Authors: Tina Gabrielle
Also by Tina Gabrielle
Lady of Scandal
Published by Kensington Publishing Corporation
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.
What would I ever do without you?
For Mom and Dad,
my guardian angels,
and for John,
whom they loved so much.
A special thank you to my editor,
at Kensington Books,
for taking a chance on me.
London, May 1814
“I’ve heard Lord Walling has depraved appetites in the bedroom.”
Isabel Cameron’s lips twitched at the words whispered into her ear by her close friend and fellow debutante, Charlotte Benning.
Isabel scanned the glittering ballroom, noting the magnificent chandeliers, the priceless artwork, and the crush of well-dressed people all vying amongst themselves for attention.
At Isabel’s silence, Charlotte touched her arm. “What? Do not tell me that you of all people find such talk shocking?”
Isabel pushed a wayward dark curl off her shoulder and turned to Charlotte. “It’s not the information that shocks me, but the thought of where you learned such private concerns regarding Lord Walling’s bedroom antics. Have you been eavesdropping on your mother and her friends again?”
Charlotte chewed on her lower lip. “I cannot help myself. Those gossipers are an endless source of education.”
Isabel glanced at Charlotte as her friend vigorously fanned her red cheeks. Charlotte was a petite, slender girl with a wealth of frizzy blond hair and round blue eyes.
Charlotte leaned close, covered her lips with her fan, and lowered her voice. “They even said Lord Walling pays a woman in Cheapside to indulge his fancy.”
Isabel couldn’t control her burst of laugher. “I pity the woman forced to endure his attentions, paid or not.”
“Speaking of the man,” Charlotte said. “Your soon-to-be betrothed waddles toward you as we speak.”
Isabel’s humor vanished, and she frowned. Lord Walling was indeed waddling. A portly man with fleshy jowls and a sagging stomach, he had strands of thinning hair, which he parted on the side and combed over a growing patch of shiny scalp. At fifty-three years of age, he was thirty-three years her senior.
“Can you imagine him intimate with a woman?” Charlotte asked.
Isabel’s gut clenched tight.
Charlotte reached out and grasped her hand. “Dear Lord, what will you do if you cannot persuade your father against the match?”
What will I do?
“I’ve tried speaking with my father,” Isabel whispered urgently. “He’s unrelenting on the subject and insists that at my age I should be suitably settled. I’ve even attempted to dissuade Lord Walling of the notion that I would make a good wife, but to no avail. It’s clear he is keenly interested in my family’s reputation, title, and wealth. I’m afraid I have to take matters into my own hands.”
“Oh dear,” Charlotte said. “Not again, Isabel.”
Lord Walling walked forward, directly toward her, nodding when she met his stare. His beady brown eyes reminded her of a ferret she had once seen at a country fair.
Walling bowed stiffly as he stood before Isabel and Charlotte. “Good evening, ladies. I trust you are enjoying Lady Holloway’s ball.”
“The evening is most entertaining, Lord Walling,” Charlotte said.
He turned his attention to Isabel. “May I have the honor of the next dance, Lady Isabel?”
“I’m afraid I’m not feeling well tonight, Lord Walling, and would not be a suitable dance partner.”
He looked at her in utter disbelief. “Oh? Your father told me that you had attended an exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts just yesterday and that you were positively blooming.”
“I found the art inspiring and must not have felt the effects of my illness until I arrived home.”
“You shouldn’t bother yourself with such artistic nonsense. A true lady, especially one of your age, should focus on domestic matters.”
Charlotte took a quick sharp breath.
Isabel opened her mouth, then snapped it shut, stunned by his bluntness.
“My apologies, Lord Walling,” Isabel said, finding her voice. “Perhaps another partner would be more willing.”
“Should I tell your father to take you home, then?” he asked.
“No need to trouble yourself. My father is aware of my condition.”
Lord Walling’s lips thinned with irritation. “Nonsense. It is no trouble at all. I see the earl across the room, and we have much to discuss. I shall call upon you tomorrow then, Lady Isabel. I believe I have the earl’s full approval on the matter,” he said, a critical tone to his voice.
He bowed again and walked away.
“My goodness, Isabel. He’s as persistent as a bloodhound during hunting season,” Charlotte said.
