A Breath of Scandal
Shockingly brash and scandalously independent, the Reckless Brides are boldly rewriting the rules of love and marriage—one smitten bachelor at a time…
In the game of kiss and tell, there are no rules…
THE LADY IS A KNOCKOUT
Forced by her family into an engagement with a man she can never abide, Antigone Preston knows only a scandal will save her from a loveless marriage. But knocking a man down to the ballroom floor with her fists brings dangerous consequences. She may have ruined her reputation, but now she’s endangered her heart…
THE OFFICER IS A GENTLEMAN
The son of an earl and a career navy man, Captain William Jellicoe has no interest in the frivolities of London—and even less in the institution of marriage. But there’s something steering him toward Antigone. He has never met anyone as brazen and unconventional as…himself. But will he risk it all for a woman who still has the breath of scandal hot on her lips?
Commander William Arthur Jellicoe missed the sea. He missed the clean salt tang of the air, he missed the steady rise and fall of the deck beneath his feet, and most of all, he missed the deep sense of purpose in fulfilling his duty. As far as he could tell, the land offered nothing but inactivity, pretense, and until a few moments ago, death by boredom.
He had almost been saved from such an ignominious end by the timely intervention of an avenging angel in the earthly form of a marvelous slip of a girl, who had dispatched Gerry Stubbs-Haye in front of his very eyes, with all the aplomb of a twenty-year bos’un. It had been brilliantly done.
But the matrons were hauling her away like a merciless press-gang before he could do anything more than speak to her. Before he had even gotten her name.
“Antigone Preston.” The gossips supplied it with hungry, spiteful delight, like sharks circling in the water, ready to strike at the smell of blood.
The rigors of battle frightened him not a whit, but ten years at sea in the exclusive company of men had left him feeling ill-prepared for the damnable hidden agendas of the rumor-mongering matrons of even country ballrooms. The damn room glowed from the warm light of hundreds of candles, and the air was thick with the smell of beeswax, the heavy scent of too much French perfume, and the heady opiate of fresh scandal. Will thought he would choke.
He had been there less than an hour and was already contemplating something neither he, nor any of his previous naval commanders had ever considered—a hasty retreat.
God’s balls. This is what he had come to—uselessly propping up the walls of country drawing rooms.
He needed a drink.
A real drink, not the lukewarm champagne footmen were passing out on trays as a diversion from the set-to on the dance floor. The damned starched cravat was strangling him, and the form-fitting evening coat he had been made to borrow from his slightly smaller older brother felt as hot and tight as a shroud. Why he could not have been allowed to appear in his own comfortable, albeit worn uniform, was beyond him, but so were most of society’s strictures. Like the strictures that said a crowded ball was a worthwhile way to pass one’s evenings. If it were already this bad his first week back on land, before his family repaired to London for the Season, the coming months would be nothing short of torture.
William shoved himself away from his post against the wall, and ducked down a corridor, steadfastly avoiding the eyes of any female, whom it seemed, always wanted to dance. He had agreed only to escort his mother and sister—he drew the line at dancing with every wallflower in the place. Young ladies’ minds were full of desperate agility—they made the mental jump from dance partner to wife in once graceful leap.
And William was not in the market for a wife. Definitely not. That was his older brother’s job, to get himself a wife, an heir, and a spare. But without active employment, Will was adrift, out of his element, restless and dissatisfied having been turned ashore at the prime age of two and twenty, but he was determined that the little time he had allotted himself ashore would be spent as pleasantly as possible until a ship should come ready and he might be called back into service.
Yet, with Napoleon exiled to the island of Elba, it was proving to be a long, thirsty wait. And not one he wanted to pass in the company of giggling, marriage-minded chits and their managing mamas. Or his own managing mama.
He thought of the card room, but while he was in the mood for something to pass the interminable time, his brother had thoughtfully warned him that Lord Barrington’s guests played notoriously deep, and he wasn’t about to waste his hard-earned fortune, or use up his luck on something so foolish as card games.
So Will prowled down the dimly lit hallways looking for a more likely place to moor up. There had to be a suitably masculine room—one that contained a drinks tray—along one of these damned endless corridors. His long-legged stride took him around another corner, where the low, orange light shining from beneath a door led him to the perfect haven—a private library, its walls covered in bookshelves and its tall windows mercifully cracked open to the bracing, damp night air.
