Lady Violet Grey, eighteen years old, fair of face and figure, with a respectable fortune and unimpeachable bloodline, had every advantage a young lady of good society could possibly desire—except, according to her mother, one tragically absent trait: a suitably ladylike sense of meekness.
“Curiosity, my dear, will take you nowhere,” Lady Worthington had admonished her daughter more than once over the course of Violet’s interminable years of adolescence. “Curiosity will lead you to balconies! And Ruin!”
While Violet had no objection to the word in the context of, say, the Parthenon in Greece—a place that she would have loved to visit, had she not been an English girl of good family and fortune—she had come to loathe it beyond all reason when it was employed in the context of young ladies such as herself. So frequently did her mother use the word to warn against Violet’s unsuitable behavior that she had come to imagine it always with a capital R. One visited ruins; one was Ruined.
And if Lady Worthington’s constant admonitions were anything to judge by, Violet was at particular risk of succumbing to this most undesirable state. When Lady Worthington discovered a book of scandalous poetry Violet had secreted from the family library, she warned of Ruin. When she discovered Violet writing a letter to the editor of the Arts and Sciences Review with a question regarding the discovery of a comet in France, she warned of Ruin. (“But I was going to send it under a gentleman’s pseudonym!” Violet protested as her mother tore the letter into shreds.) All in all, it would seem—according to Lady Worthington—that Ruin was lurking around every corner.
It was, in short, alarming.
Or at least it would have been alarming to anyone but Violet.
For Violet, however, these constant admonitions, which only increased in frequency during the months leading up to her presentation at court and her first London Season, made her curious about what, precisely, Ruin entailed. Her mother, usually irritatingly verbose on the subject, became oddly closemouthed about the specifics when Violet pressed her on the matter. Violet had asked her two closest friends, Diana Bourne and Lady Emily Turner, but they seemed similarly uninformed. She began a slow search of the library at Worth Hall, the Worthingtons’ country estate, but was whisked away to London for dress fittings before she had made much headway.
It was, therefore, with a frustrating lack of knowledge that Violet began her first Season. And it was rather disappointing when, a few weeks into the Season, she found herself on that most forbidden of edifices—a balcony—in the process of most likely being Ruined, and she realized that it wasn’t quite as exciting as she’d imagined.
The gentleman who was attempting the Ruining, Jeremy Overington, Marquess of Willingham and notorious rakehell, was not entirely unknown to her, given that he was the closest friend of the elder brother of Violet’s own best friend, Diana. In fact, Violet had vivid memories of Penvale regaling herself, Diana, and Emily with tales of Lord Willingham’s exploits upon his visits home from Eton. Violet had not, however, seen Lord Willingham in several years, until this very month, when she had made her debut in London society.
Willingham was handsome to be sure, if one found golden hair, blue eyes, and perfectly fitted breeches appealing (which Violet, like any proper English girl, naturally did). He was rather witty, too, if one found verbal sparring enjoyable (which Violet, unlike many proper English girls, also did). And, this very evening at the Montgomery ball, Violet had learned that he was quick to turn a waltz with a young lady into an opportunity to waltz said young lady straight out onto a darkened balcony.
Violet was rather surprised by this turn of events—moments before, they had been chatting idly of her impressions of London, whirling around beneath the chandeliers, bathed in romantic candlelight, and now here they were, alone but for each other, the orchestra music muffled by the French doors that led back into the ballroom. From here, events progressed quickly. She couldn’t quite say how it had happened, but one moment Jeremy was asking her, laughter in his voice, if this was the first time she’d been lured onto a balcony, and the next his mouth was covering hers.
Which brought her to her present condition of being Ruined. And yet—and yet. Violet had always been given the impression—by many books she had clandestinely read, certainly not by her mother—that Ruination was a rather enjoyable experience. Why else would a lady risk everything for a few fleeting moments? And yet, Violet could not, in perfect honesty, say that she found her own Ruin to be as enjoyable as she might have hoped.
