Authors: Wendy LaCapra
Tags: #Vice, #Decadence, #Murder, #Brothels, #The British East India Company, #Historical Romance, #Georgian Romance, #Romance, #scandal, #The Furies, #Vauxhall Gardens, #Criminal Conversations, #Historical, #Scandalous, #Entangled
Not every lady plays by the rules…
Lady Lavinia Vaile knows what happens to a woman who puts her faith in society. For her, it was a disastrous marriage to a depraved man—one she threatened to shoot when she left him. Now Lavinia lives outside of society’s strict conventions, hosting private gambling parties. It’s only when her husband is shot dead that Lavinia finds herself in terrible danger...
A former judge in India’s high court, Maximilian Harrison will do anything he can to help Lavinia. In the darkest of times, he held on to thoughts of her and the love they once shared. Now he risks his own position in society—along with his ambitions—in order to clear her name. Yet as desire reignites between them, Lavinia remains caught up in secrets and shame. Her only salvation is to do the unthinkable...and trust in both Maximilian and love.
a Furies novel
This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is coincidental.
Copyright © 2014 by Wendy LaCapra. All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce, distribute, or transmit in any form or by any means. For information regarding subsidiary rights, please contact the Publisher.
Entangled Publishing, LLC
2614 South Timberline Road
Fort Collins, CO 80525
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Scandalous is an imprint of Entangled Publishing, LLC.
Edited by Erin Molta
Cover Design by Amber Shah
Cover Art by RomanceNovelCovers.com
Manufactured in the United States of America
First Edition March 2015
to Richard La Capra and Debbie Crouse
Late May 1784
Maximilian Harrison’s heart beat for a single purpose:
get to Lavinia.
“You will let me pass.” He trapped the lone man guarding the private gambling salon against Lady Sophia’s garden gate.
“But you do not have an invitation. And Lady Sophia does not allow uninvited—”
“You misunderstand.” Max placed a hand on the guard’s shoulder. “I don’t give a damn about Lady Sophia or her rules. I must speak with Lady Vaile.”
Time was tying a hangman’s noose. Already, dawn cast shadows into the mist.
He’d fought his way to the outskirts of London. He’d scaled the outer wall of Lady Sophia’s infamous mansion. He’d dashed through her courtyard like a hunted thief. He had no desire to hurt the guard but, by God, he would
be turned away.
In the space between their bodies, the guard’s grip on his musket tightened. Chilled air stung Max’s teeth. Firearms didn’t frighten Max. If they did, he would have died in that hell-scented cell in India.
A tremor ran through his fingers.
. Thirty seconds, perhaps less, and he could have the guard spitting dirt.
Destroying him is not necessary
Nor is breaking his bones.
“Lady Vaile is in danger. Unless I warn her, she, and your mistress, will suffer. Open the gate,” Max ordered. “
Faint lamplight illuminated the flush spreading up from the guard’s neck as his gaze darted toward the garden.
“Go, then.” He unlatched the gate. “But cause trouble and you will pay.”
Max stilled his curling fist. He stepped inside and, with a calculating gaze, surveyed the garden and the gamers within.
So this was the Furies’ lair.
He’d heard fantastical tales of the private salons hosted by the three ladies collectively known as the Furies—Lavinia, now Lady Vaile, and her friends Lady Sophia and Her Grace, Thea Marie, Duchess of Wynchester.
Marriage-minded misses clamored to obtain Almack’s vouchers, but every aspiring rake coveted an invitation from the Furies. And, clearly, invitations had been sent to every dandy, wastrel, and libertine in London.
Maids, not footmen as custom dictated, served guests in costumes accented by silken wings. Miniature cherubs hung from tree branches.
Angels—he snorted—a clever thumb in the face of the hostesses’ sobriquets: Lady Vice, Lady Scandal, and Duchess Decadence.
Around a nearby table, men chanted in unison. “Place the card, place the card!”
Max shouldered through coats of velvet and caught his first sight of Lavinia in years.
She did not look like a fury—all darkness and fear. Haloed in the pale pink glow of early dawn, she appeared almost as innocent as the girl he had courted all those years ago. She still commanded the colors of autumn. Her skin glowed like ripened wheat, and her smoky lashes rimmed eyes as brown as spiced ale. A man could become forever mired in those depths, enraptured and entombed.
He blinked to quell the sudden burn in his eyes, a natural result of coal soot and sleeplessness, undoubtedly.
