Ensnared By Innocence
Roaring Rogues Book 1
by Larissa Lyons
Genre: Paranormal Regency Romance
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The Preposterous Proposition
I leave this recordation for my beloved sons. Erasmus and Nash. My heirs. Who will one day, pray God, live to manhood and conduct themselves in a manner more gracious, more fitting to their station and responsibilities than I have managed.
My dear offspring who I cannot believe I condemned to such a fate, however unknowingly.
A fate I share but one that was not known to me until after you were both conceived. (And which also no doubt explains the sparsity of children in our family, and siblings for you both.)
The urges for The Change first came upon me in the summer of the year I turned five and twenty. It was not yet the middle of July and yet I sensed the stirrings of what I would eventually learn was my animal blood. My feline side, if you boys will only set aside skepticism and believe. Please, sons, heed my warnings, for you do not want to be caught unaware as I—and irreparably harm the woman you love.
To see the fear in her eyes when she looks upon you and beholds a monster. A beast. Your inner beast. The lion, untamable. Unstoppable.
I pray not. ’Tis why I locked myself away, in this, my 28th year, the third of the curse. Why I place armed guards at the door for the entirety of the month.
As I battle the inner demon once again, my only consolation is knowing that you both are still too young to remark upon my absence.,
Too young to question why Papa turns into an ogre toward the end of the hot, sultry summer months.
Too young to recall how severely I injured your mother…
* * *
“Lord Blakely, pardon the interruption. Might I beg a word with you?”
Erasmus Hammond, Marquis of Blakely, looked down his long patrician—scarred—nose at the intrepid female who dared interrupt the boisterous group of men he currently conversed with.
Delicate, feminine young ladies such as this one definitely did not mix with his oft-beastly ways. Not unless they wanted to be torn asunder.
He didn’t recognize her, but judging from the looks his companions aimed her direction, they did. The meaning behind the smirks and elbow jabs was unmistakable, confound it.
Just what he didn’t need—another wedding-minded miss setting her cap for him. Every Season he remained unmarried, it seemed his value on the marriage market escalated. Despite the air of libidinous rake he cultivated in public—and indulged in private—his attraction as an eligible mate only increased with each year that passed, as though snaring his dissolute self would be something of a coup. Hardly.
Where was her chaperone?
“Gracious me,” he drawled as sarcastically as he could manage, “a bold little muff, are you not?” He gestured to his chortling companions, hoping the crude comment would be enough to send her heels flying. “Approaching me? Here?”
Here, at Lady Longford’s crush, celebrating the engagement of one of her many offspring, the place teeming with too many people and too much perspiration, offensive odors he chronicled as easily as breathing. Odors he tolerated, along with the boorish twaddle that surrounded him, because unlike some others he could name—ahem, his brother for one—Blakely bore his responsibilities, took them very seriously indeed.
Yet, no sweat-drenched, unpalatable odors emanated from the brash one before him, he couldn’t help but note. So she wasn’t here to dance and make merry?
Dance and make a marriage, more like. Is that not the ultimate aim of every young chit here?
Blakely grunted at the thought, taking her in.
The very definition of English miss—blonde, blue-eyed and insipid—stood before him. Granted, she was a trifle taller than perfection allowed these days, and her face looked decidedly powdered—smelled powdered too, the pale artifice likely hiding all manner of spots, blemishes and daunting imperfections.
But when she shifted, allowing the shawl curved within the crooks of both arms to slide, he noticed the two-inch expanse of skin between the short, puffy sleeves of her gown and her long gloves. Two inches of implausibly dark skin, which forced his attention back to her face. Caused him to study…to linger. Beneath the powder, ’twas smooth as silk. At least that’s how it appeared, making his fingers twitch with the sudden urge to test the observation.
So she wasn’t hiding spots? Perchance only an unfashionable liking of the sun? As one who spent more time than he’d like in the dark, that alone piqued his interest.
