When it comes to fencing, be it with words or weapons, Dulci Wycroft considers herself more than the equal of any man. Only once has she ever met her match....
Jack, Viscount Wainsbridge, is all charm and quick wit in the ballroom, but his impenetrable green eyes hint at darkness underneath. His dangerous work leaves no space for love--yet Dulci's voluptuous figure is impossibly tempting.
He's sure it won't take him long to discover if her sharp tongue can have other, more pleasurable, uses!
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February 01, 2011
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Excerpt from A Thoroughly Compromised Lady by Bronwyn Scott
Jack Hanley, the first Viscount Wainsbridge, firmly believed that ballrooms were for business. Chandeliers, potted palms, sparkling champagne--all the standard trappings of festivity aside, ballrooms were a gentleman's office. They were the places a gentleman conducted the most important business transactions of his life: ensuring a place in society and arranging his marriage. Jack had already done the former and had no intentions of doing the latter. Tonight was no exception.
Jack stopped inside the arched entrance of the Foth-eringay ballroom, halting a moment to adjust the sleeve of his evening jacket and surreptitiously scan the room. He took mental roll of the attendees. For all intents and purposes, it was an assembly of the usual suspects. That suited him well. This evening, his business was with the newly arrived Venezuelan delegation. He had very specific orders to meet them, and determine if there was any substance to the quietly circulating rumours that Venezuela was spoiling for a fight over undeclared borders with British Guiana.
'Wainsbridge!' An excited female voice broke over the dull din of constant conversation. His hostess bore down upon him with a gaggle of females in tow. Jack swallowed a groan. The horde was descending slightly earlier than anticipated. That was the price of being a newly titled, attractive bachelor with a certain reputation with the ladies. It didn't help that he was still something of a novelty since his work for the Crown seldom brought him to London on a regular basis.
'Lady Fotheringay, how charming you look tonight.' Jack pasted on a benign smile that hid his cynicism. Women in ballrooms had their business too.
'I want you to meet my nieces, Wainsbridge.' The purple ostrich plumes in Lady Fotheringay's hair bobbed dangerously. There were five of them, all named after flowers--nieces, that was, not ostrich plumes, although he wouldn't put it past the silly woman to name them too.
By the time introductions were completed, Jack's court had grown substantially, filled with females clamouring for their hostess to introduce them to the handsome, newly minted viscount with the mysterious antecedents. For the moment he was hemmed in on all sides and not another man in sight. He could only guess where his fellow males had taken themselves off to--cards and the good brandy, no doubt.
Jack was listening with feigned interest to Miss Violet Fotheringay's rather unenlightened dissertation on the year's fashions and contemplating how he might extract himself from his group in order to find the Venezuelan delegation when he heard it: the unmistakable whis-ky-and-smoke sound of Lady Dulcinea Wycroft's laughter.
Even in a crush such as this, the sound was distinctive in a pleasant, provocative way, something akin to Odysseus's sirens; a sound that would make a smart man fear for his bachelor status. Of course, that assumed the woman in question wanted to marry at all. Dulcinea had shown no inclination in the eight years she'd been out to want to give up her reign as London's supreme Incomparable, although there had been many chances to do so--six proposals Jack knew about and probably a string of others he'd missed in his long and varied absences from town.
Such a resistance to matrimony made her all the more delightful in Jack's opinion. If there was one temptation Jack could not quite resist, it was a witty, cleverly spoken woman who was apparently as staunchly committed to remain ing un mar ried as he was.
Such a similarity made her a complex creature who was both potential companion and challenge. He loved nothing more than a good challenge and over the years, Dulcinea Wycroft had certainly proven to be that to the good men of the fon, none of whom yet had succeeded in walking her down the aisle, although it wasn't for lack of trying.
With careful eyes, so as not to neglect Miss Fother-ingay, Jack followed the laughter to its source. Ah, that explained where the men were. His was not the only court. Two pillars down the ballroom, Miss Wycroft reigned at her court of wit and beauty, surrounded by the cream of London's bachelors. This evening, gowned in striking pomegranate silk, the sheen of her impossibly blue-black hair catching the light of chandeliers, she was a veritable Helen of Troy.
Jack was not immune.
Neither was most of male London.
