April 30, 2013 from St. Martin’s Press
ISBN-10: 1250008034 | ISBN-13: 978-1250008039
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SEDUCE AND DESTROY OR FALL DANGEROUSLY IN LOVE
SEDUCE AND DESTROYTristan Bradley, the notorious Marquess of Castleigh, is a danger to any woman’s reputation. Devastatingly handsome and devilishly seductive, he delights in the challenge of a lovely new conquest—especially when she’s engaged to a man he despises. But when this particular young lady asks him to dance, Tristan realizes he may not be the only one playing a game.
OR FALL DANGEROUSLY IN LOVEDefiantly bold and disarmingly beautiful, Lady Charlotte Lindsey will do anything to break free from her loathsome fiancé—even destroy her good name to do it. What better way to seal the deal than a tryst with Lord Tristan, who’s led many a girl to ruin? But when Charlotte looks into his eyes—and Tristan takes her in his arms—all of their schemes melt away…because the heart has a plan of its own.
Readers will be delighted as the daring heroine and the dangerous, oh-so-sexy hero are caught in a game of seduction, revenge and desire.
-RT Book Reviews, 4 Stars
[A] clever, sensual historical romance that will quickly captivate you . . . When you open a book penned by author Tiffany Clare, be prepared to be magically transported to another place and time.
-Romance Junkies, 4.5 Blue Ribbons
Dashing looks, an old—blooded title, and an annual income that could feed the whole country are all attributes considered well worthy of marriage. It amazes this writer that those in possession of all three qualities are often the most jaded pleasure seekers in society, and often the most dangerous for a young lady of marriageable age to dare court.
The Mayfair Chronicles, May 26, 1846
If anyone were to guess what wickedness was going through Lady Charlotte Lindsey’s mind, they’d usher her away from the ball and lock her in a room where she could cause no trouble to anyone, including herself. Thank goodness her thoughts were her own. Because the very moment society’s biggest rogue strode into the ballroom her plan moved from imagination to reality.
She hadn’t thought she’d ever be given the opportunity to take her future into her own hands; she had only hoped for the possibility.
The Marquess of Castleigh was tall and handsome with hair nearly as black as the evening sky and cut longer than fashionable. It was long enough that she wanted to run her fingers through it to see if it was as silky as it looked.
No, that didn’t seem right. She did not want to do any such thing.
She tried to focus on her task and not on how his presence was throwing her off balance. Though they’d never been formally introduced, she knew precisely who he was. It helped that she read all the rags that described the exploits of the ton’s deviants with regularity. For once, they’d done his appearance justice.
She had to force her gaze away from him to see who he had arrived with. His companions had reputations nearly as depraved as his, but she wasn’t interested in any of them. She returned her attention to the marquess.
When she and Ariel had come up with a list of potentials to aid in her ruin, the marquess had been at the top for a number of reasons: he liked nothing more than biting his thumb at society; he had yet to reach the age of thirty so he wasn’t likely to offer marriage; and—although she realized the point was shallow he was devastatingly handsome. Perhaps the most sinfully attractive man she’d ever laid eyes upon. She would try not to allow that to unsettle her plan.
When she’d made her list of roués, pulled from her three years collection of The Mayfair Chronicles, the gossip surrounding the marquess was less . . . damning than that printed about the others. While some gentlemen were said to “make some misses puffy, rounded, and unmarriageable if not forced to retire permanently to the country, or devastating the reputations of whole families by way of their charades,’ she thought the Marquess of Castleigh more interested in poking fun at society than in causing real injury to a lady’s standing. And while she sought ruin, she didn’t want to be hurt in the process of said ruin.
And how convenient for her was it that he was attending the duchess’s ball this evening?
Of the three gentlemen to step into the room—the fourth in their set was the Dowager Countess of Fallon—Castleigh was by far the most arresting with his strong, sleek form and striking blue eyes that were accentuated by a fan of thick lashes and dark sculpted brows. Charlotte was convinced that his smile could melt a woman from the inside out in under a minute. Perhaps less since she was halfway besotted although she’d laid eyes upon him only a few moments ago. She shook her head and tore her gaze away from his face to inspect the rest of him.
Aside from the heavily starched white cravat that was elaborately knotted at his throat, he wore black from head to toe. She doubted many men could pull off such a bold look. But he did it superbly.
With a flick of her wrist, Charlotte opened her fan and leaned closer to her dearest friend, Ariel, to whisper, “Look who has arrived.”
Ariel’s eyes widened, not with reservation but with anticipation of the events that were about to unfold.
“Oh, my.” Ariel laughed behind her fan. “Mother will be having conniptions when she sets eyes upon them.”
Ariel’s mother was the biggest gossip in society and hated the slightest impropriety. If Lady Hargrove ever learned of the lengths to which Charlotte would go to stop her marriage to Mr. Warren—a man of her father’s choosing—Charlotte would be sent to the country and hidden away until her wedding day.
