A LADY WITH A SECRET
The Ravishing Miss Burke has everything a young lady could want-beauty, status and suitors lined up just to beg for her hand. Until a blackmailer from her past holds her future for ransom.
A MAN HELLBENT ON REVENGE
Colonel Rupert Delacorte, Viscount Darling will go to any length to ruin the woman responsible for his beloved sister's death. But the Ravishing Miss Burke is nothing like the icy murderer of his waking dreams-she's nothing but a bluestocking with a shocking secret she'll go to almost any length to keep. Even succumbing to his sinful seduction.
A Sense of Sin was originally published in 2011. This new edition has been revised and reedited.
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A Sense of Sin
By ELIZABETH ESSEX
BRAVA BOOKSCopyright © 2011 Elizabeth Essex
All right reserved.
Chapter OneDartmouth, England, 1794
"Delacorte? You're looking remarkably bloody-minded for a ball. Even for you. Are you planning to dance with whomever you've set your sights on, or thrash them?"
Rupert Delacorte, Viscount Darling, ignored the amused remark of his friend Hugh McAlden and concentrated on his quarry. It should be a difficult thing to hate a woman one had never seen before, but Del looked across the expansive ballroom at the beautiful woman descending the stairs and reckoned he'd manage just fine. Because hate her he did. With a cold, implacable fury that seethed deep within him, burning unabated throughout his long year of mourning, like molten lava hidden beneath an icy mountain, until, at long last, the time had come for justice.
No matter what, no matter the consequences or social carnage, he was going to make her pay for her misdeeds. His deep-seated sense of justice demanded it. He was going to ruin her elegant, effortless life just as surely and as ruthlessly as she had ruined Emily's.
"Haven't decided." Del tossed back a small measure of brandy to swallow the stinging taste of bitterness that always rose in his gullet at the thought of Emily, his adored younger sister.
She had been his anchor, his compass. Without her, he had come unmoored, adrift and without purpose. For a year, he had rashly and stupidly tried to blunt the pain of Emily's loss with liquor, fornication, and a recklessness that might have seen a lesser man to his grave. But nothing had helped.
Emily was dead. And it was the fault of the woman across the room. Celia Burke.
The drink of potent liquor sent small licking tongues of fire through his chest, feeding the flames of his ire. He would permit himself only one, small drink. He couldn't afford the continued self-indulgence of blissful, drunken oblivion. Not since he had received the bloody blackmail letter and found out about Celia Burke.
The mere thought of her betrayal nearly sent him howling with rage. No wonder he looked bloody-minded. He felt murderous. That carelessly scrawled demand for his money and his silence had overthrown all his beliefs, all his love, and all his hopes. That one letter had obliterated all the letters that had come before, and left both his past and his future in tatters.
Del had not known who she was when he first laid eyes upon her, but he instinctively didn't like her. He distrusted beauty. Because beauty walked hand in hand with privilege—unearned privilege. And she was certainly beautiful. Tall, elegant, with porcelain white skin, a riot of sable dark curls and deep dark eyes—a symphony of black and white. She surveyed the ballroom like a queen: haughty, serene, remote, and exquisitely beautiful. Beauty had a way of diverting unpleasantness and masking grievous flaws of character. It was not to be trusted.
Her name was confirmed by others attending the select ball at the Marquess and Marchioness of Widcombe's. It wafted to him on champagne-fueled murmurs in the hot, crowded room: "Dear Celia," and "Our Miss Burke." Others seemed to call her The Ravishing Miss Burke, as if it were her title and she the only one to wear that crown.
The Ravishing Miss Celia Burke. A well-known, and even more well-liked local beauty. She made her serene, graceful way down the short set of stairs into the ballroom as effortlessly as clear water flowed over rocks in a hillside stream. She nodded and smiled in a benign but uninvolved way at all who approached her, but she never stopped to converse. She processed on, following her mother through the parting sea of mere mortals, those lesser human beings who were nothing and nobody to her but playthings.
Aloof, perfect Celia Burke. Fuck you.
By God, he would take his revenge and Emily would have justice. Maybe then he could sleep at night.
Maybe then he could learn to live with himself.
But he couldn't exact the kind of revenge one takes on another man—straightforward, violent, and bloody. He couldn't call Miss Burke out on the middle of the dance floor and put a bullet between her eyes or a sword blade between her ribs at dawn.
His justice would have to be more subtle, but no less thorough. And no less ruthless.
