Published by SIGNET on March 3, 2015
Purchase: Amazon, Barnes & Noble
From New York Times bestselling author Tracy Anne Warren, the first of a new trilogy about the most dashingly dangerous men in London. Pay a call to the most seductive address in London and meet the Rakes of Cavendish Square....
Lord Leo Byron is bored with the aristocratic company he keeps; he needs a distraction, preferably in the form of a beautiful new female companion. So when he sets eyes on fascinating and scandalous divorcée Lady Thalia Lennox, he’s determined to make her intimate acquaintance. But the spirited woman seems to have no intention of accepting his advances no matter how much he chases—or how hard he falls....
Once a darling of Society, Thalia Lennox now lives on its fringes. The cruel lies that gave her a notoriously wild reputation have also left her with a broken heart and led to a solemn vow to swear off men. Still, Leo Byron’s bold overtures are deliciously tempting, and, for the first time, she finds herself wondering whether it just might be worth the risk to let the attractive rake into her life—and her bed....
I should never have come here tonight, Lady Thalia Lennox thought, as she forced herself not to flinch beneath the leering stare of Lord Teaksbury. She didn’t believe he had met her eyes once since they had begun conversing.
Old lecher. How dare he stare at my breasts as if I’m some doxy selling her wares? Then again, after nearly six years of enduring such crude behavior from men of her acquaintance, one would think she would be well used to it by now.
As for the ladies of the Ton, they generally looked through her, as if she were some transparent ghost who had drifted into their midst. Or worse, they pointedly turned their backs. She had grown inured to their snubs as well—for the most part, at least.
Still, she had hoped tonight might prove different, since her host, the Marquess of Elmore, had known his own share of personal pain and tended to acquire friends of a more liberal and tolerant persuasion. But even here, people saw her not for the person she was, but for who they assumed her to be.
Ordinarily, she tossed aside invitations such as the one for tonight’s supper party—not that she received all that many invitations these days. But she supposed the real reason she had come tonight was a simple enough one.
She was lonely.
Her two friends, Jane Frost and Mathilda Cathcart—the only ones out of all her acquaintance who had stuck by her after the divorce—were in the countryside. They had each invited her to join them at their separate estates, but she knew her attendance at the usual autumn house parties put each woman in an awkward and difficult position. Plus, neither of their husbands approved of their continued association with her, their friendship limited to occasional quiet meals when they were in Town, and the back-and-forth exchange of letters.
No, she was quite alone and quite lonely.
Ironic, she mused, considering the constant parade of lovers she supposedly entertained—at least according to the gossip mavens and scandal pages that still liked to prattle on about her. Given their reports of her behavior, one would imagine her town house door scarcely ever closed for all the men going in and out—or perhaps it was only her bedroom door that was always in need of oil for the hinges?
She felt her fingers tighten against the glass of lemonade in her hand, wondering why she was dwelling on such unpleasantness tonight. Better to put thoughts like those aside, since they did nothing but leave the bitter taste of regret in her mouth.
A hot bath and a good book, that’s what I need this evening, she decided. That, and to tell the old reprobate still leering at her to take his eyes and his person somewhere else.
If only she hadn’t given in to the temptation to wear emerald green tonight, perhaps she wouldn’t have ended up being ogled by a loathsome toad like Teaksbury. But she’d always loved this dress, which had been languishing in the back of her wardrobe for ages. And honestly, she was tired of being condemned no matter what she wore or how she behaved. In for a penny, in for a pound, she’d thought when she made the selection. Now, however, she wished she’d stuck to her usual somber dark blue or black, no matter how dreary those shades might seem.
Ah well, I shall be leaving shortly, so what does it really matter?
“Why, that’s absolutely fascinating,” Thalia said with false politeness as she cut Teaksbury off midsentence. “You’ll have to excuse me now, Lord Teaksbury. After all, I wouldn’t want to be accused of monopolizing your company tonight.”
Teaksbury opened his mouth—no doubt to assure her that he didn’t mind in the least. But she had already set down her glass, turned on a flourish of emerald skirts and started toward the door.
