Excerpt: To Wager the Marquis of Wolverstone
London, England 1821 – ten years later
They had only just made it to the bottom of the ballroom stairs, when a servant proffered a tray with three large balloon glasses balanced precariously upon it. Marcus hungered for the alluring smoothness of the fine French brandy held temptingly within, but he shook his head. He’d had enough alcohol after the night at Whites. For a change, he wanted to have a clear head in the morning.
He didn’t even know why he’d bothered to come to Lady Somerset’s ball. Perhaps it was his driving need for her enthusiastic carnal skills. He needed to take his mind off the conversation that would occur with his mother tomorrow morning, and Elizabeth’s mouth could do such wicked things to his body; things that would definitely make him forget what his mother was no doubt going to say to him.
Suddenly his companion spoke. “I’d take that drink if I were you. Sabine Fournier is here.”
Henry’s words sent a slicing chill through Marcus’s heart and his hand immediately grabbed a glass from the tray in reaction. He downed the contents in one swallow and took a second glass, determined to become completely sloshed.
Yet the heat from the smooth, rich brandy could not replace the icy coldness invading his veins. It couldn’t be true. Was it really Sabine, after all these years?
His mind flooded with thoughts of an innocent beauty, quickly followed by the image of a deceptive enchantress. Sabine was the one woman who, ten years ago, had fooled him and played him like a maestro.
He’d not laid eyes on her since.
He turned, knowing exactly where he would find her in the three-hundred strong crowd. It was as if his body sensed the danger. As his eyes drank her image in, she sensed him too, for he saw her stiffen and then turn her head. Their gazes locked and it was exactly like the first time he’d laid eyes on the beautiful French émigré. Desire, lust and then something more erupted within him.
He tried to tell himself that he didn’t care where she’d been or whom she’d been with, but he was deceiving himself. His heart contracted with the pain of remembrance.
She hadn’t changed. But that too was a falsehood. For she had indeed changed. She was older and, God damn it to hell, even more beautiful. Her fair hair was stylishly displayed with a long curl winding sinuously over her shoulder to settle within the V of her bountiful bosom, drawing in every red-blooded male’s eye. She was surrounded by men, of course, all making fools of themselves while vying for her attentions.
“What’s she doing here?” he almost spat out the words.
“I can tell you that, darling,” and Lady Elizabeth Somerset slid her hand through his arm. She rose up on her toes to whisper in his ear. “She’s here for you. She asked specifically to be introduced to Marcus Danvers, the Marquis of Wolverstone. Silly woman, she clearly has no idea that a man such as you- never forgets and never forgives.” At his raised eyebrows, Elizabeth added, “I always take the time to learn all about those I share my bed with.”
Marcus locked his jaw, distressed at the savage feelings Elizabeth’s words awakened in him. Had Sabine really come looking for him? Why?
He had thought his need for Sabine Fournier was long dead. Yet the raging pain running riot within him was witness to the truth—a man never forgets, nor forgives, his first love.
His only love.
He was not going to be stupid enough to allow himself to lose his heart ever again.
He’d learned his lesson and learned it very well.
Since Sabine, he’d had many, many women who were just as alluring, and just as beautiful, but none had ever touched his heart in the way Sabine had. He’d wanted her like he’d wanted no other. He’d been willing to sacrifice everything for her—even deny his family, his peers… He’d given her his very soul.
And she’d spat on it from a great height.
Bitter memories saw him slide his arm around Elizabeth and bend to place a scandalous kiss on the widow’s eager mouth, all the while holding Sabine’s defiant gaze.
Sabine didn’t even flinch and for some reason her calm indifference made Marcus’s temper soar.
He broke off his kiss and whispered in Elizabeth’s ear, “If she wants to talk with me, she’ll have to find me first. Come, where’s your bedchamber? Your guests can do without you for an hour, but I cannot.”
With an eager giggle, Elizabeth began pulling him toward the rear of the ballroom.
Marcus briefly paused at Henry’s loud sigh. “I’ll see you later then, in the card room?”
