Bound by Scandal
Better a rich man’s doxy than a poor man’s wife...or so her father, a dissolute gambler, assures Olivia Hart on the evening he trades her virtue to a scandalous rogue as payment for his debts. Now Olivia’s only hope of salvaging her reputation and safeguarding her sister depends upon a too-handsome scoundrel whose every look, every touch, tempt her to toss aside honor and yield to her passions. She must not succumb...
Tempted by Love
A reclusive nobleman haunted by his past sins, Gabriel Townsend, Lord Beaudeville, wants no new gossip attached to his name as he escorts his sister through her season. When a seemingly random encounter throws a young lady of gentle birth in his path, Gabriel suspects a devious marriage trap. To divert this disaster, he must join forces with a woman he knows he should despise, even as she stirs his desire and awakens long-denied dreams...
As irresistible passion leads to love, a desperate enemy sets out to destroy them. Will they discover the truth behind the nefarious plot? Or will a new scandal prove the ruination of their fragile alliance?
A Scandalous Rogue
Copyright © JanmarieAnello.com
“If only I had been born a man, we would not be in this dreadful situation.”
Olivia Hart could not remember the last time she’d wept, but her younger sister’s anguished words, echoing through the midnight gloom, brought a sudden ache to Olivia’s throat, a lump that grew as the seconds ticked past…until it felt like a long-smothered sob attempting to break free. She swallowed hard against the pain and kept her eyes lowered, her gaze fixed upon the lone candle on the corner of her writing desk, pretending fascination with the flame.
“Sarah, you know that is simply not true.” Olivia’s voice came out raspy and low, but her sister took no notice. She was too busy stomping across the sitting room, her night rail billowing out behind her like a sail. Thankfully, the Persian carpet was thick enough to muffle her exaggerated footsteps, or she would rouse the entire house. “Sarah, please. Cease your fretting. All will be well. This I vow.”
“How can you say that? Oh, if only Mama were still alive, you would not have to take this drastic action...” Sarah prattled on and on with ‘if only’ this and ‘if only’ that.
Whenever she paused for breath, Olivia murmured soothing reassurances, but she had no time to contemplate what ifs or what might-have-beens. She needed to write this letter and send it on its way to Mrs. Menton, first thing in the morning—before she lost her nerve.
She inked the tip of her quill, but she could not force herself to scrawl the words across the page. It was as if she were afflicted with some strange sort of paralysis, one that affected only the muscles of her right hand.
Then there was her sister’s endless pacing, which was driving her mad.
“Sarah, you will make yourself ill, worrying so. Why don’t you go to bed? I promise you, everything will appear much brighter once you have had some rest.”
“You expect me to sleep?” Sarah dropped to her knees beside Olivia’s chair. Deep lines of worry and fear marred the smooth skin around her clear blue eyes. Her cheeks, normally alight with a rosy glow, appeared sallow and drawn as she twisted her fingers in the loose folds of Olivia’s muslin frock. “Is our situation so hopelessly desperate?”
Olivia’s arm jerked. The tip of her pen stabbed the desk with such force, ink splashed across the precious sheet of paper.
As the few words she had managed to set down disappeared beneath the spreading stain, Olivia closed her eyes. Just for a moment.
Just long enough to rein in her gathering tension.
When she was certain she could face her sister without revealing her dismay, she tossed the feather pen onto her desk and turned in her chair.
“No, our situation is not desperate,” she said, offering Sarah what she hoped was a reassuring smile. It wasn’t truly a lie—or so she told herself since her purpose in saying this was not to deceive. It was to protect someone she loved more dearly than she loved her own life.
The warm scent of Sarah’s perfume, an intriguing blend of violets and almonds, brought bittersweet memories of their mother, gone so long now the memory of her face had grown distant and vague. With her dying breath, Mama had entrusted this angel into Olivia’s care.
But Sarah was in danger now.
Olivia would not rest until her sister was safe. No matter the cost.
“Then why must you sacrifice yourself so?”
Olivia brushed a golden curl off her sister’s brow. “Wherever do you get such notions? It’s not as if I am leaping off a cliff. Or feeding myself to some fire-breathing dragon.”
“No, it is so much worse, and it is entirely my fault.”
