As we count down to January 2011, here’s a snippet from January 2008 and The Seduction of the Crimson Rose.
I had thought this one would be harder to choose. Mary and Vaughn’s courtship occurs primarily through word-play as each tries to outsmart the other, leading to many moments of barbed quippage. As I flipped through, however, it became clear that one scene was the logical choice to share in my Pink New Year’s retrospective: the one where these two prickly characters batter each other into letting down their guards.
Lord Vaughn has made clear that he’s the marrying kind. Mary needs to marry, and marry well. Despite his general air of sangfroid, Vaughn gets a bit snippy when Mary toys with the idea of the amiable Mr. St. George.
“I’m sure Mr. St. George would have been delighted to accompany me. And been a good deal more good-natured about it.”
“If good nature is all you demand, may I recommend the acquisition of a lap dog? You shall find its company just as stimulating.”
“Pets bite,” Mary said tartly, using her elbow to good effect on a group of teenage boys who showed no inclination to step aside. “And they don’t generally come with estates in Warwickshire.”
“I would advise against rushing into rustication.” Vaughn slipped through the gap after her.
Mary employed her sunshade as a walking stick, not looking back. “I hear it’s a lovely country. The climate is most salubrious.”
“But the inhabitants leave something to be desired.”
Mary arched a glance back over her shoulder, her eyes inscrutable beneath the brim of her bonnet. “Unless one desires the inhabitants.”
Joining her beneath the tree, Vaughn plunked his cane down beside a tree root like a conquistador planting his flag. “You don’t,” he said, with altogether too much assurance.
“Isn’t that for me to judge?” Mary shook out her crumpled skirts, paying particular attention to the smudges of something sticky just above the right hip. It had the texture and consistency of old oatmeal. Mary flicked experimentally at it with one gloved finger. She could feel Vaughn’s eyes on her, not the least bit deceived by her seeming inattention.
“Don’t do it,” he said shortly. “There is nothing more unpleasant than finding oneself inescapably yoked to a person for whom one has no regard.”
Mary abandoned the stain. “Nothing more unpleasant? You have a very limited imagination, my lord. I can think of a great many things more unpleasant.”
With one hand braced on the silver head of his cane, Vaughn radiated worldly skepticism. “Can you?”
“Yes, I can,” retorted Mary. “And better than you. Do you know what it is to be a pensioner in someone else’s house? Of course not! You’re Lord Vaughn. You have houses and estates and—”
“Horses,” supplied Lord Vaughn helpfully.
“Servants,” finished Mary, with a quelling glance. “All rushing to do your bidding. Yours. Not someone else’s. You don’t know what it is to have to wait upon the whims of others. And all because no man has deigned to offer me the protection of his hand.”
“Protection? An odd way of describing the institution of matrimony.”
Mary’s lip curled. “How else would you describe it? Marriage is protection against poverty, protection against all the carping old women who say, ‘Oh, poor dear, no man would ever have her,’ protection against the advances of unscrupulous cads who think nothing of taking advantage of a woman alone. Why else would anyone ever bother to marry?”
“One has heard that there are occasionally other reasons,” interjected Vaughn mildly.
Mary bristled at the implied mockery. “Don’t even think of talking to me about love. It doesn’t make a difference, whatever your beloved poets say.”
Vaughn’s lips twisted into a humorless smile. “I, of all people, am in no position to do that.”
“You, my lord? You’re in a position to do whatever you like. You, after all, are a man.” Mary imbued the simple word with enough venom to damn a dozen Edens. “And not just a man, but the great Lord Vaughn, master of all he surveys. You have only to snap your fingers, and your every desire is gratified.”
Vaughn’s gaze never strayed from her face. “Not every desire.”
Mary waved aside his words with an impatient hand. “Most of them, at any rate. And then you have the consummate gall to stand in judgment over me for taking the only way open to me— I don’t see any other, do you? I can marry or I can rot. It’s not admirable, and it’s not glorious, and I don’t deny your right to mock. But I would think that some notion of noblesse oblige would mandate more condescension to your struggling inferiors.”
Vaughn’s brows drew together. “I never thought of you as anyone’s inferior. Least of all mine.”
“Ha!” There was something very satisfying about the short syllable. Mary was so pleased with it that she repeated it. “Would you treat an equal like a—like a common doxy?” She stumbled over the vulgar term, but there was no point in mincing words now. How else was there to describe it? He had used her that night in the Chinese chamber as he would any other female who came conveniently to hand, so long as that female was a pretty one. “Good enough to kiss, but never good enough to marry,” she finished bitterly.
Vaughn looked at her in surprise, his brows drawing together over his nose. “That isn’t it.”
