London, England 1801
“Well,” Lady Oxley huffed, “I suppose there are worse things than having some cit’s daughter marry into your family, but for the life of me, I can’t think of it. Our bloodlines will be tainted by this forever.”
The Duchess of Cheverton, seated next to Lady Oxley, couldn’t agree more. “I fear for your standing, my dear. I do, indeed.”
“If there is some consolation, she did go to Miss Emery’s,” Lady Oxley conceded, though grudgingly.
“Miss Emery’s, you say?” The Duchess twisted in her seat and looked at the girl in question, eyeing her from top to bottom as if she were gauging the quality of a length of silk. “A mite young, wouldn’t you say? I daresay, she’s fresh and innocent.”
“Oh, she looks innocent enough,” Lady Oxley declared, ignoring the hot glances from the people in the other boxes who were actually watching the opera. “So there is some hope there. Gads, the trollops these merchants pass off as daughters is just appalling. My greatest fear is that Oxley will marry the chit and discover she’s been ruined. Oh, the shame of it.”
The word rang through the Oxley box and to everyone around them.
Miss Miranda Mabberly, the object of this scorn and speculation, wished herself a thousand miles away. Her cheeks burned with shame and embarrassment, not so much from her future mother-in-law’s loud denouncement, but that her mother and father were willing to sit here and listen to their good name being tossed about in such a ragtag fashion.
She wished right there and then that she was ruined.
Miranda took a deep breath and tried to concentrate on the performance on the boards, not the one Lady Oxley was staging here in her private box. This wasn’t the first time the lady had lamented her son’s betrothal in public, and it most likely wouldn’t be the last.
Still that one word rang in her ears. Ruined.
Not completely ruined, Miranda reasoned, for that was hardly proper, and despite Lady Oxley’s opinions, she was a proper young lady. Besides, being completely ruined went far beyond her knowledge on such matters.
Her mother nudged her, and whispered in her ear, “Gracious, child, smile! You are going to be a countess in a sennight.”
Miranda did her best to turn her lips upward, but it was hard to bear, despite the way her mother beamed over the wonderful news.
Why, such a match had exceeded even Mrs. Mabberly’s designs for her daughter. But Mr. Mabberly, a cit with the fortune of Midas behind him, had thought nothing of procuring for his only child the most lofty of husbands.
Yet no one in all this brokering and maneuvering and social engineering had ever thought to consult Miranda on the subject of marriage.
Her marriage, she would like to point out to her title—mad parents, Lord Oxley, and the various solicitors, bankers, and the earl’s numerous creditors who were arranging this blessed (and financial) union.
Didn’t anyone realize that in all this deal making, she was the one who was going to have marry Oxley. Take his name. Live in his house. And she shuddered to think of the next logical step in this progression—share his bed.
Not that marrying an earl was objectionable, for Miranda had gone to Miss Emery’s Establishment for the Education of Genteel Young Ladies and knew her duty to her family and country. But it was marrying this earl that Miranda found so objectionable.
Earls were supposed to be elegant and sophisticated. Charming company in any situation. A gentleman at all times, and well, frankly, more often than not, they should be a little bit heroic.
Was that too much to ask for?
Unfortunately, the Earl of Oxley was none of these things.
Even while his mother bemoaned his lowering match, the earl sat beside his future bride and boasted to anyone would listen about the pair of “goers” at Tattersall’s he’d picked up now that he had a little rich little “goer” of his own. Miranda had closed her eyes and snapped her mouth shut to refrain from telling the obtuse man that she thought he was putting the cart before the horse, since they weren’t married. Yet.
Oh, if only she was a little bit ruined, Miranda thought. Just enough so Oxley would cry off. So she could have a chance to find the man of her dreams. A knight in shining armor, who would love her for more than her fortune. A proper gentleman, who would kiss her gently and lovingly. Make her toes curl inside her slippers and her heart beat fast.
But such a fate seemed well beyond her grasp as the house lights came up and there was her “hero” beside her, leering at her as if she were a combination between a ripe peach and a bucket of gold. He sent her stomach lurching.
She would even have been content to marry a dull sort like Lord Sedgwick, if the man hadn’t already been wed to his delightful Emmaline.
If only Lady Sedgwick had been part of their party here at the Opera . . . she would have put Lady Oxley in her place and buoyed Miranda’s sagging spirits in that sparkling way of hers.