He flashed his best friend, Henry St. Giles, the Earl of Cravenswood, an apologetic smile. “Hold me a place. I won’t be long.” Henry rolled his eyes and strode with determination toward the card room, avoiding the mothers with marriageable daughters. Henry was regarded as a fine catch, while only those mothers desperate enough to approach a scandalous rake bothered about Marcus.
As Elizabeth led him from the overheated ballroom, he swore he could feel Sabine’s eyes shooting daggers at his back. He had no idea what she wanted and he didn’t care.
He didn’t wish to hear anything she said, for her mouth had produced only litanies of lies. Marcus cursed beneath his breath. Sabine had vowed that she loved him and yet she had shattered that declaration with her deceit.
He refused to look back at her. He hoped she regretted her choice now. As for himself, he deeply regretted the day he’d ever met her.
That encounter went better than Sabine had feared; better than she had expected. At least Marcus hadn’t turned and left the ball.
Still, her knees shook under her dress. Fortunately, no one seemed attuned to her plight. Most did not even know of her previous relationship with the handsome Marquis. Their relationship, such as it was, had finished over ten years ago. There was more current gossip to keep the braying pack at bay. Most members of the ton had even forgotten that she was Sabine Fournier. After all, back then she was nobody, a nonentity who’d tried to enter their world and she’d paid a terrible price for that vanity.
However, she was back. She was now a bona fide member of the ton. She was the widowed Contessa Orsini, a rich Italian widow. A widow Society had welcomed with open arms and she would do nothing to taint her position. The revenge she sought, Marcus would obtain for her. And after having glimpsed his demeanor this evening, she was even more certain of this.
Marcus Danvers, the legendary rake, who went through lovers like a dandy went through bright waistcoats. Marcus, the man who’d stolen her heart long before; now she’d fortified it but still her heart felt as if it was buried beneath an avalanche of pain.
She was proud of her ability to maintain her composure when he’d looked her over with such contempt. She refused to let him see how much his opinion still mattered to her. She obviously meant nothing to him. Her father had confessed in his last letter to her that he’d written to the Marquis explaining what had really occurred several years before, but that he’d received no reply.
It was then that she’d realized Marcus hadn’t really loved her. If he had, surely, even if he’d no longer wanted her for his wife, he would have forgiven her and perhaps even helped her.
But he was, after all, like every other man. They wanted her for only one thing.
Until Conte Roberto Orsini, that is.
Well, she was no longer the naïve girl who had sat waiting expectantly in the garden. It had taken her years to cleanse the ache of Marcus from her heart. Yet it took only one look at his stunning profile for the old yearning to return.
Her eyes filled with unwelcomed tears as she remembered the last time she had seen Marcus. Hidden in the attic, she watched as his two friends, Harlow Telford and Henry St. Giles had forcibly removed him from her father’s house after he’d been given the news of her elopement. Her father had lied to protect her. She’d no choice then but to betray Marcus.
Her heart had been cleaved in two when she registered his shocked desolation at her betrayal. Then she’d seen his anger. He’d gone berserk, smashing up the drawing room. Finally, his friends had managed to lead him outside. As he’d stepped into his carriage he had given the house one final black look and she had registered his chilled contempt. On that day, more than ten years ago, she’d deliberately killed any feelings he may have had for her.
Walking away from him had almost destroyed her. If it were not for her son, Alfredo, she would have shriveled up and died long ago.
There was no point telling Marcus the truth; the past could never be changed. He had moved on with his life and it would only bring him pain.
Besides, her enemy was still too powerful to confront directly. But indirectly, both Marcus and she could seek revenge. However, Marcus’s part in the revenge would be unknown to him. He would have no idea the man he was about to ruin was the cause of all their pain, and he never could. She would take that secret with her to the grave.
She inwardly smiled. It was the first genuine smile in a long while. If Marcus thought he could hide from her by engaging in a tryst with this evening’s wanton hostess, he was woefully mistaken. With an alluring smile on her lips, she glided through the crowds and slipped into the corridor, making her way toward the ladies’ retiring room, looking for Lady Somerset’s Abigail.
Rose stepped forward to meet her and Sabine followed her without comment as she was led up the backstairs. She knew her rush to reach Lady Somerset’s room had nothing to do with wanting to face Marcus so soon. Rather, it was because she had no wish to walk in on Marcus and his latest lover having sex.
