Loving a Beast of a Marquess Preview

About the book


“You shouldn’t dare love someone like me...”

No one could ever suspect that Lady Evangeline, one of the most eligible ladies of the season, carries a woeful burden. And even though concealing a Duke’s death is inexcusable, it is preferable to falling in his terrible heir’s hands.

Zachary Ranson, the Marquess of Harley, is accustomed to being feared by men and women alike. Rumored to have killed his own father, each step he takes is a painful reminder that he is a monster unworthy of peace and love.

Desperate to make just any match before her secret is out, Evangeline is at her wit’s end when the abhorrent Marquess refuses to leave her house until the Duke shows up. But placing herself against his beastly temper might cost her a lot more than she had imagined…

Chapter One


Lady Evangeline Pevton smoothed down the front of her peach muslin dress and sighed. Peach was not her color, but her aunt insisted on putting her in it at every possible opportunity—possibly because Evangeline’s mother had preferred peach. But Evangeline’s mother had been somewhat darker and much better suited to the shade.

Evangeline sighed again.

“Enough,” her aunt, Dorothea, said, tapping her fan against the back of Evangeline’s hand. “Do you want everyone to discover our predicament?”

“No, Aunt,” Evangeline said dutifully, although, truth be told, she didn’t know that would necessarily be a bad thing. It had only been a month since her father’s disappearance—and all the unfortunate discoveries that had gone along with it—and although Dorothea was determined to conceal the reality of the situation, Evangeline could hardly see how it could be kept a secret for long. Especially when they were at one of the major balls of the season, held by none other than the Duke of Norfolk.

Before them, the quartet began tuning in preparation for the first dance to begin. Evangeline winced at one particularly flat violin. Being blessed with perfect pitch felt a little more like a curse at times like these.

“Smile, girls,” Dorothea said, beaming at everyone who passed them. “Emily, that includes you.”

Emily, Evangeline’s younger sister, swallowed convulsively. “I don’t know how I can smile,” she said, her voice little more than a whisper. “I—”

Evangeline took Emily’s hand and squeezed it. “You know we must marry before Papa’s secret is out,” she said under her breath, “and you know Aunt will not let us rest until we find husbands.”

“But it has barely been a month!” Emily hissed back. “We should still be mourning.”

“Quiet!” Dorothea glared at Emily, and Evangeline’s hand tightened around her sister’s. If she had her way, she’d have taken the burden of marriage onto her own shoulders, but that would not have protected Emily. “You know if your father’s heir discovers he is now the Duke…” Dorothea shuddered. “You must pray you are both married by that time.”

Evangeline resisted rolling her eyes with difficulty. “I know,” she said. “He is a devil among men. A prowling demon. A monster. A beast.” To her relief, her words brought a smile back onto Emily’s face. “And if he discovers us, two unmarried women in his household, he will eat us alive.”

Dorothea blinked at Evangeline in displeasure. “You may choose to make a joke of it, to be sure, but there is little doubt your lives will be extremely unpleasant if he inherits, and you remain in the house.”

Privately, Evangeline didn’t know quite how her father’s heir, a man about whom she knew little save he was a libertine, could be quite as bad as her aunt portrayed him to be, but expressing such things only resulted in an argument. If there was one thing about which her aunt was certain, it was that the Marquess of Harley, her father’s heir, was a devil incarnate.

A portly gentleman approached them and bowed. “Lady Pevton,” he said to Dorothea. “Lady Evangeline, Lady Emily. You are looking divine tonight.”

In peach, Evangeline rather doubted it, but she merely tucked her shawl more firmly about her shoulders and dipped into the shallowest curtsy she could manage. Beside her, Emily managed a somewhat deeper curtsy, and her aunt was all effusive smiles.

“Lord Mountsby,” Dorothea said graciously. “How wonderful to see you here tonight.”

“Indeed, indeed, a delightful event.” He waved a plump hand and fastened his attention firmly on Evangeline. She bit back a grimace. “It is a shame to see such a lovely lady not dancing,” he said. “Would you do me the honor of this dance, My Lady?”

In an ideal world, and one in which her father had still been alive, Evangeline might have been tempted to refuse. There were countless excuses that sprung to mind—she was lame, her sister was feeling faint, she was already promised the dance to any other gentleman—but her father was not alive, and she had the burden of being required to marry swiftly.

“Of course,” she said, accepting his hand and glancing back at Emily as she was led out to join the lines of couples already forming. At least it was not a waltz; if it had been, she might not have been able to bear the feeling of his clammy hands pawing all over her back. As it was, she was obliged to have him hold her hand, and that was bad enough.