The room looked to be a wood-paneled sanctuary—a safe, snug harbor where he could while away the evening until he was called to escort his mother and sister home. If there were a just God, the room would house a decanter of brandy.
He shut the door behind him and made for the tray beside a couple of deep armchairs near the low-burning hearth, when a small noise—the faint clinking of glass—made him swivel toward the bookshelves.
Well, damn his lucky eyes. It was she—the girl from the dance floor. The one who had knocked Gerry Stubbs-Haye down with a carronade of a right. Miss Antigone Preston, the girl with the name straight out of myth—literature’s first true heroine, who had to choose between dishonor and death.
In the half-dark of the firelight, she looked much less the athletic Amazon than she had standing over old Stubby’s prone form. At this distance, her chin, though tipped up defiantly, had a definite wobble.
And, if the dark, liquid shine in her eyes was any indication, she looked near tears.
Oh, fuck all. Will had a definite weak spot for young women in distress. Half the whores on Gibraltar knew that all they had to do to earn a coin was gift him with a tear and a tale of woe. But if there were to be tears and tales of woe, a decent drink was an absolute necessity.
Before he could recover his gentlemanly instincts, she brightened. “Oh. It’s you.” And without another word, she turned her back and bent down to peer into a cabinet.
Which treated Will to an absolutely spectacular view of the young woman’s backside. In the current fashion of the moment, she was clothed in a soft, high-waisted gown of some indeterminate, virginal color, which ought to have appeared demure, but which flowed over her body in a foamy, liquid wave. He tried not to stare, but her lean curves appeared very nice indeed, especially the way they seemed to dissolve into a pair of very long legs.
This was a sight for which the land seemed admirably suited, and one which he had not had the pleasure of viewing for quite some time.
William’s curiosity, as well as another, less cerebral part of his anatomy, was piqued.
It took him a moment to drag his brain, and his voice, back up into his throat. “May I be of some assistance to you?” It seemed only polite to ask while he stood there perusing her lovely derrière.
“I doubt it.” She didn’t even spare him a second glance, but continued to rattle through the cabinets.
“What are you doing?” Not that he didn’t mind the view.
“Getting a decent drink,” she said with some asperity. With that she stood and turned, bottle in hand, having excavated one of Lord Barrington’s finer French cognacs from the dark recesses of the cabinet. In the low light, the strong architecture of her almost plain face was thrown into relief. She looked as ardent as a ship’s figurehead, long and slender in her flowing gown, with her chin tossed up, daring him to gainsay her.
Not in a thousand years. “Well done,” he said instead, and turned to cross the dark, patterned carpet to the tray, from which he produced two crystal glasses. “I hope you don’t mind if I join you?”
Her surprise was evident in the look she gave him—a combination of chary, narrow suspicion, with her lips pressing together and her eyes creasing ever so slightly at the corners, and the beginnings of a smile. Whatever it was, it forestalled the tears. “You’re not going to fuss?”
He shook his head even as he smiled. “No. Should I?”
One straight brow bowed up and away over that pert smile, telling him she knew just as well as he that young ladies ought not drink anything stronger than punch, or perhaps wine at dinner. And certainly not clandestine cognac. “Or tattle?”
As long as she didn’t cry, or giggle, he didn’t give a cold damn what she drank. But she certainly didn’t look like a giggler. She looked a bit plain, and wounded perhaps, but somehow interesting in a very direct way. And she had the bottle.
Will raised his hand in solemn pledge. “I am an officer of His Majesty’s Royal Navy. I do not ‘tattle.’ I assure you, you can trust me.”
She made a sound that was very nearly a sneer. “Trust. I don’t think I should trust anyone.”
“Then you are smart. And I like clever girls. I like girls who have cognac even better.”
“Do you?” Her eyes flicked over him, up and down—a quick appraisal.
He gave her his best version of a charming grin. “Yes. I consider your intention most refreshing.”
“Really?” She tried to look down her pert nose at him. “It was meant to be appalling.”
William could feel a laugh build in his chest. She certainly was a saucy little piece of brightwork, and just the sort of wayward girl he liked. Which was to say, she appeared to be unlike every other insipid miss lining the country’s ballrooms, with their simpers and mealy-mouthed smiles.
“You’ll have to do better than that, if you hope to appall me. Because you’re holding a bottle of very fine, aged French cognac, and I very much hope I can persuade you to share it.” He held out the glasses in supplication.