She was besieged with admirers. If he was the fon's bachelor of note, she was the female equivalent. Like him, she'd not be conquered easily and certainly not by that gathering of pups. Jack stifled a smirk of superiority at the sight of the men clustered about her. The fools. Didn't they know they hadn't a chance? They were insignificant moths to her all-consuming flame. And really, who could blame them? She was vivacity personified in a room full of pattern-card women like Violet Fotheringay, all playing their assigned roles in life.
Those admirers would fare no better against her fire than the unlucky moth fared against the light. She would burn their ambitions as assuredly as she'd burned the would-be suitors that preceded them. A woman like Dulcinea would never settle for a typical fonnish marriage. Such a passion for living could not be caged inside a Mayfair mansion. Jack privately marvelled that such passion hadn't ruined her already. It was his experience in general that the brightest flames often consumed themselves. It was perhaps inevitable that Dulci's fire would be her eventual downfall. Jack thought it rather miraculous it hadn't happened already.
He turned his gaze back to Violet, but his thoughts remained firmly elsewhere in the mental vicinity of Dulcinea. As a long-time friend of her brother Brandon, the earl, he'd known Dulci vaguely through the years although he hadn't known her well. He'd been filling various diplomatic posts in the Caribbean and had only just returned to England four years ago. It had been something of a surprise to return and encounter, on his brief appearances in London society, the incarnation of the current Dulci Wycroft. Breathtaking, too--not only in beauty, he discovered, but also in wit.
When he was in town, they ran in similar circles and were inevitably in attendance at the same dinner parties and political functions, not to mention larger events. This past winter, when his schedule had allowed him to remain in town, he'd found himself enjoying the exchange of verbal ripostes with her on several occasions.
Jack's thoughts paused and took another path. During the Christmas holidays, they'd exchanged more than ripostes, spurred on perhaps by the mistletoe and holiday spirits--he meant that literally. He'd kissed her in Lady Weatherby's orangery. Those kisses had unleashed something raw and dangerous between them.
Normally, such an attraction would lead to its natural conclusion where Jack was concerned. But Dulci superseded such logic and placed him in a double bind; the secretive and private nature of his work precluded the opportunity to pursue any kind of relationship--not that he was desirous of anything permanent, which led to the second bind. The relationship he would most likely pursue would hardly meet with Brandon's approval. One did not make a mistress of or have an affair with one's best friend's sister. And Jack wasn't about to marry her over a few wassail-driven kisses no one knew about.
Lord knew that particut ar encounter might have ended better--or worse, depending on how one looked at it--if he hadn't been unexpectedly summoned away from the house party. As it was, he'd been lucky to escape with only one pot being thrown at his head. Dulci had been furious over what she saw as his imposition, although Jack suspected she'd enjoyed the kiss just as much as he had. She wasn't angry with him. She was angry with herself.
The result was that these days their banter had taken on a slight edge. No matter. One look at her tonight and his body was perfectly willing to pick up where they'd left off, pottery shards and all.
So was every other man in the room. By rights, Dulci should have picked one of them by now and settled down to life as a society matron. But Dulci didn't do anything by the rules. She made no secret of her independence, of her enormous interest in the Royal Geographic Society and fencing, and that she enjoyed far more freedom than other unmarried women of good families. Such confidence in her own consequence was an enormous part of her appeal. No gentleman ever assumed for long that Dulci Wycroft needed a man to rely on.
She got away with it and much else, Jack knew, because she was very careful not to break the one rule that mattered most. There was no blemish on her name in terms of maidenly modesty. Whatever wild streak Dulci might possess in conjunction with her independence, it did not extend into the realm of sexual exploits.
Jack thought of the orangery and reorganised his thoughts. Well, at least not beyond a few stolen kisses.
Not far down the room, Dulci leaned forwards, showing great signs of interest in the man on her left--and a considerable amount of bosom, in Jack's opinion. The man was a strikingly handsome Spaniard. Jack swore silently. Damn and double damn. He would have to go through her to get to them. With the episode in the orangery still between them, he'd have preferred to keep his business and pleasure separate.
He should have known. It stood to reason she'd be in the centre of the excitement. Dulci knew everyone in society. Those she didn't know, she made a point to meet. The delegation had only been in town a short week and Dulci had already managed to meet the guests of honour, the very people he'd come to investigate. According to the descriptions Jack had been provided with, the man at her side adroitly ogling her bosom was none other than Calisto Ortiz, one of the Venezuelan delegation, nephew to a high-ranking government official with ambitions. No doubt the others were somewhere in the crowd around her. He'd definitely have to get through Dulci to get an introduction. That meant there'd be a scene, at least a small one.