As was the fashion among women of means, she wore her hair powdered. Her curls were piled and pinned high on her head, though stray tendrils caressed her cheeks, the only signs of the late hour. One long curl, quite a bit darker than the rest, snaked around her neck. Perhaps she’d rubbed off the fine talc when rolling the silky strand between her fingers, her habit when she was uncertain.
Or was it a sign of her guilt
? His blood tripped and slid down suddenly iced veins.
She held her cards in her right hand with fingers loose. She tilted her head in dreamy nonchalance while draping her left arm across a table full of hothouse rose petals and scattered ceramic cherubs. To the young man playing cards with her, she would have seemed uncaring, perhaps distracted, maybe even tired. Max knew better. She was about to strip her hapless opponent of a fortune.
Bad form, Lavinia. He is not the man you wish to hurt.
She turned her head as if he had spoken aloud. Her eyes widened and she dropped her cards, knocking a cherub at her elbow into the dirt. Her partner leaped to his feet and swayed like an unmoored dinghy.
“Easy.” Max’s tone stilled the moment while his mind sharpened with a heightened consciousness he had not experienced since India.
“Shall I take care of him?” The young man’s question slurred.
“Another day,” Max answered for Lavinia. He pinned the dandy with a you-will-not-move stare. “I have a private message for the lady.”
The cub’s uncertain glance shifted toward Lavinia.
“Thank you, Sir Bronward, for your brave defense. I am acquainted with the gentleman.” She raked Max with her eyes. “Or, rather, I was…”
Her dark expression brightened with unnatural cheer as she addressed her guests. “My play is finished. However, Duchess Decadence will begin her last round shortly. I dare the bravest among you to take on her luck. And do not forget, Lady Scandal and Lord Randolph will end the night with their final match. You still have time to place your wagers.” She grasped Lord Bronward’s hand as murmurs hummed. “Thank you for our play, Bronward. Doubtless, I have been saved from terrible losses.”
“My lady.” Bronward kissed Lavinia’s hand.
Max bridled a sea-surge of jealousy. Why should he be jealous? Lavinia was not his any longer and, if he wanted to retain his position of influence and power, she could never be his again.
Her dress swooshed gently as she rose, falling about her legs in shimmering vermillion folds.
“Go on, my dears,” she said with a wave. “Decadence and Scandal wait.”
“My money is on Scandal,” a young buck said, smirking. “She will bring Randolph to his knees.”
“I do not wager on theater,” Bronward replied. “Randolph will let Sophia win, of course. He wants her, quite literally, on her knees.”
Lavinia did not flinch at Bronward’s bawdy-house language. How disparate had their lives become since Max had last held her hand?
Bronward cast Max a hostile glance before staggering down a bowered path toward a faro table. The remaining men broke away like marble off a sculptor’s chisel, leaving Lavinia standing alone, stone-still in hard perfection.
“This is a private party, Mr. Harrison. I do not recall issuing you an invitation.”
His skin pricked at the sound of her low, gravelly voice. A voice that dripped disdain and disgust, without a hint of the light, sweet tones of the girl he had loved.
“You did not,” he acknowledged. “Although I cannot say I approve of the company you did invite.”
“You would not, would you?” She studied him. “You are quite the perfect gentleman now. Sterling service to the Company in India, and through the patronage of the Duke of Wynchester, a seat in our illustrious Parliament. Aren’t you afraid cavorting with the Furies will tarnish your reputation?”
“Tonight,” he said as gently as he could, “I have a duty to fulfill.”
“You have no duty to me. And if you once did, well, let us leave the past to the past.” Her words were a pointed poisoned arrow aimed at his heart.
“You are wrong.” The memory of her sweet innocence had compelled every rank breath he’d taken in prison. And, he owed her late father a debt money could not pay. He could not leave her to her fate. “If I could so easily surrender my duty, I might as well have perished in the Indian mercenary’s dungeon.”
She blanched—a swift paling he almost missed.
“Duty,” she spat the word with a sneer. “I cannot imagine what duty could have possibly brought you to me, after all this time.”
“I have news of your…” he hesitated, “…family, Lady Vaile.”
Her expression gave nothing away. “I should have guessed.”
“Will you walk with me somewhere more private?” he asked.
“You may say what you came to say here,” she answered.
“No, I cannot.”
Her cheeks stained and her spine stiffened. “You may walk with me, say what you need to say, and then be gone.” She scowled as if he were of less value than a street scavenger and then brushed past his proffered arm. But he’d seen her fingers tremble.
As they walked, he kept his eyes on the path and away from the sway of her hips. Naive of him to believe the years would have dampened his natural response to her, even under these circumstances. When by her side, his control drained faster than cider spilled from apples in a press.