“Said the spider to the fly.” Her look was unflinchingly direct. “Don’t think I’m not watching you. Try anything and I’ll knock your daylights out, too.”
“How delightfully bloodthirsty of you to offer, but as fond as I am of a good mill, this evening I am in search only of a decent drink. I’m a sailor, you see. We’re a notoriously thirsty lot.”
His ridiculous pronouncement took her sails aback, and knocked the last of the wobble out of her chin. “Who are you?” she breathed.
“Well, I thought you knew. You said, ‘It’s you,’ and I assumed we’d met.” Will waited for her response before he said more. Who knew what sort of plan she might be engineering behind those woefully innocuous, deep blue eyes? One mention of his family name and she might turn into one of the female fortune hunters.
But the bright sheen in her eyes didn’t appear to be of avarice. It was more like wounded defiance—a look he knew all too well. He’d been a defiant young midshipman once himself.
“No,” she finally admitted. “We haven’t been introduced. I only recognized you from the ballroom. You were the only one who-” She shrugged the rest of the sentence away, perhaps still trying to stave off those tears with an attitude of indifference.
“The only one who was impressed?” he offered cordially. “Surely not.”
Her eyes slid up to meet his, dubious but curious. “Were you? Impressed?”
“Yes. And amused. I’m Will Jellicoe. Formally Commander William Jellicoe, of His Majesty’s Royal Navy, but at the moment I’m just another half-pay sailor with a powerful thirst.”
Her chary suspicion didn’t ease, but she nodded, as if she were storing that little piece of information away in her brain. “If you’re in the navy, why aren’t you in uniform?”
“Against the rules. Especially for relatively junior, half-pay officers. Especially when my mother commands me otherwise. And my brother, who is apparently an arbiter of male fashion, said my coat was too shoddy. In fact, he said the damn thing still reeked of tar and black powder. For myself, I hadn’t noticed.”
The girl looked at him for a long moment, her gaze holding steady with his, trying to decipher him, as if his trustworthiness were writ across his forehead. Then she slid a glance toward the door. “Did you lock it?”
Well, damn his eyes. Perhaps she was an heiress wary of fortune hunters. Or perhaps she was something else entirely.
While that possibility was vastly intriguing, it was also dangerous. Will may have been the second son, but he was not in the market for a rich wife—nor any wife for that matter. And he had absolutely no intention of getting himself in an untenable position by locking himself in a room with a young miss. “No, I assure you, I have no intention of-”
But she was walking away from his disclaimer, crossing to the door to try the handle. Yet, she didn’t open the door, as he had expected, and as propriety demanded. Instead, she turned the key, and then dragged a chair up and jammed the back securely under the door handle so it couldn’t be depressed. “There,” she said as she stepped back. “Now you’re safe.”
He was safe? Locked in a darkened room with a wayward, pugilistic young female who seemed quite experienced at jamming chairs under doors to prevent unannounced entry? Holy hell. His cravat hitched itself tighter. He’d felt safer at Trafalgar.
But damn his eyes, not half as intrigued.
And he was certainly intrigued now, as well as thirsty. And then the wayward girl cemented her appeal by returning directly to uncork the bottle, and pour him a very generous portion of Barrington’s finest, before she took the other glass from him, and retreated a safe distance to fill her own.
And while she did so, her surreptitious gaze took a long, meandering trip from the tip of his polished boots to the top of his sun-bleached head.
William decided to sit back in the deep leather chair and let her look. He hadn’t any idea what game she played, but he was interested enough to see the hand out. She seemed prudently wary of him, keeping her distance, but there were ways around that—patience and charm.
He raised his glass in a toast. “To appalling acquaintances.”
And everything changed. She smiled, a slow, secret grin that spread full across her face, and made dimples appear deep in her cheeks. In the low glow of the firelight, the deliciously impish grin made her look pretty and devilishly sweet. The kind of sweet he wanted to taste.
The impulse caught him out of the blue, but when she smiled, she didn’t seem so plain, or ordinary. Her shuttered, defiant face came alive with warm color and humor, and she became much more of a fey, mischievous woodland creature—all sleek, sandy brown hair and twinkling, knowing eyes the color of the Atlantic on a fine day.
Eyes which raised to his, as she took a seat in the opposite chair. She held up her own glass in reciprocal toast. “Yes. To appalling acquaintances.”
