Her Wicked Marquess – Stacy Reid

There were degrees of wickedness, and tonight Lady Maryann Eleanor Fitzwilliam was going to be terribly wicked. She was determined to take revenge on Lady Sophie, a beautiful, reigning diamond of the ton, who thought it amusing to harass those she deemed inferior to her because of their lack of wealth and connections. Unfortunately, this meant the wallflowers of the last few seasons, to which Maryann had been relegated, were forced to the sidelines by Lady Sophie and her coterie’s idle gossiping. Maryann and her friends had become thoroughly tired of the sobriquet of “wallflower.” Four years ago, for a moment in time, she had been well-loved by the fashionable set, until she had found it impossible to be as mean-spirited and vindictive as many of their number. Then they had cut her from their coterie, avidly whispering and laughing about her behind their fans to all who would listen. And that, unfortunately, was the majority of young society women. Lady Sophie might be the sister of a most sought-after duke, but she and her beautiful coterie were bully-ruffians, and tonight she would surely discover her cruelty had a price. Maryann would be the instrument of Lady Sophie’s lesson. After all, Maryann had recently impressed upon her dearest friends that it was time to be daring and take whatever they needed, for waiting like biddable ladies had garnered them nothing—not love, or family, or any measure of independence or happiness. Maryann glanced surreptitiously about the gardens, tapping her feet impatiently, wondering why her older brother—Crispin—one of her closest confidants, was taking so long. They had agreed to meet at this section of the gardens once the supper waltz ended. Pushing her spectacles up the bridge of her nose, she worried her bottom lip, hoping that she hadn’t sent him to his death when she had urged him to collect a few grass snakes and critters by the pond. The summer night was overly warm, but a few days ago, he had been abed. It was that very reason the family split their time between their town house in Berkeley Square and Vanguard Hall, their manor on the outskirts of London.

Vanguard Hall was close enough to town that many were more than willing to travel to the Countess Musgrove’s home for one of her balls or garden parties, and it was far enough away from the pollution of London to help Crispin recover whenever the shortness of breath that sometimes plagued him reared its ugly, frightening head. A shuffle amongst the potted flowers had her whirling around. “There you are!” she softly cried, hurrying over to the dark figure stooped in the shadows. “Crispin, thank you! I knew you did not approve of my revenge, but you came through for me. Where is the bucket?” The figure went remarkably still, and a niggle of an uncomfortable awareness bloomed inside Maryann. She bit back her cry of protest when, with an almost imperceptible motion, the man melted deeper into the darkness and vanished the way he had come. “Crispin?” A few moments later, he appeared with the bucket. “Oh, thank goodness,” she said with an approving smile. “I truly could not do this without you.” He nodded once, and she turned around to peer into their parents’ massive and overflowing ballroom.

Crispin had originally suggested it should be a masked ball; however, that had been considered too scandalous by her mother for the Musgroves to carry out. Still, a few of Crispin’s friends had worn masks to enter, but most discarded them when the countess had discouraged such frivolity. But that was enough if anyone should see her and Crispin now. They would report of two people in masks, and the countess would have to recall that it was several guests who had worn those artful coverings. To Maryann’s mind, revenge was an art, which took careful plotting and execution. She had ensured that at Lady Pilkington’s ball last week, her brother danced with Lady Sophie and encouraged her to be here tonight. Not that she would have refused an invitation to their mother’s sought-after balls, but Maryann had to be incredibly cautious to prevent her plan from falling through. “I must rely on your strength and good sense for the next part, Crispin. May I trust in your assistance?” The slightest of hesitation, then he nodded. Relief burst inside her chest.

“I am not contrary, but you are awfully accommodating tonight. Have you given up on quoting Marcus Aurelius?” She felt his silent stare in the dark—deep, penetrating, and questioning, and it caused a rush of discomfort to curl through her. “You know, the one about the best revenge is to be unlike the person who performed the injury? But I assure you, nothing I can do will make me endure that odious Sophie for another day!” Maryann gasped. “And speak of the devil’s wife, here she comes.” Her brother shifted closer as they peered through the windows into the ballroom, where the radiant blond head of the voluptuously curved darling of the season stepped into view. Her silver-threaded pristine white gown floated around her like gossamer. She held court with her coterie (the members of the mean ladies’ club) like a queen, and not the termagant who had been insolently tyrannizing other debutantes of the season. With her actions, so many young ladies had fled balls in tears with a cloud of shame and scandal hovering over their heads, which Lady Sophie maliciously kept alive. Of course, no one saw the depth of cruelty beneath the pleasant veneer of good-natured countenance she presented. Only her victims were fully aware… “Look how sweet and innocent she appears,” Maryann whispered, nudging Crispin in his side.

