Dartmouth, England, 1794
elacorte? You’re looking remarkably bloody-minded for a ball. Even for you. Are you planning to dance with whomever you’ve set your sights on, or thrash them?”
Rupert Delacorte, Viscount Darling, ignored the amused remark of his friend Hugh McAlden and concentrated on his quarry. It should be a difficult thing to hate a woman one had never seen before, but Del looked across the expansive ballroom at the beautiful woman descending the stairs and reckoned he’d manage just fine. Because hate her he did. With a cold, implacable fury that seethed deep within him, burning unabated throughout his long year of mourning, like molten lava hidden beneath an icy mountain, until, at long last, the time had come for justice.
No matter what, no matter the consequences or social carnage, he was going to make her pay for her misdeeds. His deep-seated sense of justice demanded it. He was going to ruin her elegant, effortless life just as surely and as ruthlessly as she had ruined Emily’s.
“Haven’t decided.” Del tossed back a small measure of brandy to swallow the stinging taste of bitterness that always rose in his gullet at the thought of Emily, his adored younger sister.
She had been his anchor, his compass. Without her, he had come unmoored, adrift and without purpose. For a year, he had rashly and stupidly tried to blunt the pain of Emily’s loss with liquor, fornication, and a recklessness that might have seen a lesser man to his grave. But nothing had helped.
Emily was dead. And it was the fault of the woman across the room. Celia Burke.
The drink of potent liquor sent small licking tongues of fire through his chest, feeding the flames of his ire. He would permit himself only one, small drink. He couldn’t afford the continued self-indulgence of blissful, drunken oblivion. Not since he had received the bloody blackmail letter and found out about Celia Burke.
The mere thought of her betrayal nearly sent him howling with rage. No wonder he looked bloody-minded. He felt murderous. That carelessly scrawled demand for his money and his silence had overthrown all his beliefs, all his love, and all his hopes. That one letter had obliterated all the letters that had come before, and left both his past and his future in tatters.
Del had not known who she was when he first laid eyes upon her, but he instinctively didn’t like her. He distrusted beauty. Because beauty walked hand in hand with privilege—unearned privilege. And she was certainly beautiful. Tall, elegant, with porcelain white skin, a riot of sable dark curls and deep dark eyes—a symphony of black and white. She surveyed the ballroom like a queen: haughty, serene, remote, and exquisitely beautiful. Beauty had a way of diverting unpleasantness and masking grievous flaws of character. It was not to be trusted.
Her name was confirmed by others attending the select ball at the Marquess and Marchioness of Widcombe’s. It wafted to him on champagne-fueled murmurs in the hot, crowded room: “Dear Celia,” and “Our Miss Burke.” Others seemed to call her The Ravishing Miss Burke, as if it were her title and she the only one to wear that crown.
The Ravishing Miss Celia Burke. A well-known, and even more well-liked local beauty. She made her serene, graceful way down the short set of stairs into the ballroom as effortlessly as clear water flowed over rocks in a hillside stream. She nodded and smiled in a benign but uninvolved way at all who approached her, but she never stopped to converse. She processed on, following her mother through the parting sea of mere mortals, those lesser human beings who were nothing and nobody to her but playthings.
Aloof, perfect Celia Burke.
By God, he would take his revenge and Emily would have justice. Maybe then he could sleep at night.
Maybe then he could learn to live with himself.
But he couldn’t exact the kind of revenge one takes on another man—straightforward, violent, and bloody. He couldn’t call Miss Burke out on the middle of the dance floor and put a bullet between her eyes or a sword blade between her ribs at dawn.
His justice would have to be more subtle, but no less thorough. And no less ruthless.
“You were the one who insisted we attend this august gathering. So what’s it to be, Delacorte?” Commander Hugh McAlden, friend, naval officer, and resident cynic, prompted again.
McAlden was one of the few people who never addressed Del by his courtesy title, Viscount Darling, as they’d known each other long before he’d come into the bloody title and far too long for Del to give himself airs in front of such an old friend. With such familiarity came ease. With McAlden, Del could afford the luxury of being blunt.
“Dancing or thrashing? The latter, I think.”
McAlden’s usually grim mouth crooked up in half a smile. “A thrashing, right here in the Marchioness’s ballroom? I’d pay good money to see that.”
“Would you? Shall we have a private bet, then?”
“Del, I always like it when you’ve got that look in your eye. I’d like nothing more than a good wager.”
“A bet, Colonel Delacorte? What’s the wager? I’ve money to burn these days, thanks to you two.” Another naval officer, Lieutenant Ian James, known from their time together when Del had been an officer of His Majesty’s Marine Forces aboard the frigate
, broke into the conversation from behind.
“A private wager only, James.” Del would need to be more circumspect. James was a bit of a puppy, happy and eager, but untried in the more manipulative ways of society. There was no telling what he might let slip. Del had no intention of getting caught in the net he was about to cast. “Save your fortune in prize money for another time.”
“A gentleman’s bet then, Colonel?”
bet. Del felt his mouth curve up in a scornful smile. What he was about to do violated every code of gentlemanly behavior. “No. More of a challenge.”
“He’s Viscount Darling now, Mr. James.” McAlden gave Del a mocking smile. “We have to address him with all the deference he’s due.”
Unholy glee lit the young man’s face. “I had no idea. Congratulations, Colonel. What a bloody fine name. I can hear the ladies now:
my dearest, darling Darling
. How will they resist you?”
Del merely smiled and took another drink. It was true. None of them resisted: high-born ladies, low-living trollops, barmaids, island girls, or senoritas. They never had, bless their lascivious hearts.
