CHAPTER 1London, 1815
Lady Eleanor Sutherland clutched her fan and studied the young lord before her, a polite smile frozen on her face, her heart sinking into her slippers.
Lord Tidmarsh had placed a wager on her in the betting book at White’s.
Ellie didn’t want to believe it of him, but she’d seen this performance — the shifty eyes and twitchy fingers, the sheen of nervous sweat on his upper lip, the hint of a smirk on his lower one — too many times to deny the truth. Yes, his lordship was definitely in the throes of a violent, and feigned, passion.
She knew a sham suitor when she saw one. Lord Tidmarsh was her third this season.
Several weeks ago she’d rejected her fifth marriage offer — one offer too many, she now realized, for the gentlemen of the ton to overlook. Since then it had become quite the fashionable game for them to attempt to pry some sign of affection from her. They teased for dances, begged for smiles. A few of the bolder ones had even written sonnets to her sparkling dark eyes.
My heart flies, my soul cries, and so forth.
It was enough to make one shudder for the fate of the rhyming couplet. Alas, whoever had said a single sonnet could drive love entirely away had the right of it. It wasn’t a romantic sentiment, perhaps, but true for all that.
The same could be said of wagers.
Ellie had her own page in the betting book at White’s. A smile from her would earn her swain a sovereign, a walk on the terrace was worth five guineas, and as for the higher denominations … well, perhaps the less said about that the better, though she did wonder what value they’d placed on her virtue.
As for her love …
It must be worthless indeed, for not one of the gentlemen seemed at all interested in securing it.
“Won’t you favor me with a smile, my lady?” Lord Tidmarsh dragged a gloved hand across his damp forehead. “You know I exist only for your smiles.”
Poor Lord Tidmarsh might be able to produce a bit of perspiration, but she couldn’t see any other signs of impending manhood. Not a single whisker shaded his smooth upper lip. She’d have settled for the merest hint of fuzz, even — anything to indicate a hair had tried to hatch there.
“Will you consent to one more dance this evening? Please, Lady Eleanor.”
She sighed. It had come to this, then. She’d be compelled to rebuff a mere lad this time. The ton already called her Lady Frost behind her back, and once she sent young Lord Tidmarsh on his way, she was sure to be saddled with a far worse nickname.
Icy Ellie, perhaps, or the Artic Queen?
But the sooner she put an end to this scene, the better. “I beg you’ll excuse me, my lord. I’ve already danced twice with you this evening. If we dance together again, the ton will gossip, and —”
“Would that be so terrible?” He arranged his lips into a perfect schoolboy pout.
She pasted a smile onto her face. “Now, Lord Tidmarsh, you know very well a third dance will encourage Lady Foster’s guests to assume we have an understanding. We wouldn’t want that, would we?”
“But we could have an understanding, even now. It’s the very thing I want.” He pressed her fingers against his bony chest, his face twisted with a passable imitation of passionate despair.
Eleanor tried to withdraw her hand, but he hung on with such determination her arm began to slip out of her glove. Well, how absurd. She would have her hand back, even if it meant he ended with her limp glove clutched to his chest.
“I’ll run mad if you refuse me, Lady Eleanor. Indeed I will!”
Eleanor’s cheeks heated with embarrassment. Must all of her pretend suitors fall into wild hysterics? Next he’d fall to his knees, beat his chest, and tear his hair out from the roots.
Another tragic hero, right here in the middle of the Foster’s ballroom.
She supposed it was more amusing if he fell into fits. Whichever lord had sent him to torment her would want to see the thing done with a dramatic flourish. No doubt Lord Ponsonby, Mr. Fitzwilliam, or another of her rejected suitors was watching the entire performance from a shadowy corner of the ballroom.
Eleanor straightened her spine. Well, there was no help for it. Lady Frost would have to make an appearance. A pang of guilt pierced her chest for Lord Tidmarsh’s tender young heart, but if he had any true affection for her, it was a flimsy thing, at best.
She fixed him with a steady gaze, and after a moment his blue eyes darted guiltily away. Ah. Just as she’d thought. A dare, or a wager. “I must insist you release me.”
He clutched at her fingers. “But Lady Eleanor, I swear —”
“At once, my lord.”
He studied her for a moment, no doubt hunting for some tenderness in her eyes, some hint of breathlessness, some softening of her lips.
Eleanor gazed back at him, her face expressionless.
He dropped her hand and stepped back. “Very well. I wish you a pleasant evening, madam.”
It was far more likely he wished her to the devil, just like the rest of them, but it wouldn’t do to say so. “How kind you are, my lord.”
