The Wicked Marquess Takes a Wife Preview

A Steamy Regency Romance

About the book


"I know the fate that awaits my sister if she marries you. And I will never allow it.”

Lady Elizabeth pales in comparison to her perfect sister. And even though she is aware that no man will ever approve of her unusual interest in pugilism, her curiosity gets the better of her. Especially where a certain rake is concerned…

Having worked himself to the bone to salvage his ruined family name, the Marquess of Guildford now requires a wife that will check all the boxes on his list: He needs a lady who will be fair, accomplished, and most importantly, obedient.

While he is convinced that he has found the woman that will be honored to bear his heirs, Rhys never expected the burning need that he would feel for her feisty and completely inappropriate sister. Or that he would find himself risking everything to protect her from those out on the hunt for her…

 

Chapter One


“Irene, my dear, you will give the Marquess of Guildford your first dance this evening,” instructed Joseph Livingston, the Earl of Winston.

Lady Elizabeth immediately turned from the carriage window where she had abstractedly been looking at the streetlamps while she thought of how she would survive what she was certain would be a dreadful evening. “What if the Marquess is late, Father?” She had never been quiet when the worst rake to ever walk on English soil was mentioned. “Do you expect her not to dance until he arrives?”

“Elizabeth,” Irene whispered, tugging at her skirt, but Elizabeth’s eyes remained on their father. Every time he spoke of Guildford, she inched closer to believing that the Marquess had bewitched her father. For how could anyone want such a man for their daughter?

Joseph gave her a reproachful glance before he continued instructing Irene. “If he arrives before us, you will give him your first dance, and if he does not, then reserve one for him.”

Elizabeth rolled her eyes. “I suppose Irene cannot choose her dance partners, can she?”

Joseph’s mouth thinned as he returned his blue gaze to Elizabeth. “I am not going to argue with you this evening.”

“I am not arguing with you,” Elizabeth defended. “I am merely reminding you that Irene should have a choice. The Marquess is the most—”

“Suitable man for your sister,” Joseph asserted.

“Listen to your father, Elizabeth,” her mother, Clarice, said from her rear-facing seat beside Joseph. “This is Irene’s first season, and we must ensure she finds success immediately.”

“Mother, you always agree with Father,” Elizabeth muttered before she leaned close to her sister, her voice dropping to a whisper. “I believe nearly every guest will be wearing a mask. You can dance with any man you want, and Father will not know.”

Irene giggled, drawing their father’s eyes, and they narrowed with suspicion. Elizabeth smiled innocently, and she was about to turn back to the window when Joseph spoke.

“The Marquess is very serious about courting you, Irene. I advise you to accept his suit.”

“Listen to your father, my dear,” her mother encouraged, smiling. “Guildford is the most sought-after gentleman this season. Last year, it was the Marquess of Hanvey, but sadly, you were not out at the time. But this year, this marquess shall be yours.”

“Yes, indeed.” Her father grinned. “He is also the wealthiest man in England.”

Elizabeth’s mouth fell open, and she turned, blinking in surprise. “You want Irene to marry Guildford because he is wealthy?”

Joseph immediately shook his head. “Do not misunderstand me, Elizabeth. I have enough wealth, and both you and Irene have very good dowries. It is important, however, that we attach ourselves to more influence and wealth. It is the way of the Society we find ourselves in.”

“I cannot believe you are saying this, Father. You taught me to—”

“Oh, here we are!” her mother interrupted, immediately dissolving the gathering tension between Elizabeth and her father. He climbed down from the carriage before helping the women alight, and when Elizabeth looked up at the manor, her insides clenched.

So begins tonight’s misery, she thought, her hand going up to straighten her gold demi-mask.

They were shown to a grand ballroom that was filled with masked guests, and to her surprise, the gentlemen found Irene right away. Within moments, Irene’s dance card was full, and the gentleman who won the bid for the first dance led her away.

Elizabeth was left standing with her parents, and when her eyes met her mother’s, Clarice smiled. There was pity there, and that caused Elizabeth to turn her eyes away. She was familiar with that look and disliked it most ardently.

This was her fourth season, and she had no prospects. There had been a few interested gentlemen when she had debuted, but they had quickly lost interest when they learned that she was a bluestocking, who had no lady-like accomplishments and preferred to have intelligent conversations.

At the start of this season, the ton had compared her to her sister. Irene had been quickly declared a diamond of the first water while Elizabeth was the plain sister. This would have wounded Elizabeth when she was a debutante, but she had grown to not concern herself with the opinion of the ton. Her goal was not to find a husband this season but to ensure that her sister married the right man. Elizabeth felt her mother take her arm and she turned.

“I thought we should take a turn about the room, my dear,” Clarice answered the question that Elizabeth had been about to ask. “This will ensure that more gentlemen see you.”

“Mother, this is a masquerade, and I do not wish to be seen,” she dissented.

“Nonsense! This is the best time to be seen. You are dressed as Aphrodite—”

“Athena,” Elizabeth corrected. “Irene is Aphrodite.”

