The Importance of Being Wicked

The Importance of Being Wicked

Miranda Neville

The Countess of Ashfield to her sister

September 1793

. . . The
on dit
is that Robert Townsend has celebrated coming into his majority and fortune by eloping to Scotland with Caroline, the seventeen-year-old daughter of the late George Brotherton, the Earl of Camber's brother.

I fear for her future with Mr. Townsend, a very wild boy. I've written to you before of him and his three friends. About Marcus Lithgow and Julian Fortescue I'll say nothing. With such wretched sires, I would expect nothing better. But that the Earl of Windermere's son should fall in with such a set, and take up Excessive Gaming, Indecent Art, and Revolutionary Notions, must be a sore trial to his father.

Knowing her mother Elizabeth Brotherton as I do, I find it in my heart to pity the girl, Caro as she is called. It would have been better to have waited until her presentation in London next spring and escape from her tiresome mother by means of a more respectable marriage. But youth is ever impatient, especially when a girl believes herself to be in love. I'm afraid things will come to a Bad End.

Chapter 1

Spring 1800

T
hey'd reached the rump of the evening. Caro Townsend surveyed the remains of another dinner party. No one had much to say, but no one wanted to brave the cold streets of London in the small hours. How small the hour was she had no idea; the mantel clock was unreliable at the best of times and had no chance of being right when she forgot to wind it. Half a dozen guests remained in the drawing room of Caro's Conduit Street house. In one corner, an argument between two painters and a writer on the superiority of their respective arts had degenerated into desultory insults. Adam and Lydia Longley, exhausted by their roles in a reenactment of Hogarth's
Rake's Progress,
had collapsed on the sofa like a pair of puppies. And Oliver Bream was drunk.

“May I tell you a secret, Caro?” he asked, sprawling on the floor at her feet.

“Of course.” Caro tried not to laugh. She knew what was coming, and it was no secret to anyone.

“I'm in love,” the young artist said earnestly.

She rolled her eyes and fortified herself with another gulp of wine in preparation for an oft-told tale.

“I'm in love with Lady Windermere,” he said, then lowered his voice to a reverent whisper. “With Cynthia.”

“I would never have guessed.”

Oliver was too far gone to detect sarcasm. “She's the loveliest, sweetest woman in the entire world. She's perfect.” He looked around the room, puckish disappointment creasing his face. “But she left.”

“She owns a carriage, Oliver. When you order a carriage for a certain hour, you have to leave.”

“That's dreadful. We're lucky not to keep carriages.”

Caro had always found a coach most convenient. But since she preferred not to dwell on her reduced circumstances, she emptied her glass and continued to listen to Oliver's ramblings. She needed to send the rest of the party home or face the wrath of Mrs. Batten in the morning. Her few servants were immensely tolerant, but the housekeeper became tetchy about sleeping bodies when the maid had to clean the room. Caro never wished to speed the parting guest. She hated the moment when the last one left and she was alone again.

Oliver finally ran out of words to laud the charms of his latest inamorata. “Now you know my secret. It's your turn to tell me one.”

“My life is an open book. I'm widowed, disreputable, and poor. What else is there to know?”

“Everyone has secrets.”

There
was
something, one thing that she, and no one else, knew. She'd kept it to herself for over a year now, since the day she was widowed. She'd never even told Oliver, her best friend and supporter since Robert's death.

Caro looked about her; no one else paid any attention to them. She bent over Oliver's tousled head and whispered, “Promise you won't tell anyone.”

“If I tell a single soul, may I be doomed forever to paint nothing but children and dogs.” Coming from Oliver, who had very definite notions of the proper subject matter for a serious artist, this was a powerful oath.

She knew she shouldn't, but suddenly the knowledge was like a weight on her spirit. “I own a Titian.”

Oliver shook his head sadly. “No, Caro. You're confused. Robert sold his Titian. Shame, because it was a great painting.”

“He didn't. I just told everyone he had.”

“Truly? Why isn't it hanging in its old place, then? May I see it? Where is it?”

Damn! Oliver was much too interested. She recalled now how much he'd always admired the naked Venus. “It's hidden. I shouldn't have told you. Remember! No word to anyone.”

She stood abruptly, praying Oliver was too drunk to remember in the morning. “Friends,” she commanded, clapping her hands smartly. “This evening has become a bore.”

