An excerpt from INFAMOUS ….

INFAMOUS

Chapter 1

The Duke of Stanford’s Ballroom

London, 1818

“Quit yanking on your cravat, Richard—you look as though you’ve been mauled by those beetles you’re so bloody fond of,” Lucien said under his breath.

Richard laughed. “Thank you, Luce, I can always count on you to give me the words with the bark still on them.”

Lucien’s cheeks darkened. “Sorry.”

Richard couldn’t help noticing that his twin’s eyes were in constant motion as he searched the swelling crowds for something. Or someone.

And Richard could guess who.

“I don’t mean to be an arse, Rich,” Lucien said. “It’s just—”

“I know, I know. It’s a burden to have a barnacle like me stuck to your side.” Richard patted his brother’s shoulder.

Lucien snorted. “Idiot.”

“Fool.”

They both grinned.

Richard squinted around at the multitude of people packing the receiving area of the Duke of Stanford’s town house. “Remind me why I’m here again,” he asked his far better dressed, more attractive, and more gregarious identical twin.

So, identical in theory.

In addition to the spectacles Richard wore and his brother did not, Richard was a good stone and a half lighter than Lucien, who’d filled out in the chest and shoulders in a way Richard hadn’t quite managed yet.

And then there were the spots that had plagued them both from age fourteen. Lucien’s had magically disappeared when he’d turned seventeen but Richard’s were only now clearing.

Yes, identical, but different. Richard smirked at the thought.

“You’re here for the girls,” Lucien reminded him, somehow able to speak while smiling, a new skill and something that must have been on the curriculum at Eton those last two years—the two Richard had skipped, instead going straight to university.

Richard snorted. “Yes, because all the girls were so impressed by the way I trod upon—” He made a frustrated tsking sound. “The devil! I can’t even recall the poor girl’s name.”

“Nobody remembers that incident except you,” Lucien said. “Well, and likely her. I don’t recall her name, either. You need to stop thinking that nobody likes you, Rich. If you just put yourself out a bit, you’d see.”

Richard could not believe his twin could be so oblivious of the insults, mocking names, and even an ode that had circulated about Richard this Season. He could only think that Lucien was so insensible because he was falling deeper in love by the hour and could see nothing other than one spectacularly beautiful face, whether she was in the room or not.

“And,” Lucien added, “if a roomful of pretty women isn’t enough reason to be here, remember your promise to Mama.”

“Oh, that’s hitting below the belt,” he muttered.

Lucien merely smirked.

Unfortunately, what his brother said was true. If Richard hadn’t—in an extremely weak moment—promised their mother to stick it out for one Season, he could have been tramping the Fenlands and adding to his already considerable beetle collection.

But their mother, Baroness Ramsay, had chosen the perfect time to corner him—just after he and Lucien had returned from a year of unfettered hedonism on the Continent—and he had foolishly capitulated.

So, here he was. Thank God it was getting near the end of the Season because he wasn’t sure how much more tomfoolery he could bear. In Richard’s opinion, a London Season was remarkably like a term at Eton, but with girls to join in the mockery.

Richard sighed and scanned the crowd. And then immediately wished he hadn’t. Because, dead ahead, was Sebastian Fanshawe, the Duke of Dowden and Richard’s chief tormentor from Eton.

“Good Lord,” he muttered beneath his breath, turning so that the other man mightn’t see him.

Dowden hadn’t changed a whit in the almost three years since Richard had last seen him. He was still the physical embodiment of male perfection, tall, broad shouldered, golden-haired and blue eyed. And he still had the same punishing wit and barbed tongue.

It didn’t matter what Richard did or said, Dowden would abuse him. And only the two of them knew the reason why.

The names, digs, and even a snide ode that some wit had composed about him didn’t bother Richard any more now than they had at school.

That said, it was a damned shame that Dowden had so much influence over the ladies.

Especially over one girl in particular: Miss Celia Trent.

Just thinking Miss Trent’s name gave Richard a heavy feeling in his groin—an unfortunate development with the potential to embarrass him right here in the middle of the Duke of Stanford’s ballroom if Richard wasn’t careful.

He wasn’t the only bloke who suffered such a physical reaction to the woman’s sensual, almost overripe beauty, but he was the only man in the room whose twin was madly in love with her.

Richard felt like a dirty dog about the way his body reacted to the woman his brother hoped to marry, but he was a human animal in his prime breeding years and he could hardly control his body’s reaction to such stimulus.

Could he?

But he could control his behavior. And so he behaved respectfully and with reserve toward the object of his lust and his brother’s love.

Not that his actions mattered to Miss Trent since she seemed to have taken an aversion to Richard before they’d even met.

Lucien leaned close to him and said, “I’m going to speak to Celia’s father tomorrow.”

Richard groaned. “Why do you feel that you have to marry her, Luce? Just because you kissed her?”

Lucien hissed. “Would you keep your bloody voice down?” He glanced around, as if anyone else cared about their conversation. “You know I’ve been thinking about it for weeks now. Long before the kiss.”

“Yes, but you only started mentioning marriage since that irritating lawn party a few days ago—which was also the same day—”

“Yes, yes, you already announced that, thank you very much. It so happens that that particular . . . issue is what has made the matter, er, pressing.”

“Why?”

Lucien rolled his eyes. “You know why.”

“I don’t, actually. It’s not as if you ruined her.” Richard snorted at the words. “Ruined her,” he repeated. “How stupid and dramatic that sounds. Have you ever given any thought to that phrase and what it means? As if she were some sort of object, like a plate you dropped and ruined because it is now broken. It’s not as if kissing—or even sexual intercourse—can only happen one time, so how can you ruin a woman by having sex with her? I have sex with delightful regularity. And yet nobody says that I am ruined.”