Her mother paused to assess her attire. “You were supposed to be the Goddess of Beauty tonight. Both of you were. It does not matter what Irene wears, but your costume is very important.”

Yes, because I am plain and obscure and must be the Goddess of Beauty to be seen by Society. Elizabeth had refused to be dressed in a similar fashion as her sister; thus, she’d had her lady’s maid turn her into Athena. She was even more pleased with her decision when she saw that many ladies were dressed as Aphrodite tonight.

Their mother agreed with everything their father said and barely noticed the most important things about her daughters, like the fact that Elizabeth had been carrying a very small golden helmet with red plumes on her head since they left their house. Her mother’s favorite phrase was, “Listen to your father.”

Another thing that Elizabeth found odd was her mother’s sudden interest in her. The woman had rarely paid her any mind when she was a child, and upon her debut, her mother had made no effort to encourage Elizabeth to make a match. Now that Irene was out in Society, Clarice was suddenly interested in Elizabeth’s affairs.

“Well—” Clarice sighed and pulled Elizabeth with her. “Why you chose to be the Goddess of Wisdom tonight is beyond me, but I hope that our promenade will have heads turn in our direction.” She raised her hand to wave at a lady who sought her attention a few feet from them. They stopped, and the lady began to approach them with a tall gentleman.

“Lady Winston?” the lady asked when she joined them. When Clarice nodded, she laughed and said, “I knew I would recognize you at a masque. It’s Lady Ashbourne.”

“Yes, of course,” Clarice replied with a smile.

“This is my son, the Earl of Ashbourne,” Lady Ashbourne introduced, and Clarice gently pushed Elizabeth forward.

“Lord Ashbourne, this is my daughter Lady Elizabeth,” Clarice said, beaming.

Lord Ashbourne bowed over Elizabeth’s hand. “Lovely to make your acquaintance, My Lady.”

“And you, My Lord.” Elizabeth felt her mother’s arm slip from hers as she answered, and she immediately knew that she was being left with him.

“You look lovely this evening. Might I inquire who you are dressed as?” he asked.

“Athena,” she replied with a forced smile, not surprised that he asked. She did not expect him to know. After all, her mother did not.

“The Goddess of Wisdom?” His brows rose.

“Yes. You seem surprised.”

“I am,” he chuckled, and it sounded as though he was ridiculing her. “No lady in this ballroom is dressed as the Goddess of Wisdom. Many are dressed as Aphrodite and Hera.”

Elizabeth’s smile did not falter as she asked, “You believe a woman should only dress like the Goddess of Beauty or the Goddess of Marriage and Childbirth?”

“Those are the most desirable goddesses,” Ashbourne returned, raising his chin so he regarded her down his nose. “Athena represents aggression.” He shook his head. “Not a flattering appearance for a lady.” Elizabeth could not believe him. He had called her lovely only a moment ago when he had no inkling of who she was dressed as.

“Athena also represents reason and wisdom which Society is in dire want of. I suppose I should not keep your company, My Lord.” She curtsied, and added as politely as she could, “Please excuse me.”

She had encountered many gentlemen with such views of a lady’s worth and endeavored to avoid them. Tonight, when Ashbourne had been introduced to her, she had hoped that he would be different. Her goal might have shifted from finding a husband for herself, but there was still a longing within her for a man who could understand the sort of woman she was and accept her.

Elizabeth breathed deeply and pushed those thoughts from her mind. She saw her mother several feet away conversing with two ladies, and, seeing an opportunity to escape, she moved toward the edge of the ballroom where she watched Irene dance with another gentleman.

The Marquess had yet to arrive, it would seem, for Elizabeth had not seen him. But then it would be difficult for her to recognize him because she had only seen him once when they were introduced at the start of the season, and he had quickly turned away from her to give Irene his attention. She knew about his reputation, however, and he did not keep a mistress for more than a month. No good man was that debauched in her opinion.

Feeling uneasy in the ballroom, she decided to leave. There was nothing for her to do there, and she would much rather seek a library in which to find some occupation. No one would notice her absence…not even her mother, who was now among her friends. 

Elizabeth left the ballroom and walked down the hall then took a turn at the end into another, larger, hallway. A door opened, and a woman in a bright blue dress walked out. Her eyes met Elizabeth’s, and the woman looked startled for a moment before she hurried past Elizabeth.

Elizabeth stood in the hallway for a moment after the woman had left, wondering where the library could be. The likelihood of opening a door and walking into a tryst at a masquerade was high, and, not wanting that to happen, she decided to find a servant to ask them where the library was. A footman obliged her, and she found herself back in the hallway she had left and in front of the door from which the woman in the blue dress had come out.

There was no one inside when she entered, but an empty glass of liquor sat on a table between the chairs in front of the fireplace. Elizabeth guessed the woman had been here alone, and that made her comfortable enough to begin exploring the shelves. She started with the one on her right.

“Now, Liza,” she said to herself as she read the spines of the books in front of her, “what shall we read while we are here?”

“Will you accept a stranger’s suggestion?” asked a voice behind her. She immediately turned around to see a tall, dark-haired man standing a few feet from her.

