About the book
At the wrong place...With the wrong man…
Lady Blanche is a woman in love. Or so she thinks until she is ravishly kissed by a rakish Marquess, her own betrothed’s friend. But surely, she can evoke the same passions in her intended’s heart if she tries, right?
Ernest Belmont, the Marquess of Tate, already knows he is a rake beyond redemption. Even more so when his desire for his friend’s betrothed threatens to drown him and he goes beyond a line he never intended to cross.
Tormented as he might be, Ernest knows that Blanche will be much better off with a proper man. Until the display of her stark naked portrait opens his eyes about his friend’s true nature. And save her from him he will. Even if it is the last thing he will do...
A woman is at her most ravishing when she is in love and Lady Blanche, the only daughter of the Earl of Farrell, was gloriously, incandescently enamored with her fiancé, William Johnson, the Viscount of Morrow.
Her blue eyes were aglow with happiness, her fair cheeks so becomingly flushed as they danced under the bright lights of the chandelier. They made quite the striking pair—where Blanche was petite with lovely pale blonde curls and startling blue eyes, the Viscount was tall and naturally dashing, possessed with thick dark hair and brown eyes.
It was a match made in Heaven and even the crotchety old Dowager Duchess of Keaton had regarded them with an approving eye as William tucked her gloved hand into the crook of his arm and led her out to dance. After the dance, he bowed politely to her and with the same polite smile, returned her to the side of Scarlet Johnson, his younger sister and Blanche’s closest friend in all of London.
“Why, I daresay, you make the loveliest couple in this whole ball!” Scarlet smiled, fanning herself prettily. Like William, she had a pair of lovely, deep-brown eyes, the color of molten chocolate. “I have never seen William quite so taken with a woman before.”
Blanche flushed at her words. “Surely, you jest.”
“’Tis true! He was beside himself with joy after your father approved of his suit.”
As Scarlet gushed over her brother, Blanche tilted her head slightly to catch a glimpse of her betrothed. William was standing on the other side of the ballroom with another nobleman. Her smooth forehead wrinkled when she realized he was with Ernest Belmont, the Marquess of Tate.
As if the man noticed her looking at them, he raised his deep-blue eyes to meet hers. For a moment, blue clashed against blue as their gazes met from across the ballroom. A slow smile tilted across the edge of his lips, as if in acknowledgment of her appraisal.
Aghast that she had been caught, she ducked her head and tore her gaze away from him. “In truth, I am not so sure that William feels the same way about this engagement,” Blanche sighed, pushing that deep, penetrating blue gaze out of her mind as she turned back to her best friend. “Tonight, he hardly talked to me even when we danced.”
Scarlet frowned, her fan stilling. “What do you mean?”
Blanche smiled weakly. “Perhaps he is just too honorable and it is not his way to be so forward.”
“Even with his betrothed?” her best friend snorted delicately. She poked at Blanche with her fan teasingly. “Well, one can say the same thing of you. After all, you are so dreadfully proper and men will naturally curb their baser appetites.”
“What baser appetites?” she inquired.
“Well, have you and William ever kissed?”
Blanche looked at her friend as if she had lost all sense. “Why, yes, of course. He has kissed the back of my hand a few times since our engagement.”
Scarlet rolled her eyes. “Not that, you silly little goose.”
“Well, surely you cannot mean that kind of kissing?” she gasped. “William seems to be far too honorable for that sort of dalliance. Besides, I am of the mind that he fears offending my sensibilities before the wedding.”
“My dear Blanche,” her friend shook her head. “Have you honestly no idea what goes on in the dark gardens at these balls?” She swept her hand regally across the ballroom. “Not all you see here are as wonderfully proper as you, nor as honorably monotonous as my dunce of a brother. However,” her dark-brown eyes glittered with mischief, “my brother is just as much a man as any of them and with the proper prodding, I daresay you will be able to make him lose all sense of honor and fall desperately at your feet!”
Blanche blushed at her friend’s scandalous words. Truly, it wasn’t what one would expect a gently bred young lady to say but Scarlet had always been more spirited than most of the debutantes of the Season. It was why they got along so famously as they were both possessed of the same nature. It was just that Scarlet was slightly more adventurous.
“I have never been alone to the gardens,” she finally murmured. “I was afraid I would uncover something of a scandalous nature and I would have to spend the rest of my existence trying to forget it.”
“Fortune favors the brave,” her friend winked mischievously at her. “You must be the only truly innocent soul in this entire ballroom. A walk in the gardens tonight would give you the kind of lesson you shan’t learn in these brightly lit halls.”
“You mean, you have seen what goes on in the gardens? If Miss Chastity knew of this, she would succumb to the vapors!”
“Miss Chastity would succumb to the vapors at the slightest hint of scandal,” Scarlet muttered.
“That is because you give her a great cause for fear, my dear.”
