Confessions of A Viscount

by Shirley Karr

Chapter 2, Scene 2
London, England
October 1816

Blast. No wonder she had always left the breaking-in part to Steven – doing so in a dress was nearly impossible. Not to mention dangerous. Foolhardy, even. As Charlotte dangled by her fingertips, four stories up, she tightened her grip on the roof tile and looked over her shoulder, toward the balcony that had seemed to be right there.

Perhaps she should have waited a little longer for her eyes to adjust to the darkness, after the bright lights in the ballroom next door. But the window washer's ladder leaning against the hotel wall had been easy enough to climb. And no telling how soon Aunt would start looking for her, or when Steven would return. The rat. How dare he leave her behind, after all the work they'd done together?

Charlotte swung her left leg out, reaching for the balcony railing. Still too far. The breeze picked up again, swirling around her skirts, chilling her in places that had no business feeling a breeze.

She had just as much right to chase after the stolen snuffbox as Steven did. More, in fact. Hadn't she been the one to collect most of the information when they worked in France? All she had to do was bat her blue eyes, show a little décolletage, breathlessly hang on their every word, and most men became blithering idiots, blathering their deepest secrets. Or she chatted up maids, collecting servants' gossip.

Steven had no right to insist she stop serving her country and start serving a husband instead. And how dare he so cavalierly dismiss her theory that Madame Melisande was responsible for stealing the box?

She gritted her teeth and inched her left hand along the edge, then the right. When Madame Melisande had left the ballroom, heading upstairs with a paramour, she realized this might be her only chance to search the widow's room at the hotel next door to the Argyle Rooms. It was too good an opportunity to pass up.

Her fingers slipped on the roof tile. She scrabbled for another grip and tried to catch her breath. Her new maid had laced her stays too tight again. It took hardly any exertion to make her breathless, and she worried about spilling out of her gown altogether.

Annoying for her, but it had an amazing yet highly predictable effect on the male of the species. Suited her purposes, though, especially when she noticed that the viscount had noticed. He had the sense of humor to go along with her this afternoon, but he also had predictable male reactions to female charms.

And he had muscles. She'd bumped against him to gauge his reaction, but had been unprepared for her own response to contact with his tall, lean body.

Her breathless state was due entirely to her tight stays, not his flat abdomen and hard thighs and toned calves that owed nothing to padding. With all her silliness, surely she had put to rest any suspicions he might have had about her behavior, and convinced him she was just as empty-headed as any miss prowling the marriage mart.

She inched her hand to the left again, then the other hand. She reached out her left foot, searching for the railing, but encountered nothing but air. She had to be getting close.

Her dancing slipper slipped off her foot. It landed with a faint thwap on the stone patio, four stories below.

This could all go terribly wrong, terribly fast. Her arms were trembling from the strain. Her hands hurt and her fingertips were likely bleeding by now. How could she have misjudged the location of the balcony from the roof so badly?

More sounds. The rustle of fabric, a soft thud. Had someone inside noticed her climb past a window? No lights filtered through the curtains on any of the three balcony doors. She reached again for the railing with her foot.

Something warm grabbed her ankle. She stifled a scream and tried to shake it off.

"Miss Parnell," came a hoarse whisper. "Stop trying to kick me."

Viscount Moncreiffe? What in the world was he doing out here? The viscount's bare hand slid farther up her leg beneath her skirt, holding the back of her knee, above her stocking. His other hand slid up her right side, all the way to her hip. Her mouth fell open in surprise. She heard the crunch of his boots on the balcony as he shifted position, the clink of his fob banging against the iron rails as he reached farther over the railing. He patted her hip. "I've got you. Let go."

"What?" Nothing but space -- a vast wide-open empty space -- stretched out beneath her.

"I'll catch you. Let go."

She heard confidence in his whispered command, felt the strong grip he had on the back of her left knee. What could happen?

Worst case, she'd end up hanging upside down, arse over teakettle, skirts over her head, and give him a fine view of her nether regions before he let go in shock.

If that happened, immediate death on the flagstones below was an acceptable option.

With one last shallow breath – her stays were too tight for a deep one – she let go.

Wind whooshed past her ears but her fall was mercifully brief.

Moncreiffe hauled her into his arms and up against his hard chest. He grunted upon impact and staggered back a step, but quickly steadied. She wrapped her aching arms around his wonderfully broad shoulders and buried her face against his neck and the cool linen of his cravat. She wasn't on solid ground yet, but this felt even better.

“Are you injured, Miss Parnell?”

She felt the rumble in his chest as much as heard the quiet question. “I'm fine, thank you,” she managed between panting breaths. She inhaled his comforting scent, a mellow mix of spice, tobacco, and a hint of musk.

She lifted her head enough to look over his shoulder. The safety of the balcony floor was still a long way down.

Tall men, and their long arms, could be quite handy. “Not that I don't appreciate your assistance -- I do, by the way -- but why are you here? I thought you were still at the ball.”

“I could ask you the same question.”

His grip shifted, and Charlotte became aware of his right arm around her shoulders, the left under her knees. Her skirts had bunched up in her lap, revealing her stockings and bare knees. Was anything else bare? Well, it didn't really matter, since there was no one else around. Moncreiffe held her out from his chest, just far enough to look at her face, though in the darkness his was a pale blur.

Light flared behind the curtain next door, and suddenly the other balcony door swung open.

An older gentleman, in his late fifties at least, stood there, holding up a candelabrum, his arm wrapped around the waist of a woman wearing too much rouge and not enough clothing, clearly a member of the demimonde, a Cyprian.

"Father," Moncreiffe said with a nod, rather calmly.

Father? Charlotte squeezed her eyes shut, but not before she saw the wicked gleam in the other woman's eye.

"Alistair, my boy! If I'd known you wanted a room, I'd have--"

"No! No, that's quite all right, we, ah, just wanted a moment of quiet for, ah…"

The older man chuckled. "The bed's in there, not out here."

Moncreiffe coughed. He cleared his throat, then seemed to suddenly remember he was still holding Charlotte aloft in his arms. He set her down gently and gave her skirts a slight shake into place, then straightened to his full height.

Charlotte tucked her shoeless left foot behind her right, hoping no one would notice her missing dancing slipper.

He cleared his throat again. "No, we are not in need of a, ah, bed. We just—"

"Up against a wall can be good, too, but at your height, it'd be a lot easier with a Long Meg." He turned his broad grin on Charlotte . "Not that you aren't a most charming pocket Venus." He winked at her.

Charlotte felt her cheeks flood with heat.

"Sir! Miss Parnell is no lightskirt! She's... Ah, she..."

Both Father and Charlotte turned their gaze on Moncreiffe, while the Cyprian snickered into her hand. In the flickering light cast by the candles, Charlotte saw Moncreiffe's blue eyes gazing at her intently. They suddenly widened, just for an instant. He wrapped his arm around her shoulders and turned back to his father, his chin high in the air.

"Miss Parnell has just done me the great honor of accepting my marriage proposal."