Hugh turned from the window, and the smoldering light in his eyes stole her breath. "With the games you play to keep me at bay? Yes, I weary of them."
"Keep you at bay? How can you say that after these last two weeks?"
He snorted, and her hands clenched into fists. He wanted everything, damn him.
Gwen coughed discreetly. "Cook outdid herself for tea. Katie will be bringing it up shortly."
Bowing, and looking damned dashing while doing it, Hugh said, "You must excuse me today, Miss Guinevere. I feel a headache coming on. I believe I'll retire for a nap." His glare blamed Charlotte as he walked past her and left the room without another word.
"Oh." Gwen's wide-eyed gaze moved to Charlotte. "He's not testy. He's angry."
"Will he still take us with him when he departs?"
The plaintive note in Gwen's voice drew Charlotte from her thoughts. "Of course," she soothed. "He won't be angry in an hour or so."
Gwen's head tilted to the side. "Why not?"
"Men don't usually stay angry at women for long." Charlotte moved back to the settee as Katie entered with a cacophony of rattling china. "Even if the fault is ours."
Sighing, Gwen joined her, spreading out her skirts to avoid wrinkles, as Charlotte had taught her. "I don't believe I will ever understand men. The more I learn about them, the less they make sense."
Charlotte laughed. "Truer words were never spoken."
"If Lord Montrose is bored, perhaps I could play whist with him, or cassino, though it's not as much fun with only two."
"He'd probably enjoy that."
Hugh had taken a liking to Gwen, and his gentle, courtly dealings with the young girl warmed Charlotte's heart.
"But perhaps you meant to say, it is the company that bores him," Gwen said, wrinkling her nose.
"Oh, no, Gwen." Charlotte covered her hand and gave it a reassuring squeeze. "If he's bored with anything, it's me."
"I doubt it's that." Reaching for the tea, Gwen began to serve, demonstrating a grace and social adeptness Charlotte had worked hard to teach her.
But Charlotte had no formal training. Everything she knew about proper social deportment was learned from studying others. She wanted Gwen to have a better start in life, and already time was running out. Gwen would come of age in less than a year.
"Montrose is smitten with you, Charlotte. It must be thrilling to have so handsome a man take such a keen interest in you."
"It is," she agreed. "I'm afraid, however, that I'm terribly smitten myself."
"Why be afraid?"
"Because we'd never suit."
"You suit beautifully," Gwen scoffed.
"In some ways, but in others we're worlds apart. You haven't experienced the class system yet, but you will."
"You are a duchess."
"I am a counterfeit duchess. The title doesn't change who I've always been. And this discussion is moot in any case. Lord Montrose is a man who holds only temporary interest in women."
Passing over a cup and saucer, Gwen smiled. "I propose a toast."
"Over tea?" Charlotte arched a brow.
"Don't tell me it's not proper. It's all we have at the moment, so it will have to do."
Charlotte laughed. Gwen's enthusiasm for life had never diminished, despite having spent so much of her childhood hidden away as a mistake. "Very well. What are we toasting?"
Charlotte raised her cup. "To new adventures."
"Are we almost there?" Gwen asked. She craned her neck out the carriage window, her hand holding her bonnet to her head so it wouldn't blow away.
Hugh watched her antics with a wide grin, understanding how excited she must be to venture out after all these years. "How many times do you intend to ask that question, Miss Guinevere?"
"As many times as necessary for you to give me a straight answer." She shot him an arched look. "'When we arrive' is not a proper response."
"When have we ever done anything properly?" Charlotte teased, laughing as Gwen scowled in response.
"Oh, we're turning! We must be here!" Gwen nearly shook with excitement. "What a beautiful property. I wasn't aware they could make homes that big. And look at all the carriages!"
"Damnation," Hugh muttered, looking over Gwen's head to see the front of the Remington manse. Neoclassical in design, with fluted columns and overlooking a wide circular drive, it was stunning in its elegance. But the beautiful façade didn't hold his attention. Instead his narrowed gaze was riveted to the line of carriages that clogged the drive. Shunned by the highest tiers of Society, the Remingtons nevertheless had no lack of friends or acquaintances.
