Thursday, 15 March 2012

The Wicked Baron

THE WICKED BARON by Sarah Mallory
pub. North America April 2009
UK Autumn 2009.
Harlequin Historical
(scroll down to read an extract)
 
When Luke Ainslowe returns from his lavishly opulent lifestyle in Paris, his reputation as an expert seducer of women precedes him. The ladies of the ton are torn between scandalized outrage and the desire to become mistress to the most dashing rake London has ever known….

Innocent Carlotta Durini refuses to become the baron's next conquest. For she lost her heart to Luke once before, and now believes herself impervious to his lethal brand of seduction. But what if the Wicked Baron refuses to take no for an answer?
 
 
"...sinfully well written"  Romance Junkies - read the full review at



Many of you will know that I take inspiration from the wonderful English houses owned by the National Trust. West Wycombe in Buckinghamshire is a beautiful mansion once owned by Sir Francis Dashwood (founder of the infamous Hellfire Club) and inspiration for Malberry Court where much of the action takes place in this novel. Carlotta walks to Malberry Court from her home in the village and I like to think that her first view of the house might have been something like the photo below.














This photo onthe right shows the original entrance so West Wycombe, and is perfect for the portico of Malberry, complete with its frescoes on the ceiling just behind the portico.




FINALLY - Carlotta's father is an Italian artist, commissioned to paint Malberry Court. He "signs" his pictures by painting a small snail, a "lumaca", somewhere in the scene.  Imagine my delight when I read that an Italian snail was discovered at Cliveden, another  National Trust property not that far from West Wycombe.  It would appear that this tiny snail hitched a ride to England in 1896, when marble was imported from Italy to form a balustrade at Cliveden.  This may be almost a century later than my own story, but it shows the importance of the Italian influence upon English landowners – and I like to think that this snail is something like the one Carlotta's father would have depicted in his pictures!
Extract from The Wicked Baron
 
The atmosphere in the morning room of Broxted House was decidedly tense. Carlotta stared at her uncle, her chin raised and a hint of defiance in her dark eyes. Lord Broxted met her look with a frown of exasperation.

'Carlotta, you are no ordinary débutante. It is no matter that your mother is the daughter of an earl; twenty years ago she eloped with a penniless Italian artist.' He paused and a faint look of distaste flickered across his aristocratic features. 'They both of them… paint… to earn their living.'

Carlotta clasped her hands even more tightly in her lap. 'I am not ashamed of my parents, Uncle.'

Lady Broxted, sitting beside Carlotta on the elegant little sofa, reached over to pat her hands. 'No, of course you are not, my dear, and no one is suggesting that you should disown them, only…'

'Only what, Aunt?'

Lady Broxted avoided Carlotta's eyes and fluttered her fan nervously. 'Tonight we attend Lady Prestbury's rout— your very first ton party. It is what we have been working for, is it not, ever since we carried you off from Malberry last June and installed you in Miss Currier's extremely select seminary? Not that I think it was necessary to send you there; no one would know you were brought up in Rome, for the English governess your mama employed gave you an excellent education, and all that was needed was a little polish—but there, your uncle was adamant.'

'I was, madam, but I fear we are straying from the point,' put in the earl, frowning at his wife.

'Yes, of course, my dear. Carlotta, now we are in
London
and… that is, I think it might be best if…'

Lady Broxted twisted her hands together, looking very uncomfortable.

Carlotta prompted her gently. 'If what, Aunt?'

'Well, as you know, we decided at the outset that you should take the family name of Rivington—so much simpler for us all, my love, and quite usual when one is taken up by relatives—but perhaps also it would be as well if we did not mention your parents. Broxted thinks it best if we merely say they live retired in the country, should anyone ask.'

'And is it the fact that my mother eloped or my father's occupation that would be most unacceptable?' retorted Carlotta, bridling.

'Well, you will admit that either of those things would set tongues wagging,' came the frank reply. Any hint of gossip could be quite ruinous to your chances of making a good match. Not that I want you to lie,' added Lady Broxted hastily. 'That would never do. Merely that you do not offer the information.'

'Should a gentleman show a marked interest in you, then of course it would be necessary for him to know the truth,' put in Lord Broxted. 'And if he is fond of you, then I am sure it will make no difference.'

Carlotta bit her tongue to prevent herself from saying she did not care what anyone said of her. After the kindness she had been shown by her aunt and uncle over the past year, it would be churlish in the extreme to admit how little she cared for anyone's good opinion. Part of her wished she could return to her parents, but they had been so happy to think of her going into society and making a good marriage. It was what she must do to repay all their goodness to her.

