by the author of Rules to Catch a Devilish Duke
and Taming an Impossible Rogue
THE WICKED ONE
A Beginner's Guide to Rakes Prequel
A young, penniless widow. An inveterate rogue with a gambler's charm. A chance meeting that leaves them both breathless with desire ...
Widowed after only two years of marriage, Diane Benchley, Countess of Cameron, is left alone in a foreign place with nothing but the clothes on her back and a mountain of her late husband's gambling debts. Before the young raven-haired beauty can give in to despair, she meets Oliver Warren, the rebellious and disinherited heir to the Marquis of Haybury. Wickedly flirtatious and powerfully handsome, Oliver is everything Diane's husband was not, and she longs to taste true passion just once. Their clandestine affair is a deliciously sensual education--but will it also be a lesson in love?
Don't miss Suzanne Enoch's breathtaking romances--where passion is always more tempting than propriety...
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St. Martin's Paperbacks
June 25, 2012
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Excerpt from The Wicked One by Suzanne Enoch
Through the small window on the second floor of l'Hotel du Lac, the city of Vienna glittered. The flaws in the glass diffused the candle and torchlight, turning the pinpoints into spider-legged stars. After eight months Diane Benchley, the Countess of Cameron, had memorized the earthly constellations. That one would be the soiree of relocated British aristocrats at Herold Haus, while the even brighter cluster beyond meant that even at this hour the old Stephansdom church was occupied.
She should be there as well, she supposed, praying for...something. For the soul of the dead man the undertaker had removed from her apartment yesterday morning. For someone--anyone--to appear and rescue her from the same fate. For her burdens to be lifted and for her landlord to forget that the rent was due at the end of the week.
Absently she picked at the frayed arm of the chair, plucking stiff horse hairs from within and dropping them to the faded carpet. The church bell began chiming, and she stilled, listening. Twelve chimes. Midnight. Was it amusing or ironic or simply very sad that her only visitors in the past two days had been an undertaker and his assistant, and a very reluctant landlord? That the passing of the man with whom she'd shared a life and a bed for the past two years hadn't even garnered a notice in the local newspaper? That people likely knew of the passing of the Earl of Cameron and simply didn't care?
Well, not everyone would be unmoved. Her first task after the departure of her late husband's remains had been to compose a letter to Anthony Benchley in order to inform him that his brother was deceased and that he'd just become the new Earl of Cameron. Huzzah for Anthony. The moment he received her missive he would begin visiting properties, determining which ones were entailed and which ones he needed to wait on the reading of the will before he could occupy or sell.
None of them were hers, of course; the few items that she'd brought with her to the marriage she'd already sold in order to keep a roof over her--and Frederick's--head. Or rather, to repay whichever gambling debt her husband had incurred in order to keep them a step or two ahead of the dunners.
As she watched, the lights of the Stephansdom went out, though the party at Herold Haus evidently continued. She and Frederick had been invited a week ago; the English community in Vienna was small enough that to not receive an invitation would have been more significant.
Three weeks ago she'd turned twenty-one years old. Forty-eight hours ago she'd become a widow. And tomorrow she would have to take an official count of the one thing Frederick had left her. Debts. Bills from tailors, several shops that sold gloves and cravats and other accouterments, bills from grocers and inns and gentlemen's clubs and the hotel where she presently resided. And the largest stack, notes from dozens of men containing only names and dates and pounds owed, and Frederick's signature beneath.
Over the past two years she'd become accustomed to debt, and to the shrinking number of friends that accompanied it. She had a ledger book in the cabinet that detailed a spiral of debt Frederick--they--had incurred in London, the gap in days from the moment they'd left lovely old Adam House in the middle of the night and traveled all the way to Austria, and then the slow, persistent resumption of figures once Frederick had become acquainted with Vienna.
The numbness of the past few days, when she'd determined to ignore everything but the moment or two around her, began to shred. Panic tugged at her throat as the meaning of the mountain of debts seeped into her chest despite her best efforts to keep it at bay. Frederick was gone. What he'd left behind was more than enough to destroy her. They'd already had to flee England. She didn't even have enough money left to flee Vienna. Nor did she have enough money to remain.
