INDIE TALE Magazine’s RONE award for best Historical Romance
A reluctant heiress resigned to her fate …
Mary Elizabeth Edwardes possesses one of the largest fortunes in England, but has no desire to leave her quiet country existence… and even less to acquire a husband she cannot choose for herself.
A dissolute nobleman bent on retribution …
Trapped in a duplicitous existence since scandal destroyed his fortune and family name, Lord Hadley Blanchard has spent the better part of a decade posing as a disaffected exile while spying and seducing in the service of the English Crown.
A dangerous game of seduction, and intrigue …
By employing the full measure of his seductive charm, he woos the ward of the man who destroyed his life, little knowing that winning Mary’s fortune will mean risking his own treacherous heart.
Title: Treacherous Temptations
Author: VVictoria Vane
Genre: Historical Romance
Length: 254 pages
Release Date: January 2013
Praise for Treacherous Temptations:
An innocent, country heiress and a worldly, impoverished aristocrat are brought together in this glorious Georgian romance. With lush, flawless prose and a plot steeped in rich, historical details, Victoria Vane owns the Georgian era.
– Jill MacKenzie, Romantic Historical Lovers Blog
© 2013 Victoria Vane
London’s Hanover Square – 31 December 1720
It was an unusually late hour when the staid Earl of Blanchard, a man of unusually stringent habits, stumbled past his footman reeking of spirits. Endeavoring to escape from the putrid fermentation of growing scandal, he had withdrawn to his club to spend the evening into the wee hours in solitary rumination of the shambles of his life.
She was his second wife, younger by thirty years, and he’d been an infatuated fool for her. He’d nearly ruined himself with the extravagant gifts he’d used to woo her, and now for his madness he was accounted the biggest cuckold in the country. There’s no fool like an old fool.
After hours of reflection, he’d reached a solemn resolution, but now that he stood outside her bedchamber, he found himself faltering. His hand trembled on the knob, for he already knew what he would find on the other side of the mahogany portal. Nevertheless, he was unable to fight the self-destructive impulse to see with his eyes what his heart and mind had continued to deny.
Devoid of candle or lamp, he entered her chamber and advanced to the tester bed, drawing back the luxurious silk hangings with quavering fingers to expose the shadowy forms entwined in the deepest repose of sated slumber.
The Earl of Blanchard retrieved the loaded pistol from his pocket, vacillating with an unsteady hand between the two targets— his wife and her lover—until the latter turned in his sleep to reveal shockingly familiar features in the dim moonlight.
Overcome by the unspeakable treachery, the earl stumbled backward, clutching his chest, gasping for air. In the end, he placed the muzzle in his own mouth and pulled the trigger.
Republic of Venice – March 1722
Hadley, self-styled, Lord Blanchard fumbled with the key, dropped it, and then groped in the dark, cursing the slothful valet who failed to answer his summons. His ill temper was as much due to his gaming losses as by the clumsiness induced by an over-abundance of alcohol. Although he’d polished off an entire case of Canary wine with his cronies, the countless casks, and plethora of bemasked bedfellows, provided only fleeting succor for his distress.
He had come to Venice to lose himself in the faceless throng of revelers, and the Queen of the Adriatic had welcomed him as warmly as a new mistress. With his letter of introduction from the Duke of Wharton, Hadley had enjoyed the best of accommodations without the inconvenience of having to pay for them. This good fortune had also allowed him to indulge for a time, in a spree of unbridled debauchery, and where better than Venice? For nowhere in Europe boasted such a paradoxical picture of piety and depravity as the Venetian Republic during carnival.
By light of day, she affected a demeanor of respectability. Her ladies, modestly hidden behind filmy black veils, and her gentleman who concealed their nightly dissipations with false facades of refined gentility, seemingly found no greater delight than innocent promenades in the Piazza, sampling frittola, and perusing shops for silks and pointe-de-venice.
With the arrival of dusk, however, the true Venice awakened. Donning her gilded and bejeweled bauta, sherevealed her soul beneath a thousand torches lighting the canals with sputtering brilliance over shimmering waters. With her countless covered gondolas affording floating places of refuge for sinful delights, she reveled in all of her concupiscent glory.
