A Woman With A Secret
Victoria Ashton has intelligence and ambition--qualities of little value to most marriage-minded gentlemen of the ton. Her own father has no idea of Victoria's hidden life as an anonymous trader in London's stock market. But her hopes of independence are shattered when her father's enemy, Blake Mallorey, assumes Charles Ashton's debts and presents Victoria with a stark choice: live with him as his mistress for one year, or condemn her family to bankruptcy.
A Gentleman With Resolve
For years Blake has dreamed of justice, and his scheme becomes all the sweeter when he sees the beauty that Victoria has become. Scoundrel he may be, but Blake will not force anyone into his bed. He intends to entice Victoria, one wicked kiss at a time. But with a woman as spirited and sensual as Victoria, seduction works both ways--and a plan rooted in revenge can blossom into a scandalous passion...
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September 01, 2009
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Excerpt from Lady of Scandal by Tina Gabrielle
London, April 1812
"Rumor has it he's returned from the dead."
Victoria Ashton frowned at the young woman by her side. Jane Middleton, a robust debutante in her fourth Season, was a notorious gossip.
Victoria remained silent, her eyes scanning Almack's crowded ballroom.
"I've also heard he has amassed a fortune and is quite handsome as well," Jane said. "Why, all the mamas of the ton are throwing their daughters before him!"
Victoria feigned interest and nodded at Jane's comments. Shifting to the side, Victoria peered around Jane and studied the faces of the couples as they danced past on the full floor.
Her eyes then wandered to the entrance of one of Almack's gaming rooms. A cold knot formed in her stomach at the thought that Spencer had already gone inside.
Jane stepped in front of Victoria and blocked her view of the card room. Raising her voice an octave, Jane continued, "Blake Mallorey's new country home is so extravagant that the Regent himself visited to obtain ideas for the next royal residence."
Something about Jane's last statement gained Victoria's attention. "Whose residence did you say?"
"Why, the Prince Regent's new residence."
"No. Whose home did the Regent visit?"
Jane stared at Victoria in confusion.
"Victoria, haven't you heard a word I've said this evening? I'm speaking of Blake Mallorey's--although I suppose I now should use his proper title, the Earl of Ravenspear--return to Town after ten years. You do recall him and his family?"
A sudden chill ran down Victoria's spine.
Did she remember Blake Mallorey?
The name brought back a flood of childhood memories. Some were sweet and poignant; most were not.
Jane touched her arm and smiled slyly. "Oh, Victoria.
I'm sure you remember. Wasn't there some sort of scandal between your families?"
Victoria shook her head. "It was so long ago. I hardly recall him."
"Well, he was invited to Almack's tonight by Lady Cowper herself. Perhaps you will recognize him when you see him."
Victoria whirled toward Jane. "Blake Mallorey is expected here? Tonight?"
"Why, yes. The entire town is gossiping about him," Jane said. "He is so wealthy now and so well connected. There are rumors that he has even loaned the Prince Regent money."
Jane patted Victoria's arm as if to soothe her. "You must not fret over a past scandal between your families. With his new status, Ravenspear would hardly concern himself with such a trifling matter as to settle old scores."
Biting her lip, Victoria looked away. "Please excuse me, I must find my brother, Spencer."
Grasping the skirt of her silk gown, Victoria wove her way through the crowded room. Was Blake the only Mallorey to return? What of his mother and sister? Victoria forced a smile and proceeded past the refreshment table and the dance floor.
She glanced at a small circle of ancient society ladies gathered near a potted palm. Their wrinkled mouths frowned as they glared.
Dear Lord, did they all recall the scandal?
As soon as Victoria entered the gaming room, she spotted Spencer through a haze of cigar smoke. His thick crop of yellow hair stood on end as if he had run his fingers through it in agitation. His green eyes were feverish and glittering as he held a hand of cards.