Lucien was staring at him in a familiar way. Richard could almost predict his brother’s next words: What is wrong with you?

“What?” he asked when Luce only stared.

“Mother must have dropped you on your head. That is all I can think of to account for it.”

“Besides,” Richard continued, ignoring the tired insult, “I saw her after you kissed her. I can tell you, without equivocation, that she most certainly did not appear ruined. Perhaps you should think on it a few days.”

“I don’t want to. There have to be dozens of men soliciting her father for her hand.”

Richard wanted to ask why they’d do so if she was so clearly ruined but kept that unhelpful question to himself.

Instead, he said, “Maybe some of them have also—”

One dangerous look from Lucien’s narrowed eyes froze the rest of the words in his throat.

Instead, he soothed his twin. “Even if there are a hundred men, none of them can be more eligible than you. Indeed, you possess the only thing Trent is looking for in a son-in-law: lots and lots of brass. Even I, as woefully ignorant of ton gossip as I am, know the man is below the hatches.” He smirked. “In fact, if Miss Trent knocks you back, her father would probably marry you himself.”

“Very droll.”

Richard could see his brother wasn’t listening. “Are you sure about this, Luce? You’ve hardly had a chance to live life or explore the world. We had a smashing time on our trip, didn’t we?”

“Yes.”

“Well, don’t you think—”

“I love her.” Lucien’s voice was low and firm.

Love. Richard rolled his eyes and heaved a sigh at the ridiculous word. It was his contention that human beings were not designed for monogamy. He strongly suspected what his brother was feeling was really lust.

Even if he did credit love as actually existing, he doubted that a person could fall in love with somebody when allowed no more than a few minutes a week to chat with the object of his desire.

Richard considered trying to tell his brother that it was his breeding imperative that was driving him to distraction and sending him to Miss Trent’s father’s house tomorrow, hat in hand.

But that was a subject on which his mother had told him he must be circumspect.

“People don’t like being compared to ducks or beetles or horses, Richard. You must reserve your observations on man’s biology for those who can appreciate and understand them.”

Lucien was not one of those people, so there was no point in arguing.

Besides, Richard could understand his brother’s fascination—if not love—for Miss Celia Trent.

Before meeting Miss Trent, Richard had believed that all healthy, attractive, unattached females under the age of forty were largely the same. Which was to say desirable. He’d never felt his brother’s brand of madness for one woman in particular.

But one look at Miss Trent’s gorgeous face, voluptuous body, and lively blue eyes had turned him into a gaping fool just like every other man—married or single.

The male populace’s reaction to this one woman was laughable, really. Because, as attractive as Miss Trent was, there were dozens and dozens of other women who went unnoticed while the men of the ton clamored like a pack of hounds after a single female.

He had observed the same thing in the animal kingdom. Or at least as much of the animal kingdom as he’d had the opportunity to study in his few years.

To his way of thinking, people were no better than the gaggle of geese that roamed Lessing Hall, his parents’ country home, terrorizing the populace, both human and animal.

Every year for as long as Richard could remember the two dominant ganders—Wellington and Soult—had warred over a white tufted goose named Harriet. The two males would de-feather each other and end up battered and bloody in their determination to have Harriet.

Meanwhile, dozens of perfectly fine geese went unbred.

Richard glanced around the ballroom that lay below them: yes, the same thing was true here. Except not geese, of course, but hundreds of perfectly breedable young women, a great many of whom were hiding in corners while only a handful were chosen to dance time and time again.

Slave to his animal impulses that he was, Richard caught himself searching the room for Miss Celia Trent.

He shook his head; really, he was no better than a gander, every bit as driven to de-feather all the other males in his vicinity in his pursuit of Celia Trent.

No, not that; she is to be Luce’s wife.

Beside him, Lucien heaved a put-upon sigh. “Try not to wear that expression, Rich.”

Richard turned to meet Lucien’s light brown eyes—identical in color to Richard’s, although only half the size since they weren’t magnified by spectacles—and found his brother frowning.

“What expression?”

“The one you’re wearing right now.”

The receiving line inched forward.

“I’m sorry, but you’ll need to be a bit more specific, Luce—I know your vocabulary is limited, but give it a go.”

“You get this look—as if you’re observing mankind’s foibles from a lofty height.”

Richard snorted.

“It’s true, and I’ve seen the same look when you’re categorizing beetles or watching animals copulate.”

Richard laughed. “Oh, and what look is that?”

Lucien’s features shifted until his expression was smirky and heavy-lidded.

Richard had to admit it was an expression that made him want to plant his brother a facer.

“I don’t look like that,” he objected.

“Not right now. Right now you look annoyed and your eyebrow is doing that thing.” Lucien sounded jealous.

Richard snorted; the one thing that he could do that his perfect brother hadn’t yet mastered was lifting his eyebrows independently of each other. You’d think that being well liked, more athletic, and the Earl of Davenport would be enough for his slightly older twin. But no: Luce coveted Richard’s eyebrow thing, too.

“I realize the expression is just a defense when you’re nervous,” Lucien went on, with the assurance of a person who knew Richard almost as well as he knew himself.  “But it makes you look like a right arrogant, suspicious . . .”

“What?” he asked when his brother broke off. When Lucien didn’t answer, Richard followed his gaze.

Lady Stephanie Powell and Miss Celia Trent had placed themselves in a position to be better observed by his brother and all the other young bucks, most of whom arrived at these affairs as late as possible.