“No?” Breathing deeply through her nose, Mary crossed her arms across her chest. She supposed that hadn’t been it for Lord Falconstone or Martin Frobisher or any of the other men who wrote her sonnets and tried to wheedle her out onto to balconies, but somehow lost all their eloquence when it came to the four simple words that made the difference between reputable and ruined. “Then how else would you describe it? It’s all simple enough. The great Lord Vaughn wouldn’t deign to sully his bloodlines with a mere miss. You need the daughter of an earl, at least.”
The shadow of the tree branches above moved darkly across Vaughn’s face. “Enough,” he said sharply, turning away.
“Why?” Mary yanked on his arm, oblivious to the people milling around them, to the bands still playing on the parade ground, to the King trotting up and down along the row of his recruits. The Black Tulip could have been turning handsprings behind them and she would never have noticed. “Why flinch at it? It’s your own choice. Are you too much of a coward to own it?”
“Choice?” Vaughn took a step back, the head of his cane catching the sunlight, making the arched neck of the silver snake glow like the idol of a pagan cult. “I suppose you could call it that. I chose to marry the daughter of an earl, just as you advise. I made that choice long ago, and I’ve been paying for it ever since.”
That, as far as Mary was concerned, was so much blether. How could he have been paying for it ever since when she had died three years into their marriage? Or perhaps it had been four. Either way, there was no earthly chance that Vaughn was going to convince her that his entire life had been overcast with grief for his poor, lost… what was her name again? Amelia? No, Anne.
Mary would have said as much, but Vaughn’s curt voice went relentlessly on, like the lash of a whip. “I made a host of other choices, too. I chose to run away. I chose to ignore what was inconvenient. I chose pleasure over substance. I chose and chose and chose. After a time, Miss Alsworthy, do you know what happens? You run out of choices. There aren’t any left. You’re pinned in a web of your own devising.”
“I don’t believe that,” Mary shot back before he could catch his breath. “You can’t hide behind inclination by calling it compulsion. If you truly wanted matters otherwise, you could make them so. Why can’t you just admit it? It’s just that you don’t want me.”
“I don’t, do I?” Vaughn rolled the head of his cane beneath his fingers. “How terribly kind of you to inform me of that. Otherwise, I might have continued to exist under the exceedingly uncomfortable delusion that I did.”
Mary fought her way out of the tangled web of syntax. “I didn’t mean like that,” she countered. After all, he was male; they wanted as easily as they breathed. Hence the convenient construction of balconies off so many ballrooms.
Vaughn’s fingers tightened on the head of his cane. “Nor did I,” he said.
For a long moment, he held her gaze without speaking, simply letting the impact of his words sink in, before adding rapidly, as though he wished to get it over with as quickly as possible, “I won’t deny that you’re beautiful. No mirror could tell you otherwise. But there are beautiful women for the buying in any brothel in London. Oh yes, and the ballrooms, too, if one has the proper price. It wasn’t your appearance that caught me. It was the way you put me down in the Gallery at Sibley Court.” Vaughn’s lips curved in a reminiscent smile. “And the way you tried to bargain with me after.”
“Successfully bargained,” Mary corrected.
“That,” replied Lord Vaughn, “is exactly what I mean. Has anyone ever told you that you haggle divinely? That your insults shine like all the stars in the heavens? That the simple beauty of your self-interest is enough to bring a man to his knees?”
Mary couldn’t in honesty say that anyone had.
Vaughn’s eyes were as hard and bright as silver coins. “Those are the reasons I want you. I want you for your cunning mind and your hard heart, for your indomitable spirit and your scheming soul, for they’re more honest by far than any of the so-called virtues.”
“The truest poetry is the most feigning?” Mary quoted back his own words to him.
“And the most feigning is the most true. Now tell me I’m wrong. Tell me I’m lying. Tell me what I really want.”
“I can’t.” Mary waited just long enough for Vaughn’s silver eyes to light with triumph, before adding, “Because you didn’t pause long enough to give me a chance.”
Reaching for her as though to embrace her, Vaugh stopped himself just in time. His hands closing over her upper arms, he shook her lightly instead. “Do you know what it’s been these past few weeks, to constantly see you, and know I couldn’t have you?”
“It’s no more than I’ve had to bear,” Mary shot back, and only realized too late just how she had exposed herself. The look of satisfaction on Vaughn’s face was all that was needed to show her that she had said too much. Seeking to distract him, she blustered, “You’re just trying to evade my question, aren’t you? If you had the choice–”
Vaughn hands tightened on her shoulders. “Choice, again, is it? Let me assure you, once and for all. If I had my choice, there would be no need for any of this. If I had my choice, you would be buying your bloody bridal clothes. If I had my choice, Monday night would never have ended with a kiss.”
“Bridal clothes?” echoed Mary.
“I would crown you with coronets and deck you with ancestral jewels. If I had my choice. But I don’t.” Vaughn’s grip loosened so suddenly that Mary stumbled back against the tree. His face was hard and ugly in the unforgiving noon light. “I don’t have that right.”