Hadley had immersed himself in the illicit offerings, passing his days in indolent idleness and his nights in inveterate debauchery…until his luck in the gaming rooms had run dry. He had already replaced his diamond shoe buckles with paste and now his funds continued to diminish at an alarming rate. Would he soon be reduced to begging alms of friends and groveling for his bread? He was the heir to an earldom, for Christ’s sakes!
Nearly ready to kick the door in, he found the key at last and slid it into the lock. When the door gave into the dimly lit chamber, he was assailed by a stream of words spoken in a breathy feminine gush.
“My darling, my dearest love! We are together again at last!” The warm feminine figure flung herself into his arms, melding to him in a ravenous kiss. He was at first stunned by the unidentifiable sensual assault, but what mattered the voice when attached to such a welcome?
Although still enshrouded in a drink-induced fog, his prick readily responded. Without a word of reply, he fisted her hair, backed her to the wall, and tore away the damnable barrier of the dressing gown to find her nude beneath. Hot tongues met and tangled as she yanked at his clothes.
“God, yes!” she groaned deep in her throat, groping for and releasing him. “Magnificent! Just as I remember you.” Her voice was low and weighted with lust. “Now, damn you! I want you now!” she cried between biting kisses that tore at his flesh.
He lifted her, crushing her against the wall. She undulated against him, her legs wrapped about him, squeezing his flanks. He plunged into her, only briefly relishing the initial sensation of glorious wet heat, before partially withdrawing and slamming back into her.
“Yes! Harder. Faster,” she demanded, her nails clawing through layers of silk brocade and linen. Ruthlessly, he pounded into her gasping, writhing body, until sweat beaded his forehead and pieces of plaster flaked from the wall. Tension coiled deep in his groin. He was on the brink. Three more brutal thrusts and he exploded just as she screamed her release.
His name pitched in her throes of ecstasy awoke him to startling recognition.
He withdrew from her so abruptly she had to grasp the wall to keep her legs from failing. “Barbara!What the hell are you doing here? And who let you in? Where the devil is Vincenzo?”
“What kind of greeting is that for your dear step-mama?” she crooned. “As for who let me in? Your valet, of course. I have since sent him off to bed. I told him his presence was de trop – but a bit peevish he seemed.”
“No doubt he was offended by your provincial notions,” Hadley scoffed.
“In England three may be a crowd, but in Venezia, it is simply a cozy ménage.”
“Have you succumbed to the lure of the Venetian catamites, Hadley? How delightfully depraved!” Barbara chortled. “No wonder Vincenzo was put out. You must let me watch. Or better yet…” She gave him a wicked look.
“Why are you here?” he demanded.
“I’ve missed you unbearably, Hadley,” she answered with a petulant look. “And you’ve cut me to the quick by failing to answer my last two letters.”
“You sent no money,” he snapped. “You have a generous jointure from your beloved departed husband, yet you ignore my requests, though I clearly expressed how dire was my need.”
“But darling, you are unjust,” she protested. “I did receive word, but given your sudden departure from Paris for Venice, I perceived no real urgency.”
His gaze narrowed and his voice took on a frigid overtone. “You think I left Paris under my own volition? Pray let me correct your misapprehension, madam. You see, I’ve traded on my good name a bit too long and was induced to leave before my creditors installed me in the Bastille.”
“Is it truly as you say, Hadley?” She regarded him with overt skepticism. “What of your annuity? Do you mean nothing remains?”
“Latera ecfutut,” he replied darkly.
Her blank look forced him to translate with a mirthless laugh. “Fucked away, my dear. Literally and completely.”
Her frown deepened. “How can you expect to continue living large across the Continent at my expense, while I’m forced to suffer alone in London playing the mournful widow under the disgrace of a ruined name?”
“Mournful widow, eh?” Hadley raked her with a blood-shot gaze that lingered on the brilliant gems adorning her hands, ears, and neck. He reached out to stroke her collarbone, tracing the diamonds resting above the milky white flesh of her bared breasts. “You don’t appear to have suffered.”