He folded his lanky frame into a stiff bow, turned on his heel, and disappeared into the crowd. Eleanor watched him go, her chin raised as she fought the urge to let her shoulders slump in defeat.
Just as she’d suspected. Flimsy.
* * *
Camden West stood off to the side of the ballroom, half-obscured behind a white marble pillar. Lady Foster had a fondness for pillars, it seemed — pillars, and wide gilt mirrors. Every turn brought him face to face with his own reflection: severe black evening dress, stark white cravat, tight mouth. Damn unsettling, but like the rest of the ton, Lady Foster must want to see an endless echo of herself in every shiny surface.
But the pillars suited Cam. He preferred to remain unobserved tonight, which was difficult to do when one was the tallest gentleman in the room. Of course, his height did offer certain advantages. If he were a few inches shorter, he’d have spent all evening craning his neck to see around the crowds of gentlemen swarming Lady Eleanor Sutherland, like bees buzzing around their queen. As it was, he had a perfect view of the little drama unfolding about twelves paces to his left. The adolescent lord who’d cornered her didn’t look to be an especially sharp specimen, but he was sharp enough to have found a way to separate Lady Eleanor from the rest of the swarm.
That young lordling — what the devil was his name again? Cam had been introduced to him. He had a vague memory of watery blue eyes, but he couldn’t remember the boy’s name. No matter. The lad’s time would be better spent attempting to grow some chest hair rather than buzzing around a bee of Lady Eleanor’s majesty.
Her sting was legendary.
Cam couldn’t hear a word they said, but he didn’t need to, for this was a pantomime worthy of the Parisian stage.
The besotted swain grasped the lady’s hand and pressed it dramatically to his breast.
The lady remained unmoved.
The swain pleaded, cajoled, looked tragic, and finally, in desperation, hurled his throbbing heart at the feet of his cruel mistress. The lady, her face composed, dark eyes unblinking, brought one dainty foot down and crushed that tender organ under her heel, then kicked it back in his general direction with a careless flick of her satin-covered toe.
Cam suppressed an urge to laugh. Or applaud. He’d gladly pay a crown to see that performance again.
What did that make, then? Three seasons, five offers, five refusals, and now this poor devil, who hadn’t even made it as far as Lady Eleanor’s brother. Impressive, how she’d dispensed with him before he had a chance to come to the point. Lord Carlisle was said to be fond of his sisters, and he must be. Fond enough to permit Lady Eleanor to reject suitor after suitor.
Reason enough to bypass the earl altogether.
How fortunate for Cam that Lady Eleanor thought herself too good for every gentleman in London, and how lucky none of these fine lords had the remotest inkling how to handle a woman like her.
Cam didn’t have that problem. Handled she would be, and soon.
Poor lord whatever-the-devil-his-name-was slunk off into the crowded ballroom. He looked like a puppy who’d taken an unexpected and vicious kick to the ribs. Lady Eleanor looked as if she found the whole thing tedious, as if she made it a habit to kick a puppy every day.
Lady Frost. Cam smiled. Oh, yes. She was every inch the proper aristocratic lady.
She’d do. She’d do quite nicely.
Lady Eleanor flapped her fan in front of her face, no doubt to cool the flush of irritation from her cheeks. Cam’s lips twisted in a cynical smile. It must exhaust the poor lady to be the object of such constant adoration. Did she encourage them, and then refuse them? He thought it likely. What were the chances five suitors could have been so mistaken about her affections?
He waited, watching her from behind his pillar. She wouldn’t take much time to fume. No more than a few minutes, and then she’d remember.
Her hand dropped to her side and she looked around, and a slight frown creased that smooth, white brow. She grasped a fold of her silk gown, rose to her tiptoes, and moved her gaze over the crowd, searching.
Ah. There. Cam knew it the moment she spotted her sister in the sea of whirling couples. He followed her gaze to the other side of the ballroom, though he knew what he’d find before he saw them.
Lady Charlotte Sutherland, the younger of the two Sutherland sisters, rumored to be a bit on the wild side. Indeed, from what Cam had heard, Lady Charlotte had driven the ton right out of countenance this season. If she placed another toe over the line of propriety, she’d suffer dire social consequences.
Charlotte Sutherland was dancing with Cam’s cousin, Julian West. Handsome, charming, irresistible Julian. Damn shame he was such a rake. With every turn of the dance Julian drew closer to the open French doors leading onto the terrace and the dark garden beyond, his quarry caught in his arms.
Such a scenario was a bit worrying for the young lady. Someone could get hurt. Or ruined.
