The Seduction of Miss Darkin
Thanks to everyone who offered opinions about what to call my serialized novel. I’ve settled on The Seduction of Miss Darkin–a title that wasn’t in the list of possibles last time, but works on a couple of levels. For one thing, we know Cassandra has already succumbed to a man’s false promises before the story begins. It’s this seduction that sets her inner gift–an affinity for flames–in motion, so it’s important to the story. In this chapter, she’s about to meet our hero, Garret Sterling. He’ll show her how to put the fire out by stoking sparks of another kind.
If you haven’t read the opening three chapters , please click here to get up to date before you read on.
Cassandra dropped a parting curtsey to her quadrille partner and wished again for the night to be over. Her new slippers pinched abominably. The headache she’d considered pleading earlier was beginning to form in earnest behind her right eye. To make matters worse, the next name penciled in on her dance card was Roderick Bellefonte.
He appeared at her side as if she’d conjured him the moment the strains of a waltz began.
Jupiter! It would have to be a waltz.
Roddy didn’t mouth the appropriate words, requesting the honor of dancing with her. Instead he simply said her name.
Intimate as a caress.
Every candle flame in the room shimmered.
Without waiting for her curtsey, he gathered her into a waltz frame and began a dipping circuit of the dance floor. She couldn’t object that he’d dispensed with the formalities without making a scene. And part of her didn’t want to object. His hand at her waist radiated warmly through the layers of her gown, sending raw awareness flickering over her skin.
“I’ve missed you,” he said.
She laughed in surprise. It was not a merry sound, not a silvery laugh like Lady Sylvia’s. It popped out of her like a strange cross between a burp and a hiccup, but Roderick didn’t seem to notice.
She sneaked a glance up at his face. The smooth brow above his impossibly blue eyes was untroubled. Obviously his insides weren’t tangled in knots like hers. His mouth twitched in a smile.
“Don’t you dare laugh at me,” she hissed.
“Wouldn’t dream of it.” He leaned down to continue in a whisper, “But I do dream of you.”
She flashed a warning glare. “Don’t.”
“I can’t help it. You’re still part of my heart.” For the first time, she detected a hint of sadness in him. “Can’t you see what’s happening here?”
“Only too plainly. The earl’s daughter is quite lovely and everyone is atwitter about when the pair of you will make your announcement.”
“Cassie . . .”
Each time he said her name was a lance to the heart. She focused on a roving point above Roddy’s right shoulder to avoid meeting his gaze. “I’m sure she’s a fine choice. I’ve not heard a word against her.”
More’s the pity. If she felt Lady Sylvia was really a spiteful witch, she’d have been inclined to fight for Roderick. As it was, she couldn’t claim to love him and keep him from such an outrageously advantageous match.
Love meant she wanted the best for him, didn’t it? Her father might be a well-heeled knight, but all his money still wouldn’t cover the tawdriness of having been in trade. Cassie had been weighed in society’s balance and found sadly wanting. Roderick would never seek to join the house of Bellefonte to plain Miss Cassandra Darkin when he might have Lady Sylvia.
Roderick sighed. “I’m glad you understand I am a gentleman with obligations. Some choices I cannot make based solely on my own wishes.”
A bit of his longish dark blond hair fell forward over his forehead. Cassie ached to brush it back for him, but decided the gesture would be judged far too intimate, even for old friends.
“I’ve never understood how Society can dictate the most private of decisions.” Her mind accepted that he would be considered mad to choose her over the earl’s daughter. Her heart couldn’t quite make that leap. “What is the point of being wellborn if it means you have less personal freedom than your valet?”
He chuckled. “What an odd way of looking at things you have. It’s one of the many things I love about you.”
“Love?” She wished the word didn’t make her insides cavort about. The room seemed brighter for an instant but then the candles’ glow faded. He couldn’t mean it if he was still committed to marrying Lady Sylvia. “That’s not very appropriate from a man who’s about to be betrothed to another.”
Her head knew full well the difference between appropriate and beyond the pale. She and her sister had all but memorized Pattern Behavior for the Well Bred Young Lady by Mrs. Euphigenia Oddbotham. But Cassandra’s body seemed to have studied from a different book of etiquette. Being so close to Roddy caused that hollow achy feeling in her most secret place to begin anew. It made her want to toss away every sense of “oughtness” she’d tried so hard to absorb while poring over Mrs. Oddbotham’s book.
“I’m not pledged to Lady Sylvia yet, but that’s neither here nor there. Love doesn’t have to be bound by the conventions of matrimony, you know. Don’t you remember all the old stories about courtly love? The knight errant didn’t have to wed his lady in order to carry her in his heart.” In that moment, he looked so much like the boy he’d been, her chest constricted smartly. “The fact that I’m to be married doesn’t have to mean . . . well, the end of us.”
She blinked up at him. “What are you saying?”
“Don’t you see? Once I have control of Sylvia’s dowry, I’ll have more than enough to keep you in style.”
“Keep me,” she repeated.
“Of course, love. I’ll find you a little house, someplace fashionable yet discreet, and . . .”
Cassie knew his mouth continued to move, but she stopped hearing the words coming out of it. She was empty as a hollowed out gourd. If she weren’t on the dance floor before countless curious eyes, she’d drop to the hardwood and curl into a small ball.
To stay upright, she reached for indignation and leaned on it with all her might. Close on its heels, fury washed over her. She straightened her spine and, strangely enough, thought for a moment that she smelled smoke.
“Ah, there you are, Miss Cassandra.” A stranger appeared behind Roderick’s shoulder. He was a couple inches taller that Roddy’s six feet and matched him handily for breadth of shoulders. “I’m cutting in now.”
