Just another dull debutante?
From boxing at Jackson's to dancing starry-eyed society belles around London's ballrooms, Beldon Stratten is the perfect English gentleman. And he's looking for a perfectly bland, respectable wife.
Appearances can be deceiving...
Exotic Lilya Stefanov is anything but bland. Beldon is intrigued to see that the ragamuffin girl he once knew has matured into an elegant lady, poised and polite!
But beneath the mysterious beauty's evening gowns and polished etiquette lies a dangerous secret--and a scandalous sensuality.
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September 01, 2011
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Excerpt from Secret Life of a Scandalous Debutante by Bronwyn Scott
Secret Life of a Scandalous Debutante
by Bronwyn Scott
Beldon Stratten, the fourth Baron Pendennys. was on a mission of matrimonial importance. His affairs were in order: the one prequisite needed for a good marriage or a good death among London's social elite. Having been neither married nor dead, he'd have to take their word for it. There were those among his acquaintances who argued there wasn't much difference between the two. He would reserve judgement.
His gaze roved the room, quartering it with purpose. He would choose one of them. Perhaps the lovely Miss Canby with her modest fortune, but impeccable bloodlines; maybe Miss Ellsworthy. granddaughter of a viscount, whose financial endowment made up for the lack of other endowments; or the elegant Elizabeth Smithbridge with her icy beauty and twenty thousand pounds. Beldon gave a mental shrug. No. Not Miss Smithbridge. Too cold. A man must have his standards, it wasn't all about the money.
Dear Lord, did Miss Canby just wink at him? She waltzed by with the young heir to an earldom, clearly hedging her bets. That was definitely a wink.
Beldon grabbed up a chilled flute of champagne from a passing footman and silently toasted himself. Welcome to the Season. Four months of sizing up the opportunities. And four months of being sized up. He was no naive young blood first come to town. While he was assessing the available women, admittedly some more available than others, they were assessing him.
Beldon sipped from the flute. Lady Eleanor Braithmore floated by in a froth of white lace and pink ribbons, daughter of an earl and the most eligible heiress of the Season. All his common sense, and he had a healthy dose of it, suggested he make his suit in that direction. Wealthy, young and pretty, Eleanor was all a well-bred gentleman should desire. Until his gaze moved on and he saw her. More precisely, until he saw her back. The her in question was not Eleanor Braithmore. In fact, he didn't know who she was. The woman was stunning. Granted, he could only see her back, but what a back. Beldon gave silent thanks to the fashion gods who'd decreed that this year's gowns be low, off-the-shoulder creations that revealed a tantalising glimpse of a woman's back and the feminine swell of a neatly rounded shoulder.
The woman in question wore the latest style exceptionally well. Her raven-dark hair was piled high and threaded with lengths of pearls, exposing the delicate column of her neck and enough of her back to cause a jolt of desire to fire straight to his core. He was suddenly and exceedingly aware of himself as a sexual being, a man in tune with his natural urges. What he could do with a woman like that! The very sight of her begged a man to conjure fantasies.
He closed his eyes for a moment, imagining the feel of that straight, elegant back beneath the caress of his fingertips. Even now, across the room and her face unseen, his fingers itched to skim the sensual surface of her skin, his lips lightly brushing the place where neck met shoulders.
He seduced her in his mind. She would be exquisite by candlelight. He would approach her from behind, settle his hands, light but firm, on those bare shoulders and push the delicate material of her gown down the length of her arms, letting it glide over the slim flare of her hips, until the whole of her back was revealed; the indentation at the small where it gave way to the curved globes of her derriere.
She would be superb nude.
A man knew these things instinctively. And a smart man banished 'those things' to the recesses of his mind where they belonged, unable to interfere with logic and rational thought.
Beldon Stratten was nothing if not a smart man.
There was a time and place for such indulgences and in the past, he'd indulged rather frequently under those circumstances. Now was not the time. He was here for a wife, not an affair with a delicious stranger.
Beldon drew a deep breath and relinquished the fantasy. Whoever she was, she wasn't on his mental list of candidates and for obviously good reasons. A temptress-wife brought a whole dowry of potential complications with her. He believed firmly in the adage, all things in moderation. A life of excesses was a life beyond control. His father's lack of it had taught him that.
