At the Yuletide ball, Violet Kent was having the time of her life. She adored dancing, and her favorite partner was her friend Wickham Murray. Nobody spun her like Wick. His turns were so outrageous that, twice so far during the waltz, they’d veered within a hair’s breadth of neighboring dancers before twirling away at the last possible second. Once, they’d actually crashed into a plaster column, laughing uproariously when it teetered.
Dancing was tip-top—as much fun as galloping through an open field or playing cricket with the lads back in Chudleigh Crest, the village where she’d lived most of her life. After her beloved papa’s death three years ago, she and her four siblings had moved to London to be near their eldest brother Ambrose. For Vi, the transition to Town had been rocky, but she’d kept her chin up and eventually found a band of merry cronies much like the ones she’d had back home.
The number ended all too soon, and Wick escorted Vi off the dance floor. The fete was a crush, the crème de la crème herding into the festively decorated ballroom and grazing on the abundant food and drink. Wick steered her to one of the niches lining the room’s perimeter. From an archway festooned with ivy and holly, she cast a furtive glance around the room; seeing no sign of her chaperoning family members, she expelled a sigh of relief and sank onto the red velvet bench, her butter-yellow skirts settling in a silken swish.
A bit more freedom before the watch comes looking, she thought.
Wick sat beside her and stretched out his long legs. “Fancy some lemonade or punch?”
“What I’d truly like is another dance,” Vi said wistfully.
As always after physical activity, she felt at home in her own skin. Her heart pumped pleasantly; her mind—which her exasperated papa had compared to a frog leaping about on hot coals—was calm and clear. “But Emma will have my head if you and I dance for a third time. Of late, my sister has become an authority on proprieties.”
“I suppose that’s part and parcel of being a duchess?” Wick’s hazel eyes twinkled.
Vi didn’t bother to stifle a snort. “Seeing as Emma wed the most notorious rake in all of London, I fail to see how she’s suddenly an expert on proper behavior.”
At present, Violet resided with her eldest sister Emma and brother-in-law, the Duke of Strathaven, and she loved them both. Yet ever since Em had given birth to Olivia, she’d become even more of a mother hen—and she’d always been broody, having raised her younger siblings after their mama’s death almost a dozen years ago. At present, Em fussed over Vi as if she were the same age as Olivia rather than the mature age of two-and-twenty.
“You’re no longer in Chudleigh Crest,” Emma would lecture. “Here in London, your tomboyish antics will land you in the suds. I’m not saying you need to change completely… but can’t you curb your instincts a little, Vi? For your own good?”
Easier said than done, Vi thought ruefully. She tried, she really did, but curbing her instincts was like stopping the flow of the Thames. An impossible task.
There was no denying that she was the eccentric one in her family… which was saying a lot. As unconventional as her siblings might be, however, none of them had Violet’s history of getting into scrapes. She didn’t mean to fall from high perches (trees, fences, horses, et cetera), hit unintentional targets during slingshot practice (Tabitha, Em’s cat, still held a grudge), or blurt out inappropriate things, yet trouble had a way of finding her.
Vi had learned to live with her own shortcomings. Whenever she did something mortifying without thinking, she’d learned to laugh and shrug the whole thing off. She simply kept her chin up and carried on. The last thing she wanted was for others—especially her family—to witness her embarrassment or hurt.
She’d never been a watering pot or one to wear her feelings on her sleeve. Pulling herself up by the slipper laces was her preferred strategy and one that she’d had to employ frequently since her three eldest siblings had all married titles, plopping the middling class Kents in the midst of the ton. In Society, one was expected to follow rules—a skill Vi could not claim as her forte. At times, she fancied herself an explorer in an exotic jungle, hopping from foot to foot to avoid the steaming pits of Scandal and Ruin.
“All older siblings are experts. Or, rather,” Wick said with a touch of aspersion, “they think they are. My brother Carlisle being a case in point.”
At the mention of Viscount Carlisle, anger ignited in Violet’s chest, her gloved fingers curling in her lap. Typically, she didn’t take offense easily and let bygones be bygones. But Wick’s older brother had earned her hostility fair and square.
At a ball last month, the high and mighty viscount had been overheard making disparaging remarks about her, his callous words becoming fodder for gossip. Being fair-minded, Violet could understand if she’d actually done him wrong, but she and Carlisle had met only once before and briefly at that. She’d done nothing to deserve his scorn.
“I still haven’t forgiven Carlisle for what he said about you.” Wick ran a hand through his windswept brown locks, his ornate signet ring burnished by the light of the chandeliers. “Will you accept my apology on his behalf?”
Although Vi had no intention of forgiving Carlisle, she didn’t want to place her friend in an awkward position. Wick complained frequently about Carlisle… but family was family, after all, and she didn’t want to add to the tension between the brothers. Being a Kent, she understood loyalty and the importance of kin.