Charlotte’s focus returned to the young men vying for her and Ariel’s attention. She gave Mr. Ellis, the youngest son of an earl and third in line for the title, a demure flutter of her lashes as he released her dance card with a shy smile. His hair was dark, his nose overly large, and his height admirable, but he was her age and probably only attending the ball because his mother had bid him to do so. He was also too kindhearted to be of help in stopping her marriage to Mr. Warren.
Mr. Torrance, a man of strong form and decidedly masculine features, stood next to Ariel. He had been by her friend’s side since the season started. Though he was not titled and prattled on far too often in downright embarrassing verse, his feelings for Ariel seemed genuine. More importantly, both gentlemen were fine companions for enduring a dull ball.
Yet, how could she consider this a tedious affair when four well—known society degenerates had just joined the party? And, as luck would have it, the one she was interested in seemed to be heading directly toward her.
Charlotte clutched Ariel’s wrist, trying to convey a silent message that this was her chance to change the course of the life her father had thoughtlessly mapped out for her. She was sure many young ladies would love to marry a man in line to inherit a title as blue and lucrative as that of the Earl of Fallon. They might even be willing to endure a solitary life—she’d heard Mr. Warren tell her father that she’d reside in the country after they were wed while he remained in London. It hurt that her father wanted to pair her with such a cruel, unloving man.
Needless to say, she and Mr. Warren had not started off on the right foot. They were two completely opposing personalities; they did not share one hobby between them, and more importantly, she had a strong impulse to push him out of the carriage every time he took her through Hyde Park.
Mr. Warren was highhanded, unkind, and she couldn’t recall a single occasion where they’d had a decent conversation without one of them insulting the other. She’d rather meet some horrible end than be forced to marry him.
Hence the necessity of her plan.
She pasted on her most playful smile and lowered her fan marginally in coy invitation. Not only was the marquess headed in her direction, but his target seemed to be her and not the punch table she stood next to.
Ariel, her best friend since the age of five, understood precisely what Charlotte intended. Her friend nudged her forward with her shoulder. Not so hard that anyone would notice, just enough for Charlotte to take the hint that she needed to take action, not stand around fluttering her lashes like an infatuated fool.
Why should she give up the life she’d always thought to have because her father wanted a political alliance? Worse yet, her father well knew that she and Mr. Warren did not enjoy each other’s company. She might have a great deal of respect for her father, but he’d gone too far this time.
It was now or never.
It was simple, really: the Marquess of Castleigh was a means to an end.
As though she needed a sign that she was taking the right step, the orchestra started a quadrille, which would be suitable for introducing herself and last long enough for her to make a good impression on. She hoped.
It was true that she was known for her outrageous boldness but this move was monumental and had the potential to drastically change the course of her life. All for the better, she had to believe.
The marquess was quite focused on her, as if he had but one plan. She stepped forward with her heart in her throat, boldly threaded her arm through his, and turned them in the direction of the dance floor. This was pure insanity.
He stood quite a few inches taller than her, and he matched her gait smoothly as they walked into the throng of dancers and took their places.
“Good evening, my lord.” She tried to find the words to introduce herself but the moment she looked into his icy blue eyes, she was suddenly speechless and her mouth as dry as the Saharan Desert. Goodness, he certainly was handsome, devastatingly so.
He quirked one brow and gave her a sinful smile that turned all her thoughts and intentions to mush.
With difficulty, she tore her gaze away from his once again and tried to suppress any vestige of nervousness that remained. It wasn’t working. She felt a fine sheen of sweat on the palms of her hands inside gloves and at her temple. The hair on her arms exposed to the air stood on end.
“I hope you don’t mind that I’ve borrowed you for this dance.” Her voice sounded whispery and pathetic to her own ears. This wasn’t going as planned.
“Not at all, my lady.” The timbre of the marquess’s voice was as decadent as strawberries dipped in chocolate. “Shall we make introductions ourselves, or should we wait to be formally introduced despite our risqué partnering in this dance?”
A nervous laugh escaped her lips on hearing his teasing tone. She felt she was botching their first meeting, but couldn’t seem to pull her wits together long enough to fix their odd first meeting.
“I do suppose we can skip formalities.” She glanced at him from beneath her lashes, bewildered by her visceral reaction to his presence. She was never shy and nervous. What was it about the marquess that affected her in that way?
“A lady after my own heart.” He bowed and she curtsied hesitantly as they took their positions amid the circle of dancers. Her stomach fluttered causing her to miss the first steps into the dance. He would think her a buffoon before long if she didn’t focus on her plan.
With a deep breath, she gathered what remaining courage she had and pulled on his arm, bidding him to lean closer to her ear. “Were you headed directly for me, or did I prevent you from reaching the punch table?”
