Only Scandal Will Do – Jenna Jaxon

“Put her back in the carriage, now!” Her assailant snarled the brusque command, sending a shiver of fear through Lady Katarina Fitzwilliam. An unseen attacker seized and tossed her into the coach. Gagged, hands pinioned behind her back, ankles bound together, she lay trussed like a Christmas goose in a cramped bundle on the hard plank floor of the dim carriage, her diaphanous Grecian costume in ruins. Schemes for escape flashed through her head in a dizzying whirl. The horses jerked forward, the uneven cobblestones of London’s streets jouncing her already aching body. All because she’d been bored. Doggedly, Katarina tested the bonds securing her hands, strained against the coarse rope then relaxed, seeking play in the cords. None. She muttered a curse and forced her whole body to relax. Tension would never free her. Rough and tumble games growing up with Jack had taught her that. Jack! God, where was he? Was he alive or… She’d heard one muted cry when they were attacked, then nothing. If her brother were dead, it would be her fault. Katarina pulled and twisted her wrists. If they’d stayed in Virginia, they would have been better off.

London was far wilder than she would have believed. Although she’d heard of women being abducted by highwaymen, she’d thought them only tales–until now. But when Jack inherited a title, they’d been forced to come to London. The six months of mourning for their father not quite over, Great-Aunt Harriet now commanded the little social life allowed her. The past month found her stuck all day with strong tea and inane gossip about her aunt’s old friends. Finally, rebellion set in. Over breakfast this morning, she’d demanded Jack escort her to a masquerade ball this evening, ironically attired as Athena, goddess of war. A nasty rut jarred the carriage, making Kat groan. What wouldn’t she give for Athena’s armor at this moment, or at least her spear. She had to admit, though, she’d gotten her wish.

She wasn’t bored now. * * * * Duncan Ferrers, the Marquess of Dalbury, reared his frame back in the worn leather office chair with a sullen sigh at the mound of papers piled on either side of the usually tidy desk. When one removed to Italy for almost a year leaving a steward to look after things, chaos reigned. Chaos ate up time better spent in pleasant pursuits, such as drinking at White’s, or gaming at Worthing’s, or exploring the delights of Amorina, his special sweet meat at Madame Vestry’s House of Pleasure. Amorina, Madame Vestry herself, had been his mistress for two years prior to his departure. Duncan wondered idly who had replaced him during his absence, and sighed once more. He opened the desk drawer and withdrew a piece of heavy cream-colored paper, folded and sealed with a blob of blood red wax imprinted with the entwined initials AV. Duncan raised the letter to his nose, closing his eyes briefly at the familiar smell of orange blossoms. He read again his name in the familiar, bold, cursive hand. It had arrived two days ago, but remained unopened.

Why had she written? Amorina was no longer for him. Duncan threw the missive into the drawer, slammed it shut, then groaned anew. It would take a month to sort through the bills alone. He plucked another receipt from the pile that never seemed to shrink, then stopped. Damn. Aunt Phoebe’s masquerade ball this evening required an appearance. A nuisance, but a necessity. For the family. Oh, to hell with business. He flung the bill down and came to his feet.

If it had waited a year, it could wait one more day. He’d turned toward the crackling fire to dispel a sudden chill, when Grayson opened the door to announce, “Mr. Thomas Redmond is in the drawing room, my lord.” Chill dissipated, Duncan grinned, quit the room and hurried down the hall. “Tommy! God, it’s good to see you again!” Duncan greeted his godfather’s son and longtime friend with a warm handshake followed by a slap on the shoulder. Round, boyish face alight, Tommy returned the slap, then wagged a finger in his face. “Duncan, you idiot. Why did you stay away almost a year?” Tommy sprawled in the middle of a Chippendale sofa, stretching long legs toward the roaring fire. “The club’s been deadly dull without your excitements. I swear we have had no more than four duels since you left, none even a contest.

Barely any blood drawn at all.” “My dueling is behind me, I hope.” Duncan seated himself beside his friend, restlessly stroking the gold-striped brocade of the sofa’s rounded arm. “The scandals died down, I suppose?” Tommy rose awkwardly and strode to the sideboard, drawing the stopper from a decanter of expensive cognac. “Well, there are certainly new ones making the rounds.” He didn’t quite meet Duncan’s eyes. Talk still going around, then. Damn. Duncan clenched his hand, digging crescent dents into the heavy fabric. “It’s cold enough to be autumn instead of spring.