Both girls giggled at the thought of the kindly chaperone William hired to accompany his sister for that Season. Miss Chastity was indeed of a spotless reputation but she was spooked by the slightest things and with Scarlet’s headstrong nature, she was forever fretting over her charge.
After all, Blanche thought wryly, which noble young lady would suggest a walk out into the gardens to witness the secret trysts the ton dabbled in? Only Scarlet would have the gall to do so.
She turned her head subtly toward the double doors that opened out into the sprawling gardens of Haversham Hall. Indeed, she had heard all sorts of stories of the trysts that went on beyond the ballrooms but she had never dared to see for herself what went on beyond these brightly lit halls.
What sort of secrets could be beyond those doors? Blanche thought to herself. And what knowledge could be gained in the dark?
Indeed, she was no longer the same bright-eyed, naive young lady she was when she first made her debut. She was an engaged woman now and if she was to make her future husband happy, it was not much of an effort to learn more about the nature of men. Blanche shook her head clear of such thoughts. This is madness!
“I do not think William is that sort of man,” she frowned. “He is upright and honorable, unlike the countless rakes that roam all of London, seeking their next prey.”
Scarlet smirked at her. “But you know what they do say—reformed rakes make the best husbands. The Earl of Cheswick for example. Why, hardly anyone approved of his behavior and the way he carried on had every young lady in fear of his approach. But look at him now. I have never seen a more doting husband!”
“You forget one thing,” Blanche pointed out at her, wrinkling her nose delicately. “That is on the rare chance that these rakes do reform. Not everyone is like the Earl and not every woman is like his Countess. Rather than be some other rogue’s dalliance, it is much safer to wed honorable men like your brother and live more peaceful days.”
“Oh, you!” her friend laughed. “I was only jesting. Indeed, it is the dream of every young lady to find a good match and be married in relative happiness.”
The two young women smiled knowingly at each other. Indeed, matches among the ton were rarely as fortunate as that of Blanche and the Viscount of Morrow and there were so many unhappy marriages among them that it was quite disheartening.
I should already be content with an honorable man like William, Blanche thought herself.
But still, she could not help but glance once more beyond those doors that opened into the night and to another world.
“I never thought I would see the Marquess of Tate be this lonesome at a grand ball such as this.”
Ernest Belmont looked up to find his friend, William Johnson, the Viscount of Morrow, striding confidently toward him, an easy smile on his face. He smiled at him, although his hand tightened imperceptibly on the watch he was holding before he tucked it back into his pocket.
“Well, not all of us are irritatingly happy,” he replied.
William laughed and clapped him on the back. “It seems that my days of dallying with the ladies are over, now that I am betrothed. You, however,” he raised an eyebrow at the Marquess, “have the opportunity. I noted that Elizabeth Terrance has been casting glances at you all night.”
Ernest frowned and looked in the direction of the Dowager Baroness, who was, indeed, glancing coyly at him. Tonight, she was wearing a deep-blue dress that exposed her plunging neckline. When their eyes met, she smiled seductively at him, her red lips curving into a flirtatious smirk. An invitation.
He turned back to William with a smile. “The suggestion has merit. Many thanks.”
“You know I will always endeavor to be of assistance to my friends,” the Viscount chuckled. He turned back to glance in the direction of his betrothed. “Especially now that I am to be married. I would not want to offend Lady Blanche by engaging in such licentious acts.”
“Whereas my dark, unreformed soul can only look up to your example,” Ernest noted wryly. “Congratulations on your betrothal, by the way. Lady Blanche is beautiful and gentle. The entire ton is abuzz with the news, calling it the Match of the Season.”
“She is indeed lovely, isn’t she?” his friend murmured. “She and Scarlet get along quite famously. The mischief they get into is enough to send Miss Chastity into an early grave.”
Ernest just smiled and nodded. After all, he should not comment overly on the woman who was betrothed to his friend. Even if he did find her outrageously beautiful.
As William prattled on about the latest horse he had acquired, Ernest felt it—the slight prickling sensation of being watched. He slowly lifted his eyes—a subtle movement that had lured countless women into his arms and into his bed.
However, instead of Elizabeth Terrance’s drab gray eyes, he found his gaze captured by the soft perusal of an all-too-familiar pair of sapphire orbs. He saw her eyes widen the slightest fraction when he boldly returned her gaze, her soft, pink cheeks flushing. He could not help but smile at her adorable reaction before she swiftly turned her head away.
He felt oddly bereft at the loss of their eye contact but it was good that she should avoid associating with the likes of him. Delicate, innocent ladies like Blanche Reed should be kept away from rakes like him. She was well-suited to men like William, who were honorable and upright. Someone who would even refrain from touching her indecently to avoid offending her sensibilities.
Because if it was me, I would not have been able to resist, he thought to himself. He pushed those thoughts out of his head, cursing himself mentally. What sort of depraved creature was he to admire his friend’s betrothed in such a manner?