Richard knew the young women’s plumage display was for his brother rather than himself, but he enjoyed it nonetheless.

Miss Trent’s hourglass figure, ultramarine blue eyes, and mink-colored curls were an attractive contrast to her friend’s slender, blond wholesomeness.

“Smile,” Lucien hissed as they reached the front of the line and he bowed over the hand of their hostess.

“Good evening, Your Grace,” Lucien said in a suave, sophisticated, grown-up voice that Richard didn’t yet possess.

“Good evening, ma’am,” Richard echoed, his voice breaking in the middle of his three-word sentence.

“Viscount Redvers,” the duchess spoke his name with a look of amusement on her handsome face, her gaze on Richard’s cravat.

Does it really look that bad?

With the gauntlet of the receiving line over, they headed toward a scene that looked remarkably like the descriptions he’d read of Roman gladiatorial pits.

“Bloody hell,” he muttered as they fought their way through the bodies. “Why don’t they open a door?”

“The Regent is expected,” Lucien explained.

Even Richard, who as good as lived in a cave—well, it was actually shared lodgings off Sidney Street—knew the Regent had a pathological fear of fresh air.

“Davenport, old man,” someone ahead of Lucien called out.

“Beaky,” Lucien replied, grinning at his best mate.

“Hallo there, Redvers. Didn’t expect to see you here,” Viscount Beakman said.

“I needed to use a bloody pitchfork to get him here,” Lucien said, looking in the direction where Miss Trent had last been spotted. But it was impossible to see more than a wall of people in either direction and none of them was Celia Trent.

“Could I grab you for just a tick, Davenport? I’ve got that thing to ask you about.”

Lucien frowned. “Thing?”

Beaky gave Richard a significant look. “You know—the thing.”

“Ah, yes. That thing,” Lucien said, comprehension dawning, cutting a last, yearning look toward the ballroom. “But I’ve not got terribly long.”

“No, no, it shan’t take but a minute. Let’s go over to the cardroom. A man can’t hardly hear himself think in here.”

Luce grabbed Richard’s shoulder. “Don’t sneak off the minute I turn my back,” he warned him, and then pushed his way into the sea of bodies.

Richard sighed; here was the beginning of yet another long, tedious evening.

***

Celia watched the two brothers leave the receiving line and then disappear into the crowd.

“It is difficult to credit that they’re supposed to be twins,” Stephanie said to Celia, not bothering to lower her voice.

Millie Bowles, standing on Steff’s other side, tittered and leaned toward them, employing her fan to cover her mouth but actually raising her voice. “It’s difficult to believe they’re even brothers, not to mention identical twins.”

“Oh look, there’s Phyllida Singleton,” Steff said, her glorious green eyes fixed on a slender dark-haired girl greeting several of the other homely, impoverished, or otherwise unpopular wallflowers who were clustered together in a corner.

“Is that the same shabby yellow ball gown she wore to the Kittridge, Oldham, and Acton balls?” Millie asked with an avid smirk.

“I doubt she owns three identical, shabby yellow ball gowns,” Celia said sharply, earning a hurt look from Millie and an amused one from Steff.

“What’s wrong with you tonight, Ceelie?” Steff asked. “You’re in a positively savage mood.”

“Nothing.” That sounded too curt so she added, “I’m just not interested in chattering about people who aren’t even worth a moment of my time—like Phyllida Singleton.”

Her words caused more tittering, and she knew the cut would make its way to Phyllida’s ears before the evening was over. Well, so be it. The unfortunate female should appreciate getting any attention, even if it was cruel.

Some part of Celia’s mind cringed at her appalling thoughts and words, but she shoved her qualms aside with practiced brutality.

Celia let the other two women sharpen their claws on Phyllida as she caught sight of a familiar pair of broad shoulders and a golden head. And just as quickly lost sight of Lord Davenport when he disappeared in the direction of the cardroom, leaving his brother to stand alone.

Something about the sight of Richard Redvers just standing there made her jaws clench. Rather than appear anxious or self-conscious, he surveyed the denizens of the ballroom from his taller-than-average height with the confidence of a general observing a conquered battlefield.

Didn’t the man care that he was the butt of so many ton jokes?

Lily Kendall drifted up to their group. “Did you see who Lord Davenport brought with him again?”

“We already saw,” Millie confirmed.

“Why does he bother?” Lily muttered. “I’ve never seen such a lump in my life.”

“He asked Maria Trevallion to dance at Lady Warnocke’s ball and the poor thing couldn’t think of a way to avoid it. He trod on her skirt and ripped off most of the flounce, taking part of the skirt with it.”

“I heard he ripped off so much that she was almost naked.”

They all twittered over the well-worn piece of gossip.

Celia studied the man in question. He appeared to be staring blankly at the dance floor, his thick spectacles glinting under the light of several hundred candles, looking as if he’d fallen asleep while standing up.

Speaking objectively, Richard did look like his brother, but his appearance was like Lucien Redvers’s reflection in a warped mirror, with spots, although she’d noticed those had begun to fade. He was just as tall but gawky—too slender—and his clothing was a disgrace, rumpled and without any style.

His lips appeared thinner than Lord Davenport’s full, sensual mouth—a mouth more than one young lady had sighed herself to sleep over—but Celia suspected that was due to the odd smirk he seemed to wear in repose.

He stood alone and appeared unconcerned as humanity washed around him like the incoming tide rushing around rocks on the shore.

Celia envied him that—the ability to be comfortable in his own skin. If she were standing all alone like that she’d have developed hives all over her body by now.

That’s why she made every effort to ensure she was never in his position.

