Winter’s Waltz – Scarlett Scott

The Marquess of Sundenbury was not going to last more than ten minutes in the East End. Genevieve Winter was never more certain of it than when she found him seated in her chair at her desk at Lady Fortune, his polished boots propped upon her ledgers, grinning like the stupid, handsome fiend he was. He was not going to last because she was going to murder him. Poison, she decided. He was too pretty to suffer the agony of gunshot or the blade. Mayhap she could slip hemlock into his tea. “Miss Winter,” he said, not bothering to rise. The omission suited her perfectly fine, she told herself. Gen did not prefer to be treated as a lady. She wore breeches, shirt, cravat, and boots this morning. It was ever so much more comfortable than stays and gowns. Why did chaps get to claim the best garments for themselves? “What the hell are you doing in my office, you spoony twat?” she demanded. He winced, as if her vulgar words caused him physical pain. Gen hoped they did. “Is that any way to greet the man who will be your companion—indeed, your saving grace—for the next month?” “Saving grace?” She snorted, crossing her arms over her chest and pinning him with a glare.

“Pain in my arse, more like.” What the devil had she been thinking when she had agreed to this bloody addlepated idea of her half brothers’ wives? Lady Addy and Lady Evie, twins who were married to her half brothers Dom and Devil, had suggested the plan to her after their brother’s last embarrassment. Having been banished from The Devil’s Spawn thanks to his inability to control his gambling, he had somehow wormed his way into the rival gaming hell owned by the Suttons. And he had promptly gotten tap-hackled and lost ten thousand pounds. He had also had his purse strings cut by his father the duke. Fitting, in her opinion. The old duke ought to have boxed his ears and sent him to Elba with Boney while he was at it. Sundenbury quirked a brow at her, and then the blighter lifted a cigar to his lips, giving it a puff and sending a cloud of smoke in her direction. “You have a fine arse, Miss Winter. I would hate to cause it any pain.

” He sounded so polite, with those crisp, aristocratic accents of his. And yet he looked thoroughly dissolute. His cravat was undone, and he was down to his shirtsleeves. His wavy, dark hair was ruffled, as if some obliging wench had recently run her fingers through it. She probably had. Gen would make her next order of business a trip to the ladies employed by The Devil’s Spawn. Her unwanted charge was not to be cozying up with ladybirds. He was supposed to be staying out of trouble. No gambling. No whoring.

No drinking. No to any of the things an empty-headed, gorgeous-faced lord like Sundenbury ordinarily did. And why did he have to be so handsome, anyway, curse him? Gen governed herself with stern rules. When she had been younger and stupider, she had almost found herself at the mercy of a handsome scoundrel. Never again. Good thing men like the marquess had no effect upon her. She stalked forward and plucked the cigar from Sundenbury’s long, elegant fingers. “No smoking in my office. It bloody well stinks, and I’ll not have it. And if you dare to say another word about my arse, I’ll break your fingers.

” “No need for such anger, pet.” He gave her the sort of grin she was sure made every other lady melt. Not Gen. She tossed his cigar into the fire, then turned back to the intruder still seated at her desk. “Do not call me pet.” “Or what? You shall break my fingers?” he asked, grin deepening. For some reason, she found herself staring at his lips. They were wide and full. The sort of lips a man should not possess. The sudden warmth blossoming inside her was as traitorous as it was unwanted.

Ruthlessly, she quashed it. “No,” she told him calmly. “If you call me pet again, I will break your nose. Don’t suppose you’d have all the ladies begging to drop to their knees if you had a crooked beak.” “When the ladies are on their knees for me, they aren’t looking at my nose, Miss Winter.” For some reason, the insinuation in his words made her cheeks go hot. Which was impossible. She had been surrounded by males from the time she had been a tiny girl. First her brother Gavin, then her half brothers Demon, Blade, Dom, and Devil. Nothing could embarrass her.

Irritation sliced through Gen. This silly lordling would not best her at her own game. “Hmm,” she said. “They are probably looking for your prick, unable to find it on account of it being so small.” “There is nothing about my cock that is small, pet,” he purred. “I warned you about your nose, Sundenbury.” She stalked toward him, her boots pounding on the carpets. By the time she rounded her desk, he had risen at last, and he was still smiling, curse him. Her body’s reaction to him was infuriating. Instinct, she told herself.