“You do know you can always marry a nice young lady like my betrothed,” William mused, his voice cutting through his reverie.
“Thanks, but I do not think I have the fortitude to maintain an honorable lifestyle,” he muttered wryly. “And I daresay no sensible young lady would ever want to marry someone with my reputation.”
“You never know, Belmont,” his friend chuckled. “Perhaps you have simply not met the woman who can tame your dastardly ways.”
“And I pray I never meet her,” he replied, raising his glass to his friend before downing its contents, feeling the alcohol burn through his chest and his gut. “In any case, I do believe I should not keep Lady Terrance waiting.”
“If you do, I fear that she will bat her eyes at you until she faints.”
Ernest merely shrugged before excusing himself to walk over to the corner where the young Baroness was standing idly by herself, cradling a glass of wine. When she saw him approach, her lips curved into a sensual smile.
“Lord Tate,” her voice came out in a purr, running her eyes over his form. “A pleasure.”
He acknowledged her with a smile that did not quite reach his eyes. “Lady Terrance, the pleasure is all mine.”
“Call me Elizabeth.”
“Elizabeth then,” he amended. He raised a dark eyebrow at her. “How are you finding this ball so far?”
She fanned herself and glanced coyly up at him. “Dreadfully disappointing. I had forgotten just how tedious these things can be.”
“Madam, it has only been a year since your coming out.” Actually, it had been three years and she was married for two, before her eighty-year-old husband died in his sleep a year ago, leaving her a young and outrageously wealthy widow.
“And yet, here I am,” she replied. “Dreadfully disappointed.” She smirked at him. “Until now.”
Ernest was not a newcomer to the games the ton played. He could see what she was hinting at. He knew this dance like the back of his hand. Knew where it would lead, where it was heading.
“Perhaps, all you need is a breath of fresh air,” he suggested nonchalantly. He eyed the plunging neckline that remained uncovered by the deep-blue dress she wore. “It is awfully warm in here.”
“Only if you would accompany me, Lord Tate.”
“Why, it would be my honor, Baroness.” He offered her his arm and she slid her gloved hand into his elbow. Together, they stepped out of those open doors and into the cool night air.
When he looked back, Lady Blanche had turned her attention back to her friend, smiling as they talked about…whatever it was that young ladies liked to talk about. For a moment, he willed her eyes to look up at him like they did earlier but they did not.
It is just as well, he reminded himself. She has no business associating with the likes of me.
Women like Blanche Reed were meant to be cherished lovingly and he…well, Ernest was only too well aware of the fact that he would make an absolutely terrible husband.
In fact, when William told him of their betrothal, he had felt a slight relief that his friend apparently regarded her well enough to treat her honorably. William was not without his faults but he was at least more honorable than Ernest was. She would be happier with him. He knew it.
“My Lord?” He looked down and found Elizabeth Terrance looking at him with some annoyance in her pretty face.
“Nothing, my sweet,” he told her, patting her hand in reassurance.
She frowned delicately. “For a moment there, I thought you were looking at Lady Blanche.”
“Now, why would I do that?” he answered smoothly. “When I have such a beautiful creature in my arms tonight?”
Her lips curled into a seductive smile. “I’m glad you know it, My Lord. In addition to her being betrothed to the Viscount of Morrow, I’m afraid you are both ill-suited.”
“Is that jealousy I hear in your tone?” he asked her.
She raised her eyebrow. “Should I be?”
“No,” he said tersely. Ernest knew there was truth in her words but still, he did not like the thought of it coming from Elizabeth Terrance’s lips.
“Come,” he coaxed her, drawing her attention from Blanche. “The night is young.”
“Indeed,” she purred, running her fingernail delicately on his arm as she looked up at him. The intent was clear in her eyes.
Together, they stepped into the maze of neatly trimmed hedges.
Blanche watched with a weak smile as Lord Garamond drew Scarlet into a lively dance. After that one dance, William had not asked her for another. Instead, he had avoided her for the entire night.
As much as she appreciated how honorable he was, how he treated her well within the bounds of propriety, she still wished that he would spend a little more time with her. After all, they were to be married within a few more weeks. It would not hurt to be well-acquainted with each other before the actual ceremony.
She blushed at the thought of being intimate with her betrothed. What she knew of the affairs between men and women was…dreadfully lacking. Her own mother had died a few years earlier and her father was not exactly forthcoming on the relationship between men and women, only choosing to emphasize that she should avoid men of ill reputation at all costs.
Well, at least William is nothing like those licentious rakes, she told herself with a smile of slight relief. Nobody is perfect. And in any case, we have all the time to get to know each other after the wedding…when we are alone.
He certainly was not the type to step out in the gardens. In all her time since her coming out, she had not heard him being involved with any particular lady. Even the Dowager Duchess of Keaton deemed him to be a good catch.
