “Good night.”
He stirred. “It would be a better night if you’d dance with me. What do you have to lose but five minutes of your time? Time you appear to be here to waste anyway.”
I blinked, because of course he was right. I hadn’t come to make friends but to alleviate unendurable boredom that had its roots in loneliness.
More than that, I wanted to dance with him. The orchestra was playing a waltz.
An instant longer, I tried to talk myself out of it. After all, we hadn’t even been introduced. And I was entirely alone.
I let my shawl fall back on the chair arm and inclined my head. He smiled, taking my gloved hand in his warm, bare fingers. There were scars crisscrossing his knuckles. Placing my hand on his arm in a gentlemanly manner, he led me onto the dance floor and swept me into his arms.
It was not the faster, more dizzying Viennese waltz, but he seemed to dance in something of the same abandoned style. I didn’t know if that was due to the alcohol or his natural exuberance or simply the custom of his country. Whichever, it was to his credit that at least he didn’t hold me too close or try to maul me.
“What’s your name?” he asked me.
I considered. But I had nothing to hide now and would have no more later. “Caroline Jordan.”
He inclined his head. “Mrs. Jordan. You are English.”
“Lady Jordan,” I corrected mildly. “And yes, I am.”
“I’m Hungarian. Zsigmund Andrassy.”
“I’m sorry for the late troubles in your country.”
“There are still troubles in my country. The Austrian government strangles us. But I thank you.”
“Is that why you don’t go home?”
He managed to shrug and make it part of the dance. “I can’t go home. I don’t care. I would much rather be here dancing with you.”
His words were those of a practised flirt. The apparent sincerity, the sheer force of his concentrated attention must have been devastating to a more susceptible woman. Even I felt more than a faint flutter in my heart, a stirring of unwanted excitement I recognised as desire.
I felt compelled to say dryly, “You’re very kind, but you mustn’t waste your flattery on me, Count Andrassy. I have been in the world rather too long to succumb.”
He didn’t appear to mind the set-down, for he only smiled. “You think I’m drunk.”
“Only a trifle. In the morning, I’ll be sober.”
I stared at him. “What does that mean?”
“That I’d like to call on you in the morning,” he said patiently. “When I’m sober. Don’t turn me down,” he added outrageously. “There is usually only a small window of sobriety, especially after a win, and I would dedicate it to you.”
“I’m bowled over by your kindness and respect.”
He grinned. “No, you’re not. You think I’m insolent and dissolute, and you’re right. But I was joking—mostly— about my window of sobriety, and I would like to see you tomorrow.”
His leg touched mine through my skirts, dancing me backwards, and a fresh flush of heat washed through me. As if he sensed it—God knew he was close enough now—he said softly, “I would like to see you tonight too, but I doubt you would permit it.”
“You’d be right,” I said faintly.
“Because of Lord Jordan?”
I ignored the mis-title. “No. Because of me.”
His eyes were clouded, almost black, with unmistakable lust. He was undoubtedly a young man used to pursuing his desires and getting them. My own desire to let him took me by surprise.
“I hold you in my arms,” he said, huskily, “and I want more. Don’t you feel it too?”
My nipples rubbed achingly against my clothes. The moist heat of arousal was pooling between my thighs, shocking me.
I swallowed. “No.” What was the matter with me? He must be several years my junior. He was a boy to me.
He didn’t have a boy’s eyes or a boy’s body. Dissolute or not, sober or not, he had the hard, lean figure of a fighting soldier, and the arm holding me seemed strong enough for anything. He was undoubtedly a man, and, physically, a very tempting one.
He turned his head on one side as the music came to a close, considering me. “I think you lie. But I press you too quickly. Do you like champagne?”
Although his single-mindedness was beguiling, I wasn’t completely stupid. Not yet.
“No, thank you,” I said firmly, stepping back from him just as his friends arrived, sweeping him up in their hurry.
“Come on, Zsiga! We’re off to Maurice’s!” someone said jovially in French.
I laughed tolerantly, but it seemed I’d misjudged him, for even as I turned away, he broke impatiently from his friend’s hold.
“Later. Go on,” he said shortly, and pushed them towards the door to return to me.
“No, sir, go with them,” I said. “I am returning to my hotel to sleep.”
“Then let me escort you.”
“No, thank you,” I said. “I would rather go alone.”
For an instant, he hesitated, but I gave him no time, merely turned and walked away from him. And yet, when I lifted my shawl from the chair, he was still there with me. His hand covered mine, brown and weathered over the whiteness of my glove.
I straightened, withdrawing my hand, and allowed him to place the shawl on my shoulders for the second time. Half-afraid now, I raised my eyes to his.
He said, “You’re the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen. I would do nothing to distress you.” And then he simply bowed and walked away.
I sank into my chair, pretended to drink the remains of my long-gone coffee, just to give him and his friends time to leave. Even so, when I finally walked out of the room, through the foyer and into the street, my heart thundered with anticipation.
I wondered if he’d meant it to be that way.
But there was no sign of him.
I walked across the square to my hotel and retired to my room alone. Even then, I was aware that something had changed, that something momentous had happened.