Lord Mountsby licked his lips. He was a florid man who, at best, appeared to be in his late thirties. Evangeline rather suspected he was older, however; he’d already had one wife who had perished in childbirth. The idea that she might be the next made her shudder.

“You have been absent from society as of late,” he said when they joined together. “I had thought there might have been more opportunities for us to get to know each other.”

“I’m afraid we were called away to my father’s estate,” she managed. This wasn’t, strictly, a lie: they had indeed been called to her father’s estate whereupon they had been confronted with the devastating fact that her father had appeared to have taken his own life. Her heart clenched at the memory, but she continued, “My aunt was keen for us to return to London, however.”

“How excellent.”

“Indeed,” Evangeline murmured. There were other several sets of this dance to go, and she could think of nothing worse than to endure them with a man who was so focused on her chest that he forgot to note where her face was.

Although… She glanced up in time to see a gentleman extend a leg as he bowed before her sister. At least she was not confronted with a dandy. Lord Mountsby was an uninspiring example of a gentleman well past his prime but unwilling to admit it. He disgusted her, but at least she was not inclined to laugh at him. If a gentleman approached with such a waistcoat—featuring phoenixes, no less—she would have been unable to keep a straight face.

There was some commotion by the door, and Evangeline turned to see a tall man enter the ballroom. His chestnut hair was brushed back in the latest fashion, and his coat fitted tightly against his broad shoulders. At first glance—and she had little time for more than a glance—she thought him easily the most handsome man in the room.

His gaze brushed over her and moved on, no doubt in search of something more interesting than either she or Lord Mountsby. She didn’t blame him; her partner was hardly prepossessing, and she was dressed in peach.

“I see the Marquess has finally deigned to arrive,” Lord Mountsby said, distaste in every word. “No doubt he will unleash his legendary temper on us, too.”

“The Marquess?”

“The Marquess of Harley. Hadn’t you heard he’s currently in town?”

Evangeline drew in a sharp breath. She had not heard he was currently in Town; last she had heard, he was on the Continent, living a life of dissolution there. Could it be possible he’d discovered her father’s death?

“Yes,” Lord Mountsby said, reading her intake of fear as fear of the Marquess, not what his return would mean for the family. “If I may, I would strongly advise staying away from him. I’ve heard he’s got the devil of a temper if you excuse my language, and no good things come of young ladies tangling with him.”

The dance finally came to an end, and Evangeline curtsied opposite her partner. Before he could ask her anything else, or—heaven forbid—escort her anywhere else or place himself by her side all evening, she looked across to where her aunt stood, fan quivering in her hands.

“My aunt wishes to speak with me,” she said firmly. “Pray excuse me.”

“Why, yes, of course, but—” Evangeline didn’t wait to hear his garbled reason why they should remain together for the duration of the ball and fled. Emily appeared to have had a similar thought, and they arrived at their aunt’s side at a similar time.

“Did you hear?” Emily asked, her eyes wide. “The Marquess of Harley is here.”

“Of course, I’ve heard,” Dorothea snapped, flicking her fan open and fanning her gleaming face. The heat of the ball combined with the unwanted presence of the Marquess had taken its toll. “And I’ve seen. An unpleasant fellow.”

Evangeline glanced across to where the Marquess stood, surrounded by debutantes with cooing smiles and edged glances. His face was impassive as though he remained unaffected by all he saw. Still, he had a splendid chin and piercing eyes that, even from this distance, she saw were blue. “He does not appear unpleasant beyond the ordinary,” she ventured.

“A handsome face! What of it?” Dorothea’s fan fluttering increased. “His entire body is covered in burns. They say he burned his own father alive. He is a cruel, hard man with no respect for his life or anyone else’s. As for the way he treats his servants—I have heard such stories.”

Emily pursed her lips. “I don’t believe he is capable of such things,” she said. “Look, there, he is putting up with Miss Melton’s advances with remarkable poise.”

Miss Melton, who was determined to make a good match even if that meant intimidating a gentleman down the aisle, had abandoned fan fluttering for overtly nudging another young lady out of the way. She placed her hand on the Marquess’ arm and leaned in. Evangeline had the sneaking suspicion Miss Melton thought she was being alluring, but the overall effect of her green dress and pursed lips made her look like a frog.

As they watched, the Marquess removed his arm from her hand with enough speed it couldn’t have passed as polite, said something curt, and walked away before Miss Melton could respond.

“Well,” Emily amended, “he was putting up with her advances admirably.”

“He is a brute.” Their aunt eyed them both sternly. “You are to dance with as many gentlemen as you can, but neither of you may dance with the Marquess.”

“Considering he does not appear to be in the mood for dancing, I hardly think that will be a problem,” Evangeline said dryly.