She made it about a quarter of the length of the room when a tall figure stepped suddenly into her path, blocking her exit. She gazed up, then up again, into a boldly masculine face and a pair of green-gold eyes that literally stole her breath. The man sent her a dashing, straight-toothed smile, candlelight glinting off the burnished golden brown of his casually brushed hair in a way that only increased his appeal.
Saints above, she thought, as her heart knocked hard inside her chest, her pulse leaping as it hadn’t leapt in years—if it ever had at all.
Schooling her features so they revealed none of her inner turmoil, she gave him a polite nod. “Pardon me, sir.” She waited, expecting him to step aside.
Instead, he executed an elegant bow. “Allow me to introduce myself. I am Lord Leopold Byron. My intimates, however, call me Leo.”
Arrogant, isn’t he? Well, she’d met arrogant men before, many times.
She gave him a long, cool stare. “Do they? How nice for them. Now I must insist you step aside. We haven’t been properly introduced. As you ought to know, a gentleman never speaks directly to a lady with whom he is not acquainted. Pity one of your intimates isn’t here to do the honors. Good evening.”
She took a step to the right.
He matched her move, impeding her path once again. “Shall I go find our host, then?” he asked pleasantly. “I’m sure Elmore would be happy to affect an introduction. Frankly, though, it seems like a great lot of bother, particularly since we are conversing already.”
Reaching toward the tray of a passing servant, he picked up two glasses. “Champagne?” he offered. Smiling that devastating smile again, he held out one of the crystal flutes with its golden draught effervescing inside.
Audacious as well as arrogant. That and handsome in a sinful way no man had a right to be.
Call me Leo, indeed.
She didn’t know whether to be annoyed or amused, particularly since she was sure part of his strategy in waylaying her was to provoke a strong reaction. Still, she found herself accepting one of the proffered glasses, if for no other reason than to give herself time to steady her nerves.
“Since I doubt you’ll volunteer your name, not without Elmore’s aid at least,” Lord Leo continued, “I suppose I must try guessing on my own. Lady Thalia Lennox, is it not?”
The wine suddenly turned sour on her tongue.
Of course, she realized, she ought to have known that he was only playing games and knew her by reputation. Everyone in the Ton did, it seemed—even if they wouldn’t associate with her any longer. “Then you have me at even more of a disadvantage than I realized.”
“Not at all, since we have only just met and need time to learn about one another.”
“I am sure you’ve heard all you need to know about me. Divorce trials will do that for a woman. Now if you’ll—”
“If you’re concerned I mind a sheen of scandal, I don’t. I’ve weathered a few of them myself over the years, so such matters make no difference to me.”
He’d been embroiled in scandals, had he? Vaguely she remembered mention of various members of the Byron family involved in deeds that had shocked Society at one time or another. But none of their acts had made any of the Byrons outcasts. And being that Lord Leo was a man, the Ton was, of course, more apt to forgive, no matter how serious the trespasses might have been.
As for his “over the years” remark, he didn’t look old enough to have weathered all that many scandals. In fact, just how old was he? Certainly not her own two-and-thirty, even if he had the confidence of a man in his prime.
Regardless of scandals and age, she had no interest in setting up a flirtation with a stranger. “It has been . . . interesting meeting you, Lord Leopold, but I really must be going.”
“Why? It is early yet. Surely you can remain a while longer?”
“Truly, I cannot,” she said.
He gave her a shrewd look, as if he saw right through her excuses. “Afraid you might enjoy yourself? Or are you worried I’m going to stare down your dress like Teaksbury?”
Her mouth dropped open before she could recall herself.
“It was rather hard to miss that crass display of his,” Lord Leo remarked. “The man’s a boor. It’s a wonder he wasn’t actually drooling. Not that I can entirely blame him, given your irresistible feminine charms. Still, were I to feast my eyes upon you, I promise it would leave you in no doubt of my sincere admiration.”
Slowly, his gaze dipped down, moving gradually over her body in a way that felt almost like a caress.
When he met her eyes again, his own were alight with unrepentant desire. “You are the most exquisite woman I have ever beheld. Even a god would find himself tempted by you.”