Sighing, she said, “You don’t have to apologize, Wick. You didn’t say anything.”
“But I feel responsible for my brother’s rudeness. Ever since he lost the family fortune, he’s been an ill-tempered tyrant.” Wick’s mouth took on a sullen edge. “If he had his way, I’d spend every waking moment heiress hunting. Can you believe he wants me to court the likes of Miss Turbett?”
“What’s wrong with Miss Turbett?”
“Her name sounds like a fish. And she looks like one, too.”
“That’s unkind, Wick. She’s quite nice.” Vi had a passing acquaintance with the heiress, who seemed reserved but pleasant. “But the point is your brother isn’t your keeper. You shouldn’t have to marry someone unless you want to.”
“Carlisle threatened to cut off my allowance if I don’t do what he says,” Wick said bitterly. “He wields the purse strings like a master puppeteer, and I’m but a hapless toy at his command.”
“How horrid of him.” Indignant on Wick’s behalf, she said, “Must you rely on Carlisle’s beneficence? Couldn’t you make your own living somehow… find some sort of employment?”
“Egad, Violet, I’m a gentleman.” Wick sounded aghast. “A gentleman doesn’t work.”
Vi frowned, thinking of her brother Ambrose. He’d wed one of the ton’s wealthiest widows, yet he continued to run a private enquiry business for the satisfaction of putting in a good day’s work and delivering justice to those who most needed it. To Vi, this made Ambrose the epitome of a true gentleman, even if he didn’t quite fit with Society’s definition.
Mulling it over, Vi said, “If you can’t work, perhaps you could economize?”
In the past, her family had known lean times, and she could recall many a meal where a loaf of bread and some cheese had been stretched to feed them all. Her belly rumbled at the memories.
“It wouldn’t be sufficient.” Color crept up Wick’s jaw; his gaze slid away. “I suppose I’ll have to pursue Miss Turbett and her twenty thousand after all.”
“I’m sorry, Wick.” Vi didn’t know what else to say.
“There’s no need for pity. An advantageous marriage will help not only me, but my family.” He drew his shoulders back, the gold buttons of his blue waistcoat gleaming like miniature medals. “I’m willing to make the sacrifice for the good of all.”
“That’s awfully noble of you,” Vi said admiringly. “You’re a jolly fine chap.”
She wished with all her being that she could help her friend, to whom she owed so much. Before Wick, the ton had been a lonely and hostile place. Subtlety wasn’t her strong point, but even she couldn’t miss the snubs of the other debutantes, the way their circles closed when she came near. Coy, overly loud voices had oft drifted in her direction.
… her gown is fashionable enough, but her manner—so unrefined! She’s a veritable hoyden…
… I vow I’ve never seen a lady laugh with her mouth open so wide. She’ll catch flies if she’s not careful. And the way she eats, like a horse…
… that hurly-burly will never land a husband—unless one of her brothers-in-law can purchase one for her…
Violet had soldiered through those first months. Not wanting to worry her family (or give them further ammunition for lectures), she’d kept things to herself, silently repeating her motto: pull yourself up by your slipper laces. She told herself that it didn’t matter what others thought. But the snide glances and whispers had gradually doused her excitement at being in London, and she’d begun to dread social events… until Wick had come along.
Dear Wick—he’d changed everything. The two of them had hit it off from the start. He’d introduced her to his friends, and the jovial bunch had welcomed her into their fold.
With Wick and his cronies, she’d found a place of belonging. Being with him was as easy as being with her older brother Harry, who’d been her closest companion growing up. Wick was a ripping chum, and she was never bored in his presence. Best of all, be it a game of cards or a bet to see who could tolerate the most spins during a dance, he never let her win just because she was a female. He treated her as an equal, took her seriously. He didn’t try to control or change her.
He accepted her; for that, he’d have her gratitude and friendship forever.
Now he gave a doleful shake of his head. “Enough palavering about my let pockets. You’re so easy to talk to that sometimes I forget that you’re a female—no, scratch that. What I mean is you’re like one of the fellows… bloody hell.” His mouth had a sheepish curve. “By the time this conversation is finished, I’ll have dug a hole all the way to China.”
“Bring back some tea, will you?” she quipped. “I’m particularly fond of the Souchong.”
“Wretch.” Wick’s smile deepened. “Never mind my future prospects—what about yours? See anything of interest on the Marriage Mart tonight?”
Violet wrinkled her nose. To her, the prospect of marriage wasn’t the least bit appealing. It would mean having one more person telling her what to do. Her family was overprotective as it was, and the last thing she needed was the added supervision of a husband.