Bloody hell! Victoria straightened her spine and headed toward her brother. Men and women moved fortunes over the tables, watching cards and dice with avaricious intensity.
Spencer sat at a table in the far corner of the room. As she neared, a tall man appeared next to her brother and handed him a glass of punch. Victoria halted, shocked. Her mind whirled as pulse-pounding recognition struck her.
Spencer turned from his cards and smiled up at Blake Mallorey. Victoria watched in amazement as Blake grinned in return and slapped her brother heartily on the back at something he said. They rocked with the laughter of revelers and longtime friends.
Her mouth dropped open.
Blake leaned against the table and lazily picked up a hand of cards. He casually studied his cards before discarding one in a haphazard manner.
Her eyes were drawn to his face. She would have to be blind not to acknowledge he was a startlingly attractive man. As a boy, Blake had been a good-looking youth on the pretty side of handsome.
But as a man . . .
His features were rugged and tanned. He had a straight nose and a chiseled jaw. His hair, dark as a raven's wing, was cut neatly to reach his collar. He was very tall and muscularly built, with deep-blue eyes. His clothes were impeccable and obviously costly, but his taste for decoration was moderate, unlike most of the male members of the ton. His dark-blue velvet jacket was stylish and perfectly tailored to fit broad shoulders, and was devoid of any lacings or silver brocade. His only jewelry was a diamond pin in his crisp knotted cravat.
Although he would be twenty-seven now, the same age as Spencer, Blake appeared older, more powerful. There was something dangerous and sinister about him that added to his attraction. A certain hardness to his features, an arrogance in his stance, proclaimed to all that this was a man who would not be dictated by society's rules, only his own.
Cobalt eyes rose to meet hers and she realized with dismay that she was standing still, staring openly at him.
Looking away abruptly, she feigned interest in an elderly man's cards sitting at the table before her. She slowly circled the card table twice before daring another glimpse beneath lowered lashes.
She drew a swift breath.
Blake Mallorey studied her as intently as she had him moments earlier.
As their eyes met and held across the room, a flicker of faint amusement crossed his face, and he nodded his head in greeting.
He recognized her!
Spencer sat beside Blake, engrossed in his cards, oblivious to Victoria's presence and Blake's interest.
Blake pushed himself away from the table, and with a pang she realized he intended to approach her. He moved without haste but with purpose, his gaze never leaving her face.
Her heart thumped madly, but she remained where she was, squaring her shoulders and raising her chin.
Halfway across the room from her he was overtaken by an eager crowd of females. Victoria observed with an odd bitterness that they were women of all ages, from society's latest crop of debutantes to the older patrons of the ton, all vying for his attention. He was politely attentive, but his eyes simultaneously roamed the room.
Victoria ran to her brother's side.
"Spencer!" She touched his shoulder. "Do you realize who you've been speaking with?"
Spencer turned bloodshot eyes toward his sister. The strong smell of alcohol wafted from his skin. "Vicki! You're ruining my concentration."
Victoria plucked the cards from her brother's hand and threw them on the table. "The gentleman folds," she announced to the wide-eyed dealer and the other startled players at the table.
Grasping Spencer's arm, she led him toward the opposite end of the room, where large French doors that led onto a terrace were open.
Spencer snatched his arm free. "Now why did you have to go and do that? I was ahead one hundred pounds."
Victoria glanced from side to side to ensure they were alone on the terrace. "One hundred pounds!" she whispered vehemently. "Wherever did you get the money to join a game with such high stakes?"
Spencer grimaced and rubbed his red eyes. "Damn, Vicki. I don't recall."
"That's because you arrived drunk," Victoria spat, "and why are you speaking with Blake Mallorey?"
Spencer's face lit up. "Why, now I remember. I borrowed the money to play tonight from Blake."
She gasped. "What? He loaned you money?"
"Of course. We've been out on the town all week together, and he has been enough of a gentleman to get me into both White's and Waiter's. I haven't been on the guest list at either establishment for over two years."