“That is nonsense,” Olivia said, clutching her sister’s hands. Sarah’s skin felt so cold, her fingers, so small and fragile beneath her touch. “I do not want to hear you say such things again.”
“It is not nonsense. It is the truth. Were it not for me, you would not have to do this. You would attend Cousin Jane’s birthday ball, meet a wonderful man, and fall in love.”
Olivia knew her sister’s words, though overly dramatic, were heartfelt and sincere. Sarah was young, a mere child of fourteen, and still filled with romantic notions of chivalry and happily ever after love.
At one and twenty, Olivia had long since realized love was but a fanciful notion, a sweet dream for a schoolgirl’s heart that brought no guarantee of future happiness.
Nor did it put food on the table.
“Come,” Olivia said, slipping her arm around her sister’s shoulder and leading her to one of the matching settees framing the hearth. “Sit beside me, and I will explain as best I can.”
The fire had burned itself out, leaving a pile of smoking ashes in the grate. The night air chilled Olivia’s skin, as the state of their affairs chilled her heart. Until now, she had managed to shield her sister from the danger around them, but time was running out.
“Sarah,” she said, choosing her words with care. She could not give voice to the constant worries that preyed so viciously upon her mind, so she centered on the obvious. “We can no longer depend upon our father to protect us. He is drinking heavily from morning ’til night. His gambling debts have soared to insurmountable heights, and his daily dosage of opium has reached an alarmingly high level, a fact that even you must recognize.”
Olivia waited until Sarah acknowledged her words with a sulky nod before she continued. “It is only a matter of time before he brings disaster down upon our heads. I do not say these things to frighten you, but to demonstrate the precariousness of our situation. I am speaking to you now as one adult to another.”
Obviously pleased to be considered an adult, Sarah lifted her chin and straightened her shoulders. “But I still do not understand. Why must you take such drastic action? Why can we not simply throw ourselves upon our uncle’s mercy? We are guests in his home. Surely he would not turn us out on the streets.”
“Of course he would not.” Or rather, Olivia didn’t think that he would…but she didn’t really know how he’d react to their dilemma because she didn’t really know him. It was only within the last year that he had sought to heal the breach between their families.
While he appeared to be the kindest, most generous of men, Olivia could not take any chances. “A man has total control over his children, Sarah. If our uncle were to shelter us against our father’s wishes, he would be on the wrong side of the law. I do not wish to put him in such an untenable position. And there is also Aunt Edgemere to consider.”
Even were their uncle willing to brave the malicious gossip and enormous expense inherent in such a dispute, their aunt would not be quite so welcoming, Olivia was certain of it. Perhaps she was wrong, as their aunt had yet to offer an incivility, but neither had she exchanged a single word of kindness with either Olivia or Sarah, or even a polite, though impersonal, discourse on the weather.
Her cold indifference Olivia could well understand when directed toward their father—he was a reprehensible roué, after all—but not toward Sarah. Never toward her sweet sister, Sarah.
Olivia decided it was best not to give voice to such an uncharitable opinion. “Mrs. Menton has offered me a respectable position within her household. I know you do not approve, but I, for one, am grateful for the opportunity.”
“It isn’t that I don’t approve,” Sarah grumbled. “It’s just that she is so old!”
Olivia shook her head. “And what does that signify? Friendship is not based upon age, but rather on a depth of feeling that cannot be measured or put into words. Mrs. Menton was a dear friend to our mother, and she cares for us, as well.”
In truth, Mrs. Menton was the only lady Olivia could remember ever calling upon their mother. And after Mama had died, Mrs. Menton had offered Olivia friendship and guidance in caring for Sarah through the turmoil of those early years when their Papa had taken to guzzling laudanum while drowning his despair at the taprooms and taverns.
Despite the difference in their ages, Mrs. Menton remained Olivia’s only true friend, though years had passed since Olivia had last seen that dear lady. Her husband’s government work had long ago removed Mrs. Menton from the neighborhood, so Mrs. Menton remained unaware of Henry Hart’s worsening dissipation, and the taint heaped upon his daughters by association.
