His heart was the deepest, darkest chasm of hell. A cold, bitter place where dreams and hopes had long since been laid to rest. And without dreams, without hope, why did he bother? Armond Wulf, The Marquess of Wulfglen, Earl of Bumont, moved freely among society, but only as a ghost---a dark presence who haunted the shadows of the living---waiting, always waiting, for the sins of the past to catch up with him.
Although titled and wealthy, the Wulf family was cursed, their futures bleak. Men were born to take chances, to test the limits of their strengths and their weaknesses. He could do neither. A normal existence for him was out of the question. Survival alone kept him shuffling along. One foot in front of the other. Trudging mindlessly forward to no particular destination. Oh, to hell with it, even he was not in the mood for his dark thoughts.
Nor was he enthused to find himself standing alone at the Greenleys' first ball of the season, forced out among society by boredom---no, not boredom, he admitted, but a simple need to feel life teeming around him. No one dared approach him. He was a man cloaked in mystery, murder, and madness. But still only a man . . . at least for the time being.
The sound of feminine giggles reached Armond's oversensitive ears. That he was the object of several women's attention did not go unnoticed by him. He couldn't ignore the scent of their attraction, the earthy smell of woman's musk hidden from most by a liberal dousing of rose water.
If he closed his eyes and concentrated, he could hear the excited flutter of their hearts, the blood that rushed through their veins. But Armond did not torture himself with his strange gifts. He'd accepted his lot in life, his position among society, or, rather, his lack of it.
Regardless of his dark appeal to the ladies, none were brave enough to approach him. He supposed it was another curse he must suffer . . . or perhaps simply a consequence of the one that already rested upon his head. The family curse. A Wulf's curse.
"Lord Wulf, good to see you, my boy. But why are you here alone sulking about? You should be chasing young women or at least in one of the back rooms playing cards with the older gentlemen."
A rare smile shaped Armond's lips. He glanced down into the Dowager Duchess of Brayberry's faded eyes. The lady was an old family friend and the only blue-blooded woman in London who wasn't too leery to approach him. She enjoyed causing a stir among society by refusing to shun him as everyone else did. And for that he was grateful.
"The trouble with chasing young women these days, Your Grace, is that they simply refuse to run," he teased. "The old men in the back rooms are even less sport. They might as well hand me their money and be done with it."
Her cackling laugh rose above the din of conversation, and she swatted him with her fan. "You are the devil, Armond, my boy. Even if you do look like an angel. It's the contrast, I think," she added, running her faded eyes over him, "that the ladies find fascinating."
It was his indifference, and Armond well knew it. All he had to do was act truly interested in a society miss and she'd run for the hills. His family background, the rumors, the mystery, the intrigue of it all, was what drew women to him like a moth to flame---but also kept them at a safe distance.
"Have you met your new neighbor?" the dowager cut into his thoughts. Her hair was thinning, he noticed from his superior height above her. He saw her scalp beneath the thin gray strands scraped back from her face.
Armond wasn't aware that he had a new neighbor. He didn't even know the last one. Chapman, he believed his name was, and neither had spoken one word to each other since the man and his mother first took up residence at the townhome ten years prior.
"Has Chapman sold the house?"
She shook her balding head. "It isn't his to sell. His mother, the duchess, was given the house by her late husband, the Duke of Montrose. During your absence, Chapman's stepsister has come to live with him. The girl's been hidden away in the country for most of her life. Now that her father has passed, she must take her place among society. She's an heiress. Sure to be plain if she has money. But you might have a chance with her."
"A chance to do what?" he asked drily. "If it's not something indecent, as you well know, given my dark reputation, I'm not interested."
Her thin lips twitched even as she pretended to find his response shocking. "Naughty boy. I'm speaking of a possible match. You still retain titles, estates, and wealth. I don't care what society has decided; a girl could do worse. If you were to sweep down upon her and steal her heart with those wasted good looks of yours before she's been here long enough to hear the rumors about your poor family, you might have a chance with her."
In the same dry tone, he asked, "And what makes you believe they are only rumors? Perhaps we Wulfs are all as mad as toads."
She swatted him again, but a little too hard to be counted as playful. "Rubbish. You and your wild brothers are not the least bit insane. What a perfect scheme to remain bachelors and keep the women falling at your feet at the same time."
Women hardly fell at his feet . . . unless they were dying. And it was not that one brother in particular had decided upon their current course of action, but it was an agreement made by all of them. All save Sterling, the youngest, and he'd fled London shortly after the curse first visited the Wulf household. The remaining brothers, Armond, Gabriel, and Jackson, had made a pact---none of them would ever give his heart to a woman.
Love was supposedly the curse and the key. Whatever the hell that meant. All they'd found of any reference to the curse upon their family was a faded poem tucked away inside of a book once belonging to their father. There was a riddle there, Armond supposed, although none of them had been able to decipher the message.
