The Danger of Desire
The Danger of Desire
Named one of the Five Best Romances of 2016 by Library Journal
Named a Hottest Upcoming Historical Romance by Amazon.com
To root out the card cheat responsible for her brother’s death, Miss Delia Trevor spends her evenings dancing her way through high society balls, and her late nights disguised as a young man gambling her way through London’s gaming hells. Then one night, handsome Warren Corry, the Marquess of Knightford, a notorious member of St. George’s Club, recognizes her. When he threatens to reveal her secret, she’s determined to keep him from ruining her plans, even if it means playing a cat-and-mouse game with the enigmatic rakehell.
Warren knows the danger of her game, and he refuses to watch her lose everything while gaining justice for her late brother. But when she starts to delve beneath his carefully crafted façade, can he keep her at arm’s length while still protecting her? Or will their hot desires explode into a love that transcends the secrets of their pasts?
“With its irresistible combination of witty banter, well defined characters, and a wonderful surfeit of breathtaking sensuality, the latest in Jeffries’ Sinful Suitors series is a straight flush.”—Booklist, starred review
“There’s nothing quite like Jeffries’ Sinful Suitors, and perhaps this scoundrel is her most appealing yet. Blending sensuality with poignancy and a bit of a mystery, Jeffries hits on a storyline that captivates with memorable characters (including one fussy cat) and witty dialogue. Readers are left with a deep sigh and a smile at the story’s conclusion.”—RT Book Reviews, 4½-stars, Top Pick
Thanks to you wonderful readers, the book hit the following bestseller list:
#14 on New York Times
#18 on Publishers Weekly
When Warren Corry, Marquess of Knightford, arrived at a Venetian breakfast thrown by the Duke and Duchess of Lyons, he regretted having stayed out until the wee hours of the morning. Last night he’d just been so glad to be back among the distractions of town that he’d drunk enough brandy to pickle a barrel of herrings.
Bad idea, since the duke and duchess had decided to hold the blasted party in the blazing sun on the lawn of their lavish London mansion. His mouth was dry, his stomach churned, and his head felt like a stampeding herd of elephants.
His best friend, Edwin, had better be grateful that Warren kept his promises.
“Warren!” cried a female voice painfully close. “What are you doing here?”
It was Clarissa, his cousin, who also just happened to be Edwin’s wife—and the reason Warren had managed to drag himself from his bed at the ungodly hour of noon.
He shaded his eyes to peer at her. As usual, she had the look of a delicate fairy creature. But he knew better than to fall for that cat-in-the-cream smile. “Must you shout like that?”
“I am not shouting.” She cocked her head. “And you look ill. So you must have had a grand time at St. George’s club last night. Either that, or in the stews early this morning.”
“I always have a grand time.” Or at least he kept the night at bay, which was the purpose of staying out until all hours.
“I know, which is why it’s really unlike you to be here. Especially when Edwin isn’t.” She narrowed her eyes at him. “Wait a minute—Edwin sent you here, didn’t he? Because he couldn’t be in town for it.”
“What? No.” He bent to kiss her cheek. “Can’t a fellow just come to a breakfast to see his favorite cousin?”
“He can. But he generally doesn’t.”
Warren snagged a glass of champagne off a passing tray. “Well, he did today. Wait, who are we talking about, again?”
“Very amusing.” Taking the glass from him, she frowned. “You do not need this. You’re clearly cropsick.”
He snatched it back and downed it. “Which is precisely why I require some hair of the dog.”
“You’re avoiding the subject. Did Edwin send you here to spy on me or not?”
“Don’t be absurd. He merely wanted me to look in on you, make sure everything was all right. You know your husband—he hates having to be at the estate with Niall while you’re in town.” He glanced at her thickening waist. “Especially when you’re . . . well . . . like that.”
“Oh, Lord, not you, too. Bad enough to have him and my brother hovering over me all the time, worried about me getting hurt somehow, but if he’s sent you to start doing that—”
“No, I swear. He only asked that I come by if I were attending this. I had to be in town anyway, so I figured why not pop in to Lyons’ affair?” He waved his empty glass. “The duke always orders excellent champagne. But now that I’ve had some, I’ll just be on my way.”
She took him by the arm. “No, indeed. I so rarely get to see you anymore. Stay awhile. They’re about to start the dancing.”
“Just what I need—to dance with a lot of simpering misses who think a coronet the ideal prize.”
“Then dance with me. I can still dance, you know.”
No doubt. Clarissa had always been a lively sort, who wouldn’t be slowed by something as inconsequential as bearing the heir to the reserved and rather eccentric Earl of Blakeborough.
