"Would you be so good as to inform me, ma'am, what you are doing in my bed?"
Phoebe, staring over the covers in mute horror at the man beside her, was quite incapable of providing the requested information. Indeed, she was more than half inclined to believe that this entire episode was nothing more than a very bad dream. Had she been so absolutely abandoned as to crawl into bed with a man, Charles Hargood would certainly not be the man she would choose. It was too ridiculous! Surely when she awoke this would all be no more than a somewhat laughable memory.
She was just about to turn over and return to sleep when she paused uneasily. The stiff, accusing countenance of her reluctant bed partner certainly seemed real enough. She had never imagined Mr. Hargood being in bed with any woman; but had she made the attempt, she felt that it would be just like the man to wear that absurdly pompous look on his face. Very well, then. This was no illusion.
In all fairness, she supposed that she ought to answer his question--though she hardly knew what explanation she might reasonably make. As if her surroundings might provide inspiration, she looked around her distractedly. She then perceived, much to her satisfaction, that it was she who had every right to be offended. Giving him a look of haughty disdain--a wonderful achievement for a woman in her situation--she addressed him in icy tones. "I believe, sir, that it is I who should be inquiring as to what you are doing in my bed!"
This was too much for Charles Hargood. Phoebe Bridgerton was a wild, hoydenish, unprincipled baggage. He had always thought so and had made no secret of his objection to her marriage with his cousin, Robert. In all conscience, Charles had to admit she was a lovely piece. But no man of sense would wish to be leg-shackled to such a shatter-brained little flirt. Had Robert not died of a perfectly respectable fever, Charles would have sworn that his wife's antics had driven him to a premature grave.
How he came to be sharing a bed with the wench was quite beyond him. It could hardly be by design, for her contempt of him was as well known as was his antipathy toward her.
When he awakened to find his arm resting comfortably around her very shapely form, he thought for a startled moment that he must be quite mad. What had happened here last night? What was this strange feeling of exhilaration?
He could not admit that he would willingly have taken this woman to his bed. Therefore it must be her doing. But what could have possessed her? Was it some devious scheme to embarrass him?
Surely even she would not go so far.
"I am waiting for your explanation, ma'am," he insisted stubbornly.
Phoebe sat bolt upright in bed at this effrontery. Unfortunately, she forgot to secure the bedcovers, which promptly fell to her waist, revealing a very fetching linen nightgown.
Shocked at such a vulgar display, and quite forgetting that he was in an even greater state of undress, Charles quickly averted his eyes until she could cover herself. If only he could have as easily averted his thoughts! But these traitors continued to return to that all-too-brief glimpse of feminine beauty, and he was much annoyed to find himself wondering what it would be like to hold such a delectable bundle--
"How dare you?" Her magnificent green eyes blazing, Phoebe sat bolt upright in bed, hauling the covers up to her chin. "Am I not the injured party here?"
Self-disgust at his unexpected response to her made Charles's voice even sharper than usual. "May I remind you that you are in my home," he said. "And this, as it happens, is my bedchamber!"
Of course! Phoebe wondered how she could have forgotten. The solid oak furniture, the dull green draperies at bed and windows, were quite distinctive. She was forced to admit that this odious man was right for once.
"Yes," she said, hating the necessity of having to agree with him. "Your mother explained as much yesterday. Since the house was quite full up with guests, however, there was nowhere else for me until another chamber could be prepared. But," she added accusingly, "you were not supposed to return home until tomorrow!"
"Well, I did not. I arrived last night."
"So I perceive. And promptly got into my bed!"
"My bed," he corrected her, glowering. "And believe me, ma'am, had I been aware of your presence here, I would have been happy to find an excuse to remain in town. I certainly would not have come near this room--much less the bed."
"I am well aware of your feelings for me," Phoebe said, unaccountably piqued by his obvious repugnance. "Allow me to say that they exactly match mine for you! Still, I do not see how you could have failed to discover that your bed was already occupied--unless you were foxed."
"I have never been inebriated in my entire life."
"More's the pity," she returned tartly.
He glared at her in silence, his too-firm jaw set and a vein pulsing in his throat as though his temper was perilously close to snapping. For the first time Phoebe noticed, with something like shock, that his bare chest was very broad and muscled, covered with a thick mat of silky dark hair.