The dowager needed reminding that he and his brothers had more to deal with in society's eyes. "And what of the other matter?" he asked. "The one that took place only eight months ago? The one involving murder?"
The twinkle in the dowager's eyes dimmed. She glanced around as if afraid their conversation would be overheard. "You do yourself no good stirring that dark pot again, Lord Wulf. It was your misfortune to find the poor girl. No one could prove a thing. You and your brothers all had alibis. What you need is a wife. A nice society girl who will disprove these dark rumors about your family. Your parents, God have mercy upon their souls, might have been insane, but I see nothing but intelligence in your eyes. Why invite their sins upon yourself? Let the past die. Get on with your life. Prove the snobs wrong."
But that was the problem. Society wasn't wrong about Armond. True, he didn't murder the poor woman he'd found dying in his stable eight months ago, but he wasn't positive that her blood didn't stain his family name. What if one of his brothers had been lying? And what if the woman had been planted there purposely, to bring even darker sins upon the Wulf brothers?
Armond had spent the past few months trying to prove his family's innocence regarding the matter, but the trail to find the woman's murderer had grown cold. Society was right about their parents, however. They had both gone insane; society just didn't know what had pushed them over the edge to madness. Armond knew. All of his brothers knew.
The sound of his name being spoken interrupted Armond's conversation with the dowager. The lady who'd spoken stood behind him and her voice rose hackles on the back of his neck. Something in her tone, the softness of it, the slightly husky texture of it, flowed over and around him, inside of him, and touched a nerve. He turned slowly and came face-to-face with ruin.
Whoever the vision in white before him was, she was pure sin packaged deceitfully in the guise of innocence. If ever a woman existed who could make a man forget his principles, his pledges, his dark promises, this was one. Armond's blood turned to fire, his groin tightened, and heaven help the lady, she managed to do what none before her had accomplished. In the space of a heartbeat, she totally captivated him.
"I hate to be forward," the young woman said. "But I cannot find anyone to provide me with a proper introduction to you. I fear I am forced to take matters into my own hands."
Armond had something he'd like for her to take into her hands . . . and her mouth and the deepest, sweetest part of her. Words failed him. He could only stare . . . mesmerized.
Her hair was the color of midnight. Her lips, full, red, ripe, inviting, would tempt a saint. Eyes the purest shade of violet, and slightly slanted, stared up at him from thick, dark lashes. Her skin was pale, soft, and smooth---creamy as the froth on the top of a bucket of milk. He wanted her immediately. Not a reaction a man who prided himself on control cared to admit.
"You are forward, dear," the dowager said, since Armond's voice seemed to have deserted him. "I daresay whatever finishing school you've spent time in has failed you miserably."
Still staring boldly up at him, the young woman replied, "I've resided in the country for most of my life. Forgive my rude manners, but time is of importance. I require Lord Wulf's assistance in a matter of urgency."
With his blood on fire, his senses reeling, Armond momentarily forgot his vows, his pacts, his pledges. This was a woman who could have the world at her feet if she but crooked her little finger, and she needed his assistance? What could he possibly do for her that her flawless complexion, her lustrous dark hair, and her sinful mouth could not?
He managed, with difficulty, to slow his racing heart and present a false facade of control. "How may I assist you, Miss . . . ?"
"Rutherford," she provided, her voice a tad breathless. "Lady Rosalind Rutherford."
"Ah, your new neighbor," the dowager interrupted, reminding Armond that the old woman still stood a party to their conversation. "The young heiress I was just telling you about, Armond."
"The breeding stock," Lady Rosalind corrected, and then blushed as if she realized she'd revealed her resentment. She quickly recovered. "Since we are indeed neighbors, Lord Wulf, I don't feel that it would be inappropriate if we danced together."
His complete attention focused upon the young lady, Armond hadn't noticed that the music began. His thoughts ran rampant with all the things he'd like to do to and with Rosalind Rutherford, but dancing did not top his list.
Armond never danced. There didn't seem to be a point. Men only danced to please women or to woo or seduce them. He had no intention of doing any of those things. Or he hadn't up until tonight.
He couldn't keep his eyes from roaming her generous curves, curves displayed a bit scandalously by the low cut of her neckline. She noticed his interest and possibly the lust he felt certain was stamped across his face and took an involuntary step back, which proved she had a measure of common sense. Then she straightened her shoulders and stepped forward again, which was the worst thing she could have done.
His infatuation grew, if indeed, infatuation could be likened to the reaction taking place in the front of his trousers, which in this instance seemed to be the case. What was she doing to him? Whatever it was, he had to put a stop to it.
"I'm sorry, Lady Rosalind, but I do not dance, and I am not the neighborly sort." He thought to rudely turn away from her, but she touched his arm.