Clarissa and Edwin were so different that sometimes Warren wondered what the two of them saw in each other. But whenever he witnessed their obvious affection for each other, he realized there must be something deeper cementing their marriage. It made him envious.
He scowled. That was absurd. He didn’t intend to marry for a very long while. At least not until he found a lusty widow who could endure his . . . idiosyncrasies.
Clarissa stared off into the crowd. “As long as you’re here, I . . . um . . . do need a favor.”
Uh-oh. “What kind of favor?”
“Edwin would do it if he didn’t have to be in Hertfordshire helping my brother settle the family estate, you know,” she babbled. “And Niall—”
“What’s the favor?” he persisted.
“Do you know Miss Trevor?”
Miss Trevor? This had better not be another of Clarissa’s schemes to get him married off. “Fortunately, I do not. I assume she’s one of those debutantes you’ve taken under your wing.”
“Not exactly. Although she was just brought out this past season, she’s actually my age . . . and a friend. Her brother, Reynold Trevor, died last year in some horrible shooting accident, and she and her sister-in-law, Mrs. Trevor, have been left without anything but a debt-ridden estate to support. So Miss Trevor’s aunt, Lady Pensworth, brought the two of them to London for the Season.”
“To find them husbands, no doubt.”
“Exactly, although I think Lady Pensworth is more concerned about Miss Trevor, since the late Mr. Trevor’s wife has already borne him a child who will inherit the estate, such as it is. To make Miss Trevor more eligible, Lady Pensworth has bestowed a 500-pound dowry on her, which ought to tempt a number of eligible gentlemen.”
She looked startled. “I wasn’t thinking of you, for heaven’s sake. I was thinking of someone less wealthy, with fewer connections. And decidedly younger. She’s only twenty-four, after all.”
Decidedly younger? “Here now, I’m not that old. I’m the same age as your husband.”
“True.” Her eyes twinkled at him. “And given your nightly habits, you apparently possess the stamina of a much younger man. Why, no one seeing you in dim light would ever guess you’re thirty-three.”
He eyed her askance. “I seem to recall your asking me for a favor, dear girl. You’re not going about getting it very wisely.”
“The thing is, I’m worried about my friend. Miss Trevor keeps receiving these notes at parties, which she slips furtively off to read; she falls asleep in the middle of balls; and she seems rather distracted. Worst of all, she refused my invitation to our house party next week, which I had partly planned in hopes of introducing her to eligible young gentlemen.”
“Perhaps she had another engagement.”
Clarissa lifted an eyebrow at him.
“Right. She needs a husband, and you’re nicely trying to provide her with a selection of potential ones.” He smirked at her. “How ungrateful of her not to fall in with your plans.”
“Do be serious. When was the last time you saw any unmarried woman with limited prospects refuse a chance to attend a house party at the home of an earl and a countess with our connections?”
He hated to admit it, but she had a point. “So what do you want me to do about it?”
“Ask around at St. George’s. See if anyone has heard any gossip about her. Find out if anyone knows some scoundrel who’s been . . . well . . . sniffing around her for her dowry.”
The light dawned. During her debut years ago, Clarissa had been the object of such a scoundrel’s attentions, and it had nearly destroyed the lives of her and her brother. So she tended to be overly sensitive about women who might fall prey to fortune hunters.
“You do know that if I start asking about an eligible young lady at the club,” he said, “the members will assume I’m interested in courting her.”
“Nonsense. Everyone knows you prefer soiled doves to society loves.”
That wasn’t entirely true. He did occasionally bed bored widows or ladies with inattentive husbands. There were a great many of those hanging aboutone reason he wasn’t keen to marry. He had a ready supply of bedmates without having to leg-shackle himself.
“Besides,” she went on, “that is the purpose of St. George’s, is it not? To provide a place where gentlemen can determine the suitability of various suitors to women?”
“To their female relations,” he said tersely. “Not to the friends of their female relations.”
Clarissa stared up at him. “She has no man to protect her. And I very much fear all of the signs lead to her having found someone unsuitable, which is why she’s behaving oddly. I don’t want to see her end up trapped in a disastrous marriage. Or worse.”
They both knew what the “worse” was, since Clarissa had gone through it herself. Damn. He might not have been her guardian for years now, but she still knew how to tug at his conscience.
“It would be a very great favor to me,” Clarissa went on. “I tell you what—she’s here. So let me just introduce you. You can spend a few moments talking to her and see if I’m right to be alarmed. If you think I’m overly concerned, you may leave here with my blessing and never bother with it again. But if you think I might be right . . .”