And neither would
, despite her remote facade. Celia Burke was nothing but a hothouse flower just waiting to be plucked.
“Go on, then. What’s your challenge?” McAlden’s face housed a dubious smirk as several more navy men, Lieutenants Thomas Gardener and Robert Scott, joined them.
“I propose I can openly court, seduce, and ruin an untried, virtuous woman”—Del paused to give them a moment to remark upon the condition he was about to attach—“without ever once touching her.”
McAlden gave a huff of cynical laughter. “Too easy in one sense, too hard in another,” he stated flatly.
“How can you possibly ruin someone without touching them?” Ian James protested.
Del felt his mouth twist. He had forgotten what it was like to be that young. While he was only six and twenty, he’d grown older since Emily’s death. Vengeance was singularly aging.
“Find us a drink would you, gentlemen? A real drink. None of the lukewarm swill they’re passing out on trays.” Del pushed the young lieutenants off in the direction of a footman.
“Too easy to ruin a reputation with only a rumor,” McAlden repeated in his unhurried, determined way. “You’ll have to do better than that.”
Trust McAlden to get right to the heart of the matter. Like Del, McAlden had never been young, and he was older in years, as well.
“With your reputation,” McAlden continued as they turned to follow the others, “well deserved, I might add, you’ll not get within a sea mile of a virtuous woman.”
“That, old man, shows how little you know of women.”
“That, my darling Viscount, shows how little you know of their mamas.”
“I’d like to keep it that way. Hence the prohibition against touching. I plan on keeping a very safe distance.” While he was about the business of revenging himself on Celia Burke, he needed to keep himself safe from being forced into doing the right thing should his godforsaken plan be discovered or go awry. And he simply didn’t
to touch her. He didn’t want to be tainted by so much as the merest brush of her hand.
“Can’t seduce, really
, from a distance. Not even you. Twenty guineas says it can’t be done.”
“Twenty? An extravagant wager for a flinty, tight-pursed Scotsman like you. Done.” Del accepted the challenge with a firm handshake. It sweetened the pot, so to speak.
McAlden perused the crowd. “Shall we pick now? I warn you, Del, this isn’t London. There’s plenty of virtue to be had in Dartmouth.”
“Why not?” Del felt his mouth curve into a lazy smile. The town may have been full of virtue, but he was full of vice. He cared about only one particular woman’s virtue.
“You’ll want to be careful. Singularly difficult things, women,” McAlden offered philosophically. “Can turn a man inside out. Just look at Marlowe.”
Del shrugged. “Captain Marlowe married. I do not have anything approaching marriage in mind.”
“So you’re going to seduce and ruin an innocent without being named or caught? That
“I didn’t say innocent. I said untried. In this case, there is a particular difference.” He looked across the room at Celia Burke again. At the virtuous, innocent face she presented to the world. He would strip away that mask until everyone could see the ugly truth behind her immaculately polished, social veneer.
McAlden followed the line of his gaze. “You can’t mean—That’s Celia Burke!” All trace of jaded amusement disappeared from McAlden’s voice. “Jesus, Del, have you completely lost your mind? As well as all moral scruples?”
“Gone squeamish?” Del tossed back the last of his drink. “That’s not like you.”
her. Everyone in Dartmouth knows her. She is Marlowe’s wife’s most particular friend. You can’t go about ruining—
for God’s sake—innocent young women like her. Even
“I said she’s
“Then you must’ve misjudged her. She’s not fair game, Del. Pick someone else. Someone I don’t know.” McAlden’s voice was growing thick.
“No.” Darling kept his own voice flat.
McAlden’s astonished countenance turned back to look at Miss Burke, half a room away, smiling sweetly in conversation with another young woman. He swore colorfully under his breath. “That’s not just bloody-minded, that’s suicidal. She’s got parents, Del. Attentive parents. Take a good hard look at her mama, Lady Caroline Burke. She’s nothing less than the daughter of a Duke, and is to all accounts a complete gorgon in her own right. They say she eats fortune hunters, not to mention an assortment of libertines like you, for breakfast. What’s more, Miss Burke is a relation of the Marquess of Widcombe, in whose ballroom you are currently
. This isn’t London. You are a guest here. My guest, and therefore Marlowe’s guest. One misstep like that and they’ll have your head. Or, more likely, your ballocks. And quite rightly. Pick someone else for your challenge.”
“Bugger off, Hugh.”
McAlden knew Del well enough to hear the implacable finality in his tone. Hugh shook his head slowly. “God’s balls, Del. I didn’t think I’d regret so quickly having you to stay.” He ran his hand through his short, cropped hair and looked at Del with a dawning of realization. “Christ. You’d already made up your mind before you came here, hadn’t you? You came for her.”
Under such scrutiny, Del could only admit the truth. “I did.”
“Damn your eyes, Delacorte. This can only end badly.”
Del shrugged with supreme indifference. “That will suit me well enough.”
It was called blackmail, though the letter secreted in Celia Burke’s pocket was not, in actuality, black. It had looked innocuous enough: the same ivory-colored paper as all the other mail, brought to her on a little silver tray borne by the butler, Loring. It would have been much better if the letter had actually been black, because then Celia would have known not to open it. She would have flung it into the fire before it could poison her life irrevocably. The clenching grip of anxiety deep in her belly was proof enough the poison had already begun its insidious work.
“Celia, darling? Are you all right? Smile, my dear. Smile.” Lady Caroline Burke whispered her instructions for her daughter’s ears only, as she smiled and nodded to her many acquaintances in the ballroom as though she hadn’t a care in the world.
Celia shoved her unsteady hand into her pocket to reassure—
—herself the letter was still there. And still real. She had not dreamt up this particular walking nightmare.