Authors: Bronwyn Scott
Viscount Jamie Burke: the master of the indecent proposition.
Craving adventure, the beautiful Daphne de Courtenay leaves her usual sense of family duty at the society ball door and impulsively accepts the invitation of a dashing stranger who promises a night of unadulterated liberty!
Jamie is determined to show Daphne the infinite pleasures of London after dark… But with each escapade more deliciously thrilling than the last, the usually roguish Viscount wishes this was one night that never had to end…
How to Live Indecently
The Folkestone town house, London
May 1835, 8:00 p.m.
Jamie Burke would rather be anywhere but here. “Here” being the annual Folkestone Starry Night Gala, his mother’s own ball, considered by the best of London society as
gateway to the first great events of the season.
He respectfully disagreed.
Jamie leaned on the stone balustrade of the Folkestone town house, a champagne flute precariously dangling over the edge from one negligent hand, and surveyed the lantern-festooned garden with a jaded eye. The garden, like the ballroom inside, was turned out to perfection; elegant with no pretensions toward gaudiness; a vision to entice the eye and entrap the unwary. Not unlike the brilliantly colored Indian red sand boa he’d read about recently. More than one gentleman had had his freedom strangled from an unwise venture into lantern-lit gardens.
He should go back inside and play the good host. He was expected to be the supportive son. That meant dancing with a multitude of white-gowned girls his mother deemed likely aspirants to be his wife, the next Viscountess Knole.
Jamie dreaded the prospect. He’d be thirty-one in four weeks. It was time to marry. He’d known this day would come, yet he could muster little excitement for either it or his mother’s pattern-card candidates: all young, all polite, all passably pretty and every last one of them blank slates for their future husbands to write on. He knew men who preferred their wives that way. He was not among their number. He liked a woman who knew her own mind.
Jamie sighed. Indoors, the ball was just getting under way. He could hear the musicians in the gallery tuning their instruments. He really should go in. Outside lay a lingering illusion of freedom. Inside lay his future, and a fairly stagnant one at that. He knew what his mother expected; he was to marry one of them, one of those innocent, empty girls from good families. It was a daunting prospect to think his wife was only feet away beyond the bank of French doors and yet he had no idea who she was.
Jamie drew a fortifying breath and halted, his return to the ballroom arrested by movement a little farther down the veranda. A slim blue-gowned figure slipped outside, casting a furtive glance behind her. Intriguing. Perhaps she was a refugee like himself.
She threw a look to her left, then to her right, revealing her face. The ethereal beauty of her invoked an entirely manly response in him. She was lovely, her pale gold hair already coming down from an elaborate coiffure, framing indigo eyes with its errant spill; a wayward angel who’d strayed from heaven. Such an image conjured up a host of reactions; some protective—such a creature should not be left to wander ballroom verandas alone; some primal—such a creature was not for just any man. She was for
. For the first time in a long while, Jamie Burke felt the stirrings of longing, the stirrings of life.
The angel in blue saw him and started in surprise, something akin to hope crumpling briefly in her expression at the sight of another. Disappointment was not the usual response women had when they saw him. Had she expected to be alone? His intrigue ratcheted up another notch. Jamie smiled congenially and raised his glass in a toasting salute. “Welcome to the veranda. Hiding from someone?”
He moved toward her, not wanting to converse at a fourteen-foot distance. She pasted on a smile he was certain was forced. “I felt a headache coming on and decided to get some fresh air.”
He heard the briefest of hesitations in her voice, saw the quickly veiled anxiety in her eyes and knew that wasn’t the whole of it, or even the half. “You’re not very good at dissembling,” he said lightly, hoping his tone would help her relax. He had no interest in betraying her secrets, whatever they might be.
She looked affronted. “Are you suggesting I am not telling the truth?”
Jamie smiled, enjoying himself thoroughly. “A gentleman would never put it so bluntly. However, I’d bet five quid you don’t have a headache.”
She huffed a bit and tossed her pale gold hair, her dark blue eyes flashing with indignation over having been found out. “All right, I’m hiding.” Her confession pleased him. She’d decided to trust him, at least a little. Jamie considered that progress.
“Isn’t it a little early for that? The dancing hasn’t even started.” He looked past her to see if a hulking brute of a suitor had followed her out.
She shot a pointed glance at the flute in his hand. “Isn’t it a little early for
“It’s never too early for champagne, especially when it’s Veuve Clicquot.” Jamie offered her the glass. “I haven’t touched it. It’s still cold even, and I think you need it more than I do.”
She smiled and sipped, her eyes holding his over the rim of the flute. Jamie thought the sacrifice well worth it, watching the gold liquid slide past pink lips and down the slender column of her throat.
“I’m hiding from my mother if you must know,” she said without provocation, resting the flute on the balustrade.
“Then we have something in common. I’m hiding from mine too.”
