The love of a good woman? To save a wicked man like me? Never . . . because there’s no woman born who’s as good as I am bad.
—Ethan Ross MacCarrick, Laird of Clan MacCarrick, Eighth Earl of Kavanagh
I didn’t steal it—I swear! Oh, as if things never fall into your pocket!
—Madeleine Isobel Van Rowen, sneak thief, opportunist
— 1 —
If Madeleine Van Rowen was ever going to lose her virginity outside of a collateralized, signed marriage contract, it’d be with the towering man she’d spied in the black domino. He’d just begun navigating his way through the crowds of the Hive, the gaudily extravagant dance hall in which she found herself tonight.
From her spot on a raised dais, decorated with swans and lusty satyrs, Maddy watched him over the rim of her second glass of punch. She was growing light-headed and suspected the drink was spiked with more than rum—the spirit du jour—but she didn’t particularly care. She wouldn’t mind getting foxed after the day she’d just endured.
Today she’d learned that she’d failed to secure the man she’d journeyed from Paris to London to marry. “Madeleine, I’m just not the marrying type,” he’d said. “I’m sorry.”
Preferring to drown her sorrows in private, she’d wandered off from her group of friends, the Weyland women: Maddy’s childhood friend Claudia, her sister Belinda, and their cousin Jane. The three Londoner Weylands were always craving the next forbidden thrill, and the Hive was supposed to be . . . thrilling.
Jane Weyland, the de facto leader of their group, had told the younger Maddy not to wander off again. After all, gentlewomen needed to stay together at all costs when out in London at night. Maddy rolled her eyes even now.
Please, innocent girls, Maddy had wanted to say. Though this masquerade was packed to the rafters with not only prostitutes and their lecherous patrons but also thieves and swindlers, it still paled in comparison to her everyday life.
Her secret life.
Maddy told everyone she lived in the wealthy Parisian parish of St. Roch with her mother and stepfather, but she actually lived alone in a slum called La Marais—translated as The Swamp—and every night she drifted to sleep to the music of gunfire and brawls.
She was a sneak thief, a pickpocket who would steal a diamond as easily as an apple, and she wasn’t above an occasional burgle. In fact, if Maddy hadn’t considered the Weylands her friends, they’d do well to be wary of her.
After adjusting her sapphire cape behind her and then her blue glacé mask, Maddy relaxed back on the dais bench, settling in to enjoy her view of the tall man. He stood well above most everyone in the room—six and a half feet in height, at least—and he had broad, muscular shoulders filling out his jacket.
The black domino he wore had a fluttering drop in the front, and though she could see his brow and lips and strong chin, the rest of his face was covered. He had thick, straight jet hair, and, she’d bet, dark, intense eyes.
He was clearly searching for someone, striding with aggression, his head turning this way and that, fighting the crush of what looked like thousands of people. When a gaggle of bare-breasted tarts blocked his path, angling for his attention, his brows drew together—with consternation or aggravation, Maddy didn’t know.
What she wouldn’t give to bed a strapping man like that for her first time. After all, she was an aficionada of male beauty. Her friend Claudia would chuckle each time Maddy tilted her head and peered at a passing man on the street. Maddy grinned into her glass. Making men blush as she so obviously sized them up was one of the things she lived for.
But if today was any indication of her luck, her husband and first lover was to be the Compte Le Daex, an obscenely wealthy roué, who was three times her age. In a last bid to avoid marrying that man, Maddy had journeyed to London, calling on her childhood friendship with Claudia, specifically to snare her brother Quinton Weyland. Unfortunately, Quin—with his curling hair, laughing green eyes, and robust finances—refused to marry. . . .
To distract her thoughts, she focused once more on the tall one as he made the perimeter of the building. His methodical and determined hunt, even the way he moved, fascinated her. He finally stopped, raking his fingers through his hair, turning in a circle in the crowd. She felt sad that he couldn’t find the paramour he sought so urgently, and she drank to him, wishing him luck—
He raised his head up to where she sat, and his gaze locked on her. At once, he turned that aggressive stride toward the swan-and-satyr dais.
