Notorious – Minerva Spencer

Drusilla Clare plied her fan, using it for its intended purpose—cooling—rather than its expected purpose—flirting. After all, who would flirt with her? “Dru, you’re doing it again.” At the sound of her name, she looked at her companion. Lady Eva de Courtney should not, by all rights, have been sitting beside Drusilla in the wallflower section of the Duchess of Montfort’s ballroom. Eva was not only the most beautiful debutante in London this Season, she was also richly dowered. But she was also proof that pots of money and a gorgeous person were not, alas, enough to overcome a fractious personality or notorious heritage. Or at least her mother’s notorious heritage. Because it was a well-known fact that the Marquess of Exley’s first wife and Eva’s mother—Lady Veronica Exley—had not only been a ravishing, mesmerizing temptress who’d driven men of all ages insane with desire and yearning, she’d also been barking mad. Eva, reputed to be every bit as lovely as her dead mother, had neither the desire nor the charisma to drive anyone mad. Except perhaps her stern, perfectionist father. “What, exactly, am I doing?” Drusilla asked Eva, who’d pulled a lock of glossy dark hair from her once-perfect coiffure and was twisting it into a frazzled mess. “You’re frowning and getting that look.” Eva thrust out her lower jaw, flattened her lips, and glared through squinty eyes. Drusilla laughed at her friend’s impersonation. Eva’s expression shifted back to its natural, perfect state.

“There, that’s much better. You’re very pretty when you laugh or smile.” Drusilla rolled her eyes. “And even when you roll your eyes.” Eva’s smile turned into a grin. “Come, tell me what you were thinking when you were looking so thunderous.” Drusilla could hardly tell her friend she’d been wondering when Eva’s gorgeous but irritating stepbrother—Gabriel Marlington—would make an appearance, so she lied. “I was wondering if Lady Sissingdon was going to fall out of her dress.” They both turned to stare at the well-endowed widow in question. Eva snorted and then covered her mouth with her hand.

Drusilla couldn’t help noticing her friend’s previously white kid glove now had something that looked like cucumber soup—one of the dishes at dinner—on her knuckle and a stain that must be red wine on her index finger. Drusilla could not imagine how Eva had managed the stains as she had not been wearing her gloves to eat. Eva’s violet-blue eyes flickered from Lady Sissingdon’s scandalous bodice back to Drusilla, and she opened her mouth to speak but then saw something over Drusilla’s shoulder. “Gabe!” She shot to her feet and waved her arm in broad, unladylike motions. Drusilla slowly swiveled in her chair while Eva attracted not only the attention of her stepbrother, but everyone in their half of the ballroom. She knew she should remind her friend to employ a little decorum—it seemed to be her duty in life to keep Eva out of scrapes—but her heart was pounding, her palms damp, and her stomach was doing that odd, quivery thing it seemed destined to do when Gabriel Marlington entered her orbit. Something he’d been doing on an almost daily basis since the beginning of the Season, when he’d begun escorting his sister—and, by extension, Drusilla—to every function under the sun. He stood near the entrance to the ballroom as the major-domo announced him. His name—as always—sent a frisson of excitement through the crowd. The women in the room—young, old, married, widowed, or single—raised their fans or quizzing glasses, the better to watch him.

The men, also, took notice of his arrival. Especially the clutch of men who slouched near the entrance—young bucks who looked as if they were undecided about whether they should remain at the ball or leave to engage in some vile, masculine pursuit. The men closed ranks as Gabriel walked past them, like a pack of wild dogs scenting a larger, more dangerous predator. One of the group, Earl Visel, a man with perhaps the worst reputation in London—if not all of England—said something to Gabriel that made him stop. The two faced each other, Visel’s cronies hanging back as their leader stepped closer to Gabriel. They were, Drusilla realized, both tall, broad-shouldered, narrow-hipped men, although Visel was pale, blue-eyed, and blond while Gabriel was golden and heavy lidded, with hair that put her in mind of a glowing coal. Whatever Gabriel said to Visel caused the men behind the earl to erupt into a flutter, the gabble of voices audible even over the noise of the ballroom. Visel was the only one who seemed unoffended. In fact, he threw back his head and laughed. Gabriel appeared not to notice the reaction his response created among the ball’s denizens and scanned the crowd just like the Barbary falcon he resembled, his full lips curving into an easy smile when his eyes landed on his sister.

