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To London’s aristocracy, the Inferno Club is a scandalous society no proper young lady would acknowledge. But though they are publicly notorious for pursuing all manner of debauchery, in private they are warriors who would do anything to protect king and country.
The Marquess of Rotherstone has decided it’s time to restore the family’s good name. But as a member of the Inferno Club, he knows there is only one way to redeem himself in Society’s eyes: marry a lady of impeccable beauty and breeding, whose reputation is, above all, spotless.
Someone quite unlike Daphne Starling. True, she’s temptingly lovely, but a jilted suitor has nearly ruined her reputation. Still, Max cannot resist her allure—or the challenge of proving London’s gossips wrong. He would do anything to win her hand . . . and show that even a wicked marquess can make a perfect husband.
Why do you need to read this book? I love this series! The male characters are true heros, and the females are strong self-sufficient women. I loved this book! Go read it now!
My Wicked Marquess is available from Amazon
Excerpt ~ From Ch. 3 ~ Daphne & Max’s first private conversation
Safely ensconced in the ladies’ lounge, Daphne gave her reflection a firm look in the mirror. Having taken a moment to steady herself, she knew what she had to do, and it did not include one more moment of hiding in here. She had faltered for a moment, but she was no coward. She had to go out there and talk to him.
Talk…to the Demon Marquess.
She swallowed hard at the prospect. Her ladylike sensibilities protested at the notion of approaching a man to whom she had not been properly introduced. But if Albert had told him lies about her, her pride insisted on defending her reputation, at least to him.
Why she cared so much what this stranger thought of her, she dared not examine. She preferred to tell herself it was simply a matter of etiquette. The man had saved her life yesterday. The least that she could do was go and say thank you.
Gliding back out to the ball, she moved with a graceful but alert stride, glancing around for him watchfully from behind her open fan.
He was no longer standing in the doorway of the crowded dining hall, nor did she see him in the ballroom. Daphne frowned. Where had he gone? Just when she was starting to fear she had missed her chance, she spotted him striding down a lonely marble hallway toward a side door off Edgecombe House. He’s leaving?
Oh—dash! She picked up her skirts and hastened after him, her heartbeat quickening in time with the soft pattering rhythm of her satin-slippered footfalls. Her stare was glued to the broad V of his back.
Say something! she ordered herself. He’s getting away!
He was almost to the few stairs at the end of the corridor. These led up into a small foyer before a less-used door. She knew she had to stop him, but Daphne now found herself ridiculously tongue-tied.
Oh, this was so unlike her. “Um–excuse me.” Her voice came out as barely a whisper, too soft for him to hear. She rushed after him, determined to try again–not that she had any idea of what she’d do with such a dangerous man once she had caught him.
Watching him, she could not help but admire his bold, confident walk ahead, like he could march through fire and not get burned. “Excuse me!” she called in a louder tone. She faltered–rallied quickly. “Er, don’t I know you?”
He stopped in his tracks.
Daphne winced at her decidedly unoriginal greeting, then bit her lower lip. At least this time it seemed that he had heard her call to him.
She waited, wide-eyed, for his reaction, not knowing what to expect. But she decided on the spot to hide the fact that she already knew his name.
Just in case he had been making sport of her with Albert, why give him the satisfaction of knowing she had cared enough to note that information?
Ahead of her, he stood very still; he had not yet turned around.
If he had, she might have seen the startled flicker of victory in his eyes, and then the sly satisfaction that curved his lips.
“I beg your pardon, sir.” Her heart thumping, Daphne bolstered up her courage and took another uncertain step in his direction. “You are leaving—so soon?”
Finally, his motions wary and deliberate, the darkly handsome marquess pivoted to face her. His guarded stare traveled over her. “I’m not sure,” he said slowly, “there is any reason for me to stay.”
He lifted one eyebrow slightly after his words, as though challenging her to tell him otherwise.
Daphne’s knees knocked beneath her petticoat, threatening to give out as she faced the Demon Marquess in all his raw, male magnetism.
She swallowed hard. “I can think of one.”
She fiddled with her fan, but was determined to have her say. “I-I wanted to thank you for yesterday,” she asserted. “It was—noble of you to come to my aid.”