To be sure, Lord Willingham’s arms were strong as they clasped her to his chest, which itself was reassuringly firm as it pressed against her. And yes, he smelled pleasantly of bergamot, and his mouth moved over hers with an ease that spoke of years of experience, and yet.
Violet found herself feeling curiously detached—while one part of her concentrated on the immediate activity at hand, lifting one hand to curl cautiously behind Willingham’s neck, her eyes shut tight, some corner of her mind couldn’t help being distracted by the chill in the evening air, the slight discomfort in her neck that came from keeping her face tilted relentlessly upward, and the possibility that she heard footsteps approaching them on the terrace.
A moment later, she realized with horror that she did in fact hear footsteps, and that they were accompanied by a decidedly masculine voice.
“Jeremy, you’re losing your touch,” the man said, causing Willingham to whip around, attempting to shield Violet from view. “I thought you at least knew to find a darker corner of a balcony for your liaisons.”
The owner of the voice stepped into a shaft of light, and Violet’s first impression was that he was the most handsome man she’d ever seen. She always thought girls in books were idiotic when they made that declaration—how was it possible, after all, that in a split second of staring at one man’s face, a lady should decide that said face was more appealing than that of every member of the male sex she’d ever encountered in her years upon the earth? It was utterly illogical. Absurd.
And yet, in that moment, Violet apparently became absurd herself, for nothing could shake her certainty of that impression. The stranger was tall and broad-shouldered and appeared no older than Lord Willingham, who Violet knew had been down from Oxford for only a couple of Seasons. His hair, even darker than Violet’s own, appeared black in the dim light. His eyes were a vivid, startling green, and as his gaze met Violet’s over Lord Willingham’s shoulder, she felt a thrill course through her—an awareness of his physical proximity, and of the appreciation in his eyes as he took her in. He moved with a compact, athletic grace, and she had a sudden thought that she would love to see this man on the back of a horse. She had a vivid mental image of her own mother’s face if she could have heard this thought—somehow Lady Worthington would find it indecent, though she wasn’t precisely certain why—and had to clap a hand over her mouth to stifle her laugh, unnaturally loud in the relative quiet of the balcony.
At this noise, the newcomer’s gaze focused more sharply upon her, and his eyes widened. Violet was gripped with a wild, fleeting hope that he was as struck by her own beauty as she was by his. Even her mother, after all, was occasionally forced to temper her criticism with a grudging admission that Violet was “pretty enough to let the rest be overlooked, we hope”—“the rest” being all the aspects of Violet’s character that made her herself, of course.
However, this romantic notion was quickly dispelled by the expression of anger that flitted across the stranger’s face as he looked at her.
“Jeremy,” he said, redirecting his attention to Lord Willingham, who stood protectively in front of her, doing a rather poor job at blocking her from the other gentleman’s view, “this is too far.”
“You’ve said that before, old boy, and yet it never quite seems to be the case,” Lord Willingham said, his voice lazy. Violet, however, could feel the tension radiating off his body.
“When I encountered my father and he told me I might find you out here with a woman in need of rescue, I thought he must be mistaken. I expected the lady in question to be a widow, perhaps, or at the very least an unfaithful wife—not a girl.” The stranger’s green eyes flashed as he spoke, and despite the fact that he had not raised his voice, Violet could not help but think that this was a man many would think twice about provoking. She, however, was a thoroughly contrary creature by nature, and therefore naturally found the prospect of doing so quite enticing.
“Audley, don’t get your drawers in a twist,” Lord Willingham drawled, and Violet realized that this stranger was Lord James Audley, the second son of the Duke of Dovington and the third corner of the inseparable triangle that comprised himself, Lord Willingham, and Penvale. They had all been at Eton together, followed by Oxford. For all the time she had spent with Diana and Penvale, she had never met Lord James before.
