Mr. and Mrs. Bartholomew Cade
request the pleasure of your company
at a ball in celebration of their daughter Margaret
and her engagement to Sir Roland Farnsworth.
Cade House, Grosvenor Square
On the twenty-sixth evening of April, 1810
“Isn’t it romantic?” Georgie asked. “He and Margaret make such a fine couple.”
“I suppose,” Eliza said, trying to be diplomatic.
She angled herself for a better look. By peeking through a gap in the double doors, she just could manage a glimpse of the dancers.
Sir Roland Farnsworth wasn’t exactly Eliza’s picture of romance. He wasn’t even her picture of a desirable brother-in-law. He was more staid and cautious than men his age should be. He didn’t whisper sweet words to Margaret as he turned her about the room. In Eliza’s observation, he didn’t engage Margaret—or any female—in much conversation at all.
But all this, she could forgive—if he weren’t so dreadfully slow.
“He certainly took his time proposing,” she said. “Snails mate faster than Farnsworths.”
Georgie gave her a chastening look. “Eliza.”
“Well, it’s true. I’ve watched.”
“You’ve spied on Sir Roland?”
“No, I’ve spied on snails.”
Her sister just shook her head in that way that said, Honestly, Eliza.
She pressed her brow to the slender gap between the doors again, peering hard at the colorful whirl of gentlemen and ladies. On nights like tonight, it seemed this was the closest she would ever come to dancing among them. She was eighteen years old and still sneaking glimpses through keyholes—all because of one impulsive mistake, made years ago. So wretchedly unfair.
“Look happy,” Georgie urged. “That’s one of us engaged, which means one less in your way. Soon you’ll have your turn.”
Oh, certainly. When she was thirty, perhaps. An old maid before she’d ever begun. Lord only knew how long it would take dreamy Philippa to find her feet.
“Peter Everhart is in that ballroom.” She let her forehead thump against the door. “Peter Everhart. He’s made lieutenant now. It’s been ages since he’s seen me, and he’ll be going back to Portsmouth next week. This is the year my bosoms finally arrived, and now he’ll never notice.”
“Eliza. I would think you’d rather be noticed for your lively personality.”
“Yes. You would think that,” she replied. “I’m not you.”
She wished she could be like her sister, so naturally patient and dutiful. Such qualities would have been a boon, in her predicament.
But she just couldn’t be like Georgie—a taste for daring and excitement was too entrenched in her nature. In a family this crowded, a girl had to carve out her own niche. Even when they were children, Margaret had been responsible—therefore, Philippa kept her head in the clouds. Next came Georgie, the sweet one. Eliza had to be the spice. That was the way of things with sisters, wasn’t it?
Her sister straightened her gloves. “I’m engaged to dance the next with Colonel Merrivale.”
“Oh, what bad luck. That crusty old thing?”
“Don’t talk of him so. He’s Papa’s good friend. Speaking of whom, you know our father would rage if he found you here. To bed with you, darling.”
With a kiss to Eliza’s cheek and a delicate swish of apricot silk, Georgie quit the room.
To bed with you, darling?
To the devil with that.
“I’m not a child,” Eliza argued with the closed double doors. “I’m a grown woman. With accomplishments and bosoms and everything.”
The beveled slabs of oak remained unmoved.
A surge of frustration built like lava, shooting up from some deep, maligned stratum of her being. She balled her fists, tensed her shoulders—but in the end, she couldn’t contain the emotion. Not entirely. It erupted as a sound.
Not just a sound, but a growl. Years of frustration made manifest. Her teeth shivered with the primal quality of it.
It wasn’t proper or ladylike, or even very grown up—but it felt good.
“Now this won’t do.”
A male voice. A darkly commanding male voice—and Eliza knew, with that brow-smacking certainty of the obvious, it must be connected to a darkly commanding male person.
She wasn’t alone.
She turned in place, dreading what she would find.
A stranger came to his feet, rising from the sofa that faced the hearth. He sported a rumpled waistcoat, mussed hair, and a profile so finely hewn, it would make Byron incinerate with envy.