Almost as if he’d heard her thoughts—he turned in her direction. His expression was lofty and contemptuous: as if he were examining one of his beetles. No, not that, she corrected. Because if he were doing that he’d probably look interested. Instead, he was looking at her as if she were a bluebottle fly or some other common insect that wouldn’t merit a second of his time.

Perhaps he is correct in his assessment, Celia. After all, what is interesting about you other than your looks?

Ah, touché, she mentally congratulated the inner voice that critiqued her every thought and action.

“Is he a simpleton, do you think?” Millie asked in her piercing voice.

“If you don’t keep your voice down, he might think you are interested, and you will be his next dance partner,” Celia said coolly.

Millie flushed, but the others chuckled.

“What? Are you suddenly feeling sorry for him?” Steff demanded, her eyes slyly flickering in the direction of Lucien, who’d emerged from the cardroom.

“I’m not—but that doesn’t mean I want to make a spectacle of myself.”

Millie’s eyes became glassy at the implied criticism, her chin quivering.

Celia wanted to stop talking about Richard Redvers.

In fact, she’d like to forget the man, altogether.

No, what you want to do is forget your horrid behavior toward him these past months.

Fine. I would like to forget that, too. But it wasn’t my intention that mocking Richard Redvers would become everyone’s amusement of choice.

It wasn’t your intention, but you did everything in your power to make it happen.

Celia was sick and tired of arguing with her conscience—a battered, bruised, and malnourished thing that refused to die no matter how badly she abused it.

Besides, the accusation wasn’t fair. While Celia might have spread the rumors and planted the barbs, it was Sebastian who’d conceived of them.

The Duke of Dowden started it, but you fanned the flames, Celia.

Another truth.

Sebastian had been relentless; his quips and slights and comments were cunning and cruel and spread like wildfire. He was so adept at sowing lies that most people never guessed they came from him. Or her.

At least Celia hoped none of the people around them—with the exception of Steff and Sebastian—ever connected her with any of the cruelty this Season.

Part of the reason that Celia had joined in the baiting was the same as everyone else’s: to make sure that she didn’t become the butt of Sebastian’s rapier sharp wit.

But more importantly, she’d done everything that Sebastian told her to do because she knew he could wreck her.

He had told her he would.

“You want to become Countess of Davenport, my girl, and there is no need to deny it. But even with a face that could launch a thousand ships, you won’t be able to land the handsome young earl without some help. You’ll need invitations to the finest events.” Sebastian had given her a smile that could probably launch no small number of ships, itself.

But wasn’t that how it was in nature? Often the most beautiful creatures were also the deadliest.

Celia had returned his pleasant, utterly empty, smile. “What makes you think I can’t secure such invitations on my own?”

The duke had grinned, exposing his pointed canine teeth. “Oh, my dear, sweet, innocent girl. It would take so very little to ensure that the only ballroom you ever see the inside of is a public assembly room.”

Celia had been too stunned to reply.

“Don’t ruffle your feathers, my lovely. I will guarantee you entrance to every single function of any note. All I want in return is a little assistance.”

“I don’t understand. What can I do that would possibly help you in any way?”

“You can do whatever I tell you.”

And that had been the beginning of it all; Celia had become part of Sebastian’s inner circle, an esteemed, but not particularly comfortable position to occupy.

A person needed a long spoon to sup with such a dangerous man. Even his ex-lovers—gossip suggested—suffered when Sebastian was finished with them.

The Duke of Dowden was wealthy, gorgeous, and had evaded matchmaking mamas for almost five years.

And, for reasons of his own—reasons she’d never inquired about—he had a vehement hatred for Richard Redvers.

Once Celia had agreed to Sebastian’s demands—not that she’d ever had any choice—he had made good on his promise, somehow managing to get her invitations to parties and balls and routs and a half-a-hundred other affairs she never would have attended without his connections.

And all she’d needed to do was spread a bit of mischief.

And create a bit yourself—don’t forget that.

Celia winced at the reminder of the vicious “Ode to Odious” she’d written, which made it painfully clear who Odious was meant to be.

Other than Sebastian, only Steff knew who’d written it, and that had been by mistake.

Celia would never have told the sly beauty anything private. She knew that Lady Stephanie had befriended her for two reasons, and neither one was because she actually liked Celia’s company. First, she wanted to be seen associating with the only woman who could compete with her physical beauty.

And second, she was Sebastian’s cousin and did whatever Sebastian wanted.

So Steff had become Celia’s bosom companion and the two of them had served up a constant buffet of cruel gossip with a smile.

Had Celia sacrificed Richard Redvers, Phyllida Singleton, and dozens of others like them on the altar of her own ambition?

You know you have, Celia.

But I’ll make it all up to Richard when we’re sister and brother.

And how is that?

I’ll bring him into fashion—introduce him to women who are not wallflowers. There are dozens of things I can do to help him.

Her conscience enjoyed a robust laugh.

Celia fumed in silence.

“I’ve heard he’s quite brilliant and went to university two years early.” Millie’s shrill voice cut through her uncomfortable thoughts.

“Studying to be a vicar,” Steff said with a dismissive sniff.

“No, he’s one of that sort who goes about collecting beetles.”

“Ewww!” All five of them shivered with disgust.

“Beetles!” Milly screeched.

Either the word itself or Millie’s piercing voice drew a glance from the subject in question.

“Oh no! He’s looking at us,” Lily Kendall hissed.

He appeared to be, but then his attention was caught by Phyllida Singleton, who approached him with another drab-looking female.