“What bad luck that he has returned at this time of all.” Dorothea pulled out a handkerchief and dabbed her face, paying special attention to her top lip. “Well, I shall have to drive him away again. Come, Evangeline, Emily. We shall put a stop to this.” In full sail, Dorothea rose and crossed the ballroom to where other matrons of a certain, indeterminable age sat.

Evangeline, on the very outskirts of the conversation, half wishing she could avoid it altogether, toyed with the edge of her gloves and looked out across the ballroom, wishing there was but one man she might consider marrying. One would have thought it wouldn’t be too challenging, but either the selection here was particularly poor or her standards were too high.

Too fat. Too old. Too boring.

“…Gracious, how shocking! But I confess I’m unsurprised—did you hear that he seduced a noblewoman in Italy?”

“And dueled the husband, I heard.”

Evangeline turned her attention back to the conversation. Miss Melton had also arrived and stood by her mother’s shoulder, lip curled.

“I shouldn’t want anything to do with him,” she said in blind disregard of the fact that she had shortly before been attempting to entice him into dancing. “Atrocious manners, and there’s something in his air I cannot like.”

“His disinclination to favor her,” Emily murmured, and Evangeline bit her lip, trying not to laugh.

“His household lives in fear of his vile temper,” another lady murmured. “My husband went to call on him the other day—to show respect, you know—and he said the butler near quivered in fear when the Marquess entered the room.”

“I have heard that, after he murdered his father, he became utterly unhinged,” their aunt said with grim satisfaction. “I hardly know what he is still doing in polite society—and if I were Lady Jersey, I would not allow him an Almack’s voucher.”

Emily leaned closer to Evangeline. “Can you believe such things of him?”

“Considering I know so little about the man, I can’t say for certain,” Evangeline whispered back. “But there must be some ground on which to base these accusations—and you saw the way he treated Miss Melton. I could easily believe him to be a murderer though it is so very shocking.”

Emily pursed her lips. Two years younger than Evangeline, at eighteen, she was the more forgiving of the two and the more inclined to think well of people. As older sisters were wont to do, Evangeline considered herself to be both more mature and worldly than her sister, though in fact she had only experienced one season more and had seen little more of the world than Emily.

“He does not look as though he could be so bad,” Emily said at last.

“You heard what Aunt Dorothea said—his entire body is covered in horrific burns.” Evangeline cast another glance around the ballroom in search of him, but she couldn’t find him. She wasn’t entirely sure if she was relieved or not. Whether the story about his burns was true, they certainly did not mar his face which remained one of the most coldly handsome ones she had seen. “And if he is so cruel to his servants that they all fear him…”

“Do you think he would be cruel to us?”

Evangeline hesitated. Of the three, Emily had taken the news of her father’s suicide the worst, and even now, her nerves were fragile. If Evangeline spoke the fear on her heart—that he would be cruel indeed if he became their guardian—she would only disturb her sister’s feelings more.

“I hope we shall not have to find out,” she said at last. “Aunt Dorothea is right about one thing—the sooner we marry well, the less we shall have to worry about any of it.”

Emily giggled—the first laugh she had given all evening. Perhaps all week. “In that case,” she said, “you ought not to have worn peach.”

Chapter Two


The Marquess of Harley, Zachary Hanson, strode through the crowd in a futile attempt to avoid the debutantes. There were few things he liked less than insipid laughs and calculating smiles, and this ball abounded with them. It felt as though every eligible young lady had conspired to be present and—bizarrely—interested in dancing with him.

Zachary did not dance. He did few things society expected him to do, and truth be told, when he had returned to London on his friend Percy Riffy’s request, he hadn’t expected to be such an object of fascination.

A buxom lady stepped into his path, dragging her reluctant daughter after her. “My Lord,” she said. “I suspect you don’t remember me.”

“You would be correct, Madam.”

The smile hardened on her face. “I was friends with your late father.”

No doubt she had heard the rumors surrounding the circumstances of his father’s death. He held her gaze for a long moment, waiting for the inevitable moment for her to flinch. Everyone did after he stared at them long enough. His reputation did him few favors, but it did ensure no one spent time with him if he didn’t want them to.

Her resolve cracked, and she glanced away. “I suppose you are busy,” she murmured. “Come, Felicity.” The girl sent him a half-terrified, half-curious glance that he didn’t bother responding to. The end result would be the same: no one remained close with him for long, save his mother and Riffy.

It was easier to chase away any prospective brides now than to suffer their predictable changes of heart. The lady—whose name he could not bring to mind—and Felicity hurried from his path, leaving him unfettered access to the brandy and cards that were taking place in the adjoining room.

