Authors: Christie Kelley
“Leaving already?” Jennette stood in the moonlight looking everything like the angel she’d dressed to be tonight. She rubbed her arms as if to keep the cold wind away.
“Yes. I wouldn’t wish to cause you any further distress tonight.”
She lifted one black eyebrow. “Am I to assume the dance with Lucinda didn’t go as I’d planned?”
He approached her slowly. She had matured into an exquisite beauty. She had delicate cheekbones and flawless ivory skin, a mouth too full to be perfect but just right for other things. The white gown outlined her slender body and slight fullness of her breasts. He shook his head to clear it of his sordid thoughts.
“No,” he finally replied. “She determined my identity.”
Jennette sighed, a delicate sound that brought his attention to her full, pink lips again. “I will have to do better at this matchmaking plan.”
He moved a step closer to her, knowing they already stood far too close. “Unless you don’t wish to do better?”
She looked up at him with a start. “What do you mean?”
“Perhaps you don’t want to find me a bride.”
“But…Oh, no,” she said with a little smile and a shake of her head. “I will not marry you.”
“Maybe,” he whispered. “But don’t you want to know what you will be missing?”
Her blue eyes sparkled with mischief. “Not particularly.”
He stroked her cheek with his gloved hand until she trembled. “Haven’t you ever wanted a scoundrel in your bed?”
“Exactly like me.”
Kensington Publishing Corp.
To my biggest fan,
Thanks for all the loving support over the years.
This book would never have been completed without the help of all the workers at Panera and Atlanta Bread Company. Dealing with a home under complete reconstruction, I never would have finished this book without the hot, free refills of coffee spurring my creative juices. Thanks for giving me a warm place to write while my house had no heat.
Again, I must thank my critique partners, The Tarts. Kathy Love, Kate Poole, Kate Dolan, and Lisa, I can’t thank you enough for reading through this so quickly for me.
I also must thank my editor, Peter Senftleben. Thanks for having patience with this one and helping me make it so much better. You’re the best!
Lastly, to Mike, Stephen, and Tommy, I love you all so much. Thank you for understanding when I needed to get out of the house to write.
“So this is really goodbye, then?” Vanessa stared up at him with watery blue eyes.
Matthew tried his best to be the coldhearted scoundrel his reputation demanded, but it never worked with her. Drawing her into his arms, he said with regret, “You know I can’t afford your retainer any longer.”
“I always thought…”
She didn’t need to say another word. He knew exactly what she thought and maybe at one time it might have worked. As a second son, he could afford to be frivolous with his reputation, but not now. Two accidents and his life had changed in so many ways.
“It’s not fair,” she mumbled into his chest. “I know a mistress isn’t supposed to fall in love with her protector, but…”
“How could you not have known the debts he incurred?”
He stroked her long, blonde hair, savoring the silky texture. He would miss her but the time had come to end this with her. She had become far too serious about loving him and becoming more than just a mistress.
“I thought that was David’s responsibility. I had no idea that the two of them were so irresponsible with the estates and the money.” Pausing for a moment, he finally added, “And I was no better than either of them.”
“I could help you,” she whispered.
“I’m afraid you know that would never work.” Vanessa’s love had been constant for a year. While he didn’t return the feelings in the same manner, he never wanted to hurt her with the truth.
“I would be a good wife.”
Matthew blew out a long breath wanting to end this quickly, but he felt unable to hurt her. She had been there for him when he needed her.
“Darling, you will make some man a wonderful wife. And as soon as I get myself out of this mess my father and brother left me in, I’ll help you any way I can.”
“But a wife, Matthew? Must you marry to save yourself?” She drew her fingers along the lapel of his jacket.
“You know as well as I, there is no other way out of this disaster.” But he still wondered just what type of woman would want him
She pulled away and looked up at him. Her diminutive stature forced her neck back. “Do you honestly think you will be able to find a woman of your social rank?”
“Yes. I am the earl now. There are always fathers who want their daughters to be a countess.”
“Until her father discovers your name. Then he’ll make certain his little darling doesn’t marry a killer.”
His body tensed. “I
find a wife, Vanessa.”
“It’s all her fault, Matthew. You should make her pay for this. Go to her and let her family pay you for what you did for her.”
“I don’t believe they know what happened that day.” At least that had been the plan. No one would ever know except them.
“Well, they should.” She turned away and dropped to the sofa, crossing her arms over her chest. “She has spent the last five years doing as she pleased while you were the one in distress. You were the one scorned. Her reputation never suffered from her actions that day.”