"You've been socializing with Blake Mallorey for over a week? Have you lost your wits? Have you forgotten the horrid scandal?" Glancing sideways, she lowered her voice further and added, "or the suicide?"
Spencer swallowed hard. "But that was so long ago, over ten years now. Blake is now an earl, and he has assured me that his wealth and status are secure. He has no interest in digging up old grudges."
"And you believed him?"
He shrugged dismissively. "Why not? I haven't had this much fun since I came into my inheritance from Aunt Lizzy at twenty-one."
Victoria reached out and clutched his hand. "It might have been ten years, but I have not forgotten, and I'm sure Blake's memories are stronger than mine. We must keep our distance from him. What would Father say if he learned you owed Blake Mallorey money?"
Spencer paled at the mention of disciplinarian Charles Ashton.
"Vicki, I owe Mallorey more than just the hundred pounds for tonight. He's been lending me money the entire week, and he has even purchased some of my outstanding markers."
Before Victoria could respond, the scrape of booted feet on the terrace cobblestones echoed through the night air.
Forcing a smile on her face, Victoria turned to greet the intruder as if she hadn't a care in the world. She stiffened.
Blake Mallorey's tall figure headed toward them, his eyes on her face. "I wondered what could be so appealing to lure you away from the tables, Spencer. Now I know."
Victoria's eyes met Blake's as he approached, and a shiver of apprehension coursed through her. She was keenly aware that he watched her with all his attention.
"How are you, Victoria?"
"Well, sir. Thank you," she said with rigid formality, refusing to use his deceased father's title.
His dark eyebrows arched mischievously. "Is this proper lady the same girl that followed me around and kicked the back of my heels to gain my attention?"
Victoria felt her face burn. "That was a long time ago. Children grow up."
"Ah, yes, they do. And you have grown into a stunningly beautiful woman. You have the same jade-colored eyes and sable hair that made you an adorable child, but as a woman your features are quite ravishing."
"We had heard you were killed at sea," she said, tossing her hair across her shoulders. "Some wicked, adventurous pirate story, as I recall, right, Spencer?"
Spencer coughed. "Vicki! That was just pure gossip. No truth behind it at all, I assure you, Blake."
An easy smile played at the corners of Blake's mouth. "I wouldn't want to discourage such rumors if they enhance my reputation."
She met his gaze without flinching. "In that case, there are numerous stories you may be interested in that I have overheard about you over the years."
"Vicki!" Spencer's face was bright red now.
"Perhaps," Blake said, "we could stroll the gardens and you could tell me all about these stories."
"I must decline." Victoria touched her temple with two fingers. "I seem to have developed a headache."
She swiveled quickly, turning her back on Blake. "Spencer, I'd like to leave now."
Spencer's mouth opened and closed like a fish's, then he merely nodded.
"Another time, then?" Blake pressed.
"I doubt our paths will cross again. Good night." Victoria entwined her arm with Spencer's and nearly dragged her brother from the terrace.
Victoria waited until they were safely seated inside a hackney cab, before she breathed a sigh of relief. She rested her head against the side of the padded coach and closed her eyes.
"I'm surprised at your rudeness," Spencer said, breaking the silence. "I consider Blake my new friend."
Victoria's eyes flew open. "Friend? He could cause the family a considerable amount of trouble should he choose to use his newly acquired wealth and power to do so. Don't forget that Father was recently appointed a Junior Lord Commissioner of the Treasury for the Regency and he would not want any blemish to tarnish his reputation."
"Blake's harmless, I tell you," Spencer said.
A picture of Blake Mallorey's face flashed before her. His wolflike grin, intense blue eyes and powerful build.
"Harmless" was the last word she would choose to describe him.
She had an odd premonition that he would indeed seek retribution for the wrongs he believed were done to his family, and that, worst of all, her life would never be the same once he chose to do so.