Redvers seemed to come to life, a rare smile transforming his usually inscrutable features and making him almost as handsome as his brother.

“Look, he’s going to ask Phyllida Singleton to dance,” Millie said with her penchant for pointing out the obvious.

“He always does; they’re perfect together. An old maid and her specky swain,” Steff said.

The others laughed.

But Celia didn’t join in.

Instead, anger flared up inside her as she watched the pair. If Richard Redvers had even an ounce of sensibility he would flee London and never attend another ton function.

And if he disappeared, then Celia could stop. She could just stop.

But he was stubborn and stupid and arrogant and insisted on remaining.

And so she was driven to ever greater heights of cruelty.

She needed it all to end, and end soon, or she’d go mad.

Please God, please let Lucien give me some sign tonight . . . some hint . . . and let this horrid, horrid Season come to an end.

If I were you, Celia, I wouldn’t be so eager to attract the Almighty’s attention.

Once again Celia had to admit the truth of such moralizing cautions. Given her behavior, she was far more likely to attract punitive lightning bolts than divine benedictions.

All five of them watched in silence as Richard Redvers led the plainly gowned wallflower out to the dance floor.

That was where Celia should be right now—on the ballroom floor, dancing. But she’d purposely kept most of her card free for Lucien because he usually claimed two dances right away. But not tonight.

No, tonight he’d blithely gone off to the cardroom and left her here.

Left her to watch his brother and Phyllida Singleton enjoying themselves.

They might be unpopular, but even a fool could see that both outcasts felt confident and loved and secure. Neither of them would ever have to worry that they’d return home one evening to find all their possessions tossed onto the street.

Celia tasted the coppery tang of blood and stopped chewing her cheek, forcing herself to breathe and relax.

You don’t have the luxury of relaxing, my dear Celia; you need to take care of matters before time runs out.

What am I supposed to do? Club Lord Davenport over the head and drag him to the nearest vicar?

Her lips twitched a little at the mental picture.

But the smile was short-lived. She had already jeopardized her fragile reputation by allowing Lucien to detach her from the crowds at not one, but three events.

The young earl had been a perfect gentleman the first two times, doing no more than holding her hand, his behavior forcing Celia to all but launch herself at him the last time they’d been alone together.

Even then, he’d tried to be the gentleman. “I don’t want to harm your reputation,” he’d protested—but not very strongly—before capitulating and kissing her.

Kissing was a skill that Celia had carefully honed, and by the time she was finished with him, he’d believed that it had been his tongue that had first led the charge and his hands that were to blame for marauding over her body like Viking invaders.

Indeed, if there had been a vicar with a special license standing beside them at the Lorings’ garden party, Lord Davenport would have married her on the spot.

Unfortunately, the only thing present had been his guilt and heartfelt apologies.

And so Celia had been forced to wait and wait and wait.

All the while her father’s finances had taken an alarming turn—downward. He’d informed her not long ago that she’d better catch herself a wealthy husband before he was hauled off to debtor’s prison.

Matters at home—home being the ramshackle collection of rooms he’d leased for the last six months—had become grimmer than ever. They were down to just Henson and a day-maid to wait on them.

And poor old Molly Henson only stayed because she had nowhere else to go.

Which is exactly the choice you’ll have shortly.

Davenport needed to offer for her, and he needed to do it quickly. Celia had planted the seed almost six weeks ago, but there had been little enough time to cultivate the delicate sprout in his thick male brain. And it bothered her to no end that Steff was always around when Celia had any time near Lucien.

Steff was beautiful, wealthy, and had all the connections that Celia lacked. She’d seen the admiring looks Lucien occasionally gave her best friend.

The voice inside her laughed at the words best and friend when applied to Steff, who was as conniving and selfish and petty a person as she ever hoped to meet.

A lot like you, in other words.

Celia could not refute the accusation.

Her head throbbed badly enough to blur her vision, but she forced a bored expression onto her face while she swept the room with eyes sharper than any raptor’s.

She tried to convince herself that all of this—the incessant balls with the same people, the thinly veiled insults about everyone, by everyone, even the people you believed were your friends, and the constant, crushing fear that you would start slipping down the social ladder and not be able to stop— was not only necessary, but enjoyable.

But the lies and cruelty and duplicity became more difficult to maintain by the day.

This was her second Season and Celia had seen that it was a short step from where she was standing to where Phyllida Singleton lurked with the other undesirables. The only way to keep from becoming Phyllida was to make sure somebody else filled that position. It was cruel and unpleasant, but it was the way of the ton.

Three young men came to ask them to dance but Celia begged off, offering a vague excuse.

Soon Steff and Millie and their partners were swirling around the floor along with Richard and Phyllida. The last pair weren’t exactly swirling and she saw the awkward man tread on Phyllida’s toes. It must have hurt, but Phyllida just smiled up at him and said something that made him laugh.

Celia had to admit Richard Redvers was considerably more handsome—a lot more like his glorious, golden twin—when he smiled like that.

She suspected that the gilt on Lucien Redvers was largely a by-product of his money and position rather than any real difference in the twins’ outward appearance. As the younger son of an earl, Richard would have only an allowance while Lucien would get all the delicious money and property and status that went with the Davenport title.

Celia’s eyes narrowed as she watched the two carefree wallflowers laughing and dancing while she stood on the sidelines ignored and neglected.

How dare they flaunt themselves while she stewed alone on the fringes? If they enjoyed each other so much, why didn’t Richard offer for the woman—whose nickname was The Squab? If they—

“What is the belle of the Season doing all by her lonesome?”

Celia started at the sound of Sebastian’s smooth, cool voice.