He was dressed completely in black, but the blue eyes that regarded her from behind his mask were transfixing, and when they moved down her body, she felt as if they were disrobing her. Elizabeth’s breath hitched, and she took a step back, her entire body warming. Since her arrival, she did not feel the mystery of the masquerade until now, when she met this handsome stranger.

“Athena,” he murmured, drawing her gaze to his mouth as it curved. She had never seen a mouth and thought it beautiful until now, and something that had lain dormant her entire life was awakened. She wanted those lips to kiss her.

Smiling, she said, “Yes to both your question and observation.”

“Impressive.” His eyes moved down her body again, lingering on her breasts and causing her breathing to quicken. “Very impressive.” He took a step toward her. This man was a rake, and even though she disliked rakes, she was unable to deny the part of her that yearned for a man’s attention, and she had never received attention like this.

“Is ‘very impressive’ the title of the book?” she asked slyly.

He laughed. “No, it is not.” He was standing very close to her, and their bodies were almost touching. “But it is what I think of the goddess before me.”

The heat of his gaze made her believe his words, and at that moment, she felt like a goddess, powerful and seductive. She turned back to the bookshelf, pretending she was still looking for what to read, and her shoulder brushed his chest.

He reached past her and removed a book from a row then gave it to her. “I hope this will satisfy you.”

Elizabeth glanced down at the book, which was a collection of poems, and grinned. She looked back up at him and shook her head. “I am afraid it will not, for I have read it before.” She had read that particular volume thrice, but she was glad he chose a book that she liked.

He pulled out another poetry book and offered it to her, and she shook her head again. “I am sure you have not read the next book I have in mind,” he said, reaching for another one. Elizabeth laughed when she saw it, and he groaned. “You have read it, too?”

“Yes.” She laughed again.

“Wait here. I believe I saw something earlier that you might like.” He smiled and walked around to the other bookshelf.

Elizabeth swallowed, feeling excitement that she had never felt before and might never feel again once the masquerade was over. Something new was happening to her, and she was going to allow herself to revel in it.

He returned with a new book, and when he stopped in front of her, she felt the heat from his body calling to the most feminine aspects of her being. He took her hand and placed the book on her palm. Elizabeth felt her heart beat faster when she read the title: The Love and Battles of a Goddess Divine.

“This, I have not read, Sir,” she murmured.

He leaned close. “That pleases me greatly.” His deep voice sent tingles of anticipation down her back. When their eyes met and held, a strange form of hunger tightened her belly, and she stepped closer to him. “May I kiss you?” he asked, his blue eyes darkening.

“Yes,” she replied, her answer surprising her as soon as it left her lips, but it was what she truly desired at that moment. Tonight, she wanted to forget that she was Elizabeth Livingston, the bluestocking spinster. She wanted to be Athena the goddess and in the arms of this man.

His eyes flared, and his arm slipped around her waist. “Athena,” he murmured before his lips touched hers.


Chapter Two


Never in her life had Elizabeth thought herself capable of asking a man to kiss her, and never had she dreamed of her request being granted, but here she was in the arms of a masked stranger with his lips upon hers and one of his hands moving down to cover her bottom.

He pressed her body against his, and she gasped at how hard he felt. Sweet heat simmered between her legs, drawing something wanton out of her. She wrapped her arms around his neck and opened her mouth. Groaning, he deepened the kiss, and his tongue danced with hers.

She could say the mystery of the night made her wanton, but she had never been kissed, and she might never get another chance after tonight. Spinsterhood awaited her at the end of the season, but she could walk toward it with the satisfaction of knowing what it was like to desire and be desired.

“Tell me what you want,” he said, his mouth moving to the line of her jaw where his teeth grazed her skin while his other hand covered her breast, his thumb moving over her aching nipple.

She only moaned in answer because she only wished for the fire in her body to be quenched. He turned her so her back was against the bookshelf and kissed her neck. When he reached the swell of her breasts just above her neckline, he nipped her skin with his teeth. Elizabeth pushed her chest forward, offering herself to him.

Footsteps sounded in the hallway, and she stiffened. The gentleman paused and looked up at her as if asking her what she wanted to do at that moment. She had received what she wanted, but it was regrettably time for her to leave. She wanted him to continue kissing her, and frustration made her teeth clench, but she could not be seen with him. Gently, she pushed his shoulders, and he straightened.

“I have to go,” she whispered.

“Must you?” He stroked her cheek, igniting her desire all over again. “Our fun was just beginning.”

Elizabeth shook her head. “I must not be found here.” She started to move out from between his body and the bookshelf, but he stopped her, pressing his lips to her cheek.

“I could lock the door and give you everything you want.” His words curled around her body like seductive smoke, enticing her to agree, but as much as she wanted him at that instant, she knew her time with him was up.

Shaking her head again, she pushed him away. “I cannot.” And without looking back at him, she hurried out of the room. Thankfully, the hallway was empty when she emerged, and she quickly found her way back to the ballroom before someone saw her.

“Where were you?” her mother asked when Elizabeth found her among a different group of ladies.

“I—” She could still feel his hands on her body. “I was in the ladies’ retiring room.”