She looked around, hoping to catch another glimpse of her betrothed but she could not find him. Her eyes searched for him subtly around the crowd but he was nowhere to be found.
He was not with the gentlemen discussing politics nor horses. Nor was he on the dance floor. Where could he be?
Her eyes turned toward the gardens beyond the double doors.
“Maybe he just stepped out for a breath of fresh air,” she muttered to herself. Indeed, she was feeling a bit too warm within the ballroom herself.
So, she picked up her skirts and quietly made her way out of those double doors and into the night.
Where could he have gone?
Blanche turned her head sideways, scanning the vast expanse of the gardens that lay before her. On regular days, the Haversham Hall gardens were a place of beauty. Lady Haversham frequently held tea parties among the neatly trimmed hedges and flowers. At night, it was a different story altogether.
She took one look back into the brightly lit ballroom and saw that Scarlet was still dancing with Lord Garamond, a polite smile on her face. Before her, the darkness beckoned like a dark, mysterious lover, whispering secrets.
Gathering her courage, Blanche delicately lifted her skirt as she stepped into the cool night air, the gauzy hem of her dress brushing against the soft grass underfoot. Her heart pounded in her chest as she tread carefully, half in excitement and half in fear of what she might find in the gardens.
Scarlet’s words earlier that night echoed in her mind as she searched for her fiancé. Her delicate features scrunched up into a frown at the thought of finding William in the gardens. He couldn’t possibly be out here, dallying with another lady, could he? Blanche thought to herself. No, William is far too honorable for that!
He would not even touch her with the slightest bit of impropriety, although they were about to be wed. She knew that there were some engaged couples who would steal away for a kiss or two prior to marriage, but William treated her with the utmost respect—something that both touched Blanche and at the same time, made her the tiniest bit anxious.
Is he not attracted to me in that way? Blanche had often asked herself. But before such thoughts could take root in her heart, she had always managed to stop herself. She wandered deeper into the gardens, lost in thought. It was a horrible habit of hers and one that Scarlet often scolded her for.
All around her, the neatly trimmed hedges towered over her and Blanche realized that she had wandered in the famed maze of Haversham Hall’s gardens. She had never before ventured into this part of the gardens. On the few occasions she had come for tea and croquet, she and the rest of the young ladies had kept to the tamer areas of the Estate.
The maze was the realm of lovers and trysts—an area that was forbidden to unmarried young ladies such as herself.
“Blanche Reed, you silly goose, you are betrothed to an honorable man,” she laughed softly to herself. “Why are you searching for him in the most improper places? Surely, he cannot be here!”
But if he was nowhere to be found in the ballroom, then where was he? She shook her head and turned to make her way back into the ballroom, when she came across a hedge she had not noted before. Blanche furrowed her brow and turned to the right, her steps becoming more unsure as she walked.
She came upon another hedge blocking her way. A dead end.
“Dear God in Heaven, I can’t be lost,” she muttered to herself. She retraced her steps and wound up in a different part of the maze altogether. She frowned as she realized she was well and truly lost in the dark maze with only the moonlight.
She heard the rustle of leaves and then a soft feminine sigh followed by the murmuring of a deep masculine voice. Her brow scrunched as she lifted her skirt and approached the source of the sound, her shoes whispering across the soft carpet of grass.
In the shadows, she could vaguely make out the familiar shape of a tall man with broad shoulders, his back to her. A woman clad in a dark-colored dress was ensconced in his embrace and from their intimate positions, it could be seen that she had caught them at a highly inopportune moment.
“William?” she gasped in shock and surprise.
Blanche’s eyes widened at the sight before her. She had never before seen an illicit scene played out before her eyes although she had often heard from Scarlet and the gossip among the ton of the goings on in the dark.
At the sound of her voice, the couple stilled and the woman let out a surprised shriek before running off into the dark, her skirt in her hands. Blanche could vaguely make out her voluptuous form and her dark hair before she disappeared down another hedge in the maze.
“Well, now you’ve ruined my night,” a deep voice growled in annoyance. “What do you intend to do to make up for it?”
Blanche stiffened at the sound of that smooth baritone as realization came crashing down upon her. It wasn’t William. Thank God!
“Nothing, of course,” she replied, bristling at the authoritative tone. She threw her head back and tried her best to look the man squarely in the eye, although it was quite difficult with him shrouded in shadow. She squinted at him and belatedly realized that he could not have possibly been her betrothed.
For one, he was taller than William, with broad shoulders and a narrow waist outlined by his evening coat. When he walked toward her, he reminded her of a feline predator stalking its prey, the easy confidence and gait belying the danger she was in.
“Nothing?” the voice chuckled. “Everything has its price, Lady Blanche.” He stepped out into the moonlight and she gasped when she finally realized who he was—the Marquess of Tate, the known rogue, Lord Ernest Belmont!