The arrival of Mrs. Menton’s letter, informing Olivia of her husband’s new posting and offering a position within her household, had brought Olivia her first moment of true hope that she and Sarah could leave behind that taint for good and forge a future filled with dignity and respect. She kissed her sister’s fingertips. “I must take this position, Sarah. The salary Mrs. Menton has offered is more than generous and will allow me to put a roof over our heads and clothes on our backs.”
“Is dead, Sarah. And so is our brother. No amount of wishing or hoping will change these facts. It is up to us to care for one another now. We must stick to our plan.” An odd noise caught her attention, the sound distant and indistinct. Out in the hall, perhaps. Or down on the street.
She raised her hand to stifle her sister’s protests. “Listen. Did you hear that?”
For an excruciating moment, all Olivia heard was the thunderous beating of her own heart echoing in her ears, then a rhythmic, thumping sound. Louder this time...and growing closer.
Heavy footsteps trudging up the stairs.
Olivia leapt to her feet and dragged her sister toward the door that led to their adjoining bedchambers. “Quickly, Sarah. To your room. And lock the door.”
“Come with me,” Sarah said, her features as pale as the silver moonlight slipping through the cracks in the shutters and skimming over their clasped hands.
“Do as I say.” Olivia gave her sister a brook-no-argument shove. “Go! And remember your promise. Not a word. To anyone.”
She waited until Sarah disappeared into her room before racing back to her chair and grabbing her needlework from the basket on the floor. She clutched the smooth wooden frame to still the trembling in her hands. Just in time.
The door snapped open. Her father staggered into the room.
His foot caught on the edge of the rug. His vicious oath shattered the silence, along with any hope Olivia had harbored that this time he would keep his promise not to drink. Not to game. Not to expose his daughters to shame. Empty vows, so earnestly made in an hour of sobriety, yet swiftly forgotten the moment the next drink came.
He cast Olivia an ugly glare as if his overindulgence were her fault. The color of his bloodshot eyes matched the thread she was using for the roses in her design. Her pent-up breath rushed from her lungs.
She wanted to scream, ‘We are guests in my uncle’s home, and this is how you behave?’ But she choked back her words as she watched him circle the room, bumping into the walls and furnishings as he went.
He was muttering one moment, sobbing the next.
Never before had she seen him so agitated.
Straining to make out the meaning of his words, Olivia anchored her needle in the fabric, then set her work aside and rose from her chair.
“What will I do?” he wailed, rubbing his hands over his face. “He’ll be furious when he learns the truth. What to do...what to do...”
“Who will be furious?” Olivia moved toward him, but kept far enough away so that he could not reach her. The stench of stale ale and tobacco clinging to his clothes stung her throat.
He toppled onto the nearest chair. The flow of tears rolling down his cheeks was a stark contrast to his wild laugh.
Her skin turned cold. Her stomach tightened. “Papa, what have you done?”
He jabbed a finger at her nose. “This is all your fault.”
As much as his words tormented her, Olivia knew she would get no answers tonight, only the inevitable scene brought about by the drink. And judging from his flushed cheeks and the narrowing of his eyes, mere moments remained to avert the dreaded confrontation.
“Let me help you to your room, Papa. Then we can discuss my sins.”
His upper lip curled into a sneer. “You think this funny?”
“Certainly not. I merely wish to get you comfortably situated in the privacy of your room.” There he could berate her to his heart’s content with no one to hear her shame.
“Oh, you’d like that, wouldn’t you? Don’t want the world to know what an unnatural daughter you are...?” He sputtered a few incoherent words before lapsing into a brooding silence.
It was obvious as he sat there with his arms crossed over his chest and his heels digging into the rug that he was not going to cooperate, yet she could not forcibly remove him from the room. He had a good ten inches over her five-foot frame and weighed nearly twice as much as she did, with all of his superior weight centered about his midsection.
Her only hope was to keep him quiet until he fell asleep in his chair.
His fingers tangled in the knot of his cravat. A string of foul oaths spewed from his lips before he finally yanked the linen free.
“I want yer mother’s jewels,” he snarled. “They’re mine by right of marriage an’ you have no cause to keep them from me. Give them to me—now!” He raised his hand, fingers clenched, then swung it down to emphasize his command by banging his fist on the arm of his chair, but his coordination was faulty and his fingers glanced off the upholstery.
Olivia stifled a weary sigh at his demand for jewels she did not possess—for jewels she had never seen—but she did not bother to protest. He would not believe her. He never did.