This room, filled with tables and the slightly inebriated concentration of the men disinterested in dancing, was Zachary’s haven. He was rarely happier than when he had a drink in hand and had the opportunity to lose himself in a game of whist or faro. Like his father before him, he had an admirable eye for the game, and he rarely lost. Something he had put to good use while on the Continent.

He had just won a game of whist and bid goodbye to the gentleman opposing him when Percy Riffy slid into the available chair. “Harley,” Riffy said. “What a surprise to see you here.”

“I can only presume you’re being facetious.”

“But of course—this is the only room you would be even remotely comfortable in.” Percy eyed him, and Zachary met his gaze with a combative one. Having already consumed some wine, with brandy now following it down, there was a warmth in the base of his stomach and a lightness to his limbs that promised he was well on the way to being drunk.

“Did my mother send you?” he asked.

“Your mother is concerned that you might be…” Percy paused contemplatively. Unlike Zachary, whose broadness was a result of many long hours of boxing, Percy was of a slim build. Their friendship was longstanding, but Zachary was not above calling Percy out when he was particularly drunk—and Percy was well aware of the possibility. “She did not want you to alienate the ton,” he finished.

“That is somewhat too late, don’t you think?” Zachary shuffled the cards in a set of precise movements that hid the amount of alcohol in his system. “I am not a favorite among society, as you well know.”

“A title may provoke many to overlook some of the other rumors,” Percy said carefully.

Zachary raised his eyebrows. “What would you have me do, Riffy? Return out there and dance with a series of young ladies who have nothing to recommend themselves?”

“You are a little harsh. There are many lovely ladies in attendance tonight.”

“There are?” Zachary snorted. “Forgive me, but I saw none.”

“Perhaps you were not looking in the right directions.” Percy laid his hands over the cards Zachary was dealing. “I’m coming to you as a friend, not an opponent.”

“And yet your advice is for me to make a fool of myself.”

“Dancing is not so bad, you know.”

Zachary’s gaze flickered. The burns he had suffered across his body did not inhibit his movements too much now that they were healed, but dancing pained his legs, and when the reward was so little, he was disinclined to put himself through the process.

“If you are acting as my mother’s messenger, you may tell her not to fear,” he said gruffly. “I have no intention of marrying.”

Percy’s mouth twitched into a smile. “That would not reassure her as you well know.”

For the first time, Zachary looked at his friend. At thirty, Percy was four years his senior, but the two men had been close all of Zachary’s adult life. Despite their bickering, Zachary trusted Percy as he trusted no other and if Percy was telling him to do something…

He groaned.

“The young ladies already think I’m a monster,” he said, “and if they dare attempt to manipulate me into dancing with them again—”

“I’m not asking you to dance,” Percy said quickly. “Just make conversation. Remind them, for heaven’s sake, that you are a man, not a beast.”

Zachary drowned the last of his brandy and placed the tumbler on his table. “I cannot promise you that,” he said.

 

***


Evangeline disentangled herself from the latest gentleman to dance with her. The gentlemen had not been scarce his evening, despite her being in peach, but none had attracted her even remotely.

The purpose of marriage is not to be attached to one’s husband, she told herself, but the thought of sharing her life with a man whose wandering eyes were fixed so firmly on her chest—no, it was not to be borne.

“You have made admirable progress,” her aunt said by the punch bowl. “I estimate if you keep this up that you will have three offers of marriage by the end of the month.”

“Aunt—”

“I know this is not what you want,” Dorothea said, stroking her face in an unexpectedly tender gesture, “but it is for the best. Now the Marquess is back in society; we have even less time.”

“He and Papa were not—”

“No, they were not close, but he is still a distant cousin, and family often calls on family. You must be married before then.”

Evangeline prided herself on being cheerful. When their father’s things had been found at the top of the cliff, and it had been clear he had jumped, she had been the one to find relief that the truth was so easily concealable. She had been the one to comfort her sister and remain—if not positive, for that was a step too far even for her—hopeful that the future might hold some sunshine.

At the prospect of marrying one of the gentlemen in this room, she could see nothing but rainclouds in her future, no matter how far ahead she looked.Yet if she did not marry, she would be forced to live under the thumb of the Marquess, who stood scowling in the corner of the room, a glass in his hand. As she looked over at him, a slight, blond-haired man attempted to remove the glass. With a black scowl, the Marquess tossed its contents back.

Evangeline turned away. The rumors of his temper appeared to be true, and if he were to be their guardian, she could not be certain she would escape his wrath. Beyond that, she missed her father. He had been a kind man, prone to melancholy, of course—taking his life had been evidence of that—but they’d been close. He had taken her for walks through the gardens and pointed out the different birds. Bird watching had been a passion of his that she now shared.