Moreover, romantic attraction remained a mystery to her. It was, she thought with a smidgen of worry, one more way in which she was different. One by one, her older siblings had fallen passionately in love—and she couldn’t even figure out how to carry on a flirtation. Or why to.
Growing up, she’d found boys to be excellent co-conspirators in adventures, yet the notion of forming a tendre for one of them was… puzzling. She’d witnessed her companions engage in spitting contests, brawl in the mud, and scratch their unmentionable areas in the manner of flea-infested canines. They cussed in colorful terms (usually referencing the same unmentionable body parts) and seemed to find anything pertaining to chamber pots hysterically funny.
Then, as the lads had gotten older, the discovery of the opposite sex had turned them either into moonstruck greenlings or dedicated skirt-chasers. Wick was an excellent example of the latter. He was a charming rake through and through and thrived off female attention.
None of these male tendencies bothered Violet. They didn’t make her want to marry one of the dolts, however. Freedom held far more appeal.
Rolling her eyes, she said, “You know I’m not shopping, Wick.”
“How lucky you are,” he said with such heartfelt emotion that she laughed. “Well, I’d best go troll the waters. Shall I return you to the loving bosom of your family?”
She cast a furtive glance around. Seeing that the coast remained clear, she decided she wasn’t yet ready to surrender to the shackles of chaperonage. “I think I’ll explore a little first.”
“Suit yourself. But stay out of trouble, you hear?”
“Did the pot just call the kettle black?” she returned.
Exchanging grins, they went their separate ways.
Keeping to the potted palms and other concealing foliage, Vi trotted along, idly observing the revelry around her. Already she could sense the return of the restlessness that had bedeviled her since she was a child. She’d frustrated her scholarly papa to no end with her fidgeting and inability to focus on books and lessons. Unlike her brother Harry, who could work on mathematics problems forever, she felt ready to burst from her skin just moments after her bottom came into contact with a chair.
Luckily, one of her favorite forms of distraction caught her attention. She followed the tantalizing smells to the queue at the heavily laden buffet table. When it came to her turn, she happily inspected the offerings and took one of everything. She was finishing the last bit of a tasty mince tart when her gaze caught on a gleaming golden spire peeping above a row of potted ferns.
She headed over to investigate. Entering the ferny grove, she discovered that the spire was in fact the top of a champagne fountain that rose some twelve feet tall. A red-tinted beverage frothed from its three gold-plated tiers, and the bottom reservoir was wide enough to take a bath in.
Impressed, she went to the side table, exchanging her empty plate for a champagne flute. She was approaching the fountain to fill her glass when a deep masculine voice caused the hairs to prickle on her nape.
“Miss Kent, I’d like a word.”
She pivoted, her eyes narrowing when she saw who’d joined her. As usual, Viscount Carlisle emanated an aura of arrogant authority, his booted stance quietly aggressive. Not for the first time, she was struck by the differences between the Murray brothers.
Whereas Wick resembled a gleaming young Apollo, Carlisle wore his coal-black hair short and possessed a swarthy and rugged mien. Topping six feet, the viscount was far taller than his younger brother and at least three stone heavier, all of it heaped on in uncompromising muscle. And while Wick had a charismatic smile, entertaining all with his rapier wit, Carlisle was more apt to hammer one down with a glowering look.
He bent at the waist; she returned the courtesy, matching her brusque motion to his.
“Lord Carlisle.” The syllables rolled off her tongue like an epithet. “Hasn’t anyone told you it isn’t polite to sneak up on others?”
“Being neither a thief nor a highwayman, Miss Kent, I do not make a practice of sneaking up on anyone. I cannot be blamed if the other is simply not paying attention.”
Her cheeks heated. It was just like Carlisle to make note of one of her lifelong faults.
To cover up her embarrassment, she said coldly, “I was about to get something to drink.”
“I wouldn’t get it there if I were you.”
Her teeth ground together. She didn’t like being told what to do—and least of all by some pompous prig. Turning her back to him, she marched to the fountain. Just as she held the flute out toward a stream of liquid, a loud belch rumbled from the fountain’s depths. She looked up… and saw a red wave spewing directly over her head. Before she could react, a muscled arm hooked her around the waist, hauling her backward. Champagne splattered on the parqueted floor where she’d been standing but an instant earlier.
Shock sizzled through her. From the near escape, yes, but more so from the intimate contact with a man’s physique. Although she’d done her fair share of dancing, none of her partners had ever touched her this way before. With her back molded against Carlisle’s front, she felt every inch of his disciplined form: it was like being trapped against a wall of ridged iron.
She became aware of the warm brush of his breath against her ear, the heat of his surrounding strength. His scent entered her nose, clean and ineffably masculine. Simultaneously, she registered his steely thigh wedged against her bottom. Despite the layers between them, she shivered, a strange hot pulsing at her core. Even though she’d just eaten, pangs gnawed at her lower belly.