“Hallo, Sebastian.” She offered her hand and he bowed over it.

“Where is your beau?” Sebastian was tall—a good head taller than most of the people around them—and glanced around the room with a superior smirk. “Is he neglecting you?” His gaze stopped at something on the dance floor and Celia knew what it was even before he spoke. “Ah, Odious and The Squab.”

Celia winced to hear the names—both of which had originated in her mind—spoken out loud.

His lips twitched and he turned his speculative gaze on Celia. “Don’t fret, darling. Your young lordling is not avoiding you; Davenport has been dragooned into helping poor Beaky out of a fix.” Sebastian cocked his head. “But what if I bring the young lordling  to you and lay him at your feet?”

Celia swallowed down her self-loathing and smiled up at him, her expression—she hoped—world-weary and bored rather than desperate. “Would you? That would be lovely, Sebastian.”

He chuckled and turned back to the dance floor. “I’m getting the most amusing notion as I stand here. Something . . . devious. Something that will make for a rather infamous end to the Season.”

Celia swallowed. “Infamous?” she asked, aiming for an insouciant tone but almost choking on the terror that shot through her at his words. What, in the name of all that was unholy, had he conceived of now? She had to force the next words to leave her mouth, “Do tell, Sebastian.”

In the years to come, when Celia looked back on that conversation, she would be horrified by how quickly one’s life could change.

She didn’t know it then, but that exact moment—only a few seconds in time—represented a critical fork in the road of her life.

While Celia could never know if the other fork—the one where she denied Sebastian what he asked—would have been better, she would soon learn that it could hardly have been any worse.

 

THE BACHELORS OF BOND STREET is out in the world! Here’s a preview of my novella, A SECOND CHANCE FOR LOVE

Looking for some smart and sexy historical romance in a “snack-sized” bite? A SECOND CHANCE FOR LOVE is perfect for a lazy afternoon or late night read!

Here’s a peek at the first chapter…..


A Second Chance for Love

Minerva Spencer

One

London

1817

 

Justin squeezed his eyes shut and rubbed his eyelids—hard—the soft leather of his gloves cool on his hot skin. 

But when he opened his eyes, she was still standing there.

“Well I’ll be damned,” he murmured. He closed the door to his carriage with a soft click and slumped back against it, unable to move his gaze from this specter from his past. 

Juss was some distance away, and the light was dim, but he could see her clearly enough, and he’d know that prim mouth, turned-up nose, and fiery red hair anywhere—although most of it was covered with a hideous cap right now.

Even though he could see her with his own eyes, he had a hard time believing it. 

She was carrying a large wooden crate down the back steps of Madam LeMonde’s stylish Bond Street dress shop. There was a small lantern perched on top of the box and it was illuminating her face in an eerie fashion. Judging by the way she was staggering, the box was heavy. 

A gentleman would help her, his conscience prodded.

But I’m not a gentleman. Juss thought the word with all the loathing he felt for the breed. 

He’d known his share of so-called gentlemen and a goodly number of them would just as likely push her against the wall and mount her as help her.

So he stayed where he was, his eyes dry from staring—as if she’d disappear if he blinked.

She paused at the bottom of the stairs and lifted one shoulder to rub at something on her jaw, an itch that had inconveniently developed while both her hands were full. The only other light in the narrow mews was from the lamp outside the back entrance of the nearest business, The Greedy Vicar public house.

It had been a decade since he’d last seen her but Justin would have recognized her even if it had been a century: Miss Oona Parker, the woman whose judgmental self-righteousness had sent his life into a downward spiral of poverty and suffering—a spiral that had, at long last, led him here. Miss Oona Parker, his damnation or his salvation, depending on how one looked at things. 

She propped the box on her hip and unlocked the heavy wooden door that led to Madam’s storage vault. Even from this distance he could see that her movements were slow, almost bone-weary. Well, working as a drudge for a harpy like Madam LeMonde could not be easy. She lifted her burden with both hands and disappeared into the black maw, leaving the door ajar behind her.

Justin turned toward his coachman; Beekman was waiting patiently, wearing his customary bored expression. The two of them had first met in the louse house—not long after he’d seen Miss Parker for the last time—many years before Justin was a wealthy, powerful businessman in a position to offer Beekman—or anyone else—employment. At least not legal employment.

“Return for me in ten minutes” he told Beekman.

“Yes, Mr. Taylor.” Beekman clucked his tongue and the four chestnuts leapt forward, quickly disappearing into the velvety darkness of Cork Lane. 

Justin didn’t normally tool around the city in his traveling coach but he’d just returned from his country house, which was a two hour drive, and he liked to work during the trip rather than take his curricle. Especially when the weather was sharp and chill like it was tonight.

He smelled snow in the air. As if on cue, a large snowflake landed on his nose—a prominent organ that attracted such assaults—and then the sky opened its vaults and the air around him swirled with white fluff that sparkled beneath the lamplight.

Fortunately he had on his heaviest woolen greatcoat even though his plans for the evening had included nothing more adventurous than stopping in at The Greedy Vicar for a meal, a few pints, and the monthly meeting with his manager before going home for the night. 

Pure chance had brought him out the back entrance of the pub tonight; otherwise Juss might never have seen her. He usually visited this property just once a month, and almost always in the evening, when most of the other shops in the string of buildings would be closed for the night. 

Yes, it had been a night like any other—until now. Until her.

Justin’s lips curved into a smile he knew was not nice. What were the bloody odds that he would see her after all these years? Especially now?

It had to be fate.