Frowning in confusion—she was the only one seated here—Maddy lowered her glass. He must have mistaken her for someone else. She wondered if she should let him think it and enjoy a few kisses with him. How delicious that would be. Just to squeeze those muscular shoulders while his lips brushed hers . . .
As he neared, his gaze held hers until she was captivated. Everything else dimmed. The drunken men were unseen; the high, false laughter of the courtesans below her were silenced.
He took the steps to her two at a time. When he stood before her, she stifled a gasp. She was eye level with his groin, and there was no disguising the fact that he was . . . aroused. She slowly craned her head up.
He stared down at her, silently offering her his big hand. His eyes were dark—and she’d never seen such intensity. She inhaled a shaky breath.
Le coup de foudre.
Bolt out of the blue. No, no. No bolts for me! Maddy was ever practical, never fanciful. She had no idea why that thought had arisen—because le coup de foudre had a second, more profound meaning.
The urge to take his hand was overwhelming. She clutched her glass in one hand and her skirts in the other, finally saying, “I’m sorry, sir. I’m not who you seek, nor am I, er, one among these other women.”
“I ken that.” He took her elbow—gently, but firmly—and helped her to her feet. “If you were like these other women, I would no’ be seeking you at all.” He had a marked Scottish accent and a voice so deep and husky that it gave her shivers.
“But I don’t know you,” she said, sounding breathless.
“You will soon, lass,” he answered, making her frown. But before she could say anything, he took her glass and set it away, then caught her hand to pull her from the dais into the crowd.
For Maddy, two flaws warred with each other for the title of What Would Prove to be Maddy’s Ultimate Downfall: an overly developed sense of curiosity and a marked pride. She imagined the traits to be in a race, like two horses in the mutuels on which she occasionally gambled. Right now, curiosity took the lead, demanding that she hear what the Scot had to say—even when she realized he was taking her toward the rooms lining the back wall of the warehouse. She quirked a brow. The rooms where prostitutes more fully serviced their patrons.
He opened the first door they came upon. Inside the dimly lit area, a woman was on her knees before a young man, taking him with her mouth while he leaned down and pinched her swollen, rouged nipples.
“Out,” the Scot ordered with quiet menace. “Now.”
The woman obviously sensed a threat better than her patron, and she pushed the drunken man back to tug up her bodice and scurry to her feet.
The Scot swung a glance at Maddy as the pair lurched out, no doubt to gauge her reaction to what they’d just witnessed. She shrugged. One of her best friends and across-the-hall neighbor was a popular girl, and scenes like this took place constantly where she lived. Turn any corner and find a different vice on display.
At twenty-one years of age, Maddy had seen it all.
As soon as they were alone, he closed the door and retrieved a chair to wedge against it. Where was her alarm? Where was her well-developed sense of self-preservation in a place like this? The room was dominated by a massive bed—twelve foot square at least—draped in glaring scarlet silk; no one could hear her scream back here, and they would ignore it even if they could, thinking a prostitute was giving a good show.
Yet, for some reason, she sensed this man wouldn’t hurt her, and she possessed unfailing and proven instincts with men—a priceless gift to have in La Marais.
In any case, if things played out badly, this wouldn’t be the first time she’d kindly introduced her knee to a man’s groin and her fist to his Adam’s apple. He would be shocked at how dirty and fiercely this dainty mademoiselle could fight.
When he returned from securing the door, he stood before her, far too close to be polite. She had to crane her head up to face him. “As I told you before, sir, I’m not one of these women. I don’t belong back here, nor should you be . . . collecting me as you did.”
“And as I told you before, had you been a courtesan, I would no’ have collected you at all. I know you’re a lady. What I doona know is why you’re at this masquerade.”
I’m trying to forget that soon I’ll have to return to hell. . . .
She shook herself and answered, “I’m here with my friends. We’re out for adventure.” At least the others were. She planned to pick pockets once the punch was flowing freely.
“And by ‘adventure’ you mean affair.” His tone seemed to grow irritated. “A bored young wife looking for a bedmate?”
“Not at all. We’re merely here to be scandalized so we’ll have something to write in our little diaries.” As if she could afford either the diary or the time to write.
“Is that why you allowed me to lead you back here? Because you thought I’d make good diary fodder?”