“Let me go,” she managed.
He released her so quickly that she tottered before catching her balance.
“Gladly.” His derisive tone wiped any gratitude for the rescue from her mind. He snatched the glass she’d forgotten she was holding and strode to the side table, taking undue time setting it down. When he returned, he said with a scowl, “I wish to speak to you.”
“About what?” Why do I sound so breathless?
“About the fact that you are monopolizing Wickham’s time.”
It took a moment for the words to sink in. When they did, she glared at him and said, “I’m doing no such thing.”
“I saw you dancing with him. Flirting with him.” Carlisle’s lips flattened into a hard line. “Leave him be, Miss Kent, for he has bigger fish to fry.”
He thought she was flirting… and with Wick?
She said incredulously, “He’s like a brother to me.”
“Well, he is my brother, and I’m telling you to leave him alone. He needs his focus.”
“You mean he has to clean up the mess you made,” she retorted without thinking.
“I beg your pardon?”
His blistering tone would have incinerated a lesser miss on the spot. For some reason, it just angered her more. “You’re not being fair to Wick.” She crossed her arms. “He has the right to make his own decisions.”
Hostility smoldered in Carlisle’s eyes. They were the color of scorched earth: black with glints of bronze ore. His hands fisted at his sides, muscles bunching beneath the sleek skin of his jacket as if he were struggling to hold onto his self-control.
“My family is my business,” he stated with grim finality. “Stay away from my brother.”
“Wick is my friend, and I’ll spend time with him if I wish. What do you have against me, anyway?” Her resentment broke free. “Why did you spread such vile rumors about me?”
The crest of his broad cheekbones reddened, but he said emotionlessly, “I spread no rumors, Miss Kent. Some old hens eavesdropped on a private conversation.”
“You called me a hoyden. Said I’m barely respectable.”
“That is not what I said.”
“So you did say something.” She pounced on the admission. “At least be man enough to repeat it to my face.”
A muscle ticked along his jaw. “You’re a female. You can’t handle the truth.”
She didn’t know what irked her more, his misogynistic assumption or his dismissive tone. Steam gathered in her head, threatening to pop it off altogether. “Dash it all, I can.”
“Fine. What I said was that my brother requires a wife who can keep him in line, and you’re not suited for the job. I said that you can’t spell propriety let alone put it into practice,” he said succinctly.
For an instant, she was speechless.
“You uppity blighter.” She could barely think over the roar in her ears. “You don’t know me! You have no right to sit in judgment.”
“I call it as I see it, Miss Kent. Once I form an opinion, I rarely have cause to alter it.”
His calm superiority enraged her past the point of rationality. “Well, you’re wrong. I can spell propriety, you condescending bastard! P-R-O-P-R-E-I-T-Y.”
For pulsing moments, she glared at him: she’d be damned if she was the one to look away first. But the oddest thing happened. Lines suddenly fanned from the corners of Carlisle’s eyes. Flecks of copper glinted in the dark depths. The stern line of his mouth quirked.
He was… laughing at her? Why on earth…?
She reviewed what she’d said—and her face flamed. Butter and jam, Papa had always said that her terrible spelling would prove her downfall. The realization of her stupidity was followed by a swift and forceful undertow of humiliation. All at once, her armor of indifference crumpled, and she felt the blow of each and every insult she’d ever been subjected to.
Hurly-burly… hoyden… never land a husband… The smirking glances of the other debutantes, her family’s worried expressions…
A muffled sound escaped Carlisle. The past faded, everything narrowing to the incendiary present: the cad was laughing at her. Mortification met fury and combusted.
“Don’t you dare make fun of me,” she said through clenched teeth.
His wide shoulders shook.
She took a step closer, jabbed a finger at him. “I’m warning you. Stop laughing.”
He held his big hands up in defense. “Or what, Miss Kent?” Mockery glinted in his eyes. “You’ll spell me into submission?”
Red saturated her vision. Her hands acted of their own volition, shooting upward, planting on his chest. They gave a shove—and time suddenly slowed. She had the sensation of watching from the outside as Carlisle stumbled, surprise rippling across his face as he lost his footing in a puddle of champagne, his large body falling backward like a felled tree…
The thudding splash brought her to her senses. In stupefied horror, she took in Carlisle sitting on his behind in the fountain. Blood-red champagne rained merrily over his head and shoulders.
Gadzooks, what have I done?
She took a halting step toward him… stopped at the hellfire raging in his eyes.
He growled, “Get out of here. Now.”
Panic made her obey. She dashed out the back of the grove, slipping between two potted ferns, walk-running until she reached the safety of the crowd. Like a criminal, she continued to sneak glances behind her, her heart thumping and mind whirling with the latest calamity she’d caused.