She had been in
London
with Lord and Lady Broxted since the beginning of May; a flurry of shopping trips and visits to my lady's dressmaker had filled her days and at last she was ready to attend her first ball. She only wished she could summon up more enthusiasm for it, but her depression was always there, just below the surface. A sadness she had tried to hard to overcome, but even now, after almost twelve months, her dreams were still haunted by a tall, handsome man with laughing, wicked eyes. Determination kept her smiling, made her hide her bleakness from her aunt and uncle. Lady Broxted was patting her hands.

'I cannot tell you how much I am looking forward to launching you into society, my love. It has been a constant sadness to Broxted and me that we did not have children and so it is doubly delightful that I have you with me now.'

Lady Broxted began hunting for her handkerchief. Lord Broxted drew out his own and handed it to her, saying as he did so, 'We are indeed delighted to take you up, Carlotta. It is the least I can do for your poor mother. When my father disinherited her upon her marriage I was shocked, but powerless to help. Then, of course, we lost touch for so many years, but now, I believe it is in my power to reinstate you into your proper place in the world.'

In the face of such kindness Carlotta's anger died away as quickly as it had come. Impulsively she hugged her aunt.

'There, there, Aunt, pray do not cry—if it is your wish, then of course I shall tell no one about my parents. Let us go upstairs and you can advise me which one of my new gowns I should wear this evening.'

In an effort to give her aunt's thoughts a more cheerful turn, Carlotta accompanied her aunt up to her bedchamber where the maid quickly brought out several of Carlotta's new gowns for inspection. Lady Broxted discarded the pink muslin with apple-green acanthus leaves embroidered around the hem, declaring that almost every other young lady would be wearing pink. Her hand hovered over the lemon satin before settling on the white sprigged muslin.

'This is perfect for your first appearance,' she said. 'You have too much of the Italian in you to appear as a typical English rose, but we must turn that to our advantage—the white muslin will accentuate your olive skin. Thank goodness you have such a flawless complexion, my love, for that means we can leave your lovely shoulders bare. My own woman shall have the dressing of your hair; when it is brushed it glows like polished mahogany and you shall have tiny white rosebuds amongst your curls. It is early for roses, I know, but the cost will be worth it and I shall have a small posy made up for your corsage, too. What do you say?'

Carlotta could not deny a small frisson of excitement at the picture her aunt had drawn. When she had been a child growing up in
Rome she had never dreamed that one day she would be staying in one of the largest houses in
Berkeley Square
, preparing to attend a fashionable ball. The gown her aunt was holding up to her was of the finest muslin, embroidered all over with tiny exquisite white rosebuds. The tiny puff sleeves were gathered and fastened with satin ribbons and a wider satin band ran around the high waist. Little Carlotta running barefoot in her father's studio had never imagined owning white satin slippers with leather soles so fine that they would be worn through after one outing, but such a pair was now lying in a drawer, wrapped in several layers of tissue paper. Carlotta smiled at her aunt.

'I will look like a fairy princess,' she murmured.

Lady Broxted handed the gown to her maid and caught Carlotta to her in a warm, scented embrace.

'You will indeed, my love,' she murmured, her voice breaking. 'You will make us all so very proud of you.'

Luke glanced up at the imposing entrance of Prestbury House. Flambeaux burned on each side of the double doors and liveried servants were on hand to assist the ladies from their carriages and escort them up the shallow steps to the grand entrance hall with its soaring marbled pillars. Letitia Prestbury was a formidable hostess and invitations to her fashionable parties were jealously guarded. Luke had no gilt-edged card nestling in his pocket, but he was confident he would not be turned away. Giving his coat sleeves an infinitesimal tug, he joined the long line of guests processing up the grand staircase. From the reception rooms above came the sound of many voices intermingled with the scraping notes of several violins. No lone fiddler or squeaky quartet for Lady Prestbury—her guests would dance to the best musicians money could buy.

As he reached the top of the stairs he found his hostess waiting for him, smiling.

'Well, Cousin, we are honoured to have you attend our little party.'

He bowed over her hand. 'I promised you I would come.'

'But you are so often enticed away by more exciting pleasures, are you not?' She laughed at him. 'I did not send you an invitation because I thought my society gatherings far too staid for the Wicked Baron!'

He grinned at her. 'Perhaps I have reformed. It is not impossible, Letty.'

She twinkled up at him. 'True, Luke, but it is highly unlikely! I know just what it is that has brought you here.'