“I allowed you because it would have been fruitless to resist,” she replied. “I’ve seen intent like yours before. Would anything have stopped you from taking me to one of these rooms?”
“No’ a thing in the world,” he said, catching her eyes.
“Precisely. So I figured instead of being hauled over your shoulder and carried, I might as well follow you to a quiet spot so I could explain to you that I am not interested in this.”
He stalked closer to her, forcing her back to a narrow table along the silk-papered wall. “My intent was no’ only to get you alone, lass. And it has no’ waned.”
Her demeanor was surprisingly composed, her brilliant blue eyes calmly measuring behind her mask, as if a six-and-a-half-foot-tall Highlander accosting her in a darkened room made for sex was commonplace.
Up close, Ethan could see that she was probably no more than twenty, but she was possessed of herself—and even more impossibly lovely than he’d believed when she’d passed him on the street outside.
“And what is your intent?” she asked. Her breaths might have shallowed at his undisguised attention, especially when his gaze dropped to flicker over her breasts. She was slim, too much so for his customary taste, but her small breasts were expertly displayed, her cleavage plump above her tight bodice. He wanted to rip off his mask and rub his face against that creamy flesh.
“My intent is to”—have a woman beneath me for the first time in three years —”kiss you.”
“You’ll have to get your kisses”—she stressed the word as if she doubted that was all he wanted—”from one of the hundreds of courtesans out there.”
“Doona want them.” When his gaze had met hers in the crowd and her pink lips had parted, Ethan had been stunned to find himself swiftly growing hard as stone. Now as he leaned his face in closer to her hair—a mass of white-blonde curls, swept up to bare her neck—he smelled her light flowery scent and shot harder, his shaft straining hotly against his trousers. He savored the rare feeling, wanting to groan at the unexpected pleasure. “I followed you in here from the street.”
“Why?” Her tone was straightforward, and he silently thanked her for not being coquettish.
“I saw you outside under a streetlight. I liked the way you smiled.”
“And you just happened to have this with you?” She reached up, brushing her fingertips along the edge of his mask, but he caught her wrist, lowering it before releasing her.
“I liberated it from a passing patron when I saw you enter.” The drop of his mask fluttered above his upper lip, and he’d quickly determined that no one could discern the extent of his scarred visage when courtesans had sought his attention. When they’d hindered his progress, he’d been tempted to lift his mask to frighten them away.
“Truly?” Her lips slid into that mysterious half grin, and the need to see the rest of her face burned in him. “So the entire time I saw you searching the crowd, you were looking for me?” Her accent was unusual—English upper class mixed with a tinge of French.
“Aye, for you,” he said. “You were watching me from your vantage?”
“Raptly,” she said, again straightforward, again surprising him.
The idea of her noticing him gave him an odd sense of gratification. “You’re no’ from London, are you?” When she shook her head, he asked, “Why are you here?”
“Do you want the truth or an answer fit for a masquerade?”
“I’ve come to England to search for a rich husband,” she said.
“No’ unusual,” he replied. “At least you have the ballocks to admit it.”
“I have a proposal waiting in the wings at home,” she said, then frowned. “Though I had hoped not to fall back on that one.”
“How is your hunt going?”
“Not as well as I’d hoped,” she said. “A few discountable proposals.”
“Whenever I ask them to qualify themselves, they back off.”
“Is that so?” he asked, and when she nodded solemnly, he felt a completely unfamiliar tug at his lips. “And how would a man qualify himself to you?”
“A token that would actually be dear to him, like an expensive ring or a pair of matched bays, or something along those lines.”
“You’ve given this a lot of thought.”
“I think of nothing else,” she murmured so softly that he scarcely heard her. Then she added, “I did almost secure one. A truly good man.” Her blonde brows drew together as she was clearly musing about him. “There might still be the slimmest hope with that one.”
For the first time in his life and at the age of thirty-three, Ethan felt the unmistakable heat of jealousy.
What the bloody hell is wrong with me? “Then should you no’ be working tonight on securing him?” he asked, his voice colder.
She blinked up at him. “Oh. Well, the man I mentioned went out for the evening. I’m his sister’s houseguest, so I’m accompanying her tonight.”