“The devil you say!” Roderick turned to face the newcomer with a frown, but then suddenly a ridiculous grin turned up the corners of his lips. “Of course, friend. I just realized I must be elsewhere immediately. Thank you for seeing to the lady’s entertainment. Enjoy the rest of your dance, my dear.”
Roderick made a small obeisance over Cassie’s fingertips and then turned on his heel, making a beeline toward Lady Sylvia who was surrounded by several other young bucks.
The new man swept Cassie into the waltz with hardly a missed step.
“Wait. What are you doing?” She tried and failed to tug her hand free. “There’s been a mistake.”
“You are Miss Cassandra Darkin, are you not?”
“Then there’s no mistake.” His warm brown eyes seemed to look right through her and see far too much for her comfort. All even features and stylish presentation, Roderick was exceedingly fine to look upon but was no match for this man. The stranger was like an eclipse of the sun. Dark, but fascinating. Blindingly attractive, but dangerous to watch for longer than a blink.
“We should not be dancing together because we’ve not been properly introduced. I don’t know you.”
“How very odd since it seems I know you.” One corner of his mouth turned up in a crooked, yet extraordinarily seductive smile. “Undoubtedly our paths crossed at some point and I failed to make an impression.”
“I highly doubt that.”
“It wasn’t a compliment.” Irritation fizzed in her chest. “I meant I’d remember manners as atrocious as yours.” The scent of smoke was stronger now. She wondered that the man didn’t remark on it. “How dare you interrupt a dancing couple like that.”
Unperturbed, he extended his arm to lead her into a graceful turn. Whatever else this stranger was, he was at least a better than average dancing partner. “I have it on the best authority that the practice of cutting in is quite the done thing in Boston.”
“Then it is my great good fortune not to be in Boston.” Cassie sniffed and looked pointedly away from him.
“I rather suspect Boston feels the same about your absence.”
Her gaze jerked back to his smugly handsome face. Rather she’d have considered him handsome if she’d not heard him speak. Every word that dropped from his firm-lipped mouth seemed calculated to exasperate her. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
“It means that undoubtedly a good bit of that city is as flammable as ours. Not having you in it means Boston is a far safer place than London at the moment.”
Flammable? What did he know of the fires that plagued her family of late? “You’re mad.”
“No, I’m Garret Sterling. At your service.” He bowed from the neck without missing a step. “And I assure you, I am not mad. However, if you prefer a fellow who’s one brick short of a load, my associate Viscount Westfall would be delighted to oblige you. He hears voices, poor thing. You’ll find him over there chatting to the young lady by the potted palm. Or perhaps he’s directing his attentions to the plant. It’s difficult to tell from here and he does prefer greenery over people. That wouldn’t be your sister with him by any chance, would it?”
Cassandra followed his gaze to Daphne and a perfectly normal-seeming gentleman. The way Garret Sterling made her insides flare with annoyance she’d have traded places with her sister in a heartbeat. “Yes, that’s Daphne but—”
“Then my colleague is doing his job.”
“His job?” Had this Garret Sterling and his friend the lunatic viscount lost a bet of some kind that required them to display boorish behavior in Almack’s, the citadel of proper decorum? “Am I to understand you are both occupied with waylaying the Darkin sisters for some reason?”
“Oh, I think you know the reason.”
A shock of dark hair fell forward on his forehead, but unlike with Roddy, Cassie felt no tender inclination to brush it back for him. He was like a smoldering heap of ash that might burst into flame at any moment. Garret Sterling would be too risky to touch.
“I’m willing to allow that it may have been accidental, at least the first time,” he said, “but we both know you’ve been doing things you ought not.”
Mr. Sterling raised a dark brow at her and her heart spiraled to her toes. Roderick had obviously been talking about her, not only with his friends, but with total strangers as well. He’d done worse than abandon her. He’d betrayed her. The clammy sickness of grief transformed into cold fury. Cassie’s insides did a slow burn.
On the far side of the room, the candelabra on the luncheon table toppled to its side and the linen cloth caught in a fountain of spitting flames. A spark leaped to the nearby floor-to-ceiling drapery and spread to the bunting linking the long windows. Half the room’s perimeter was instantly ringed in a roaring blaze near the high ceiling.
Panic seized everyone in Almack’s and, amid shrieks and curses, the crowd stampeded toward the exit. Cassie tried to pull free in order to run with them, but Garret Sterling wouldn’t release her hand.
“Put the fire out, Cassie,” he said calmly.
“How can I do that?” A bucket brigade in full spate might not be able to quench this rapidly spreading fire. “Let me go. We have to—”
“No, you have to put it out. In your mind.”
He pulled her back into an embrace, much closer than the waltz frame this time. His chest was a rock hard wall against her breasts and his muscular thighs were flush with hers. Against her will, the achy hollow inside her throbbed. Her body responded to this stranger with as much force as she’d felt for the man she loved.
More, she realized with despair. Her breath caught in her throat as she looked up at him. The wanting was even worse than with Roderick.
What was wrong with her? She was in danger of becoming a hopeless wanton.
“You need to concentrate. Let me help you,” he said. While the ton roared in panic around them and before she could stop him, he bent his head and covered her mouth with his.
Well, that’s the end of Chapter 4. Now it’s your turn to offer suggestions for what happens next. Will Cassandra be able to put out the flames? Will she go willingly with Garret to the Duke of Camden’s house? Will Roddy leave Lady Sylvia to try to get to Cassie in the confusion of the fire? There are tons of possiblitities and you’ll probably come up with something different. I welcome your ideas. Part of the fun of doing a serialized novel like this is getting input from readers. I look forward to hearing from YOU!
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