Then the woman turned, her face fully revealed and all his good intentions hit the well-paved road to hell.
His step slowed. His breath hitched.
His mystery woman was no mystery at all. Instead, she was none other than Lilya Stefanov, his friend Valerian's ward. He'd met her before at Valerian's home in Cornwall, but not recently. This past year his investments had taken him often from home.
The transformation was astonishing. She bore little resemblance to the neat but plainly dressed girl he recalled. In his absence, she'd become a woman of extraordinary beauty. Tonight she was turned out to perfection in a crepe gown of creamy ivory. Where other girls appeared washed out by the pristine whiteness of their gowns, Lilya positively glowed, managing to look ethereal amid the Season's preference for heavy silks. She looked like a woman; a confident female in a ballroom full of girls fresh from the schoolroom who hadn't so much as touched a man's sleeve before tonight. There was no inherent reticence about Lilya. It was evident in her gaze. A certain spark burned in those beautiful sloe eyes of hers, a spark that held all nature of exotic promise.
With a bachelor's eye for all things lovely and female, Beldon noted she was surrounded by beaux. Who would not want to bask in the rays of her beauty? She'd have half of London at her feet in no time. But he would not be one of them, unlooked-for visceral urges aside.
She was not what he considered a top candidate for himself. He knew what he wanted. He'd spent the winter contemplating the ideal wife: a woman who had the experience to run an estate, a woman who brought a certain financial security to the marriage. He'd spent ten years making the Pendennys holdings respectable again. He'd prefer his wife have the ability to continue that.
Aside from her loveliness, Lilya met neither of his two conditions. She was Valerian's ward, a refugee Phanariot from Macedonia; her abilities to fully integrate into English society were dubious and untried. Her hostessing skills merely masked his larger concern. Even if those skills should prove exemplary, there was the financial barrier. She had Valerian's generous dowry. However, Beldon could not bring himself to take his friend's money. Scruples aside, the fact still remained that he needed to marry for money, at least a little of it. He could not afford the luxury of a poor marriage.
And yet she was somehow irresistible. He should at least go and make his presence known. Duty compelled it of him as Valerian's friend and brother-in-law. Everyone would think it odd if he didn't greet her. He would go over and say hello, nothing more, and then get back to the pursuit of Eleanor Braithmore, the perfect English rose.
The perfectly handsome man was staring at her with intense blue eyes reminiscent of hot coals, studying, searing. It was the 'searing' part that had caught Lilya's attention.
No, he was no longer staring, he was moving. Towards her with a purpose in his stride that left no doubt of his destination.
She did not recognise him at first, although there was a slight sense of familiarity about him: the broad shoulders, the height, the confident walk of a man who knew what he was about, and the chestnut hair. In the end, it was the eyes that tipped his hand--strikingly blue and intense as he neared. She only knew one man with eyes like that.
So he was back.
Her mind assimilated the information objectively. Her stomach fluttered, assimilating the information in an entirely different way that had nothing to do with his return and everything to do with the way he was bent over her hand, all refined grace and male potency combined together in dark evening wear.
'Enchante, Miss Stefanov. It has been a long time.'
'Lord Pendennys, how charming to see you.' Lilya dipped a modest curtsy, reminding herself of reality. As Valerian's brother-in-law he was obligated to acknowledge her. A sillier girl than she might have swooned. As it was, she was far too conscious of the blue gaze holding her own, of the unexpected frisson of excitement his most proper touch elicited. He'd done nothing wrong, yet he'd managed to turn a perfunctory greeting into something more.
Perhaps that was why women were gazing not so discreetly over the edges of their fans at him. A quick scan of the area indicated he was becoming an item of interest. Why not? A confident man was an attractive man and he had confidence in spades.
Such a reaction made her wonder what other mysterious skills Beldon Stratten might possess in order to evoke that level of feminine attention. It was a short journey down the path to another curious thought; if a simple touch affected her so thoroughly, what else might he evoke? A delicious shiver trembled through her at the idea.
Beldon deftly caught up the dance card dangling from her wrist and discovered the upcoming waltz was available, the only one left empty. 'I would like to claim a dance. I hope I am not too late.'
