Wilful and beautiful, Charlotte Forbes is to inherit a fortune on her eighteenth birthday. But Sir James Caraddon, the rising star of Pitt's government, informs her of a scandal lurking in her past. Charlotte escapes by joining a troupe of strolling players, while James feels obliged to protect her from the unsavoury characters who have an eye on her wealth.
SIR JAMES CARADDON allowed his grandmother’s hectoring tone to waft over his head while he unconcernedly studied the antics of a group of strolling players miming and posturing in the square below. It was cold by the window, the leaden December sky filled with the threat of snow, and he would much rather have been warmly ensconced in his study, or better still in his favourite London coffee house with a good brandy and convivial company. Even the House of Commons, for all its dissension, would be preferable to yet another rendition of this all too familiar lecture. Yet he was fond enough of his grandmother and ready to spend what time he could with her, whenever his political duties permitted.
‘What are you now, boy, thirty-
‘Tch Then it is even more certain that you should be wedded and breeding by now,’ she concluded, quite illogically. ‘Are we never to have an heir for Brampton?’
James sighed. At sixty-
‘How do you know that we do not have an heir already?’ he teased, lightening his words with a twinkle of humour in his grey eyes.
‘Because you have more sense than to land yourself with a scandal when you are angling for a place in Cabinet,’ Lady Caraddon declared with telling accuracy. ‘You’re man enough to enjoy tasting the fruit, I know it, and clever enough to leave it on the table.’
James grimaced. ‘You make me sound a rapacious rogue.’
Constance Caraddon threw back her head in a gleeful laugh, almost dislodging her tall powdered peruke, much curled and feathered, and already slightly askew. Jabbing her stick in the air at James, she gave particular emphasis to her next words. ‘It’s time you found a dish you want to savour more fully. I’ll not be around forever, though I shall do my best to live till I’m at least one hundred and one and torment the life from you, see if I don’t.’
James laughingly parried the thrusting stick to swiftly drop a kiss on the paper-
‘Now see what you’ve done. You’ve woken Bounder again. Do sit down and try to pay heed when I am talking to you. There, there, good dog,’ she crooned, but to James, more sternly as he obediently did as he was bid and bestowed himself in the yellow satin chair opposite, `I know very well what you would do. You’d spend my entire fortune on your political interests, you young rogue. Don’t think I don’t know it.’
James let out a resigned sigh as he frowned in mock sternness at her. ‘Must you always take me for a fool? What little faith you have in me. I care not a jot for your riches, Grandmother. I am not a schoolboy waiting for my pocket money to be handed out. I am perfectly capable of earning my own crust, and do so very well.’
‘Tch. With that rag of yours you dare to call a newsheet? That’s far too staid to make money, my boy. It is scandal which sells papers, tittle-
‘I am not dependent upon the newsheet for a living. I do have other investments. Nevertheless it does very well,’ James informed her, choosing to largely ignore the nub of her criticism though her point was valid. Gossip sheets sold in vast quantities while his own political tracts performed only moderately well in cash terms. ‘Too many politicians seek office these days at any price, for the influence attached to it rather than for policies they believe in, Grandmother. They buy themselves into power, take bribes, carry out favours for their particular friends. Pitt is trying for reform, though not finding it easy. I am not afraid to expose corruption where I find it.’ James was leaning forward, large square hands gesticulating the depths of his strong feelings on the matter.
‘I can well believe it,’ Lady Caraddon conceded with a sigh. ‘But why does it have to be you who always points it out? Surely you can see it will win you no friends in the House. If you want a place of note in government, and refuse to buy it as many do, then you are going to have to temper your cavalier spirit a little.’
James’s handsome face tightened with a grim determination Lady Caraddon had seen many times before. Stubborn as they come, she thought. Believed he could right every wrong, always did. His father had been just the same. Long on patience and short on tact. If something needed to be said, a Caraddon was the one to say it. There was not a trace of softness in that firm jaw line, nor in the way the grey eyes shrewdly assessed every word she said and sometimes, Constance honestly believed, those left unsaid. Yet the caring was there, else why should he voluntarily choose to spend Christmas with an old has-
‘One of these days you’ll say a word too much or take a step out of line yourself, and they’ll roast you alive, mark my words. It don’t do to make enemies in high places.’
James uncoiled himself with an easy grace and came to stand behind his grandmother’s chair, for she had spoken truer words than she realised and he did not wish her to see his face. ‘Have no fear. I take great care.’ Bending down he kissed her forehead. ‘Besides, you know that I lead an exemplary life, unlike yourself, who I am well aware loses far too much at the gaming tables, drives her carriage too fast and tittle-
It was exactly the opening she had been looking for. `I like to enjoy life,’ she briskly retorted. ‘Not that anyone cares how an old woman spends her time. You, my boy, are a very different matter. I know how the gossip sheets love to talk about you.’ She sniffed with disdain. ‘It is always the way when one rises too high and too fast. Many friends are left behind with nothing but their envy to gnaw upon. The most prudent way for you to avoid trouble and to win your place in the cabinet is to take a wife. One who will be steadfast and loyal, bring you steady respectability and hopefully something of a fortune to lubricate the alliance.’