Clarice’s eyes narrowed. “Did you run? You seem out of breath.”

Now she decides to take notice? Unbelievable! Elizabeth did not know the reason for the change in her mother, and she was not sure she was pleased with it. She had grown accustomed to being ignored and left alone. She did not know what this could yield, and such changes made her anxious.

“No, Mother…it is quite hot in here. I can barely breathe.” Her mother’s eyes remained narrowed, and they moved down her body. Elizabeth’s heart beat faster.

“Where is your reticule?” Clarice asked. Elizabeth glanced down and found her hands empty. She must have left it in the library, but what surprised her right then was that she could not recall dropping it.

“I must have left it in the retiring room,” she said quickly. “I should return for it.” Seeming to believe her, Clarice nodded and turned to continue talking to the ladies. Elizabeth had just taken a step when the gentleman she had kissed walked into the ballroom. She smiled, recalling the book he had given to her to read which she had also left in the library.

He was unlike any other gentleman she had ever met in the effect he had both on her body and mind. He had not criticized her choice of dress, he had encouraged her to read, and he had made her body sing. She was curious to know who the man behind the mask was.

Her brows slightly drew over her eyes in confusion when she saw her father speaking to him. Then she stopped breathing when the gentleman walked straight to Irene. After her father said something to her, Irene left the gentleman she had been about to dance with and placed her hand on the gentleman’s arm. At that moment, Elizabeth noticed that his long dark hair was tied at his nape with a leather strap. Only one man in her acquaintance wore his hair in that fashion.

No. The palm of her hand went to her stomach, and she tugged at her mother’s arm with her other hand, her eyes on Irene and the gentleman. How had she not noticed his hair in the library?

“What is it, Elizabeth?” asked Clarice.

“Who is that man Irene is walking to the dance floor with?”

“I believe that is the Marquess of Guildford,” her mother replied, “but I could be mistaken, and—” The sound of Elizabeth’s racing heart drowned the rest of her mother’s words, and her stomach clenched.

She had kissed Guildford, the very man she had sworn to keep her sister from marrying, and had almost agreed to remain in the library with him. As though he could feel her stare, he turned, and their eyes met. Rage and confusion had never threatened to take control of her as they did at that moment.

***

Rhys Wallace could not believe his luck tonight. After arriving late to the masquerade, and in a rotten mood, he had enclosed himself in the library with his mistress, and as soon as she had left, a goddess came to him. She was one of the loveliest creatures he had ever laid eyes on, and he finally came to the ballroom he had initially been reluctant to enter to find her.

 He detested balls, and the only reason he was here was to begin a proper courtship with the woman he had chosen to be his wife, Lady Irene Livingston. His encounter with the lady in the library, Athena, had changed his plans because he wished only to see her again. Unfortunately, he did not have any time to find her before Lord Winston found him.

After exchanging pleasantries, Lord Winston said, “There is my dear Irene.”

Grinding his teeth, Rhys followed the direction of Winston’s arm to see Lady Irene dressed like Aphrodite as most of the ladies in the ballroom were. He gave Winston a nod and began to walk toward her. For now, he must put off his search for Athena until he had concluded his business here.

 “Good evening, My Lady,” he bowed, and Lady Irene looked up at him with a pretty smile. “May I have this dance?” He held his arm out to her.

She curtsied and glanced at the gentleman on her right, saying, “Pardon me, My Lord, but I promised Lord Guildford this dance.”

The gentleman was displeased, but he bowed politely before walking away. She took the arm Rhys offered and smiled up at him.

“Is this your first masquerade, My Lady?” he asked as they walked to the dance floor.

“It is, My Lord, and I am very excited.” Her cheeks colored beneath her mask. She was indeed very beautiful. Rhys had a habit of bringing into his possession what many coveted, and the most desired lady of the season was no different. He needed a wife, and she seemed to be suitable.

“Then you should stay until midnight when everyone will reveal themselves,” he murmured as they began to dance the cotillion.

“Most already have, My Lord,” she replied. “Every gentleman I spoke to tonight told me who he is.” Rhys had intended to assess her intelligence with the question, and he was satisfied with her answer. She looked beyond the surface, and he needed his wife to possess that quality.

“My sister warned me about this. She said the ton has ruined the mystery masquerades are supposed to carry,” Lady Irene continued.

Rhys almost rolled his eyes at the mention of Lady Elizabeth because he was not fond of her. They had never said anything to each other beyond greetings, but every time their eyes met, he received a glare from her. She disapproved of him, and she was not afraid to show him. But she was right. The mystery of masquerades had been ruined…until he met Athena.

Even as he danced with Lady Irene, his eyes searched the ballroom for her. He found her among the guests that circled the dance floor, and she was even more beautiful than she had been in the library. If he could leave Lady Irene at that instant without offending anyone, he would walk to Athena and ask her to dance with him. And Rhys disliked dancing.

The look in her eyes gave him pause because there was none of the desire he had seen earlier. Instead, therein lay all the contempt in the world.

