No one paid Susannah Waterhouse any attention as she skirted the dance floor. There was no danger of anyone asking her to partner them in a quadrille. For the past six weeks, she’d stood against the wall of every ball, never participating, only watching. Staying unobtrusive wasn’t too difficult, even in her new willow green dress. Being inconspicuous seemed to be her problem ever since her Season had begun.
Didn’t anyone have anything worthwhile or at least thought-provoking to say? How wonderful it would be to discuss novels or developments in the scientific fields, but no one ever did talk about them as they stood in crowded, overheated, and overly bright rooms.
The conversation she attempted with gentlemen was often so much less interesting than anything she could read in a book. According to Susannah’s mother, the problem was that Susannah hadn’t learned how to feign interest in things like phaetons or the cut of a man’s new coat.
The French doors to the balcony loomed ahead. Glancing over her shoulder to make certain that her mother didn’t see her, she noted that both of her parents, the Viscount and Viscountess of Cheriton, chatted with tonight’s host and hostess.
Before her absence could be noted, Susannah stepped outside. A cool evening breeze brushed across her overheated cheeks. Fortunately, no one else was on the wide balcony, so she had a measure of privacy.
She let out a sigh as she leaned against the balustrade. If only she could undo the ribbons of her dancing slippers so she might remove the useless scraps of satin. Her feet ached from yet more hours standing around pretending that she didn’t want so much more for herself than becoming someone’s wife. It wasn’t that she didn’t want to get married, but couldn’t she also become a novelist writing adventure stories for girls?
Her first Season was a disaster, which meant she’d likely get no offers of marriage. That would require another wearying Season, and trying to attract a suitor by pretending to be someone she wasn’t.
Her sister, Louisa, had set a poor example by landing a very fine bridegroom within months of her come out. It was a triumph for the viscountess to have her eldest daughter marry an earl’s son. Everyone had expected Susannah to have the same success.
Everyone was disappointed.
Everyone, except Susannah. While the gentlemen she’d met had been at best mildly amiable, none of them engaged her intellect. Not a one made her pulse beat faster. They were pleasant men, but nothing more. They wanted pretty objects on their arms, not people. She doubted any of them would encourage her writing endeavors.
“I can’t help it if I want more,” she whispered to the darkness.
Glancing up, she tried to identify the stars overhead, but even at night London’s sky was obscured by smoke and dimmed by the city’s many lights.
“We’d see Scorpius,” a deep male voice said behind her, “if it wasn’t for the haze. But if we waited a month and if the sky was clear, I’d point out my favorite constellation, Perseus.”
“Men do love a tale of another man’s heroism.” She straightened and turned to see a gentleman silhouetted against the brightness of the ballroom. Though she couldn’t make out his face, he was rather tall and possessed wide shoulders. “If there’s a princess to rescue, like Andromeda, so much the better.”
As she spoke, she could hear her mother’s chiding voice. Don’t pick fights with prospective suitors, Susannah!
But she’d learned that when slightly challenged, gentlemen were either condescending or dismissive. She needed to know if this unknown gentleman would do the same.
He actually chuckled, and the sound was lush and slightly husky. As he approached, she could make out the fact that his dark hair was thick and curled, and his shoulders seemed even wider the closer he came.
The gentleman stood beside her at the balustrade. Together they looked up at the sky. The scent of woodsmoke and leather clung to him, far more intriguing than the toilette water employed by other gentlemen she’d met.
He murmured, “I was thinking more of the fact that, like Perseus, I’d enjoy a pair of winged sandals so I could fly wherever I wanted, whenever I wanted.”
His unexpected response was a fascinating development. She found herself smiling. “One would never get caught in late afternoon traffic ever again.”
“Or if I found an evening such as this one tedious, I could walk out onto the balcony and fly away, and no one would be able to stop me.”
“Do you find this evening tedious?” she asked, her interest growing.
“Until a few moments ago,” he replied in that velvety voice. “Now, my interest is quite engaged.”
Despite the coolness of the evening, her cheeks warmed. “You must be starved for conversation, sir, if such idle talk of stars and sandals ensnared you.”
He gave a rumbling laugh, and braced his forearms on the stone railing. “And you must be eager to avoid conversation, miss, if you’ve chosen solitude on this balcony over the festivities inside.”
“Were that my intention,” she said with a laugh, “that hope of solitude has been dashed with a recent arrival.”
He lifted a brow. “What if that recent arrival made himself more agreeable?”
“If he could transform himself into a novel about kidnappings and sword fights, then he’d be quite agreeable indeed.”
“If there’s a pirate ship involved, then I’ll gladly transform myself into such a novel.”
Susannah and the unknown gentleman smiled at each other. Standing next to him, trading repartee, made her feel alive and excited. It didn’t hurt that his delightfully dark eyes glinted with intelligence and wicked humor. Or that what she could see of his face in the shadows was very handsome indeed. How did one wind up with such a square jaw?
“Surely you’ve left a number of disappointed ladies inside,” she remarked, hoping he couldn’t tell how much his presence and nearness affected her.
“I don’t want to talk to any of them. I want to talk to you.”
Her pulse hammered. She managed to collect herself enough to say, “I didn’t hear a denial that you’ve left ladies behind.”
“One grows accustomed to a certain amount of attention when one’s a—” He stopped speaking abruptly. What had he been on the verge of saying?
Before she could ask what he’d almost said, he went on, “Gentlemen suitors are in short supply out here.”