“You’re the only one who’s seen us, so there’s no cause for alarm,” Lord Willingham continued, and Violet resisted the urge to roll her eyes with great difficulty. How entirely like a man, she thought—of course there was no cause for his alarm, as he was a man and could do whatever he liked. She, on the other hand, was in rather more of a pickle. She tried to remember what Penvale had said about Lord James over the years—was he a discreet sort? It was a difficult question to answer, considering Penvale’s stories from school had usually involved frogs in beds and other things that boys, inexplicably, seemed to find so vastly amusing. Really, it was enough to cast in grave doubt the intellect of the entire sex.
“I could just as well have been someone else, and the lady’s reputation would have been ruined,” Lord James said, his voice steady but his tone growing chillier by the word. “I can’t believe you’ve sunk to seducing virgins at balls.”
Violet felt a wave of embarrassment mingled with anger wash over her, and before she could think better of it, she stepped out from behind the shadow of Lord Willingham’s shoulder to stare directly into Lord James’s arresting eyes.
“The virgin in question can hear you, sir,” she said stiffly. “And she would certainly appreciate your discretion in this matter.”
Lord James’s eyes narrowed. “Then in the future, perhaps she ought to consider not taking strolls on dark balconies in the company of gentlemen with questionable reputations.” He jerked his head roughly in Lord Willingham’s direction, but his gaze never left Violet’s.
Even as another wave of anger rushed through her, Violet felt curiously breathless as she found herself caught in that green gaze, as though her corset had been laced too tightly (which was entirely possible). Nor could she bring herself to break eye contact with him.
“I was overheated in the ballroom,” she said, giving him her best demure-miss smile. “The marquess was kind enough to escort me out here for a moment of fresh air.”
“Was he?” A dark eyebrow was raised. “Very gentlemanly of him.” His tone turned mock thoughtful. “Odd, though, that when I encountered the pair of you, he seemed to be doing more to limit your intake of fresh air than to aid it.”
Violet felt her cheeks warming, but she refused to be cowed. She wasn’t sure what it was about this man that made her so desperately want to best him in conversation, but she could not bring herself to look away, to quietly murmur an excuse and request an escort back to the ballroom.
“I daresay Lord Willingham is behaving far more like a gentleman than you are at the moment, my lord,” she countered. “I wasn’t aware that it was the act of a gentleman to make ladies feel uncomfortable.” She refused to allow him to see her discomfort, though; like any well-bred young lady, she had impeccable posture, and she resisted the impulse to shrink in the face of such an embarrassing conversation.
“Forgive me,” Lord James said, and his eyes softened a fraction, though there was no regret in his voice. “I didn’t realize you felt uncomfortable. You certainly give no sign of it.” His tone was sardonic, but there was a trace of something like admiration in the words.
“It is my first Season, my lord,” she said, considering batting her eyelashes but abandoning the idea in favor of a look of wide-eyed innocence. “I’m afraid this is all rather new to me.” She was worried that she might have overdone it when Lord James’s expression hardened slightly at the words, but it seemed that something she had said, rather than her simpering, was the cause of his change in demeanor.
“Christ, Jeremy,” he muttered, shooting an angry look at Willingham. “Can’t you at least find the ones who have been out for a few Seasons, who know what to expect from you?”
“Apparently not,” Willingham said cheerfully. “The temptation was simply too great.” He flashed a devilish grin at Violet, who had to work very hard to stop herself smiling back. It was easy to see why he had charmed so many a wife and widow. “Since I am so irrevocable a scoundrel as not to be trusted with innocent ladies, perhaps, Audley, you might do me the favor of escorting Lady Violet back inside? After a few minutes have elapsed, of course. For propriety’s sake.” This last was uttered in a tone of great drama that Violet was almost certain was employed merely to irritate Lord James—successfully, it would seem. His expression did not change, but she detected the further stiffening of his body, as though he were reaching the limits of his patience.
Lord Willingham meant, of course, that it would be entirely scandalous for Violet to reappear with him after so lengthy an interlude in his company; if she were to reappear with a different gentlemen, any gossipy society matrons in attendance were less likely to realize how long she and Willingham had been alone on the balcony—or, better yet, would forget just which gentleman she had disappeared with in the first place.
