If Miss Charlotte Underwood was looking for scandal, she need only look as far as Mr. Aston Melbourne. From a distance, she watched as he moved about the room, lithe and graceful, like a cat on the prowl—searching for his next victim.
Gossip circulated anew at his presence in town this season. His reputation was in tatters after his last, scandalous liaison with Marianne Gray and the myriad affairs he’d had both before his marriage and after his wife’s death.
One thing was for certain—the man was a magnet for salacious gossip. A woman alone in his company for half a breath was certain to bring her virtue into question.
“Mr. Melbourne will suit perfectly,” Charlotte whispered to her friend, Julia Randall.
Julia squinted in his direction. “He looks dangerous.”
“Precisely.” Charlotte assessed his black wavy hair and devilish brown eyes with approval. “That is his most remarkable quality. Handsomeness is nothing without a hint of danger, wouldn’t you say?”
Julia didn’t look convinced. “Desperation has muddled your brain.”
Desperation indeed. Charlotte could practically feel the iron shackles of marriage closing around her wrists. Charles Beaumont, Earl of Atherton, had designs to make her his wife and she’d do anything to prevent that from happening, even if that meant enticing the devil himself into her bed.
“We need to arrange an introduction to Mr. Melbourne,” Charlotte said.
Julia grabbed Charlotte’s arm, no doubt horrified by the thought of a woman making such an indecent request. For all of her gay spontaneity, Julia was still a creature of propriety. Julia’s sister, Elizabeth, was married to Charlotte’s brother, and had come to stay with them for the season. For two weeks straight, Julia had droned on about the impropriety of Charlotte’s plan, and tonight it seemed she was determined to get her message across.
“I won’t allow you to make a fool of yourself, Charlotte. The room is filled with a hundred eligible men who’d happily do your bidding. One will do as well as any other. There is no need to tempt a man of Melbourne’s disreputable character.”
She couldn’t dispute Julia’s logic. At the start of the season, nearly half of London had approached her brother with requests to court her. But they all sought marriage, and through that conduit, access to Charlotte’s sizable fortune. Melbourne had no such compunction. He openly detested marriage, having been wed to a woman who was wealthy but ill-suited to him. The prospect of a new wife wasn’t likely to cross his mind.
Yes, he’d be a safe conquest indeed.
“Melbourne will ask for nothing in return, which is why it must be him and none other.” She eyed the woman he was speaking to. They were several feet away, across the dance floor, but Charlotte could make out the woman’s features quite easily. Mrs. Louisa Welby. Newly widowed and apparently wasting no time in her search for a younger, more agreeable bedmate.
“Ah, there you are.” A familiar voice crooned from behind. “Your brother was kind enough to inform me of your whereabouts. Hiding by the palms, I see.”
Her brother! Charlotte’s cheeks flushed with anger. William was going to die a slow, painful death. Couldn’t she enjoy one evening in peace?
“Lord Atherton,” she said with false enthusiasm. “Pleasure to see you this evening.”
She held her hand out and Atherton’s blue eyes sparkled as he curled his fingers around hers and brushed his lips across her white kid glove.
“The pleasure is mine.” He looked up into her eyes and smiled. “You look beautiful tonight.”
Sucking in a breath, she inclined her head and flashed him a tight smile. Atherton was handsome, wealthy, and titled. Everything a member of the ton should be. And yet, he carried himself with an air of stiff formality that repelled her, as though his true nature were hidden deep beneath the surface of his amiable visage.
In conversation, he laughed as though he were never genuinely amused, spoke with the disinterest of someone only partially engaged in any given subject—faults she attributed to his being reared as an exalted member of the peerage.
A lady of breeding never reveals her true emotions.
Her governess’ words, drummed into her from birth, echoed in her head. Emotions, true or otherwise, were strictly confined to mild interest and lukewarm sympathy. To reveal more, one would risk censure and gossip, which was why Charlotte took every opportunity to speak her mind. When that failed to satisfy her, she took to the pianoforte where she could safely display emotion without fear of reprimand from her sister-in-law.
“Thank you.” She curtsied to Lord Atherton and grabbed Julia’s hand. “If you will excuse us–”
Lord Atherton touched Charlotte’s glove lightly, halting her. “May I be so bold as to claim a waltz?” Right on cue, the beginning chords of the waltz drifted through the hall.