“But I have the company of the stars,” she noted, before adding, “if I could see them.”
“Perhaps it’s enough to know that they’re there, even if they remain hidden.”
“The greatest pleasures in life aren’t always those demanding attention,” she said softly.
He tilted his head. “That sounds as though you speak from first hand knowledge.”
“What little I have. Though,” she said, “you seem a man of extensive experience and must find little of interest with me.”
“Very few people know my mind better than I do,” he pointed out.
Her breath left her in a long exhalation and embarrassment heated her face. “I’ve grown so accustomed to being ignored that I cannot imagine why anyone would voluntarily seek my company.”
He frowned. “Then I question those who place so little value on you. I certainly hold you in high estimation.”
She stared at him in disbelief. “We’ve only just met. You know nothing about me.”
“On the contrary. I’ve learned that you enjoy astronomy, and that your taste in reading material means you yearn for a life of adventure. Oh, and you like the color green. Granted,” he added with a half-smile, “it isn’t enough information to fill a library, but what I’ve learned has proven you to be unquestionably remarkable.”
He drew nearer as he spoke, and she also closed the distance, so that by the time he called her remarkable, only a few inches separated them. His voice had also grown deeper. She felt it rubbing along her skin like velvet.
“In fact,” he went on, “it rather upsets me to discover you’re so extraordinary, and so enchanting.”
She looked up at him, and his jaw tightened, as if he was in distress. “Why should that upset you?”
“Because my life would be much more convenient if I didn’t want to do this.” He brought his ungloved hand up and slowly stroked the back of his fingers along her cheek.
Her lashes fluttered as she struggled to keep her eyes open. “I might want you to, though.”
“Would you want me to kiss you?” he asked gruffly.
“I…” She’d never had a man kiss her, and though books always made it sound quite nice, she hadn’t met anyone she’d wanted to kiss. Not until this moment. Because whoever this man was, she was gripped with a powerful need to know the feel of his mouth. “I would.”
He gave a groan, and tipped her chin up as he lowered his lips to hers. He felt soft and so delicious.
“His Grace said for us to meet him out here,” a man’s voice said, cutting through the haze of sensation. “What the deuce?”
Susannah blinked as a small crowd of people emerged from the ballroom. A fair-haired man stood at the head of the group, and behind him were six other guests. They all gaped at her. Belatedly she realized that she’d just been caught in a very compromising position with a gentleman.
Rather than look appalled, her dark lover’s mouth twisted in what appeared to be bitter triumph. “There. It’s been proven now.”
“What’s been proven?” she asked.
“That you’re as faithless as I told Harry you were, Miss Fleming,” the man said.
“Who’s Harry?” she demanded, baffled. “And I’m not Miss—”
He spoke over her, saying as if it was perfectly obvious, “My younger brother, Harry. You’ve been seen with him all over town. I told him you were only angling for his blunt now that I’m the duke and he’s the marquess. He refused to believe me. Your dressmaker said you’d be here tonight in a green gown, so I tracked you to the balcony. I arranged for Lord Marton to bring an audience to see how little you valued my brother’s affections.”
“You arranged all this?” She stared at him in horror. He’d deliberately set out to entice her.
“To see your faithlessness” he answered. “Which you’ve proven by kissing me.”
“I don’t know who Harry is,” Susannah insisted desperately. “You’re a duke?”
“He’s Adam Lucas, the Duke of Pembury,” the fair-haired man said.
Her head spun as she looked at the crowd watching her with the duke. “Oh, goodness. I…”
“Have you seen His Grace? I’ve been looking for him.” A woman in a green gown emerged on the balcony, and she started at the sight of the duke. “It’s you… You look so much like Harry.” She dipped in a curtsy. “Delighted to meet you at last, Your Grace. I’m Diana Fleming.”
The duke jolted. He stared at Diana Fleming, then eyed the crowd watching him. Dragging his appalled gaze back to Susannah, the duke rasped, “Dear God.”
Susannah went hot all over as her mind whirled. It didn’t seem possible. She’d begun the evening as the ton’s biggest disaster, potentially doomed to spinsterhood. In a matter of minutes, all that had changed. Only one thing could happen when a gentleman and an unmarried woman were found in a compromising position: marriage.
She’d wanted to write about adventures, but now it seemed she was going to have an adventure of her own. Whether she liked it or not, she was going to become a duchess. It was terrifying…and intriguing.
A bubble of feverish laughter rose up in Susannah’s throat. “Congratulations, Your Grace. In your attempt to subvert scandal, you’ve made us the scandal of the season.”
The Good Girl's Guide to Rakes by Eva Leigh is out in all formats on March 31st.
When Kieran Ransome’s latest antics result in scandal, his father issues an ultimatum: find a respectable wife or inherit nothing. But as one of London’s most notorious scoundrels, Kieran doesn’t know any ladies who fit the bill…or does he?
Celeste Kilburn is a society darling, beloved by influential members of the ton. But keeping a spotless reputation leaves little room for adventure and she longs to escape her gilded cage. When Kieran, her brother’s best friend, begs for her help Celeste makes a deal: she will introduce him to the right social circles if he’ll show her the scandalous side of London!
Amongst ‘proper’ garden parties and, equally enthralling, wild fêtes and sensual art salons an initial attraction builds to a more tempting desire. But when their midnight exploits are discovered, Celeste’s freedom and reputation are at risk and Kieran must save the woman he loves…respectable or not.
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