“Elizabeth Essex paints a vivid picture of life aboard a British Royal Navy vessel.”
“Essex’s second Reckless Bride certainly suits the title. The bold heroine easily wins readers’ hearts, along with her officer and gentleman hero. Essex brings a breath of fresh and funny air to the Regency while her stylish writing and intelligent characters appeal to hearts and minds. Pure, delicious, sexy pleasure awaits readers.”
“There are books that fill me with happiness and comfort, a sense that everything will work out because there are truly good people in the world. Jane Austen and Julia Quinn come to mind when I think of authors who can capture the amazing humanity of everyday people, and now I can also count Elizabeth Essex among my favorites.”
And “The characters, the setting, and the relationships that bind them all together create a world of staggering beauty, filled with heartache, hope, and love. People are flawed, but Essex has created a world that highlights why romance is important and why people all over the world want happily ever after.”
Almost a Scandal
A RECKLESS BRIDE’S NOVEL
Bold, brazen and beautiful, the reckless brides refuse to play by society’s rules of courtship. But—come hell or high water—they always get their man.
She’s always ready for adventure. He’s almost ready for love…
A LADY IN DISGUISE
For generations, the Kents have served proudly with the British Royal Navy. So when her younger brother refuses to report for duty, Sally Kent slips into uniform and takes his place—at least until he comes to his senses. Boldly climbing aboard H.M.S. Audacious, Sally is as able-bodied as any sailor there. But one man is making her feel tantalizingly aware of the full-bodied woman beneath her navy blues…
A MAN OVERBOARD
Dedicated to his ship, sworn to his duty—and distractingly gorgeous—Lieutenant David Colyear sees through Sally’s charade, and he’s furious. But he must admit she’s the best midshipman on board—and a woman who tempts him like no other. With his own secrets to hide and his career at stake, Col agrees to keep her on. But can the passion they hide survive the perils of battle at sea? Soon, their love and devotion will be put to the test…
“Elizabeth Essex writes the perfect blend of fast-paced adventure and deliciously sexy romance. I couldn’t put this book down! Almost a Scandal gets a place on my keeper shelf–I will read anything Elizabeth Essex writes!”
“Elizabeth Essex will dazzle you with her sophisticated blend of vivid historical detail, exquisite characterization and delicious sexual tension. Almost a Scandal is a breath-taking tale of rapturous romance and awe-inspiring adventure!”
“Sexy, confident and exciting!”
October 15, 2012
“Almost a Scandal is a bold and brazen fast paced romance with a daring heroine and smoldering hot hero! With an explosive danger and red-hot romance this book is most definitely a book to treasure!”
“Almost a Scandal was my first experience with an Elizabeth Essex story, however with such dynamic characters and with a growing understanding of the places she puts them, it certainly won’t be my last.”
“Essex sweeps readers away with this high-seas, high-stakes romance featuring a daring heroine and a hero to die for. Brimming with explosive danger and smoldering passion, Almost a Scandal is a romance to treasure.”
“Almost a Scandal eschews the balls, gowns, and clever conversation that characterize most Regency romances. But the love affair between Sally Kent, midshipman, and David Colyear, lieutenant, is utterly engrossing and (once Sally and David are sent on a mission to engage the French navy) thrilling as well.”
“Elizabeth Essex has created a fascinating world peopled with fascinating characters. I didn’t want this story to end and with the promise of more books in this series, it doesn’t have to. Almost a Scandal is a joy to read.”
“Essex will have readers longing to set sail alongside her daring heroine and dashing hero. This wild ride of a high seas adventure/desire-in-disguise romance has it all: nonstop action, witty repartee and deft plotting. From the bow to the mast, from battles to ballrooms, Essex delivers another reckless bride and another read to remember.”
“Almost a Scandal is a bold and brazen fast paced romance with a daring heroine and smoldering hot hero! With an explosive danger and red-hot romance this book is most definitely a book to treasure!”
The Danger of Desire
An Unlikely Partnership
“Naval Captain Hugh McAlden is accustomed to taking on deadly, high-stakes assignments – and being rewarded handsomely for his success. But to accomplish his latest mission, he’ll need someone more inconspicuous among his own ranks. Someone like the larcenous beauty who just relieved him of his pocket watch under his very nose…
Meggs is one of London’s stealthiest thieves and her livelihood depends on remaining untethered and unnoticed. But when she is caught by the icy-eyed Scottish captain, she sees a chance to escape her life of crime forever. Ever weary, she accepts his unusual proposition, even as she plots to cut and run at a moment’s notice.