“Fine. But you owe me for this. And I promise I will call in my debt down the road.” He grinned at her. “At the very least, you must introduce me to some buxom widow with loose morals and an eye for fun.”
“Hmm,” she said, rolling her eyes. “I’ll have to speak to my brother-in-law about that. He has more connections among that sort than I do.”
“No doubt.” Her brother-in-law used to use “that sort” of women as models in his paintings. “But I don’t need you to talk to Keane. So I suppose I’ll settle for your promise not to be offended if I also refuse your invitation to your house party.”
“There was a possibility of your accepting? Shocking. But since I’ve never seen you attend a house party in your life—unless it was to some bachelor’s hunting box—I didn’t bother to invite you.”
“Good,” he said, though he was mildly annoyed. Marriage had obviously changed her. A year ago, she wouldn’t have stopped plaguing him until she’d convinced him to attend. Surely she had not given up on him already.
Unless this was her sly way of once again trying to get him married off. He’d best tread carefully. “So where is this woman you wish me to meet?”
“She was right over there by the—” Clarissa scowled. “Oh, dear, that’s her by the fountain, but what the devil are those fellows doing with her?”
She stalked off across the lawn and he followed, surveying the group she headed for: a woman surrounded by three young gentlemen who appeared to be—fishing?—in the fountain.
He recognized the men. One was a drunk, one a well-known rakehell, and the third a notorious gambler by the name of Pitford. All three were fortune hunters.
No wonder Clarissa worried about her friend.
He turned his attention to the chit, who had her back to him and was dressed in a blue-and-green plaid gown with a pink-and-yellow striped shawl.
Good God. Any woman who dressed that way was bound to be a heedless young twit, and he disliked that sort of woman. Unless she was sitting on his lap in a brothel, in which case intelligence hardly mattered.
As they approached the group, Clarissa said, “What on earth is going on here?”
The jovial chap with cheeks already reddened from too much champagne said, “The clasp broke on Miss Trevor’s bracelet and it dropped into the fountain, so we’re trying to get it out to keep her from ruining her sleeves.”
“I would prefer to ruin my entire gown than see you further damage my bracelet with your poking about,” the chit said, her voice surprisingly low and throaty. “If you gentlemen would just let me pass, I’d fish it out myself.”
“Nonsense, we can do it,” the other two said as they fought over the stick wielded by the drunk. In the process, they managed to poke Miss Trevor in the arm.
“Ow!” she cried and attempted to snatch the stick. “For pity’s sake, gentlemen . . .”
Warren had seen enough. “Stand aside, lads.” He pushed through the arses. Shoving his sleeve up as far as it would go, he thrust his hand into the fountain and fished out the bracelet. Then he turned to offer it to the young lady. “I assume this is yours, miss.”
When her startled gaze shot to him, he froze. She had the loveliest blue eyes he’d ever seen.
Though her gown was even more outrageous from the front than from the back, the rest of her was unremarkable. Tall and slender, with slim hips and no breasts to speak of, she had decent skin, a sharp nose, and a rather impudent-looking mouth. She was pretty enough, but by no means a beauty. And not his sort. At all.
Yet those eyes . . .
Fringed with long black lashes, they glittered like stars against an early evening sky, making desire tighten low in his belly. Utterly absurd.
Until her lips curled up into a sparkling smile that matched the incandescence of her eyes. “Thank you, sir. The bracelet was a gift from my late brother. Though I fear you may have ruined your coat retrieving it.”
“Nonsense.” He extended the bracelet to her. “My valet is very good at his job and will easily put it right.”
As she took the bracelet from him, an odd expression crossed her face. “You’re left-handed.”
He arched one brow. “How clever of you to notice.”
“How clever of you to be so. I’m left-handed, too. So I generally notice another left-hander because there aren’t that many of us around.”
“Or none that will lay claim to the affliction, anyway.” And he’d never before met a lady who was.
“True.” She slipped the bracelet into her reticule with a twinkle in her eye. “I’ve always been told it’s quite gauche to be left-handed.”
“Or at the very least, a sign of subservience to the devil.”
“Ah yes. Though the last time I paid a visit to Lucifer, he pretended not to know me. What about you?”
“I know him only to speak to at parties. He’s quite busy these days. He has trouble fitting me into his schedule.”
“I can well imagine.” Pointedly ignoring the three men watching them in bewilderment, she added, “He has all those innocents to tempt and gamblers to ruin and drinkers to intoxicate. However would he find time to waste on a fellow like you, who comes to the aid of a lady so readily? You’re clearly not wicked enough to merit his interest.”