He was a handsome man. She was a woman. That was all. There was nothing a disreputable ne’er-do-well who could not handle himself at the green baize had to offer her. But he was also surprisingly stealthy for a lord she had supposed to be cup-shot when she had entered the room. He caught her elbows and spun her with ease, then used his larger, taller, more powerful body to force her backward. There was nowhere to go save her desk. Her bottom landed on her much-abused ledgers. He insinuated himself between her parted thighs and flattened his palms on the desk, trapping her. “Go on then, Miss Winter.

Give me your worst. I dare you.” He wanted her worst, did he? Well, curse the devil for being a thorn in her arse on the first day his miserable hide had appeared. And curse him for being handsome and provoking and having that mouth that made her think wicked thoughts, the sort she had banished some time ago. Also, curse him for tempting her in a way she could ill afford. For being near enough his breath—not gin-scented as she had expected, but smelling instead of something sweet—coasted over her lips. For making her skin go hot and feel too tight for her body. Lust, she told herself. It was what she had felt for Gregory, curse his rotten hide. A weakness.

Proof she was made of flesh and bone, a reminder from above that she was mortal. Imperfect. She sneered. “You don’t want my worst, yournabs.” She was speaking flash, when she had been studying so damned carefully to keep her vulgar tongue at bay. That was what this man’s presence in her sphere—her own gaming hell, which she had worked her fingers to the bone securing—did to her. Intolerable. Unacceptable. There were other words—bigger words, the words of a lady, taught to her by her half sisters-in-law, but she had forgotten them. The first two would do.

He was smiling again, that knowing scoundrel’s grin that probably made all the ladies swoon and fetch their smelling salts. Grinning, actually. And the man had dimples. Two dents in his cheeks which ought to have been annoying but were, in fact, alluring. Rather than hindering his looks, those two unlikely divots heightened them. All the more reason to dislike the man. And his face. Especially his mouth. Those bloody dimples, too. “I assure you, Miss Winter—Genevieve.

I can weather your worst.” The scoundrel dared to touch her then. He dragged the knuckles of his right hand along her jaw in a silken caress that made shivers dance up and down her spine. “It is more than apparent you do not want me here. I can alleviate your frustrations. For the right price, I will go.” She clenched her jaw and slapped his hand away from her face. “Are you suggesting I pay you?” The man had worms for brains. This was a terrible idea. What could he possibly teach her about polishing her mannerisms? A carriage wreck was what he was.

A scourge. Aye, rats were in his larder. He was an utter disaster. A handsome disaster, but a disaster nonetheless. And one who thought he could charm himself out of his obligation. “I am, admittedly, pockets to let at the moment,” he said, with a rather sheepish air, as if he had done nothing at all to land himself in his current predicament. His intolerable masculine scent—something tangy and sharp and altogether pleasing in the fashion of a fancy gentleman who gave a shite about the way he looked and smelled—only made matters worse. “I ain’t paying you,” she growled. “And you are standing too close to me. Move.

” He did not retreat, but he did move. Those bloody fingers of his were back on her jaw, then down her neck, tracing to her cravat. “Your pulse suggests you do not mind, pet.” He had received his final warnings. And yet he dared to remain where he was, crowding her with his larger body, touching her, and calling her pet. There was only one answer she could give. Gen’s brother Gavin was a prizefighter, and he had taught her, in painstaking detail, how to defend herself. Forming a fist in the proper fashion—thumb tucked against the knuckles of her forefinger and middle finger—she took aim and landed her blow squarely upon its intended target. The Marquess of Sundenbury’s aristocratic nose. THE HELLİON HAD Right in the damned nose.

Max held his hand over the wounded appendage, which was throbbing, and he hoped not broken. His eyes were watering—not tears, curse it all—and he could not have been more shocked. Oh, Miss Genevieve Winter had threatened to break his fingers and his nose. But she was a woman. No member of the fairer sex in his acquaintance had ever physically attacked a man. An outraged mistress tossing about vases and the occasional slipper or curio—hell, even a mantel clock—was perfectly understandable. A female landing a fist to a man’s nose, however, not so much. Then again, she was a woman ostensibly garbed as a male, from her perfectly knotted cravat to her polished boots, which were far too small to belong to a man. She must have commissioned them for her measurements. He had taken note at the same time he had admired the manner in which her trousers clung to her limbs and the delightful—if slight— swell of her hips.

