Lords of Scandal

When a notorious rake, whose reputation is as dark as night, comes striding into Lady Anastacia Danver’s life, her world is set astir. Anastacia needs to marry, not be distracted by a handsome, unrepentant rogue and the breathless whispers of his reputation. Her only choice is to avoid him. A task easier said than done. One lapse of judgment and a whirlwind kiss later, a scandal that Anastacia cannot recover from erupts, and she has no choice but to venture into the duke’s lair.

Sebastian Griffith, the sinful Duke of Blackcress admits he is partly to blame for derailing Anastacia’s plans. But what is a rake to do when he is sure the spirited lady will prove his equal between the bed sheets? Despite a kiss gone wrong, a dark secret revealed, and a shocking moment of guilt, Sebastian still feels drawn to her and must face the hardest choice of his life yet: stay true to his nature or finally step into the role of hero.

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Chapter 1

Sebastian Rupert Ainsley, sixth Duke of Blackcress, stared at the growing crowd in disgust. How had he managed to be dragged to this travesty of an event? He never did anything he did not wish to do. That is unless it brought him the pleasure of a woman or some pounds in his pocket. And this did neither.

Yet here he stood—at the marriage mart. Sebastian shuddered at the very thought of mammas towing their anxious daughters around, hoping to find them a good match.

Pitiful creatures.

Soon they, too, would learn the harsh reality of their lives, how filled with meaningless boredom their existence would become to the men they would marry. Well, perhaps not entirely insignificant. A woman did serve some purpose, he supposed. In bed.

But it did not matter much to Sebastian, really, as the one thing he would never do was take a wife.

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His icy glare landed on two misses tittering behind their fans, giggling and batting their lashes in his direction. It did not take much for them to scatter, only the curl of his lip evolving into a growl.

He felt like a bloody imposter.

A wolf in sheepskin, always on the prowl. A wolf also constantly hunted, traps laid everywhere by those marriage-minded mammas and their chits. It was why Sebastian stuck to the already married ones.

Roland Black, his longtime friend and the Duke of Ashford, or, as Sebastian liked to call him, the Duke of Asshole, was wench hunting tonight. He, at least, had a particular wedded lady in his sights who would surely and readily welcome him. The man’s silver tongue was also the reason Sebastian now found himself contemplating the merits of strangling his friend. Why Ashford required a babysitter on his excursions was downright mind-boggling, but knowing the man, it was just to annoy Sebastian. And with annoyance, he meant keeping the husband of his friend’s ladylove busy while Ashford tupped her against the wall somewhere in the house.

Indeed, he harbored no doubt this night would end in trouble.

“Royal bastard,” Sebastian muttered under his breath.

He was going to cut Ashford loose if the husband of his latest fascination did not get to him first. Not that his or Ashford’s presence here fooled anyone. They had both publically declared they would never marry. All the mammas knew there was no reason he would subject himself to these torturous events if he were not wench hunting, which he had no intention of doing, at least not tonight. It amused him, however, that all the mothers he passed cast him sidelong glances and eyed him warily. As if he planned on snatching one of their babes right then and there.

Truth be told, Sebastian was tired. Nothing held pleasure anymore. Not fine whiskey, not sport, not scaring young maidens into faints . . . Not even his usual busty blond widow. Nothing sated his once ever-present appetite. It had just vanished. And with it, he had stopped bothering to look for women. It was a damn travesty. Not even the fact that he owned more money than one man could spend in two lifetimes held any comfort.

He had whored and imbibed all his life, and it seemed his sins had finally caught up with him. His apathy would strip him of ever being complete again. Not that he could claim he ever had been, but Sebastian liked to believe that sometime in his youth there had existed such a time when he had been whole—wholesome even. Before he had been corrupted by his vices and ultimately ruined himself.

His own father had called him a disappointment of a son on his deathbed. In fact, those were his father’s last words. Who the hell was the old dodger to say that anyway when he himself had been an utter failure as a father? The man had never shown him any love as a child, not that Sebastian would recognize the emotion, having never loved another human being in his life. The closest he had come was Ashford, and that was mostly tolerance. Nevertheless, Sebastian had glimpsed the sentiment associated with love and knew that was not the emotion that had driven his father.

He glanced to the exit with longing when a flash of gold caught his eye.

And then he saw her.

She stood across from him, on the other side of the ballroom, dressed in a gown of glittering gold silk. Her skin was creamy pale, begging to be kissed, and her hair, bloody hell, it was strawberries dipped in the light of the sun and was pinned loosely to the back of her head, shimmering in the candlelight. Confidence trickled from a relaxed posture and leveled chin, her gaze steady as she captured the gaze of every man in the room. Even his tired, jaded eyes could not glance away.

She was, in one word, exquisite.

Every nerve in his spine tingled as the predator in him rippled to life, every instinct sharpening as the hunter in him rose up to the challenge.

Sebastian blinked. Was he feeling?

From across the room, his hawkish eyes tracked her movements as she worked her way through the crowd with small unhurried steps, disappearing from his view twice before he caught her inhaling a deep breath in a secluded spot no more than a few feet away from him.

She was average in stature. Not at all like the tall, buxom blondes he usually preferred. Something sparked to life inside his chest at that. He followed her gaze, which was riveted on some gentleman laughing with another chit. Dismissing the man at once as an irrelevant dandy, Sebastian’s eyes returned to settle on her face again, noting the determined set of her jaw.

Interesting.

His gaze traveled over her features, which were delicate, as was her frame, much too delicate for the likes of him. As if sensing she was being observed, or more accurately, ogled, she turned her head, sparing the slightest of glances his way.

Sebastian leaned back against the French doors, crossing his leg over the other and settled in, waiting for his prey to approach before he pounced. Years of reading people left him certain she would chance his way for a breath of fresh air.

Thoughts of Ashford and babysitting scattered as Sebastian’s lips curled into a wicked curve. The lady would be sprawled naked in his bed before dawn signaled a new day.

Now that he would do.

COLLAPSE

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