Miss Alice Bursnell has one goal—wreak revenge on Nathaniel Eastwood, Viscount Abingdon, for the seduction, ruin, and death of her beloved twin sister. But how to expose a seducer without falling prey herself? As she gets closer to Nathaniel, she finds she is in serious danger of following in her sister’s much-too-tempted footsteps. The man is nothing like the heartless rake she expected...and his kisses are truly divine.
When a mysterious and gorgeous woman confronts Nathaniel at a fancy ball, he suspects she has murder on her mind—his own. But the more he tries to determine who the deceptively innocent beauty is—and what she’s up to—the deeper he falls under her alluring spell. Nathaniel fears he’s in imminent danger of losing his life...or worse, his heart.
Each book in the Wicked Secrets series is STANDALONE:
* Twice As Wicked
* Lady Gone Wicked
* Wicked With the Scoundrel
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
He saw her before she saw him.
Standing at the top of the staircase, Lord Nathaniel Eastwood, Viscount Abingdon, had an excellent view of the Duke of Wessex's ballroom and all its occupants — none of whom were half so beguiling as the stranger scowling into her lemonade. A huge crystal chandelier whirled dizzily overhead, casting a kaleidoscope of rainbows over the dark hue of her hair. It was impossible not to notice her. She was wearing a dress of rich red velvet, a vivid contrast to the other young maidens who were clothed in white and pale pastels.
She was, he told himself grimly, exactly the type of woman to put arsenic in one's porridge. It was, unfortunately, a topic with which he was intimately familiar.
And yet, he couldn't tear his eyes away.
Nathaniel hated balls. He hated London, too. Yet here he was, subjected to both horrors at the very same time, an unhappy circumstance he blamed entirely on Wessex. Every season it was the same thing. Wessex would lure Nathaniel from his peaceful estate in Hampshire with the promise of Something Important, which usually turned out to be a scrape involving a woman, who was, more often than not, married. Sometimes it was not even that and Wessex was merely bored.
Like this time.
All eyes were on them now. Nathaniel began to sweat. He felt their stares, and while he could not hear their whispers, he could easily imagine what they said. There is the charming duke and his awkward friend. Or perhaps they paid him no notice at all. People rarely did when he was standing next to the illustrious Wessex.
Nathaniel glanced at the lady in red. Then he looked away again.
He began to plot his escape. Surely, he could leave after half an hour? That would not be too rude, would it? By that point, Wessex would be occupied with his next victim and would barely notice his presence, anyway. Perhaps he would get a lemonade at the table where the lady in red was standing and then walk the perimeter of the room, saying hello to anyone necessary and leaving the rest alone. Then it would be safe to leave.
He would not dance, of course. Nathaniel never danced.
Again, he looked to the lady in red. Again, he looked away.
"She is something, is she not?" Wessex murmured by his side.
Wessex gave him a speaking glance. It had clearly not escaped his friend's notice just which female had captured Nathaniel's attention. "The lady in red." He eyed the girl speculatively. "A bit sullen, perhaps, but that just adds to her charm. One gets the instinctive feeling that she would not bore a man with chatter of bonnets. If her dance card is not yet full, it will be when I'm through with her." He spoke with the cocky assurance of a man whose advances were never spurned.
"Hmm." Nathaniel grunted noncommittally. Lord Sebastien Sinclair, Duke of Wessex, was a rake. One couldn't expect a rake to ignore a specimen like the lady in red. Why should Nathaniel care if Wessex danced one, three, or twenty dances with the girl? He did not care. But he did want to give his friend a small push down the marble staircase — not enough to kill him, but enough to leave him bruised and unable to dance. Call it an occupational hazard. A rake had to expect the occasional push down a stairway.
Nathaniel was not a rake. He was too brusque to be charming and too unfashionable to be dashing. And as he was already in peril of being pushed down any number of staircases, he felt no need to add to the danger with scorned ladies and cuckolded husbands.