"You were the one who insisted we attend this august gathering. So what's it to be, Delacorte?" Commander Hugh McAlden, friend, naval officer, and resident cynic, prompted again.
McAlden was one of the few people who never addressed Del by his courtesy title, Viscount Darling, as they'd known each other long before he'd come into the bloody title and far too long for Del to give himself airs in front of such an old friend. With such familiarity came ease. With McAlden, Del could afford the luxury of being blunt.
"Dancing or thrashing? The latter, I think."
McAlden's usually grim mouth crooked up in half a smile. "A thrashing, right here in the Marchioness's ballroom? I'd pay good money to see that."
"Would you? Shall we have a private bet, then?"
"Del, I always like it when you've got that look in your eye. I'd like nothing more than a good wager."
"A bet, Colonel Delacorte? What's the wager? I've money to burn these days, thanks to you two." Another naval officer, Lieutenant Ian James, known from their time together when Del had been an officer of His Majesty's Marine Forces aboard the frigate Resolute, broke into the conversation from behind.
"A private wager only, James." Del would need to be more circumspect. James was a bit of a puppy, happy and eager, but untried in the more manipulative ways of society. There was no telling what he might let slip. Del had no intention of getting caught in the net he was about to cast. "Save your fortune in prize money for another time."
"A gentleman's bet then, Colonel?"
A gentleman's bet. Del felt his mouth curve up in a scornful smile. What he was about to do violated every code of gentlemanly behavior. "No. More of a challenge."
"He's Viscount Darling now, Mr. James." McAlden gave Del a mocking smile. "We have to address him with all the deference he's due."
Unholy glee lit the young man's face. "I had no idea. Congratulations, Colonel. What a bloody fine name. I can hear the ladies now: my dearest, darling Darling. How will they resist you?"
Del merely smiled and took another drink. It was true. None of them resisted: high-born ladies, low-living trollops, barmaids, island girls, or senoritas. They never had, bless their lascivious hearts.
And neither would she, despite her remote facade. Celia Burke was nothing but a hothouse flower just waiting to be plucked.
"Go on, then. What's your challenge?" McAlden's face housed a dubious smirk as several more navy men, Lieutenants Thomas Gardener and Robert Scott, joined them.
"I propose I can openly court, seduce, and ruin an untried, virtuous woman"—Del paused to give them a moment to remark upon the condition he was about to attach—"without ever once touching her."
McAlden gave a huff of cynical laughter. "Too easy in one sense, too hard in another," he stated flatly.
"How can you possibly ruin someone without touching them?" Ian James protested.
Del felt his mouth twist. He had forgotten what it was like to be that young. While he was only six and twenty, he'd grown older since Emily's death. Vengeance was singularly aging.
"Find us a drink would you, gentlemen? A real drink. None of the lukewarm swill they're passing out on trays." Del pushed the young lieutenants off in the direction of a footman.
"Too easy to ruin a reputation with only a rumor," McAlden repeated in his unhurried, determined way. "You'll have to do better than that."
Trust McAlden to get right to the heart of the matter. Like Del, McAlden had never been young, and he was older in years, as well.
"With your reputation," McAlden continued as they turned to follow the others, "well deserved, I might add, you'll not get within a sea mile of a virtuous woman."
"That, old man, shows how little you know of women."
"That, my darling Viscount, shows how little you know of their mamas."
"I'd like to keep it that way. Hence the prohibition against touching. I plan on keeping a very safe distance." While he was about the business of revenging himself on Celia Burke, he needed to keep himself safe from being forced into doing the right thing should his godforsaken plan be discovered or go awry. And he simply didn't want to touch her. He didn't want to be tainted by so much as the merest brush of her hand.
"Can't seduce, really seduce, from a distance. Not even you. Twenty guineas says it can't be done."
"Twenty? An extravagant wager for a flinty, tight-pursed Scotsman like you. Done." Del accepted the challenge with a firm handshake. It sweetened the pot, so to speak.
McAlden perused the crowd. "Shall we pick now? I warn you, Del, this isn't London. There's plenty of virtue to be had in Dartmouth."
"Why not?" Del felt his mouth curve into a lazy smile. The town may have been full of virtue, but he was full of vice. He cared about only one particular woman's virtue.
"You'll want to be careful. Singularly difficult things, women," McAlden offered philosophically. "Can turn a man inside out. Just look at Marlowe."
Del shrugged. "Captain Marlowe married. I do not have anything approaching marriage in mind."