“You’d be surprised,” he said dryly. “Besides, Lucifer gains more pleasure in corrupting decent gentlemen than wicked ones.” And this had to be the strangest conversation he’d ever had with a debutante.
“Excellent point. Well then, next time you see him, give him my regards.” She cast a side glance at their companions. “He seems to have been overzealous in his activities of late.”
When the gentlemen looked offended, Clarissa said hastily, “Don’t be silly. The devil is only as busy as people allow him to be, and we shall not allow him to loiter around here, shall we, Warren?” She slid her hand into the crook of his elbow.
“No, indeed. That would be a sin.”
“And so are my poor manners,” Clarissa went on. She smiled at her friend. “I’ve forgotten to introduce the two of you. Miss Trevor, may I present my cousin, the Marquess of Knightford and rescuer of bracelets. Warren, this is my good friend, Miss Delia Trevor, the cleverest woman I know despite her gauche left hand.”
Cynically, he waited for Miss Trevor’s smile to brighten as she realized what a prime catch he was. So he was surprised when her smile faded to politeness instead. “It’s a pleasure to meet you, sir. Clarissa has told me much about you.”
He narrowed his gaze on her. “I’m sure she has. My cousin loves gossip.”
“No more than you love to provide fodder for it, from what I’ve heard.”
“I do enjoy giving rumormongers something to talk about.”
“No doubt they appreciate it. Otherwise they’d be limited to poking fun at spinsters, and then I would never get any rest.”
He snorted. “I’d hardly consider you a spinster, madam. My cousin tells me this is your first season.”
“And hopefully my last.” As the other fellows protested that, she said, “Now, now, gentlemen. You know I’m not the society sort.” She fixed Warren with a cool look. “I do better with less lofty companions. You, my lord, are far too worldly and sophisticated for me.”
“I somehow doubt that,” he said.
“I hear the dancing starting up,” Clarissa cut in as she released his arm. “Perhaps you two can puzzle it out if you stand up together for this set.”
He had to stifle his laugh. Clarissa wasn’t usually so clumsy in her social machinations. She must really like this chit. He was beginning to understand why. Miss Trevor was rather entertaining.
“Excellent idea.” He held out his hand to the young lady. “Shall we?”
“Now see here,” Pitford interrupted. “Miss Trevor has already promised this dance to me.”
“It’s true,” she told Warren. “I’m promised for all the dances this afternoon.”
Hmm. Warren turned to Pitford. “Lord Fulkham was looking for you earlier, old chap. He’s in the card room, I believe. I’ll just head there and tell him he can find you dancing with Miss Trevor.”
Pitford blanched. “I . . . er . . . cannot . . . that is . . .” He bowed to Miss Trevor. “Forgive me, madam, but I shall have to relinquish this dance to his lordship. I forgot a prior engagement.”
The fellow scurried off for the gates as fast as his tight pantaloons would carry him. Probably because the wretch owed Fulkham a substantial sum of money.
Pitford’s withdrawal was all it took for the other two gentlemen to excuse themselves, leaving Warren alone with his cousin and Miss Trevor.
With a smile, he again offered his arm to Clarissa’s friend. “It appears that you are now free to dance. Shall we?”
To his shock, the impudent female hesitated. But she obviously knew better than to refuse a marquess and quickly recovered, taking the arm he offered.
As they headed toward the lawn where the dancing was taking place, Miss Trevor said, “Do you always get your way in everything, Lord Knightford?”
“I certainly try. What good is being a marquess if I can’t make use of the privilege from time to time?”
“Even if it means bullying some poor fellow into fleeing a perfectly good party?”
He shot her a long glance. “Pitford is deeply in debt and looking for a rich wife. I should think you would thank me.”
She shrugged. “I know what Pitford is. I know what they all are. It matters naught to me. I have no interest in any of them.”
Pulling her into the swirl of dancers, he said, “Because you prefer some fellow you left behind at home? Or because you have your sights set elsewhere in town?”
Her expression grew guarded. “For a man of such lofty consequence, you are surprisingly interested in my affairs. Why is that?”
“I am merely dancing with the friend of my cousin,” he said smoothly. “And for a woman who has ‘no interest’ in the three fortune hunters you were just with, you certainly found a good way to get them vying for your attention.”
She blinked. “I have no idea what you mean.”
“The clasp on that bracelet wasn’t broken, Miss Trevor.” When she colored and glanced away, he knew he’d hit his mark. “So I can only think that you had some other purpose for dropping it into the fountain.”
As they came together in the dance, he lowered his voice. “And if it wasn’t to engage those men’s interest in you personally, I have to wonder what other reason you might have to risk losing such a sentimental heirloom. Care to enlighten me?”