“I…” she stammered, glancing at Melbourne and Mrs. Welby as they glided out onto the moonlit terrace. “I slipped on a wet spot earlier, and I’m afraid I may have twisted my ankle.” She turned to Julia and smiled. “May offer Miss Randall as a very amiable partner?”
“Oh, no, I wouldn’t dream of imposing upon Lord Atherton,” Julia said, pulling back slightly. It was obvious Julia wasn’t going to help Charlotte willingly in this endeavor, so she must be persuaded…
“Nonsense!” Charlotte said, nudging Julia forward. “You are a splendid dancer, Miss Randall, and far too modest. I’m sure nothing would please Lord Atherton more than standing up with you. Isn’t that right, my lord?”
“Indeed, Miss Randall,” Atherton said stiffly, holding out his arm. “It would be my honor. Shall we?”
Julia took Atherton’s arm and smiled politely, but Charlotte caught a glimpse of the anger in Julia’s eyes. Charlotte knew she’d pay for that little transgression later.
As she watched Atherton and Julia melt into the crowd, Charlotte rushed across the ballroom and darted through the French doors leading out to the terrace. Cool air brushed across her uncovered arms, sending a chill down her spine. Her eyes swept across the terrace, searching for Melbourne, but he and his companion were nowhere in sight.
With a quick glance over her shoulder, she flew down the granite steps that led to Atherton’s impeccably manicured gardens. Without Julia as chaperone, she had to be vigilant. If her brother caught her wandering the grounds alone, he’d haul her home in a trice.
Rounding the corner, she stifled a scream as she collided with something solid–something undeniably male if the broad shoulders and a tall frame were any indication. Her head snapped up as she struggled to keep her balance.
His hands curled around her upper arms to prevent her from tripping over her skirts. “Miss Underwood,” he said in a lazy drawl. It didn’t occur to her how he might be acquainted with her name. Though it was likely he knew every unattached female’s name in London. “You shouldn’t be out here alone.”
She turned her face up to look at him and her heart skipped a beat. He had the face of a fallen angel. Dark hair and high, defined cheekbones framed a pair of chocolate brown eyes that looked at her with startling intensity. And those lips…full and pressed into a hard line, they were still dangerously tempting. What would those lips feel like gliding across her skin, she wondered?
She straightened her shoulders. “I was looking for someone.”
“I’m sure you were.” He had the audacity to smirk, as though surmising the true reason for her venture into the shadowy gardens. “Lord Atherton is inside.”
“It doesn’t matter to me where Lord Atherton is.”
“I thought it would have mattered greatly,” he said with an edge of censure.
His lean, muscular frame was close. Too close. Heat radiated from his body. The smell of his expensive cologne curled around her. She drew in a deep, involuntary breath. “Why would it?”
She knew perfectly well why it should have mattered, but in this moment all she could think about was inhaling Melbourne’s intoxicating scent. Relishing the sensuous heat produced by his nearness.
“You are to be his bride.”
That bold statement yanked her out of her dreamy haze. “I most certainly am not.”
It bothered her that he knew Lord Atherton’s intentions toward her. She’d hoped the news hadn’t yet trickled into society, but realistically, that wasn’t possible in a place like London. The ton thrived on intrigue and gossip. No sooner than the words you must marry formed on her brother’s lips than they had been carried on the wind to half the ladies among the ton.
Melbourne’s gaze lingered on her mouth but he made no move to draw closer.
“You are a brave woman to deny the earl his prize.” A shadow of a smile tilted his lips. “He’s a man who gets what he wants and there are few people foolish enough to cross him.”
The veiled warning in his rich, cultured voice sent a shiver of unease up her spine. She knew Atherton better than most. He was a man of honor and rectitude and she respected him a great deal. But he wasn’t a man who’d allow her the freedom she required. He’d keep her cloistered, like an exotic pet, and that was just one of many reasons why she could never be his wife.
“Are you foolish enough, Mr. Melbourne?” she whispered, looking up at him from beneath her lashes. Again she was struck by his masculine beauty, and she could see why Marianne Gray had been so reckless as to fall for him.
A breeze curled up from the pebbled path, rustling the canopy of leaves overhead, filling the air with the sweet smell of blooming violets.