“This has nothing to do with her, Vanessa. Everything that happened is my father’s fault. He should have known better than to gamble away his fortune. And David was no better. Besides, I need more than money. I need my reputation improved with the help of a woman of quality.”
He only hoped that some man out there would be so desirous of a title for his daughter that he would willingly ignore the baggage that came with it. After five long years, he craved the friendship of his peers. Respectable peers. Not the scoundrels who befriended him once he’d destroyed his reputation.
“I should be leaving.” He knelt down and clasped her hands in his. “You will be all right, Vanessa. You’re beautiful and will have another protector in days.”
Vanessa looked away from him. “I don’t want another protector, Matthew.”
“It will never work out between us.”
She stared wistfully down at their joined hands. “After you have married, if I’m available…” She paused, blinked hard and then continued, “Will you have me again?”
Matthew dropped his head to her lap. He’d always assumed someday in the far off future, he would fall in love and the woman wouldn’t care about his reputation. But now? There was every likelihood the woman he married would only do so in order to be the next Countess of Blackburn. And he doubted he’d ever fall in love with a woman whose only concern was herself. At the same time, he knew his time with Vanessa was done.
“If I don’t love her, then I might be tempted to take a mistress again,” he said only to appease her.
He looked up to see a catlike grin cross her face as she said, “Then I will pray you don’t fall in love.”
He smiled back at her. He knew there was little chance of falling for a woman who only wanted his title.
“Perhaps I might think of a few women you should court,” she said, absently twirling a lock of golden hair around her finger. “After all, I do know quite a few gentlemen with sisters.”
She rolled her blue eyes and smiled coyly. “I didn’t mean I know them that way, Matthew. But I always have to keep my options open. There’s no telling when a girl might find herself on the street.”
“Like now, perhaps?”
“I’m hardly on the street. With the money you’ve generously given me over the past two years, I will be able to stay here for months.”
He rose and straightened his gray jacket. “Wish me well?”
Vanessa pouted but stood and wrapped her arms around him. Leaning in close, she kissed him fully on the mouth. For once, her overt passion had no impact on him. He was done with her. Slowly, she drew away.
“I won’t say good-bye, Matthew. You will return to me, begging me to take you back.”
“Good-bye, Vanessa,” he whispered.
“Come along,” Somerton said, half dragging Matthew into the candlelit ballroom with him.
“I wasn’t invited,” Matthew insisted.
“Neither was I. But it’s never stopped me.” Somerton paused and watched the crowd on the dance floor. He glanced over at Matthew and shook his head. “You have a leaf in your hair.”
“Well, if you hadn’t insisted we jump the fence, I wouldn’t have been snagged on that branch.” Matthew quickly drew his hands through his hair. The last time he’d sneaked into a ball he’d been seventeen. Now, thirteen years later, he was still acting like an immature adolescent.
“I really don’t think we should be here,” he tried again.
Somerton shot him a quelling look. “Men with reputations like ours don’t get invited. If you wish to go through with this mad idea of marriage, you must be in the company of women. Preferably women of your rank.”
Matthew had spent the past week and a half attempting to secure invitations to parties, balls, even musicales. Anything that would bring him back into the
. Unfortunately, nothing had worked well so far. With the Season not in full swing for months, he had to make do with the few parties held in London in the fall.
His first musicale ended in disaster as no one would even sit near him. He hadn’t needed to hear the women to know they were discussing his attendance behind their brightly colored fans.
“I’m off to the gaming room. Enjoy yourself, if that is possible,” Somerton said, then walked away.
Enjoy himself? Hardly. Matthew scanned the room for anyone he might know who could make introductions if needed. The large dance floor appeared washed in colored silk as couples glided past with the variety of dance steps. Crystal chandeliers reflected the flickering candlelight diffusing a warm glow throughout the room.
He’d missed the sights and sounds of Society.
As he continued to look around, he noticed people had detected his appearance. A few fingers pointed his way, heads nodded in his direction, and fans rose to cover gossiping lips.
Matthew turned to see Nicholas Tenbury, the Marquess of Ancroft and the future Duke of Belford, standing next to him. Matthew needed to impart a casual tone when all he felt was tension stringing his muscles taut.
“I heard this was a ball for the scoundrels of the
Ancroft laughed. “Well, when I throw a ball, no one knows for certain who will attend.”
“I take it you won’t have your footmen toss me out on the streets?”
“Why should I care if you are here? Your reputation doesn’t bother me a bit. If people can’t understand an accident when one happens then I pity them.”