And of course no money meant no friends. In fact, she couldn't name one acquaintance from whom Frederick hadn't borrowed a sum and then failed to repay. One or two of them might consent to speak with her, but asking them for money would be both useless and would sever any remaining threads of friendship.
Slowly Diane stood, weariness vying with hopelessness to drag her down to the couch and the pile of blankets there. Her landlord had promised to replace her bed tomorrow, which was rather generous of him even taking into consideration the amount of weeping and hand-wringing she'd had to do in order to convince him to do so. Until then, she would remain on the couch and hope that sleep wasn't as difficult to find as someone whom she didn't owe more money than she could ever afford to repay.
Wits and wagering made fair companions, Oliver Warren reflected as he mentally counted the blunt remaining in his pockets, but that damned luck wouldn't stay out of things. And luck had no regard for skill.
"Well, damn me," le Compte d'Aquille said in a heavy French accent, dragging in a pile of coins, part of which would have paid for Oliver's rooms for the next week. "It seems I cannot lose this evening."
"I've never seen such luck," Tomas DuChamps agreed, downing half a glass of port. "This is rather dismaying."
Aquille laughed, clearly not familiar with the English rule of not celebrating overly much over the table when those with less fortunate hands remained. "It has even rendered the infamous Monsieur Warren speechless."
"Not speechless," Oliver countered, hiding his annoyed frown. He knew better than to wager more than he could afford to lose. Only the rumored incompetence of his companions had driven him to take the risk--well, that and the fact that he had ended up in Vienna with one hundred pounds left to his name and no other means to gain more. "Stunned by the idea that a Frenchman can play cards and win two consecutive hands without wetting himself."
DuChamps snorted. "If I weren't Belgian, I would take offense. And I have to agree to a certain amount of commiseration with your incredulity."
"Chien," d'Aquille stated without heat. "The quips of a loser do not pierce me. I think it is more likely that you English do not know how to play bouillotte."
In truth bouillotte wasn't a game he played often, but whatever Europe at large thought of Bonaparte, the clubs certainly liked French games. "Let's wait and see if you're still whistling that tune at the end of the night."
While the other three men at the table laughed and called for more drinks, Oliver palmed a discarded ace and slipped it up his sleeve. The damned Frenchman, the Belgian, and even the other Englishman present could afford to lose tonight. He couldn't. They hadn't been cut off by bloody stiff-arsed uncles and forced either to flee their homes or join the army just to be able to eat.
"It's your deal, Warren," the third man, Humphrey Jonas, said, shoving more discarded cards in his direction. "The insults are damned amusing, but I'm here to play cards."
"Hear, hear," DuChamps agreed, tossing his ante into the center of the table.
Oliver returned the ace to the bottom of the deck, dealt two cards to each player, then went around once more, slipping the ace into his own trio of cards. It was so simple; and whatever pang of regret he felt at influencing luck in his favor could go bugger itself. It was only fair, really, when he was to let because someone had done the same to him. And the Duke of Greaves had been a friend, damn him. A good friend.
He turned up the next card, placing the retourn? on the table in front of him. An ace. Well, now that fickle little bitch called luck seemed to have moved to his side of the room. It was about damned time. With only twenty cards in the deck, the odds of three of a kind were fairly good. Three aces, however, were difficult to beat. Particularly when his third card was a king. Being careful not to wager too aggressively, he cajoled and baited until nearly eighty quid lay on the table.
When all the players had called, they turned over their hands. "Simple Br?lan," DuChamps said, showing three nines and the common ace.
"Brelan favori," Oliver returned. "King high."
Jonas cursed, tossing his trio of fives onto the table. Oliver turned his attention to Aquille. A four of a kind would beat him, and he didn't have enough blunt remaining to stay in the game for another hand. Finally the Frenchman dropped his cards onto the table. "You have my fourth king," he said, showing a trio of the royals.
Thank God. With a nod, Oliver swept up the blunt. Now that he'd begun it--and more importantly, gotten away with it--he needed to continue. If he could win enough tonight to put his feet back on the ground, to ensure that with more judicious play later he would be able to continue to feed himself and put a roof over his head, he need never sink this far into the mud again.