Lord James, however, was still frowning. “I fail to see how the lady’s reemergence on my arm is any less scandalous than if she were to appear on yours,” he said, and Violet could not help bristling at the reluctance in his tone. She had never considered herself to be unreasonably vain, but no lady rejoiced at the idea that a gentleman would be so hesitant to spend a few minutes in her company.
Lord Willingham laughed. “Audley, let’s not fool ourselves. Everyone knows that you are a gentleman of honor who would never besmirch the reputation of an innocent young lady, whilst I am one step away from being barred from decent ballrooms.” He stepped back, as though he were a participant in a duel ceding victory to his opponent, and sketched an elaborate bow before Violet. It was so woefully difficult to find a gentleman with a true appreciation for the art of bowing. “Lady Violet Grey, may I present Lord James Audley? He shall see you safely back into the warm embrace of society.”
“Where are you going?” Violet asked.
“To find a drink.” This reply was made with considerable enthusiasm—indeed, Violet thought, the most enthusiasm Lord Willingham had yet displayed in her company.
And then he was gone, leaving Lord James staring openmouthed after him, his impassive facade shattered at last, seemingly rendered speechless with indignation.
“That bloody bastard,” he muttered, apparently forgetting that he was standing in the presence of a young lady whose innocence he had so lately been proclaiming. Violet, naturally, was delighted by his coarse language; it seemed like the type a villain in a scandalous novel might use and, furthermore, she’d been harboring hopes of hearing a man swear before her for years. She filed away this particular epithet for future consideration and use—out of earshot of her mother, of course.
For his part, Lord James seemed to belatedly recollect her presence. Despite his agitation, and the fact that he was clearly still somewhat distracted by Lord Willingham’s abrupt departure, his attention worked its curious magic upon her once more. She grasped for the words to describe the sensation and found herself lacking—the closest she could come was some vague sense that, when he looked at her, he saw her more clearly and fully than anyone ever had before.
It was unsettling. And irritating.
“I apologize,” he said stiffly, and Violet blinked, momentarily failing to realize that the apology was for his language, not the uncomfortable awareness she had experienced under his scrutiny. “That was quite rude of me.”
“Oh, please don’t,” Violet said carelessly. “Or, rather, don’t apologize for swearing. If you should like to apologize for implying that you find my company less than desirous, or for the fact that you spoke about me as if I wasn’t there, as though I were a recalcitrant child, then I should be quite eager to hear that.”
His eyes narrowed. “You’re quite bold, considering we’ve never even been properly introduced.”
“Nonsense. What do you call what Lord Willingham just did?”
“Wiggle his way out of a tight spot,” Lord James said darkly. He gave her an assessing look. “So you’re Lady Violet Grey, then. Penvale’s spoken of you.”
Violet gave him her most charming smile. “All good things, I expect?”
“He said he once caught you and his sister swimming in the lake in your chemises,” Lord James said shortly. His mouth quirked up, lessening the effect of his severely furrowed brow, and he added, “So I suppose it’s a matter of opinion. For example, I doubt your mother would consider that to be a good thing; to an eighteen-year-old lad, however, I must confess it was rather intriguing.”
“My lord, I do think it rather early in our acquaintance for you to be discussing my undergarments,” Violet said, grinning at him. A startled laugh escaped him before he seemed to realize it was happening, and it made her like him more.
“At what point would that be considered appropriate, then? I’m not entirely knowledgeable about the intricacies of etiquette.”
Was he… flirting with her?
“Certainly not until we’ve danced at least twice,” Violet said firmly. And was she flirting in return?
“I see,” he said, mock somberly.
“After all, I have very delicate sensibilities that you are at risk of offending,” she added, and was rewarded with a quick flash of a smile in the darkness. It quite transformed his face, for all that it was so fleeting. She felt, absurdly, in that moment that she would have done a great deal to receive another one of his smiles.