She had to know whether he’d been the one to seek her out, that it wasn’t her imagination.
His hand spanned over the small of her back as they walked forward. He kept a respectable distance so he wasn’t touching her directly, but she could swear she felt the heat of his hand through her dress. They took their opposing partners’ arms, turned in the center, and then met again on the other side.
“Perhaps I intercepted you before you could search out a family member.” He looked around the room, as though wondering if she’d be stolen away by a concerned parent or chaperone.
Searching the sea of faces, she looked for her cousin who acted as her chaperone. Charlotte wasn’t going against Genny’s wishes by dancing with the marquess. Genny had only told her not to leave the room unattended. And she hadn’t left the room . . .
“My cousin attended the ball with me.” Why was she telling him that?
“Ah,” he said, unable to say more when their formation changed again. Perhaps this type of dance wasn’t the best way to introduce herself to him after all.
They moved forward with the other dancers, switching partners to spin around the center of the circle. Each time the marquess’s arm snaked around hers, Charlotte’s heart jolted with a shock of excitement.
“Allow me to present myself.” They were still paired and turning arm in arm in their own private circle. “Tristan Bradley, the Marquess of Castleigh.” He dipped his head with his introduction.
She gave him a slow smile, knowing her dimples were showing and hating that she couldn’t better school her features in his presence. “I know precisely who you are, my lord.”
They stopped on the outskirts of their circle as they waited their turn to join in the dance again.
“Does my reputation precede me even among the young misses moving in society for the first time?”
“I doubt there is anyone in the room who doesn’t know of you.” She inched close enough to him for her shoulder to press against his chest. He was very firm and didn’t seem to mind their proximity. However, she thought it odd that no one had noticed her dancing with the marquess.
“I’m always happy to be singled out.”
“Perhaps I shouldn’t have been so bold as to dance with you?”
His hand stroked the length of her arm as their positions changed. “I couldn’t agree with that. I suggest you dance the night away to your heart’s content.”
He had both her hands so she ducked her head again. “My name is Charlotte Lindsey. My father is the Earl of Ponsley.”
“It is a pleasure to make your acquaintance, Lady Charlotte.” With a gentle squeeze of her hand he continued to lead her through the dance.
When she partnered with him again on the other side of the circle, he placed his hand firmly over the small of her back in what could not be mistaken as simple positioning for their dance. This time she knew it was not her imagination; she felt the warmth of his hand through every layer of silk and linen and even through the boning in her corset. His fingers ran the length of the buttons that disappeared under the bow tied at the base of her back, and she felt herself sway a little closer to him. She was not the swooning type, but the very idea of this man carrying her away stole all the breath from her lungs.
She had a moment of clarity when she recalled the reason she was dancing with the marquess, and put a few inches between them. She simply wanted him to regard her favorably so she could ask for his assistance in her ruin. And if she was to accomplish that, she must remain in control of her errant thoughts. She would not be swayed from her goal, despite being unsettled so easily by this particular man.
Perhaps she should look over the other names on her list again? She rejected the idea just as quickly as it had come to her. No one else would do now. And why was that?
“Now that introductions are out of the way, may I request a favor?” she asked, feeling brave and bold again.
“I aim only to please you.” As they turned, he reached up quickly and pushed one of her wayward curls back from her forehead.
Each touch made her falter. He was a step ahead of her in the game they played, and it was supposed to be the other way around.
“I don’t think anyone is as shocked as they should be that you stole a dance from me not three minutes into your arrival.” She pouted her bottom lip in a show of disappointment. “Will you take another dance with me?”
He laughed; the sound was deep, reverberating through the length of her body. Admittedly, her knees weakened for the briefest of moments, but her resolve to succeed in her goal made her back stiffen and her arms grow rigid.
“So your only desire is for our names to be printed side by side in the gossip sheets?” He hitched her closer so that she was nearly pressed against the solid warmth of his body. They might not be touching, but his heat surrounded her like a much—needed blanket on a cold winter’s night. When she took in a deep breath, her chest surged against his unintentionally. This time it was he who seemed shocked by her boldness for his hand briefly tightened around hers.
“Well, not necessarily with you.” She winked at him and spread her fingers over his shoulder, feeling the latent strength and muscle beneath. “I suppose any of your friends would do for what I have in mind.”
She glanced over toward the outskirts of the dance floor at one of his friends who was conversing with her cousin.
She missed a step and the marquess had to right her direction. How could her cousin possibly know that man? Genny looked irritated and a flush colored her cheeks as she spoke to the marquess’s friend. If there was one thing Charlotte knew well it was that Genny never did something so simple as converse; she lectured, and all the while the man standing with her merely smiled.
The marquess’s hand tightened around hers again, drawing her attention away from her cousin. “You’re far too young to understand the game you’re playing.”
His smile slipped for a moment and the intensity in his eyes felt dangerous and had her breath stilling in her lungs as she studied him.