His gaze kept moving and Drusilla couldn’t help noticing how his expression turned to one of mocking amusement when he saw her. She told herself his reaction was entirely natural, especially since she’d done everything in her power to provoke and annoy him for the last five years. She also told herself that she disliked him because he was everything she despised in the masculine species: arrogant, too attractive for either his own or anyone else’s good, assured of his superiority, and so accustomed to female adulation he would never have noticed Drusilla’s existence if she hadn’t forced him to. But she knew she was just lying to herself. The real reason she disliked him—if that was indeed the emotion she bore him—was because Gabriel Marlington made her dislike herself, an emotion she’d believed she’d rooted out years ago. Every time he came near her, she was forced to recall her own less-than-prepossessing appearance. Drusilla knew she was not ugly, but she certainly could never be called pretty. No, handsome was the best she could ever hope for. Not that she cared about such superficial and vain matters. Yet another thing she told herself.

“Gabe!” Eva was bouncing up and down when her slipper caught on the grubby hem of her white gown. An audible riii-iiiiiiiiiiip! drew the attention of everyone in the vicinity. Her face, so happy only a second earlier, collapsed into a frown. “Oh bother.” It was a big rip, but nothing Eva hadn’t done before. Drusilla laid a hand on her friend’s forearm. “Don’t worry, Eva, I have plenty of pins and we’ll fix it in a trice,” she said as Gabriel stopped in front of them. “Good evening, ladies.” He greeted his stepsister by kissing her on both cheeks in a foreign fashion Drusilla secretly found charming. He never greeted Drusilla that way.

But at least today he smiled at Drusilla after hearing her volunteer to fix Eva’s gown. “You have an excellent friend in Miss Clare, Eva. Not to mention a forward-thinking one to come armed with so many pins.” Drusilla tried not to bask in the grateful—almost warm—glance he shot her. Instead, she narrowed her eyes and dropped a slight curtsey. “Mr. Marlington.” He appeared not to notice her cool greeting. “You two ladies are looking in fine fettle this evening. Is that a new gown, Eva?” Eva snorted at his poor attempt at fraternal flattery.

“You are such a dunce, Gabe. How can a person tell one bland white gown from another?” He laughed at her rough words. “It is not very ladylike to call one’s brother a dunce, Evil.” Eva smacked him with her fan, but Drusilla knew her friend reveled in both the pet name and the brotherly affection; who wouldn’t? Drusilla had no siblings—half or otherwise—and could only imagine what it would be like to have such a playful, teasing relationship. She was fond of her Aunt Violet, of course, but their relationship was neither close nor particularly deep. And she’d loved her kind but distant father, but he’d rarely had the time to spare for her when she’d been a girl, and he’d died when she was only fourteen, and still away at school. And that was the sum of her family, at least any she knew. Drusilla did not understand how Eva managed to view the delicious man as nothing more than a brother. After all, not only did the two share no blood, but they’d just become acquainted with each other a little more than five years ago. It was beyond maddening;just thinking about Gabriel Marlington made Drusilla swoon, but Eva seemed perfectly comfortable abusing him, physically mauling him, or ordering him around.

Eva grabbed his arm, bouncing up and down on the balls of her feet, her expression chiding but affectionate. “You’re so late—it’s almost the supper dance. I thought you might not come tonight.” “It was wretched weather just this side of Epping, so that slowed me down. But I gave you my word I’d be back tonight. You should know I always keep my word.” Gabriel looked from Eva to Drusilla, his warm smile still in place, but his eyelids lowering over his vivid green eyes. “And how have you been, Miss Clare? Organized any prison rebellions while I was away?” She sighed and unfurled her fan, adopting her most bored expression. “That never grows old, does it, Mr. Marlington?” He chuckled.