Ordinarily, Max preferred a more voluptuous sort of female. However, there was no denying that Miss Genevieve Winter’s willowy form was as sultry as any well-endowed woman he had ever known. He would gladly bed her in the next breath if she seemed inclined. And if he could get his dratted nose to cease aching. Christ, his fingers were slick with warm liquid, which could only be— “Is your nose bleeding?” she asked calmly, as if she were not the reason for his current agony. He released his nose long enough to hold his hand before him and confirm, before fishing a handkerchief from his waistcoat and pressing it to his nostrils to stop the flow. “Yes, it is.” Although he attempted to glare at the delectable creature who had just punched him in the nose, he was not certain his attempts at sternness could be appreciated in his current state. Meanwhile, she was perched on the edge of her desk, those beautiful legs of hers dangling, sinfully outlined in her trousers. He entertained a brief fantasy of those limbs wrapped around his waist as he plunged deep inside her before reason chased it.

“It may be broken,” she observed, crossing her legs and flattening her palms on the ledgers-and-correspondence-laden surface of her desk. As if she had not a care. And blast her, but he could not tear his gaze from those curvaceous limbs of hers even as he attempted to sop up the blood streaming from his right nostril. Only the right, it seemed. A promising sign? One could only hope. He had been planted a facer before, naturally. However, everyone before her had been kind enough to avoid his nose and aim instead for his jaw. “I am certain it is unbroken,” he argued stubbornly, for this scrap of a female was not going to outdo him. Oh no. Not today, Satan’s minion.

He had formulated his plan quite carefully. He would relieve himself of this most unwanted duty and carry on with his life. His father would forgive him for his sins, in time. This latest, regrettable scrape would fade into obscurity where it belonged. After all, the duke could cut the purse strings but he could not sever the familial ties. The heir was the heir, and the heir was…Max. Such as he was. Currently, stranded in an East End gambling den with a siren dressed in gentleman’s garb who had just landed a deuced smarting blow to his nose. He had thought he could charm her and avoid her. Clearly, he would have to concoct a new strategy.

“It is bleeding rather profusely,” she pointed out, with an arched, golden brow. Not to mention nary a hint of contrition. “Fancy word for an East End lady,” he grumbled from behind his blood-stained handkerchief. “Profusely.” Small of him, he knew. But the damned woman had wounded him—and doubly so. No female he had ever met had struck him. Or denied him, for that matter. She hopped down from the desk in spritely fashion. “I was about to fetch you some ice to help staunch the flow, but now you are decidedly on your own, Blunderberry.

” She had ice here? The establishment was not nearly as ramshackle as he had supposed prior to his arrival, but it hardly looked as if she would have spare ice waiting about. And surely his ears were mistaken and she had not just referred to him as— “Suiting name, no?” She grinned, unapologetic, both for the damage she had done his poor nose and the insult she had paid his title. An honorific was still a goddamn honorific, which was far more than this bastard, rookeries-born spawn of a cit—clad in a gentleman’s attire—could ever hope for. He ought to spank her arse for the outrage. Bloody wonderful. Now his cock was throbbing in tandem with his beak. And he had also just thought of his nose as a goddamn beak. Her word. Next, he would be saying spoony. Good God, what a horror.

The word ought to be outlawed. Damnation. Was it even a word? “Hardly suiting, Miss Winter.” How nettling that his voice was rendered somewhat nasally by the necessity of pressing his handkerchief over the bleeding appendage which would not be named. “You may call me Gen.” She cocked her head at him, eying him with a sweeping glance that went from head to toe. “Everyone does. Enemies included.” She considered him an enemy, then? Intriguing. He could use that in his favor.

Most of the ladies in his acquaintance were thoroughly charmed by his looks, his wit, and most especially by his future as the next Duke of Linross. This one was different. Not merely because of her…interesting form of dress. Downright distracting, that. Little wonder it was not polite for ladies to gad about in anything other than gowns. The delineation of her legs was maddening. Even with a bleeding, smarting nose. Of which she was the source, he reminded himself, gritting his teeth. “Miss Winter shall do fine,” he countered. If she thought to make him dance to her bidding, she was wrong.

Never mind that he had nary a ha’penny to his name at the moment. Or that he was rather at this woman’s mercy thanks to the intervention of his sisters. Fortunately, he loved Evie and Addy, else he would have never agreed to this abomination. Then again, begging their heartless father’s mercy seemed a rather cold and unwanted option at the moment. Max’s former mistress would not harbor him without the coin and gifts he had once lavished upon her—all gone thanks to his latest bout of terrible luck. The turn of fortune’s wheel had never benefitted him, it was true. Never had there been greater evidence of that sad fact than now. And fitting, in a bitter sense, that he found himself in a nascent gaming hell christened Lady Fortune. Lady Fortune was a bloody witch. So, he was becoming increasingly convinced, was this establishment’s owner.