“Did you know she was the instigator of the scandal which prompted Hyacinth’s mother to rush her off to Cornwall? How ghastly can it be to spend the season, or the rest of her life, buried there because of an overindulged wretch?” A rough choking sound came from her brother, which he quickly stifled. Maryann lowered her voice conspiratorially. “Lady Sophie had been piqued that Mr. Humboldt dared to turn his attention from her to Hyacinth, so Sophie arranged for her to be locked in the conservatory with a footman!” An elusive sensation whispered through her, and Maryann frowned. “No one believed Hyacinth’s protests that she had been innocently led astray by a note. But I analyzed the note she got, and it matched perfectly with Lady Sophie’s handwriting. And I should know what that looks like, since I found the pretty poems she wrote to you! And what is most terrible about it is that Sophie has no interest in the man. She is the daughter of a duke with a dowry of fifty thousand pounds and an estate in Wiltshire. Poor Mr. Humboldt stood no chance with her, and he rightly fell in love with Hyacinth, who is so good-natured.

” A lump formed in Maryann’s throat as she watched Miss Louisa Nelson, a young lady the same women frequently whispered about and called the “dowdy wallflower,” enter the ballroom. She wore a slightly fussy rose-colored evening gown, which unfortunately did not really flatter her florid complexion and short stature. Her sweet, rounded face appeared excited as she scanned the room. Louisa then made her way over to the refreshment table. Dread crawled through Maryann at the vicious spite that settled on Lady Sophie’s face. She waited until Louisa was close enough, then Sophie stuck out her delicate foot and tripped her. “Oh no!” Maryann pressed a hand to her mouth when Louisa crashed to the floor in a very indecorous sprawl. Her pink dress was rumpled and one of the flounces was torn at the hem. The orchestra’s violins faltered, the dancers performing the minuet stopped, and the silence in the ballroom was awful and resounding. No one hurried to help the young lady who might be hurt, and to Maryann’s disgust, Sophie and her cronies merely tittered.

That seemed to encourage those eager for her admiration and approval to lift their fans to their mouths and cast poor Miss Louisa disparaging glances. She tried to stand, but in her mortified haste somehow slipped once more. Thankfully, a young man whom Maryann did not recognize hurried to help her up. Louisa covered her face and rushed from the ballroom. Maryann’s temper sparked. “Do you now understand why I must act in the manner I am about to? Lady Sophie is full of spite!” Maryann was acquainted with the underbelly of cruelty that existed in the glittering world of the ton. How easily with words and deeds they could ruin someone’s reputation or remind society of a scandal that had long been buried. Maryann had watched Sophie turn her spite on many—even herself for the last two seasons—and had done nothing. No more, she thought darkly. “We must be patient,” she whispered, grabbing his arm and tugging him farther into the shadows.

“Lady Sophie will make her way to this window, and then we must act.” They waited in silence, and she cast him a few worried glances. “You are uncommonly quiet tonight; is your throat still bothering you?” she fretted, tucking away a note in her mind to summon Dr. Gervase in the morning. The manner in which he turned his head to stare at her felt unfamiliar and oddly intimidating. Perhaps it was a trick of the light, but she found herself shuffling back, noting how Crispin had perfectly cloaked himself in the shadows so that she was barely able to discern his features. Still, the golden mask he had donned for this clandestine meeting was familiar. They had agreed that even if they were skulking around in their own home, it was best to do so with a measure of protection. “Do you prefer not to talk?” she asked. He nodded.

