Harriet Wheatley is the mastermind behind the Ladies of Virtue's quest to rehabilitate the gentlemen of the ton. So when it comes to selecting her own target, she knows who to choose: Oliver Weeks, Marquess of Davenport—the most extravagant wastrel in all of London.
Known for his opulent lifestyle, Oliver isn't surprised by Harriet's confrontation. It's obvious Harriet longs for any way to take him down a notch. She says she'll help him find a bride, but he knows it's only because it gives her the excuse to chastise his indulgent ways.
Oliver has good reason for his flagrant overspending, but Harriet will hear nothing of it. So he has no choice but to teach the lady a lesson, even if it means risking his heart to the hard-headed and fiery woman.
Each book in the Lords of Vice series is STANDALONE:
* The Scoundrel and the Lady
* The Marquess and the Maiden
About the Author
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London, May 1851
Oliver stepped into the smaller dining room they used for breakfast and informal dinners, and his mother nearly choked on her eggs. He ignored her reaction and made his way over to the sideboard and fixed himself a plate. He'd learned long ago how to balance anything with his left hand while keeping his right hand on his cane so as to not fall over. It had taken practice, and he'd stumbled many times, not always in private, either.
"Good morning," she said, not hiding the surprise in her tone. "I had thought you'd forgotten breakfast was a customary task."
"I do eat breakfast, Mother," he said, taking his seat adjacent her at the table. "I tend to do so after you."
"Because you are out so late."
He shrugged. "Benedict's doesn't open until later in the evening. You left me a note last night expressing a desire to speak with me, so here I am."
"And so compliant." She frowned at him. "What has gotten into you this morning? Are you ill?"
"Can a son not enjoy a breakfast with his mother without it meaning anything dastardly? I can leave and go back upstairs if you prefer."
"No, of course not, darling. My apologies. I'm thrilled you joined me for breakfast." She eyed his plate piled with food. "Eat; I can see that you're hungry."
He did as she bade, and she even allowed him to eat in peace for several moments before she began regaling him about all the gossip from last night's party. He vaguely caught comments about the latest fashion trends and the excitement about the Crystal Palace exhibits. He'd already been a handful of times. The structure itself offered hours' worth of enjoyment even without the exhibitions inside.
"And I think it is past time for you to select a wife," she said.
"What did you say?" he asked, wanting to make certain he hadn't imagined her words.
"You have brooded long enough. You've rebuilt the family fortune, regained everything your father lost, plus amassed a great fortune yourself. Yet you have allowed a slight limp to prevent you from doing so many things." All of her words rushed out as if she'd been holding them in for far too long. "So, this is my proposition. Select a wife, or I shall do it for you."
He raised his eyes to look at her. His mother was a handsome woman, aging well despite her hair beginning to gray and laugh lines accenting her eyes and mouth. He'd often wondered why she had never remarried. She'd gotten close once, and then he'd had his accident.
The gentleman had then left for the Continent, but Oliver heard he'd returned from his adventures. Perhaps their affections could be rekindled. He didn't want his mother to waste any more of her life taking care of him. Shortly after the accident, and after Catherine had made it abundantly clear she had no plans of marrying him, he'd needed his mother's assistance. He'd had to rely on her and Benedict for nearly everything until he'd healed enough to walk with a cane.
She was right. It was time for him to marry, if only to grant his mother permission to have her own life. He knew his mother would never marry and leave him unless he, himself, found a wife.
He continued chewing his bread, eyeing her thoughtfully. She'd obviously given this a lot of thought. A quick swipe at his mouth with the linen napkin and then he tossed that on the table and nodded. "You're absolutely correct, Mother."
She opened her mouth, then shut it. Her head tilted, and confusion marred her brow. "Wait, you're not going to argue with me? I had more to convince you."
He waved his hand dismissively. "Unnecessary. You are, of course, right, that it is past time that I marry. I'm assuming you have a list of women you want me to approach."
She eyed him warily. "Yes."
"Well, who's at the top, we'll just go with her." That would be easier than him trying to decide. He'd been out of polite society for years with the exception of Benedict's and a few other gentlemen's clubs. Though one could argue the merits of how polite those establishments are.
She shook her head. "No, you should select someone yourself."
"But you just said you would pick for me."
Her eyes narrowed. "And I meant it. I'd prefer, however, that you select a partner yourself. It is you, after all, who will be living with her, building a family with her."
"I have long been absent from polite society, Mother. I know no one, save a bunch of men. If you have a list in mind, simply tell me and I shall do my best to get an introduction."
"Attend the ball with me tonight. Then we can see what sort of girl you have an inclination toward," his mother said. "I'd prefer not to select a girl for you myself, if possible. The last time I did wasn't successful." She gave him a wry smile.
He leaned back and gripped the handle of his cane. "A ball."
"No one will expect you to dance, my love. You will be the catch of the season." She smiled brightly and clapped her hands. "Once everyone knows you are on the hunt for a bride, they will be clamoring for your attention."
"I highly doubt that." He exhaled slowly. "Who will be there?"
"That you know?"
"Oh, well, Harriet will be. You remember her, my love, she is Lady Lockwood's daughter."