Which was why he had no intention of making the acquaintance of the lady in red. She could take her silky hair and her lovely throat and that adorable scowl and go to —
Their eyes met.
It was him.
Alice was certain of it.
Finding a man based on nothing more than a portrait in a locket, without knowledge of his name, country, or position in life, had proved to be a formidable task, even for one as adept at solving puzzles as she.
It had been a long year, one culminating in several dead ends. But the social season had started, and where else would a rake be during the social season but London? She had been happy to avoid the London season heretofore — first by being affianced, and then by mourning when her fiancÃ© was killed in the final fight with Napoleon — but this year she had been determined to go. For once, her parents were in complete agreement with her scheme, for she, having reached the ripe old age of two and twenty, was in danger of being on the shelf. She was in desperate need of a London season before she expired altogether. So, she had been packed off to London, with her aunt, Lady Beatrice Shaw, serving as her chaperone.
So here she was, in London, and here he was, in the very same ballroom!
Her pulse skittered like a rabbit. She stood frozen, her lemonade halfway to her lips. Every moment of the past year had been dedicated to finding this man, and now that they were face-to-face, she had no idea what to do with him. Did he recognize her, the duplicate of her sister? Oh, surely he did! That intense gaze was too much for a stranger.
Everything about him was too much, actually. He was too tall, his clothes ill-fitting and too large for his body. And that hair! It had grown since he sat for the portrait. Instead of being cropped close to his head, it was unfashionably long, swirling around his face and neck like a lion's mane. In short, he was nothing like the rake she expected.
But he remained Adelaide's seducer and abandoner, and for that he must be punished.
The question remained of how. If only it weren't so hard to think with the spinning chandelier creating a halo of light around his head. He had no right to look so angelic.
She slowly thawed, took a sip of lemonade, and cocked her head to the side to further assess the situation.
Surely, chandeliers were not supposed to spin?
She glanced around. It was clear that the man-lion and his companion had caught the notice of several ladies in attendance. She turned to the lady next to her. "Who is that man?"
"The Duke of Wessex. He is the host, but he has a habit of arriving late to his own parties. I do hope he intends to dance," the lady said.
A duke? Adelaide's seducer was a duke? That would make revenge more difficult, but certainly not impossible. A duke could be made to bleed just the same as any other man, she supposed.
"I do love a dark-haired man, don't you? It's so elegant," the lady continued.
Ah. She was referring to his companion, then. "And the other?"
For a moment, the lady looked confused. Then she frowned. "Oh, him. Viscount Abingdon. He never dances, and thank the heavens for that. He is clumsy as an ox."
Excitement rippled through the ballroom like a wave, but no one seemed the least perturbed about the chandelier rippling above his head. They carried on with the dancing and the gossiping without a care in the world. Alice set her drink down and frowned at the ceiling. The chandelier was an elegant monstrosity of at least seven feet, perhaps even eight. It was tiered like a wedding cake, with each tier holding dozens of candles. And it was spinning dizzily on its axis.
And yet ... none of the other chandeliers were spinning.
She shifted her gaze between the three chandeliers that graced the ballroom. Was it her imagination, or was this one hanging significantly lower?
It dropped another inch.
She rubbed her eyes and walked closer to the stairs.
"Look out!" she cried, darting up several steps.
The man-lion looked at her curiously and said nothing.
Yet another inch.
She hitched up her dress and barreled up the stairs. If the great oaf would not remove his person from imminent death, then, by God, she would move it for him.
By the time she reached the landing she had built up enough speed to act as a human cannonball. Soft flesh collided with hard muscles, and her whole length from knee to chest pushed against him. He yielded, stumbling backward, taking her with him. The momentum sent them sliding across the slick marble foyer until they stopped in an abrupt tangle of limbs several feet away.
Panting heavily, she took a deep breath and inhaled a lungful of his scent — clean and spicy and male. It did very little to tame her breath or slow her rapid heartbeat. He lay still and silent beneath her, his arms locked about her waist in a rigid vise.