“I’m a man of simple pleasures.” Drusilla snorted. His pleasures provided more fodder for ton gossip mills than a dozen young bucks bundled together. If only ten percent of the rumors were true, then his pleasures were anything but simple. “And I did not organize a prison rebellion.” “Ah, that’s correct—you merely provided the funding.” Drusilla sighed. The incident he was referring to had taken place last year, when a group of militant prison reformers used the money she’d given them to provide necessary items for prisoners to stage a gaol protest that led to hundreds of pounds of damage and the escape of four hardened criminals who’d been slated for transportation. It had not been the best of months for her and she’d resolved to donate only to causes she was personally affiliated with, or those advocated by the members of her small, intimate reform group. She gave him a contemptuous smile.

“Surely you can come up with something more recent to irk me about after so many months?” “Oh, I don’t know, it seems like a rebellion and an escape should be good for more than a few months of irksomeness.” He turned to Eva. “Or is that irkishness?” Eva chortled. “You’re such a ninny, Gabe.” “Ninny would not be my first choice of word,” Drusilla muttered. His eyebrows arched high in mock confusion. “Whatever do you mean, Miss Clare?” He turned to his sister. “Do you know what word she means, Eva?” “I don’t think you want to know what word she means, Gabe.” He turned his distracting emerald gaze back to Drusilla, his lips curving in a way that made her breathing hitch. “Oh, but I do.

Tell me, what word would you choose for me? Witty? Handsome? Clever?” “The word I had in mind is hardly the type I wish to use in public, Mr. Marlington.” His eyes lit up. “Do tell, Miss Clare—where do you prefer to use such low words?” She ignored the question, but he was undeterred. “I must know how a proper young lady like yourself even knows of such words? Please—I am in danger of perishing with curiosity.” “I’m afraid you must perish.” He clutched his heart and grinned. “Cruel beauty.” Any heart palpitations she’d been experiencing from prolonged proximity to him dissipated at his words, which could only have been mockingly meant: Nobody could call her a beauty. Unless they were ridiculing her.

Luckily such taunting only served to strengthen her resolve. “As diverting as it is to contemplate your premature departure”—he laughed but Drusilla continued undaunted—“I’d much rather discuss your week in Newmarket, which—” “Why, Miss Clare! I’m flattered you noticed how long I was gone and whither I went. It makes me believe you must have missed me.” “Believe whatever you wish, sir. But also keep in mind that I notice pestilence, famine, and war— but that hardly makes me miss them.” He threw his head back and laughed, and Drusilla tried not to feel proud but failed. When he looked at her next, it was with eyes shining with humor and . admiration? “What is the saying of the great English playwright, Miss Clare? “Methinks thou dost protest too much?” Drusilla goggled in mock amazement. “My goodness, Mr. Marlington—quoting Shakespeare? It appears you did learn something at Oxford besides gambling, pugilism, and cocking.

” “Not true, Miss Clare. I’m afraid any Shakespeare I know I learned from my position in the pit at Drury Lane.” Drusilla’s face flamed like a torch. Surely he could not be alluding to his notorious exploits with the actresses Giselle Fontenot and Maria Beauchamp? He winked at her. Drusilla’s eyes widened; that was exactly what he was alluding to. His lips curved as he watched her face color and comprehension dawn. His green eyes pierced her protective façade and went straight to her overactive brain, as if he could see the images her imagination provided—images of this gorgeous man cavorting with his two ravishing lovers—and as if he could hear the bubbling caldron of jealousy within her. Drusilla swallowed and unclenched her teeth, pulling her eyes away from his knowing gaze, ignoring the distracting sensation that pulsed in her belly and lower: a sensation she’d become accustomed to, courtesy of Mr. Marlington. She looked across the room, searching frantically for something that would free her from his attention and the mortifying reactions it created in her body.