Yes, he remembered her. Remembered the way their mothers had so flagrantly tried to secure a union between them so that Harriet's dowry could save Oliver's coffers. He had dismissed her, rejected her offer, but he'd not wanted to marry anyone at the time. She'd been so bloody cheerful and talkative. "She is still unmarried?"
His mother smiled brightly. "As a matter of fact, yes."
He held up a hand. "Do not. That is not what I was asking." Though he had to admit he was curious as to what the pretty Lady Harriet looked like now and if she was still so inexplicably cheerful.
* * *
Harriet looked around the ballroom. Everything was beautiful; the lights glowed just so, roses and topiaries decorated every square inch. She hated all of it. She was so tired of the routine — dress up, pretend to be kind and accommodating. For what?
Another evening so dull she might as well be a doddering eighty-year-old woman. A quick altercation in a darkened alleyway where she caught a thief — that was more her idea of fun.
Would that she could skip all this and focus totally on the Ladies of Virtue. For four years, she'd been a member of the secret group of women who hid behind the guise of being a charitable organization when they were actually specially trained and focused on ridding the streets of petty crimes.
Agnes, her closest friend, stepped over to where Harriet stood at the edge of the ballroom. Her dear friend was beautiful, stunningly so, yet at the moment annoyance marred her lovely face.
"Whatever is the matter, my dear?" Harriet asked.
"'Tis my brother. I do not understand why he must always be in every part of my life."
"Would that Malcolm were as adoring and protective as Christopher. Instead, my brother is far more interested in wooing every pretty girl who crosses his path."
"You wouldn't actually want that," Agnes said.
Harriet chuckled. "You're probably right about that." She scanned the room. "Have you seen Iris this evening?"
"I believe she intended to stay home in hopes of catching her own wayward brother for a conversation."
"At least our brothers are older and we don't have to worry about them overly much," Harriet said.
They each grabbed a glass of champagne from a passing tray and clinked them together before taking a hearty sip. Harriet closed her eyes, relishing the way the crisp bubbles danced across her tongue and down her throat.
"Who is that?" Agnes asked, her eyes locked on the short staircase that led into the room.
Harriet followed her friend's gaze and saw a tall man with long blond hair. A scruffy beard covered far too much of his face. He descended the stairs with the assistance of a cane. Aside from his unfashionably long hair and beard, he was impeccably dressed. It was the cane, though, that gave her pause.
No, it couldn't be him. He never attended parties or balls. In fact, if she was correct, he hadn't been to a Societal party in nearly six years, though she knew he'd remained in London. His name had become synonymous with luxury and opulence. His flagrant disposal of his monies was truly an embarrassment of wealth.
Harriet tore her gaze away to look at Agnes. "If I am not mistaken, that is the Marquess of Davenport," Harriet whispered. He was distracting to look upon, but at least she knew she wouldn't have to talk to him. Obviously, since he disliked her as much as she disliked him, and that would make everything easier because he would avoid her. And she wouldn't have to relive the humiliation of their last encounter.
"We'll know for certain soon, as he's coming this way," Agnes said.
"What?" She glanced up. Oh no! It did look like he was walking over to her. Why would he do that? He must be heading toward someone else, perhaps standing behind her. No, wait, he was definitely walking toward her.
He looked every bit a man with a purpose as he strode toward her. Harriet looked for a way to escape, to avoid any would-be confrontation with him, but there was no time.
Harriet held her breath. His steely blue eyes pierced directly into her soul. She inwardly cursed him for still being so blasted handsome; it was truly wasted on such a coldhearted man. "Lord Davenport." She curtsied.
"Lady Harriet," he said. His deep voice vibrated through her entire being.
Had his voice always been so entrancing? She didn't recall it having such an effect on her before, as if he'd caressed her with his hand instead of speaking a simple salutation.
While he didn't bow, he did incline his head. He hadn't completely lost his manners in his absence. She hated the way he made her feel. The last time she'd seen him, she'd nearly begged him to marry her, yet he was going to proceed as if they were friendly. As if she hadn't offered herself up to him with a bow made from banknotes. She could do this. If he wanted to pretend they were allies, she could as well. She'd been pretending to like people and be friendly with people whom she didn't particularly care for her entire life. This was not a game in which he could beat her.
Pretend though she would, she couldn't deny that the manner in which he had rejected her still stung after all these years. Not that she had actually wanted to marry the great beast of a man.
Humiliation crept over her skin, damp and unwelcome. Suddenly everything felt too tight, her dress, her corset, her skin. Was he here to gloat? He'd been successful without the assistance of her dowry, yet she remained unmarried, plump, and alone.
"Are you lost?" Harriet asked.
A ghost of a smile crossed his lips, though she could barely see the change. She suddenly had the strongest urge to shave his face, to remember what he looked like without the coarse hair masking his features.
"It would seem my mother has decided this is the year I must marry, and she suggested I attend tonight's ball," he said.
Agnes released some sort of noise and glanced at Harriet with wide eyes.
"How positively rude of me," Harriet said. "Have you ever met Lady Agnes? She is the daughter of Lord Darby."
