Winter’s Wallflower – Scarlett Scott

LADY ADELE SALTİSFORD’S virtue was a small price to pay for her brother’s life. She reminded herself of the undeniable truth of this fact as she waited for London’s most dangerous man to see her. Her hands shook beneath her silk taffeta cloak, and she was grateful once more she had not relinquished her outerwear to the hulking manservant who had ushered her to this anteroom. Her veil, too, was firmly in place, shielding her face. Not that she expected to know anyone at a gaming hell dubiously called The Devil’s Spawn to recognize her. Nevertheless, her brother had frequented this establishment. It stood to reason some of the society gentlemen who filled her dance card and flirted at musicales were also patrons. Difficult indeed to countenance, knowing what the fiend who owned it was capable of. Maximilian had been badly beaten. Bloodied. The warning he had received had been dire. Mr. Dominic Winter did not care if Max was Marquess of Sundenbury, heir to the Duke of Linross. Max owed him an immense sum, and he intended to collect. One week was all he had left to repay.

Adele was not meant to have discovered him as she had in his bachelor’s rooms. But when Mama had fretted over his failure to appear at supper one evening, Adele had taken it upon herself to pay him a call the next morning. What she had witnessed had broken her heart. But Max had been determined he would not seek out their father for assistance with his plight. He had sworn he would find a means of repaying Mr. Winter before the villain’s paid ruffians revisited. The man returned, his expression severe as ever. If murder had a face, Adele was certain this man’s was it. He was terrifying, and yet, his countenance was handsome in an unexpected fashion that had quite startled her upon first sight. Now, she eyed his fists, massive as ham hocks, and wondered if he had been one of the scoundrels who had beaten Max.

He crooked a finger, beckoning her. Whilst the man who had initially answered the door she had rapped upon had been only too quick to speak, mistaking her for a woman of ill repute and informing her she had the wrong entrance, the giant before her had yet to utter a word. She eyed him, heart pounding harder. Misgiving blossomed. She was sure she ought not to follow this wicked-looking man anywhere. What if he had no intention of taking her to Mr. Winter? What if he led her to a private room and ravished her? He made a guttural noise and stalked toward her. Adele told herself to be brave, but when he raised his hand, she feared a blow was forthcoming. She shrank into the wall at her back, hitting her elbow on the plaster in the process. His hand wrapped around her arm in a grip that was not nearly as punishing as she had feared.

“Unhand me, you rogue,” she commanded. But the manservant ignored her. Instead, he hauled her from the small room, pulling her into the hall with its gleaming wood floor and shocking, lewd paintings gracing the walls. “Where are you taking me?” She attempted to wrest herself from the giant’s grasp to no avail. “I demand to see Mr. Winter. If you dare to harm me, I shall have the magistrate upon you.” The man made another sound in his throat, part dismissal, part feral growl. But he did not break his stride. She felt rather like a mouse being carried off by a cat.

This could not end well for her, in any instance. They reached a door at the end of the hall and the man paused at last, rapping thrice. “Enter,” called a deep, masculine voice. It was him. Adele knew, instinctively, who the voice belonged to. She had a heartbeat in which to prepare herself before the manservant opened the door and tugged her over the threshold as if she were the spoils of the day’s hunt. There stood her nemesis. Mr. Dominic Winter. His back was to her.

All she noted was his coat— black, the cut fine, tailored to precision. If she did not know him for a heartless thief and murderer presiding over a vast empire of similar criminals, she could have mistaken him for a gentleman in any one of London’s most exclusive drawing rooms. Except Mr. Dominic Winter was no gentleman. Not by birth, and certainly not by deed. The thought of her brother’s bloodied visage was enough to make her shoulders go back, her chin tilt up. Though she was the quietest of her siblings, she was not weak. She loved her family, and she would go to battle for any one of them. She could face this demon and save Max. She had but seconds to summon every modicum of courage she possessed.

Mr. Winter turned. Slowly. As if he possessed all the time in the world. He moved with the innate grace of a large cat. With the predatory elegance of a lethal creature. But although she had imagined his countenance to be hideous—a reflection of his inner defections—she had not anticipated the reality of this man. He stole her breath, and not just because his presence filled her with an ominous pang of fear. Rather, because of his appearance. His dark gaze appeared almost black by the glow of the lamp.

His hair was raven, his height immense, his chest broad, shoulders filling his coat. Even bathed in sinister shadow, she could see the plain truth of how wrong she had been. Mr. Dominic Winter was not a hideous beast of a man. No, indeed. He was cruelly beautiful. “That will be all, Devil,” Mr. Winter said curtly, his voice a lash in the heavy silence which had fallen. The brute who had unceremoniously lugged her into the chamber released her and disappeared with a surprising amount of stealth for a man his size. Fitting his name was Devil.