“I wouldn’t call this a game.”
A game implied unmitigated amusement. This was more like a mission, or better yet a goal and a desire so deep she couldn’t imagine not accomplishing her ruin by the time the summer season ended.
“Then why did you seem so insistent that we dance?”
“I’m merely experiencing all that life has to offer.” Though she wasn’t so sure about that sentiment, courting the marquess was not about self—indulgence—all right, that wasn’t quite true either because she was sure the marquess would be far more amusing and a lot more fun to spend time with than Mr. Warren.
“You’re young. What makes you rush life along when it happens regardless?”
“Am I a mere child in your eyes?” She suddenly felt gauche.
Perhaps this task wouldn’t be as easy as she had originally thought. Maybe he wasn’t interested in debutantes, but women more experienced with intimacy? Now that she thought about it she couldn’t remember a single debutante being tied to his name.
“Definitely not a child.” There was an assurance in his words that settled her flagging nerves. “But I am curious to know what secrets you harbor, my lady.”
“If we ladies weren’t mysterious, men might grow bored with us.”
“That’s simply not possible.”
The marquess turned her suddenly, his leg going between hers as they neared the edge of the dance floor and approached her cousin. The position was intimate and telling, but his direction baffling. If he wanted to act daring and shock her with bold behavior, why not whisk her out of the room altogether?
She tightened her hold on his hand and pressed the front of her body against his before they parted on another turn. She would not give him the opportunity to think her inexperienced. She must be brazen, and she could not waver in the path she’d decided on for even a moment. The simple truth was: the Marquess of Castleigh would play his part. And she’d find a way to endear him before she could change her mind and before he could think better of his actions.
She needed to act quickly because she had only two choices and each would lead her down very different paths. She could face ruination with the marquess or marry a man she loathed.
Is there a man more wicked than the Marquess of C—? There’s not a scandal that goes by during the season without his name mentioned as the cause. His lordship has a tendency to find trouble wherever he goes but always manages to avoid condemnation for his acts. Perhaps it is his charm and fine form that so easily trick society into seeing an angel where the devil really stands.
The Mayfair Chronicles, May 1846
Since when did a debutante seek him out two months into the season? There was trickery at play here, and Tristan didn’t like to be made a fool. He hated to admit it, but Lady Charlotte’s boldness did far more than simply unsettle him.
It might be better to cut his losses, find his friends, leave this debutante party far behind him, and pretend he’d never introduced himself to the formidable young lady in his arms. But if he did that, she’d seek out another, and that was unacceptable to him even though he didn’t quite know what game she played.
Tristan looked over the crush of guests in search of the friends he’d arrived with. Leo stood conversing with a plainly attired woman on the other side of the dance floor. Tristan did not recognize her. His friend Jezebel, who also happened to be the woman responsible for his attendance at the duchess’s ball tonight, was nowhere in sight. She was probably in the gaming room gambling away the last bit of her pin money, with Hayden not far behind trying to preserve what little of Jez’s reputation remained intact.
They’d come with one purpose in mind: to win the favor of the Ponsley chit and stop her marriage to Mr. Warren. Warren was in line to obtain Jez’s fortune now that her husband was dead, and Jez assured them that the successor to the Fallon title was no kinder than her late husband had been—a cruel man and an abuser of women and those less fortunate.
Revenge was fine and dandy, but Tristan had a very personal reason to involve himself in Jez’s charade. It just so happened that he had a vendetta against Warren, one that was older than the Fallon fortune feud.
This was his opportunity for retribution.
Yet, since Lady Charlotte had approached him, the business at hand seemed suddenly . . . unfavorable. Especially since the young lady had sought him out the moment he’d entered the ballroom. So what was her game? He was torn about what decision was the right one to make. Stay and find out her next move or leave well enough alone and forget the whole Warren business? The latter was unlikely to happen, so he needed to figure out what he was going to do with the chit on his arm whether she unsettled him or not.
When the next dance started, he didn’t stop twirling her around the floor to seek out her family, as most gentlemen would inevitably do. Though many might argue whether he was a gentleman. He was known among the ladies as the biggest player society had produced of late, and rightly so since he filled that particular role with relish liking that he could sample new fare as he pleased.
Focused on Lady Charlotte, he took in her youthful appearance. Having had plenty of experience with the fairer sex, he guessed her to be less than twenty and far too knowledgeable about the male sex for someone of her age.
Her complexion was fair, and he detected a hint of maquillage dusted over her cheekbones. Her eyes shone the darkest blue of the Adriatic Sea, and were highlighted by bountiful dark lashes and finely shaped brows in her oval—shaped face. Tight ringlets fell on either side of her temples, the color a rich chestnut with a strong hint of red that suggested she spent a great deal of time outdoors. Her complexion was nicely set off against the emerald gown that swept off her shoulders front and back. Her wealth was displayed in the extravagant necklace about her throat; the acorn—sized emerald fell enticingly between her breasts.