The only other man with whom she had ever been this intimate had been her husband, but Robert's body had been almost as smooth as her own. She had a strong suspicion that Charles was as bare beneath the covers as he was above them. What would it be like, she wondered, to touch his--
"I left London earlier than I intended," Charles's voice interrupted these appalling thoughts, "but the carriage wheel broke during the journey, and I did not arrive here until well after midnight. No one was about but Simpson, whom I dismissed. I was quite exhausted," he explained, "and only waited for a quick wash before I came to my chamber, removed my clothes and got into bed. I was asleep almost before my head touched the pillow."
"And you were conscious of nothing unusual?" Phoebe was incredulous. Could he really have been unaware of her presence? But he would hardly have got into bed with her deliberately-- would he? She was no longer sure. Indeed, she was not sure about anything, least of all her own curiously conflicting emotions.
Charles was attempting to give a reasonable account of his actions. "I had only the light of a single taper to see by," he said. "I suppose I must have been too tired to notice much of anything. I might ask how you did not come to hear me or to feel my weight in the bed beside you?"
"I have always been a sound sleeper," she admitted ruefully. "Until today it did not seem to be of any great significance."
"Do you realize the position in which you have placed me?" Charles demanded. "If Olivia should hear of this--
Phoebe could scarcely credit this utter insensibility. "Your position!" she cried, her temper flaring. "Can you think of nobody but yourself? You have nothing to fear! Your simpering Olivia will forgive and forget. Your friends will wink knowingly at you and call you a sly fox--and that will be an end to it! But if anyone should learn of this, my reputation would be ruined. Only men have the privilege of making such mistakes."
She compressed her lips, suppressing the urge to use even stronger language. "It would be useless, of course, to claim that nothing happened. Who would believe us? Or, if they did, it were almost worse! We should appear such fools. And I had as lief be a loose woman as a laughing stock!"
Despite her disparaging reference to his betrothed, Charles could not deny that there was some degree of truth to Phoebe's remarks. This prompted him to say, rather more gently, "Well, we are being a little premature. If I can contrive to leave here unnoticed, we may yet be able to avoid a scandal. After all, no one knows about this unfortunate accident."
This very sensible observation had barely escaped his lips, however, when the door of the bedchamber flew open to admit a charmingly attired young lady who was already launched into impetuous speech.
"Phoebe, I have the most wonderful--" Letitia Comston's breathless words halted abruptly at the unexpected sight which met her eyes. Then she permitted herself the luxury of a very effective and quite ear-shattering shriek, before fainting dead away.
Fortunately--or, in this instance it might be considered more of a misfortune--Letitia did not actually disgrace herself by collapsing upon the floor in an ungainly heap. Instead, she was caught in the arms of the maid, Gladys, who had rushed in behind her at the sound of her scream.
"Gawd 'elp us!" Gladys exclaimed, supporting Letitia and goggling at the very same sight which had just rendered that limp damsel unconscious. A plain, stout-hearted country girl, Gladys knew nothing of fainting. She continued to stare at the spectacle in the bed.
"We are certainly in the basket now, Charles," Phoebe said fatalistically.
Pleased to see that she was not so chicken-hearted as to emulate her fainting friend, Charles preserved a stolid countenance. But even his self-control was taxed to the limit a moment later when Miss Olivia Loftbury and her formidable mama materialized in the still open doorway.
It was a scene which would have been a tremendous success at Drury Lane. Charles could almost picture Mrs. Siddons and Mr. Kean in place of Phoebe and himself. In real life, however, it was not nearly so amusing.
"Charles!" Miss Loftbury gasped. Her face, so like the horses which she loved, was wooden with shock.
"Olivia, I can explain," Charles began desperately. "This is not what it appears, believe me. Phoebe means nothing to me! You, of all people, should know that."
At this moment the spirit of mischief, which some believed to be Phoebe's besetting sin, totally overcame her common sense. She dared not entertain the thought that it might be pique at his words.
Realizing that she was being presented with a golden opportunity to give the odious Charles a leveler from which he would not easily recover, she said outrageously, "Oh, Charles! You heartless wretch to trifle with me so, when you swore to love me forever!"
At these impassioned words, a martial light appeared in Mrs. Loftbury's bulging eyes. Her ample bosom heaving with ill-suppressed wrath, she prepared to fire a volley at poor Charles, who was already reeling from Phoebe's assault.
"Philanderer!" Mrs. Loftbury cried. "Libertine! Vile seducer--" Running out of epithets, she began to sputter.
"Rake?" Phoebe suggested helpfully. "Viper? Scurvy knave? Hypocrite?"
