She’s given up on love but is ready for the next best thing.

Independent shop owner Claire Northrup isn't about to greet the new year with her virtue intact. Tired of waiting for love while her life passes her by, she decides to take matters into her own hands this Christmas. But when her plan for one wild passionate night takes an unexpected turn, she finds herself at odds with a man who’s wildly handsome, unforgettably seductive, and impossible to resist.

He isn’t ready for her.

Roland Black, Duke of Ashford and reputable rake, has a few rules: Never fall in love; never bed an innocent; and never let a woman get the better of him. So when he discovers that last night’s vision in crimson had been a virgin, he wants some answers. But when it becomes apparent that Claire is in danger from an unknown foe, Roland is suddenly questioning everything in order to save her—including his own rules.

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Chapter 1

 

On the steps of an unknown residence

 

Tonight was the night.

Claire Northrup was in search of a man. And she wasn’t overly particular about his achievements. It needn’t be a man with a vast fortune or one who possessed the finest of things. No indeed, this man might be a sailor or a clergyman, perhaps even a playwright. It mattered not what he did for a living, as long as he was pleasing to the eye. Though, if she was honest, she wouldn’t mind if he were built like one of those fine-looking Greek statues either.

In fact, Claire could quite easily imagine herself trailing her fingers across the muscles of such a torso . . . being caged by such powerful arms . . . being devoured by such expert lips.

A shiver of anticipation stole over her.

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As a matter of fact, now that she thought about it, a rogue might be better suited for her needs. One who possessed no good intentions, would not think twice about ravaging an innocent, and would only care to bring her to the heights of glorious passion.

In other words, a man Claire could walk away from.

Today also marked Claire’s twenty-fifth birthday, which ought to be a happy celebration, but given how her mood wilted with her increasing years and dwindling prospects, it was difficult to feel celebratory. That was the unfortunate thing about celebrating her birthday at Christmastide, the festivities and happy cheer charging the surrounding atmosphere did not suit her wallowing.

Twenty-five without any worthy possibilities.

This was no small fact to her. She held onto no delusions. Her odds of marriage were dismal, and being short, slightly plump, and firmly wedged on the shelf—at least according to her age—only affirmed that offers would not be forthcoming. Of course, her appearance did not bother her overly much, and most men also seemed not to care. Indeed, Claire received her fair share of whistles on the street and old men waggling their brows in her direction.

But Claire wanted more than mild interest.

A lesser woman might have married by now but Claire, in all her hopefulness, had held out for love. And why wouldn’t she? She did not belong to the supercilious society of the upper crust, driven by the need to marry in order to survive. The income she received from her little silk and fan shop, while modest, ensured she could live a comfortable life. And for that matter, Claire refused to give up her independence for anything less than love.

Yes. Against all the odds, Claire wanted love.

But since love was still out of her grasp, she had taken matters into her own hands and reached for the next best thing. In that spirit, Claire had done something scandalous, something outrageous. And as a result, she was staring up at the door that would, at long last, unlock her desires, the door that was on the very precipice of something wicked and delightful.

Tonight would be the night Claire lost her virginity.

It was her festive wish.

A birthday present to herself.

Still, a breath of hesitation rooted her feet.

Claire was by no means a woman of loose morals. She was anything but. It was simply that her entire life she had longed for something more. A daring adventure. A thrilling crusade. A perilous quest. Anything. Just . . . something other than simply passing through life. And all things considered, mostly her age, Claire mused, but also her figure, which was stubbornly getting plumper, this birthday seemed the perfect time to do something beyond shocking.

That did not mean Claire was calm—far from it. Her knees quaked with nerves as she had no clue what to expect from tonight, other than being thoroughly seduced. A part of her, however, in some small corner of her heart, wondered whether she was doing the right thing. How unfortunate it would be if she met the perfect gentleman on the morrow and hadn’t held out? But then, that may never occur. There was no certainty in this world. And she had made a choice. She was sticking with it.

After all, everything had already been arranged by Madam Dexter’s establishment, who catered to the fantasies of those willing to pay for it. From the invitation to a mysterious masked ball, which Claire gripped in her hands, to the instruction to tie a crimson ribbon in her hair, right down to the gentleman who had been arranged to meet her at the event.

She had even been given an alias for the night.

Angel.

The irony was not lost on Claire.

Mustering all of her confidence, Claire went through one final check. She lifted her chin up, relaxed her death grip on the invitation, and straightened her shoulders. Her glorious gown of matching crimson silk ought to do the rest, or she would have wasted an exorbitant amount of money—a year’s worth of savings—on the frivolous expense. But if all went according to plan, it would have been worth every penny.

She drew in a deep breath, adjusting her mask out of habit, and glanced down at the card resting between her fingers—a ticket to the night.

Lord, was she nervous!

It is now or never, Claire.

Without further ado, Claire gripped the brass knocker and rapped twice.

The door flung open to reveal a tall, imposing man dressed in the livery of a butler and an impossibly large gray wig. He stared at her, his features blank, and she held out her card, her hand trembling. To her irritation, his eyes flicked between her and the invitation before he finally gave a single nod and let her pass without so much as a word.

Claire stepped over the threshold.

It was a tentative step, one that betrayed her innocence to anyone who cared to notice, which at that point was only the servant. But it emboldened her nonetheless. Empowered her. She took another step, this one bolder than the one before. She had made the right choice. This was what she wanted.

Or the next best thing.

Tonight was the night.

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