Eliza cringed. This only grew worse. He wasn’t just a male person. He was a tall, good-looking, virile man.
Had he been asleep on the sofa all this time? How could she and Georgie have failed to notice? His very presence changed the temperature of the room.
“Sir, I beg your—”
He held up a hand, demanding silence.
He circled the room in heavy steps, sending sharp glances into every corner and tilting his head to look under tables and chairs. When he passed near Eliza, the masculine aromas of bergamot and leather wafted from his clothing. Common scents, but he made them exotic and dangerous. She inhaled deeply.
“I heard the strangest sound,” he said. “Some sort of ferocious, primal growl. My every hair stood on end. I thought certain someone had caged a tiger in the room. But now I see it’s so much worse.” He swung to face her. “A tigress.”
Eliza wanted to shrivel up into something that could be swept under the rug and forgotten for years. He hadn’t been asleep. He’d been listening to her entire conversation with Georgie. He’d heard her go on about bosoms, and then he’d witnessed her display of the most childish behavior possible.
And now that she braved a proper look at the man, his untamed dark hair, untidy cravat, and roguish smirk began to coalesce into a reputation she could recognize—and name. This could only be Sir Roland’s neighbor’s friend. The nasty one who came along uninvited, much to Margaret’s chagrin.
She was alone with the scandalous, dissolute, no-good—
“Mr. Wright,” she whispered.
He inclined his head most civilly. “In the flesh.”
The way he said that word, “flesh,” pushing it into the air with a cavalier flick of the tongue . . . it made Eliza’s skin prickle.
There was a dangerous beast in this room. And it wasn’t her.
Mr. J. Harrison Wright and his colorful misdeeds were the stuff of all the scandal sheets and the talk of every drawing room. He was heir to the elderly Duke of Shiffield, to the Duke of Shiffield’s quite public despair. There were the usual tales of drinking, gambling, wenching, and general dissolution. And then there were the true scandals—the staggering debts of honor gone unpaid, his expulsion from a famed gentleman’s club, and whispered tales Eliza could never quite manage to hear.
The one constant in all these stories?
Mr. Wright was a scoundrel. For any young lady, simply being in a room alone with him would mean teetering on the verge of ruination. For Eliza, it could mean the end of everything.
She darted across the room, heading for the connecting door that led into the corridor. From there, two sharp turns would have her dashing safely upstairs.
She fumbled for the door latch and wrenched it open.
A strong masculine hand covered hers, pushing the door closed.
“You don’t want to leave,” he said calmly. “Not yet.”
Eliza stared up at him, horrified. “I assure you, I do.”
He leaned one shoulder against the door, effectively bolting it in place. “A word to the wise, my dear. I wouldn’t set my hopes on Peter Everhart. Word around the clubs is, he hasn’t been the same man since his wounds at Trafalgar. Not much of a man at all, if you catch my meaning.”
“I shouldn’t catch a sack of gold, if you were the man who tossed it.”
She laid a hand to her belly, feeling sick. Peter Everhart, unmanned at Trafalgar? It couldn’t be true. So young, and so handsome.
She wanted to go up to her room and cry. “Please, sir. Let me pass.”
He nodded toward the double doors Georgie had used. “Why don’t you go the other way?”
“I can’t. Those doors open onto the ballroom, and I . . . I’m not permitted in the ballroom.” She burned with the humiliation of admitting it. “I’m not yet out.”
His eyebrows soared. “Ah. So you’re the mysteriously missing Miss Cade. From the way they keep you hidden from sight, I assumed you must have a harelip.”
“Nothing of the sort. I should be out. I’m certainly old enough. I have accompl—”
“Accomplishments and bosoms and everything.” His bold gaze drifted down her gown—a simple, modest column of eggshell satin. “Yes, I heard.”
Her cheeks blazed. “Kindly stop looking at me that way.”
“You wanted them noticed.”
“Not by you, sir.”