She was taller than most ladies of his acquaintance and slender in form. A pretty woman to be sure, and if handsome looks were enough to attract him to someone, he’d steal her out of the ballroom right this instant.
Rubbing along with someone required a deeper, nonaesthetic connection, no matter how enjoyable rubbing along might be. Besides, a successful seduction took time and he was a very patient man. And by all accounts, it appeared that Lady Charlotte wanted and expected to be seduced by him. And while he preferred women to be direct, her boldness almost worried him.
“Your cousin looks positively irate,” he mused aloud.
Lady Charlotte’s relation stood on the edge of the dance floor staring at Leo with her hands clenched at her sides. She was of average height, wore her dark hair in a simple bun, and dressed like the matrons in the room who were thirty years her senior; a pristine image of virtue.
“She’s also my chaperone.” Charlotte looked over his shoulder to better see them. “Is she conversing with Lord Barrington?”
“You know us so well,” he said drolly. It shouldn’t surprise him that she knew of Leo since she had already singled Tristan out in a room half filled with men far more eligible and less likely to cause a scandal.
He didn’t miss the spark of mischief that lit her eyes when she focused on his face again.
“Everyone knows him, my lord.”
While women often threw themselves in his direction for an enjoyable affair—and he had no qualms about that—debutantes either shied away from him, or were cloistered by overprotective mamas. He wasn’t sure how he felt about the reversal in their roles, but he felt she should be better shielded from men like him, hence his reason for not leaving her side; he’d not leave her open for the advances of another rogue.
While he might have promised Jez that he would sway Lady Charlotte away from an alliance with Mr. Warren, he questioned the chit’s odd willingness to throw so much caution to the wind. True, she was only making his task easier, but it made him pause for the first time in his life and question his role in this. It was oddly disconcerting to be held accountable for his own actions.
Twirling her about in the next set—a couple’s dance instead of a group dance—he rested his hand just above the bow at the base of her back and held her firmly against his body. He told himself the daring position was to test her courage in whatever game she played and not to draw her attention away from Barrington.
Where was his calm equilibrium when he needed it most? One thing he was certain of: Lady Charlotte would never look upon Leo as though he could be her salvation; in fact, he’d ensure she never again spared his friend another thought. He’d found her first and had no intention of relinquishing her to any other gentleman in the room.
The one thing Charlotte hadn’t clearly thought out in this scheme was how she would actually stage her ruin. And though she was unsure of what exactly complete ruin entailed on her part, she knew she needed the marquess to succeed. The worse the reputation of her partner in crime, the harder she would fall. She did not want to be redeemed by a hasty marriage with Mr. Warren.
One had to wonder how many young ladies had contemplated their own ruin because of an undesirable match set up by their father or mother. A small pang of regret for what she was doing made her falter. The marquess tightened his hold as he steadied her.
“Has someone flavored the punch with alcohol?” he asked.
She gave a weak laugh. Had it been, she was sure her resolve wouldn’t waver in the slightest. “How embarrassing to have to admit this, but I’m feeling a little overexerted.”
She glanced down as though shocked she’d admitted such a thing. A lady should never reveal such weakness when partnered with a man like the marquess. Would he realize why she’d mentioned fatigue?
Conveniently, a breeze filtered through the doors that opened to the garden, bringing with it the intoxicating scent of peonies and lilacs. The marquess spun her away from the dark balcony and toward the punch table.
“Let’s get you freshened up, shall we?”
“I—I . . .” She scrambled for an excuse; something to draw him toward the darkness just beyond the French doors that were so close. “I have already partaken of that bland concoction they call refreshment. Perhaps the evening air will do me good.”
“And bring our acquaintance to such an abrupt conclusion?”
“It’s only a little air,” she shot back, more than miffed that her plan was slowly unraveling. Did he not understand her intent or was he simply avoiding putting her in a compromising position?
And then he laughed as though he understood the precise reason for her annoyance. “Introduce me to this cousin of yours. She seems to be having a heated conversation with Barrington that I fully intend to interrupt.”
He wanted to meet her cousin? Did he have designs on her? Yes, Genny was pretty, but she always dressed like a spinster who had no hope of ever finding a husband. Genny was like a chameleon, always blending into the background. And though Charlotte had offered to lend her dresses—they could easily hem them for the evening—her cousin had refused, preferring her plain clothes so she could remain unnoticed.
“Ah,” the marquess said, looking over Charlotte’s shoulder, “it seems she’s found a dance partner in Barrington.”
She whipped her head around, searching for Genny. Dancing? Her cousin did not dance. Not once since the season started had she done so; not even when Charlotte’s dance instructor came to the house did Genny indicate she could or even liked to dance.