She smiled again, relaxing. She took another swallow of champagne. “Really? Mine wants me to meet a gentleman. I’m supposed to impress him and make a good match, thus saving the family coffers from eventual but certain poverty.” She fixed her indigo stare on him and turned serious, her fingers idly twisting the stem of the flute. “I don’t know why I’m telling you this. I don’t even know you.”
“Perhaps that’s the best reason of all,” Jamie offered in low tones, sensing the desperation that welled deep in her no matter how hard she tried to hide it. It was a desperation not unlike the one that had driven him to the veranda. She was close enough now that he could smell the light jasmine scent of her, soft and yet evocative. It suited her. She might look like an angel, but she was not a complacent one. He’d seen the indignant fire in her eyes when he’d called her out.
“You don’t want to meet the gentleman?” Jamie probed. In his experience women were usually quite eager to meet marriageable men. “Is he ugly? Does he have dissipated habits or a hundred children he wants you to raise?”
She laughed at his hyperbole and shrugged. “I don’t know. I don’t even know his name or what he looks like. Isn’t that terrible? I don’t want to be bartered away even if it means saving my family. Not yet at least. I’d like to live a little, have an adventure all my own without worrying about what to say, what to do, what to wear or who to meet.”
Jamie’s pulse quickened. It was indeed a desperation like his own, one driven by more than the singular incident of meeting this gentleman or that young lady. It was a hunger for liberty, for the freedom to throw off the shackles of family and responsibility.
She gave a small, self-deprecating laugh. “I’m a very bad daughter, I’m afraid. The truth is, I’d rather be anywhere but here, regardless of the cost, I think.”
His sentiments exactly
. Jamie shot a glance over the gardens, a mad scheme taking shape in his mind. London lay beyond the fence, beyond the lanterns. He looked his angel in the eye. “Then let’s be there.” With four words he laid down his temptation, testing the conviction of both their thoughts. He was tired of merely thinking he could leave the veranda. Tonight, he
leave the veranda and she could come with him, if she dared. He wagered she would.
“What? Where?” Her brow puckered into the tiniest of furrows.
“Anywhere. Let’s be
.” Now that he’d committed to it, he was anxious to be off; down the veranda, over the garden, out the gate. His family would have a collective apoplexy. What he proposed was nearly unthinkable even to him. But not nearly as unthinkable as staying.
“You’re mad!” But she was laughing again, and the smile she tossed him lit her face, proving he hadn’t misjudged her. If he was mad, she was a little mad too.
“Well, why not?” Jamie pressed, sensing she could be persuaded. She only needed to see the logic of his proposal.
“My mother and your mother,” she sputtered, groping for a legitimate rebuttal to his outlandish suggestion. “It’s simply not done.”
“Perhaps it should be,” Jamie countered with a negligent shrug of his shoulder. Neither of us wants to be here.”
“But the consequences!” she protested, perhaps more for form. “Do I have to spell them out for you? If we’re caught—”
“We won’t be.” Jamie interrupted with supreme confidence, although they both knew he couldn’t really guarantee it. “Even if we’re caught, the benefits outweigh the consequences. Surely one night of freedom is worth the risk.”
He’d made his case. It was up to her. “It’s now or never, my angel. Once the music ends, people will wander out.” He held out his hand and it seemed in that moment everything hung in the balance, hinging on her acceptance.
Prove to me you’re everything I think you are. Prove to me you’re different
, Jamie silently willed.
For a split second he thought he’d lost her then her chin set in defiance, her shoulders squared and she reached for the champagne glass, downing the contents in a final swallow. “To the benefits,” she said resolutely, placing her hand in his. “Let’s go.”
Jamie closed his fingers around her gloved hand and tucked it through the crook of his arm. “This way, my lady, our adventure awaits.”
He’d meant to sedately walk across the garden and remain inconspicuous while they sauntered toward the gate, but the music stopped inside, signaling the end of the first dance. They exchanged a glance of mutual horror. They’d waited too long.
She might be ready to admit defeat, but he wasn’t, not by a long shot. He wasn’t giving up one last night of freedom because a quadrille had ended. Jamie leaned close to her ear and whispered one word. “Run.”
He led them through the garden toward the back gate hidden cleverly by ivy. With a last glance back to the empty veranda, Jamie flipped the gate latch and they slipped out into the night. In his mind the madness was starting to make sense; a riot of plans, a tumble of destinations was taking shape.
“What shall we do first?” His angel was breathless with excitement beside him as they spilled into the alley, shutting the gate firmly behind them.
Jamie gave her a wink. “It’s not what we’re going to do, it’s what we’re
going to do.” Tonight they would not bow to the dictates of society; tonight, he and his angel could go anywhere, do anything. Tonight, they were free.
She’d taken utter and complete leave of her senses!
Daphne de Courtenay still couldn’t believe she’d actually done it. Well, essentially she could. She’d thought of doing it, of simply walking away, for so long it seemed somewhat natural to have finally followed through.