Every five or six hands, just to be sure he didn't over-xtend his odds of winning, he tilted the game to his favor. And by the end of the evening his one hundred quid had become nearly two thousand pounds. When Jonas grunted and pushed away from the table, Oliver let out a breath. Whoever claimed that cheating was easier than straight play was a liar.
"Gentlemen," Humphrey rumbled, finishing off a glass of brandy, "I am to let. And a certain opera singer has done with warbling to the public for the evening and will be ready to sing for me."
He stuck his hand out, and Oliver shook it. "You're more pleasant than I remember you being in London," Oliver commented with a brief smile.
"You have fewer Englishmen to compare me with here," Jonas returned.
"Speaking of which, are you going to Lady Darham's luncheon tomorrow? Nearly every Mayfair aristocrat in Vienna will be there."
"Then I can hardly abstain, can I?" He wasn't particularly excited to attend, but with several old friendships gone, he could stand to form a few new ones. And perhaps some of them might have some good gossip. He missed knowing what everyone else was up to. It was like attempting to play a chess game with no pieces. And from the far side of the Atlantic Ocean.
D'Aquille nodded as well, gathering the few coins left in front of him into one hand and dumping them into his pocket. "I say good night now, as well. A good evening, mes amis."
As the others left the table, Oliver stood and collected his own winnings. He wouldn't say he felt triumphant by any means, but considering he'd just ensured his ability to live for the next six months or a year, he could admit to a certain...satisfaction. Sending DuChamps a nod, he turned from the table.
"I hope it was worth it, Warren," the Belgian said in a low voice, idly shuffling the cards.
Oliver stopped. "Beg pardon?"
"Suffice it to say that I will not be sitting at a table with you again. I am not so drunk, nor so foolish, as to be rendered blind and senseless."
"I'm finished with this conversation. Take your money and leave. And do not approach me again."
Shit. If DuChamps ever spoke of his obvious suspicions, Oliver would never sit at anyone's table again. If he admitted to anything, or denied anything, he could well be stepping into a morass from which there would be no escape. Ever. Slowly he faced DuChamps. "If you require anything from me, monsieur, I request that you inform me now."
Pale blue eyes regarded him. "I require nothing from you but your absence. One of us, at least, is a gentleman. Good evening."
Oliver nodded. "Good evening."
So in his attempt to gain a measure of freedom and independence, he'd handed his fate over to someone else. Perhaps he needed to be kinder to Luck; if Humphrey Jonas had been the one to realize he'd been cheating, everyone in London would have heard the tale by the end of next week. Instead it had been Tomas DuChamps. However annoyed Oliver was by the circumstance, he had been lucky. DuChamps had a greater sense of nobility and gentlemanly behavior than anyone else he'd yet encountered in Vienna.
Apparently the city attracted dissatisfied ex-patriots who hadn't been able to remain in England and at the same time hadn't been able to settle elsewhere in Europe because of Bonaparte's various tantrums. Vienna had been handed a rather large share of ill luck, itself. Perhaps they belonged together.
Sniffling, Diane sent her landlord a wan, grateful smile. "You've already put a new mattress on the bed and repaired that awful, squeaking shutter. I couldn't possibly ask you for anything else. You are a good man, Mr. Brunn. A very good man."
His cheeks flushed a mottled red. Clicking his heels together, he sketched a bow. "Pay me at your earliest convenience, of course. I shall see myself out. Good day, Lady Cameron."
Diane closed her door again, then leaned her forehead against the cool wood. Without her black gown and the tears she would very likely have been removed from her apartment just now. Previous to this, she'd had no idea of the power a dress conjured, of the ease with which a few tears could sway a stone heart. They were her armor now, her only ally.
Straightening again, she walked over to gather up her black shawl and reticule. Fastening on her black bonnet, she opened the door again and went down the narrow stairs to the street. From there she hired a hack to take her up along the Danube Canal to Johannes Strasse. Lady Darham had said a great many of her countrymen would be at the luncheon today, and at the moment she wasn't certain whether that would be a good thing or a bad thing. For all she knew, Frederick owed most of them money. But they were her countrymen. They spoke the same language, knew the same people.