As the marquess led her off the dance floor, Lord Barrington boldly took Genny’s hand and pushed her into a fast—paced mazurka. Charlotte stood on the edge, her mouth slightly ajar. She barely noticed that the marquess’s arm threaded through hers to guide her in another direction.
“Hmm,” Lord Castleigh said. “What is your cousin’s name?”
“Genevieve Camden.” She pushed a curl back from her temple in frustration. She wasn’t sure how she felt to see that all eyes were on Genny now and not on her while she was on the arm of the Marquess of Castleigh. How could she get the gossipmongers whispering about her if they paid her no mind? The evening was turning into a disaster.
“I never forget a face, so I’m not sure how it is I’m not recalling this magnificent woman who’s caught Leo’s eye.”
“I doubt they know each other.”
And what made Genny so magnificent? Lord Castleigh was supposed to be enamored with her, not her cousin. Charlotte should not be envious because her cousin seemed to attract the attention of two roués, both of whom were handsome and titled . . . and perfect for carrying out Charlotte’s plan. Actually, she should be jealous. If her cousin attracted rakes so easily, there would be no one left on Charlotte’s list—which admittedly had been shortened considerably, with names crossed off for one reason or another, leaving only four potentials.
She looked at her dance partner and unwilling abductor—why couldn’t he have whisked her off into complete privacy? Staring at his knowing expression, and his kind eyes, she realized there were no longer four potentials on her list. Just one.
Her goal felt so close yet so far. But failure was not an option.
With a sweet smile and her attention solely focused on the marquess, she asked, “I think I will partake in a refreshment, my lord.”
“Excellent.” He turned them toward the banquet table with its assortment of punches and tiered trays of fruit, cheese, bite—sized pastries, and other desserts.
“The lemonade or the red punch?” he offered.
“It’s probably best we have the lemonade. The punch tastes like sweetened water.”
“How about . . .” The marquess reached toward the back where flutes of champagne were lined up in two neat rows. Procuring the fizzing liquid, he handed her one.
“I shouldn’t—” she started to say but stopped. Why shouldn’t she? If she was going to go down the path she’d chosen, she might as well enjoy it to the fullest. “Thank you. I’ve never had champagne before.”
“All the more reason to try it.” He tilted his head with a sly grin playing on his lips and tapped their glasses lightly together.
“How correct you are.” She mirrored his move then put the glass to her lips. Papa could not abide drink of any sort. How wicked she felt. And she’d never have dreamed of doing this a few short minutes ago. Perhaps the marquess was a bad influence.
The aroma of the champagne was pleasant, and she didn’t wait for him to drink before taking her first sip. The flavor that exploded on her tongue was marvelous. Sweet yet dry and bursting with bubbles that tickled all the way down her throat.
The marquess stared at her as though no one else in the room existed. This was exactly what she wanted—his complete and undivided attention.
Oddly enough, no one noticed them, not even Lady Hargrove, so she took advantage of the temporary privacy by tipping her glass against her lips and draining the contents of the glass.
A hiccough came immediately afterward, surprising a giggle out of her—or maybe it was the bubbles that made her giddy. No, she thought, looking at the marquess’s intent gaze; it was the man before her that made her feel so oddly out of sorts.
“Another, my lady?” The marquess didn’t seem surprised by her gluttonous display.
She held the glass between two hands and shook her head. “Oh, definitely not.” She wasn’t sure if the drink had made her light—headed or swallowing it all in one breath had done that.
She felt rather fantastic.
“I take it you are no longer parched?” he teased.
“Not for champagne.” She pressed her fingers to her mouth. It might be normal for her to say things others might not, but innuendo was something she was careful with.
The marquess stepped closer and plucked the glass from her hands to give them to a passing footman. “That I can promise another time.”
She had to look away from the intensity of his gaze. It would be so easy to fall into those depths and commit to some very dangerous and sultry things. What she needed was a change in topic. “Why haven’t I seen you at any engagements before now, my lord?”
“Had I known this year wouldn’t be all bland affairs and dull company, I’d have come out sooner.”
“Will you be at the Carletons tomorrow evening?”
He seemed to think on that for a moment. “It will be a good event to attend if you are among the company.”
“I will be there. My cousin knows the Carletons well, and they extended an invitation to my whole family.” Her father did not like the Carletons, but he could not outright refuse an invite from people as socially connected as they were. “Though only Genny and I will be attending.”
“I look forward to another night in your company.” The marquess paused to look at something over her shoulder, and his smile became devilish. “Your cousin will be joining us momentarily.”
Charlotte turned, shoulders back, and watched her cousin approach with the earl following closely behind her. Her cousin’s face was slightly pinched, her color high, and she looked far from happy to have engaged in a dance with Lord Barrington.
Charlotte needed to figure out how to diffuse this situation so she wouldn’t have to say good—bye to the marquess quite yet. Without a doubt, her cousin would object to Charlotte’s escort.