“Noble?” he echoed, both raven eyebrows arching high now.
“Yes.” She nodded fervently. Something in his stare made her fingertips tingle. The tingle crept up her arms with sweet warmth, into her chest, and straight into her bosoms. She ignored the odd sensation with a will. “It was a clever ruse—oh, but it was risky!” she chided. “It could have gone quite badly, you know. I’m not sure you should have done it.” She swallowed hard. “But, fortunately,” she continued, “since you appear unharmed, do please, accept my gratitude.”
When he just stared at her in mild bemusement, his eyes slightly narrowed, as though examining some strange species of prey animal, Daphne, not knowing what else to do, sketched a modest, formal curtsy to punctuate her thanks.
Her acknowledgment of his heroics appeared to entertain him; his chiseled face softened considerably as he held her gaze.
“I am happy to be of service, Miss Starling, and am humbled by your concern. The honor was mine.” He offered her a gallant bow in answer.
They stared at each other for a second, with several yards of marble hallway still between them.
Daphne barely realized she was holding her breath, as though she were in the presence of some magical creature, a unicorn in a moonlit grove.
Belatedly, she noted Lord Rotherstone’s use of her name. “I take it Lord Albert informed you who I am.”
“No, actually,” he said in a casual tone, “I already knew.”
“No light as bright as yours, Miss Starling, can easily escape notice.”
Well, that was prettily said, she thought. Maybe he was not as quick as some people to believe Albert’s lies. She watched him in fascination as he walked back down the few steps from the landing ahead, approaching her at a leisurely saunter.
“The patron saint of newcomers, I presume?” he greeted her with an enigmatic smile.
“Oh—right.” With a quick, modest smile at the nickname the ton had given her, Daphne lowered her gaze. “I take it that would include you? I have not seen you in Society before. Are you new to Town, sir?”
“I have been traveling abroad for some time.”
As he closed the distance between them, she had to lift her chin to keep holding his gaze, for he was quite tall.
“Traveling abroad? During a war?”
“What is life without a little danger?” he countered, flashing a very dangerous smile, indeed.
“Oh.” She dropped her gaze, cursing herself for the blush she could feel stealing into her cheeks. “I have never been beyond the, um, Home Counties, myself.”
“Nevertheless, I daresay you have visited a dangerous place or two in your day.” He smiled faintly, a knowing look in his light-tricked eyes; their outer corners crinkled with a hint of amusement. He was referring, of course, to yesterday, she realized, and her little trip to the orphanage in Bucket Lane, or Slops Bucket Lane, as the rough locals laughingly called it.
Lord Rotherstone stopped just in front of her, and stood gazing into her eyes for a moment with that same thoughtful expression she’d noticed before.
He seemed to peer down into her very soul. “You looked upset when you left the dining hall a little while ago.”
His frank observation took her off guard. “Oh—yes, well—it’s nothing. I-I just thought… ”
“I think I know what you thought,” he murmured when her stammering trailed off into awkward silence.
Daphne lowered her head, but he shocked her when he touched her gently under her chin. She caught her breath sharply as he tilted her face upward again and looked into her eyes.
“I know what you thought,” he repeated, “but, I can assure you, you were mistaken.”
“Was I?” Her heart pounded at the light but sure pressure of his warm fingertips against her skin.
Very. I should never wish to be the cause of your distress, Miss Starling.”
“What did Albert say to you about me?” she blurted out in a hushed tone, struggling to form a clear thought against the magic of his touch.
He smiled and lowered his hand to his side once more. “Better you should ask what I said to him about you.”
She shot him a wary look of question.
He shrugged with a nonchalant smile. “I simply let him know that he can either mind his tongue or lose it.”
Her eyes widened. “You threatened him?”
He sighed regretfully, folding his hands behind his back. “I’m fairly sure that’s why he left the party. Pity, no?”
Daphne stared at him astonishment bordering on laughter. Well! I was right from the outset. He is a lunatic.
“You look surprised.”
“I thought you were his friend!”
He looked away with a low laugh. “Not exactly.”
She shook her head in wonder, trying to make sense of it all. “How do you know him?”
“He grew up near me when we were boys in Worcestershire.”
“I see…” It was hard to imagine the tall, formidable man before her as a boy.