Over the past fortnight her own company had begun to wear very thin. In fact, if this solitude continued she would very soon go mad. Already in the silence she'd begun talking to herself--which was rather ironic, considering the few conversations that she and Frederick had had over the past two years and the fact that she'd never been spurred to chitchat with herself before now. It was the difference, she supposed, between having someone--no matter how incommunicative--about, and having no one at all.
She decided to carry her kerchief in her hand, ready to receive her tears on the chance that someone actually confronted her for money. It was so odd; a few weeks ago she would have been ecstatic to attend a luncheon with her fellows. A chance to hear gossip about familiar names, to make new friends, to have someone with whom to talk. Now, as alone as she felt, however, it had all become much more complicated.
When the hack stopped, Diane took a moment to gather her thoughts--and her wits--together. She would at least have need of the latter. "Please let there be a friendly face," she muttered, gaining herself an odd look from the butler.
"Diane," Lady Darham said too warmly, as the servant led her into the dowager marchioness' drawing room. "My most sincere condolences. I didn't expect you to attend today."
"I needed some fresh air," Diane returned. "And some fresh company."
"Well, we can certainly oblige you with that. How have you been, my dear?"
"As well as can be expected, I think," she commented truthfully, accepting a cup of tea and refusing to close her eyes at the warm, rich taste. Steeping tea leaves three or four times before discarding them made for little better than hot, bitter water. "Thank you again for inviting me."
"Of course I invited you. We're friends."
Lady Darham was a friend who hadn't bothered to come calling in a fortnight, but commenting on that would only see Diane asked to leave the luncheon. And she did miss the fresh air; previous to Frederick's illness she'd gone walking nearly every day. Since his death she'd been forced to stay indoors both because of custom and because of the appearance she wished to present. Grief-stricken widows did not go trotting through parks. Neither did they go shopping--which was actually fortunate considering that she had no money to spend.
Patricia greeted another group of arriving guests, then returned to sit by Diane in the corner. "I heard a rumor that your finances are...lacking," she muttered below the level of the animated conversation flitting about the large room. "That's an unfortunate rumor to have attached to you."
It must have been a very prolific rumor, if the luncheon's hostess was actually speaking to her about it. Almost reflexively Diane lifted the handkerchief to her eyes. "I know. I've heard it everywhere. I've written to Frederick's brother for information about which accounts are his and which are mine, because, well...it's very confusing."
The marchioness lifted an eyebrow. "So you do have funds, after all?"
"A widow's stipend," Diane lied. "At the moment. Once everything is settled with the solicitors and the courts, I should have a better idea of things." None of it was true, of course, but she was already learning the lesson of assumed weakness versus actual weakness. Once Anthony received confirmation of the authenticity of Frederick's will back at Adam House everything would be much, much worse, but the one advantage of being in Vienna was that it was far away from London.
"Well, that's splendid," Lady Darham said too brightly. "I knew things couldn't be as terrible as everyone said." She patted Diane on one knee. "Now. Will you excuse me for a moment?"
"Certainly. I didn't come here to monopolize you."
The moment Lady Darham left her side, the condolences began. It was practically a formal queue, every guest in attendance taking her hand and announcing how sorry they were to hear of her loss. None of them offered any assistance or to come calling for a chat or to take her to luncheon or a drive, but none of them asked to be repaid for whatever Frederick likely owed them, either. She supposed, then that she could count that as a small victory. A very small one.
A luncheon or tea party or whatever the dowager Marchioness of Darham chose to call her gathering had little appeal for Oliver Warren. Propriety--or the pretense of it--made his head ache.
At the same time, he'd never have a better opportunity to determine which of his countrymen were in Vienna, and which of the men he could challenge at the table. Legitimately now, of course. Cheating last night had been necessary. It wasn't any longer. And he had enough pride to wish to conquer his fellows in a fair fight, as it were.