He nodded over Agnes's hand.
"A pleasure, Lord Davenport," Agnes said. And then as if he'd appeared through the floor, her brother, Christopher, was at her side.
"Agnes, I need a moment," he said through gritted teeth. He glanced at the marquess. "Davenport."
Agnes rolled her eyes but allowed him to pull her away.
"I had forgotten I could have that effect on people," Lord Davenport said.
Harriet couldn't determine if he was amused or offended. Judging by the scowl on his brow and the piercing gaze of his haunting eyes, she'd guess offended. "That wasn't about you. Christopher behaves that way whenever a gentleman approaches Agnes."
"I wasn't approaching Agnes." His steely eyes met hers. "People tend to move out of my way whenever I enter a room. It is part of why I don't normally attend these gatherings."
"It's the frown. You have to at least pretend to be friendly and more approachable. Pleasant. Behave as if you want to be here. You're never going to attract a bride if all you do is glare at everyone."
"When I walked in, you certainly weren't looking as if you wanted to be here. In fact, you appeared to be rather miserable."
How had he seen that in her? No one ever questioned her desire to attend parties. Everyone enjoyed her company, and she received invitations for several events a week. "I most certainly was not miserable. Until I recognized you." She inwardly winced. It wasn't like her to be unkind even if the person warranted it.
His eyes slid down her body, and everything seemed to tighten in response. She shuddered as if he'd touched her.
"Good luck finding a bride."
"I am richer than Croesus. That alone will get me a wife," he said.
She turned fully to face him. "You can't possibly believe that."
"I do." He nodded toward the ballroom. "The majority of the unions in this room were made for precisely that reason."
"I would say that money had ruined you, but you were already unpleasant before you acquired your fortune."
His brows rose. "Indeed?"
"You are boorish and greedy. Most families with any fortune to speak of are generous with their funds. They give to charities and don't buy properties they don't require, nor do they constantly update and redecorate their current properties."
He chuckled. "Have you been spying on me?"
"Of course not!" He was infuriating, and she wanted to scream at him, but she needed to remember where she was. Spinster or not, she couldn't afford to compromise her reputation by behaving the shrew in public. She took a cleansing breath.
It would seem that after all these years of her humiliation stewing, she had unresolved anger toward Lord Davenport. Suddenly, he had an unusual ability of getting under her skin, irritating her and making her say whatever came to mind rather than carefully weighing her words. She never spoke without first considering someone else's feelings. Except right now.
"Anyone who can read," she continued, "can see that you're purchasing unnecessary properties at an alarming rate. Including the Garners' a few doors down from my family's townhome."
He shrugged. "They needed the funds, I required their townhome. I don't recall asking you if you thought my purchases were necessary or not. I believe I make those decisions."
Thank the heavens he had refused to marry her six years ago. She couldn't imagine what it would have been like to be saddled in a relationship with him. He should be pleased she didn't have any would-be weapons within reach, or she'd likely run him through.
"Why are you smiling?" he asked.
"Thinking about all the trouble you're going to have trying to find a bride." She couldn't very well tell him she'd been imagining doing him bodily harm. "If you are serious about finding a wife, you might want to heed my advice."
"I shall keep that in mind. Good evening, Lady Harriet." He bowed, then walked away from her.
He might be ridiculously handsome, but he was also a ridiculous fool believing such nonsense.
* * *
Damnation if she wasn't still distractingly pretty. Her pale green dress fell seductively off her shoulders, revealing a creamy expanse of her lovely skin and enhancing her abundant cleavage.
Pretty or not, she obviously misunderstood the way unions in this town worked. Perhaps that was why she was still unmarried herself. Women married men all the time for nothing more than a fat purse. He shouldn't have any problem at all finding a willing bride.
His mother had suggested he go tonight to catch a glimpse at the current Season's debutantes and other misses who were on the market. But he'd noticed Harriet as soon as he'd entered the ballroom, and everyone else had fallen away. He'd immediately approached her. Now he was ready to retreat home, or even lose himself in a hand or two of cards at Benedict's.
He wasn't so daft he didn't realize that there was much about him that women wouldn't find desirable. His limp and subsequent cane being the primary reasons. But he also knew the wealth would more than make up for it. He knew of men twice his age with a third fewer teeth and less hair who had married debutantes. Granted, he did seem to evoke a certain amount of discomfort around younger women. Perhaps he should set his sights on an attractive widow. Damned if he didn't want to do this. He should have made his mother arrange something and be done with it.
She had tried, once upon a time. He could have already been married, a voice reminded him. To Harriet. He allowed himself to consider that thought for a while. What would it have been like to marry her nearly six years ago when he'd been penniless and she'd been doe-eyed and eager?
Would her agreeable nature have made her pliant in his bed? Likely. Blood shifted, making his pants tighter than was comfortable. She was different now. Tonight, he'd seen something more in Lady Harriet, something he hadn't those years before. A feistiness that he seemed to bring out in her. He was certain that would translate to pure unadulterated passion. His cock twitched at the thought.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Marquess and the Maiden"
Copyright © 2018 Robyn DeHart.
Excerpted by permission of Entangled Publishing, LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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