That generation of Weylands had only one male—Quin. Ethan ground his teeth. Quin had always been a favorite with the ladies.
She sighed. “Ça ne fait rien. It doesn’t matter.” Her voice was growing a bit slurred.
“No, it does no’.” The hell she’d be securing Quin. Ethan would have to see her around London continually as their paths crossed—and if tonight was any indication, he’d have to continually cuckold Quin. “Forget him. He’s no’ here and I am.”
She tilted her head. “Take off your mask.”
“That defeats the purpose of a masquerade, does it no’?” If he removed it, she would stop looking up at him with a growing curiosity glinting in her eyes and stare up in horror. “I can enjoy you just as well with our masks on.”
“And what makes you think I’d allow you to ‘enjoy’ me?” A flirtatious note had eased into her voice, so subtly he might have missed it. Not coquettish—but amused, intrigued.
She was playing, enjoying herself, but she had no idea what she toyed with. “I’ve a sense for these things.” He brushed the backs of his fingers below the sapphire silk of her mask, down her cheek, and she allowed it. “Tonight you’re aching for a man.”
At that, she glanced away. “You might be right, Scot,” she said casually, then faced him once more. Her voice a purr, she asked, “But are you the man I await . . . where I ache?”
He felt on the verge of grinning. Ach, he liked this excitement. This bandying. He liked that she flirted with him, even knowing she didn’t plan to go farther. Why hadn’t a man like himself been attending masquerades every bloody week?
“I am that man.” He took her by her tiny waist and lifted her onto the table along the wall.
“Scot, put me down!” she cried, but he could tell she was excited, well past intrigued now. “Why did you do that?”
“I want to be face-to-face with you when I kiss you for the first time.”
Finally, his words drew a small gasp from her lips. “Are you always so arrogant?”
“Aye, always.” He wedged his hips between her legs.
“You need to let me down,” she said, even as she hesitantly ran her fingertip over his arm—as if she’d struggled not to but hadn’t been able to help herself. “I’ve no time or use for handsome rakes with smooth words.”
His lips did curl then, pulling on the tight skin of his face, forcing him to recall that he didn’t smile—and that he was no longer handsome. “How do you know what I look like? This mask covers most of my face.”
“You have a powerful body and a seductive smile. Gorgeous eyes,” she said in a provocative voice that made his shaft throb. “You said you’ve a sense for certain things, well, I appreciate handsome men. An aficionada, if you will. There’s a reason I spied you out tonight.”
“Is that so?” When she nodded, he said, “Tell me your name.”
“That defeats the purpose of a masquerade, does it not?” she answered, repeating his words. She placed her gloved hand on his chest and let it rest there, as if she couldn’t decide if she should push him away or clutch his shirt and draw him to her. He caught her hand, rucking the glove up to bare her wrist, then placed a kiss on her satiny skin there.
She shivered, tugging her hand back until he released it. “Look at you, Scot. You’re a practiced seducer, if I’ve ever seen one.”
“Practiced?” For the last decade, his flirtations hadn’t been practiced—they’d been nonexistent. And before that, he’d never needed to seduce.
Impulse had made him kiss her hand.
So where did the sodding impulse come from?
“Yes, practiced. That kiss to the wrist is a perfect communication. The brush of your lips demonstrates that you’d be gentle and sensual in bed. The firm hold on my hand as you placed it indicates that you’d be masterful at the same time.”
Gentle? He thought back. Had he ever been gentle? Right now, he recognized he had no desire to be so with her. He wanted to press his hips against her, rubbing his erection at the juncture of her thighs. He hadn’t been this hard in years, and he wanted to proudly show her how fierce his reaction was to her.
“I’ve met a lot of your kind,” she said. “Know that I’m invulnerable.”
“I take that as a challenge, aingeal. I’m going to be inside you tonight, and I’ll remind you of your words when I have your legs wrapped ’round my waist.”
“Oh, Scot, that won’t happen.” She shook her head, and a few glossy curls tumbled free, bouncing over her shoulder.
“You’re obviously no innocent.” Which was peculiar, since he knew she was upper class. She must indeed be a jaded thrill seeker like Jane Weyland and her crowd. “Why no’ spend a night with me?”