He pulled up his collar and strode through the quickly blanketing snow toward the dark rectangle that led to the building’s warren of vaults, his booted heels echoing damply as they struck the cobbles. He paused at the doorway, anticipation causing his pulse to accelerate and sending blood racing through his body. The freezing air chilled the sweat on his brow but he was uncomfortably hot beneath the layers of wool: hot with barely suppressed excitement. 

What are you doing, Juss? 

Fate has thrown her into my path, it doesn’t seem right to ignore this . . . opportunity.

It was a long, long time ago—another life. Leave it be; leave her be.

Juss ignored the voice and peered into the darkness beyond, allowing his eyes to adjust: he’d never listened to his better angel in the past, so why start now? 

He knew it would be wiser to take this new information home and think about an approach, but there was no way in hell he was going home without seeing her—talking to her. His mind was blank just now, but he’d know what he wanted to say once he said it. That was his way: quick and confident. That was how he’d grown his measly few pence into shillings and then a handful of pounds, and, finally, into hundreds and thousands of pounds. 

On that thought, he headed toward a flicker of light off to the left some fifteen feet ahead. He knew that was where she would be, because that was the storage area reserved for Madam Cecile LeMonde’s dress shop. Justin had known Dotty LeMonde since his first year in London, a decade earlier. The woman was from Old Saint Nichols Street and was no more French than he was.

Juss heard Miss Parker before he saw her. There was the sound of something being dragged—a ladder maybe—and the dull clunking of wood on stone. 

When he reached the door to the storage area she was at the far side of the large room, perched on a ladder to replace large spools of thread on dowels that had been attached to the low crossbeams. 

Justin crossed his arms and leaned against the doorframe to watch her. 

He still had no idea what he was going to do—perhaps speak or perhaps just slip away—but he’d do it after she came down off the ladder. 

A large, worn overcoat covered her slender body from neck to feet. The only part of her clothing he could see was the high neck of her gown—a serviceable gray—long sleeves, and worn brown ankle boots. She was facing away from him so he studied her shoulders, narrow but straight, her posture so rigid she appeared to have an iron rod in place of a spine.

The stable lads had called her Miss Oona Purity and had taken every opportunity to put themselves in her path. They’d never been openly disrespectful, just teasing and mocking. Of course not far beneath that mockery was desire—at least that’s the way it had been for Justin—because she was one of the most beautiful women he’d seen before or since. Small and shapely, with hair like spun copper and big green eyes.

She had ignored them, not even bothering to glance their way most of the time, as if they were the dregs of humanity sprung up from the gutters. Many of them were the dregs—including Justin—so it wasn’t as if her judging looks were slanderous. 

The competition to help her mount and dismount her horse had been fierce but Juss had always made certain that he was the one to slide his hands around the beautiful—and haughty—young woman’s tiny waist.

Now that Juss was older he realized she must have been rather alone in the viscount’s household. Unlike the other servants she ate her meals in her room or sometimes the schoolroom, and had very little interaction with the rest of them. She couldn’t have been very old—certainly younger than twenty—and the governess position must have been her first. 

He’d only spoken to her a few times and she’d kept their conversations brief and to the point, an action that had only made her more unattainable and therefore desirable.

Juss had slept with his first woman at fourteen and they’d not stopped throwing themselves at him ever since. He’d been an arrogant little fuck by the age of twenty-four—which is how old he’d been when he’d met Miss Oona Purity—certain of his ability to charm the birds out of the trees. Or at least to charm one pretty young governess out of her shell.

But she’d barely given him the time of day. 

His lips curled up. Well, not until she’d run squealing to the viscount about catching him and Clara.

And here she was in the flesh: Miss Oona Purity.

Juss waited and watched in silence, his mind on the last time he’d seen her—the day his life went to hell.

***

Oona’s fingers were so cold they actually hurt with it. She’d put on her coat and scarf but, foolishly, hadn’t pulled on her gloves. She’d wanted to hurry and finish this before Madam came into the back room after serving her last customer.

The older woman wasn’t cruel, but she tended to get short-tempered with her five employees, especially Oona, the only one of the workers who had no skills to offer other than a nimble mind and strong back. She was also the newest employee, having come to Madam just five months ago.

Oona took the last spool from the box and raised it over her head. The dowel was behind her and she’d either have to get down and move the heavy ladder to reach it, or . . . . 

It was foolish and dangerous, but she arched her back and stretched, holding the spool over her head. She’d just put the hole near the dowel when her foot slipped a little and sent the rickety ladder wobbling. She shrieked as the spool slipped from her fingers and plummeted to the floor, her body right behind it. 

Time stretched and slowed, giving her a moment to imagine how it would feel when she hit the cold stone floor. Oona squeezed her eyes shut, gritted her teeth, and prepared for the worst. And then she slammed into a pair of strong arms, their owner grunting from the force of impact, his knees pressing into her back as he bent to absorb her weight.

The first thing she saw when she opened her eyes was the underside of a masculine, angular jaw. Her rescuer tilted his chin down and eyes like blue flame burned into her as he cradled her body against his broad, unyielding chest. 

Oona’s brain struggled with the information her eyes provided: high, sharp cheekbones, a firm chin, a prominent Romanesque nose with a bump on the proud curve, and full, sinful lips that were pulled into a mocking smile. His thick, silky black hair was cut into a fashionable crop just long enough to let a lock flop teasingly over his brow.

Her head was warm and muzzy and she felt unnaturally aware of his warm body. No. No, it couldn’t be.

“How nice of you to drop in, Miss Parker.” 

The voice was more polished, but the cockney still lurked beneath the façade. 