Her gaze landed on a vision of blond perfection, and inspiration struck. “You will be pleased to know Miss Kittridge has been inconsolable in your absence.” His dark auburn brows arched in surprise, but his gaze was already turning toward the east side of the ballroom, to where the luscious Miss Kittridge stood. Drusilla gritted her teeth against the crushing knowledge that he’d known exactly where the other woman was without searching, as if beautiful people possessed some type of homing ability that allowed them to locate others of their kind. And Lucinda Kittridge was, without a doubt, beautiful. She was also extremely wealthy—even more generously endowed in that area than Drusilla. And if that wasn’t enough, she was four years younger and far more favorably blessed with charm. She was a blonde, blue-eyed angel with the body of a succubus and a mind like a military strategist, at least when it came to marriageable men. But as lovely a package as she was, her family business—England’s largest abattoir—mitigated against her ever catching a peer. So she’d set her sights on the next best thing: a man related to many powerful peers by blood.

Gabriel Marlington suited her needs to perfection. He might be steeped in notoriety and of dubious parentage, but his family connections were second to none. Drusilla knew full well Miss Kittridge and her mother had been angling for him since the first evening he’d appeared in London society. Miss Kittridge looked up from her throng of admirers toward Gabriel, as if they were joined by some invisible bond, and Drusilla hated herself for drawing the perfect, wealthy heiress into her conversation with the gorgeous, irritating fortune hunter. She bit her lip at that unkind thought; calling Gabriel Marlington a fortune hunter was nothing more than spite on her part. Not only did he have a respectable independence, but he’d never pursued Miss Kittridge. Quite the reverse. The delectable debutante—known among the ton as “the Kitten”—had made her preference for Mr. Marlington clear whenever the opportunity arose. Both she and her social-climbing parents would overlook Gabriel’s notorious past and scandalous liaisons thanks to his connections to the Marquess of Exley and the Duke of Carlisle, two of the wealthiest and most influential peers in the land.

While the ton might consider Gabriel Marlington, the exiled son of the former Sultan of Oran, a baseborn outsider, there were few people either brave enough—or stupid enough—to voice such thoughts. To be blunt, his aristocratic connections were far too impressive for anyone to ignore him, no matter how much some people might like to. “I don’t care for the Kitten.” Drusilla and Gabriel turned away from Miss Kittridge at the sound of Eva’s voice. The delicate but disheveled beauty was chewing on yet another raven-colored curl she’d pulled from her disastrous coiffeur and staring speculatively at the woman in question. Gabriel gently detached the curl from his stepsister’s hand and tucked it behind her ear. “Why is that, Evil? Because she is almost as pretty as you?” Eva elbowed him in the ribs—hard. Gabriel clutched his side. “Lord, you’re such a barbarian.” Rather than appear chastised, Eva grinned, pleased with the accusation.

“Tell me, why don’t you like the Kitten?” Gabriel persisted. “She only looks all soft and cuddly like a kitten. I think she is rapacious and sharp clawed beneath all her pretty fur.” Drusilla agreed with her friend’s astute observation. How was it that men did not notice there was something hard about the exquisite and seemingly sweet heiress? Gabriel cut Drusilla a sly glance. “And what about you, Miss Clare? Do you also dislike Miss Kittridge?” “I have not wasted a second’s thought on her,” she lied. His lips twitched, as if he knew how Miss Kittridge’s open attraction to him—and his reciprocation of it—ate at Drusilla like an acid when she was alone at night. Or during the day. Or anytime the horrid thought gained purchase in her mind. She scowled at him.