She had been the hope fueling his breath and, for the first time in years, she was in reach. He ached to draw her against his chest. He wanted to surround her and protect her, but, even if she would accept his protection, she faced the kind of trouble he could not beat back with his fist.
Her marriage had made her contempt for him clear. He’d be a fool to think she would change her mind. He’d be a greater fool to risk everything he had struggled to build for the chance to hold her close.
He was here to offer professional assistance. There could be nothing more.
Though connected to her family’s business, he had kept a respectful distance from Lavinia in the year since he had returned. Helplessly, he had watched her reputation sink in society. She was not divorced, but, for unknown reasons, she was living apart from her husband and publicly despised by Lord Vaile. No hostess knew quite how to handle the couple, so they simply chose his lordship and ignored Lavinia. From the ashes of society’s rejection, she had emerged ruthless, cold, and devastating to men’s hearts.
Not that Vaile had remained unscathed. Max had heard gossip about him as well—the kind of gossip exchanged in terse and coded words. Words so distasteful, they were spoken only between men.
But, earlier this evening, a single shot had rent the air, changing everything.
The streets of Mayfair had come alive with cries of murder and, on learning the identity of the victim, Max had rushed to the scene. Though not permitted entry, he learned Vaile’s cousin, Lord Montechurch, had already cast suspicion in Lavinia’s direction. In her current situation, she would find even fewer friends and none powerful enough to protect her during the coming storm.
Unless Max remained by her side. But why should he?
They passed through the garden gate. Cypress and fir lined the expanse of Lady Sophia’s drive. Her estate bordered the Thames, and Lavinia walked purposefully in the direction of the water. The sounds of the revelers faded.
He had planned to relay the events of the evening quickly and directly then watch and assess her reaction. Where Lavinia was concerned, however, his plans always went awry. He furrowed his brow as he considered how to begin. He could not reveal the repugnant details at once.
Did she know what had happened?
His Lavinia was not capable of committing the vile deed. But this woman was not the girl he had known. If she were guilty, would he then abandon her? He had devoted his life to justice, both in England and in India. If she’d played any part in this crime, how could he justify remaining at her side?
He heard the gentle gurgle of the Thames before the river’s wide expanse came into view. Thousands of watery swirls glinted like shards of glass, flashing with the orange-fire reflection of the rising sun.
She turned, but did not speak.
“Are you going to ask why I am here?” He softened his voice. “Or do you already know?”
“You say you have family news. How strange my mother should forsake me and yet keep you in her confidence.”
“I oversee her business interests, I am sure you know,” he said. He did not have time to parse why both daughter and mother blamed the other for their mutual estrangement.
“Ah, yes. You saved my father’s brewery. Purchasing stock and bringing in an enthusiastic brewer with an eye on the India trade. You’ve earned a handsome profit, I hear.” Her spine arched, as if she braced for bad news. “Do get on with your mission, would you?”
He squinted, looking north—the direction of Thistleton-on-Thames, the town they had called home as children. She shifted south, facing him—and away from all they had once shared.
She lifted her pointed, aristocratic jaw, inherited from her wellborn mother. Her defiant stance called to mind her late father’s common strength. She was, in fact, more beautiful than she’d ever been.
A force beyond reason compelled him to keep her from harm. If necessary, he would take her away—guilty or not. His weakness caused his blood to surge.
Besotted, obsessed fool.
“You can come away with me tonight,” he said.
She jerked back with honest surprise. “Are you asking me to run away with you?”
He nodded. He allowed her to search his eyes, leaving bare his true feelings in a way that left him breathless and bitter. Astonished fascination arrested her breath, and she stared as if he were a patient in Bedlam.
“What would possess you to ask? Even if I did wish to run, my husband controls my inheritance. He sends me as little as law and my marriage contract will allow, but should I cross him again, I
he’d find a way to further impoverish me. Look what happened to Lady Worsley.” She snorted. “Not only has her husband kept her from her fortune, he brought a criminal conversation suit against her and exposed their private shame to public ridicule.”
“We can go farther than she did. To the continent, if we must.”
“You underestimate my husband. He may not want me, but he would kill any man fool enough to take me in.”
She honestly did not know. Relief broke in cool cascades through his body.
“And why, after all this time,” she continued, “would I consider running off with you? I am quite content with my life. I hardly need rescue. Relay your message. I suspect you are here to tell me someone died.” Her voice was light, too light, and shook as she finished. “Who? My mother? She has not seen fit to visit since I left Vaile. She did not relent, even when Father passed—”