Her heart pounded in her chest when she saw his features clearly. His sharp blue eyes were surveying her as if she was a rabbit and he was the wolf, an arrogant smirk gracing his lips.
But as much as she wavered at the sight of him, Blanche stood her ground and lifted her chin proudly. “’Twas nothing but an honest mistake, My Lord,” she replied. “I was looking for my betrothed and wandered off too far into the gardens.”
“William Johnson?” he scoffed. “Why would you think he would be here? Unless—”
She glowered at his suggestive smirk. “I merely thought he went out for a breath of fresh air.”
“A breath of—” he trailed off with a derisive snort. When a man stepped off into the darkness, it was most certainly not because he wanted a damned breath of fresh air.
“And what are you doing here?” she huffed. “Engaging in such debauchery! Have you no shame?”
He raised an eyebrow at her chiding. “Did I not step out appropriately? Should I have carried on in one of the empty hallways?”
“You are absolutely wicked! How could you do such a thing in a public gathering? Did you not fear offending the sensibilities of innocent young ladies in the vicinity?”
“Innocent ladies such as yourself?” he chuckled. “I suppose poor William has yet to properly show you the relations between men and women—”
She bristled at his words. “Is there no end to your depravity?”
“Why indeed did you follow him out into the dark? Perhaps you were afraid to catch him in the dark with another woman? Or,” he smiled at her, the curve of his lips a wicked taunt, “were you hoping to sneak off with him into the darkness?”
“That is preposterous!” Blanche wanted to slap the arrogant smile off of his handsome visage. “Lord William is nothing like you! How dare you compare yourself to him?”
“Oh?” he raised a dark eyebrow as he looked down at her. “In what way can I not compare to your beloved fiancé?” He took a step toward her and she stepped back, her eyes widening with a hint of fear. If he did something improper toward her, there would be no one who might hear her scream.
“You…you are not as honorable as he is,” she stuttered.
“Honor is dreadfully boring.” He took another step forward. “Coming to the gardens at night, away from the bright lights of the ball…you must have wanted something else, Lady Blanche.”
Her heart thudded in her chest as she raised her eyes to him. Gone was the taunting glint in their blue depths. Instead, she saw something deep and dark in them—an emotion she could not name.
“What else could a woman want?” she asked him, trying to inject as much defiance into her voice as she could.
He smiled arrogantly at her. “What do you want, Lady Blanche?”
When he led Lady Terrance out into Haversham Hall’s maze of hedges, Ernest was of the mind to push off the annoyance he felt at his friend’s fortuitous engagement, as well as all thoughts of the lovely Lady Blanche. Lady Elizabeth had appeared willing and unlike the inexperienced young ladies of the ton, she was well aware of what he was after and her desires matched up with his.
He also knew she would not make unnecessary demands of him like the other unmarried young ladies. He certainly did not anticipate the source of his discomfort for that night appearing before him and disturbing what was proving to be a good enough distraction from the turmoil of his thoughts.
Nor did he anticipate how glorious she looked in the moonlight, with a halo of pale golden curls and her blue eyes glistening like sapphires as she faced him squarely, her bosom heaving with indignation as he teased her.
By Jove, she had no idea how utterly ravishing she was! No idea!
He had not intended to tease her but he could not help himself. When her temper flared like that, it was all he could do not to snatch her up into his arms and have his way with her right there in the Haversham’s garden!
However, Ernest did not anticipate just how utterly intoxicating her fiery temper could be. Like a moth to a flame, he was drawn to her. His eyes fell onto her luscious lips, which were slightly parted as she gazed up at him warily. A slow smile spread itself across his own lips.
“I think you do know what you want, Lady Blanche,” he said softly. “I think you know very well.”
She shook her head and took another step back away from him. “I think you have mistaken me for another of your women, My Lord,” she snapped at him, her eyes spitting blue fire. “I am nothing like your dalliances.”
Gone was the indecision from the moment before. All that remained was that glorious, glorious flame. And Ernest was reveling in the burn.
“And you have mistaken me for your monotonous fiancé,” he replied smoothly. “I am nothing like the gentlemen of the ton, Lady Blanche.”
“I’m well aware of that.” Her eyes swiveled to the side, averting her gaze from his. “And I want no part in…in whatever debauchery you and your ilk partake in.”
He smiled at that. He loved how she had such an extensive vocabulary, loved how her mouth formed those words.
“Are you sure?” he purred. “I think that you are dissatisfied with the good Viscount. Otherwise, you would not seek him out in the gardens. After all, you do know what happens in the gardens in the dark.”
He saw her swallow, her luminous eyes widening as she gazed up at him. He reached out to stroke her soft cheek and ached at how it felt under his fingertips. “You are a rake,” she hissed. “Of the very worst sort.”
He smiled at her. “Have you ever been kissed by a rake?” He stepped closer toward her until he was close enough to savor the soft scent of her perfume. “I daresay you should not judge us so badly until you have tried it for yourself.”