She was strong, but not that strong.
Rose indicated that they’d reached Lady Somerset’s door and for a split second Sabine almost lost her nerve. Sweat dribbled between her breasts and her hand shook as she reached out and opened the door. With grim determination, she stepped forward into the brightly lit room.
The lovers were in a passionate embrace. Marcus had the bodice of Elizabeth’s dress down at her waist and his lips were pressed to the abundant flesh spilling above her corset. Worse, he too was naked from the waist up. She gave silent thanks that he was still wearing trousers for she had enough trouble thinking clearly with just his powerful chest exposed.
Even so, when he turned at her intrusion, Sabine froze in the doorway, caught in the hypnotizing power of his lust-filled gaze. Even across the short distance, she could feel the searing impact. Her lips parted and she drew a deep breath into her lungs, cursing the faint smile, slow and insolent, curving his mouth.
“Elizabeth, you naughty girl, you didn’t tell me Miss Fournier would be joining in our play. Such fun!”
Elizabeth tried to cover her horror with a weak giggle as she pulled up the bodice of her dress.
Collecting herself, Sabine walked further into the room. “It’s Contessa Orsini, actually. Lady Sabine Orsini.”
Marcus growled deep in his chest. “I think we both know you’re no lady.”
Gritting her teeth, Sabine moved further into the room trying to recruit her wits into some semblance of order. “Perhaps you should rejoin your guests, Lady Somerset. Lord Wolverstone and I have private matters to discuss.”
His eyes blazed with emotion, burning so fiercely, their anger threatening to scorch what confidence she had left.
“I’m not in this bedchamber for words. If you want to fuck, then by all means stay. If not, then I have no use for you.”
Elizabeth gasped, and being a clever woman, she knew when to retreat. She took one look at Marcus’s black countenance and quickly scurried from the room, slamming the door behind her.
Marcus’s crudity was meant to shock. He meant to push her away. But Sabine would not be pushed. Not anymore.
She moved to the chairs positioned around the blazing fire, averting her eyes from Marcus’s finely chiseled chest. “Stop acting like a petulant child. Ten years is a long time to carry a grudge.”
His eyes narrowed and he stalked toward her, his anger barely -contained. “Grudge! You have no idea….”
He was too close. She stepped back. Her throat closed up and she was unable to utter a reply. His fury swarmed around her like a smothering sand storm—abrasive and deadly. How he’d changed, physically, that is.
His shoulders were broader, his chest harder and his stomach rippled with finely attuned muscles. It was his face that had changed the most, Sabine noted. The fine, aristocratic features were still as striking as they’d been ten years ago. His high cheekbones and noble brow were just as handsome, yet more rugged. But his eyes—his beautiful amber eyes were cold. Once they’d been warm and soft, full of love and desire. Now they were cold, ice cold, harsh and unforgiving.
She’d always thought him charmingly handsome. Now he was ruthlessly gorgeous. It was all she could do to keep from reaching out to sooth away the frown lines from his forehead.
Sabine eyed him coolly. “Would you please mind putting your shirt back on? You may find some of the ladies swoon at such a blatant display of masculinity, but it has no effect on me.”
His mouth twisted slightly. A remnant of his old heart-melting smile, rife with sensual charm, emerged. “Liar!” and he reached out and brought her fingers to his lips, the kiss lingering against her glove. Sabine’s heart somersaulted violently in her chest. When he placed her hand on the naked skin of his chest, the heat made her body tighten with a jolt of pure, feminine desire—something she’d not felt in a very long time.
Not since—him, all those years ago…
She prayed he’d not noticed her reaction. But when she tore her gaze from where her hand lay and looked up, his wicked smile proved he knew exactly how his nearness had affected her. He was far too experienced to be fooled—especially by her.
Holding his mocking stare, Sabine, with great effort, refrained from withdrawing her hand from his body. Instead, she ran her fingers slowly down over his stomach, watching in satisfaction as the muscles flexed beneath her trailing fingers. He snatched her hand away just as she reached the band of his trousers.