And an uncontrollable desire
But as Meggs and Hugh come nearer to the danger at the heart of their mission, thoughts of betrayal and distrust begin to dissolve … overshadowed by a passion worth every risk…
Lord, but it was cold and raw as a St. Giles curse. Nothing kept out the aching damp. Meggs hugged her arms closer to her sides, tucked her bare fingers up in fists and quickened her pace along the deserted sidewalk, as she and her brother slipped their way through St. James’s dripping streets towards the Strand, looking for a few more likely culls. But drunken lords had been thin on the ground this morning. The icy drizzle had been falling in fits and starts since dawn, and the sky remained an ominous, bone cold gray.
She hated it. Hated it all—the insidious cold, the incessant rain, the petty larceny—but hunger had a way of sorting out priorities. There was thievery to be done.
“Tell me again.” At her side, Timmy swiped at his cold nose with the back of his sleeve.
For her brother, Meggs pushed the bleak feeling of unease aside.
“We’ll be rich, we will. And we’ll live in a lovely house, a stout cottage, you and me, my lucky Tanner, just the two of us. Someplace warm, like Dorset.”
She had no idea if Dorset really were a warm place. Perhaps she had heard it said once, or perhaps she had been told palm trees grew there. And even she knew palm trees only grew in warm places. But wherever it was they went, she was determined it be warm. They had been cold for far too long.
And today, when London’s creeping, yellow fog was thick with ice, she felt as though it would be winter forever. Days like this, she despaired of ever being dry and warm again. Or full. Her stomach growled in empty resentment.
And so, in the face of such barren grayness, she lied. “We’ll have a house with lots of fireplaces, with warm cozy fires, all snug and toasty. And in the summer, a rose garden so the air will always smell nice, not like coal. We’ll have a big garden with an orchard at one end with apples and pears for you to eat whenever you like, and trees for you to climb. And a tree with a rope swing for you to play on.”
Her brother was too young to remember what it had been like before. He’d been barely four years old when they’d been packed off to London. And eight years under old Nan’s deft tutelage couldn’t help but leave its mark.
“When?” he asked with the cynical straightforwardness of a child who was well used to hearing Banbury tales.
“Soon, I think. We need one more this morning. One good one.” It was always the hardest—that last purse of the morning. After nearly four hours, she and Timmy were getting tired, but the toffs were waking up. So much easier to dip them when they were still half-muzzied with drink. “So look sharp, my little Tanner. You clap your peepers on a likely greenhead and we’ll get a meat pie, after.”
She hated that hopeful tone. The one she always had to disappoint. “To split. But only if we spy a likely toff to tip. So look sharp. Mind the traps.” The last thing they needed was to run afoul of the constabulary, who were always about in this part of town, protecting the deserving rich from the undeserving poor. The criminal element. From thieves like them.
Meggs’ eyes never stopped combing the pavement, even as her mouth spun fantasy out of the chill air. “There. That one. He’ll do us a treat.”
The toff limping out of Spring Gardens onto Cockspur Street was just the sort she liked, if she couldn’t have a drunk. Big man, but tired, he was, weariness stewing from his bones along with the cold steam of his breath in the frigid, snowy air. And he was a gimp—heavily favoring his left leg—but without a cane or walking stick. There was a bloody piece of luck. It paid to stay well clear of walking sticks. But he was a gentleman, all right, with a well enough set of togs, though he looked none too comfortable in them. Too new. Country man recently come up to town, was her guess.
Meggs hitched the basket of sewing higher onto her hip, tipped Timmy the wink and headed along the pavement in the man’s direction.
She kept her eyes on the mark. On his hands and his face. Definitely a country man, though he was younger than she had first thought. Pain and injury did that to a man—aged him. His face, as he looked up and down Cockspur Street for his direction, was weathered and rugged like the granite hills of Derbyshire. A walking tor, that’s what he was.
There it was again, that same strange pang of dread, that feeling that was half memory and half longing for something just out of reach. She tried to mentally push the nebulous sensation away, but it was like swatting at a cobweb—invisible, tenuous bits of feeling clung stubbornly to her brain.
But there was no room for mooning about. She needed to keep her wits about her head and concentrate on the flat ahead. On the gleaming watch he’d just pulled from his pocket to consult the time.