“Miss Starling, I could never let any man insult you in my presence. Rest assured of that.”
“Oh,” she whispered, trembling at his chivalrous vow.
It dawned on her that she was making a cake of herself, but she couldn’t seem to help it. Her wits were somewhat routed by their exchange so far. Oh, but she was relieved to hear he had not been making sport of her, nor even tolerating Albert’s rudeness.
Quite the contrary. The magnificent hellion had defended her.
She beamed. Daphne suddenly found herself growing desperate for a proper introduction. He was a positively thrilling man!
Eager to get that formal step out of the way, she cast about for some means to nudge the marquess into telling her his name. Yes, of course, she already knew it, but just now it seemed too forward, rude, and gossipy to admit that she had heard it while eavesdropping on his conversation with Albert.
“Well, I barely know what to say!” she exclaimed, trying to sound like the blithe Society coquette she could be when the need arose. “Two rescues in twenty-four hours, and I don’t even know your name!”
Again, the eyebrow lifted. Perhaps she should have read it as a warning. “Shall I reveal it to you, or do you prefer the mystery to continue?” he asked dryly.
Oh, dear. The cynical tone of his voice instantly made her wonder if he could somehow tell that she was lying.
“Why, that’s an odd question,” she evaded with a quick, uneasy smile, opting to be vague.
He sighed and gazed toward the ceiling. “Yes, it’s just that once you realize who I am,” he mused aloud, “you may run from me. And that would make me sad.” He looked at her again, intently, his pale green eyes keen and searching beneath the coal-black fringe of his short lashes.
Trapped in his stare with the strange sense that he could almost read her mind, Daphne was still unsure if he saw through her amateur deception.
Unfortunately, having started down this path, she saw no choice but to carry it through. She waved her fan faster, and kept smiling, though her cheeks were beginning to hurt. “Well, you can do as you please, I’m sure! I think you’ve earned that right. On the other hand,” she countered with a coy flutter of her lashes, “I can’t dance with you if I don’t know your name, now, can I?”
“But my dear Miss Starling, I haven’t asked you yet.”
Her fan stopped. “You were going to, weren’t you?” she exclaimed in indignation.
He flashed a smile. “Maybe.”
“Well!” She tossed her head. “I had planned a dance as your reward for rescuing me, but now I’m not so sure.”
“My dear young lady, if I had done it for the reward,” he murmured, moving closer still, “I promise you, I would be asking for more than a dance.”
Daphne stared at him, wide-eyed.
The sheer wickedness of the slow, lazy smile he gave her made her catch her breath against the squeeze of her tight stays. All of a sudden, she longed to be rid of them, rid of most of her clothing, actually, when he looked at her that way. Her own little game was completely overwhelmed by his palpable expertise, and she thought again of the brothel. What would he be like to…?
She warded off the naughty thought before she could complete it. Feeling slightly faint, shocked at the extremely unladylike drift of her imaginings, she looked away, waving her fan again very fast, indeed.
Having left her speechless with his silken innuendo, Lord Rotherstone now paused, as though he had all the time in the world to play with her and steer the conversation wherever he willed.
“You see, my dear, even more than a dance, what I really want from you is a promise,” he murmured.
Her eyes flared as she sent him another swift glance. “What kind of—promise?” she asked hoarsely, barely daring wonder what a Demon Marquess might want from a girl.
To her surprise, however, he leaned down to glower into her eyes and pointed his finger in her face. “Do not ever go back to that treacherous alley again.” he ordered her matter-of-factly. “Next time, I may not be there to rescue you. Do you understand me?”
His command and his domineering stare took her aback.
She looked at him in astonishment. Who exactly did he think he was?
“I beg your pardon.” Not about to be told what to do by a man she had only just met, she lifted her index finger and pushed his aside with a dainty strike, as if in a miniature duel.
“You heard me,” he murmured in a husky tone, hooking his finger and effectively capturing hers. He held onto it, and locked stares with her at close range. “Promise,” he whispered, with a dark, irresistible charm that seemed to engulf her.
Daphne studied his lips for a second, then shook off the shiver of awareness that ran through her body. “No,” she informed him in crisp tones. “I cannot promise that, I’m afraid.”