Lady Eleanor must have thought so too, for she hurried past Cam in a cloud of wine-colored skirts and a faint scent of black currants, her gaze fixed on the opposite side of the ballroom.
Cam slid out from behind his pillar and started after her.
What a pity she wouldn’t reach her sister in time.
* * *
“You are presumptuousness itself, sir.”
Julian gazed down into a pair mischievous dark eyes and couldn’t resist the smile that curved his lips. Lady Charlotte might speak in a scolding tone, but her eyes gave her away, for nothing but invitation shone in those wicked depths.
Good Lord. Her eyes were sin itself. How had she managed to escape ruination for this long, with eyes like that?
Julian pressed his palm against her waist and maneuvered her a few steps closer to the terrace doors. “Presumptuous? I don’t know what you mean. You look flushed, Lady Charlotte. Too much dancing, perhaps? A breath of fresh air will restore you.”
A tiny smiled played about her lips. “Oh, indeed. How solicitous of you, Mr. West. I do beg your pardon, for I was sure you thought only of your own needs when you began to move me toward the doors.”
Julian’s smile widened. Clever. No doubt that was how she’d avoided seduction so far — that cleverness. Not one gentleman in ten would expect it of her, for they’d be too taken with her eyes and mouth to notice her tongue, except for the most carnal of purposes.
He didn’t flatter himself he was the one in ten who would notice, but then this wasn’t one of his usual seductions. Under normal circumstances he’d have his mouth over hers by now, but Lady Charlotte wasn’t a courtesan, and she wasn’t his mistress. She was an innocent, and Julian drew the line at debauching dewy-eyed maidens. He’d give her a chaste kiss or two, and keep her out of the ballroom long enough for her absence to be noticed, but this was hardly a scandalous seduction.
He eased her through the doors and out onto the terrace. “I promise you, my lady, I have no needs beyond assuring myself of your comfort.”
She slid her arm away from his, strolled to the edge of the terrace, and leaned back against the low stone wall separating it from the garden beyond. “No proper young lady could be comfortable near a dark garden with a man of your reputation, sir. I hope you don’t mean to imply I’m not a proper young lady?”
Julian’s lips curved into a grin. How delightful to find a wit to match that wicked red mouth of hers. He followed her across the terrace, stopping only when he was so close the deep violet silk of her skirts brushed against his black breeches.
He bent his head toward her so the other couples on the terrace couldn’t overhear them. “I meant to imply no such thing, and yet I do wonder whether a proper young lady should be as accomplished a flirt as you appear to be.”
She didn’t draw away from him, but instead gave him a teasing half-smile. “Perhaps not, and yet my skills at flirtation are wasted on you, for you need no encouragement whatever from me. I might flirt with you or not, and you’ll still attempt to lure me into the garden either way, won’t you?”
Julian stared at her. Jesus, but she was tempting — so much so he began to imagine they stood on the edge of the Garden of Eden. He’d expected a dimwitted debutante, not Eve herself. Cam should have warned him.
“I begin to think it’s you who lure me, Lady Charlotte.”
He’d expected to be the serpent in this scenario, but it seemed more than one ardent gentleman had tried to lure the delectable Lady Charlotte into a dark garden. He wasn’t the first serpent she’d encountered, or the most cunning. She knew what he was about. She was merely toying with him now, and delighting in doing so.
A gentle breeze wafted over them, lifting the loose locks of hair away from her neck. The cool draught blew under Julian’s coat, but it did nothing to cool the heat of his skin.
She gave a low, throaty laugh. “I, lure you? Yes, I suppose it would be more convenient for you to believe so. No need for an attack of conscience, in that case.”
“Ah, my lady.” Julian caught a lock of her dark hair between his fingers. “What makes you think I have a conscience?”
That surprised a genuine laugh out of her. “No conscience, Mr. West? My, such refreshing honesty. I confess I’ve never heard the like of it before, not from any gentleman, but especially not from one intent on a solitary stroll in a dark garden with an innocent young lady. I believe you do have a conscience, after all.”
Julian felt the first frisson of regret shoot down his spine, but he ignored it. She was lovely and intriguing, but it was too late to change his mind. Cam would be halfway across the ballroom by now.
“I have no fear of my conscience, Lady Charlotte, for I’ve done nothing I need reproach myself for.”
His tone, his casual smile, the self-deprecating lift of one shoulder — all perfect. He waited, his breath held.
Her thick, dark eyelashes brushed against her cheekbones as she let her eyes fall shut. When she opened them again, she looked straight at him. “No. You’ve no need to reproach yourself. Yet.”