It was immediately clear that he embodied a higher calibre of man than the usual young bloods surrounding her. Here was a man in his prime; a man old enough to assume responsibility, but young enough to thoroughly enjoy the pleasures of life.
What those pleasures might be, Lilya could only guess. He was not a man given to the obvious tonnish excesses of gambling and womanising. For all his confidence, it was also apparent from the formality of his manners that Beldon Stratten was a man of controlled reserve. He emanated an aura of power restrained, a certain air of mysterious reserve. If one could just get behind those eyes and see into that mind, one might see great secrets, one might unleash something primal, Lilya suspected. But for now, he remained something of an impenetrable fortress.
That man wanted to dance with her.
Another flutter swept her in anticipation. She felt like a green girl next to this polished man and all of his town bronze.
'Are you nervous, Miss Stefanov?' he asked, his voice low and private at her ear as he guided them to an empty place on the floor. 'I would not have expected it from you.'
'Nervous' wasn't the right word for what she was feeling but how to describe the thrill his simplest touch conjured? 'It is just that I have not seen you in a long while.'
'And I you, Miss Stefanov. When I saw you, you nearly stalled me in my tracks.'
Lord, the man flattered with exquisite expertise. She nearly believed him. Perhaps if his eyes had been warmer, she might have. But while his gaze remained intent, it was also aloof.
The music started. Beldon's hand rested lightly at her waist, firm and possessive, pushing her awareness of him to new heights. 'Shall we, Miss Stefanov? You do not strike me as a woman given to nerves over a dance.'
'Do you know me so well, then, after a few minutes' acquaintance?' she parried. He might be Valerian's brother-in-law but, she'd never shared a private conversation with him. For all intents and purposes, he was a stranger, albeit a stranger she'd fancied from afar; handsome and bold, he was the stuff of heroes. If she was smart, that's where she'd keep him, too. A man like this was dangerous. She could indulge in the fantasy of a single waltz, but that was all. If she indulged in more, she'd likely end up with a broken heart or worse. No, Beldon Stratten was not for her.
Lilya put her hand up to his shoulder, alert to the intimate proximity of the dance. He surrounded her subtly; the sandalwood and citrus of his cologne teased her nostrils; the flex of his muscles flirted with her fingertips through layers of glove and fabric, reminding her of the absolute maleness of him; a reminder that was intoxicating and more than a little unsettling. She might just prove his suppositions wrong.
She had danced with men before, been held like this before, and not once had she experienced this extreme awareness of a partner.
He moved them into the dance with consummate ease, oblivious to his growing effect on her. Perhaps he affected all women this way. Lilya fell in with his smooth execution of the steps, finding comfort in the familiarity of the patterns. Then she made her first mistake.
She should have kept her eyes affixed on some invisible point over his shoulder as protocol demanded, but the temptation to study this man proved too great. She tipped her head up to look at his face and instantly knew it to be a grave misstep. It did nothing to quell his appeal.
The attraction and mystery of him were indelibly etched together in his features, in the intelligent but remote blue eyes, in the sharp, clean lines of his jaw and the mouth that so rarely gave over to a smile. It was a handsome, but not accessible, face. This was not a man one casually approached. This was a man who decided whom he would approach and when, which made it all the more exciting that he'd approached her.
Everything about Beldon Stratten bespoke purpose, an intriguing departure from some of the other men she'd danced with; older men whose boredom with their station was written in the angles of their faces; younger men who hadn't any idea of what they might become, no calling evident to them. But here was a man who knew who he was and what he wanted. That knowledge made him interesting, made him magnetic. Maybe that was why women looked at him over the tips of their fans.
'Are you enjoying yourself tonight?' Beldon asked, sweeping them through the turn at the top of the ballroom.
'Of course, everything is so grand in London, one cannot help but love the balls.'
'I noticed Lord Idlefield is on your card later. May I be so bold as to warn you he will live up to his name?'
Lilya nearly missed the joke. She had not expected humour from this man. She caught the reference just in time and smiled broadly in response, her intrigue with him ratcheting up another notch. She cocked her head in a coquettish challenge, daring him to continue along this vein. 'And Lord Fairborough? I am to dance a cotillion with him after supper.'