“Stubborn, disobedient wench,” he said, leaning back in his chair and closing his eyes, as if he could not bear to look upon Olivia for another moment. He muttered something under his breath, gibberish mostly, then something that sounded eerily like, “Knew you wouldn’t hand them over, so I gave ’im you to settle m’ debts.”
Olivia gasped. She could not have heard him correctly. She clung to the back of the nearest chair as she sorted through his words, hoping to find some alternate interpretation.
But no, his meaning was clear. Her father, a man who was supposed to love and protect her, had used her innocence as a gambling chip in a game of chance.
As if such a notion wasn’t degrading enough, he’d lost the bet.
Of course, he’d lost. He always lost. Now he expected Olivia to barter her virtue—no, those words were too trite, too delicate to describe her father’s plan.
He expected Olivia to prostitute herself to redeem his debt.
The room spun around her head, as if she were the one who had imbibed too much.
She was a gently bred lady, for heaven’s sake. She should not even know such depravity existed, but her father ran with a band of licentious snakes that made the infamous Hellfire Club look like a literary salon for old maids. With every day that passed, with every new tradesman’s bill or gambling debt he could not pay, the closer to home the danger came.
Grunting, her father leaned forward, pulled off his right boot, and tossed it across the room. Then he heaved off the left and sent that one sailing, too. “Don’t know why you’re so distressed,” he muttered, sinking back against the cushions once more. “You’ll live a far better life as a rich man’s doxy than a poor man’s wife. And if you play your cards right...”
He fell asleep mid-sentence, a not so uncommon occurrence whenever he arrived home in this condition.
Normally, Olivia would leave him be, but she needed more information if she were to save herself from this debacle.
She poked him in the shoulder. His only response was a loud snore and an involuntary twitching of his legs. She poked him again, harder this time, then again—until he half-opened one eye.
He stretched his arms above his head. “Be a good girl and fetch me some coffee.”
Olivia had no intention of fetching him coffee.
If she did, she had no doubt she would throw the pot at his head.
“What did you mean, if I play my cards right...? Answer me! What did you mean?” She heard the first hint of hysteria creeping into her voice and clamped her mouth shut.
“Nothing. I meant nothing,” he said, pulling a flask from his frock coat pocket. He took a long swig of the opium-laced brandy he carried wherever he went. Soon he would fall into a drug-induced stupor, and not even an act of God would awaken him.
He dragged the back of his hand across his lips. “You need not look so stunned, m’dear. If you do what you’re told...if you learn how to please him...you’ll earn riches enough to support your precious Sarah for the rest of her life—and your fond papa, too. Or you could hand over your mother’s jewels. The choice is yours. Now, be a good girl and fetch me that coffee.”
Fond papa? She laughed at the absurdity.
A mistake, she realized, when his voice took on an ugly sneer. “What’s your precious virtue matter when there’s a fortune to be had? Chin up, m’dear. You have nothing to fear. Just do as I say, and I promise you...all will be well.”
Olivia closed her eyes. She pressed her palms to her overheated cheeks.
‘All will be well,’ indeed. The echo of her earlier words hung in the stifling air. The useless, hollow words she had used to comfort her sister.
Now, meaningless words in the face of her despair.
A sob caught in her throat. All of her plans for saving her sister and herself came crashing around her. All of her dreams of escape vanished. Whether she gave in to her father’s demands, or not, would not matter. Once her name was linked to such a vulgar scheme, she would be ruined. No one would ever seek her out again. Not for friendship. Not for marriage.
And certainly not for a respectable offer of employment within a respectable household.
Even if Mrs. Menton loved Olivia enough to offer shelter through the ensuing disgrace, that lady’s husband would have no choice but to force his wife to withdraw her support, lest his own future aspirations suffer through Society’s condemnation. Olivia pressed her fingertips to her brow.
What was she going to do? How would she provide for her sister without hope of gaining a decent situation? Where would they live when their uncle learned of this travesty and threw them out on the street?
Her father fairly cackled with unrestrained glee. “Never fear. You’re a right pretty puss, and he’s a gen’lman, ’n all. He’ll treat you right, he will.”