“You can,” he told her sweetly, “and you shall.”
“No,” she repeated, just as kindly, and as firmly. “I’m afraid you do not understand, my lord. The children at the orphanage, they need me.”
“Alive, one presumes,” he said with an equally unflappable smile, though his eyes were flinty. “You are no use to them dead, now, are you, sweet Miss Starling?”
Losing patience with his highhandedness, she tugged her finger free of his light hold and scowled at him. “You don’t understand, Ihave to go back there whether I like it or not—at least until the orphanage is moved! I can’t let those poor children think I’ve abandoned them, like their own parents have. Besides, I didn’t question your business in Bucket Lane, now, did I? I hardly think it fitting that you question mine.”
She relished his startled look at her polite reminder of his visit to that disgusting brothel, but he recovered quickly. “Young lady, you listen to me—”
“Pish-posh,” she said with an idle wave of her hand. “All’s well that ends well.”
He looked at her in amazement. “Did you just say pish-posh to me?”
“Why, yes, I believe I did.” She folded her arms across her chest, giving him a serenely stubborn smile.
“Lord Rotherstone?” a voice intruded.
They both looked over.
“Yes? What is it?” The marquess frowned at Daphne, while a harried-looking footman came rushing down the hallway with a folded piece of paper on a silver tray.
“A message arrived for you, sir. I was afraid I’d missed you! Forgive the interruption. The courier said it was urgent.”
“Here, I will take it.” He beckoned the man forward with an impatient flick of his fingers.
“Lord Rotherstone,” Daphne echoed softly, sending him a twinkling smile. “Are you sure it’s not made out to the Demon Marquess?”
He narrowed his eyes at her. “So, I was right. You already knew my name, you saucy thing.”
She grinned, feeling better to come clean. “I could not let you have the advantage of me, now, could I?”
He snorted and shook his head, turning away with a low laugh to read his note. “If you’ll excuse me for a moment?”
“Of course, Lord Rotherstone.”
He gave her another sardonic look at her arch repetition of his name and unfolded the letter, swiftly scanning it.
Daphne kept a polite distance, but she watched his chiseled countenance with avid curiosity. She was not one to read over anyone’s shoulder, but she could not resist teasing him in the hopes that she might pry a little intelligence out of him as to its contents. “Do I detect a whiff of brimstone in the air?”
“Quite,” he said dryly, then folded the note again and slid it into the pocket of his waistcoat. With a wave of his hand, Lord Rotherstone dismissed the footman, who had stood waiting for any reply he might wish to send. He glanced at her. “Regretfully, Miss Starling, I must go.”
“Oh, but we were only just getting acquainted,” she countered with a playful little pout.
“Trust me,” he murmured with a roguish look, “we will pick up soon where we left off.”
“But what of our dance?”
“You’ll owe me one.”
She frowned in sudden concern. “It’s not bad news, I hope?”
“No, no, it’s excellent news, but the sort I must attend to at once. An arrival, actually, that I have long awaited.”
“Arrival?” A sudden horrible thought flashed across her mind out of nowhere. “Is your wife having a baby?” she cried as he began to turn away. In the next second, she was even more aghast at what she had just blurted out; she clapped a hand over her mouth and stared at him.
“My wife?” He stopped and turned back to her, frowning in surprise. “What do you know of my wife?”
She lowered her hand slightly from her mouth, longing to hide under the nearest rock. “Nothing! Oh, God—I beg your pardon. I didn’t mean, that is, I’m sure it’s none of my—”
His soft, tickled laughter put a halt to her mortified stammering. His pale eyes danced. “My dear Miss Starling,” he teased, laughing warmly at her flustered attempt to find out if he was a married man. “If I had a wife about to give birth, I would hardly be here, letting a charming young beauty enchant me. Though, I must admit, I can’t help but feel a little flattered that your thoughts turn so easily to breeding in my presence.”
She gasped, rendered speechless. Still chuckling as she turned rosy, he captured her hand and bowed over it, pressing the briefest of kisses to her knuckles. “Au revoir, cherie. Until we meet again.”
“Oh, will we?” she retorted, yanking back her hand as he released it, barely recovered from her embarrassment at his ribald teasing.
“Count on it,” he whispered, and took leave of her with a wink.