The thought of the Marquess, with his temper and his propensity to drink and gamble, taking over her dear papa’s estate and sending it to ruin made her throat tighten. Emily was still dancing with a gentleman she recognized as being Mr. Trimly, the son of a Viscount, and her aunt had turned away to an acquaintance. For once, Evangeline was wholly alone though she was surrounded by people.

Nobody noticed as she slipped to the very edge of the room and the double doors that led out into the gardens. The air was cooler here, and it soothed her as she hurried down the gravel paths. Her frantic heart pounded as she escaped the noise and the light and finally found silence. Peace. Calm.

She was trapped. A husband she couldn’t love—or maybe even respect if today was repeated—or a cruel guardian who may never give her independence. Or worse, he might choose her husband for her. At least now she had the luxury of choice between whoever happened to ask for her hand. Evangeline’s head drooped. This was disastrous.

For the first time since the news of her father’s death, she closed her eyes and let a few tears slip through. Then a few more. Before she knew it, she was crying in the most unattractive manner. There were tears, great snotty gasps, and strangled sobs, as she pressed the heels of her hands against her eyes and mourned the loss of the life she’d known and loved.

And the loss of her father, whom she’d also known and loved. The two were interconnected, splintering off from one another. Her father’s death meant her expected future had shattered, and as for the manner of his death…Oh, that was the worst part of all.

Evangeline was crying so hard, she didn’t notice the footsteps approaching from the house.


***

Zachary escaped the ballroom as a fox might flee chasing hounds—with both fear and surprisingly dexterity. He had consumed enough brandy by now that the world had taken on a rather distant sheen, but he nevertheless found his footing as he clambered out of the window and left the ruckus behind him.

He probably shouldn’t have taken such offense at that young lady—if ‘lady’ was an appropriate term for the girl who had come at him with such terrifying intention. Percy had been right that a multitude of sins could be forgiven if one was in possession of a title, but Zachary had never wished more that he didn’t have a title. Or anything, in fact, that brought him into the public eye, so he could be scorned and reviled.

Because, damn it, he should not have lost his temper.

The girl was an irritation—an extremely determined irritation who persisted in disregarding his dismissals—but not a threat as such. She may have decided she intended to dance with him, but that did not mean he was in any way obliged to dance with her. He ought not to have given her a public set-down about the sentiments of men who refused her advances.

Zachary wandered down the garden, past the statues and the hedges and the delicate, tinkling water features. The night air only illustrated how inebriated he was. Another mistake, but he’d failed to see how he could endure the night without it.

A sob caught his beleaguered attention. And another. A woman was crying. The sound caught him off guard, and he was momentarily frozen. Perhaps the thing to do was to back away. Beat a hasty retreat and leave the poor lady to whatever ailed her. And yet, Zachary didn’t move.

Her pain stirred something in him. A wanting for something more; the grief that he so often ignored because there was no good outcome. When he was made into a monster, he could hardly wish for love, and so, he dared not. But this girl’s crying ignited into real feeling the silent longing for something more than this half-life with a burned a hole in his chest.

Zachary lowered himself to the ground beside where the girl was hiding. He could see nothing of her in the darkness, but her sobbing stopped abruptly as she realized he was there. Shock, he imagined. Shock had a way of freezing the limbs, and it appeared she had not expected to find him here.

“I know you’re there,” he said when she took another shuddering breath that was clearly designed to be quiet. “But fear not—I’m quite drunk.”

“Is that an effort to reassure me?” she asked after a second, her voice husky from crying.

“If you are wishing to remain anonymous, you may rest assured that I will remember very little of this evening—or you—tomorrow.”

“Oh.” She cleared her throat. “How… refreshingly honest.”

“I take it you’re finding the ball as detestable as I am?” He leaned back on his elbows and looked at the moonless sky. Dampness from the grass seeped through his coat, but he couldn’t bring himself to care.

Roberts, his valet, would care, but that was a problem for tomorrow.

“Oh, if you knew what it was like,” she said then gave a shaky laugh, “but of course you wouldn’t.”

“How so?”

“Who are you?”

He chuckled. “Having you know my name would put us on unequal footing, would it not? I may remember little of our meeting, but you will recall everything in great detail, no doubt.” He loosed a breath. “You may call me Quentin.”

This time, her laugh was a little stronger. “In which case, call me Daisy.”

“So, Daisy, what brings you out here on such a fine night?”

“You really are quite drunk,” she said amused. “I imagine the same thing as has brought you out, seeing as you confessed to finding the ball detestable.”

“Ah, yes. And you informed me that I don’t know what it’s like.”

“Yes,” she said, “I did though, perhaps, I should not have done.”

Zachary waved a careless hand, the movement clumsy enough it threatened to unsettle his balance, seated though he was. “We are strangers,” he said. “You may say anything you wish to me and feel no consequences.”