But the servant’s departure seemed to suck all the air from the space. Adele was alone with Dominic Winter. Although she had done her utmost to prepare herself for this inevitable moment, her efforts seemed paltry as he skirted his desk and prowled toward her. “Madam,” he drawled, the lone word dripping with a combination of malice and carnality that had her pulse racing. “Your reason for intruding upon my day had better be worthwhile.” His accent was somehow lacking the unrefined edge she had expected. Either he had taught himself to ape his betters, or someone had seen to his education. Adele had imagined a ruffian who spoke with the lewd tongue of an East End pickpocket. “Well?” he demanded when she hesitated in her response. “Have you a tongue?” You can do this, Adele.

You must do this. For Max. She swallowed. “Of course I do, Mr. Winter. The nature of my visit to you is personal.” “Personal,” he repeated, sounding amused rather than irritated as he continued his approach. Mayhap that was a boon. Not his proximity, but his tone. “Someone beloved to me owes you a vast sum,” she said, seizing hold of her flagging mettle.

“It is my understanding that you are willing to accept an alternative form of recompense.” He stopped, leaving enough distance between them that a chaperone could not have found fault. And yet, she could not shake the sense his nearness was like a serpent, coiled and intent upon striking. Awaiting the proper moment. His lips quirked, but the chuckle he emitted held little mirth. “Who is this spineless cove, so intent upon saving his own hide that he sends a woman to barter herself rather than paying me what is due?” Disdain dripped from his voice. She stiffened. “He is hardly spineless. Nor am I his emissary. He has no knowledge of my visit to you today.

” “Ah.” The smile he gave her was feral. “The loving mistress, come to whore herself on her protector’s behalf. How utterly heartwarming.” Adele did not correct his assumption. If he knew her true identity, she had no doubt this bargain she intended to strike with him would be even more disastrous. A man as callous and greedy as Dominic Winter would think nothing of using the knowledge to ruin her and bring shame upon her entire family. If she had a prayer of continuing her deception, she needed him to assume she was her brother’s lightskirt. There was no other choice. She struggled to maintain her composure.

To keep herself from thinking upon the result of her actions, should this man accept her terms. Her chest felt as if a weight had been laid upon it. Adele sucked in one deep breath for daring. “It was my idea to aid him when he mentioned your amenity to debt cancellation with…matters of the flesh.” She had said it, though the words nearly choked her, and though the thought of submitting herself to this man’s touch made her shudder and caused her stomach to twist into knots. Everything she knew of Dominic Winter made her find him despicable. He laughed again. The sound held no levity; instead, it was ominous, sliding over her like rough silk. “If you have come here in the belief I will accept cunny for coin, you have wasted your time, madam. Devil will see you out.

” With that pronouncement, he turned on his heel, giving her his back once more, and returned to his desk. The cut was an unimaginable slight. The notion of a duke’s daughter being so ill-treated by a common criminal who had somehow swindled his way into the role he now occupied would have been laughable on any other day. But not this one. Adele was not amused. Nor would she be dismissed. Instead of meekly fleeing his lair, she followed in his wake, desperation and the memory of her brother’s badly beaten face making her bold. THE CHİT POSSESSED audacity. Dom would give her that much. However, if she truly believed he was going to bed her in exchange for her lover’s duns, one thing she did not possess was the brains she had been born with.

The Devil’s Spawn could not be paid in quim. Therefore, neither could he. Not even if he wished it. Dom damn well did not wish it. Except for her voice… Curse her for having the voice of an angel. One could only suppose she had the face to match. Not that he could see aught behind her veil. Nor would he. She would be gone in less than a minute. Taking with her the delicate floral scent that was teasing his nose even now.

Lingering, much like she was. He knew she was following him by the swish of her skirts. The sound of her every footfall nettled him. The minx was disobeying his edict. He had no doubt her protector was a soft-palmed lordling who had never needed to fight for his position in the world. But Dom was not cut from silk. He was torn from leather. And he did not tolerate defiance. He spun abruptly. Too abruptly.

She had been in hasty pursuit. His quick action sent her slamming into his chest. The collision of her soft curves, coupled with the renewal of her haunting scent, made his pulse pound in a way he could not like. His hands settled upon the sweet curves of her waist, keeping her from toppling to the floor. A jolt went through him at the contact. “What the hell are you doing?” he demanded, irritated with her as much as he was himself for his unwanted reaction. She was nothing more than a mistress who was deluded enough to heed the bidding of her cowardly lover. He did not believe her assertion the bastard had no inkling of where she had gone this evening or why. Not for a bloody second. “Forgive me my clumsiness,” she said, her husky voice sounding embarrassed as her hands clutched at his shoulders.

