Potent Pleasures by Eloisa James




  Critical raves for Eloisa James and

  Potent Pleasures

  “An intriguing Regency romance by a vibrant new voice.”

  —Romantic Times

  “[KEEPS] THE READER INTRIGUED RIGHT UP TO THE VERY LAST PAGE … James makes a fine debut with this Regency romance that brings to mind the best of Amanda Quick and Judith McNaught.”

  —Booklist

  “Humorous dialogue … love scenes that are warm and tasteful … Eloisa James has made a brilliant debut.”

  —Romance Communications

  “SENSUAL … HUMOROUS … Ms. James is a new author and definitely one to watch.”

  —Rendezvous

  “MARVELOUS … I COULDN’T PUT IT DOWN … a very satisfying love story that makes you wish for more.”

  —Belles and Beaux

  “BRIGHT AND FUNNY.”

  —Kirkus Reviews

  “The depth of characterizations, the steady progression of the plot and the tongue-in-cheek title will attract readers who may just greet James as the next Amanda Quick.”

  —Publishers Weekly

  For Sharon Kosick,

  of the wonderful bookstore

  The Book Rack, Too,

  who guided my reading and

  encouraged my writing.

  Thank you.

  Chapter 1

  Kent, England

  March 1798

  Charlotte was one week short of seventeen when her life changed, falling into two halves like a shiny child’s ball: before and after. In the time before, Charlotte was staying with Julia Brentorton, her dearest friend from school. Julia and she survived boarding school together: the dreary grind of everyday Latin instruction, music instruction, dance instruction, art class, etiquette with the school mistress, Lady Sipperstein. Etiquette was really the only unpleasant class.

  “Julia!” Lady Sipperstein would suddenly appear behind her left shoulder. “Cross your legs at the ankle when you sit in a low sofa.

  “Walk up the stairs again, Charlotte, and do not sway your hips this time! You are wiggling in an inappropriate fashion.”

  Lady Sipperstein was a terrifying woman with a bosom that extended forward like the prow of a ship. She knew to a hair how low one must bow to a duchess as opposed to a king, and she drilled her students as if they would do so every day.

  She was full of maxims: “One dismisses a servant as if he were a young child: with firmness, brevity, and uninterest…. The appropriate gifts for the sick depend on where they live: If they live on your estate, instruct the cook to make bone-marrow jelly and bring it yourself, with fruit; if they live in the village, instruct the servants to deliver an uncooked chicken instead. And of course be sure to ascertain that any illness is not contagious before you enter a house: While it is important to show feeling, one must not be foolish.”

  Etiquette was an hour of unnerving questions. “Julia! If a footman enters the breakfast room with an obviously swollen jaw, what is the appropriate response?”

  “Send him home?” Julia would suggest tentatively.

  “No! Information first. Is the swelling the result of a distressed tooth or an improper brawl the night before? If he has been brawling, dismiss him. If not? Julia?”

  “Ah, send him to a doctor?” Julia stammered.

  “Incorrect. Inform the butler that he should be put on duties that will keep him out of public view. There is no point in coddling servants.”

  For Charlotte, art class was the focus of the day. She was happiest in the white square room furnished only with twelve easels. They painted the same groupings over and over: two oranges, one lemon; two peaches, one pear. Charlotte didn’t mind.

  Julia did. “A pumpkin today!” she would chortle, mimicking Miss Frollip’s excited tone when she introduced the latest still life.

  For Julia, there was dance class—and that not because of dance, but because of Mr. Luskie. He was a rather hairy man, a family man: robust, friendly, not a bit of danger with the girls, the teachers all agreed. But Julia thought his whiskers were dashing, and she read messages in the gentle pressure of his hand as he directed her through the steps of a cotillion. “I adore him,” she whispered to Charlotte at night.

  Charlotte would wrinkle her nose: “I don’t know, Julia, he’s rather … well, he’s not …” It was hard to put into words. He was common. But how not to insult Julia? She thought a bit uneasily of Julia’s passionate vows of love: She wouldn’t do anything, would she? Of course, Mr. Luskie wouldn’t … but Julia was so beautiful. She was like a peach, Charlotte thought: golden and sweet-smelling and soft-looking. Would Mr. Luskie?