And then, he looked up and Meggs saw his eyes. So pale a blue, they were shocking in a face so tan. Chips of ice held greater warmth, and yet there was a fire, a force that sparked so strongly, so powerfully within the frozen wasteland of his gaze, she had to turn away for fear of being singed.
She knew that look. A zealot. Moon-eyed. Dicked in the nob. Whatever it was, every instinct she possessed screamed danger. And clever girl that she was, she minded quick-like, keeping her head down and scurrying across the street to stay well clear of his path, away from all that steely awareness. She had no desire to receive another blast from the furnace that was his eyes, thank you very much.
But that was a mistake, too.
For while she was minding the dangerous, sharp-eyed cove, she smashed headlong into another body and down they went, for real.
It was generally not the sagest of ideas to frisk a toff without having ever clapped peepers on him to see if he were a likely chum, but her clever fingers were already making professional-like, cataloging his portable chattels before she could have a look-see and come to a prudent decision.
Merino wool, good quality. Waistcoat, brocade silk. Belly of considerable girth. Scent of expensive cigars and brandy. Toff. Watch, fob and purse, quick and easy as you please as she fell down, and the top button of her loosely pinned bodice obligingly popped open to fill his eyes with the sight and feel of her padded, upthrust breasts as they brushed against him. And to finish the business, a spill of white petticoat and a breathless, helpless display of calf.
It was all as familiar as a Drury Lane play, and twice as well-rehearsed.
“Lawks,” she cawed on top of him, “me basket!” She snatched at the fallen bits of fabric and sewing, an embroidered bodice piece having fallen, quite by design, in the gentleman’s considerable lap. Her fingers brushed mercifully fleetingly across his cods, so his blood would keep well away from his brain.
It was just as old Nan always said—a man couldn’t think and fill his rod at the same time. Keep him doing the one, and he’d never be able to do the other.
And it was done. She was up and fussing with her basket and moving away muttering, “Don’t care who they knock over. Missus’ll have my head, if- Ere, gimme that!” she called as Timmy darted by, pretending to grab at the lacy underthings she carried in her basket.
“Here now! Leave off there!” a man’s voice intruded.
Meggs turned back, thinking for some un-Godly reason of the pale-eyed man. But no, it was worse—a constable. How had she missed seeing him? Cripes, that was all they needed, the Law barging his way towards her, waving his cosh at Timmy.
But Timmy scarpered right quick, the heavy purse she passed him already surreptitiously down his shirt. “I saw her bottom, I saw her bottom!” he yelled gleefully as he went running through the foot traffic.
Meggs stepped into the Trap’s line of sight to divert his attention. “Oh, Constable! Thank you.”
“You all right, Miss?” he asked.
The constable was young, and thankfully, someone she had never crossed before. Meggs let her real fear and apprehension color her voice. “Brazen it out,” old Nan would have said, “but make it real, dearie.”
“Right enough, no thanks to him. Knocked me off my feet, he did.” She cut her eyes towards the fat toff still righting himself and fanned her hand demurely across her half-revealed décolleté. Lovely word that, one of Nan’s favorites. “Have to be rich to have décolleté,” she used to say, “the poor just have titties.” Rich or poor, the young constable’s gaze had dropped six inches to what one hand revealed, while under the basket, her other hand concealed the liberated watch deep within the folds of her skirts.
It was a risk to draw such attention to herself, but she needed to make sure Timmy was clean away, and with the constable’s eyes glued to her bumped up titties, she’d earned herself some running room. Speaking of which.
“Lawks, the time! My Missus’ll have my head. Much obliged, Constable.” And she was off, muttering and fussing, turning from the pavement and heading into the sea of people moving through Charing Cross.
And then she felt it—the icy blast from the Devil’s own furnace scalding the back of her neck. Meggs turned to find the eyes of the pale-eyed devil slicing into her like cold, sharp steel. And even as he eyed her, the corner of his mouth hitched up with a detached amusement that told her he saw right through her, as easily as if she were a pane in a shop glass window.
That was when she abandoned all play acting and ran like hell was opening up behind her. This time, she kept her eyes wide open.
Publishers Weekly named The Danger of Desire one of its TOP TEN FALL PICKS for Romance.
“The Danger of Desire by Elizabeth Essex is an entertaining, stunning and sexy novel. Witty characters, plenty of intrigue and stunning passion make this a fabulous read!”