“Please, my lord?” She scooted further around the column separating his small group from the dance floor. “I promise not to take but a few moments of your time.” So earnest. Her voice so very serene, even as he scented her… What was it? Fear? Frustration? Apprehension that her asinine errand—approaching him, of all people—would prove unsuccessful?
Of course it would. It has to.
Trying again to discourage her, he glanced around the ballroom, purposely avoiding her gaze, and employed his loftiest voice. “I do not believe we have been introduced and therefore, most regretfully, I cannot begin any manner of discourse with—”
“But we have,” she had the audacity to interject. “It was three years ago at the Seftons’ ball. We danced, but I have no expectation that you recollect the encounter.”
And he knew she was shamming him. If they’d met, if he’d been near her for a dance, he’d remember her scent.
A remarkably fresh yet earthy fragrance that appealed to him on so many levels ’twas dangerous. Dangerous for them both.
She stood her ground and spoke calmly, despite their eavesdropping, snickering audience. Taller than most women, she came nearly to his chin. Hers was tilted at such an angle he suspected she must practice the determined stance in front of a mirror.
More than that, most fresh-faced elegants weren’t bold enough to approach him directly, and he couldn’t help but admire this one in spite of himself. He almost hated to crush her spirit but dissuade her he must. Innocents were not for him. Especially now.
It was nearing the time of year he had two choices: Either secret himself away and privately battle his demons. Or find the wildest women he could to exorcise away his fiendish tendencies through exhaustive, nightly rounds of intense prigging. Smashing choice, that. No wonder he always chose the second, more sociable option. Something he seriously doubted would appeal to this one.
“By all means, do forgive me,” he stated, matching her tranquil tone. “But, alas, you are correct. I do not remember you.” There was more jostling from his cohorts. They knew the type of female he preferred—and the kind he avoided at all costs. Though several years beyond the schoolroom, the flaxen-haired miss in front of him definitely fell into the latter category.
Even so, he was surprised how her poise drew him. And if he tipped his head…just so…
Ah, yes, he could look straight down the front of her pale blue gown, to furtively gaze at the womanly endowments not quite hidden beneath. Of course, he had no business looking at her dugs, none whatsoever.
“A word?” she insisted, angling her chin a fraction higher. “Consider it imperative.”
Imperative? Intrigued despite his better judgment, he inclined his head in a show of assent.
’Twas odd, how her voice drew him, all calm assurance instead of the more heated, sultry tones he was used to hearing from his experienced lovers. Would she maintain that cultured, confident manner in the throes of passion?
What of it, man? She’s not for you.
True. So very true.
Especially now, with his latest suspicions? With even more danger surrounding London than before…
Had he missed one? Failed to pick up on a potential wrong-side-of-the-blanket Hammond offspring? Had all the sacrifices, the years spent miring himself in the dungeons of the ton, seeking out the most dissolute, reckless individuals, praying they were only human—and nothing more sinister—been all for naught?
Shaking off the dread that accompanied him these days like a persistent and bothersome fly, he followed her a short distance further, away from the periphery of the crowded dance floor.
When she reached a secluded corner and stopped, he did as well. And found himself curious, if only remotely so, why she had approached him directly—and without a formal introduction. Totally unheard of in the upper realms of the ton he inhabited.
“Lord Blakely, I have a proposition I would like to put forth to you.” For all her height and assured poise, she seemed dainty, almost fragile, standing before him.
“By all means, please do.” His curiosity grew by the second. And so did the reluctant attraction running rampant through his veins. Which would never do.
Never! Do you not have sufficient responsibilities, man? Ferreting out who’s destroying—
Blakely shook off the annoying reminder, the one that settled fear and concern heavily on his shoulders; far more pleasant to ponder the diverting package before him. “State your case,” he encouraged in as droll a voice as he could cultivate, “so I may rejoin my crew.”
When she hesitated, glancing behind her, he took possession of the gloved hand nearest—which brought her attention swiftly back to him. He then lifted it to his lips and kissed the air over her fingers before releasing them. Instead of scaring her away as he’d intended, a blush flared up her chest and over her face, delighting him, which was patently ridiculous.