  One of Charlotte’s governesses had been stridently opinionated about men: “They want one thing, Lady Charlotte!” she would say. “One thing, and don’t you forget it and get yourself ruined, now!” Charlotte would nod, wondering what the one thing was.

  So she would whisper back, “I don’t think he’s so handsome, Julia. Did you see that he has red veins in his cheeks?”

  “No!” said Julia. “He doesn’t!”

  “Yes, he does,” said Charlotte.

  “How do you notice so much?” Julia said crossly.

  Finally school drew to a close, and one by one the girls were taken off by titled relatives, or simply by maids: taken off to be fitted and prinked and “tarted up,” Julia said. It was time to start a process that would end in settlements and dowries, balls and weddings.

  As the daughter of a duke, Charlotte was regarded enviously. Her coming out would be magnificent. Her elder sister Violetta had made her bow to society in a ballroom draped from top to bottom with white lilies.

  It was only Charlotte who didn’t care much. She longed, if the truth be told, to stay in the white square room and paint another apple, or (if the market was particularly exciting that week) even a persimmon. She was good, really good, she knew she was, and Miss Frollip knew she was, but that was the end of it.

  She had to come out; Julia had to come out; there would be little time for persimmons.

  So when her mother picked her up at Lady Chatterton’s School for Young Gentlewomen, Charlotte felt resigned, but not excited. Her mother arrived in full armor, in Charlotte’s private opinion: in the ducal coach with four footmen behind. The duchess was shy and quailed at the thought of an interview with the formidable Lady Sipperstein. Poor Mama, Charlotte thought. She must have been in a terrible tizzy.

  Finally Charlotte and her mother were regally dismissed by Lady Sipperstein and escaped in the coach. The duchess grinned in a most unduchesslike fashion, leaned back against the satin cushions, and said, “Thank goodness, you’re finished, Charlotte! I never have to see Lady Sipperstein again! We can be comfortable. How did the last picture go, darling—oranges, wasn’t it?” For Charlotte’s mama was a devoted parent, who lovingly kept track of her children’s latest exploits, even if in Charlotte’s case that had simply turned into a long progression of watercolor fruits.

  “All right, Mama,” Charlotte said. “I’ll show you when we get home.” Charlotte frowned a bit. Her mama treated all her work the same: with reverence, delight, and a noncritical eye.

  “Good,” said Adelaide comfortably. “I shall send it off immediately to Saxony. We’re doing quite well on that hallway, dearest. Why, two or three more and the walls will be full!”

  Charlotte grimaced. Her parents seemed to view her painting as a decorating tool, a kind of wallpaper. Each new painting was sent out to the best framer (Messrs. Saxony, Framers to the Crown), fitted into a gold frame with an appropriate matte chosen personally by Mr. Saxony, Sr., and solemnly delivered back to the ducal mansion. Then it was hung up in a long, long row of fruit (and the odd vegetable) that decorated a long, long hall in the east wing.

  “Now
, Charlotte,” Adelaide said with resolution. “We must start planning for your come out immediately. Why, I happen to know that Lady Riddleford—Isabella’s mother—has already taken the weekend of April nineteenth, which was precisely when I was planning your ball, dearest. So we must choose a time immediately and make it known. I was thinking of the weekend after. What do you think, darling?”

  Charlotte didn’t answer. She was thinking of her latest painting. But Adelaide was used to Charlotte’s lapses into inattentiveness; she simply returned to her plans.

  When Charlotte visited what her brother, Horace, called the orchard (the long row of pictures in the east wing) she could see change: hours of painting under Miss Frollip’s tutelage had turned her oranges from misshapen to round; apples stopped being poisonously red and gained some reality.