“Do you promise you won’t discover my identity?”

“Now that I have sat, I do not think I could stand even if I wanted to,” he assured her. “You are perfectly safe.”

“Then let me tell you this: you are a gentleman. You may mourn the death of a father, but it will never place you in such a predicament as I now face.” She hiccupped another sob before giving a slightly wet snort. “And such gentlemen as I am expected—no, obliged—to marry.”

Zachary reflected with surprising relief that he could not have been one of these objectionable gentlemen as he had not danced once, but the thought was tempered by her grief. “I know what it is to lose a father and to feel… trapped in the life that you are left with.”

She sighed, the sound quiet yet burdened with a thousand things she didn’t say. “I never thought grief would feel like this.”

“Why, had you given it much thought?”

“Not as such, but… The realization that nothing will ever be the same again is a sobering one.”

“A sobering one indeed,” he said heavily. “You may think me enviable in that I am a gentleman, but that does not mean my position is enviable.”

There was a pause as she considered his words—a pause during which he wondered if he could have made a mistake—before she said, “How so?”

How could he put this without giving too much of his identity away? He frowned, attempting to marshal his spinning thoughts. “I am not well-liked,” he said at last, “but I should like to be.”

“And is that your fault?” she enquired.

That was a cutting question. Zachary’s frown deepened. “In part,” he admitted. “I drink too much.”

“That much is evident,” she said tartly. “You would not be here if you had not drunk too much.”

“And yet, I cannot find it within myself to regret it, for now I am here with you.”

“You are too drunk to make such claims.”

“I would beg to differ.” He closed his eyes to the view from the stars. “I may be drunk, but you are no figment of my imagination, and I find speaking with you easier than I have found speaking with anyone in a long time.”

“A tragic statement,” she said, a strange note to her voice, “and yet… for at least today’s ball, I suppose I could say the same. Although I will attribute that in a large part to my unfortunate partners.”

“If you have no wish to dance, my advice to you would be not to.” He lay back on the grass as the world slowly spun around him. “There are other ways of attracting men if that is your goal.”

“Oh, and I suppose you would know all about it?” she demanded. “Do these methods of attracting men take place in a ballroom or some other establishment I should not be allowed to step foot in?”

He chuckled. When she was angry, she had a rather delightful rasp to her voice. “I merely meant you could engage them in conversation,” he said. “Although now you put me in mind of it—”

“I have no wish to know,” she said hurriedly. “Pray do not tell me anything more you might know about such establishments.”

“Very well.”

They lapsed into silence. Zachary stared at the faint haze from where the moon was hiding behind its clouds. In truth, he hardly knew why he was here. Redemption, he supposed, though that was an odd thing to think when he had done so little to be worthy of redemption.

Perhaps this was all a mistake. Returning to London had done nothing so far except remind him of why he had left in the first place.

Perhaps he should leave. At yet… something about the girl and the openness that lay in the darkness between them made him want to stay.

Chapter Three


Of all things, Evangeline hadn’t expected a man to approach her. Particularly not a drunken man. And particularly not a drunken man who had stretched himself out on the grass as though he belonged there—as though the world was his for the taking if only he wished to take it.

“I have a question,” he said, almost lazily, as though the question was intriguing, but he cared little for the answer. “Are you being forced into marriage because you feel it’s the only choice left to you or because someone else is forcing your hand?”

“What does it matter to you?” she returned and was rewarded by another chuckle. Whatever anger he had experienced was now totally gone, replaced by gentle amusement. Part of her wondered if she could be the cause, but that was ludicrous. He had stumbled across her crying. Drunk or not, she could not have expected that to be a circumstance to amuse him unless he was especially cruel, and she did not think him cruel.

“My mother has similar wishes for me,” he said.

“You forget your position as a gentleman allows you rather more freedom in that direction,” she said, unable to hold back her bitterness. “You may choose whether to marry.”

“So, someone else is forcing your hand.”

“My situation forces my hand.” She pressed her fingers against her eyes until fireworks bloomed on her eyelids. “As for you—you come here drunk and frustrated because people don’t like you but accept you have some of the blame.”

“If I were sober, I might be offended,” he said, a slightly harder note in his voice.

Anonymity had made her brave, but she had gotten carried away. Her fists clenched. “You promised me I might say how I feel without consequence.”

“Then let me inform you that the primary source of the dislike is something beyond my control,” he said, the hardness in his voice not abating. “I may dislike the opinion society has of me, but I cannot change it.”