Blushes were for maidens; whores were for him.
So why was it that the tinge of pink flushing her cheeks fascinated? The slight color was difficult to discern beneath the powder and her unfashionably dark skin but he saw it clearly nevertheless. Unbidden, curiosity rose regarding the extent of her exposure to sunlight. Where might the golden hue leave off and pale porcelain begin?
And why do you care?
Aye, definitely time to curtail their conversation. “You were saying? A proposition, I believe. I weary of being here,” he lied. “Speak in haste.”
The pale blonde ringlets surrounding her face swayed as she took a fortifying breath, readying for battle. “I know I presume much, but I would be eternally grateful if you could see your way to posing as my betrothed until—”
He laughed outright at her outrageous request, drawing the attention of several guests. Sobering, Blakely stated, “Completely out of the question. But thank you for asking. I needed some amusement this evening.”
When he turned to leave, her hand shot out, latching on to his arm with surprising strength. He halted and peered at her gloved fingers until she removed them. Damn if a bolt of need hadn’t flashed through him at the contact. Astonishing, for he’d just dallied with the amorous and very accommodating Mistress Rose of the Crown & Cock not twenty-four hours before.
“Lord Blakely, please. Hear me out.” She rushed on before he could say yea or nay. “It would be a pretend betrothal, a farce if you will, lasting only a few weeks. Surely you can find it in your heart to assist me for such a short time? I will pay you handsomely for your trouble and release you publicly from our agreed-upon understanding after you fulfill its terms.”
“We have no understanding,” he felt compelled to remind her. “But for the sake of argument, your reasoning is faulty. How would this assist you in any way? For upon becoming affianced to me, not to mention later breaking said betrothal, your reputation would be tantamount to ruined.”
“That has no consequence,” she said rather convincingly. “I only want the appearance of a betrothal for the remainder of the Season.”
Which only intrigued him further. What manner of eligible miss cared naught for her reputation? ’Twas a young female’s only currency, all her real blunt controlled first by her father and then by her spouse. “And why is that?”
“My reasons are my own.”
Stubborn chit. He half wished he couldn’t see her so clearly in the candlelit ballroom. What was it about her that drew him?
The unspoilt scent of heather and fresh air? The sunshine she exudes? The hint of freedom from the chains that bind you to London as surely as if you were locked in Newgate.
“If you will not explain yourself, why should I even consider your ridiculous proposal?”
That willful chin lifted again. “Because I will pay you.”
“Not enough, not for what you ask.” She had no idea what she was asking, what being near her the next few weeks might cost him. Or her.
She proceeded to name an amount that sent his head spinning.
Good God. He’d just been propositioned by a bloody heiress.
To fight the deceptive allure she represented—because it wasn’t called a leg shackle for nothing—he shifted his weight, tightened the muscles in his legs. “You are a piece of intriguing baggage, I’ll grant you that. Why approach me and not some other titled gent in need of the ready and likely to agree?”
“Your standing as one of the most sought-after libertines in the ton ,” she stated baldly, her face flushing even more. “It suits my purposes quite well. And your title, for another reason. Not every marquis has a character such as yours.”
“I do not know whether to be insulted or flattered.” The inexplicable urge to touch her cheek stormed through him. Since when did he care about cheeks? He fisted his hands and anchored them firmly at his sides.
“I mean no offense, I assure you, but it is not in me to cavil at the truth. You and I both know that you have no intention of marrying this year, and I need someone of your…ilk to best ensure the successful outcome of my plan.”
He made a noise in his throat, one that could indicate he was considering her asinine idea, which was absurd—because he wasn’t. Neither was he convinced he wanted his ilk—well-suited to her asinine plan or not—to be what he was known for. Sought after for.
“I only ask that you show me the same courtesy and give me your honest reply posthaste.” Again, she looked over her shoulder, as if expecting a dragon to swoop in and steal her away.
Come to think on it, he was surprised they had been left alone this long. “And what is your next course of action, should I turn down your oh-so-tempting offer?”