Why, why, why wasn't he speaking? Had she knocked him senseless?
"I must say," a smooth voice drawled, "what the devil?"
The face of Duke Wessex hovered above them. Alice tried to push away from the tangle of limbs to stand up, but the arms binding her did not loosen their grip. She might as well be wrapped in steel cords.
"Let go of me at once!" she commanded.
The man-lion stared up at her. He did not speak. Neither did he release her.
A strand of his red-gold mane stuck to her cheek and tickled her nose. She managed to pry one hand free and swatted his hair away from her face. He lifted an eyebrow, and she glared in return. She hated him with the heat of a thousand burning suns — and yet, for the briefest moment, she regretted wearing gloves.
And then everything happened at once.
The chandelier fell like lightning and smashed like a thunderbolt, scattering shards of glass and wax through the air like rain. She felt herself rolled and pinned, shielded from the storm by his broad shoulders and strong back. She gripped the front of his shirt tightly in her fists, tucking herself in closer to him, and buried her face against his chest.
There were screams, and she was aware of men beating out the flames with their coats. And then ... nothing. The ballroom went completely silent. She could hear nothing but the viscount's labored breathing.
"For the last time, and now I really must demand an answer, what the devil?" Wessex bellowed.
No one had an answer, but everyone had a response. The ballroom was again a bustle of noise and movement. Servants appeared to clean up the fragments of chandelier, and guests elbowed their way to the cloakroom. If the Duke of Wessex's ballroom was to crumble to the ground, they would rather watch it from the outside.
When Alice could see again, she found herself face-to-face with a white cravat.
When she could breathe again, she found her nostrils once more filled with her enemy's male scent — clean soap and balsam. It was rather like being in the Scots pine forest that bordered her parents' estate.
When she could think again, she hoped to God the villain wasn't mortally wounded. He couldn't die. Not yet, not before she had even begun to exact her revenge. Nothing but his long life full of abject misery would sate her.
Also, if he were mortally wounded, she would never get the oaf off her. He must weigh fifteen stone.
"Do get off the poor girl before you suffocate her to death," Wessex said.
The blue eyes above her flashed, and for a moment she was sure he would refuse the command, duke or no. But the arms loosened and he rolled off, allowing her to breathe again.
"Now, then," Wessex murmured. He stretched out his hand.
She took his assistance and allowed him to haul her gracefully to her feet. She smoothed a hand over her hair, determining whether everything was in place. It was not. The braid that had looped around her knot had come quite undone, and the curls that sprang around her face and neck were now flailing madly in all directions.
"I know that introducing oneself is not at all the thing, but we are beyond such conventions at the moment, are we not? I am Lord Sebastien Sinclair, Duke of Wessex. To whom do we owe our deepest gratitude for saving our lives?"
She gave her dress a firm shake to set the shape to rights again and dropped into a curtsy. "Miss Alice Bursnell, Your Grace." She glanced over her shoulder at the man still prostrate on the floor. She expected him to show some surprise at her name. After all, the last person he had seen with this face was called Adelaide, not Alice. But he did not so much as blink.
Was it possible he didn't recognize her? Her already-dark thoughts turned to thunderclouds. Perhaps the man bedded so many women they were all the same to him and he could not distinguish one lady from another, any more than he could fruit flies.
Oh, how she loathed him!
"Miss Bursnell." Duke Wessex bowed. "We thank you." Then he noticed that his friend had not yet risen. "Get up, man. Introductions must be made."
Alice turned to watch as he scrambled to his feet. There was nothing graceful about it. The man was simply enormous. He reminded her of an octopus, long limbs flailing, stuck on its back.
When he was finally upright, Duke Wessex clapped him on the back. "Miss Bursnell, allow me to introduce Lord Nathaniel Eastwood, Viscount Abingdon, whom you so cunningly assailed at the best moment possible."