“You’re not really going to offer for her, are you, Gabe?” Eva’s brow was furrowed with concern and Drusilla’s body clenched as she waited for his answer, the suspense painful. But the annoying man merely smiled, as if he could sense her agony and enjoyed prolonging it. Drusilla assured herself that was impossible: Gabriel Marlington could not know how she felt for him, not after she’d employed her considerable intellect to conceal her humiliating infatuation. “Are you, Gabe?” Eva repeated, asking what Drusilla could not. He shrugged. “You know how Mama has been these past few months, Eva. One of us must become leg-shackled before the Season is out if we’re ever to have any peace in our lives. And since you are showing no signs of doing so, it seems that I must fall on my sword.” “I couldn’t agree more. You should fall on your sword for the good of the rest of us; just make sure that sword isn’t the Kitten.

” He smiled down at his half sister, who was staring pensively at the sword in question. Agony and futility as sharp as needles stabbed at Drusilla’s heart. Was he so blind that he thought the Kitten might actually like—or love—him for who he was? Or maybe he didn’t care about such things? Perhaps his only requirement when it came to a mate was a pretty face? He eyed Drusilla with amused speculation, as if she’d just spoken out loud. “And what is your opinion, Miss Clare—because I know you will have one.” “Please, fall on whatever sword you wish.” He laughed with obvious delight. But the thought of Gabriel Marlington married to the Kitten made Drusilla want to fall on a real sword. It also made her want to slap the smug look off his perfect features. Instead of doing either, she used the only weapon left to her: her wit. “You seem terribly confident that your unsavory antics won’t sour Miss Kittridge’s parents’ eagerness for you and your suit, Mr.

Marlington.” He turned to Drusilla, arrested. “How flattered I am that you take such an interest in my, er, suit, Miss Clare. And my antics.” She flicked a nonexistent piece of lint from the puffed sleeve of her pale blue gown. “Not interest, sir, merely an objective observation.” “Ah, I see. But tell me, Miss Clare, just what unsavory antics have you heard about?” A wave of heat began to make its journey up her neck. She compressed her lips, as if that could somehow stop the tide. “I can only imagine.

” “Can you? I’m all agog to hear the fascinating fruits of your active imagination.” Drusilla narrowed her eyes in what she hoped was a condescending and repressive fashion and gave him a deceptively sweet smile. “I hardly need to cudgel my brain to invent antics for you, do I, Mr. Marlington? Not when you are so good at providing all of us with real examples.Your notoriety is legend and tales of your behavior—or should I say misbehavior—abound, many of them as entertaining as an evening at the . theater.” There, let him chew on that. But if she had hoped to discompose or embarrass him with a veiled reference to his notorious liaisons, he disappointed her. Instead he gave her a smile of genuine delight “Ah, Miss Clare, I never imagined you to be the type of woman to pay any mind to scurrilous gossip.” Drusilla widened her eyes in mock wonder.

“Oh? Please, do tell, Mr. Marlington,” she said, echoing his earlier words. “I’m all agog to hear the type of woman you imagine me to be.” He leaned toward her and said in a voice so low that only she could hear, “My imaginings are not the type of thing I can discuss in public.” Drusilla took a hasty step back and bumped into a passing dandy, the impact enough to send her sprawling. Gabriel’s response was quick and unobtrusive as he set a light hand beneath her elbow to steady her, giving the other man a dismissive nod before releasing her arm. “The heat in here is quite oppressive, is it not?” He was looking at her with something suspiciously like concern. She ignored her palpitating heart and his question, eager to move the subject away from herself and back to him. “We were speaking of your recent trip to Newmarket, I believe,” she said. “It has been disappointingly quiet thus far, but it is still early days, Mr.

Marlington. Tell me, what stories can we expect? Reckless wagers? Impromptu mills? Duels? Orgies?” He grinned in a way that made her wish she could take back her words. Or at least that last one. “Orgies?” he repeated. Her face became impossibly hotter. “You do have an active imagination, Miss Clare. I should dearly love to hear your thoughts on orgies. Not to mention how I fit in with such speculations about orgies.” “Quit saying orgy,” she hissed. “You started it.

” “You sound like a twelve-year-old, Mr. Marlington.”

.

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