“I rather think you’re more at risk of offending mine, all things considered,” he replied dryly. At this mention of the circumstances under which Violet had been discovered, she felt herself blush. It was maddening.
“My lord,” she said stiffly, “I would ask you to please not mention—”
“You need not even ask,” he interrupted. “I wouldn’t.” He didn’t elaborate further, but she believed him instantly.
“I can’t imagine what you must think of me,” Violet said, giving a laugh that she hoped would pass for casual and worldly, as though she were frequently found embracing gentlemen on balconies at balls. Her heart pounded heavily in her chest, though, and she realized in a moment of clarity that she did, in fact, care what Lord James Audley thought of her, despite having made his acquaintance a mere five minutes earlier. It was rather vexing, considering that she prided herself—much to her mother’s dismay—on not giving a farthing for anyone’s opinion but her own.
She realized that somehow, without her noticing, he had moved closer. She found herself being forced to crane her neck upward at a sharper angle than she had moments before, and Lord James’s broad shoulders blocked out some of the light emanating from the ballroom behind them. They were standing entirely in the shadows now, and even had someone chanced to wander onto the balcony at that moment, the interloper would have been hard-pressed to see them in their current position. The thought made her feel curiously breathless.
“I think that you’re the most interesting young lady I’ve met so far this Season,” he responded, without a trace of mockery on his face or in his voice. Why was it that interesting seemed like the nicest thing that any gentleman had ever said to her? Why was interesting on his lips so vastly preferable to beautiful or charming or amusing, all compliments that had already been paid her this Season?
His eyes caught hers and held them, and her heart began to race even more quickly, until she felt certain that he must be able to hear it, too, so loudly did it pound in her ears. Was this normal? Should she summon a physician? In everything she’d ever read about courting, there had been no mention of a moonlit scene on a balcony concluding with a swoon due to some sort of malady of the heart.
“I’m certain my mother would be appalled if she heard you say that,” Violet managed, forcing a laugh, still not breaking their gaze. “She’s always worried that I’m too interesting for my own good.”
He smiled again, just a flash before it vanished, and Violet once more had the curious sensation that everything around them dimmed in comparison to the brightness of that smile. Even after it was gone, its presence somehow lingered, making the sharp-angled intensity of his face less severe, more welcoming. It was as though once she’d seen that smile on his face, she could never forget the impression it had left.
“Well, I think you’re just interesting enough for my own good.” He took a step forward and extended his hand.
“Lady Violet,” he said, “would you do me the honor of this dance?”
“Here?” Violet asked with a laugh. “On a balcony? Alone?” There was, after all, a perfectly good ballroom a few feet away—one to which he was supposed to be escorting her, in fact.
“I actually thought we would go back indoors,” he said, his mouth quirking up the slightest bit at the side. “But…” He hesitated, and Violet knew that he felt it, too, this pull between them. She didn’t want to return to a noisy, crowded ballroom and discuss the weather with him.
“You can still hear the music,” she said before she could convince herself not to, and it was true—she could catch strains of music filtering out through the French doors, spreading through the cool night air around them.
“Yes, you can,” he agreed, so quickly that she nearly laughed aloud. “Please say you’ll dance with me,” he added, taking yet another step forward, and by now he was standing far too close for propriety. Violet tilted her head back and looked at him, finding herself caught in the intensity of that green gaze yet again. The word please sounded incredibly appealing on his lips.
“If I must dance with you twice before any discussion of your undergarments can ensue,” he added, “I had better not waste any time—it’s a conversation I suddenly find myself quite desperate to have.”
A startled laugh burst out of Violet and he seized the opportunity to sweep her into his arms—she had always thought the expression a bit absurd when encountered in a novel and yet there, on that balcony, on that particular moonlit night, it seemed entirely accurate.
Violet had danced with gentlemen before, of course, and until this moment she would have said that she had enjoyed those dances thoroughly. Some had been better than others, naturally—such was the way of life, her mother had once noted with a heavy sigh—but on the whole, Violet would have considered herself a lady who liked dancing.