A hot flush burst over her skin, shocking her with its force. Only barely did she resist the urge to reach up and cover her hot cheeks with her hands. The sensation was truly singular considering she hadn’t blushed since her girlhood and her first London Season.
Experienced women did not blush.
Yet this outrageous lord with his heart-stopping smile and velvety voice roused emotions in her that she hadn’t realized she still possessed.
“Now,” he said, “why don’t we go somewhere more private so we can get even better acquainted? I have my coach just outside. And please, I insist you call me Leo. As I said before, all my intimates do.”
All his bedmates, he meant, his meaning clear.
Without even knowing what she intended, she flung the contents of her glass up into his face, champagne splashing everywhere.
He blinked wine out of his eyes, a stunned expression on his wet face.
“You and I shall never be intimates. Good night, Lord Leopold.”
Spinning around, she marched toward the door.
As she did, she caught sight of a man standing across the room—a man she would have sworn was Leopold Byron had she not known he was still dripping somewhere behind her. Her step wobbled slightly as her mind worked to figure out the unexpected anomaly.
Twins? Good God, are there two of him?
And his brother was laughing, making no effort at all to contain his mirth.
Well, let him laugh. Impudent beast, just like his sibling.
As for the rest of the guests whose stares pierced her from all directions, she was used to such scrutiny.
The entire incident would be in tomorrow’s papers, of course.
But what do I care? Tossing champagne into a man’s face was nothing, not compared with what she’d been through already. For when you’ve known the worst, the rest was naught but a trifle.
Leo withdrew a white silk handkerchief from his waistcoat pocket and dried his face as he watched Thalia Lennox disappear from view with a final flourish of her green skirts.
Lawrence appeared at his side moments later, his grin so wide it was a wonder it didn’t split his cheeks.
“Well, that went swimmingly,” Lawrence said with a hearty chuckle. “Had her eating right out of the palm of your hand, at least until she decided to give you a champagne bath!” He laughed again. “You owe me twenty quid. Pay up.”
“I will when we get home.” Leo wiped briefly at his sodden cravat before giving up.
“What on earth did you say to her anyway? I knew she’d rebuff you, but not with quite so much enthusiasm.”
Somewhat begrudgingly, Leo provided him with a brief recounting.
Lawrence erupted into fresh gales of laughter, so loud the outburst drew every eye.
“Oh, do shut up, won’t you?” Leo told his brother with a grumble. “I think there might be one scullery maid in the kitchen who hasn’t heard you.”
Rubbing moisture from the corners of his eyes, Lawrence did his best to silence his mirth, though his lips continued to twitch. “My condolences for your loss.” He laid a consoling hand on Leo’s shoulder. “You know what your trouble is?”
Leo sent him a baleful look. “I’m certain you shall be happy to illuminate me.”
“You’re too used to being fawned over by women. When was the last time one of them turned you down? You were what? Fifteen?”
“Thirteen,” Leo countered, unable to repress a grin. “Remember that gorgeous little chambermaid at Braebourne? She never did let me steal more than a kiss.”
Lawrence’s eyes twinkled with clear recollection. “She let me steal two.”
Leo shot him a fresh glare.
“Never say you weren’t warned,” Lawrence continued. “I told you the ex-Lady K. would knock you down and kick you into a convenient corner. From now on, stick to more accessible, and appreciative, females.”
Leo considered his twin’s remark. “I do not believe I shall.”
“What! But surely you’ve had enough?”
“No,” he said, his gut tightening with the knowledge that he wanted Thalia Lennox, now more than ever. She’d said they would never be intimate, but he’d learned long ago the mistake of saying never, since fate had an interesting way of turning matters on their head.
“She may have eluded me tonight, but our paths will cross again. And when they do . . .”
“You’re deluded, that’s what you are,” Lawrence said.
Leo grinned. “No, just determined. Now, how about making our excuses to our host and finding some company with a bit more fire in their blood? Fancy a game of cards or dice? I know a prime hell we haven’t tried.”
Lawrence’s eyes brightened. “By all means, lead on, brother mine.”
Slapping a hand across his twin’s shoulder, Leo led the way.
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