The slight contact sent a jolt through him. His senses sharpened to a painful point. Armond was aware of everything about her---even the fast pulse beating at the base of her throat. Especially the fast pulse beating at the base of her throat. She was frightened but determined, and again, the combination intrigued him.
Armond allowed the young woman to pull him a short distance from the dowager, who pouted over being denied further witness to the conversation.
"Would you make me beg?" She paused to moisten her lips, and the sight of her small pink tongue sensually caressing her lips made him feel like begging indeed. "Would you see them all snicker at me over your obvious cut? Regardless of what they say about you, surely not even you are that cruel."
"What do they say about me?" he challenged. If she knew much, she knew that according to rumor, Lord Wulf had no qualms about making women beg and that a suspected murderer, a man cursed by insanity, could hardly be expected to possess a trait like compassion.
"I know that you are Armond Wulf, the Marquess of Wulfglen---one of the wild Wulfs of London. The oldest of four. Feared by men. Forbidden to women. A man no decent young debutante would associate with."
Armond blinked down at her. "And you want to dance with me?"
She straightened her shoulders and thrust out her breasts, he supposed in a show of courage. His gaze lowered to those twin mounds on the verge of spilling forth, and his hands itched to catch them.
"I more than want to dance with you, Lord Wulf," she announced. "I'd be most grateful if you'd ruin my reputation."
Armond struggled to maintain his bored expression, although he felt as if one of his spirited horses had just kicked him in the gut. "Here?" he asked.
The lady tilted her dimpled chin up to him. "Now," she insisted. "This very night. In this very room in front of all these people."
Was this some bizarre dream? Armond was almost tempted to pinch himself. Women didn't proposition him, at least not this kind of woman. Lady Rosalind Rutherford, tempting morsel that she was, was either as insane as his family was rumored to be or up to something. He glanced away from her sinful mouth and tried to gain control of himself. It was something he did well . . . control.
He didn't lose his head over dark-haired angels. Losing one's head could go hand in hand with losing one's heart, and Armond couldn't afford to do that . . . ever.
"Did you hear me, Lord Wulf?"
Since it seemed as if everyone in the grand ballroom had ceased their own business and now stared at them, Armond took her arm and steered her toward the dance floor. Her waist was incredibly small beneath his hand. He swept her into the dance.
People were shocked, as they should be, to see a Wulf dancing, but Armond tried to concentrate on the steps so long ago taught to him. He was surprised that he remembered, but he did, and together, he and the young lady twirled, their bodies in perfect accord, almost as if one were an extension of the other.
"You dance very well," his new neighbor commented, nibbling at her full lower lip. "But I had hoped for more."
"More?" He suddenly felt like an idiot who couldn't string an intelligent sentence together in her presence.
"You're holding me quite properly," she pointed out. "Given your reputation, I assumed you'd be less formal. There's not much to find shocking about your manners."
Armond felt it was his duty to enlighten her upon the subject. "The fact alone that you are dancing with me, I assure you, is shock enough for those present this evening." When his comment didn't seem to satisfy her, he asked, "Would you have me ravish you?"
Her raven brows, perfectly set upon her forehead, furrowed. She pressed her lips together as if in consideration. "I had hoped to avoid such drastic measures but now realize that might indeed become necessary. Could you? I mean, would you mind terribly?"
He nearly missed a step. Would he mind? Was the young lady daft? No, she wasn't daft; her lovely eyes sparkled with intelligence.
"What game are you playing, Lady Rosalind?"
Rather than answer, she scanned the crowd. He naturally did likewise, his gaze falling upon a group of young debutantes staring at them, their faces flushed with obvious excitement over seeing him dance. Was her earlier approach some sort of bet among friends? A dare? Had she decided to make her debut into society on a grand scale?
Perhaps she simply wanted notice---a night that would set her apart from every other beautiful, eligible young lady who'd come for a season in London.
"My wishes are most sincere, Lord Wulf," she said, her gaze returning to him. "I am very disappointed in your good manners thus far this evening. Your reputation falls short of my expectations. If you have no desire to assist me, perhaps I should find someone who will."
His infatuation diminished somewhat. Armond had spent the past ten years being the brunt of society's jokes. He didn't mind being feared or whispered about, but he wouldn't be made to look the fool. When the lady started to pull away, as if she meant to leave him standing alone like a throwaway, he jerked her up flush against him.
"If it's compromised you want, you've come to the right man," he assured her. "And I promise that you won't be disappointed. There's nothing short about me, Lady Rosalind."
He steered her toward the edge of the dance floor, plans of where they could find privacy uppermost on his mind. Lady Rosalind had foolishly fired his ardor. She had thrown down a gauntlet, and if she wanted something to giggle about with her silly friends, he'd damn sure give it to her.
Copyright © 2005 by Ronda Thompson