“Sarcasm does not become you, Lord Blakely,” she admonished him.
“Do not talk down to me,” he told her, instantly irritated with himself. With her. Why was he still wasting his breath conversing? Why not simply tell her nay and be done with it? Why did he long to touch so much more than her cheek? To see her hair down, her dress gone and her legs wrapped around his waist?
Damn it, where was his control? It seemed to have abandoned him the very moment she abandoned her good sense and approached him.
“Forgive me,” she said contritely. “The stress of awaiting your reply has put me quite on edge.”
“Which is understandable. Considering you have propositioned a man who has not the faintest clue who you are.”
“Lady Francine Montfort, my lord.” She sketched the briefest curtsy on record.
“Please continue, Lady Francine Montfort.” He committed her name to memory; her scent he’d never forget—even if he tried. “When I refuse to be a part of your outlandish scheme, what will you do?”
“When you refuse?” She arched a single, chastising eyebrow.
How the hell an eyebrow lift could make him feel small only strengthened his resolve. Say nay and be gone!
“If you persist in claiming you have already decided”—she gave a prim little huff—“then there remains no further need to waste your time. Or mine. Good night.”
This time it was his hand that halted her retreat.
She spun silently on slippered feet back to him. “Yes, my lord?” Her tone had turned icy.
Blakely released her at once, the tingles attacking his palm something of a surprise. “Humor me, then. If. If I decline. What is your plan?”
“Why, I will speak with the next person on my list. Perhaps he will be more agreeable.”
Unaccountably, disappointment stirred in his chest. “Oh? So this is not an exclusive offer you make to me alone? I am only one in a long line?” And no doubt farther down the list than your pride deems acceptable. “Lady Francine Montfort,” he continued, and it was an effort to maintain his droll façade, “I must confess I am crushed by the knowledge. Quite.”
She looked over her shoulder again, distracted by whatever it was she sought. “If you must know…” Her gaze swung back to his. “You are my preferred choice and the first man I approached, but as you are determined to thwart my sincere overtures, I must move on. I beg of you, please do not speak of this to anyone. It—”
“I would not dream of it.”
“Are you positive I cannot persuade you to at least consider my proposition? You have yet to hear my terms in their entirety and yet you are refusing me outright.”
“There is more?” The entreaty in her sky-blue eyes was almost enough to convince him to reconsider. But then he saw past the appeal, to the innocence.
Pity. He didn’t deal with innocents. Ever. Only those women already hardened by life’s experiences, women who liked having their precious egos petted as much as they liked having their slits stroked. Women whose purses he was not averse to lining and who were willing to overlook his behavior, if, in the midst of things, he got a little rough. Certainly, his carnal appetites were too wild for the virtuous dainty before him.
Somewhat regretfully, he opened his mouth to decline.
The screech interrupted him.
“How dare you!” An older woman charged at them from the side, brandishing her fan like a bayonet and casting him a glare as if he were Lucifer come to life. Which perhaps he was—for even considering corrupting her charge.
“Franny! You evil child!” Sky-high plum-colored feathers stuck out of a forest-green turban, agitating the air above her mottled face. Ire definitely did not sit pretty on this particular matron. “What are you doing, talking to him?” the woman hissed. Her voice carried like that of a general commanding his troops. More than one curious head turned toward their secluded corner. “Come away this instant!”
“But, Aunt,” Lady Francine protested, casting him a commiserating glance. “Lord Blakely and I are only conver—”
“The Lord Blakelys of this world are most certainly not for the likes of you, gel. Now come along.” A full head shorter and three times as wide as her niece, the harridan grasped Lady Francine’s slim arm and tugged.
Pale-blue eyes gazed at him as she silently succumbed to the forced retreat. Just before she disappeared from view, her mouth formed the words, The garden?
And he, purveyor of pleasure and avoider of innocents, found himself nodding in assent.
Damn his hide.
Deceived By Desire
Roaring Rogues Book 2