Evangeline looked across at the man lying on the grass so close to her. He had made, as he had promised, very little attempt to discover her identity, and although he was very clearly extremely drunk, his faculties remained unimpaired. He was more shadow than man here, and although they had agreed not to discover each other’s identity, she found herself wondering who had come here in this way. Certainly, no one she had danced with. No one indeed whose voice she recognized—it was low and surprisingly smooth though he slurred the odd word.

As though he sensed her study, he turned. She couldn’t see his eyes, but she felt the weight of his stare.

“Have you yet discovered who I am?” he asked, a mocking note to his voice.

“No. Do you know who I am?”

“I do not, little mouse.” He sat up. “Although I confess now to being curious.”

“You were not before?”

“Before, you had not attempted to take me down a peg or two.”

“If you’re asking me to apologize—”

“You’re getting carried away. I am not a man of much, but I am a man of my word, and I promised you no consequences.”

Evangeline had not expected herself to be relieved, but his assurance eased some of the tension in her shoulders.

“The truth is,” he said with a sigh, “although the ton’s opinions of me are based on rumor, I am not… I have done things in my past I am ashamed of.”

“It is never too late to seek redemption,” she ventured. He did not precisely seem in need of comfort—not in the usual way—and yet she felt him to be a kindred spirit. A lost soul looking for a place to land. “Apologize to those you have offended. Ask for help where it is needed. There is nothing wrong with asking for help.”

“Ask for help,” he said as though he were tasting the words in his mouth. “An alien concept, I assure you.”

A smile tugged at Evangeline’s mouth. She understood—her family had never asked for help. Even now, when they were reeling from her father’s death and its implications, they did their best to conceal all knowledge of it from the world. “I understand the feeling,” she said, “but it is my advice to you, nevertheless.”

“You are very wise.” He stood, swaying slightly. Clearly, his assurance that he was altogether too drunk to rise had been a lie. “Tell me, little mouse, are you often in the habit of giving advice to strange gentlemen in the dark?”

Evangeline stiffened. There was something different about him now and the way his attention honed in on her. “Not especially,” she said, shrinking back against the wall. The rough stones bit into her back. “Ought I be scared of you?”

“Scared?” He laughed and to her shock, stumbled closer, reaching for her hands. At odds with the clumsiness of her movements, his grasp was gentle. “There is nothing to be scared of. You’ve given me hope.”

“I’m very glad for that, but—”

“But I have advice for you,” he said, cutting her off. He pressed even closer, his leg between hers, pinning her against the wall. “I would recommend to you not to linger alone in the dark with drunken strangers.”

Evangeline’s heart pounded, sending fear and exhilaration through her body. She could see his eyes now, dark and hooded, an expression in them she didn’t understand but that thrilled her nonetheless. His body was altogether too close, yet every brush of his knee against her leg made her body awaken in a way she’d never experienced before.

And he was going to kiss her. She wasn’t entirely sure how she knew this. She’d kissed a boy once when she was fifteen. He was the son of a local baron, and she made a habit of sneaking out meeting him on the estate. They walked and talked, and once he held her shoulders, thumbs pressing in painfully, and kissed her. It had been wet and sloppy and effectively put an end to her burgeoning feelings.

This strange man did not grip her shoulders. In fact, she was fairly certain that if she wanted, she could tell him to stop, and he would. Moreover, despite that knee nudging her inner thigh, there was still space for her to escape.

Yet she did not move.

“You know,” he said, almost conversationally, even as one hand skimmed up her arm in a shiver of feeling, “I have the distinct impression you’re extremely pretty.”

“You’re very drunk,” she countered.

“Touché.” His fingers traced the line of her jaw. “I likely should not be doing this, but you have captivated me, little mouse.”

When he leaned in to kiss her, she didn’t pull away. And when his lips met hers, it was so radically different from her last kiss that she did nothing to stop it. In fact, as the hand on her jaw cupped her cheek in a wholly unexpected display of tenderness, she found herself reaching for the lapels of his coat and holding him in place as though she could elongate this moment.

Colin Hughville had not been her first kiss. This was her first kiss.

As though he sensed that she was not entirely against the idea of the kiss continuing, the man tilted his head and opened his mouth. His other hand found her waist and pressed her more firmly against him. His lips were warm and firm, and his tongue brushed hers—at first gently, but when the sensation swept heat through her body and she gasped—very quietly—he did it again, this time teasing her tongue with his. It was slick and hot, and he tasted a little of brandy. Although she could not pinpoint why this action made her stomach clench with anticipation or an ache sink down low between her legs, she found herself craving more.

Drunk he may be, but his hands didn’t shake against her face when they tucked her hair behind her ear, and he felt perfectly steady now when he was pressing her into the wall. In fact, there was nothing but the taste of brandy on his tongue that indicated he was in any way inebriated.