“Are you still feeling under the weather?” Another nod. Worry curled through Maryann. But before she could probe further, Lady Sophie said, her voice carrying clearly, “Did you see how perfectly humiliated that sweet Miss Louisa was?” Maryann shuffled closer, her heart jolting. “Bring the bucket, Crispin,” she whispered. The bucket was pushed to her, and she peered at it, aghast. “I cannot do it. I am afraid of snakes.” His lips curved slightly, and the oddest sensation fluttered in her belly. Before she could assess the strangeness of the feeling and why it happened, her brother crept forward, and she turned back to the ballroom. “She is almost here.

Pour them out quickly!” Mama, forgive me for the commotion. He complied and poured the bucket full of small snakes and other dreadful crawlies through the window to splat on the parquet floor of the ballroom. Astonishingly, no one noticed. Least of all Sophie, who would soon be upon them. Perhaps the well-placed potted plants hid the invasion. Maryann almost felt sorry for her. Almost. “Oh no, I think she is about to make her way over to Phineas Hadley! She won’t—” An ear-splitting scream lifted, and then madness descended. In her haste to get away from the slithering mess she had stepped on, Sophie jumped into the arms of a gentleman, refusing to put her feet on the ground. He wobbled under her unexpected weight.

In truth, the flustered gentleman seemed as if he had no notion of what to do with the lady holding on to him and sobbing hysterically. He grabbed her hips—how shockingly improper—and she then turned her wrath on him, slapping his cheek with her folded fan. They both tumbled to the floor…into a few terrified snakes. Maryann never imagined anyone could scream so loudly. A few of Lady Sophie’s clique hurried to help her up, while some had the temerity to laugh. Sophie’s glare threatened retribution before her lower lip trembled, and her face crumpled. Ignoring the confusion erupting inside, Maryann grabbed Crispin’s elbow and urged him to run with her from the scene of the crime. She started laughing only a few steps away. They hurried toward the hidden garden alcove they had often played in as children. The memory of Sophie’s horror just now sobered Maryann briefly.

But only briefly. Once in the deepest part of the gardens, she wheeled toward her brother. “Justice was served!” He stepped back, pressing against the shadows of the neatly clipped high-hedged maze. Shrugging the coat from her shoulders, she dropped it to the soft verdant grass and lowered herself to the ground. Lifting a hand in the air, she began dramatically, “If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die? And if you wrong us, do we not revenge?” Maryann sighed. “Crispin, I do feel wretched but also glorious that she has been given a taste of her own bitter medicine. I am certain tonight’s incident will be in tomorrow’s scandal sheet and on the lips of everyone for weeks. We know how fickle society is about what they consider news.” Lifting her face to the cloud-shrouded sky, she asked, “What do you think? Dare I hope that tonight might show Sophie the errors of her ways, or at least let her reflect on the torment she has afflicted on other ladies who have done nothing more than bravely wade out in the ton to attempt to secure their bit of happiness? Or do you think I might have to be more extreme with my lesson?” She hoped she would not have to be more ruthless. For the satisfaction she had felt in seeing Lady Sophie shrieking and then staring at her giggling friends in horror was hollow.

It took a lot to compromise her values of kindness and forgiveness, even as she felt satisfied that she had done something. He slowly lowered himself to sit on the grass, his back pressed against the architectural base of a moss-covered statue showing Venus carrying a vase. Once again, he had picked a spot that perfectly ensconced him in shadows. One long leg was stretched out, while the other was drawn up, his sole flat against the grass. His feet seemed unusually larger. Maryann frowned. “Perhaps I should have met with her and given her a severe tongue lashing, instead of acting in such a childish manner.” She sighed. “Now I’ve gotten that out of the way, I must contrive of a brilliant plan that will allow me to escape marriage to Lord Stanhope. Mama is being frightfully persistent, Crispin, and I am on the brink of doing something most scandalous.

” Another long silence. Maryann peered at her brother. She had expected him to splutter his outrage at the mere mention of scandal and their family. And her plan involved convincing him to help her deter their mother from her infuriating machination. Had her brother always been this…still? There was something about him she could not quite put her finger on. “Crispin? What do you think?” Maryann did not like how timid her question came out. He took an audible breath. Deep. And released it lazily. “I think you are terribly fascinating,” a resonant baritone voice—which was definitely not Crispin’s—drawled.