The company sprang to bleary attention, even the Longleys waking from their doze.

“As you know, my cousin arrives next week to stay with me. Annabella is a young lady of imp-impeccable breeding and is being courted by a duke.”

The artistic set affected Jacobin tendencies, so the statement evoked a chorus of “No duke, no dukes.”

Caro raised her hand. “Since I am shortly to become a chaperone and respectable”—jeers of disbelief—“I propose a little excursion. We'll climb over the railings into Hyde Park and bathe in the Serpentine.”

Cries of horror echoed throughout the room. “You're mad, Caro!” “We'll die of cold.”

“Very well. If you're all such old ladies, I shall sing to you instead.”

“No!”

“Spare our ears.”

“Death would be preferable.”

So the evening ended, like so many before it, with an act of dubious legality and undeniable insanity. The cold-water bath stirred Caro's blood. Shivering in her cloak on the bank of the lake, she thought how lucky she was to have such wonderful friends.

A week later

S
ir Bernard Horner appeared to be a disreputable man, not surprising since he claimed to have been a friend and gaming partner of Robert Townsend. Lack of respectability, infamy even, didn't necessarily bother Robert's widow. But Caro didn't like the look of Horner.

He was handsome enough, she supposed. His clothes fit
very
well, buff pantaloons hugging every contour of his legs in a manner unsuited to his advanced years. His short-waisted coat was made from a striped twill that was a shade too loud. The curls in his brown hair did not appear to be natural and contrasted oddly with the pale face of a man who spent long nights in gaming hells. Caro had never seen or heard of the fellow, but that was typical of the company Robert kept in the last year or two of his life, when his passion for the gaming tables tore him from home most of the time, neglecting his former intimates and his own wife.

“Why have you only come to me now, Sir Bernard?” she asked. “Why not make the claim immediately after my husband's death?”

“I didn't like to harass his grieving widow.”

“How thoughtful of you to postpone your harassment until now.”

Horner tried to look wounded, an unconvincing expression that merely made him appear reptilian. “Robert did owe me a thousand pounds.”

Caro defied the sinking of her stomach. “You must think me naïve. Gaming debts are not legally enforceable.”

“Quite right. That is why I declined to accept his vowels. He signed a loan.”

Even without close examination, Caro could see that the document he held was horribly official-looking. She'd seen enough loan instruments to recognize the tax stamp at a glance. “You lent my husband a large sum of money, then proceeded to win it from him at hazard?”

“That was his choice. I didn't force him to cast the devil's bones with me.” No one had ever had to force Robert to lose money. He had a veritable genius for it.

She switched tactics. “Sir Bernard,” she said in the wheedling tone she'd practiced on importunate tradesmen for years. “I'm afraid I do not have a thousand pounds to give you. I live now under very modest circumstances.”

“Don't forget the interest. The total is now closer to eleven hundred.” He bared his teeth, probably intending—and failing—to look sympathetic. She knew what was coming. The rumor had spread through the neighborhood like fire. She'd already had three merchants trying to collect the full amount owed them, based on garbled repetition of Oliver's indiscretion.

“I hear you own a very valuable picture,” Horner said. “I would be prepared to take the
Farnese Venus
in full settlement of the debt.”

“How many times must I tell people,” she said, “that my husband sold the Venus before he died.” She groped for her handkerchief and dabbed at her eyes. “If you heard I possessed such a painting, the report doubtless referred to that one.” She pointed to the canvas hanging on the far wall of the drawing room, cast in shadow by the angle of the afternoon light. “It's the work of Mr. Oliver Bream, my tenant at the carriage house. Anyone with the most cursory knowledge of art will tell you it was painted recently, not two hundred years ago.”

Her unwelcome visitor's lascivious gaze settled on the almost naked woman, reclining on a satin-draped divan most excellently rendered from the painter's imagination, Oliver not being in a position to afford such a costly prop.

“Posed for it yourself, did you?”

“Certainly not! How dare you suggest it?”

Horner's skepticism was patent. “It looks like you.”

She wondered if that was how she appeared to others, looking straight at the viewer with a distinctly come-hither expression. But the goddess's lush curves and full rose-nippled breasts were most definitely not hers. And even if they were, Horner was in no position to judge. She trusted she'd never be desperate enough to give him the opportunity to see her unclothed.