But now, waltzing around on a balcony in the arms of a man she barely knew, she realized that all of those previous dances had been mere flickering candle flames compared to this one, which blazed like the sun. His arms were strong around her, turning her deftly in time with the music. This close, she could smell the particular scent that clung to him, some combination of freshly pressed linen and shaving soap and the faint note of spirits—brandy, perhaps? Whatever it was, the mixture was thoroughly intoxicating. Wild, mad thoughts flitted through her head: would it be strange to press her nose to his immaculately pressed jacket and sniff?
She decided that yes, it would.
She looked up at his impossibly handsome face as they slowly rotated, her eyes catching and holding his. His smile had not made a reappearance, but she could somehow sense its presence in his eyes, in the way he looked down at her. It made her feel warm and itchy in a way that she could not precisely explain, but which was not at all unpleasant.
Over the past weeks of the Season, Violet had danced many dances, spoken to many gentlemen, worn many beautiful gowns—but it was here, in a not-particularly-spectacular evening gown of blush-pink silk (which, in her opinion, didn’t flatter her complexion), on a secluded balcony, that Violet found herself at last thinking, Yes, this.
“You know, this might be the most enjoyable ten minutes I’ve spent at a ball all year,” Lord James said, eerily echoing Violet’s own thoughts.
“I can hardly believe that,” Violet said lightly, attempting to ignore the thrill that had gone through her at the words. “Gentlemen are allowed to engage in all sorts of activities that are unsuitable for young ladies, some of which I imagine must be more enjoyable than standing outdoors on a rather chilly evening.”
“True,” he agreed. “And yet, I find myself with a strong preference for this evening’s company.”
She looked up at him then, as they turned slowly about the balcony, his hand warm and steady in her own, the other burning through layers of fabric at her back.
“Lady Violet,” he said, halting abruptly, “I’m going to take you inside now, before I do something I regret.”
“Oh?” Violet said, unable to suppress a note of disappointment in her voice. Instead of releasing her, he pulled her closer to him, the warmth of her body drawn to that of his like a moth to a flame.
“Well, actually,” he said, gazing down at her, “I’m not certain I’d regret it at all. But since I do try to distinguish myself from the Jeremy Overingtons of the world, I don’t make it a habit to kiss young ladies on balconies.” He reached his hand up, relinquishing his hold on her waist to brush it against her cheek, then take one of her dark curls between his thumb and forefinger. Violet felt rooted to the ground—had the ballroom caught fire at that moment, she doubted even that would have spurred her to movement.
But, as she discovered a moment later, the sound of her mother’s voice proved more effective than any blazing inferno.
“Violet Grey!” came Lady Worthington’s shrill cry, horror and disapproval warring for precedence in her tone. Lord James dropped his hand immediately, and Violet took two hasty steps back, but it was too late.
They had been seen.
Lady Worthington swept toward them, the feathered headdress she wore atop her head quivering with indignation. She was still a very handsome woman, not yet forty, though Violet thought she often dressed as though she were far older. In this moment, her beauty was put to its full intimidating effect—fair cheeks blazing with color, blue eyes sparkling with anger. She looked from Violet to Lord James and back again, a single glance communicating more than words possibly could have. Violet braced herself for a blistering attack, but found her mother’s first words aimed at the gentleman of the party, not herself.
“Lord James Audley, I believe.” It was not truly a question; Lady Worthington had Debrett’s memorized, as Violet knew only too well.
“You presume correctly, my lady,” Lord James said with a courteous bow.
“Well, my lord,” Lady Worthington said, and Violet winced at the sharp edge to her voice, “I assume you won’t mind telling me what, precisely, you were doing on this balcony with my daughter?”
Lord James held Lady Worthington’s gaze briefly, then broke it, casting his eyes to Violet’s. He looked at her for a long moment, and she knew—somehow, she just knew—what the next words out of his mouth would be, much as she longed to prevent them.
“As it happens, your ladyship,” he said, still every inch the proper gentleman, “I was just getting around to proposing.”