“The Danger of Desire is an intriguing and glorious novel with dazzling characters that solidifies Elizabeth Essex as a great talent.”
5.0 out of 5 stars This Author is a Rare Talent!
I love this heroine! Elizabeth Essex’s heroine’s are always strong and feisty, but from the very start Meggs will steal away your heart strings. Yes, all right, I admit it, I’m a sucker for a female thief – but this one has such a good reason for what she does. She captures your heart right away. And Captain McAlden is the perfect wounded hero. What wonderful byplay between him and Meggs. Delicious! Sexy! Not only is the story touching and intriguing, some of the lines in this book are so beautiful I wish I’d written them. I’m convinced Ms. Essex is an author to be reckoned with – a rare talent.
Strongly developed characters, vivid writing, and an abundance of steamy sensuality all add up to another winner for literary newcomer Essex, who is quickly perfecting her ability to deliver well-crafted historical romances fueled by equal measures of sizzling passion and dangerous intrigue.
“There is something distinctive and gorgeous about Ms. Essex’s writing—I can’t think of any other writer whose prose is as languorously specific as hers. The Danger of Desire … is a transcendently pleasurable book to read.”
Dartmouth, England, 1794
“Delacorte? You’re looking remarkably bloody-minded for a ball. Even for you. Are you planning to dance with whomever it is, or thrash them?”
It should be a difficult thing to hate a woman one had never seen before, but Rupert Delacorte, Viscount Darling, looked across the expansive ballroom at his beautiful quarry 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 and 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 into 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 now. 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 blood-minded. He felt murderous. Because 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 gone 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 pretty. And beauty had a way of diverting unpleasantness and masking grievous flaws of character. No, beauty 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 from the hot, crowded room: “Dear Celia,” and “Our Miss Burke.” And the title that everyone seemed to call her, “The Ravishing Miss Burke,” as if it were her rank and she the only one to wear that crown.
The ravishing Miss Celia Burke. A well-known, and even more well-liked local beauty. And here she was, making 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. Fuck you.
Yes, 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. No.
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 know 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. And 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’ 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 Resolute, broke into the conversation from behind.
“A private wager only, James.” He 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?”
A gentleman’s 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 was giving 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. But 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 she, 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.” He paused to give them a moment to remark upon the condition he was about to attach. “Without ever once touching her.”
McAlden gave huff of bluff laughter. “Too easy, in one sense, too hard, in another,” he stated flatly.
“But 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 and none of lukewarm swill they’re passing out on trays.” Del pushed the youths 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.”
“And 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 this business of revenging himself on Celia Burke, he needed to keep himself safe – safe from being forced into doing the right thing should his godforsaken plan be discovered or go awry. And he didn’t want to touch her. He didn’t want to be tainted by so much as the merest brush of her hand.
“Can’t seduce, really seduce, 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. And he cared about only one particular women’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 is bloody minded.”
“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 joviality disappeared from McAlden’s voice. “Jesus, Del, have you completely lost your mind? As well as all moral scruple?”
“Gone squeamish?” Del tossed back the last of his drink. “That’s not like you.”
“I know her. Everyone in Dartmouth knows her. She is Marlowe’s wife’s most particular friend. You can’t go about ruining – ruining for God’s sake – innocent young women, like her. Even I know that.”
“I said she’s not innocent.”
“Then you must’ve misjudged her. She’s not fair game, Del. Pick someone else. Someone I don’t know.” McAlden 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, now 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. And what’s more, Miss Burke is a relation of the Marquess of Widcombe, in whose ballroom you are currently not dancing. 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 him well enough to hear the implacable finality in his tone. He shook his head slowly. “God’s balls, Del. I didn’t think I’d regret having you to stay so quickly.” 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.”
“Essex pits a delightful bluestocking against a mysterious blackmailer and a vengeful rake in late 18th-century Dartmouth in this well-researched but uneven tale, a loose sequel to The Pursuit of Pleasure. Rupert Delacorte, Viscount Darling, blames the beautiful Celia Burke, who would rather study botany than attend balls, for his sister Emily’s suicide. He vows to ruin her in return. When Rupert and Celia are anonymously blackmailed, they initially suspect each other, but are soon drawn together by their shared loss and an intense sensual attraction as they struggle to uncover the real culprit. Celia is effectively characterized as a would-be academic with a charming mix of intelligence and innocence. Despite some overwrought prose and clumsy handling of the mystery element, the slow buildup of the romance is skillfully handled and takes impressive advantage of the sexual tension created by delayed gratification.”