“I do not need to be kissed by a rake, My Lord,” she said breathlessly. “I am perfectly happy being betrothed to an honorable gentleman who…who respects my sensibilities!”
“How about you try for yourself before you cast judgment, My Lady?”
“Now, you are being—” Before she could speak another word, he had drawn her close. Her small hands came up swiftly on his chest as she stared up at him in confusion.
“Tell me, My Lady,” he murmured. “Has your betrothed ever held you like this?”
She shook her head. “No, William would never—”
“That is because William is a fool,” he muttered. “And so am I.” Without another word, his mouth slanted over hers in a kiss that was meant to challenge her and wound his manly pride at being compared incessantly to William.
However, when her soft body melted against his hard body in gentle surrender, when she let out a soft moan, he could not resist taking the kiss deeper. His hand came up to the back of her head, cradling her as his mouth plundered her wholly unexperienced depths.
He had kissed countless other women. With them, kissing had become a sort of sport as to who could kiss better. He had never felt the kind of incendiary passion he was feeling in this one kiss—a passion that threatened to burn his very soul and awaken a fierce desire in him. No other woman had ever affected him the way Blanche’s innocent surrender did.
As he lost himself in the kiss, Ernest knew without a doubt that he would never be the same again. He would never be satisfied with just a taste. He was a damned soul and Blanche had sent him to Hell with just a single kiss.
When they finally parted, his gaze visibly softened as he looked at her with her eyes closed, her lips still parted from their passionate encounter. He caressed her cheek softly as her eyes flew open but what he saw was not the passion that lingered in his own eyes. It was stark horror.
Blanche could not believe that she had allowed Lord Ernest Belmont, one of the most notorious rakes in the whole of London, to have his way with her.
She stepped back in absolute horror at what she had done, pushing herself out of his arms as she shook her head. “No, no, no,” she moaned. “I shouldn’t have done that. We shouldn’t have done that!”
The Marquess looked coolly at her, that hateful smirk still on his arrogant features. How she longed to wipe that smug grin of his face!
I can’t believe that I acted so improperly when I am already betrothed to a nice, honorable gentleman, she wailed mentally. And with Ernest Belmont of all people!
“This…this never happened,” she told him. “We never came across each other tonight. I will go back into the ballroom and pretend like nothing happened. And you!” She turned to glare at him. “It would be best if we never crossed paths again!”
Before he could say another word, she picked up her skirts and ran in the opposite direction. She could hear him calling out after her but she paid him no heed as she hurtled toward the hedges until she finally emerged at the edge of the maze, the bright lights of the ballroom within sight.
She turned back, half-afraid that the Marquess had followed her and they would be caught together. I cannot afford a scandal. Not when I am about to be married!
She ran toward the double doors and into the bright light. She saw Scarlet’s worried face melt into relief at the sight of her.
“There you are!” her friend exclaimed in a low voice. She pulled Blanche to one side and looked her over from head to toe. “Where have you been? Did you truly take my advice and go into the gardens? Why do you look like the very hounds of Hell are after you?”
Blanche fought the urge to burst into tears as the questions fell one after the other from her friend’s lips. In the end, she just shook her head and told her, “I lost sight of William and went out to look for him. However, I got lost in the maze and suffered such a terrible fright. I thought I would never find my way back!”
“Oh, you poor dear!” Scarlet soothed her as she tucked an errant curl that had escaped her intricate chignon. “No wonder your hair is all in disarray. Let me first help you fix yourself before we go back inside. Best not to have the gossips after your hide when you come back in.”
Blanche allowed her friend to fuss over her, fixing her hair as she stood numbly. How was she to tell Scarlet that her hair had come undone at the hands of the Marquess in the heat of their passionate kiss? No, it was best to let her believe that she had indeed lost her way in the maze.
“There! Now, you look pretty again,” Scarlet beamed up at her as she smoothed her hair back from her face. “Now, come inside and let’s find you something to drink to calm your nerves. William has been searching for you. I had to dissuade him from sending out a veritable search party, as it could endanger your reputation.”
At the mention of her fiancé, Blanche felt her heart clench painfully in her chest. She had been so afraid that William was carrying on behind her back when she herself had gone out and engaged in a highly improper act with the Marquess. Guilt suffused her rosy cheeks and clouded her eyes.
“Oh dear, don’t cry, Blanche! I swear, I stopped William before he did anything stupid.”
Blanche smiled shakily at her friend. “No, I am just so relieved to be back. You don’t know how absolutely frightening the maze is in the dark.”
There lurked beasts in human form, she thought to herself. Far more handsome and charming than the devil himself.
“Don’t you fret, dear one. You’re safe now.” Scarlet squeezed her hand in a soothing, reassuring manner. “Do you want me to call for your carriage? It looks like you have suffered a huge fright. I think it would be best if you rested for a bit. Besides, it is already quite late. Nobody would question you if you went home at this hour.”