“It's just the hair,” she said. “My husband originally bought the Titian because she had red hair like mine.”

“Why did he sell it then?”

Caro wiped her eyes again and gave a pitiful little sniff. “You need hardly ask. You are aware of his financial difficulties.”

“Mighty fishy how the most valuable painting he owned disappeared just before his death.”

“I don't know for certain, but I think he lost it, or sold it, to his good friend Marcus Lithgow.”

“Who promptly left the country. Convenient that.”

“Naturally, the loss of the painting that meant so much to me caused me great pain. I asked Mr. Bream to try and reproduce it, and he made the hair as short as mine is now.”

“So it was done lately?”

Some of it very lately indeed. If her visitor's nose hovered closer to the canvas, he'd notice the tacky paint on the face and hair, hurriedly applied that morning.

“In the last year,” Caro said. This morning was certainly in the last year.

“Strange that you can afford to buy a big picture like that yet can't find ten pounds to pay your coal bill.”

“You seem remarkably well informed about my affairs, Sir Bernard.”

“Just taking care of my interests, dear lady.” He turned from the wall and fixed his eyes on Caro's bosom with a distinct gleam. This was an occasion on which she regretted her adoption of the scanty muslin fashions from France. “We may be able to come to a different arrangement, Mrs. Townsend. A fine woman like you must get lonely . . . at night.”

Caro would have liked to slap the unctuous rascal. Or kick him somewhere painful. But she had to keep him on the right side of friendly, or he could cause her trouble. Caro owed a frightening amount of money to dozens of creditors, holders of the staggering bills run up by the Townsends during Robert's lifetime. Her late husband had been meticulous in paying his gambling debts but never paid a merchant if he could avoid it. When he died, it turned out the former had consumed most of his once-handsome fortune while the tradesmen's bills lingered on to bedevil his widow.

She once more had recourse to her handkerchief, dabbing delicately at the corner of one eye.

“I couldn't even consider such a notion, Sir Bernard, with poor, poor Robert dead little more than a year. But I am sure there are many ladies who would be flattered to have a fine gentleman like yourself pay your addresses.”

She hoped her regard conveyed enough admiration to flatter the villain, combined with a shocked grief at his presumption. In fact, he looked disconcerted. Caro strongly suspected the existence of a Lady Horner and thus the impossibility of the horrid creature paying any addresses of an honest kind.

“Allow me to show you out.”

He stayed her progress to the door with a hand on her shoulder. “The information I have is that there's a Titian in this house. Not just a painting of a naked woman.”

For the first time since Horner had appeared at the front door and talked his way past her manservant, Caro produced a genuine smile.

“Of course there is,” she said, shaking off his touch. “Allow me to introduce him. Sir Bernard, meet Titian, known to his friends as Tish.” She pointed at the striped ginger cat sprawled on the sofa.

“Your cat?” he said in disbelief?

Tish opened one golden eye and looked lazily at the visitor.

“My cat. And now you know that the rumors about the Titian are nonsense, I beg you will leave me in peace with my grief.”

Though far from satisfied and not entirely convinced, there was nothing Horner could do but depart, not without an unnecessary kiss on her hand and a promise to call on her again soon.

Caro collapsed onto the sofa and sighed. Horner wasn't the first dun she'd had to repel that week, merely the most terrifying. The tradesmen she currently patronized for her household needs were more polite but no more inclined to issue her credit. Keeping herself and her small staff of servants fed, clothed, and warm was a constant struggle. She now had a houseguest too.

“What am I to do, Tish?” He rolled onto his back and started to purr as she rubbed his tummy. “What shall I sell next? It may have to be you, especially if you don't eat less.”

Around the modest but well-proportioned salon hung Robert's principal legacy: the oil paintings, watercolors, and drawings he'd collected since he had been an Oxford undergraduate. Those of substantial value had been sold, but many remained: the works of young, unknown, or unpopular artists. Along with the house and her meager income, she'd been permitted to keep them, but only because none of them would make so much as a pinhole in the remaining mountain of debt.

Except the Titian. The only one she truly cared for.

Robert's former guardian had negotiated payment arrangements which she found hard to meet while continuing to live within her slender means. She still owed large sums and now this new and enormous obligation. If she didn't pacify Horner, he could summon the debt collectors again. Possibly more efficient ones than had previously searched the house.

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