He grasped an erect nipple, indolently rolling it between thumb and forefinger, an act that elicited a convulsive shiver from her body and a low moan from her lips. Remarking the lust-filled glitter in her eyes, Hadley cupped both of her breasts and dipped his head to lick the length of her neck. While his tongue played in the delicate hollow behind her ear, his hands went to work deftly removing her necklace. “Ah,” he pocketed it with a smirk. “This should just about cover tonight’s losses.”
“You bastard!” Barbara shrieked. “You would steal the very jewels from my body?”
“Needs must…” he shrugged. “Right now, I would steal the gold from a dead man’s teeth. There are no depths to which one will not descend when in want.”
“Is that so? Then my arrival is Providential.”
“Unless you intend to leave me a very full purse, I don’t glean your meaning.”
“I have achieved an ally in the office of the Exchequer.”
His heart raced. “Do you mean to say I’ll be restored?”
“No darling.” She pursed her lips. “Sadly, there’s nothing more to be done to that end. However, when I petitioned on your behalf, Sir Richard put forth an ingenious proposition for your ongoing maintenance.”
“Sir Richard?” he balked. “You can’t mean the very same bastard who deprived me of my birthright?”
In actuality, his father’s suicide had provided the needed scapegoat to appease the public accusations of fraud within the South Sea Company. To shelter the truly guilty, his fortune, lands, and even his title had been confiscated by the crown. Whether out of pity, or shame for their misconduct, the Lord of the Treasury and Chancellor of the Exchequer had awarded Hadley a lump sum and small annuity. It had been only a temporary balm. And now it was gone.
“But darling, you are unjust! For Sir Richard has pled your case with the new Lord of the Treasury—”
“The hell you say!” Hadley paced the room in a mounting rage. “Pretty damned audacious, considering he was the chief engineer behind the entire scheme, and benefitted most by my loss!”
Hadley’s family had once held a half-dozen estates and one of the largest fortunes in England, but with his title revoked, his lands confiscated, and a once noble name forever besmirched, he’d had little choice but to go abroad. Barbara’s appearance only rekindled his bitterness and re-opened old wounds.
“But darling, you must try to be reasonable. There’s naught to do about the past. We can only look now to safeguard the future. Our future. This proposal is one I believe you will deem eminently acceptable.”
He spun to face her. “What do you mean? What manner of proposition?”
“An undertaking designed only for a man of superior breeding, education, and talents…one for which you are perfectly suited and would be generously compensated.”
His lips twisted in derision. “Generosity is a most subjective term.”
“If you accept the commission, you may expect an annual stipend of two thousand pounds.”
“Two thousand?” He whistled through his teeth. While not a princely sum, it would go far on the Continent. Hadley’s eyes narrowed. “And what precisely will be required of me in return?”
Barbara smiled. “Hadley, my love, have you been to Rome to pay your respects to the Pretender?”
Welham Grove, Leicester—1727
Determined not to show her weakness, Mary averted her gaze to the bow window of her father’s library, but the black crepe enshrouding it obscured her view of the gardens. Instead, she closed her eyes and inhaled, seeking fortitude in the comforting aromas—the blended bouquet of leather-bound books, Orinoco pipe tobacco, and the pungently sweet Madeira that Papa had favored, heedless of his gout. These subtle scents that still lingered months after his passing were reminders of the placid pastoral life she had always known—the one she feared was about to end.
“But this is the place of my birth, Sir Richard,” she protested. “How can you expect me to leave the only home I have ever known? I have no desire to go to London. My life is here at Welham Grove.”
“But consider the amusements of a London season,” her guardian cajoled. “The balls, the concerts, the play houses, polite society—”
“—None of which hold the least appeal to me,” Mary said. “I much prefer simple pleasures—a good book from this library, long walks and early morning gallops across the sheep pastures. Don’t you see? Even if I desired it, which I don’t, I am neither fit, nor equipped for a London season. I have spent my entire life at Welham Grove, and have never once minded, nor suffered, for the lack of so-called polite society.”
In all truth, the thought of London terrified her to the core. She had been only once in her life. Given her father’s aspirations for her future marriage, he had wanted her to mix with the so-called ‘quality,’ but the experience had utterly overwhelmed her. Country-bred Mary had felt ungainly and grossly inadequate even in her best gowns. Moreover, the monstrous city had seemed to swallow her whole. No, she could not even conceive of returning to London.