The butler showed him into the crowded drawing room. As a keen observer of human behavior it took only a moment for him to realize that the large room seemed...unbalanced. The northeast corner stood empty. Or nearly empty. He turned to look.
For a moment his brain simply stopped working. A black gown sat in the corner. Black meant mourning. The long, raven-colored hair and impossibly green eyes meant something else entirely. Something that settled into his gut and made him cast his gaze about to see if any other male present might be looking at her.
"Ah, Mr. Warren," a warm female voice said, and he reluctantly turned away from the corner.
"Lady Darham." The marchioness offered her hand, and he bowed over it.
"You do know every Englishman in Vienna, don't you?"
She smiled. "Very nearly. A benefit of having lived here for the past twenty years. A bastion of England in the middle of Austria, I suppose."
"Who is the woman in the corner?" he asked, returning his gaze to the slender figure draped in black. Generally he proceeded with a bit more subtlety, but she practically set him humming even from halfway across the room.
She followed his glance. "That is Lady Cameron. Her idiot of a husband died nearly a fortnight ago."
His attention snagged by the comment, Oliver looked back at his hostess. "'Idiot'?" he repeated.
"Well, perhaps it's unkind to speak ill of the so-recently dead, but I don't know a better epithet for a man who wagers poorly and constantly and leaves his wife nearly destitute in a foreign country."
"Ah, that Cameron. Frederick Benchley," Oliver recalled. He hadn't heard that the earl was dead, but he'd only been in Vienna for three days. The gossip in Belgium had been still about Wellington's victory at Waterloo. Evidently the English in Belgium didn't fraternize with those in Austria. And that was likely a good thing.
"So introduce me, my lady."
His hostess frowned. "No."
Lifting an eyebrow, Oliver regarded Lady Darham. "Is something amiss?"
"I don't know you well, Mr. Oliver," she returned, "but I do have ears, and eyes with which I read old editions of the London Times. You are a mischief maker. It is my belief that Diane Benchley has had enough mischief in her life. Leave her be."
If the old hen thought to keep him from the young chick, she was sadly mistaken. "Are you her mother?" he asked.
"I--no, of course n--"
"Well, knowing what I do of her husband, it seems entirely possible that mischief is precisely what Lady Cameron needs."
"You wouldn't be saying that if she were old and plump."
Oliver eyed his hostess, who fairly well fit her own description. "I prefer to see things as they are. And I suggest you let Lady Cameron decide for herself if she wishes to converse with me." Inclining his head, he strolled into the crowd.
From there he spent another handful of minutes watching the Countess of Cameron. New arrivals detoured to her corner to pay their respects, and she smiled and nodded and didn't say much in return. No dear friends--no one--sat with her or said more than the official words of condolence. In fact, she seemed very much alone.
Considering how attractive she was, Cameron must have left her in dire straits, indeed. And others here knew about it. He knew about it. The difference was, he didn't care how poor she might be or whether her husband's nonsense had caused damage to her reputation. In fact, as far as he was concerned, the sleek, black-clothed, black-haired female was the only chit in the room.
Oliver strolled forward and seated himself in the chair directly beside her. "You're Diane Benchley," he said.
She turned her head to look at him, her emerald eyes assessing. "I am," she said in a low, not-quite-steady voice. "And who are you, sir?"
From the slight narrowing of her eyes, she recognized the name. He wasn't surprised; his reputation had never been for bookishness or prudery. "Mr. Warren. I had no idea you were in Vienna."
"Just arrived. You've been here for over a year, haven't you?"
The countess nodded. "I have."
"Splendid. Perhaps you might show me the sights."
She blinked. "Beg pardon? My...my husband just died a fortnight ago. I am in mourning."
And he found it interesting that the quaver in her voice had vanished once he'd surprised her. "So you want nothing but to be left in solitude? I'm quite amiable and interesting, you know. I might even be capable of taking your mind from your troubles."
The countess visibly drew in a breath. "You don't lack confidence, do you?" she commented.
Oliver shrugged. "I know what I want."
Her soft-looking lips parted just a little in what might have been the beginnings of a smile. "And what is it you want, Mr. Warren?"