“Ms. Essex’s language of love is beautiful, carnal, and utterly seductive.”
Never Say “Never” to Passion
“I do say I’ll never marry, but I have always wanted to be a widow.”
With those fateful words, Lizzie Paxton sets out to defy convention and make her outrageous goal come true – if only she could skip the marriage and the man. But when her childhood friend Captain Jameson Marlowe proposes a marriage in name only, it’s an offer she can’t possibly refuse. Because as soon as Marlowe sets sail on his mission, she’ll have all the independence she craves. She trusts Jameson’s word, but she doesn’t trust the scintillating desire he evokes in her.
Marlowe knows he shouldn’t take up with Lizzie, especially with his uncertain future, but the moment he hears Lizzie’s outrageous declaration, he just can’t help himself. And he wastes no time in seducing her and taking her over the precipice of desire. Yet not even his beautiful new wife can deter him from his cause.
But when Lizzie discovers her husband’s deception, Marlowe must choose between devotion to his duty, and loyalty to the woman he cannot live without…
“I do say I’ll never marry, but I have always wanted to be a widow.”
The young woman’s voice, with its droll, self-aware tone, wafted down the length of the assembly room’s dimly lit balcony, floated into the darkness beyond, and entwined with the smoke dancing off the hot end of Jameson Marlowe’s cigar.
Marlowe clamped down on the cheroot to keep from laughing out loud into the warm night. He didn’t need to look around the other side of the column to know who was speaking. He’d spent years away, and still, he knew. She came to his mind as swift and unbidden as a gunshot.
Lizzie. No one else could manage to be so ridiculously charming.
“A widow? You must be joking.” Another girl, her voice as young but much less world weary, sounded scandalized. Her breathy little voice rose higher with each word.
“I’m not. If I were a widow I’d have everything I need. Independence. Social standing. Financial stability.” Lizzie blew out a long sigh full of wistfulness. “It would be perfect. A marriage without the man.”
“You can’t mean it!”
The owner of the breathy little voice didn’t know her friend very well, it seemed. Lizzie always meant it. Always. He could easily picture her impudent, challenging smile as she tossed her opinions off like hand grenades.
Marlowe grinned, leaned his head back against the column and took another deep drag from the cigar, his mind whirling like a steel clockwork, ticking away, crystallizing his plans. He had waited a long time for this moment. He would make this work.
Defiant little Lizzie Paxton.
Yes, she would do very well. In fact, she was perfect.
He ground out the cigar with the toe of his boot and stepped out from behind the column. “She always means it, don’t you, Lizzie?”
At the sound of his voice, two young women, dressed in fashionable white muslin chemise dresses, turned their heads towards him. But only one of them smiled. Ever so slightly. Lizzie.
A sharp pang lanced through him at the sight of her, like the ache of a long healed bruise. Despite the years he’d spent away, despite the fact she’d grown up, Marlowe still recognized the girl he’d known inside the beautiful young woman leaning negligently against the balcony railing. The same ginger-tinted hair. The same boneless, feline physicality. The same slightly feral smile. The smile that always led to mischief.
She slowly straightened from where she lounged against the railing. The pale dress, belted with a sash of bright green satin that matched her eyes, accentuated the liquid grace of her body. On anyone else, it would have looked demure. On Lizzie, it looked like a challenge.
One he was definitely going to accept.
“Thoroughly enjoyable! A delightfully sexy romp with vividly-drawn characters that will keep readers turning the pages! Witty and entertaining, Elizabeth Essex is not to be missed!”
“Intrigue, sensuality and romance collide in this wonderful story. With a lyrical style and a sexy twist, Elizabeth Essex is an author to watch!”
“Elizabeth Essex’s The Pursuit of Pleasure is elegant, evocative, and absolutely dangerous to a good night’s sleep. Once you pick this book up, you won’t be able to set it aside until you’ve learned the last of its very satisfying secrets.”
“Essex uses the edict” “Never say never to passion” to its best advantage as a headstrong heroine and dashing hero collide in a sensual romance laced with intrigue. The fast pace and Gothic overtones enhance the love story, but Essex’s forte is creating likeable, strong characters readers will love. — 4 Stars”