"So you're going to seduce and ruin an innocent without being named or caught? That is bloody-minded."
"I didn't say innocent. I said untried. In this case, there is a particular difference." He looked across the room at Celia Burke again. At the virtuous, innocent face she presented to the world. He would strip away that mask until everyone could see the ugly truth behind her immaculately polished, social veneer.
McAlden followed the line of his gaze. "You can't mean—That's Celia Burke!" All trace of jaded amusement disappeared from McAlden's voice. "Jesus, Del, have you completely lost your mind? As well as all moral scruples?"
"Gone squeamish?" Del tossed back the last of his drink. "That's not like you."
"I know her. Everyone in Dartmouth knows her. She is Marlowe's wife's most particular friend. You can't go about ruining—ruining for God's sake—innocent young women like her. Even I know that."
"I said she's not innocent."
"Then you must've misjudged her. She's not fair game, Del. Pick someone else. Someone I don't know." McAlden's voice was growing thick.
"No." Darling kept his own voice flat.
McAlden's astonished countenance turned back to look at Miss Burke, half a room away, smiling sweetly in conversation with another young woman. He swore colorfully under his breath. "That's not just bloody-minded, that's suicidal. She's got parents, Del. Attentive parents. Take a good hard look at her mama, Lady Caroline Burke. She's nothing less than the daughter of a Duke, and is to all accounts a complete gorgon in her own right. They say she eats fortune hunters, not to mention an assortment of libertines like you, for breakfast. What's more, Miss Burke is a relation of the Marquess of Widcombe, in whose ballroom you are currently not dancing. This isn't London. You are a guest here. My guest, and therefore Marlowe's guest. One misstep like that and they'll have your head. Or, more likely, your ballocks. And quite rightly. Pick someone else for your challenge."
"Bugger off, Hugh."
McAlden knew Del well enough to hear the implacable finality in his tone. Hugh shook his head slowly. "God's balls, Del. I didn't think I'd regret so quickly having you to stay." He ran his hand through his short, cropped hair and looked at Del with a dawning of realization. "Christ. You'd already made up your mind before you came here, hadn't you? You came for her."
Under such scrutiny, Del could only admit the truth. "I did."
"Damn your eyes, Delacorte. This can only end badly."
Del shrugged with supreme indifference. "That will suit me well enough."
It was called blackmail, though the letter secreted in Celia Burke's pocket was not, in actuality, black. It had looked innocuous enough: the same ivory-colored paper as all the other mail, brought to her on a little silver tray borne by the butler, Loring. It would have been much better if the letter had actually been black, because then Celia would have known not to open it. She would have flung it into the fire before it could poison her life irrevocably. The clenching grip of anxiety deep in her belly was proof enough the poison had already begun its insidious work.
"Celia, darling? Are you all right? Smile, my dear. Smile." Lady Caroline Burke whispered her instructions for her daughter's ears only, as she smiled and nodded to her many acquaintances in the ballroom as though she hadn't a care in the world.
Celia shoved her unsteady hand into her pocket to reassure—convince—herself the letter was still there. And still real. She had not dreamt up this particular walking nightmare.
She released the offensive missive and clasped her hands together tightly to stop them from trembling. She had no more than a moment or two to compose herself before the opening set was to begin.
Blackmail. The letter, dated only one day ago, was clear and precise, straight to the point.
Celia Burke, we know what you did in Bath with Emily Delacorte. What we know, if we were to share it, would ruin you. We will tell all if you do not deliver the sum of three hundred pounds within a fortnight. We will contact you then. We will be watching you, Celia Burke.
They could be watching her now.
Her heart began hammering against her chest like a violent, mistimed clock as she glanced around quickly. So many faces. So many strangers. She could feel a pain, like hot acid etching its way through her chest, closing off her breath and choking the air from her lungs.
Paranoia. That's what her friend Lizzie Marlowe would have called it. A false judgment based on current, unsettling events. Lizzie knew all sorts of big, impressive words, though she had never been sent away to school like Celia. Lizzie had felt paranoid when she first moved to Glass Cottage with all its strange goings-on. But Lizzie, the one person in whom Celia could have confided, the one person Celia would have trusted to help, was gone off with her new husband, taking all her forthright advice and decisive thinking with her.
"Celia, dear, you must smile. Young men need to be encouraged! We cannot disappoint your aunt and uncle Widcombe by appearing unhappy with the company. You look lovely. Let me see you smile." Lady Caroline's voice was growing insistent but not yet impatient.