“My dear girl, were you a few years younger, I would gladly leave you in the charge of a governess, but at nineteen you are a woman grown. You must think to your future.”
“My future? What you really mean is a husband.”
“Well, yes.” Sir Richard rewarded her with an avuncular smile. “A husband is certainly in your future.”
“But why, Sir Richard? Am I not an heiress in my own right?”
He gave her another patronizing smile. “You are indeed, but your father desired to see you settled in marriage. The terms of his will are rather…er…encouraging to that end.”
“What can you mean?”
“You have been provided with a small allowance, little more than pin money really, until your marriage or your thirtieth year…whichever comes first.”
Eleven years to gain her inheritance? The revelation stole her breath.
“You must understand, my dear, that a young unwed woman simply cannot abide in the country all alone. Although a suitable companion could be arranged, that does not answer your other needs.” Sir Richard examined the briarwood pipe that still adorned the mahogany desk, and then cast an appraising look over the room, as if he mentally tabulated the value of its contents. “Regrettably my political affairs prevent me from attending your inheritance with the close oversight it requires. You need someone with a vested interest to manage your affairs, someone who will keep others honest. A husband is the logical answer.”
Mary burned with frustration, yet she managed to meet his patronizing stare straight on. “Why are you treating me as if I were an incapable infant when you know that Papa treated me in most respects as more of a son than a daughter? He taught me much of estate matters and often praised my abilities. Indeed, I have run this household since my mother passed. Surely I can learn the rest.”
A short burst of mirth preceded Sir Richard’s answer. “Your father merely humored the whims of his only child, and a female at that! A woman, any woman, is simply not capable of running a landed estate, let alone six of them!”
“But Papa employed estate factors and other men of business. If this arrangement sufficed while he lived, why should his death change anything? With a bit of sound guidance, I am certain I could manage.”
Just as she vowed to hold fast to her argument, her guardian seemed equally resolved to bring her into submission. He shook his bewigged head. “No, my girl, a husband is the only answer, for no hired man may be implicitly trusted where money is concerned, and as a woman, you are doubly vulnerable to unprincipled rogues. There are few men who can be implicitly trusted in business matters.” He paused. “Speaking of which, your father held a number of financial ledgers in safe-keeping for me, but I have been unable to locate them. Do you perchance know where they are?”
Although it seemed a casual question, his narrowed gaze belied an avid interest. The servants had already reported that he’d combed through both the library and the office looking for something, yet her father had specifically told Mary to lock the books away. She wondered now what those volumes contained. Mary regarded him blankly. “I would not know, Sir Richard, but I would be happy to look for them.”
“I would be much gratified if you would, my dear. They are but musty business records, but you must humor my punctilious nature. I would hate to see them misplaced. Now, as to your father’s wishes,” he continued back on topic, “I am obligated both as his friend and as your legal guardian to see them carried out.”
Realizing the fruitlessness of any further argument for independence, Mary changed tack. “But why must I go all the way to London when there are surely many eligible bachelors right here in Leicestershire?”
“What? A gentleman curate or a crude country squire? Bah! You will have no such thing! Your father desired an advantageous match for you, and so shall it be. London is the only place to contrive such an alliance.”
“But don’t you see how unfit I am? I have none of the accomplishments or sophisticated wiles that such a gentleman would desire in a wife.” Mary rose and paced the room. “I have been only once to London. I don’t know anyone there. I haven’t the clothes or the connections.” Her protests escalated to a staccato bombardment. “I don’t dance. I have no notion of their manners. How should I even know to go on? I shall be nothing more than a country frump subject to scorn at every turn!”
“Preposterous, my dear! You quite underestimate your natural charms. To many gentlemen you would be considered quite a prize.”
“A prize?” she laughed. “Then you must refer to my chief asset–my bank account. If so, perhaps you could just save us both a great deal of trouble with an advertisement in The Daily Gazetteer. How about, ‘Vast fortune awaits marriage-minded nobleman… Only those willing to overlook the dull and dowdy heiress need apply.’”
Sir Richard gaped, his red-veined jowls quivering with the soundless motion of his mouth. To Mary he resembled nothing more than a landed trout. Knowing she had already lost the war, she could only bask in the sweet satisfaction of this tiny victory.