Proper decorum has never come easily to Carlotta Anne Fairleigh -- not even tonight, when the lovely, impetuous miss is finally making her debut. As she waits to make her entrance, she can't help wondering about the darkened house next door, the supposedly abandoned home of Hayden St. Clair, the man society has dubbed the "Murderous Marquess." Certainly one small peek through his window before the festivities would be harmless ...
And, naturally, this latest "adventure" ends in disaster, thoroughly compromising the budding debutante's reputation and leaving her suddenly, unthinkably ... betrothed! Soon she's en route to the wilds of Cornwall in the company of the handsome, mysterious marquess whose name the ton whisper with fear and loathing.
Yet there is something thrilling -- and surprisingly tender -- about her dark, unreachable groom, and the desire in his eyes is undeniable. But before Lottie will surrender to the yearnings in her heart, she must unlock the secrets of Hayden's past, no matter how scandalous -- or perilous -- they may be.
Carlotta Anne Fairleigh was coming out. Unfortunately, what she was coming out of at the moment was both her elaborate ball gown and the second-story window of her aunt Diana's May-fair mansion. She might have managed the latter without incident if the silk flounces adorning the bodice of her gown hadn't become entangled in a nailhead protruding from the inside of the windowsill.
"Harriet!" Lottie whispered frantically. "Harriet, where are you? I'm in dire need of your assistance!"
She craned her neck to peer into the cozy sitting room she'd inhabited quite comfortably until only a few minutes ago. A fluffy white cat drowsed on the hearth, but Harriet, like all of Lottie's good fortune, seemed to have vanished.
"Where has that silly goose of a girl gone?" she muttered.
As she struggled to work the ruffle free of the nail, the slick soles of her kid slippers danced and skidded along the tree branch that jutted out just below her, vainly seeking purchase.
She stole a reluctant glance over her shoulder, her arms aching from the effort. The flagstones of the terrace below, which had seemed so attainable only minutes before, now seemed leagues away. She considered bellowing for a footman, but feared it was her brother who would come running and discover her predicament. Although only two years her elder, George had recently returned from his first Grand Tour of the Continent and was only too eager to lord his newfound sophistication over his baby sister.
The discordant strains of a string quartet tuning their instruments wafted out of the French windows on the north side of the house. In a very short time, Lottie knew she would hear the clatter of carriage wheels and the murmur of voices and welcoming laughter as the cream of London aristocracy arrived to herald her debut into their society. They would have no way of knowing their guest of honor was hanging out of a window two stories above, having forfeited her one stab at respectability.
She might not have found herself in such a predicament if Sterling Harlow, her brother-in-law and guardian, had hosted her debut at Devonbrooke House, his sprawling West End mansion. But his cousin Diana had cajoled him into conceding the honor to her.
It took no great leap of Lottie's overactive imagination to envision her aunt's guests gathered around her broken body as it lay sprawled on the flagstones. The women would press their scented kerchiefs to their lips to muffle their sobs while the men "tsked" and "tutted" beneath their breath, murmuring what a terrible pity it was that they would be forever deprived of her vivacious company. She gave the rich violet poplin of her skirt a rueful glance. If the gown didn't suffer too much wear on the way down, perhaps her family could bury her in it.
It was only too easy to imagine their reaction as well. Her sister, Laura, would hide her tear-blotched face in her husband's lapels, her tender heart broken for the last time by Lottie's foolhardiness. But most damning of all would be the bitter disappointment etched on her brother-in-law's handsome features. Sterling had spent considerable time, care, patience, and money to mold her into a lady. Tonight had been her last chance to prove to him that all of his efforts had not been in vain.
Lottie might have still been sitting in front of the dressing table in the sitting room had her best friend Harriet not come trotting into the room just as her aunt's abigail was putting the finishing touches on Lottie's hair.
Recognizing the hectic patches of color staining Harriet's cheeks, Lottie had quickly risen from the dressing table. "Thank you, Celeste. That will be all."