” Tommy poured a libation with a generous hand. “Here, you’d better drink up as well if we’re going to brave the raw winds tonight.” He splashed amber liquid in a second cut-crystal tumbler and thrust it into his host’s hand. Duncan raised an eyebrow. “How did you know I was going out?” “Didn’t you get your invitation?” “I arrived less than a week ago. No one knows I’m home yet.” He leaned forward, head cocked. “How the devil did you know I was back?” Tommy grinned. “Saw your aunt at the Mayfield’s gala on Monday. She mentioned you landed last week.

Thought I’d give you a day or two to settle in.” Duncan shook his head. “Leave it to Aunt Phoebe. But what invitation are you talking about, Tom? My aunt’s masquerade?” “God, no!” Tommy grimaced. “The one to Madam Vestry’s latest auction.” His smile widened to a leer. “The madam hit upon a fresh idea for an auction. Tableaux.” “She’s auctioning off tableaux? Of what? Why?” Tommy’s bright blue eyes glittered with excitement. “Tableaux of your deepest desires or darkest fantasies.

Haven’t you ever imagined having a fantasy come true? A slave to your master? A pirate with a captured maid? A Roman soldier and a vestal virgin?” The young man chuckled. “I doubt you’ll find a virgin there tonight, although I understand some of these girls are new.” Those images conjured a wide smile, but Duncan shook his head. Perhaps if things had been different. “What time’s the auction?” “Due to start at nine, as usual. Didn’t you get the invitation?” “I received it, although I didn’t open it.” Avoiding the astonished face before him, he glanced at the mantle clock. “It’s gone eight now. I can take you to Madame Vestry’s on the way to my aunt’s.” “You’re really not going? I would have believed you’d be keener on this, after the long voyage.

” “Oh, I’m keen enough, but I can’t be seen at Amorina’s. You know that.” “Where’s your sense of adventure, Duncan?” “Left it in Italy.” He stared intently at the fire for a moment. “You heard about my cousin, Roger Ferrers?” “Killed in a hold-up out on the Guildford road. Sorry, Duncan.” Tommy’s gaze now also focused on the dancing flames. “That’s what brought you back?” “Yes.” He frowned at the memory. “My aunt wrote, telling me it was my duty to return, marry and produce an heir.

Which is true.” He scowled. “Easier said than done, though.” After the series of scandals that rocked him last year, it might be a cold day in hell before he could convince a woman to walk down the aisle with him. “I envy you your two brothers.” Duncan rose, downing the rest of the cognac. Though his favorite, the brandy’s usual warm, nutty flavor seemed harsh tonight. “You wouldn’t if you were a third son,” Tommy replied. “Having to make your own way isn’t as attractive as you might think.” “Perhaps its charm would pall after a while.

” Duncan laughed, dispelling the bleak mood, and left to don the black domino costume he’d brought from Italy. The cloak, hood and glittering gold halfmask fashioned like a lion’s head concealed him entirely. He’d remain anonymous at the masquerade tonight. Settling the voluminous folds over a wine red coat and breeches, he entered the drawing room and stopped at the dismayed expression on his friend’s face. “Are you wearing that to the auction?” Tommy asked. “I’m not going to Madame Vestry’s.” “Oh, you’re not becoming a Martin Marplot are you?” the young man whined. “What good is it to have you back if you’re going to spoil everybody’s fun?” “I hardly found it fun to be accused of owning half-interest in my mistress’s brothel,” Duncan spat through clenched teeth. Then he relaxed. “I need a wife and I would wager I’ll have a better chance finding her at my aunt’s masquerade than at the auction.

” “Just come with me for a while,” Tommy pleaded. “Look over the tableaux and think what you’ll be missing.” He frowned, pulling his earnest face into a comic mask. “’Sblood, Duncan, you’re twenty-six years old. You’re entitled to one last scrape at least.” After all this time, he did deserve a night of carousing, by God. “Damned if I won’t. But I’ll still wear this.” He gestured to his unusual attire. “I’d rather not announce my presence at Madam Vestry’s.