Visceral shock tore through Maryann’s heart, leaving it to beat weakly. She froze, her fingers curling into thick tufts of grass, as if that were enough to anchor her in the suddenly spinning world. The slow drum of her heart against her chest was painful in its uncertainty. The man before her, perfectly hidden in the private alcove of her parents’ gardens, was not her brother. It was then her senses absorbed everything she had ignored earlier in her eager need to execute her revenge. His height…the breadth of his shoulders, the muscles in his thighs and calves. His scent… dark, subtle, fragrantly spiced musk…a hint of rain. He waited like a predator for her reply, which she could not dredge forth, for she was dispossessed of all rational thoughts. He is not Crispin. He is not Crispin.

He is not my brother. Oh God! She scrambled to her feet, her haste making her slip a few times. Light-headed and knees shaking, she finally managed to stand. A deep, provoking chuckle vibrated in the air, and Maryann almost collapsed at the sheer menace and mockery in the sound. This was not her imagination. A breath-crushing tension wrapped its cruel arms around her. She stared at where he lingered in the shadows for so long, her eyes smarted. The shadows twisted, the feet which had been splayed disappeared, and he slowly uncloaked from the darkness. She took a steady breath, and it was then she observed the lethal stillness to his lean, powerful body, an unfathomable watchfulness in the hooded eyes that caressed over the length of hers. “Ah…you are going to faint or descend into hysterics.

And here I thought you were brave,” the voice drawled. Forgetting her coat, she turned and sprinted away, her heart a pounding drum in her ears. … Nicolas Charles St. Ives, Marquess of Rothbury, found himself chuckling with genuine amusement for the first time in months, perhaps years. He had never seen a lady move with such speed. But it did the job, taking her away from him as quickly as possible. Good. As she rounded the corner, the moonlight revealed something had dropped from her. A letter perhaps. Nicolas walked toward the area the girl had dashed off to, as if something monstrous and unholy lingered in the dark.

And perhaps he was a monster, for it had been years since his heart had turned black. His path for the last few years was revenge driven. He did not fool himself and pretty his actions by saying he was meting out justice to those who deserved it. He was not the law of the land or the country. What he did was purely to satisfy the hatred in his heart. And tonight, his path had led him here, to this house, and to the surprising encounter with his mysterious and incredibly intriguing lady. His plan had been to break into the lord of the manor’s study, which was on the third floor, and discreetly search the desks, hidden bookshelf, and floor panels, even the safes, for any evidence that might connect the earl’s son, Viscount Crispin Fitzwilliam, to the black Dahlia. A person Nicolas was most interested in finding. Nicolas had not been invited to the earl and countess’s house party, which would have made his task a bit easier. His lips twisted in a rueful grimace.

His deliberately constructed reputation of a depraved libertine was simply too clever and believable for the countess to have invited the likes of him to her home. Many matrons who dreamed of landing a wealthy, even if disreputable, marquess for their daughter were happy to open their doors to him. But the reputedly very proper and exacting countess tended to sniff her nose and lift her chin as high as possible whenever she saw him, showing the lines in her now wrinkly neck and décolletage clearly displayed to all the world. From his foot-taller height, Nicolas still got the sensation she stared down that pointy, oh-so-elegant nose at him. Pausing, he stooped and collected the paper that had dropped from the lady’s pocket. It was carefully folded, like a letter to a secret lover. Interest stirred, for he was a procurer of secrets, believing every information necessary when dealing with powerful families who thought themselves untouchable in the empire. The gardens were too dark for him to read it now, so he slipped it into his pocket as footsteps crunched over fallen leaves and echoed on the chilly night air. He surged to his feet only to falter as the girl returned, her willowy frame as she strolled toward him graceful and perhaps even a bit dangerous. Odd that this slip of a girl gave him momentary pause.

Sheathed in a light blue ballgown, she appeared at times ethereal in the shadows. Her figure, though slender, had more than a handful in all the right places. Her hips were lush, and from what he’d seen earlier, her derriere was just as sensually rounded. The pale mounds of her breasts at her lace décolletage invited his eyes to linger, then he lowered his gaze, wondering what was in her hands. There was a flash of silver, and his heart jolted. What in God’s name?

.

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