"Good heavens." Charlotte's hands went to her throat. "What will we do now?"
Hugh blew out a frustrated breath. He'd intended to tell Julienne about Charlotte, Gwen, and the whole mess with Glenmoore's map, but now he would have to alter course. Charlotte had taken great pains to hide her marriage to Glenmoore-encouraging Artemis to scare away visitors and hiding Gwen. Looking at her now, he could see the tension tightening her lips.
"Not to worry," Hugh soothed, thinking quickly. "Gwen will simply be your companion."
"And I will be Mrs. Riddleton," Charlotte finished, reaching for his hands and squeezing them tightly. "Your widowed paramour. You're brilliant, Hugh!"
"Riddleton?" he asked, even as warmth spread from her compliment up to his heart.
"My maiden name." Her eyes sparkled, and Hugh felt great satisfaction in having lightened her worries. It was a feeling to which a man could grow accustomed.
Gwen giggled. "It will be fun! Like a charade." She resumed her seat and rubbed her gloved hands together. "You are an angel sent from above, Lord Montrose. I cannot tell you how happy I am that your carriage was disabled near our home. If you hadn't come along, I would be studying right now and lamenting my boredom. Instead I am about to enjoy my first social gathering. I do hope there are more handsome men to ogle."
"Good God," Hugh muttered, arching a brow at Charlotte, who had the temerity to grin.
It took a few moments for the other carriages to dispatch their passengers and luggage, but it seemed all too soon that they were alighting by the front steps. Hugh was holding his hand out to Charlotte when a familiar deep voice sounded behind him.
"Montrose, we weren't expecting you."
Looking over his shoulder, Hugh smiled at his brother-in-law. "I couldn't allow you to have a gathering without me. Can you imagine how dreadfully boring that would be?"
Lucien Remington laughed aloud. "We're delighted to have you. And your lovely companions."
Charlotte stood on the bottom step with wide eyes. Gwen was worse, with her mouth agape. Both women stared at Lucien with obvious appreciation. Scowling, Hugh pulled Charlotte closer.
"Remington, allow me to present my very good friend, Mrs. Riddleton, and her companion, Miss . . ." Hugh cleared his throat to get Gwen's attention.
"Sherling," she blurted out, sticking out her hand. "Guinevere Sherling."
Lucien accepted the offering with a low bow, dazzling the young girl with a charming grin. Hugh began to tap his foot, not at all pleased with the reactions the ladies were having to the attractive former libertine.
And then Charlotte took his arm. Looking down at her, he caught her slight smile. "I prefer blonds," she whispered.
Suddenly Hugh's day was much brighter.
Remington gestured for the servants to collect the trunks and then led them inside. Gwen stumbled to a halt as they entered the foyer. A floating dual staircase directly ahead capped an expansive marble floor flanked by several doorways on either side. Overhead a massive crystal chandelier hung from a domed ceiling, featuring a painting of lush fern fronds on a pale blue background.
"This is so beautiful," Gwen breathed, clearly awestruck.
Lucien tilted his head in acknowledgment. "Thank you, Miss Sherling."
"Hugh La Coeur." All heads turned to the right, where Lady Julienne Remington stood in the doorway to the parlor. Dressed in pale blue silk with darker blue trim, his sister was a vision of beauty and poise. Heedless of the guests that milled around, she glided toward them with a brilliant smile and surrounded him in a fierce hug. "You should have told me you were coming, but regardless, I am very happy to see you."
Hugh lifted his sister's feet from the floor. "The sentiment is mutual," he whispered gruffly. Growing up without parents had made them closer than most siblings. After all the scrapes and mischief from which she'd rescued him, there wasn't anything in the world he wouldn't do for her.
Setting Julienne down, he drew Charlotte closer. She held out her hand and introduced herself.