“I’ve been called many things, madam.” He took a step toward her, trapping her between his lean frame and the wall behind her. “But foolish has never been one of them.”
Indeed, she was well acquainted with his various titles–rake, scoundrel, demon…but she’d never heard a breath about his being anything less than wildly intelligent. Some said he’d been sired by the devil himself and that sin ran through his veins like blood. Looking up at him now, she couldn’t agree more. The man was made for wickedness and vice.
“That’s a shame.” She ran her hands down the sides of her soft muslin gown. “I was hoping you could help me.”
He chuckled. “If it’s help you require, then you have come to the wrong man.” He pulled away and cold air swept into the space where he’d been. “You best get inside before someone catches you alone with me.”
“That is precisely why I’ve come.”
He paused and lifted a brow. “Ah, you’ve sought me out. And why is that, Miss Underwood?”
She lifted her chin and took a step forward, proving she was no coward. She was a woman full grown and in control of her own destiny. “I believe you know.”
That seemed to pique his interest. He crossed his arms over his broad chest and leaned against the wall, his face partially covered in shadow. “Why don’t you enlighten me?”
Charlotte pressed her lips together and glared at him. There was only one reason why a woman like her would approach a man like him. And no gentleman would insist upon an explanation for something so blatantly salacious.
Still, she had no time to mince words. So she straightened her shoulders and forced the words from her lips. “I want you to kiss me.”
He studied her for a long, protracted moment and for the first time it occurred to her that he might actually deny her. It wasn’t that she believed she was any great beauty, but rather, she trusted Melbourne’s immoral character to take delight in such an improper request.
“You are much too innocent to be making such an indecent proposition.”
Charlotte’s cheeks flushed. The man who’d bedded half of London lecturing her on indecency! The thought was absolutely mortifying.
“And am I to believe that you are the model of a decent man?”
Before he could answer, the sound of voices carried through the air. Pebbles crunched as a couple wandered down the path, talking in quiet, confidential tones. Clandestine lovers, no doubt, stealing a moment or two away from the throng of guests.
Melbourne pulled her deeper into the shadows in an attempt to protect her from detection. She had only seconds to react. Without thinking, she lurched forward and captured his lips with her own. He froze, clearly appalled by her boldness, but she made no move to pull away. The kiss was dry and awkward, his teeth gnashing against her lips painfully. She twined her arms around his neck and threaded her fingers through his thick, wavy hair.
Slowly, the kiss changed. Hard and painful melted into soft and sensuous. He responded with ardor, curling his arm around her waist, pulling her body flush with his. Coaxing her mouth open with expert care, he thrust his tongue against hers, causing little bursts of pleasure to rush through her veins. He tasted decadent–like wine, cigars, and pure, unfettered sin.
Her hands traveled up his arms and gripped the collar of his jacket. A low groan issued from his throat and he intensified the kiss, taking complete control. A flush of heat rushed through her veins, making her nipples tighten.
Then, just as quickly as the kiss had begun, Melbourne ended it, pulling away abruptly.
“That was a wicked trick,” he muttered, his arms still encircled around her waist.
It took several minutes for the world to come back into focus. When it did, she realized the couple had strolled by without so much as a passing glance. Had they witnessed the kiss, she and Melbourne would have been called out immediately—or so she had hoped. Regrettably, her reputation remained intact.
“You accused me of being innocent,” she said, pulling out of his embrace. “I was disposed to prove you wrong.”
“You’ve only managed to prove just how innocent you truly are,” he said.
The callous comment cut her to the quick. Innocence would not earn her independence. If London’s most notorious rake thought her too innocent to trifle with, then what hope did she have of enticing any other man?
Smoothing her hands down her skirt, Charlotte squared her shoulders and moved to brush past him. His hand shot out and grabbed her wrist.
“Where are you going?” The words came out in a rush, and for a split second, uncertainty flitted across his face. But just as quickly it was gone, replaced with something darker, more dangerous.
“To entice someone else,” she said. “You aren’t willing, so I must find someone who is.”
He narrowed his eyes. “So you seek to proposition every scoundrel in London?”
“If I must.”
“And what of Lord Atherton? How will he receive the news that his intended has taken a lover? I daresay he’d die of shock.”
“I am counting on it.” And with that, she swept past him and up the marble steps in search of her next quarry.