Authors: Courtney Milan,Carey Baldwin,Tessa Dare,Leigh LaValle
Table of Contents
by Tessa Dare
by Leigh LaValle
by Courtney Milan
by Carey Baldwin
For Carey, Courtney, and Leigh
Unlike Eliza, I don’t have any sisters. But if I know anything about sisterhood, it’s from being friends with you! I feel proud and blessed to be on your team.
With many thanks to Jennifer Haymore, Brenna Aubrey, Diana Greenroad, Maggie Robinson, and Martha Trachtenberg.
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
SN’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,
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
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
. 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.”
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
“Now this won’t do.”
A male voice. A darkly
male voice—and Eliza knew, with that brow-smacking certainty of the obvious, it must be connected to a darkly commanding male
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
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 felt 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.
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.