Considering their last words in the orangery, it was to be expected. In truth, it was Dulci's due. He'd behaved badly. One did not steal kisses and then have to dash off in the middle of stealing a bit more.
Jack was suddenly aware that Miss Fotheringay had stopped talking. 'Quite insightful,' Jack said quickly, smiling at the young woman who looked at him expectantly. 'I am positive many young girls share your opinion.' He was sure they did, although he couldn't recall what those opinions might be. It was deuced awkward to be caught out with one's attentions fixed elsewhere. Time to be moving on.
'I have enjoyed this immensely, ladies, but I see some people I need to meet, if you would excuse me?' Jack moved smoothly through his court and discreetly headed towards the group around Dulcinea. He took the long route, careful not to hurt anyone's feelings. It wouldn't do to be immediately seen going from one set to another.
Jack tugged on his waistcoat, girding himself for battle. When he was with her, everything was a competition--a delightful competition, but still a competition--and he had to be ready. 'Steady on, old chap.' Jack muttered under his breath. He had nothing to fear. What fire didn't burn it made stronger. When it came to women like Dulci Wycroft, Jack was tempered Damascus steel.
Jack circumspectly dislodged a young admirer whose only crime was to stand next to Dulcinea. Good lord, the ring of admirers got younger by the year. Lord Baden's son was among the lot tonight. Was the boy really old enough to come up to town now? These men were barely men at all, merely overgrown pups. Or was it simply that he was getting older? At four and thirty, he felt quite the veteran standing amongst Dulci's collection of young bucks. Regardless, they were no match for Dulci's wit. Not one of them had a chance of holding her attention.
'Good evening, everyone.' His eyes briefly swept the group by way of greeting.
The group's collective eye fixed on him, their collective breath held, waiting for the sport to begin. It had become something of a ballroom sport for guests to watch Dulci and he spar. Well, sparring wasn't quite accurate. They didn't fight. They volleyed with dares and words carefully wrapped in a socially acceptable package. Jack preferred to classify their exchanges more along the lines of lawn tennis. With practiced charm he drawled, 'Good evening, Lady Dulcinea.'
The match was engaged.
Heads swivelled to Dulci. If she was surprised by his presence, she did not show it. Her greeting was coolly polite, the type one offered to a passing acquaintance although they were far more than that.
'Wainsbridge, I did not expect to see you tonight.' Dulci subjected him to a liquid blue perusal, taking in every inch of his attire.
Jack readied for the forthcoming quip. Amid her sea of dandies with their bright waistcoats and popinjay fashions, his sombre apparel, broken only by the dove-grey brocade of his waistcoat, took on a more austere cast. The king's prized adviser could not strut around looking like a peacock of the most frivolous order. Although what he advised the king on remained a mystery to many.
'Wainsbridge, are these gloomy tones the best you can do? Such a choice would put a damper on even the most festive of occasions.' Dulci quizzed him with a perfectly arched black eyebrow. Heads turned back to him, everyone considering his apparel.
Jack bowed, taking the reprimand with consummate ease. 'I am at your disposal, Lady Dulcinea. What colour would you prefer I wear? The rainbow is yours. Pluck a colour from it and I will see it done. By this time tomorrow, I shall possess apparel done up to your satisfaction.'
The group stared at Dulci, waiting for her pronouncement. Jack thought it highly likely he wouldn't be the only person sporting Dulci's colours by this time tomorrow. Tailors all over the city would be busy in the morning.
Dulci snapped open her fan and speared Jack with a knowing look. As he intended, she understood entirely the dilemma he'd placed before her. She could not dare him to wear a hideous colour without making her court appear ridiculous along with him. Nor could she take the uncreative neutral option since she'd been the one to throw down the gauntlet. She had a certain reputation to uphold just as much as he.
'Azure. I choose azure,' she announced coyly over the top of her painted fan after pretending to give the answer a great deal of thought. And perhaps she had. Jack had to admit blue was the perfect choice for a careful answer. There were so many shades of blue; a gentleman could pick a hue of his own comfort level.