Is that jealousy? He mentally shook his head. She could not be jealous because she had to know that he was allowed to dance with whomever he wished, and so was she. He was positively confused, and the feeling only increased when she turned and started toward the doors that led out to the terrace. It took a great measure of restraint not to abandon everything and follow her.

Reminding himself of his obligation, he smiled at Lady Irene and tried to concentrate on their dance. He could not converse with her as well as he should because he was distracted, and as soon as the dance ended, he returned her to her father and proceeded to ignore anyone who attempted to accost him as he made his way to the terrace. He needed to find Athena.

“Guildford!”

Damn! Rhys followed that thought with an audible curse before turning to face his cousin, Miles Danbury, the Earl of Mayton. “What?”

“Excellent manners you have, Guildford.” His cousin shook his head as he joined Rhys on the threshold.

“I was raised well.” Rhys looked around the terrace, hoping for a glimpse of her. She might be in the garden beyond, he concluded when he did not see her, turning to his cousin. “Did you need something?”

“I saw you dancing with the Diamond of the Season, and I came to ask you if you have decided to make her your bride,” Mayton said in a low voice. He was not one to preamble.

“You are too inquisitive for your own good.” Rhys moved onto the terrace and started walking down the steps that led into the garden. Mayton followed him.

“Well, you are my only cousin, and dearest friend, and I am curious about the choices you make and the reason for them.” Mayton kicked pebbles as he walked while Rhys’ eyes looked about the garden very carefully, glad the place was lit by lamps.

Rhys did not say anything until they arrived at a fountain that was a good distance away from the ballroom. Athena was nowhere in sight, and he was beginning to wonder if she was in the garden at all. “Yes, I wish to marry Lady Irene, and my decision will be final once I determine she is intelligent enough to prevent me from siring imbeciles,” he answered. “I cannot leave my legacy to fools.”

“Have you not determined that already? You have called upon her once and danced with her thrice since the season began,” Mayton observed. “Are you looking for someone?”

Rhys had interacted with Lady Irene several times, but he wished to know more about her. “No, I am not. Did you need something?” Rhys repeated the question he had asked earlier, so he would be left alone to find the woman he was looking for. Besides, he was not in the mood to talk about Lady Irene tonight.

“Will you take some advice from a friend and a relative?” Mayton asked.

“If it is good advice.”

“Perhaps you should seek a woman who will soften your hardened heart. Lady Irene might not be the best for you.”

“What do you know about my heart, Mayton?” Rhys asked, momentarily abandoning his search to study his cousin’s expression. There appeared to be some concern in his gaze.

“I know that it has changed for the worse. Most gentlemen keep their mistresses for a while, but you cannot keep a woman for more than a month.” Mayton’s brows furrowed. “I am worried about you.” 

Rhys smiled, appreciating his cousin’s concern. “You do not have to worry about me.” He did not keep his mistresses for long because he always found another woman who captured his attention. As for his heart, he had to encase it in ice to find the measure of success he had in his life.

His parents had neglected him during his childhood, and turning his heart cold had been the only way he had been able to bear it. The only warmth he had ever received had come from Mayton, and he greatly valued that. He did not need any other person’s affections.

“I know I do not, but I do.”

Now Rhys was anxious to change the course of their conversation, and he returned it to Lady Irene because Mayton would eventually come back to it even if Rhys did not. “Lady Irene fulfills my requirements for a wife,” he pointed out.

“Are you still clinging to those requirements?” Mayton’s brows rose. “Remind me of them.”

“That she is beautiful, of reasonable intelligence, well-accomplished, her bloodline can be traced back to the Tudors, and she is in possession of excellent manners.”

“And what would constitute excellent manners?” Mayton sat on the ledge of the fountain and looked up at him with a slanted grin.

“She will speak only when spoken to, and my pleasure should be the most important thing to her.”

“Humbug!” Mayton regarded him with disbelief. “Have you considered her pleasure?”

“She will become the Marchioness of Guildford and one of the wealthiest women in England. She will want for nothing.”

“And love? Will you love her?”

Rhys scoffed. “Spare me the sentiment of romantics, Mayton. I have no time for this tonight.”

“Have you gained her sister’s approval?”

“I will. It should not be difficult to persuade a bluestocking spinster to allow me to marry her sister,” Rhys returned, recalling everything he had gathered about Lady Elizabeth.

“If you—”

Someone shouting, “Johnathan Myers,” from the direction of the ballroom interrupted his cousin, and Mayton shot to his feet.

“I must hear what is being said about Johnathan Myers,” Mayton exclaimed. “We will finish this conversation later.”

“We have finished it!” Rhys called after him. Johnathan Myers was the alias of a gentleman who shared his opinions on sports and politics daily in the news sheets, and although Rhys respected him, he could not understand the ton’s obsession with him.

He did not think Athena was in the garden, and he sighed, looking around him once more. Where are you? He was about to take the cobbled path on his left when he heard rustling from the bush he was facing. “Who is there?” he asked.

Athena rose from behind it, and his body tensed in excitement. He started to take a step toward her, but she held up a hand to stop him.

“Don’t you dare come near me!” Her pale-green eyes blazed under the lamplight. She was still angry although he did not know why.