  What she was working on now was color. Color was so difficult: oranges, for example. When she closed her eyes, she saw groups of oranges, bright against her eyelids. She mixed and mixed for hours, a little yellow, blue, brown, but she couldn’t find the orange she saw in her mind’s eye. Oranges, colored the right way, had a slight brownish tinge at the top and streaks of blue: colors that smelled of the sun, of warm seas, of real orchards rather than of long halls or white rooms.

  But Charlotte didn’t have much time for painting after they arrived at the Calverstill House in Albemarle Square. She endured hours and hours of poking and prodding from seamstresses, and days of her mother’s planning.

  “Dearest,” announced her mother. “Delphiniums!”

  Charlotte stared at her.

  “Delphiniums what, Mama?” she finally asked.

  “Delphiniums! They’re your flower for the ball! I’ve been racking my mind … you know I did Violetta’s ball in lilies. I had to avoid colors for her because of her name, but delphiniums are such a lovely blue. They will set off your hair perfectly.”

  Just now the rage was for blondes: blondes with curly locks and blue eyes, but Charlotte had jet-black hair, her mama thought despairingly. She did have green eyes, but her skin was so white—not a drop of color. True, with some coaxing her hair formed perfect ringlets, and her skin was creamy, but she was no sweetly pert debutante. Her eyebrows arched like question marks over eyes as green as the ocean on a cloudy day. In fact, her whole face was pointed like a question mark: Her chin formed a delicate triangle that simply led back to her eyes and those flying eyebrows.

  The duchess sighed a little. When Charlotte was happy, she was the most beautiful of her daughters: She would simply have to see that she had a happy first ball, that’s all.

  Charlotte stood rock-still through all the fittings, closed her eyes, and analyzed the oranges that appeared in her mind. Perhaps more red. Perhaps starting very red, and working back to orange, in layers?

  “Charlotte!” her mother said. “Miss Stuart is trying to do up your hem. Please, turn around when she asks you.

  “Charlotte! I’ve asked you twice; please raise your arms.

  “Charlotte!”

  Finally the fittings were over and the last pearls were painstakingly sewn into Charlotte’s presentation dress. Seventeen ball dresses fit for a duke’s young daughter were swaddled in tissue and hung in a wardrobe; the delphiniums were growing well, the duchess was relieved to hear; ten footmen were summoned from the country; the ballroom was polished and the chandeliers shined, and the watch notified of the extra traffic. The Calverstills were ready to launch their last child onto society. Invitations winged their way to the London ton. And the London ton accepted. The duchess may have been shy, but she was beloved, creative, and had money to spare. A Calverstill ball would never be slighted.

  Perhaps most important, young men accepted, all of them—fops, courtiers, gallants, Corinthians—all the groups and cliques and sets of London. Charlotte was rumored to be beautiful (her two elder sisters were) and she was sure to have an excellent dowry as her father was plump in the pocket. And still two weeks remained before the ball.

  So Charlotte was given permission to visit Julia in the country. Her mama didn’t worry much.

  “Charlotte, you mustn’t be seen in public; this is a terribly delicate time,” she said brightly, looking at her dutiful but somehow detached daughter.

  Could it be that Charlotte wasn’t really interested in her presentation? No, no, the duchess thought: Why, she loves talking about her dresses, and we had such a good time looking at all the silks. Charlotte is so good with colors! And she had a positive surge of affection for her youngest daughter, who had never caused her any real trouble or anxiety. Charlotte was reasonable, calm, and unexcitable.

  Charlotte was driven, in the ducal coach but with only one footman, a few hours out of London to Squire Brentorton’s estate. Julia greeted her with glowing eyes. She too had ball gowns to show, with less embroidery and no pearls sewn in the hem, but beautiful all the same. And she had a passion—of course.

  “He’s adorable, Charlotte! I adore him! He’s not at all like that old Mr. Luskie. He’s beautiful, really beautiful; you’ll love him—no red veins!”

  Charlotte wrinkled her nose at her.

  “What do you mean, beautiful? And who are we talking about?” She noticed with some dismay that Julia’s violet eyes were dreamy with love.

  “His name is Christopher,” Julia said. “He has curls … he looks like Adonis, truly, Charlotte.”