“Juss.” The word was out before she could catch it. Her face heated at the use of his pet name, a privilege he’d never granted her. “Er, Mr. Taylor,” she amended. 

His mouth pulled up higher on one side, his hooded eyes glinting. “Ah, so you do remember me.” 

As if anyone ever forgot Justin Taylor. Oona could tell by his smug tone that he wasn’t surprised at all that she knew who he was. 

“Are you hurt?” His low voice vibrated through her body and reminded her she was still tight against his chest.

She squirmed.

His arms clenched slightly, as if he might keep her, and her pulse thundered at the thought. But he lowered her with sudden swiftness and her feet hit the ground with a loud clack. 

Oona staggered back a step. “Wh-what are you doing here?” she demanded, tilting her head back sharply to meet his gaze; he looked nothing like his former self, and yet he did. 

“You’re welcome, ma’am.” His hat had fallen, likely when he’d caught her, and he bent to pick it up.

Oona’s face heated. “Oh. I’m sorry, of course I’m grateful that you were here to catch me. But—”

“In answer to your question, I own this building,” he said coolly, but she could hear the pride simmering beneath his words. His full lips were curved into a faint smile, the same smirk he’d always worn in repose. It was remarkable how familiar the expression was even though she’d not seen it for a decade. As ever, he made Oona feel young, ignorant, gauche; that wasn’t all he’d made her feel. 

But right now it was making her feel like an idiot. “You’re Mr. Taylor—Mr. Justin Taylor?”

“In the flesh.”

“Oh. I never put the two names together,” she said, sounding breathy and foolish. 

“Taylor is a common name, as is Justin. Why would you ever link your employer’s landlord with an impoverished, disgraced groom you knew many years ago?”

Oona frowned at the slight but menacing emphasis on the word disgraced. Did he think she judged him for losing his position so long ago? The thought made her grimace; if he only knew about how she’d lost her position. Oona cringed at the thought of the arrogant, confident, and successful man in front of her learning about her mortifying disgrace. And it was clear that he was successful. Her eyes flickered over his elegantly clad body: skintight black pantaloons and a wool overcoat that embraced his broad shoulders as closely as a lover, his leather-clad hands holding a high-crowned black beaver hat. 

What had happened to him? How had he gone from a groom to . . . this? Dozens of questions swirled around in her head like too many fish in a pond. Oona snatched at one, “How long have you known I worked for Madam LeMonde?” 

He reached into his pocket and took out his watch. “Perhaps ten minutes.”

Why did that make her feel marginally less anxious?

Did you think he was stalking you, Oona?

No, she thought no such thing. In fact, she was more than a little surprised that he would even remember who she was. 

He replaced his watch and once again turned his uncomfortable gaze on her. 

Oona swallowed, loudly, and his lips twitched: he was enjoying her discomfort.

“Why are you looking at me that way?” she asked.

His eyebrows rose. “What way?”

Oona was good with words, but she had none to describe this particular look. 

“I didn’t know you were a seamstress as well as a governess,” he said when she didn’t reply. “But then I suppose that’s not surprising as we did not occupy the same spheres—me being in the stables and you being in his lordship’s house.”

“No, I’m not—” she hesitated, uneasy at what she was about to admit to this man—a man who’d always flustered her, even when he’d been a mere groom. And now. . . 

“Yes?” he prodded. “You’re not . . .”

“I’m not a seamstress; I’m the all-around dogsbody.” She’d not meant to sound so belligerent, but there it was.

“You didn’t like governessing?”

“Yes, actually, I enjoyed it a great deal.”

“Ah, I see.”

Oona was about to ask him just what it was he saw, but then she wasn’t sure she wanted to hear the answer.

He glanced around and then stooped to pick up the spool. “Where does it go?”

“Oh, you don’t have to—”

He sighed.

“Fine.” She pointed to the second to last dowel. “By the navy thread.”

He had to stand on his toes to slide it onto its holder, but it was done in a blink. 

“Are you finished here?” he asked.

“Yes. I just need—” but he’d already bent to pick up her empty box and lamp. 

“Come, I’ll walk you out.” His tone was peremptory—commanding. Certainly not the tone a groom would use. But then he wasn’t a groom anymore, was he?

When he opened the door, Oona gasped. “Oh, how lovely.” She stared up at the dark sky, the view a dizzying one as thousands of glinting flakes hurtled toward her. 

When he said nothing she turned to find him staring at her from beneath heavy lids. “Yes, isn’t it?” he said, and then pulled the door shut with a sharp snap, his eyes never leaving hers.

“Um.” Oona reached a shaking hand into her coat pocket for the heavy key. “I need to—”

He held up a ring with a half-dozen keys. “I’ve already locked it.”

“Do you always—”

“Finish other people’s sentences?” His lips curved that same non-smile. “No, not always.” He gestured toward Cork Street, where she saw a luxurious black coach with four restless chestnuts. “May I offer you a ride anywhere, Miss Parker—is it still Miss Parker?” 

“No—I mean, yes.” She shook her head at her bumbling. “Yes, it’s still Miss Parker. No, I don’t need a ride as I’ve not finished work for the evening.” She remembered her manners at the last moment. “But thank you.”

He handed her the box and lamp and then bowed. “I wish you a good evening, Miss Parker.” 

Like a street urchin staring in a shop window, Oona watched as he made his way to the magnificent carriage, his booted feet muffled by the thin layer of snow. He opened the door and hopped in without steps, his greatcoat fluttering like a dark flag in the snow-dotted night. 

Oona wondered if he’d look back before he closed his door. 

But he didn’t and the carriage rolled away into the darkness. 


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