Evangeline wasn’t precisely sure what came over her—madness, perhaps—when she arched her back so her hips were more firmly pressed against his. All she knew was there was a craving in her that this man could satisfy, and with the darkness obscuring them from even each other, there could be no reason to stop. She didn’t want to stop. She wanted to pursue this until its final, fatal conclusion. He had promised there would be no consequences.

The man groaned into her mouth, the sound sending another spike of heat through her, and something twitched against her stomach. And she wanted, she wanted, she wanted—

Evangeline came to her senses rather abruptly. It may have been the approaching voices, laughing and carefree and in no way prepared for what they would find at the end of the garden. It might have been the way the man’s hand slid down toward her buttocks, fingers greedily exploring her curves. Or it might have been the low curse he gave when he, too, heard the approaching onlookers. Regardless of the cause, she broke away and shoved his chest.

Surprisingly, he moved back almost immediately. “Be quiet, little mouse, and they shall not discover us,” he whispered.

Evangeline had no intention of remaining in this place with the man. He had promised no consequences, but she doubted he could keep that promise if they were discovered. All at once, shame flooded her body, chasing away the last of her desire. She, Evangeline Pevton, who was perhaps not the most pious of girls but was certainly not sinful, had just kissed a strange man in the dark at a ball.

“Do not remember me,” she hissed as she gathered her skirts and slipped past him. Her shoes were almost soundless on the grass, and she saw enough of the house to be able to navigate the pathway with little trouble. The approaching voices faded, and she gave a sigh of relief. She’d made it. They would not be discovered.

Her sense of triumph lasted until she ventured inside the ballroom again. Heat washed over her, and she looked to remove her shawl. A shawl that had been over her shoulders only moments before.

A shawl that was, now, missing.


***


Zachary’s fingers closed around the shawl the lady had inadvertently left in his hands. He could no longer even see her in the darkness, and he did not dare chase after her in case someone discovered them.

Besides, he wasn’t entirely certain he could chase after her. Kissing her had been one thing, but now she was gone, and he was left with nothing but the rough stone wall under his fingers. The world seemed a little less stable than it had a few moments ago.

Do not remember me. If he left the shawl in its place here, someone might discover it and realize she had been in the garden. If he took it, he might discover its owner’s identity which she did not want, but he…

He was not entirely opposed to that. As his beleaguered brain came to this conclusion, the giggling group from behind approached close enough that they could see him.

“Oh,” said one, “this spot is not as isolated as I had hoped.”

He turned and swept an ironic bow. “Ladies,” he said. They stopped, unsure, and although they couldn’t see his face, he was certain they—unlike the strange lady—had an idea of who he was. “How divine to meet you on such an evening.”

Whispers of the Marquess came from amongst the women, and eventually one summoned enough courage to say, “Our apologies, My Lord. We will leave you in peace.”

No one would suspect him of having dallied with a strange lady now, he was certain—after all, they had witnessed him alone, and he had no doubt been seen exiting the ballroom alone. The strange lady’s identity was safe.

He touched his mouth as the group of ladies hurried back toward the house, perhaps realizing their little excursion came with more danger than they had anticipated. They feared him, but the lady he had kissed—she had not. She had taken his caresses—such caresses as he should never have offered a lady of good standing—and returned them with a passion that had, at least momentarily, cleared his mind.

And now she was gone. He tucked the shawl under his arm. Perhaps he may never discover the identity of the lady, but he would certainly not pass by the opportunity to meet her again.

And, he resolved, he would meet with the Duke of Wellton. Things had been strained between them since his father’s death, but if he went contritely and asked for help—the Duke would help him, he was certain. His memories of the Duke were vague at best, but he had a sense of the older man’s kindly nature. With the Duke’s guidance, he would know how to move forward.

Zachary was not unused to the sensation of making resolutions when drunk. Somehow, it was always easier to face his flaws when reality was a little more distant. Today, however, would be different; his resolutions made now would be kept, he was certain of it.

That thought in mind, he returned to the house, his step a little lighter, his heart a little surer. Today was the beginning of a new chapter of his life.  

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  • I enjoyed the preview of your book I found it quite intriguing and can’t wait to find out what happens when Evangeline and Zachary meet when I read the rest of the book.

  • What a way to wet an appetite. It’s fantastic. I love it already and can’t wait to read the rest. I have a good feeling about this story. When is it coming out? Please let me know. If I find it delightful and intriguing at this point, I am sure I just stumbled into a best seller. Thanks for sharing the preview. Amazing story.

  • A great beginning of a wonderful love story that I am waiting with baited breath to finish reading. What will she do when she finds out who she has kissed and how will he win her over being the beast and a misfit in the eyes of the ton. Will they care, will they submit or will they just duel back and forth and finally understand each other??

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