Nathaniel Eastwood. NE.
There was no mistake.
She tried to curtsy but found that her knees refused to cooperate. Bow to her dear sister's seducer? Bow to the man who had ruined Adelaide and deserted her? No, indeed. She simply froze and glared at the man before her.
She grimaced at the exasperated reproof in her aunt's tone as she bustled to the top of the stairs. Aunt Bea was a very plump woman, and she was breathing hard by the time she reached them. That did not stop her from talking, Alice noted. Nothing ever did.
"Please excuse Alice, Your Grace. Of course, we will make reparations. Of course. She didn't mean anything by it. She never does, you know." Aunt Bea fluttered her hands nervously before clasping them together.
Duke Wessex burst into laughter. "Quite all right, ma'am." He studied her carefully, then said, "I believe we have been introduced?"
"Yes, Your Grace. I am Lady Shaw." She curtsied.
"Ah." His expression cleared. "The late Baron Shaw's widow."
"And sister of Viscount Westsea, Your Grace. Miss Bursnell, his daughter, is my niece." She gestured to Alice, who curtsied yet again.
"Begging your pardon, ma'am," Viscount Abingdon interjected. They all turned to look at him. "But what didn't she mean?"
Aunt Bea fluttered her hands again and blinked her pale brown eyes rapidly. "My lord?"
"You said Miss Bursnell didn't mean anything by it, that she never does. What didn't she mean?" His smile was pleasant, but Alice detected a threat in that rough voice.
"Why, causing the chandelier to fall, naturally," Aunt Bea said.
Abingdon's smile, Alice noticed, didn't reach his eyes. "Oh? It was Miss Bursnell's doing, then?"
"Well, I didn't see it myself," Aunt Bea admitted. "But it seems the sort of mischief she would find herself in. She is forever having disasters."
"Oh, really, Aunt! I did nothing of the kind," Alice protested, stamping her foot. Viscount Abingdon gave her a hard look and her insides shivered. She might be hell-bent on revenge, but how was he to know that? Anyway, her revenge would be a great deal subtler and more devastating than a falling chandelier. "How would I even accomplish such a thing, I ask you?"
Abingdon said nothing, but Duke Wessex tipped his head back and laughed. "How, indeed? I daresay you could do anything you put your mind to, Miss Bursnell. You did, after all, manage to save our lives quite nicely."
Alice dipped her chin in recognition of the compliment. "Thank you, Your Grace." She directed an icy glance at Lord Abingdon before turning to her aunt. "I must beg that we retire, Aunt. The excitement of the evening has left me quite weak."
Aunt Bea patted her arm reassuringly. "Of course, dear. Here, take my arm."
Alice did her best to appear subdued as they made their way to the ballroom doors, but inside she felt anything but weak.
She felt galvanized.
Yes, indeed. She had found her man.
And now she had a revenge to plan.
Nathaniel watched Miss Bursnell exit with her aunt. She gave him one last glare over her shoulder as she swept from the room. His cheeks heated. Confound it, why was she looking at him like that? Had he not just saved her from a face full of crystal shards? True, she had tackled him first, and therefore might reasonably claim to have saved his life, but if he hadn't rolled, she would surely be disfigured. Or at least scratched. He hated to think of all that perfect porcelain marred.
Her back was straight as a maypole and there was no sign of droop or weariness in the tilt of her chin or quick step of her foot. Weak, she had claimed? No, she was not that.
"I do believe we shall be seeing more of Miss Bursnell," Wessex remarked. When Nathaniel raised a speculative eyebrow, he added, "Not on my account, I assure you."
Wessex did not intend to seek her out, then? That was unexpected. Miss Bursnell was, after all, female. "What do you mean?"
"Well," Wessex drawled. "We were both standing under that cursed chandelier, you realize."
Excerpted from "Twice as Wicked"
Copyright © 2017 Elizabeth Bright.
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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