“Athena.” He took another step.

“And do not call me that. It is not my name.” She tried to step out from behind the bush, but it appeared something was preventing her. She tugged at her skirt and then cursed. Rhys’ brows rose as he suspected her dress was caught in the bush.

“Do you require assistance?” he asked.

“No.” She tugged at her skirt again.

“Are you angry because you saw me dance with a lady?”

“Yes.” She bent to free her dress from the clutches of the bush.

Rhys laughed. He had been right about her being jealous. “A kiss is not a promise, My Lady. I am not yours, and even if—”

“What?” She rose, her small shoulders rigid. She was a sprite of a woman but a perfectly formed sprite because he found his gaze wandering her body again, the memory of how she had felt in his arms still fresh.

“I would never want you,” she said passionately, and Rhys blinked. “Not even if you were the only man in the world.”

He was utterly confused. “You claim not to want me yet are jealous.”

“I am not jealous!” she snapped.

“Then why are you angry with me?” He walked to stand in front of her with the bush between them. Her eyes looked familiar, he realized, and he wondered where he had seen those eyes before tonight.

“Do women truly mean nothing to you?” She continued to confuse him, and he was tempted to take off her mask so he could see her face.

“Athen—”

“That is not my name!” She tugged at her skirt in frustration while he ran a hand down his jaw. He was aggravated, and his body was strained with need. Yet he could not touch her without her permission, and certainly not when she was spitting fire at him.

“Give me your name then,” he requested gently. She glared at him for a moment before she reached behind her head and loosened her mask.

“Do you still need a name, Lord Guildford?” she asked.

Rhys now understood why her eyes had looked familiar, and as he recognized her, something fell into the pit of his gut. “No.” God, No! “Not you, Lady Elizabeth.”                                                  


Chapter Three


Rhys could not move. The realization of what he had done, what his body still wanted him to do, kept him in place. Impossible! He stared at her both in disbelief and wonder, asking himself how he had not recognized her until she removed her mask. In his defense, he could say that he had not interacted with her enough to know what she truly looked like, but he knew that would be a lie.

He knew what she looked like, and he had imagined kissing her lips the first time he had seen her at the start of the season, but her disapproving glares had quickly changed his opinion of her, and he had made it a priority to ignore her.

The mask had perfectly disguised her tonight, and Rhys was wishing she had not removed it, so he could maintain his fantasy.

“I know the fate that awaits my sister if she marries you,” Lady Elizabeth stormed, “and I will never allow it.” She bent to try to free her dress again, and he knew he had to help her. The sooner she was free, the quicker they would leave each other’s presence, and he would be free of her spell. He should not desire her.

“The bush is holding you prisoner, and you need my help,” he observed.

“I do not,” she argued.

“Very well. I am sure there would be no questions if you returned to the ballroom with a ripped dress.” Rhys immediately regretted saying the last two words because they painted an unwelcome image of her in his mind.

She sighed and looked up at him. “You may help me.” Most women would look helpless, but Lady Elizabeth held herself as Athena would, and Rhys cursed himself for being impressed by her.

He went around to her side and found the hem of her dress tangled in the branches of the brush. He knelt and began to untangle it. He now suspected she had heard his conversation with Mayton. That and recognizing him after they had kissed were the only explanations for her anger. “Did no one ever tell you that it is rude to eavesdrop?” he asked.

She looked away, her cheeks coloring. “You have no proof that I was eavesdropping.”

 “You were hiding behind this bush, were you not? And the flame in your eyes tells me you heard everything.”

“I hid when I heard someone approach.”

He paused. “When did you realize who I was?”

“When you entered the ballroom, and I saw my father talking to you,” she replied stiffly. Like him, she was not happy with what had occurred between them in the library. “It does not matter because now. I have what I require to discourage my sister from accepting your suit.”   

“Why do you disapprove of me? You barely even know me,” he asked.

“Because you are a rake,” she returned. “I know the sort of debauched life you live.”

His habits were not a secret in Society, but he did not care what she thought. “Is that your only reason?” he asked, looking up at her and meeting the sight of her bosom which excited his blood against his wishes.

“You are arrogant and have no respect for women. Are warming your bed and having your children their only purposes?”

Lord! He had come here to find the woman who had charmed and beguiled him, but not this one. “Women have many great purposes, ” he answered with a calmness he was not truly feeling.

“Yes. They must ensure that you do not sire imbeciles and should only speak when spoken to—” Her tone was made of ice. “My sister deserves better.”

 Her words made him disapprove of her character, yet his body rebelled. Rhys continued untangling her hem so that some distance could be created between them.    

Once her hem was free, he rose. “However did you tangle your hem?”

She lifted a small shoulder and looked away. “Impatience.”

He was supposed to step away from her, but he did not. “It is gracious of you to tell me that.”

She smiled up at him, her eyes icy. “Complimenting me will not change my opinion of you, Guildford.”

“Then I suppose it is a good thing that I do not need your approval to marry your sister,” he chuckled.

Her smile remained, but she did not say anything more. Rhys thought he would feel triumphant after saying that, but something in her demeanor was telling him that she had won this argument.