'You do?'

'Aye, 'tis curiosity, to see the latest heiress.'

He looked down so that she would not read the truth in his eyes. 'Oh?' he said lightly, brushing an invisible speck from his coat. 'And who might that be, my lady?'

'You know very well,' she said, tapping his arm with her closed fan. 'Broxted's niece, Miss Rivington. We were all agog when we heard he was bringing her to town, and he has settled ten thousand pounds on the chit! If that wasn't enough to make her a target for every young man in town, the girl is a positive beauty. But be warned, Luke, she is not for you: I have it from the countess herself that Broxted has great plans for his niece. He will be looking higher than a mere baron.'

And so he should, but that is no reason why I should not make her acquaintance.'

'Very well, go on in with you.' Lady Prestbury waved him away. 'But you are wasting your time, Cousin.'

With another graceful bow Luke moved on. So it was already decided that the beautiful Miss Rivington was not for him; well, perhaps society's latest débutante might think differently. He walked into the ballroom and paused near the doorway, looking around him. Lounging against one wall were several callow youths standing with their mouths open as they watched the couples go down the dance and Luke saw that their eyes were following one dainty figure in particular.

Miss Rivington, he presumed.

His heart missed a beat: he had to admit she was entrancing. Her hair was curled artlessly about her head, adorned with white rosebuds that looked like stars against the night sky of her dark hair. Her white muslin dress flowed around her as she danced, showing her slender figure to great advantage. She was laughing, her huge dark eyes positively twinkling with merriment. No matter the pain it had cost him to ride away from Malberry last September, he knew now he had been right to do so. This was where she belonged, taking her rightful place in society where everyone could admire her beauty. And she looked so happy, smiling and chattering with the other young people as the music ended. He stifled a sigh. He had told himself that she would soon forget him and so it seemed. She looked so natural here, as though she had never known any other life. He was glad for her, truly. He must give her no cause to think he wished it otherwise.

Carlotta's confidence was growing with every dance. Her new sprigged muslin gown was light as air and the admiration of her dance partners was exhilarating. The ballroom was ablaze with light from the gleaming chandeliers. It bounced off the cream-and-blue walls and caused the gold-leaf decoration on the ceiling to glow like the setting sun. With the exception of the occasional blue or scarlet jacket of an officer, the men were dressed in dark coats, but the ladies presented a dazzling picture in an array of colourful gowns, from the bronze and emerald satins of the matrons to the paler shades deemed suitable for débutantes. Carlotta smoothed her hands down over the white muslin and realised what a good choice it had been. Not that she had any opportunity to tell her aunt so, for she had been on the dance floor almost constantly since her arrival.

After a few initial nerves she found that the dance steps came quite naturally and she was even able to take time to glance at the huge gilt-framed mirrors that adorned the walls of the ballroom. She saw herself reflected there, dancing with a series of attentive partners. Carlotta could hardly believe that she was the slender, dark-haired girl reflected in the mirrors, but so it was, and she was content to give herself up to the enjoyment of the moment.

She was so much at her ease that when Lady Broxted brought forward a lanky young man whom she introduced as Viscount Fairbridge, Carlotta gave him a friendly smile. She thought his expression rather vacuous, but she encouraged him to talk to her and soon they were on the best of terms. Truly, she thought, as he led her from the dance floor, it was impossible to be gloomy on such a happy occasion.

During a break in the music she was conversing with a group of lively young people when she heard her aunt's voice behind her.

'Ah, there you are, my love. Do allow me to present Lord Darvell to you.'

And the world stopped for Carlotta. The laughing, chattering crowds were forgotten. She had known this moment would come, had rehearsed it a thousand times, but still she was not prepared for the stomach-wrenching spasm that threatened to render her senseless when she heard that name. Of course, she had only known him as Major Ainslowe, but she had not been living in her aunt's household for many weeks before she learned his full title. Gathering all her strength, she turned and dragged her eyes up from the white satin waistcoat and dazzling neckcloth to the face above. The faint hope that it might all be a mistake withered. The gentleman standing before her was achingly familiar. She did not need to cast more than a fleeting glance at his lean, handsome face—it was etched on her soul. As he bowed over her hand, she looked at the waving brown hair that curled over his collar. She recalled the silky feel of it beneath her fingers, tried desperately not to remember the touch of his lips, not on her glove, but on her own mouth, caressing, demanding—she thrust such thoughts away. They had no place in her life now. He had no place in her life now.



© Sarah Mallory

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