"Be quiet!" Charles snapped, not at all appreciating the ill-timed mirth he recognized in her sparkling eyes. The wench was enjoying this! It would serve her right if he boxed her ears. If he could only stand and face his accusers with some measure of dignity; but in his present state of undress, that was out of the question.
"Mrs. Loftbury," he said in a futile attempt to retrieve a position which grew ever more hopeless, "I have always preserved a spotless reputation. My conduct, as you know, has ever been above reproach--
Miss Loftbury, rearing up in obvious indignation, cut short this ever-so-pious defense. "How can you, Charles?" she said. "Here you are, in bed with Phoebe, acting no more concerned than if you were having a cup of tea. I dare swear it is not the first time that you have enjoyed her--her favors. No doubt your previous contempt for each other was merely a pose assumed to cover your shameful affair from the eyes of the world!"
"Do not be such a fool, Olivia," her betrothed said in a distressingly unlover-like manner. "This is utter nonsense. I do not know how you can believe what you are saying."
"How can I not believe it, when I see it before my eyes this very moment?"
"Prevarication is useless now, my love. Our guilty secret is out at last," said Phoebe with a soulful glance at Charles, who would have given a great deal to throttle her there and then.
Meanwhile Letitia, whom Gladys had managed to revive with the aid of Mrs. Loftbury's hartshorn, was surveying the various actors in this farce with a look of increasing bewilderment.
"Oh," Letitia said at last, "there must be some dreadful mistake. Why, I have heard Phoebe say any number of times that Charles is the biggest bore in England and that no woman in her right mind would contemplate marrying him. I am sure she would rather die than have him for her lover."
As she seemed to be the only one present who believed the truth of the matter, Charles ought to have been grateful for her support. For some inexplicable reason, however, he found himself very much annoyed at her earnest speech and glowered at her so fiercely that she stepped back hastily and was absolutely incapable of uttering another word.
Unfortunately, Olivia's mama was not so easily silenced.
"My dear child," she cried, "it is obvious that that woman has deceived us all. Not that I ever thought so much of her myself. She always seemed very fast to me. Now I perceive that she is little better than a common harlot!"
"You go too far, ma'am!" Charles exclaimed involuntarily. Phoebe was certainly an irritating thorn in his flesh, but he had no reason to suspect her of any immorality. "You are cruel and unjust, and I cannot permit such aspersions to be cast on Mrs. Bridgerton's character. She is, after all, my mother's guest as well as the widow of my cousin Robert."
Phoebe, staring at Charles in genuine surprise, was torn between an unexpected feeling of pleasure at his spirited defense and a desire to burst out laughing at the absurdity of it in their present circumstances. Was there more to the man than met the eye? Surely not! He was the same odiously starched-up prig he had ever been.
The other occupants of the room were staring at Charles as well, with varying degrees of affront or approbation. It was Olivia who eventually broke the silence which had descended in the wake of his noble words.
"I have never been so humiliated in my entire life," she said. "That you should lie there and defend your mistress before your own fiancee and your intended mama-in-law! I shall never recover from this, Charles. Never."
Olivia swept from the room in high dudgeon, and it was left to her mother to deliver her valedictory oration.
"My daughter and I shall remove ourselves from this place at once, and I shall send a notice to the Gazette as soon as may be possible. Your engagement to my daughter is at an end, sir," she intoned with awful finality. "I would never countenance such a connection. My regrets to your mother--and I hope never to be obliged to see your deceitful face again. Your conduct has been monstrous, and I can only take comfort from the thought that your sins have at last found you out and that you shall certainly reap what you have sown! Good day to you, sir."
She marched out the door in solemn majesty, like an old soldier, dignified even in retreat. Her departure left yet another uncomfortable silence in the room. Charles had retreated into a brown study and seemed to have lost interest in the whole affair. Phoebe, feeling that some action was called for, decided to dismiss the still-goggling Gladys and the mutely pleading Letitia.
"Say nothing of this, either of you," she warned them, though she could hardly say why. It would be impossible to keep such a story secret for very long, especially once the news of Charles's broken engagement was out.
"But Phoebe, what...?" Letitia began, apparently seeking some assurance that her dear friend had not taken leave of her senses.
"Not now, Letty," Phoebe said with a look that brooked no farther questions. "You had best go with Gladys. I will speak with you later. For the present, Mr. Hargood and I wish to be left alone. I am sure Charles will be glad of a little privacy in which to mourn for lost love or some such thing. And I," she added, "am hardly in any mood for company now myself."