“I fear he needs to marry for money. It’s public knowledge that his country estate cannot sustain his spending habits. Even knowing this, my father is insisting upon the match.”
At twenty, both Isabel and Charlotte were fourth-year debutantes on the marriage mart. One more season to go and they would be official spinsters of unmarriageable age. While Charlotte sought a love match, Isabel wanted nothing more than to escape the marital web and return to Paris to live with her eccentric aunt and study her only true love—painting watercolors.
“I must be more creative in my efforts to dissuade him.”
“As your best friend, Isabel, I implore you, please exercise more discretion than the last time,” Charlotte pled.
Isabel looked away, uncomfortable with her friend’s beseeching gaze.
It was then that she saw him. Two gentlemen had just set foot in the ballroom; both stood tall and straight and were dark-haired. Both were meticulously dressed in breeches and form-fitting double-breasted jackets. But whereas one carried himself with a commanding air of self-importance associated with the nobility, the other was shrouded in an air of isolation and aloofness.
It was the second man who captured her attention, the only one she knew—Marcus Hawksley. A childhood memory brought a wry, twisted smile to her face.
His profile was rugged, somber, and vaguely familiar. He was far from delicately handsome and effeminate as many of the dandies of the ton. His face was granitelike and striking, and his strong features held a raw sensuality, a smoldering dangerousness, which captivated her attention, and which she suspected women would secretly find deliciously appealing.
Hawksley’s face was bronzed and his eyes sinfully dark. His black curling hair was cut short and gleamed in the candlelight from the chandeliers above. He was tall and muscularly built. Even from across the room, Isabel could see the rich outline of his shoulders straining against the fabric of his jacket.
There was a restless energy about his movements as if he did not want to be in the ballroom with these people and wanted to depart as soon as his obligations of attendance were satisfied.
“Marcus Hawksley is here,” Isabel blurted out. “I haven’t seen him in years.”
Charlotte shrugged. “That’s because he hasn’t been to a public event in years. He was quite the rogue in his youth. But then came the
scandal when he reformed and entered trade by becoming a stockbroker in the London Stock Exchange. Mother insists that trade is considered worse than the plague amongst the upper classes. Even his father, the Earl of Ardmore, and his older brother and heir, want nothing to do with him.”
Isabel’s lips puckered with disgust. It was just like the
to overlook a gentleman’s roguish behavior—his drinking, gambling, and womanizing—but consider it unforgivable when the same man reformed himself by becoming a successful businessman. Isabel had never paid much attention to the scandals, but Charlotte, whose mother was a close friend of Lady Jersey, one of the powerful patronesses of Almack’s, was obsessed with gossip.
“Who is he with?” Isabel asked.
“Lord Ravenspear, the handsome earl whose wife, Victoria, is increasing with child.”
“I wonder why Marcus is here tonight,” Isabel said.
“Lady Holloway is his godmother. I suspect he has attended out of respect for her.”
As if on cue, their hostess, Lady Holloway, approached the two gentlemen. Marcus bowed, and an easy smile played at the corners of his mouth. The smile was boyishly affectionate, softening his features, and it was clear he held Lady Holloway in high regard. He had the same look years ago when he had caught Isabel, an infatuated impetuous girl, filling his best riding boots with sand.
A sudden thought struck Isabel. “He caused a
scandal, you say? You are a genius, Charlotte!”
Charlotte’s brows drew together. “Whatever do you mean?”
“I mean to gain my freedom.”
Ignoring Charlotte’s confused look, Isabel gathered her skirts and wove her way through the crowd.
The music from the orchestra grew louder as she walked, and couples whirled by in a colorful blur on the dance floor. Several older ladies glanced at her as she hurried past with a purpose—straight for Marcus Hawksley himself.
She came up to Marcus and Lord Ravenspear as Lady Holloway walked away to greet her other guests.
“Good evening, Mr. Hawksley. It has been quite some time since we have seen each other. Do you remember me?” Isabel asked.
Two pairs of eyes snapped to her face—Ravenspear’s were deep blue; Marcus Hawksley’s were dark and unfathomable.
One corner of Marcus’s mouth twisted upward. “Lady Isabel Cameron. Of course I remember you. How many years has it been? Ten or more?”