  “But who is he?” Charlotte was getting suspicious. There was something evasive about the way her friend’s dewy gaze kept drifting off into the corners of the room. Julia pouted, just a little.

  “Julia!” Charlotte said threateningly, smothering a grin. Her friend was so silly about men. Just a few weeks ago she had cried heartbrokenly because she would never see Mr. Luskie again.

  “He’ll never hold me in his arms again,” she’d wailed, “we’ll never dance together again,” sobbing into her pillow. And even Charlotte was moved, and wondered if she’d been too harsh, constantly pointing out the plumpness of Mr. Luskie’s backside and the growing bald spot on his head.

  Julia cast her eyes on the ground. “He’s a man of God,” she finally said, softly.

  “What?” said Charlotte, not understanding her.

  “He’s … well, he’s a curate!” Julia said.

  “A curate? Julia!”

  “He has blond curls, Charlotte. He looks like, well, he looks like a painting!” Having confessed the worst, she ignored Charlotte’s frown and listed the curate’s many graces: He was young, and more handsome than anyone including the seller of sweet lavender who sometimes came by the school and who, until now, had been consecrated as the most handsome, even if Mr. Luskie was the most cherished.

  “Even you will like him, Charlotte. Because he’s full of virtue, and quite thin—you know how you were always saying that poor Mr. Luskie was a bit plump. And he would be a wonderful person to paint.” Julia sat up, and looked speculatively at Charlotte.

  “You don’t suppose … You can’t keep painting fruit now we’re out of school, Charlotte! Why don’t you offer to paint Christopher?”

  “You’re demented,” Charlotte said fondly. “I will not offer to paint a young man I’ve never even met! Why, my mother would collapse in shock.”

  “Well, Charlotte, you do have to start thinking about men instead of paintings now, you know,” Julia said a bit sharply. “You just never seem to show any interest!”

  The curate is more handsome than the lavender seller, Charlotte thought on Sunday, her heart sinking a bit. Julia stared at him so devotedly that Charlotte had to elbow her twice, so that she would bend her head to pray. Charlotte watched him too, out of the corner of her eyes. He was somberly dressed in a black cassock, blond curls smoothly shining. He didn’t look like a painting; he looked like a statue—a statue of a mischievous faun. There was something too smooth about his curls, and his face looked naughty, she decided. Like her brother Horace’s when he’d been sent down from Oxford.

  On the way out of church Charlotte
watched the curate wink at Julia and give her a very small, very private smile while the cold spring sunlight shone on his hair. And when the squire and his wife turned to greet two friends, she saw him slip Julia a bit of paper, and her knees went weak.

  All the way home, chatting pleasantly with the unknowing Brentortons, Charlotte’s mind was racing. Julia was ruined! If anyone knew that a young man was writing to her, she’d never be able to go to Almack’s. She’d never be approved by the patronesses. She would never find a husband.

  When they got back to Brentorton Hall, Charlotte took Julia firmly under the elbow and swept her upstairs to her room. Then she pushed the door shut, leaned on it, and stuck out her hand, without saying a word.

  Julia looked at her mutinously. Her eyes measured Charlotte’s taller height against the oak door. Julia was slight and small. She would never be able to push Charlotte’s willowy self from the door. She sighed and plumped down on her bed and pulled the small bit of paper from her bosom with a practiced air that chilled Charlotte to the bone.

  “It’s nothing,” she said. “Nothing, Charlotte!” She looked up at her fiercely. “See?” She flashed the scrap of paper.

  Charlotte snatched it. There were four words, written in peaky letters with blue ink: Stuart Hall, Saturday, 9 o’clock.

  “Oh, Lord, Julia, you wouldn’t—you aren’t meeting him, are you? Secretly?” Charlotte slid slowly down, crushing her petticoats, until she was sitting against the door. “What is this place, Stuart Hall?”

  “It’s nothing bad.” Julia leaned forward eagerly. “It’s not a rendezvous—I would never do anything like that. It’s a masquerade ball that is held every Saturday night, and I just happened to be talking to Christopher about it—”

 
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