“Gen,” she countered, “or I’ll have you tossed out on your arse.” There had been a rather large and imposing fellow haunting the front hall—all muscle, menacing as a goddamn lion. Had an inking of a skull on his neck. Max did not think he would like to trespass on the wrong side of that man’s magnanimity. Still, if he expected to gain anything from this farce, he needed the stubborn female before him to understand he would not kowtow to her or any of her lackeys. He quirked a brow—not an easy feat considering his nose still hurt like a bastard. “You haven’t the strength to toss me out on my arse, pet.” Those beautiful blue eyes of hers snapped with fire. Her pretty pink lips thinned. “I warned you about calling me pet.

Try me again, Blunderberry. I won’t give a toss about sending Peter in to collect your sorry bones.” Peter. That was the beast’s name? Hardly seemed fitting. He wondered just how close Miss Gen Winter was to this Peter with the skullbedecked neck. And then he wondered why he gave a damn. Stupid. He had not suffered the degradation of showing his face at this deuced establishment so he could lust over its most unusual proprietress. Speaking of which… Max pinned Miss Gen Winter beneath his most ducal glare. Admittedly, the effect was likely hindered by the necessity of holding the besmirched handkerchief to his bleeding— and possibly broken—nose.

“If you do me more harm, or have any of your lackeys injure me, you will not have your lessons in becoming a lady, will you? Indeed, if you intend to insult and abuse me, consider yourself no longer in possession of my aid, Miss Winter.” There. He sounded confident. Like a man who could afford to be rude to the lady he was being forced to instruct in etiquette for the next damned month. Ha! Quelle lark. “Hate to say it, Blunderberry, but you aren’t about to slip me the Dublin packet. You owe my family.” How lovely. Miss Gen Winter was aware of his reduced circumstances in every way. He had been hoping the damned Winters—particularly Mr.

Dominic Winter, his sister Addy’s husband and general East End Croesus—would have granted him some dignity and neglected to inform their sister of the debts which had been settled on his behalf. Apparently not. “Nevertheless,” he bit out, taking away the damned handkerchief at last, “if you are not amenable to the task, I shall be more than happy to find another means of satisfying my debts.” She had the audacity to laugh at him. “Just as you have satisfied all your other debts, Blunderberry? I think not. This is the only way we’ll be getting what is owed, and I intend to collect.” Blast. He scowled at her and then grimaced, because scowling bloody well hurt, curse the woman. “Consider this our first lesson, Miss Winter. Ladies do not strike gentlemen.

” “Eh.” She raised a brow and crossed her arms over her waistcoat, drawing his attention to the slight swells of her breasts hidden beneath. “You don’t look much like a gentleman, Blunderberry.” This chit was going to be the death of him before the month was over. Max was predicting it now. His scowl turned into a glare. Moderately less painful than the scowl had been. “Touché, Miss Winter. You do not look much like a lady from where I stand either.” She sauntered toward him, exuding a confidence that was rare amongst females— unless they were courtesans, of course—drawing to a halt within kissing distance.

“Here’s the way of it, yournabs. I don’t want to be a bloody lady. I just want to know how one thinks and acts so I can persuade as many of them as possible to come to Lady Fortune and give me their blunt.” There was honesty, he supposed. And he could not help but to think of himself in those same terms. To wonder if that was how every gaming hell proprietor thought about him and other noble clientele. Max leaned down until their noses almost brushed. Until her breath skated over his lips, tea-scented and alluring. Of course. He took a moment to appreciate the unusual beauty of her features.

She did not possess an ordinary loveliness—not the fragile beauty expected from a diamond of the first water. But she was exquisite in her individuality, in the ferocity she exuded, in the disparity she represented. Flaxen hair, icy eyes, rosebud lips, the slashes of her cheeks, the strength of her brows, the prominence of her jaw, the gentleman’s attire, the spare form. Rare. That was what she was. And maddening, too. But never mind all that now. He had a far more pressing concern. “If you want me to help you empty the reticules of every gambling-minded lady in London,” he told her, “then you had damned well better refrain from punching me in the nose in future, madam.” She sniffed.

“You earned that one, Blunderberry. Don’t dare to suggest you didn’t.” With that, she turned on her heel and sauntered away. He would be a liar if he said he was not watching the sway of her hips in those damned trousers of hers. He was watching. And she was exquisite. Or mayhap her bottom was? Both, he decided. Her rump and all the rest of her, too. “Stop ogling my arse,” she commanded, as if she knew what he was about. And then she rang the bell pull.

In the next few seconds, the dreaded Peter appeared.

.

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