After these last two spectators retired, closing the door reluctantly behind them, Charles spoke. "I hope that you are satisfied with this morning's work, madam."
"I declare," she said, stung by his accusing look and feeling uncomfortably guilty, "it was almost worth it all just to see the look on Olivia's face. And as for her mother! It is high time that toplofty pair were put in their place."
"There is no need for you to make disparaging remarks about Miss Loftbury or her mother. They have already suffered enough from your conduct."
"You were the one who called Olivia a fool," Phoebe reminded him. As his only response to this was a pronounced frown, she continued more calmly. "I am sorry if I have behaved badly. The temptation was irresistible, believe me. But," she challenged him, "do you honestly think that any other behavior on my part would have made a difference? If so, then you have greater faith in human nature than I can lay claim to. The moment Miss Loftbury stepped through that door, your engagement was as good as over, for only a saint would have believed us innocent."
"Perhaps," Charles admitted. "But your actions did nothing to alleviate the situation. You have wrecked my engagement and destroyed any hope I cherished of domestic felicity."
"Stuff and nonsense! Olivia will never contribute to anyone's felicity--domestic or otherwise. Why, even her own mother is itching to be rid of her. I am only surprised that Mrs. Loftbury has broken off the engagement, for it is highly unlikely that she will ever find any other gudgeon to take Olivia off her hands."
Charles stiffened perceptibly at this, his lips compressed in a manner which showed that he did not at all appreciate Phoebe's comments. "I might have known," he said, "that you would treat this with your usual display of vulgar levity. Have you no thought for the damage you have done?"
"Really, Charles!" Phoebe said. "I am not to blame for this predicament, and well you know it. This display of temper is no more than wounded pride. It's not as if you were in love with her, after all."
"My feelings for Miss Loftbury are no concern of yours, ma'am."
"I daresay they are scarcely worth my concern. No doubt, you are as incapable of passion as you are of wit. And now," she added scornfully, "if you would kindly remove yourself, I should like to have my maid come and dress me."
Ignoring this request, he bent a hard look upon her. "I may not be Beau Brummell, ma'am, but I would advise you to accustom yourself to my lack of wit. You are going to be obliged to endure it for some time to come."
"What on earth are you talking about?"
"Are you really such a pea-goose that you cannot see the inevitable consequence of what has occurred here this morning?"
"You mean--" she began, with sudden foreboding.
"I mean, "Charles answered, his words like a barrage of stones, battering Phoebe's sensibility, "that if either of us is to salvage even a scrap of reputation, you must marry me, my dear Phoebe-- as soon as it can be decently arranged."
"Marry you?" Phoebe had the curious impression that the walls of the room had suddenly retreated to a great distance. Heaven help her! Was she now going to swoon as well? "No!" she managed to gasp. "I could never...it is quite impossible."
"On the contrary. It is now the only possible avenue open to us."
"Surely not," she pleaded. "There must be some other alternative. Anything would be preferable to--to--
"To being my wife?"
His eyes narrowed as he surveyed her flushed countenance. "Believe me, ma'am, the prospect of being your husband is quite as disagreeable to me as it is to you. But I fear we must both resign ourselves to it."
"I cannot believe that such desperate measures are required."
Phoebe could not miss the sarcasm behind this simple question.
"As my cast-off mistress--which is certainly how you will be perceived if we do not wed--how do you think you will be looked upon by polite society? How many of your old acquaintances will give you the cut direct? Would you dare even to show your face again at Almack's? How much would you care to wager on the likelihood of your being admitted?"
"Surely nobody will believe such a thing?" she suggested hopefully.
"What else can they believe?"
"It is wicked and unjust!"
"You found it amusing enough a few minutes ago," he reminded her, "when you were making a May-game of Olivia and her mother."
"That was different," she said in self-defense. "They deserved it."
"The only difference is that what you strove so hard to convince them of, is merely what everyone else will believe without any effort on your part." He paused before adding, with some reluctance, "It is, as you pointed out a moment ago, the most logical assumption--and what I myself would probably think of anyone else discovered in such a situation."
Confound the man. He was making sense, as usual. Why had she not stopped to consider what was to be done? What madness had possessed her? Well, it appeared that she was fated to become Mrs. Charles Hargood. It was unsettling. But Phoebe was surprised to find that it did not feel as strange as she might have expected. On the other hand, with Charles lying naked in bed beside her, she wondered if anything else would ever feel strange to her again.