“We are needed elsewhere.” Genny slid her arm through Charlotte’s. Would her cousin drag her away if she refused to go with her?
Charlotte stood firm and made it clear that she would not move. “Cousin, you are being discourteous.” Genny seemed stunned that Charlotte had openly reprimanded her. “Let me introduce you to the Marquess of Castleigh.”
If such a thing were possible, her cousin appeared to become even more irate. Although Charlotte hardly cared that introducing a lord of Castleigh’s rank wasn’t something a debutante, especially one of lower standing, should ever do.
The marquess bowed to her cousin and took Genny’s hand. “It’s a pleasure to make the acquaintance of the two most beautiful women at the ball. And to have you both to myself.”
“I know precisely who the Marquis of Castleigh is.” Genny said this to Charlotte, as though the marquess wasn’t standing before them. “You’ll do well to know, cousin, that his type is better suited to those found in a den of iniquity as opposed to a respectable ball.” She tugged at Charlotte’s arm, quite insistent that she should come with her. “Lady Carleton wanted to discuss the seating arrangements for her upcoming dinner party.”
“Firmly rebuffed, I daresay,” the marquess said, laughter and amusement thick in his voice despite the rudeness he’d just been subjected to.
What in the world had come over her cousin?
“Why should I have any say on her seating plans? You’re being incredibly rude, cousin. Apologize for your brash words at once.”
The way Genny acted was embarrassing. And the fact that her cousin treated Charlotte as if she were a girl still attached to apron strings stung a great deal more than she wanted to admit. The worst part was that Genny was treating her like a child in front of the marquess.
“I am positive that Lord Castleigh and Lord Barrington are not in the least offended. After all, I only speak the truth. Don’t I, gentlemen?” Genny looked to both lords for support.
“How could I ever forget that you had such a sharp bite, Miss Camden?” the earl finally said.
So they did know each other. Charlotte stood taller, suddenly curious. How did she not know that her cousin was so well connected? Aside from the Carletons being close friends of Genny’s, it seemed she also knew the Earl of Barrington. Whatever the reason for Genny’s sudden bad mood, it did not excuse poor behavior.
“Perhaps if more names were to fill your dance card, you’d understand what fine gentlemen these are—but that’s right, you don’t have a dance card, do you?” Charlotte jerked her gaze away from Genny, her cheeks heated.
That had come out far harsher than she had intended, but she was growing irrationally annoyed that her plan was failing at every turn. Maybe she’d chosen the wrong man to aid her in her ruin? Maybe she would have to go back to the list and pick another name. But she didn’t really wish to pick anyone else. Not now that she’d met the marquess.
“Take another turn around the room with me, Miss Camden,” Lord Barrington suggested to her cousin.
His tone brooked no refusal.
“The attendees might think you intend something of a permanent nature where I’m concerned, Barrington.” Genny raised an inquisitive brow.
“No dancing, I promise. Just a few words shared between friends of old.”
Charlotte liked this plan a great deal, so she slid away from Genny to draw closer to the marquess. Lord Barrington didn’t seem likely to take no for an answer, and if he were to steal her cousin away, Charlotte would . . . she would what? Convince the marquess to take her to the balcony where they could ensconce themselves in a hidden alcove? Maybe she should just ask the marquess for his help? No, she couldn’t do that, not when he might refuse.
“And leave Charlotte in the clutches of your friend?” Genny said.
Charlotte opened her mouth to defend herself and the marquess, but Lord Barrington addressed his friend before she could speak.
“Keep company with Lady Charlotte while I take Miss Camden around the room. We’ll be but a moment.”
The earl didn’t wait for an answer before stealing Genny away.
“I had no idea my cousin and Lord Barrington were so well acquainted.” She watched the earl and her cousin, slightly baffled by the connection. Where would Genny have met such a distinguished member of the ton?
“If ever there was a woman to fear, she’d be that woman.” The marquess chuckled as he straightened the cuff of his jacket. “I suppose we’ll wait right here.”
She glanced at him, surprised by his willingness to do exactly as Genny demanded. “Do you generally do what you are told to do?”
“No, but I do not wish to cross swords with your cousin. I fear she’d dance circles around me and have me disarmed before I could raise any sort of defense.”
And wasn’t that the truth.
A night that had suddenly been in her favor was quickly turning to disappointment. Here she stood with the Marquess of Castleigh, society’s biggest rogue, and he trembled in fear at the thought of sparring with Genny.
Charlotte flicked her fan open and thought out her next move. If the marquess attended dinner at the Carletons tomorrow evening, she’d find a way to get him alone, with her cousin far removed from the picture.