Sodding hell, he liked the way she clung to him, the way she felt, pressed against him. Small and elegant and sleek. Not at all the sort of female to whom he was accustomed. He preferred his lovers to be from the same seedy rookery to which he had been born. Pampered aristocratic mistresses did not harden his cock in the slightest. This one does. Hades. The sudden snugness of his falls could not be denied. This would not do. She had to go.

“Why are you still here?” he snapped, setting her away from him as if she were fashioned of flame. For Dom, she may as well have been. He did not deny his reputation had been earned in deed and depravity, but he refused to have it bandied about that he allowed stupid, selfish lords to pay what they owed him in petticoats. He had women aplenty willing to raise their skirts for him, and none of them charged thousands of pounds for the privilege. Indeed, they were only too eager to offer themselves to him gratis. Besides, he had far more pressing concerns that had nothing to do with seductive ladies in silken skirts and everything to do with greedy Suttons with iron grips on the water supply. “I will not go until you give me a chance to persuade you,” she said boldly. But there was a tremor in her voice which could not be denied, one that suggested she had never attempted to offer herself to a black-hearted lord of London’s underworld before. Pity for the troublesome baggage, he was Dominic Winter, and he had sympathy for no one. His lip curled.

“You cannot persuade me, madam. Leave before I require Devil to remove you.” Although her obscuring veil had made it impossible to view her face, Dom knew the sort of reaction the silent giant produced in others. Terror. And with good reason. Devil, too, had earned his sobriquet and reputation. That was one of the reasons Dom never allowed his half brother to stray far from his side. With certain East End powers at war, Dom had to watch his back for all the knives his enemies attempted to plant in it. “Will you not at least hear what I have to say before you refuse me?” she asked. Curse her, but she was determined.

And bold. And if she was as lovely as her voice beneath that damned veil… “No,” he told her. “You have nothing to say which would be of interest.” But still, the pugnacious creature would not go. “Would you have me beg you?” The desperation creeping into her voice was not lost upon him. He was not moved by it. Nor was he any more likely to allow her to say her piece. He had to ring for Devil before she started to weep. He turned and headed for the bell pull secreted behind his desk. There was nothing worse than a woebegone woman.

Mayhap he needed to remove her bodily himself. Doing so would save time and irritation. Coldhearted bastard he may be, but never let it be said Dom Winter was not efficient. “Begging will do nothing for you, madam,” he said over his shoulder, his tone grim, his decision made. “You may return to your cowardly lover and tell him Dominic Winter will not accept his Drury Lane vestal in exchange for funds owed.” Callous of him, mayhap. The finely dressed woman he’d had in his arms was an entire kingdom above a common doxy plying her wares. Dom may have been born to the rookeries, but he knew when something was expensive. When something was out of his reach. “Please, Mr.

Winter,” she said, showing a fair amount of courage—or an actress’s talent, more like—by clinging to her cause. “I will do anything you ask of me. Please do not send your men to beat him again. Or worse, to m-murder him.” Dom rounded his desk once more without ringing the pull and approached his uninvited guest. He was about to toss her over his shoulder when the last of her words pierced his cloud of irritation. He stopped. “This protector of yours,” he began, his mind working quickly, wondering at the odds, searching for a connection, “he was beaten?” “Horribly.” Her breath hitched on what he did not doubt was a sob. “By your men.

I—I came upon him bloodied and bruised, his face swelled so badly I scarcely recognized him.” Floating hell. “What is his name?” “Sundenbury,” she whispered. “The marquess. Please, sir. I beg you not to send more of your men…” She sounded as if she were going to be ill. Dom knew all the coves who attended his establishments by their vices and their debts, but he paid special attention to the marquess for his own reasons. Sundenbury liked gambling and drink. Bad at the green baize. Excellent at draining the arrack and giving the bottle a black eye.

Dom was in possession of a number of the marquess’s vowels, and in the process of gaining more. “Your protector lied if he told you my men were responsible for his basting.” With that certain pronouncement, Dom settled his hands on her waist once more, the better to haul her over his shoulder and force her exit. But damn it all, her curves molded against his hands in the most delightful way. What a terrible shame for a woman with a body so lush to be kept by a blackleg like Sundenbury. “He would never lie about such a matter, not to me,” she insisted, secure in her delusions. “I am begging you to spare his life and further harm. I will give you anything you want.” Her words should not have intrigued him. Should not have made his cock harden even more.

Anything he wanted…


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