Eight to be exact,
As an infatuated adolescent of twelve, she remembered him clearly. He had been a reckless rogue, a sworn bachelor at the age of twenty-two, and had been the object of her schoolgirl fantasies. Looking into his face now, there were no traces of the pleasure-seeking scoundrel.
Marcus Hawksley appeared severe and serious, and quite simply her savior if she played her cards right.
“It has been a while,” she said.
“May I introduce Lord Ravenspear?” Marcus turned toward the earl.
“It is a pleasure to meet you, Lady Isabel,” Ravenspear said.
Isabel raised her gaze to find Ravenspear watching her. His cobalt eyes sparkled with humor. Isabel could imagine what the earl was thinking—that a debutante approaching a bachelor without a chaperone or her father in a crowded ballroom was quite forward.
May all of the upper crust watch, especially Lord Walling.
“If you will excuse me, I see friends I’d like to speak with,” Ravenspear said.
To Isabel’s surprise, the earl gave a sly wink before departing.
She was left alone with Marcus. “Mr. Hawksley,” she said, reaching out to touch his sleeve. “I’m afraid my request may sound forward, but I have not had a gentleman ask me to dance this evening. I cannot bear to be the talk of all the other debutantes here. Will you save me from such a fate?”
Marcus Hawksley’s expression stilled and grew hard. His mercurial black eyes sharpened and blazed down into hers.
Her hand froze on his velvet jacket, and his muscles tensed under her fingertips. Heat emanated from his body, and he appeared as tightly coiled as a spring.
Suddenly, she was unsure of herself, of her outrageous behavior.
What if she had made a grave mistake? Had underestimated his reformation from rogue to serious businessman?
She took an abrupt step back, away from his tense, hard body, and made to turn on her heel. “Forgive me. I—”
He reached out and grasped her wrist.
“For old times’ sake then,” he murmured as he led her to the dance floor, leaving her no choice but to follow.
The orchestra had begun the waltz, and he swept her into his arms. It was the perfect dance for Isabel’s intent. Known as the “forbidden” waltz because of the close contact of the dancers, she had a heightened awareness of their audience. As they started to dance, she wondered if he knew the steps since he hadn’t been to any society functions in quite some time. But she needn’t have worried for his tall frame moved with easy grace.
He looked down at her. “You realize that by dancing with me you may cause more gossip than by not dancing with any man the entire evening?”
She feigned innocence. “Whatever do you mean?”
“Don’t pretend you don’t know. There’s a black mark on my name, Isabel.”
A shiver of excitement ran down her spine.
I’m counting on it, Marcus!
She was conscious of his hand touching hers, of his powerful body moving beside her, grazing her skirts. Her skin became increasingly warm, her breath short.
As they whirled across the floor, she glanced in the direction of her father and Lord Walling.
Her father appeared confused and agitated, and wiped at his brow with a handkerchief.
Walling looked furious, his fleshy face and neck mottled red.
Encouraged, she leaned lightly into Marcus, tilting her face toward his. “A black mark does not scare me, Mr. Hawksley. I’m old enough to know that society can be harsh, can be too judgmental, and rarely is correct when it comes to a person’s true character.”
He looked at her in astonishment, and then grinned. “Not only have you grown into a beautiful woman with your raven hair and clear blue eyes, but an astute one as well. A true surprise you have become, Lady Isabel.”
She didn’t know whether it was the attractive smile that had transformed his face or his flattering words, but her pulse leapt to life, and her feet seemed to drift along on a cloud over the dance floor.
The bold passage of his jet eyes over her face and the curve of her neck heightened her senses. She found herself extremely attuned to his strength, his overwhelming masculinity. He was unlike any other male she had ever known. Here was no fop, no dandy that the young debutantes swooned over. Here was a powerful man whose dangerous nature was disguised by a thin veneer of respectability.
Reason told her to flee, to abandon her impulsiveness, but instead a thrill tingled along her nerves.
Their eyes locked, and his dark brows slanted in a slight frown.
He senses it, too!
As the dance neared its end, she realized with bewilderment that she was no longer acting the awed female entirely for the benefit of her father and Lord Walling, but that she indeed felt an undeniable attraction to Marcus Hawksley.