Instead, she had only Lord Sedgwick’s company, and he was quite preoccupied by some problem given the deep crease in his brow. Even if he hadn’t seemed so worried, Miranda knew it was hardly proper to pour her heart out to the staid baron, no matter how exceptional Lady Sedgwick claimed him to be.
So instead, Miranda made a hasty excuse to her mother as the intermission began, ignoring the good woman’s protests that she should leave “poor Oxley” alone and fled the box, looking for some place to escape if only until they darkened the lights again.
What she found was an alcove in the back of the hall, far from the rest of the ton, who were parading about the opera, showing off new gowns or gossiping about the latest news.
There in the privacy of that darkened corner, Miranda gave herself over to a very improper spate of tears. She cried until the bell rang for everyone to return to their seats. The humiliation of it all! She was no better than one of the horses down at Tattersall’s.
Bloodlines, indeed! Miranda’s mother had come from a good and noble family—one with a far greater history than anything Lady Oxley could claim, and in that proud tradition, Miranda wiped away the evidence of her despair and straightened her shoulders, girding herself for the rest of the evening.
For the rest of her life. But suddenly her life took a very different turn.
“Giselle, my dearest goddess, how glad I am to see you,” a man whispered into her ear, taking her by the hand and spinning her around. She flew into his chest and before she could utter a word, he caught her lips in a searing kiss.
Miranda struggled against the rogue, twisting in his grasp, her hands balling up and pounding at his shoulders. Oh, dear heavens!
Her eyes sprang open. Lord John Tremont? Kissing her? Dear heavens, didn’t he know this wasn’t proper?
Obviously not, for his lips teased and taunted hers, and when she opened her mouth to protest, his tongue swiped across hers, sending the most frightening thrill through her limbs—the kind she could never have imagined.
Why, it made her toes curl up inside her slippers. No wonder most of the ton called him Mad Jack Tremont.
For this, this spell he was casting over her was utter madness!
She continued to struggle (only because she knew she was supposed to), and Mad Jack responded by pressing her up against the wall, pinning her in place with his hips, making his point that there was no escape.
Miranda gasped as his entire body covered hers, left her with an intimate knowledge of this man’s intent, for there it was, hard and insistent, riding against her.
And worst of all, she wanted to feel it. His kiss, his touch, the feel of his body, it made her ache in response to having him up against her.
Oh, this wasn’t proper.
She was betrothed. To another man. Whose name she couldn’t for the life of her remember at the moment.
A man, she dared venture, who would never kiss her like this.
Not teasing her tongue to come play with him, tugging at her bottom lip with his teeth, nor deepening his kiss until a soft moan whispered and trembled up from within her.
For one wondrous moment, she clung to him, let him kiss her, let his hand travel up the length of her hip, rising along her waist. His touch brought with it this tantalizing glimpse of the very temptation that made innocence seem a poor commodity.
Ruin me, she thought. Ruin me, thoroughly.
That is, until his fingers roamed higher, until they came to cup her breast, rolling over her nipple. His touch sent shockwaves through her body, made her thighs clench together, made her ache down there.
She sucked in a deep breath and rose up on her toes. Oh, dear heavens, this was too much. She struggled to issue a protest, to flee all the way back to her betrothed, even as his expert and talented fingers teased her bodice open leaving her breast exposed—and if that wasn’t bad enough—he was taking advantage of her nakedness by letting his mouth roam over her soft, silken flesh, leaving her nipple hardened and puckered, her knees buckling beneath her.
“So my sweetling, show me where we can be alone,” he whispered into her ear, the scent of brandy assailing her senses, “and I’ll make good my promise to see you well completed before the curtain arises.”
There was more?
Oh, dear heavens, how could that be ? How could she stand more of this torment?
But that was the least of her worries as just then she spied her mother and future mother-in-law standing a few feet away. Lady Oxley gaped in shock, and her mother looked positively ill.
“Leave me be!” she sputtered, trying to get free of him, but to her horror, the lace on her sleeve caught on one of his buttons and held her tangled in his arms just that much longer.
It was then that Lady Oxley found her voice and the screaming began, the lady’s deafening shrieks bringing an end to Miranda’s betrothal, and leaving her utterly ruined…