He gave her a slow, knowing smile. “Oh, you want to be noticed by everyone. I’ve known girls like you. Uncommonly pretty, and much too aware of it. That’s the true reason they’re locking you away, isn’t it? You would flutter and flirt, steal all the attention from your sisters.”
Pretty? Uncommonly so? Eliza wasn’t aware of any such thing. Everyone knew Philippa was the beauty of the family.
She ducked her head, hoping to conceal her blush.
“I assure you,” she managed. “That’s not it at all. The reason I’m not out is because . . .”
Because her father had predicted this very situation.
Lord knows, we can’t permit Eliza in company. Trouble-prone thing. Within a fortnight of her debut, she’ll have herself entangled in some mischief and take the rest of them down with her. Then we’d never marry any of them off.
And he’d been right, it would seem. She wasn’t even out, and look at the muddle she’d stepped in.
She cast a beseeching look at the door latch. “Mr. Wright, please. Won’t you let me leave?”
He didn’t answer. Not with words. He simply turned the key in the door lock, removed it, and stashed it away in his waistcoat pocket.
She was trapped.
“Why would you do that?” she asked, staring at the locked door.
“Because you don’t want to go.” His voice was darkly sweet and so forbidden, like rum. “You want to stay here with me a little longer.”
Why would he presume to think that? As she studied his face, she swallowed hard.
The devil must be very handsome, her nursemaid had once told her. Else no one would follow him into perdition.
Too true, too true. She saw it for herself now. The devil had a strong, squared jaw, a straight nose, and full lips with a dangerous, sensual quirk. Dark, wavy hair, as untamable as his spirit. Laughing eyes, green as a Cornish summer. Oh, yes. The devil was handsome indeed.
But it wasn’t just that.
The devil also looked weary. Fatigued by the world—and strangely vulnerable, this close. The devil put silver threads in his sin-black hair. Just a few, so a girl could only see them if she happened to draw imprudently near. He wore his cravat mussed, tempting feminine hands to put it straight.
Eliza’s nursemaid had it all wrong. The devil didn’t entice with perfection. He seduced with flaws.
His green, hungry gaze didn’t say, Follow me into perdition.
It said, Only you can save me from it.
Her skin went hot and tight, and she felt ready to burst free. Ready to become some entirely new creature. One with wings, so she might fly out the window and escape.
“Please. I must leave this room.”
“But you don’t want to,” he repeated.
“You’re wrong,” she insisted. “I don’t know what sort of impression you’ve formed of me, Mr. Wright. But you’re entirely wrong. Perhaps I am frustrated with my seclusion. Perhaps I am envious of my sisters, yearning for my own turn to dance and flirt and go driving in the park with gentlemen. Perhaps you’ve caught me in a defenseless moment—one where I’m ready for a bit of excitement all my own. You’re obviously a handsome man, and I can’t deny it’s a little thrilling when you look at me that way.”
“Only a little thrilling?” he teased. “I must be off my game. What if I look at you this way?”
He glanced aside for a moment, and then back at her—fixing her with an intent, smoldering, knee-melting look. A look that blazed with all the fire and heat of candelabras in velvet-swathed boudoirs, and torches in hidden passageways, and bonfires that were bold tongues of orange against deep, boundless desert nights.
The room began to spin.
His expression relaxed, and he gave a low chuckle. “That’s more like it.”
“I don’t want this,” she whispered, trying to convince herself, if she couldn’t move him. “I truly don’t want a flirtation. I don’t want to be seduced. I don’t want to be in this room with you one moment longer. And if you won’t release me, I . . . I’ll—”
Desperate, she reached forward and thrust her hand into his waistcoat pocket, fumbling for the key.
“Why, Miss Eliza Cade.”
He clapped his hand over hers, flattening her palm against his ribs. The maleness and solidity of him were shocking. Intriguing.
She pulled against his grip. “You despicable knave.”
He laughed at her distress. “You brazen jezebel.”
“Let me have that key. I want to leave this room, this instant.”
“No. You truly don’t.”
He kept saying that with such certainty.
God help her, maybe—just maybe—he was right.