“A gentleman?” The pathetic quaver she heard in her voice made her furious. She set her jaw. She would never let this monster see her cry. “What sort of gentleman accepts a woman’s virtue as payment for a gambling debt?”
“A rich one, that’s who,” her father said, still laughing. “A man who don’t need the money. Don’t you pull that face with me, or I’ll give you good reason to weep. You wait. You’ll see. This is the best thing that ever happened to us, Livie. The best thing yet.”
The childhood endearment curled her hands into fists. “Do not call me that. Ever again.”
One more sennight—that’s all she had needed to be free of this.
“And I never said the man agreed to forgive my debts for your favors.”
A mere seven days...
“You must use yer feminine wiles to convince him.”
A violent trembling shook Olivia from head to toe as if she had an ague. “You have destroyed my reputation for no good reason. I will not do what you suggest. I will never!”
“You’ll do it, missy.” He took another long slug of his poisoned brew before yanking a piece of paper from his pocket and tossing it at her face. “Or I’ll give him Sarah instead.”
Oh, what a vicious snake he was. He knew just where to strike to inflict the most damage—and cause the most pain—to make her comply.
She held herself as still as a statue as she waited for his awareness to wane.
Ten agonizing minutes passed, marked by the progression of soft, pale light creeping into the room as the sun rose and pushed back the night shadows. Then ten minutes more before his head slumped toward his left shoulder, and still she waited...until his mouth fell open and his lips drooped. Only when saliva dribbled down his chin, thrust from his mouth by his labored breathing, did she approach him.
She clapped her hands before his face, then again beside his right ear.
When he did not stir, not even a twitch, she retrieved the paper from the floor.
Scrawled across the sheet was a name: Beaudeville.
And a direction: Hopedale House, Park Lane.
A fitting address for a man as wealthy as her father claimed this man to be.
A gentleman by name, if not by deed.
‘He’ll be furious when he learns the truth,’ her father had spewed in his drunken ramblings, but what if he had inadvertently told the truth? What if the man truly was a gentleman? Could Olivia throw herself on his mercy and beg for his help?
Yes, she would find it degrading, but if she appealed to a gentleman’s code of honor, might he not help her quash any rumors of her father’s shameful conduct?
It was a slim thread of hope, but Olivia latched onto it, formulating her plan as she hurried to her room. She paused at her sister’s door, just long enough to turn the handle.
It was locked, thank the Lord. One less thing for Olivia to worry about as she donned her cloak, then rang for her maid, who said nothing as they descended the servants’ stairs.
Once on the street, Olivia’s resolution faltered, but on she trudged through the early morning mist, her mind closed to the fear urging her to turn back. What did she have to lose?
If she did nothing, she would be well and truly ruined once rumors of her father’s degradation became known. But if she could gain this Beaudeville man’s vow of silence, she could stem the hideous gossip before it began and salvage both her reputation and her plans.
She lifted her chin and hurried her steps.
“Then the man rubbed his hands over his monstrous belly and said to Gabriel, ‘I’ll give you m’daughter to settle m’debts.’”
Surrounded by his cousin and his closest friend in the comfort of his library, Gabriel Townsend, Earl of Beaudeville, laughed at his cousin’s imitation of the bounder, though he had no clear recollection of the evening before, much less of an offer he found repugnant in the extreme. He kneaded the tight knot of tension throbbing at the base of his neck.
His last distinct memory was of yet another tiresome meeting with Lord Vickerson offering Gabriel a sizeable dowry along with his daughter’s hand—the man was persistent, Gabriel would grant him that—before setting off to meet his cousin at White’s.
Everything after leaving the house was a blur.
But it wasn’t so much that he couldn’t remember, Gabriel realized. Rather, the memories trying to take shape in his mind were distorted by a haze thick as fog, and the lights were too bright, the colors too dense, almost as if he could feel them touching his skin.
He was not in the habit of drinking so much that he didn’t know where he had been or what he had done. So what the hell happened?
He wanted to ask Charles, but he could hardly admit his lapse of memory, as he had no desire to bear the brunt of his cousin’s jokes today. His ride through Hyde Park in the crisp dawn air had done nothing to ease the lingering effects of the evening before. His head still ached, and his stomach threatened to unman him at any moment.