She replaced her mask. "I thank you for your help,” she said over her shoulder as she started to move past him. Then she tripped.

Rhys caught her, and the breasts he had been staring at for a while pressed against his chest. He knew he could not allow her to leave.

***

Elizabeth knew what he was going to do when his blue eyes darkened, and his arm moved from her shoulders to circle her waist. Though her mind screamed a command to her body to flee, she remained as she was in his arms. He lowered his head, and when his lips found hers, she stopped breathing.

Two things had happened to her tonight that she had never imagined, and she was shocked to learn that even though she knew who he was now, she still allowed him to kiss her. Her body acted of its free will.

He drew her closer, and she leaned against him, familiar heat simmering between her legs, drawing wantonness out of her again. She wrapped her arms around his neck and returned his kiss with fervor. He groaned.

 His hands caressed her hips and slowly moved up to her breasts, his fingers rolling her nipples through her silk dress. Pleasure rippled through her, and she arched her back. The heat from his touch and kiss reached every part of her body, and she began to tremble with need. 

The eagerness with which she allowed him to stroke her body was astounding, and even though her mind was still telling her to stop, her body wanted nothing but to allow him to give her pleasure. He kissed her neck then bit her skin and pinched her nipples all at once. She gasped as the pain became pleasure and tightened her body with even more need. His lips returned to hers, and he kissed her sweetly and slowly.

Elizabeth knew she would regret this later. She pulled away and looked up at him. His blue eyes had darkened even more with desire, and his lips glistened from their kiss. She reached up and removed his black demi-mask then stroked his cheek. He smiled, his arms returning to her waist and holding her tightly against him. She blinked as if waking from a slumber.

“What have I done? How dare you?” Regret came sooner than she thought and tightened her chest, reminding her of how foolish she had been to allow the worst of rakes to seduce her.

He smirked. “How dare I not? I do not recall you resisting me.”

She pushed him away, feeling ashamed, but she straightened her shoulders and met his gaze. “You will never marry my sister.” Especially after kissing her now. He was the wrong man for Irene.

“Your father has all but agreed,” he countered, confidently folding his arms across his chest.

“He can be swayed,” she argued, desperate to leave and determined to forget what had just happened.      

He laughed. “And you believe you are capable of swaying him?”

“Think as little as you want of a bluestocking spinster, Guildford, but I am the portal that stands in your way.” She did not allow him to react before she brushed past him to return to the ballroom.

Elizabeth had prepared for a battle since she learned of his interest in Irene, and she would not relent now. She had to protect her sister.

***

As soon as they returned home, Elizabeth followed her father to his study. “Father, I want to know why you want Irene to marry the Marquess.”

He stopped his procession to his desk and turned to face her. “Elizabeth, can we talk about this in the morning?”

“You leave for Surrey in the morning.” She placed her hands on her hips.

Joseph laughed. “I was hoping you had forgotten.”

“I know your hand, Father. You taught me how to play this game.”

He sat behind his desk and gestured for her to sit. “Guildford has the influence this family requires,” he began, and even though several questions rose in her mind, she allowed him to continue. “He is a marquess who does no wrong in Society, and—”

Elizabeth had to speak now. “He does no wrong because there is something wrong with Society. He is a rake, Father. Do you want a man who would disrespect your daughter in such a manner?”

Irene looked to Elizabeth for guidance, and she could not fail her sister. She was ashamed of her actions tonight and must make amends by helping her sister to make a good match. If Guildford could kiss Elizabeth and not feel any shame or remorse, then he likely will not be faithful to Irene.

Her father’s face colored very slightly, and she knew she had made a valid point. “Rakes can change, Elizabeth.” He held up his hand when she opened her mouth to argue. “Now, the reason I want Irene to marry him is because of you. I know you no longer wish to marry, but I want you to be looked after should anything happen to me. I have no heir, and the title will revert to the crown at the time of my death.”

Elizabeth leaned back in her seat and sighed, understanding for the first time how her life would change if her father died, and she was a spinster. She might have a fortune, but she would lack protection. Despite that understanding, she still maintained that Guildford was not the right man for her sister.

“Irene can marry someone else with a good influence in Society. There are earls, viscounts, and barons all about town,” she argued. Another reason she did not want him for Irene was because of what they had done both in the library and in the garden. There was a taint on him now, on Elizabeth, too, that Irene should not be exposed to.

Joseph smiled. “I want the most influential man for her, Elizabeth.”

“What about love? You are happy with Mother. Do you not wish for Irene to be happy?”

Joseph sighed and regarded her for a moment then he said, “I suppose I needed you to remind me of that. I wish for her to marry Guildford only if she will be happy with him.”

A slow smile curved Elizabeth’s lips. She could easily discourage Irene from allowing Guildford to court her now that she was sure her father would be lenient. However, she would not be able to interfere if Irene believed herself charmed and in love with him.

“I understand that I was a little forceful in the carriage, and I apologize.” He smiled gently. “I will speak to Irene before she sleeps, so she understands that I will not force her.”

