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Sin and Scandal in England
For Bethany Munro, gaiety and frivolity ended the moment Ian Rockwell walked through the arched doorway.
As if the winter snowstorm outside had swept into the glittering ballroom, a stir of cool, speculative whispers reached those finding respite at the sumptuous buffet table in the back of the crowded room. A scandal in black, his broad shoulders shaped by an elegantly cut evening jacket, he walked with physical grace, a quick dimpled smile, and that promise of sin prevalent in his eyes—a gaze reserved solely for the woman on his arm.
Champagne flute arrested against her lips, Bethany found her breathing constricted by a tightly laced corset. Since venturing from secluded country life two years ago, she had learned quickly enough the world was rife with temptation. It surrounded her, taunted her. Yet she had never been tempted, for the carnal fantasy of only one man haunted her from the past and seemed to frame her future.
But now here he was, with the beautiful widowed Countess Dermott draped on his arm, the one man who had ruined all other men for her, cordially greeting their host, casually stepping back into her life even as he did not know it yet. She watched as he moved with a smooth urbanity, stopping occasionally to speak with people as he worked his way across the room, a man comfortable amidst the aristocratic glamour of such wealthy surroundings.
Bethany had not seen Ian in three years, and she had never expected to see him again. Her blond hair was upswept and perfectly coiffed; her blue azure silk-and-tulle gown nothing more than another jewelamidst a sea of rainbow-colored attire. She wondered if he would recognize her in the crowd, then her growing apprehension usurped the initial flutter she'd felt—because he was really here at Whitley Court, a very dangerous place for them both, and the last place in the world she wanted to encounter him.
Her awareness of him became so palpable that it seemed to stretch taut across the distance separating them. Her heartbeat raced. She suddenly wanted to slip from the ballroom. Did she dare? But as she considered the question, he suddenly looked across the ballroom directly at her.
She froze as rigid as the naked mermaid ice sculptures to her left and right. His eyes touched and held her, only the merest hesitation in his sensual features, his face dark and intent. Then the woman on his arm spoke to him and, just that quickly, the contact shattered.
He bent his leonine head to listen, his mouth widening into an easy smile, his handsome face taking on a boyish cast in the warm glow of lamplight reflected in the golden tissue-draped walls and ceiling of the ballroom—all as if the last ten seconds had not occurred, as if Bethany had only imagined the touch of green fire in his eyes when they'd fallen on her.
Ian Rockwell had barely noticed she was alive.
Bethany felt a stab in her chest, yet despite herself, she made herself stand straight and tall and wrapped herself in cool composure as if she had never laid her heart at his feet and he had walked away.
Charlene giggled close to her ear. The tip of her crimson lace fan strategically placed at her chin shut Bethany's mouth. "Don't bother lusting after him, oh friend of mine," she whispered. Bethany and Charlene Dubois, her host's daughter, had met at England's Academic Conservatory for Young Ladies two years ago. "As you can see, my Aunt Serena has taken Sir Ian off the market."
Bethany was astounded by an unfamiliar timidity and the growing tightness in her chest. Had he been a "Sir" when she had known him? "I have no idea of whom you are speaking," she replied, snapping open her own fan.
As the orchestra opened another waltz, the final set for the evening, Ian escorted the exotic Countess Dermott onto the floor. He seemed to tower over the dark-haired beauty. She was not tall, so perhaps every man around her looked that much taller.
"Yes, you do." Charlene laughed, the action setting fire to the diamond necklace that lay atop the pale shelf of her ample bosom. "He is quite wealthy, rich as Croesus they say," she added coyly. "My aunt met him a few months ago at the home of a mutual acquaintance. It would be a coup for Papa if Sir Ian should decide to join our organization. The Rockwells are an established family."
Charlene giggled, as if Bethany should already be privy to such local details when, in reality, she'd only arrived at Charlene's home from the conservatory two weeks ago. "His family has resided in these parts since the Vikings dominated this countryside. He is a bachelor again. His wife passed away a few years ago."
Wife? Bethany's heartbeat stumbled. "He was married? When?"
"Three or four years ago." Charlene waved her plump hand dismissively as she turned her focus to the banquet table. "Some whirlwind courtship and wedding that ended tragically. No one really knows what happened." She examined the creamed salmon and cucumber hors d'oeuvres with the eye of a connoisseur. "Do you want one?"
Bethany shook her head, a sudden queasiness overtaking her. She wasn't feeling her best.
Charlene plopped the cucumber wedge between her lips. "Sir Ian wasn't married long enough for him to bring his wife home. In fact, the prodigal son only just returned this fall. He has been somewhat reclusive. Papa must have included him at the last moment. He isn't on the guest list." Charlene turned the topic to the group of Italian gentlemen currently approaching from the other end of the buffet table.
Outside the large windows, huge snowflakes had begun to crystallize against the glass as the storm sweeping off the North Sea began to blanket the provincial estate in white. But inside, the air was clement, nearly hot. Drink and food were liberally proffered to guests. Couples filled the dance floor. Bethany sighed. Ian had been married and widowed since she'd fallen in love with him those years ago.Sin and Scandal in England. Copyright © by Melody Thomas. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.