Celia caught sight of her ashen reflection in a mirror and pressed her palms up to warm her pale cheeks.
It did no good. Her hands had gone cold.
How on earth had this happened to her, of all people? She was innocuous Celia Burke, not some exciting, wild creature who invited censure. She had always lived a life of quiet, orderly compliance and good sense that even her own mother despaired of marrying her off, despite her supposed beauty.
Poor mama. Celia had tried her very best not to disappoint and upset her mother's plans for a grand match, but they were quite untenable. Despite her supposed beauty, and despite Lizzie having given her the nickname by which she was now known throughout all of Dartmouth, Celia was never going to be a diamond of the first water. Or even the second. Not at all. Because her own beauty held no appeal for her.
She had learned to value other characteristics, in herself and in others: loyalty, companionship, and intelligence. Not things she had found in great abundance amongst Dartmouth society's young lordlings. The sort of young men her mother and aunts invariably favored seemed to care only for pretty appearances, or for horses with pretty appearances. Such men would make terrible husbands, and she would make any and all of them a terrible wife.
Celia's dream of perfect marital happiness was with a different sort of man. A man of action and determination, a man who earned his place in the world through his own daring and resourcefulness. But such men did not attend balls in Dartmouth, and even if they did, they were far beyond her awkward abilities.
She drew a long wistful breath at the thought.
"Celia!" Her mama's voice grew sharp.
Excerpted from A Sense of Sin by ELIZABETH ESSEX Copyright © 2011 by Elizabeth Essex. Excerpted by permission of BRAVA BOOKS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Viscount Darling is on a mission of revenge for his sister and Miss Burke has a secret. These two must reconcile their pathways and hearts to a future. This is the second of the Dartmouth Brides books. Enjoyed their journey to finding truth and love. Ebook from Net Galley and publishers with thanks. Opinions are entirely my own.
"A Sense of Sin was originally published in 2011. This new edition has been revised and reedited." A Sense of Sin by Elizabeth Essex is a great read with impressive dialog, obe ignited, a incendiary passion and redemption. "A Dartmouth Brides" novel, a sequel to "A Pursuit of Pleasure", but can be read as a stand alone. Set in late 18th-century Dartmouth. This is the story of Colonel Rupert Delacorte, Viscount Darling and Miss Celia Burke, a ravishing beauty and a friend of Rupert's sister, Emily, who committed suicide. Celia enjoys botany, she's intelligent, and innocent. Rupert blames Celia for his beloved sister's death and plans to ruin her. Rupert and Celia are both blackmailed, anonymously, initially, they suspect each other, but their shared loss of Emily and their attraction to each other, soon has them struggling to find the blackmailer, before it's to late. I enjoyed how Ms. Essex, slowly built Celia and Rupert's sensual tension to fruition, and into a full blown seduction. Whew, it ignites the pages! With blackmail, secrets, danger, passion, seduction, rebuilding trust, a few surprises, and a few twists and turns, readers will find themselves fully engrossed in "A Sense of Sin". I enjoyed "A Sense of Sin" and fully intend to read the next installment, "The Danger of Desire", coming April 4, 2017. Ms. Essex is a talented author, who writes with attention to details, characterizations and a sense of decorum when writing sensual scenes. One of my favorite Georgian-Regency Romance authors. Strongly recommend, you give "A Sense of Sin" a try, I think you will enjoy your choice. I received a complimentary copy. Rating: 4.5 Heat rating: Steamy Reviewed by: AprilR
This book was better than the first one. She did drag on for a little while but thankfully not like the first book. I am so far glad I gave her another chance.
In 1794 England wannabe botanist Celia Burke still grieves the suicidal death of her best friend Emily Delacourt although a year has passed. Emily's brother Rupert has struggled to move on though he has indulged in all sorts of hedonistic activity. However, he finally decides Celia caused his sister's death and vows vengeance by ruining her. When each is blackmailed, they assume the other is the culprit. However, as they spend time together, Celia and Rupert find a common bond in their love for the late Emily. They realize that someone wants to extort money from both of them, when Celia goes to London for the season she finds love. This is a warm late Georgian romance with a twisting suspense subplot refreshing the otherwise well written but typical story line. Celia and Rupert are fully developed lead characters whose connection is the late Emily; readers meet Emily as this pair perceive her. Sub-genre readers will enjoy the transformation of the lead couple from enemies to loving partners as a predator cleverly manipulates the grief impacting both of them. Harriet Klausner