“I am happy you said that, Father.” She stood and walked around the desk to wrap her arms around his shoulders. “I want Irene to be happy.”

“Yes, and I can see all of your claws out.” He laughed and looked up at her. “I can never win a fight with you, can I?”

“No. You have taught me too well.” She kissed his forehead and straightened. “Good night, Father.”

“Sleep well, my dear.” When Elizabeth entered her bedchamber, she found her lady’s maid and dear friend, Stella, waiting for her.

“You left for the masquerade without preparing for tomorrow,” Stella said with a smile.

“Oh, my goodness!” Elizabeth rushed to her escritoire and quickly pulled out a sheet of parchment from a stack. “I forgot.”

“Do not worry, My Lady.” Stella placed a hand on her shoulder. “You have me to remind you.” Elizabeth wrote quickly then folded and sealed the sheet before handing it to Stella, who smiled and tucked it into the pocket in front of her dress. Elizabeth rose and walked into her dressing room.

“How was the ball?” Stella asked, following her. Elizabeth had managed to push all thought of what had occurred at the ball from her mind, but everything returned like a flood. Her skin still tingled from his touch, and she wished she had not allowed him to kiss her because it made her face the unfortunate fact that she desired a man she disliked.

“I hated it,” she told Stella, “and I lost my reticule.” She sat in front of the vanity, and Stella began to remove the pins holding Elizabeth’s chestnut brown hair up.

“How did you lose it?”

 “I forgot it in the library where I had been reading…I returned to look for it, but it was no longer there. Someone must have taken it,” she concluded, avoiding her friend’s eyes. Elizabeth could keep secrets from everyone in her life but Stella, and Elizabeth feared Stella would see what her lady had done tonight if their eyes met.

“Elizabeth,” Stella said slowly, but Elizabeth still did not look at her, “what happened at the ball?”

Elizabeth removed one of her pearl earrings and reached for the other. “Why would you think something happened?”

“You never lose your things, and if you do, you will not leave that place until you found it or at least had a clue.” Stella gently lifted Elizabeth’s chin with her hand, so their gaze met through the mirror. “I think you know where your reticule is.”

It was true that her reticule had not been in the library when she returned to look for it much later, and she suspected it was with Guildford. She sighed and blinked slowly. “I have done something unthinkable, Stella.”

“What is it?” Stella moved to kneel by her chair and took her hand.

“I kissed a man,” Elizabeth confessed.

Stella smiled. “That is a good thing.”

Elizabeth shook her head. “Not when that man is the one intended for Irene. It was Guildford.”

“Oh.” Stella blinked. “That does present us with a problem.”

“Yes. He is not the right man for Irene. He kissed me without any consideration for her position in his life. I was stupid.”

“Did you—”

Stella did not need to finish that question, and Elizabeth looked away with a grimace. “Yes, I enjoyed it, and I am ashamed of it.”

“You should not be.” Stella squeezed her hand.

“Why should I not?” she asked with disbelief. “I allowed myself to be seduced by a man like him. You know him, Stella. You helped me learn all I can about him.”

“He is the worst of rakes,” Stella nodded, “but I think what happened between you was natural. Perhaps you should allow him to court you instead of Irene.”

“I cannot believe you are saying this. You know how I feel about him.”

“Yet you kissed him.” Stella sucked in her lips to keep from smiling.

“He kissed me!”

“You allowed him.” Her friend rose and continued undoing her hair. She removed the small helmet that sat like a crown. “I will help you stop him from courting Irene if you require my assistance, but you must fight your attraction alone.”

She was right, and Elizabeth did not like it. “You were supposed to comfort me,” she complained.

“Comfort will not help you now, but the truth will.”

She sat on her bed and stared at the fire for a long while after Stella had gone. No man had ever shown her desire, and perhaps that was what had drawn her to Guildford. She had to fight this, and the only way she knew how was by allowing her dislike of him to dominate her thoughts.

She climbed out of her bed and went to her escritoire, where she sat and began to write everything she knew about him that made her dislike him. She had written two things when a knock sounded at her door.

“Come in,” she called. The door opened, and Irene stepped into her bedchamber. Her blue eyes gleamed in the candlelight, and her cheeks were flushed.

“I think the Marquess is very charming, Elizabeth,” she said. “Father was right. He might make me a good husband.”

No! He is not good for you, Irene! She wanted to say, but the words would not leave her lips, and her heart sank. Her work had become much more difficult than she had anticipated.

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  • Great dialogue, good premise getting fleshed out, getting Hot! Please read this, especially if your “regular” authors are becoming a bit boring, rather like a formula endlessly repeated. This is a *good* one.

  • Enjoyed the preview immensely. Nothing like an interesting love story between members of the same household vying for the affections of a fake. Can’t wait for this to be published.

  • I enjoyed the preview would have liked to have read the rest of the book straight away but I obviously have to wait very impatiently.

  • This book sounds interesting. I look forward to reading it. I like the plot and the review has my attention. I am excited about this book’s release.

  • I have said before and will reiterate.Your books are amazing and you have the knack of story writing.Looking forward to this book.The preview has left me wanting to read more

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