To Gabriel’s shock, his Cousin Charles, a dandy who spent several hours each morning arranging his neck cloth to fall just so, scrubbed his fingers through his black hair until it stuck out at all angles. Hunching his shoulders, Charles swayed on his feet and slurred his words as he mimicked the man. “She’s a right pretty puss, she is. You will not regret it.”
Sebastian Neville, Marquess of Shelby, gaped at Charles’s performance. “Egad! What a story,” he said, tossing his riding crop and leather gloves onto Gabriel’s desk. His curly blond hair fell into his eyes as he shook his head. “Might I ask what evil demon possessed you to visit the Black Hog?”
That’s what Gabriel wanted to know, as well. The Hog was a notorious gambling hell-cum-brothel that catered to the seriously depraved. While Gabriel was the first to admit he wasn’t a saint, even he did not frequent that sort of place.
Charles raised his hand. “I confess. It was my idea. I heard Raulston talking about the place, and I was curious. That’s all. Gabriel agreed readily enough when I suggested it.”
Had he? It seemed unlikely, yet the pounding in his brain lent credence to his cousin’s claim.
Gabriel gestured his friends toward the semi-circle of chairs clustered around the fireplace. He didn’t know which was bothering him more, the fiendish orange glow streaming through the bay window behind him or the pervasive stench of hothouse lilies his mother had placed in a vase upon his desk.
His cousin flicked out his coattails before taking his seat. He shot Gabriel an evil grin. “I say, old man, you look a bit green. Is anything wrong?”
“Not at all,” Gabriel said, though his mouth was so dry, he thought he could drain a small lake and still not quench his thirst. He grabbed the lilies, vase and all, and shoved them into the hall. Women and flowers did not belong in a man’s library, he decided, and he vowed to tell his mother so the next time he saw her.
Shelby laughed. “Whenever I am struck low after a night’s dissipation, I simply have another drink. ’Tis the perfect cure for what ails you, Gabriel. What say you? Shall I pour?”
“Only if you want me to heave on your shiny new boots.”
Amusement gleamed in Shelby’s golden-brown eyes. “I daresay my boot maker would look unkindly upon it.”
“As would I, my good man. As would I.”
Gabriel was beginning to suspect someone had slipped a drug of some sort into one of his drinks. He could think of no other explanation for last evening’s lack of good judgment and his current condition, which went far beyond the aftereffects of mere overindulgence.
Shelby frowned. “It is quite perverted, you know, to think a man, especially one who professes to be a gentleman, would offer to make his daughter a whore.”
“Obviously the man was no gentleman,” Gabriel said, rubbing his thumb and forefinger over his burning eyes. “And the proffered ‘daughter’ was likely a prostitute, with the two conspiring together to fleece some unsuspecting gull with deep pockets. I imagine it is not such an uncommon scheme in that sort of bawdy house.”
Charles helped himself to a cigar from the box on the mahogany table beside his chair. “Naturally Gabriel refused. I told him he should have waited until after he met the chit. The bastard described her in intimate detail all the way down to the curve of her hips and the lift of her bosom. I was intrigued, even if Gabriel took no notice. Why would he, I say, when he has ice flowing through his highborn veins?”
“Not ice,” Shelby said cheerfully as he lounged in his chair with his long legs stretched out before him and his feet crossed at the ankles. “’Tis good Scotch whisky pickling his brain—and other vital organs, I might add.”
Charles nodded. “He does have the finest collection of spirits this side of the border. No doubt he drives the excise men mad.”
Tossing the stub of his cigar into the fireplace, Charles returned to the events of the evening before. With exaggerated gestures and a booming tone of voice, he recounted every outrageous declaration the so-called ‘gentleman’ had made about his daughter.
Shelby laughed heartily at the performance, but Gabriel’s discomfort grew with every new revelation. He was not usually given to introspection, but hearing of the man’s repugnant offer to trade his daughter’s virtue to heal his gambling debts thoroughly shocked him.
Now he was forced to wonder… Had his reputation sunk so low that the bastard truly believed Gabriel would trade in human flesh as payment for those debts? The man might be a monster, but Gabriel was the one to whom the offer was made. What did that say about him?
A disturbance coming through the open doorway from the hall caught Gabriel’s attention. He glanced over his shoulder to see a woman, wrapped in a burgundy cloak, rush through the door and into the room.