I suspect I won’t be the only one stopping by the auction before heading to my aunt’s party.” * * * * The nightmare ride bumped to a halt at last. Katarina had a moment to be grateful for the stillness before the door crashed open and a kidnapper seized her ankles. She struggled to wrench them away, but her abductor resolutely dragged her from the carriage and slung her over the other kidnapper’s shoulder. From this precarious position, she twisted about, gaining a brief glimpse of a short, darkhaired woman, who opened the door of a gray clapboard building. A curt nod, then the woman lit their way with a single yellow candle down a shadowy corridor. Opening a door at the far end, she lifted the brass candlestick high to examine Katarina’s outfit, then cocked her head. The woman’s features were stark in the harsh light: ghostly white skin, delicate dark brows puckering over a petite nose, and a dark red mouth, pursed to speak. Uncommon beauty coupled with cruel detachment. Turning away, she called, “Marco! Change into the Roman costume now!” A snarled reply from the dim hallway caused the woman to step toward the surly voice.

“You’ll do it or I’ll turn your pretty face over to Nigel.” The discordant sound of her soft, menacing tone sent a chill racing down Katarina’s spine. The dark-haired woman thrust the candlestick at the other kidnapper and rushed off, her full skirts swishing. As the woman disappeared, the kidnappers hustled Kat into a narrow room barely wide enough to hold its plain washstand and wooden close stool. They plopped her down on the convenience chair and untied the ropes. As soon as her hands were free, she drew one back for a blow at the nearest brigand, but the tall, thin man pushed a sword into her face and shook his head. “Lay a hand on either one of us, girl, I’ll carve your face so your own mother wouldn’t know you.” His flat tone and the icy look in his gray eyes told Kat he spoke in earnest. She reached to untie the gag, and the sword tip waved dangerously near her nose. “Nay.

The gag stays until the deal is done. Afterward, you can try to talk your way out of it.” That last statement made no sense, but she lowered her hands as the other kidnapper, an unremarkable man with a jovial face, finished untying her legs. She rotated her ankles, wiggled her toes, tried to force feeling back into them. She needed to be able to run at the first opportunity. The kneeling kidnapper grabbed first one, then the other foot, stripping off shoes and stockings with lightning efficiency. He stood up, grinning, which made her long to kick him for his effrontery. The man elbowed his companion, remarking, “I’m thinking that’s not all’s coming off before the night’s over, eh Nigel?” The swordsman said nothing, although a lecherous gleam in his eye told its own tale. Nigel. The dark-haired woman’s threat to Marco now made sense.

The woman must employ them all. Had she engineered the kidnapping? Outrage won out over fear, and Katarina narrowed her eyes at the pair, memorizing their features. They would pay for their part in tonight’s assault when she got out of this predicament. The woman in charge burst into the room and handed Nigel a white full-face plaster mask. “Put this on her, Nigel. No one will see the gag under it. And for God’s sake hurry. The first auction is already underway.” Before Kat could protest, the woman’s eyes flashed and she raised a finger in warning. “Use your head, girl.

The mask protects your identity. Unless, of course, you wish to become tomorrow’s scandal.” She sped from the room without a backward glance. Nigel shoved the mask onto Katarina’s face, almost suffocating her. Flailing, she tried to pry the mask from her face and was rewarded with a cuff to her head. By the time the world stopped spinning, she was pressed tight against Nigel’s chest and being borne down the corridor. The rank smell of his sweaty, unwashed body permeated the mask. She fought back a wave of nausea. A thunderous roar emanated from behind a dull red curtain, as though an entire army caroused there. Her stomach cramped with fear.

They stopped before the doorway. The swordsman bent his head to whisper, “If you try to run, to take the mask off–anything at all–my sword will find its mark before the night is over.” Then he heaved her over the shoulder of a blond giant dressed in the purple and white robes of a Roman senator. A soft “ugh” escaped her along with her breath as she landed on his collarbone. She hung there, struggling to breathe, but still less afraid of suffocating than of what lay beyond the red curtain.

.

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