“I think that would be for the best.”
Scarlet nodded. “Now, put on your most dazzling smile. You know how awful these gossips are. If they catch so much as a whiff of scandal, they’ll kick up such a fuss.”
Blanche knew all too well how vicious the scandalmongers among the ton could be. In the fight for winning the most suitable matches, it was not uncommon for so-called friends to turn against each other, which was why she was so thankful for Scarlet. In their dazzling world of wealth and titles, it was so rare to come across a genuine friend like her.
“Lady Blanche, are you all right?”
She looked up to find her betrothed approach them with a worried look in his deep-brown eyes. “When I could not find you, I was so worried.”
“Well, if you hadn’t disappeared to Heaven knows where, Blanche wouldn’t have suffered such a fright!” Scarlet snapped at him. “Where were you, anyway?”
He looked at them both with a sheepish grin, scratching the back of his head. “I saw a friend of mine I had not seen in years and we exchanged pleasantries for a while. I had not intended for our conversation to take longer than a few minutes at the most.”
“It’s all right, Scarlet,” Blanche said with a tremulous smile. She turned to her betrothed but found that she could not meet his eyes, so she settled for…his left ear. “I am all right, My Lord. ‘Twas nothing at all.”
“I’ll sort him out when we get home,” her friend promised her before turning to William.
It was quite fortunate that several of the guests were also leaving and were merely exchanging pleasantries by the door before they bid their hosts goodbye. Lady Haversham eyed her suspiciously from her position by the door but since she was escorted by her betrothed and his sister, she did not dare say anything.
Blanche smiled weakly at the formidable lady. “Thank you so much for having us tonight, Lady Haversham,” she murmured. “We had a spectacular evening.”
Lady Haversham returned the pleasantries briefly before turning to her other guests and Blanche worried that her escapade into the gardens tonight was obvious on her face. However, she had no time to dwell on such thoughts as William had draped her coat over her shoulders before escorting her back to her carriage.
“Sleep well tonight, Lady Blanche,” he smiled at her, pressing a most proper kiss to the back of her hand.
Blanche could only nod weakly as she fought to keep the vivid picture of Ernest’s far more improper kiss out of her mind. She knew she would hardly be able to sleep tonight. She feared that his fiery kiss had scorched a brand upon her very soul, marking her.
She shook her head to clear it of such thoughts. Nobody had seen them in the garden and as far as she knew, nobody had noticed her absence at the ball, save for William and Scarlet, and her friend was quick-witted enough to keep her disappearance from being noticed.
She laid her head back on the velvet-lined seat of the carriage, her fingers subconsciously tracing her lips. Try as she might, she could not get her mind off the delightful sensations that the Marquess had wrought upon her, although it was wrong. So, so wrong.
She had no business being in the company of another man or even thinking about another man’s kisses. No, the best thing she could do was forget Ernest Belmont and his soul-branding kisses!
“From now on,” she swore quietly to herself as the carriage swayed back to Farrell Manor, “I will do my best to avoid the Marquess at all costs! I will focus on becoming the best wife and Viscountess for William.”
It was the very least she could do. After all, that kiss had been a betrayal of their betrothal.
However, as she laid in bed that night, she soon realized that forgetting the Marquess and the heady, passionate kiss they shared in the darkness was easier said than done. He had awakened something within her—something that William had not been able to do, despite how much she adored him.
Blanche groaned and threw off her covers as she struggled to forget the kiss and the unmistakable heat that it sparked within her.
It was a long, long time before she finally fell asleep.
“What the bloody Hell was I thinking?”
Lord Ernest Belmont, Marquess of Tate, resisted the urge to kick the obnoxious hedge in front of him. He had, for most of his life, been in complete control of his faculties. It was only tonight that he felt his control slip and it all went downhill from there. All because of a bloody pair of luminous eyes.
“Those damned eyes of hers should be outlawed,” he muttered to himself, shoving his hand into his hair.
Tonight had revealed just how dangerous his attraction to Blanche Reed was—to his sanity and her reputation. There could never be a repeat of what occurred tonight. Besides, she was already betrothed to William and he was not depraved enough to dally with his friend’s fiancée. It was distasteful on so many levels.
“Well, I never thought I would see you so distraught,” a laughing voice taunted him from behind one of the hedges. Elizabeth Terrance emerged from one of the hedges, her dark eyes silently mocking him.
So, she had seen him kissing Blanche. He smiled sardonically at her. “Now, where did you run off to, my dear?”
She laughed and waved her hand casually. “You must forgive me, My Lord. I am not in the habit of flaunting my trysts.”
He nodded in acknowledgment. He could understand that. Unlike men, the women of the ton were far more critical of their own gender when it came to these sorts of affairs. At worse, he would be called a rake, a rogue, but still, his title and wealth would still make him a consideration for marriage.