A footman scurried along behind her, sputtering apologies for the disturbance.
Conversation stopped as Gabriel and his companions rose from their chairs.
The woman was young, and she was petite, not more than five feet. On any other woman, her small stature might have made her appear as fragile as a porcelain doll, but the tightening of her lips and narrowing of her eyes as she drew near brought to mind a soldier rushing into battle, knowing she was about to die, but determined to take her enemies with her.
There was no mistaking her target. Her gaze had latched onto Charles from the moment she’d entered the room, and as she marched forward, no one else existed for her, not even the servant trotting along at her heels, blubbering, “I bid her to wait... She refused to listen.”
Her proud carriage marked her as a gentlewoman. So what the hell was she doing here?
And why was she glaring at Charles with anger gleaming in her lovely blue eyes?
She wore no bonnet. Most of her honey-blond hair was tightly coiled at her nape. A few wispy ringlets framed her oval face. A beaded reticule hung from a cord wrapped around her wrist. White gloves covered her hands, hands clenched into fists.
She did not stop walking until she stood toe to toe with Charles, then she leaned back on her heels and lifted her chin. “Naturally, I intended to wait in the entry, as your servant so obediently bade me, Mr. Beaudeville...but having heard you bandy my name about, I felt it behooved me to make my presence known, sooner rather than later. When next you relate your salacious tale, perhaps you could do so in a slightly louder shout? I do believe there might be some person, in some remote corner of London Town, who has yet to hear the sordid details.”
Her voice had a lilting, melodic quality to it, despite her scornful tone.
Gabriel found himself so entranced, he did not fully comprehend her meaning, or that she was speaking to the wrong man. He wasn’t the only one stunned into immobility. Shelby lifted his brows until they disappeared behind the fringe of curls drooping over his forehead while Charles stood there with his mouth hanging open, as if he could summon no response.
When his wits finally caught up with her words, Gabriel dismissed the footman with a flick of his hand, then stepped between his cousin and the young woman. “Madam, I am Beaudeville.”
She turned her stunning, blue-eyed gaze upon him. An unidentifiable expression passed over her pretty face, a momentary shadowing, quickly replaced with icy indignation. “Mr. Beaudeville—”
“Lord Beaudeville,” he corrected.
There it was again. That fleeting expression. A hesitation in her resolve before she stiffened her shoulders and lifted her chin. “Oh, do forgive me, my lord.” She drew out the honorific, and if her tone was not quite sarcastic, it was brittle enough to turn the courtesy into a denigration. “I am certain you will understand my confusion. Your title not withstanding, your actions thus far certainly do not mark you as a noble man.”
He couldn’t help himself. He laughed. She had grossly insulted him. Were she a man, he would have no choice but to call her out—laws or no laws. Yet all he could do was stand there and grin at her foolishly. She was marvelous. A veritable spitfire.
A becoming blush spread over her cheeks. “I am so glad you find this situation amusing, Lord Beaudeville. After all, it is not your reputation that is about to be ripped to shreds. No, in fact, I imagine just the opposite to be true. Your manly reputation will grow to legendary proportions. You will be a hero among your compatriots who also waste their lives in the stews.”
Her words sliced through the fog in Gabriel’s brain. He suddenly realized who she must be. And with that recognition, the throbbing headache that had plagued him all morning reattacked him with a vengeance.
Never would he have imagined the female offered as payment in such a vile proposition would be a lady of gentle birth, a woman whose reputation would be savaged should the story make its way out of the gambling hells and into Society.
It was just the sort of juicy tidbit for which the gossips lived.
And once her name was linked with his, no one would ever believe in her innocence. Or his.
Charles coughed, drawing Gabriel’s attention back to his friends.
While Gabriel knew he could count on their discretion, he took the young lady by the arm and led her to an alcove on the far side of the room for some private words.
“Take your hands off of me,” she said through her teeth.
He raised his hands, palms out, fingers wide as he turned to face her. “While I appreciate the courage you have shown in confronting your enemy in his lair, might I point out that had you not shown yourself here today, I would have no idea of your identity?”
She winced, but did not back down. “I am quite convinced you did not gamble with my father without learning his name.”