"It's a pleasure to meet you, Mrs. Riddleton," Julienne said with a genuine smile. "This weather became so tedious, we decided to liven things up with a little winter house party. I'd warn you about some of my guests, but since you came with Hugh, I doubt anything you encounter will offend overmuch."
Charlotte laughed. "I thank you for your hospitality, my lady."
Julienne linked her arm with Charlotte's and smiled at Gwen. "Come along. I'll show you to your rooms and relate the scheduled activities."
With a quick wink over her shoulder, Charlotte moved to the grand staircase with Julienne and Gwen, leaving Hugh staring after her.
"She's lovely," Remington murmured.
Hugh nodded his agreement, though he rather thought "lovely" was too tame a description.
"I admire your taste."
"That's quite a compliment coming from you, Remington."
Lucien laughed. "Shall we head to the billiards room? Most of the gentlemen are there."
As they left the foyer, Hugh asked, "Is Lord Merrick here?" "Merrick is expected to arrive later this afternoon."
"Smashing." Hugh very nearly rubbed his hands together with glee. "I'd like to speak with him privately, if he'll consent."
"Certainly. You may use my study whenever you like."
Now that the matter for which he'd come was settled, Hugh looked forward to enjoying the afternoon. The last week with Charlotte and Gwen had been pleasant and the most relaxing time he could remember, but he missed the bawdy humor and salacious discourse he found exclusively in the presence of other gentlemen.
He entered the smoke-filled room behind Remington and raked his glance over the occupants. Lord Middleton, who stood with a group in the far corner, raised his hand in greeting and gestured him over. Hugh moved to meet him, but he paused midstep, his smile frozen, as a man standing near Middleton turned to see who approached.
"Montrose," the Duke of Glenmoore called out, with a wide smile. "It's been some time since we last met."
Hugh's jaw tensed. "Not long enough," he said under his breath.
After seeing Gwen comfortably ensconced with the other companions, Charlotte followed Hugh's sister down the hall. She couldn't help smiling. Julienne Remington was very easy to like. Blessed with the same honey blonde hair as Hugh and the same dark eyes, she was lovely. Bearing the poise and grace of a woman born to privilege, she nevertheless seemed open and accessible.
"Here we are," Julienne said, throwing open a door on the right. "I hope you'll be comfortable."
Stepping into the bedchamber, Charlotte gazed around in wonder. Decorated in shades of plum and taupe, it was spacious and luxurious. "This is beautiful," she breathed.
"I'm pleased you like it. Tonight we've scheduled a ball." Julienne lifted her arms in the air and spun about. "I've felt like dancing for months. It took great effort on Mr. Remington's part to acquire an orchestra, but he managed it, and I'm terribly excited."
"I lack suitable attire for such an event," Charlotte confessed. She had one evening gown with her that was simple enough in style to go without notice, but she would never attend a ball without Gwen. It would break the girl's heart, although she would never admit it.
Julienne studied her figure carefully. "You and I are not much different in build. I believe I have a number of dresses that would fit you. You can look through them and see which one most suits your taste."
"Oh, really, you mustn't trouble yourself."
"'Tis no trouble at all, Mrs. Riddleton."
"Charlotte," she corrected.
"Charlotte." Julienne grinned. "I like you, Charlotte. I have always enjoyed the company of straightforward and strong women. Hugh needs that sort of support in his life."
"He's quite capable of supporting himself."
Arching a brow, Julienne looked clearly dubious. "In any case, my brother is quite handsome."
"Yes, quite," Charlotte agreed with a laugh.
"And in evening finery, he's unsurpassed, as you must know."
Not willing to admit how little she and Hugh knew of one another, she said nothing, but she could picture him clearly. Showcased in stark black and white, his golden beauty would be devastating to the female senses.
"We mustn't have him wandering about unescorted," Julienne continued. "Wouldn't you agree?"
Charlotte clenched her fists. She might never be able to keep him, but for the next week Hugh La Coeur was hers, and she would do whatever was necessary to make certain every other woman present knew that. "Yes." She offered a grateful smile. "Thank you so much, my lady."