Matthew blinked. This was quite possibly the first time in five years that someone had defended him. What amazed him was the fact that it came from Ancroft. They were barely acquainted with each other. As a second son, Matthew had befriended the less lofty of the
“Besides, I never believed that nonsense about you being in love with her. She isn’t your type of woman.”
“Thank you,” he said softly even as heat crossed his cheeks. He wondered why Ancroft decided she wasn’t Matthew’s type. Five years ago, she’d been everything a man could want in a woman. He scanned the room…Was she here tonight?
He glanced over at Nicholas, who shook his head as if he could read his mind.
“She is not in attendance. They are still at the estate. Although, I believe they will return by week’s end for her birthday ball.”
Matthew gave him a sharp nod and released a breath. He’d forgotten her birthday was in October. But he needn’t worry about that, for a few days at least. Perhaps by the time she returned, he would have a woman to court. Then he would have no need to see her again.
“Come along and I’ll introduce you to a few people.” Nicholas looked around the room. “With whom did you slink in—Somerton?”
“Crafty scoundrel. He’s always stealing into someone’s party for a chance to play the gaming tables. Damn man always wins, too.”
For the first time in weeks, Matthew laughed.
As he walked the boundary of the dance floor, the whispers followed him. Nicholas stopped beside an older woman dressed in gold satin with a matching turban wrapped snuggly around her head.
“Mrs. Layton, may I introduce Lord Blackburn.”
Without a word, her eyes widened, and then she pursed her lips and walked away. The cut was direct, why was he surprised?
“Well, this may be harder than I assumed,” Nicholas commented. “She’s a haughty bitch and her daughter no better. For a woman whose husband left her a fortune from illegal activities, I would have thought she’d be more open to an introduction.”
If that was the reaction from her, he could only imagine the response from the others. After several more attempts at introductions, Mr. Seymour allowed him to dance with his daughter. He walked to the dance floor with the quaking Miss Sarah Seymour and thought the pale woman might just faint dead away.
“Are you enjoying the ball?” he asked.
She could only nod with her big doe eyes blinking madly. She continually glanced to the side of the dance floor where two young ladies stood watching their every move. They looked as if they might beat him with their fans should he make one improper move.
As they danced, he attempted a few more times to get the mute Miss Sarah to speak. Nothing worked. The poor girl with her watery brown eyes and pale skin appeared scared to death of him. When the dance ended, he quickly returned her to her father without a word.
Tired of the music and overly loud whispers, he headed to the garden. A beautiful full moon lit his way as he avoided the secluded nooks taken by couples looking for a bit of privacy. The soft whispers and moans of the couples only increased his frustration.
It wasn’t supposed to be this difficult. He had thought with inheriting the title the
might have forgotten his reputation. Damn them all. Here he’d done the honorable thing for a friend and no one even knew. Not that he was looking for accolades on being a good friend and chivalrous man.
But could no one see the truth?
Other than the accident, he had been an upstanding citizen. He never seduced an innocent young lady and rarely even chased the widows. He much preferred the companionship of a steady mistress.
He sat on an iron bench and stared out into the dying garden. Soon all the leaves would be gone, the flowers dead, and he’d still be in this damned situation. After a long talk with his solicitor this afternoon, he knew he had enough money to last until the end of the year. Ten weeks at most. Then the property he legally could let go of would have to be sold. The tenants possibly put out on the street in the middle of winter.
He couldn’t let that happen to them.
There had to be another way out of this mess. But he had no time. Even if he took a job (as if anyone would hire an earl), the money earned would never cover his expenses.
It was all her fault.
Vanessa’s words haunted him. There was one woman who could fix his problems. And cause him untold others.
It was all her fault.
She should have accepted responsibility. Except, for all he knew, his words had caused her actions that day. He should have kept his mouth firmly shut.
Besides, it wasn’t
her fault. He’d never given her the chance to take the blame. She had done only what he told her to do, play the frivolous lady with no cares, except of course the current fashion of the day.
He closed his eyes and pictured her raven-black hair, sparkling blue eyes that always held a hint of humor, and legs so long he’d wanted to kiss every inch of them. He wondered how much she might have changed.
Shaking his head, he attempted to rid his mind of these errant thoughts. He couldn’t see her again. He’d promised to stay out of her life, leave her and her family alone as penance for his part in what happened that day.
And yet, now he had no choice but to reenter Society. Interact with her friends and, quite possibly, her. He’d paid his dues so now she would have to accept his presence at balls and whatever else he decided to attend. If he actually were invited to a ball, which at this point seemed very unlikely.