“That may be so, but, until this moment, I did not have a name or an image to attach to the mysterious daughter I’ve heard so much about. What a rash, irresponsible action, your coming here like this. What were you thinking?”
“My father told me of his devil’s bargain with you.”
She had her chin tilted so high in the air, Gabriel wondered if her head throbbed from all the blood rushing to the back of her brain. “You should have taken this up with him.”
“He is indisposed at the moment. Surely you understand my meaning, being the scandalous rogue you are.”
He bit back his grin. “You insult me again. Is it to be daggers at dawn, or do you prefer pistols?”
She did not smile at his quip. She raised her hand, reticule clutched in her fist, as if she could not quite decide whether to launch it at his face or fling it to the ground and take up the challenge.
Gabriel sighed. “So your father is indisposed. That does not explain your presence here.”
Her brows drew together over narrowed eyes. “I sought to reason with you, to beseech you to stem the flow of gossip before it spread like the Great Fire through Town. I see I am already too late.” Her disdainful gaze flicked over Shelby and Charles, who stood quietly at the other end of the room and made no attempt to pretend they weren’t interested in the conversation between Gabriel and this bold, beautiful creature. Her gaze returned to Gabriel. “No doubt you couldn’t wait to boast of your dastardly deeds.”
“I assure you, madam, I have told no one. My cousin knows only because he was with me at the time.”
Her gaze shifted back to Charles. The high color in her cheeks drained away, leaving her features as white as the gloves sheathing her fingers. Her long lashes swept down.
On any other woman, it would appear a flirtatious gesture, but Gabriel strongly suspected she was plotting her next line of attack. He sought to ease some of her fears. “You may rest easy on one score, madam. My friends are the soul of discretion.”
“So I heard from the vestibule,” she said, icy derision making her words come out slowly, precisely. “As did all of your servants, I am sure. Tell me, my lord, are they equally discreet?”
“If they wish to remain in my employ. Let us be clear on one point, madam. If word of this atrocity leaks into Society, it will not come from this quarter.”
“Let us be equally clear on another point, sir. I am not a piece of horseflesh. I will not be bought or sold or traded to the man with the best cards in his hand.”
She held her head high as she spoke, but Gabriel saw the slight quiver of her lips.
How much had it cost her pride to come here and admit her father thought her no more valuable than his horse? Less valuable, or so it would seem, as Charles had made no mention that Gabriel had been offered her father’s horse. He stiffened his legs against a growing, inexplicable urge to close the distance between them, to draw her into the comfort of his arms, as if he were the one who could shield her from the world and Society’s hags. What a joke. What an infinite jest.
He tried to gentle his voice, but he failed miserably. He actually hurt for her, felt a physical ache in his chest. “I may be a scandalous rogue, but I assure you, madam, I have no bargain with your father. Contrary to popular opinion, I do not trade in human flesh.”
Her hands dropped to her sides. Her reticule dangled from her wrist like an anchor pulling her down. She closed her eyes and sucked her lips between her teeth and made him feel as if he were indeed the rogue she’d named him—but he was not the monster here.
It was her father who had proposed the repugnant scheme. It was her father who had put her in jeopardy. Why was it Gabriel’s fault and now his responsibility to rescue her?
His breath escaped him in an audible rush. The answer to his question was stunningly clear. Because her father was obviously a scoundrel and she had no one to protect her.
Gabriel caught movement out of the corner of his eye. Too late he realized they were standing in front of the bay window, the right panel of which overlooked the front steps.
Walking up those steps were Lady Henshaw and Lady Longmeade, his mother’s closest friends and the most notorious gossips in London. In less than five minutes, this young woman was going to be ruined beyond repair, even without awareness of her father’s wager, and Gabriel would be forced to marry the chit.
A Scandalous Rogue
is a finalist in the historical category
of the NJRW 2015 Golden Leaf
“Stupendous. I instantly fell in love with A SCANDALOUS ROGUE. The novel has it all: realistic characters, adventure, passion and most important of all, romance. The minute Gabriel and Olivia meet, the tension between them is wildly out of control. I loved Olivia's fiery spirit and Gabriel's honest and somewhat arrogant manner. A SCANDALOUS ROGUE'S story is awe-inspiring.” —Romance Junkies