Tristan sat next to Hayden and across from Leo and Jez in the carriage. They’d left the duchess’s ball after Jez had thought it necessary to yell obscenities at Mr. Torrance and disturb everyone in the games room. The imprudent man had insulted her, called her insensitive, and then he went on to question how she could enjoy a night out when her husband wasn’t yet cold in his grave. She’d given him many reasons that had ladies running out of the room with their hands over their ears, and gentlemen tsking at her and removing those women too stunned to leave of their own accord. He wished he’d been in the games room to defend Jez.
It didn’t matter to Tristan that their group had been forced to leave the ball after only being there for a mere hour. The lady they intended to finagle away from Mr. Warren had left fifteen minutes prior to them, and the rest of the company at the ball was overly dull. Tristan rested his head on the back of the seat and stretched his legs out, his right shin pressed against Jez’s skirts.
The Ponsley chit had trouble written all over her. He’d have to handle her with kid gloves so he didn’t well and truly ruin her. He didn’t think it was his imagination that she was determined to have him ruin her good name. There was a moment as they had danced when he’d sensed her desire to sequester him in the darkness of the gardens.
He was too practiced with the fairer sex to fall for such a ruse, and instead he had maneuvered her in another, much safer direction. While he was considered a man of loose morals, he did not simply indulge at the first presented opportunity, especially where women were concerned. Women should be seduced over time so that they were savored to the fullest.
It was also odd that a debutante would specifically seek him out, and he had to know why Lady Charlotte had done so. Was she already engaged to Mr. Warren and perhaps enlightened to the man’s true character? Not possible, since a debutante wouldn’t be privy to the same information he was.
Jez had given Tristan the impression that their nuptials hadn’t been announced and wouldn’t be for some time. Perhaps the young lady just liked to live dangerously. His own name was printed often enough in the scandal sheets for doing precisely that . . . Still, he was determined to know what deviousness Lady Charlotte had planned and why.
Turning his head to the side, he noted that Hayden’s expression was dour, concerned even. Leo’s gaze seemed contemplative as he stared out at the passing scenery, which Tristan thought had more to do with one devil—tongued chaperone than Jez’s current predicament.
“The night is still young, and midnight not yet rung.” Jez leaned her head back on the leather seat, mimicking his position. Despite her request to keep going tonight, her eyes were at half—mast from exhaustion. “Whatever will we do to occupy ourselves?”
“Anything you like,” Tristan said, not sure why he had agreed to any such commitment when Jez clearly needed to sleep.
Maybe she didn’t want to be alone tonight? Or maybe she needed the comfort and support of her friends a while longer. Though she did not grieve for her dead husband—the man had been a vile prick—she obviously lamented the loss of the richly afforded life she’d been accustomed to.
Leo’s focus returned to them. “I have a bottle of rum in my study that hasn’t been cracked open yet.”
“You’ll be attending the Carletons tomorrow and you think it wise to drink a bottle of rum so late in the evening? You’ll be three sheets to the wind when you wake up in the morning.” Hayden’s tone was stern, though his anger seemed directed at Jez and not Leo or Tristan.
“You’re turning into your father,” Tristan pointed out as the carriage rolled to a stop in front of Leo’s town house—where they usually congregated when they weren’t causing mischief about Town.
“You’re simply angry that I lost my temper with that cad, Mr. Torrance,” Jez said defensively.
“Angry? Simply angry? You’ve bloody well lost your mind to do what you did tonight, Jez.” Hayden remained calm as he lectured Jez, but his gloved hand squeezed the black jade eagle head atop his cane. “You’re your own worst enemy; you cannot be so brash and unpredictable without your husband’s name to protect you.”
“Come now,” Tristan interjected. “She’ll be excused for any wrongdoing or minor blowouts since her husband has just died. Everyone will think that she is grieving.”
Hayden glared back at Tristan as he shoved his hat on his head. “I wish that were the truth. I’ll bid you all a good night. Unlike you lot, I have obligations in the morning.” Pointing the top end of his cane in Jez’s direction, he added, “Don’t forget our appointment in the morning. Unless you don’t care that your husband’s fortune may soon be forever out of reach.”
Jez rolled her eyes, pushed the carriage door open, and grabbed Hayden’s sleeve to drag him down the steps behind her.
“Stop being so dramatic and join us for one toast. We must celebrate my newfound freedom.” Jez pouted out her bottom lip. “Don’t be mad, darling, I’ve had a dreadful week.”
Hayden removed his hat again and scratched the back of his blond—topped head. “One drink, Jez. Then I have to be off.”
Jez gave them all a winning smile and she seemed much more her radiant self for a moment.
Hayden stayed for three shots and left, and then he, Jez, and Leo sang bawdy songs for God knew how long—until the rum ran out, he thought.
The better plan would have been to call it a night as Hayden had originally suggested. Tristan wasn’t sure how he made it home, but he woke in a bath of sunlight, his half—clothed body tangled in the sheets, and his head feeling as if it were squeezed in a vise.