A young widow like herself would most likely find herself ostracized by the more discerning members of the nobility if her dalliances were brought to light.
“So—” she purred, stepping close to him. She ran her finger lightly over his firm chest. “Should we continue where we left off?”
He grasped her hand firmly and stopped her from proceeding with her plan. “I find that my desires have cooled, sweet one. Maybe some other time.”
Lady Terrance cast him an incensed look but he did not care much for it. After that wildly passionate encounter with Blanche, he had lost all desire for more of the same from a different woman.
What he needed was a stronger distraction of the alcoholic variety. “You know she would never consider you,” Elizabeth told him softly. “She is so very unlike us.”
“Who said I intended to carry on with her?” he shot back wryly. “It was a momentary lapse in judgment, nothing more.”
“And how often do you have these ‘momentary lapses of judgment’?”
He raised an eyebrow at her. “Are you set on irritating me for the rest of the night, my dear lady?”
She laughed and shook her head. “I do beg your pardon for teasing you mercilessly. In any case, now that you have lost all appetite for these carnal pursuits tonight, I had best be off.” She turned to walk back into the ballroom before stopping and with a small smile, she turned back. “Fret not, Lord Tate. Your secret is safe with me.”
He gave her a curt nod. “Many thanks, Lady Terrance.”
“Just one more curious question, if you please,” she added. “If you are so taken with her, why did you not ask for her hand before Lord Marrow did?”
“She is not like ‘us’, as you have pointed out quite clearly to me,” Ernest replied sarcastically. “And I am not exactly in the market for a wife, my dear. You know that quite well.”
Elizabeth smiled wryly. “So, it seems.” She smiled and nodded at him. “Good night, Lord Tate.”
Ernest watched as she disappeared into the maze in the direction of the ballroom. Lady Terrance was frank and honest and she made it clear in her desires. After she was unhappily married off to the elderly Baron of Winslow, she had become just as jaded and cynical as he was about the institution of marriage. She harbored no such delusions as other young ladies of her age and she was quite content to live out the rest of her life as a wealthy young widow, engaging in secret trysts when she had the appetite for it.
And she was right—Blanche was nothing like either of them. She was pure and idealistic and believed herself to be deeply in love with her betrothed. William, it seemed, was also quite taken with her as he had curbed himself from flirting with other ladies ever since the engagement was set.
“How honorable of him,” Ernest muttered dryly to himself.
How many times had Blanche uttered that in reference to William in stark contrast to Ernest himself? She had chided him earlier tonight, when she came across him and Lady Terrance in the gardens, calling him a depraved rake and judging his actions.
As if such insults could affect me, he mentally scoffed to himself.
She had wandered into the gardens like a lamb grazing into wolf territory. And he was the wolf.
Ernest shook his head and looked up to the moon. He was the worst choice for a husband and he had no intention of changing his ways for a simpering young miss who only wished to be tied to him in holy matrimony without regard to her own personal happiness.
Marriage was a trap that had ensnared many of the young ladies of the ton, but how many of them were truly happy? Even his own parents had not found marital bliss.
But if Blanche believed that she had found such a treasure in William, then he wished her all the luck in the world. He only hoped that his friend would realize what a treasure he had in his hands.
Women like Blanche Reed were a rarity in their jaded, materialistic world. When he went back to the ball, the guests were already dwindling. He caught sight of Lady Terrance bidding their hosts good night at the door. She caught his eye for a moment before smiling demurely at him.
Once more, she was the honorable young widow. He nodded imperceptibly at her as he turned to leave, when he caught sight of William and frowned. “Shouldn’t you have escorted your fiancée home?”
For a moment, his friend looked confused. “How did you know that Lady Blanche has already left?”
Because I scared her into bolting for home, he wanted to say. Because I kissed her like I was a starving man and she was a feast.
“Because I no longer see her within the vicinity and it is already late,” Ernest said instead.
William laughed and shook his head. “Yes, she did go home earlier as she was not feeling well. And now, I must be off, too.”
Ernest watched his friend’s back as he put on his hat and coat before he boarded his coach. He fought to remind himself that William was an honorable man, one that could make Blanche reasonably happy.
He ought to leave them well enough alone to be content in their marriage. It was the most decent thing he could do for her. But try as he might, he could not get her off of his mind and with the kiss they shared, he feared that he would never be contented with a mere taste of her lips. No, he craved more of her.
As much of a rake he was, he was not in the habit of breaking up happy unions—not that there were many in the ton. Those matches were very few and far between.
In their social circles, marriage was more of a transaction between families and one that more or less sealed the fate of many women on whether they would spend the rest of their lives in happiness or misery. If they were as fortunate as Elizabeth Terrance, their husbands would die early and leave them sizable fortunes.
But most of them were trapped in unhappy marriages, as Blanche would be if she married him.
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