“You don’t think I’m untouched? Why?”
“You looked like you could have yawned at the scene we found in here. No’ many innocents would be unfazed by the sight of a prostitute giving a man a below job.”
“Well, whether I am or not is incidental. The fact remains that I’m here to find a husband—not a lover. And I’ve no time for dalliances.”
“Make time. If you’re in London to find a husband, seems like you might no’ be so disdainful to an unmarried man like myself.” He didn’t have time for this. Tomorrow he would leave town to hunt Grey, and for the first time, the call of a kill like that wasn’t as strong as the call of a woman.
She laughed then, a seductively sultry laugh that made him yearn to kiss her. “You are so unreachable, you’re not even a remote candidate.”
He tensed. “Based on what little you know of me?”
All humor gone, she said, “I know enough to suspect that you would use me and never look back. And I’m not condemning, just stating a fact.” Her guileless blue eyes were suddenly inscrutable. “I think we have a lot in common, you and I.”
“In common? Then you’re achin’ for us to tup, too.”
Maddy grinned then. She simply couldn’t help it. “And just like that, you disarm me.” There was something about his rough—markedly rough—around-the-edges demeanor that appealed to her. Who was she fooling? Everything about him appealed to her, from his rumbling brogue to his muscular body, to his strange fixation with her.
“I want to do more than disarm you.”
Her smile faded. The Scot wasn’t giving up, and she regretted leading him on. She was behaving foolishly, like a normal girl of twenty-one might, when she didn’t have that luxury. Ever practical Maddy felt herself closing down, the barbs sharpening, the walls going up. “My friends have probably begun to look for me by now. I need to get back to them.”
His brows drew together. “You’re truly . . . leaving?” He sounded baffled, as if he had no idea what to do with this.
She tilted her head. “And you’re truly not used to being turned down?”
“I’m no’ used to being in a position to be.”
“You never pursue women?” she said in a doubtful tone.
“So I was the lucky first?” Normally she would roll her eyes at comments like these and take them for what they were—verbal attempts to get into her skirts. But there was something about the way he said them, as if they were significant to him, as if they were not only truths but new and unwelcome ones.
And that he blamed her for them.
“Aye.” He exhaled. “You are the first.”
“It’s a shame that on your first sally you’re going to fail.”
His dark eyes narrowed. “And you call me arrogant? What makes you think you can dismiss me?”
“Because you are the one who sought me out.”
“And I dinna do it in vain.” He placed his hands against the wall on either side of her head, then leaned in as if to kiss her. “I’m taking you from here tonight.”
Though she was dying to know what his lips would feel like, she pushed against his chest, striving to ignore how rigid and big the muscles there were. “Not a chance of that, Scot. There’s no chance in hell I’ll leave with you . . .” She trailed off as he drew in closer. He’s going to kiss me right now! Her breaths shallowed, and her eyelids nearly fluttered closed in pleasure at his clean scent and the heat emanating from his body.
She licked her bottom lip, and he noticed, giving her a wicked grin just as he was about to reach her. She couldn’t stifle a soft whimper—
Whistles rent the air.
She froze. “Are those police whistles?” she whispered, her lips inches from his.
“Aye,” he murmured, “I’d wager you’d like to leave with me now.”
The entire building quaked as the crowd began to flee. She felt the vibrations through the table under her bottom, and the fog of desire cleared in a rush. Self-preservation, Maddy!
“Must go now!” Ducking out from under him, she hopped down, then dragged the chair from the door. Just as she was about to dash off, he grabbed her skirt and yanked. “Let me free!” she demanded over her shoulder.
“Can you no’ hear the chaos outside?” he snapped. “You doona stand a chance of getting past the police, but you’ll likely be trampled.”
She turned to him. “But my friends are out there!”
“They’ll be safe. Two acquaintances of mine came here tonight and already had their eyes on the women you were with. They’ll see them home.”
“Both of those men are capable—and a thousand times more honorable than I am.” He met her eyes. “Worry only for yourself, lass.”
Nibbling her bottom lip, she said, “Earlier, I saw a back way out.” Wary by nature and out of habit, she always traced an escape route from any building she entered. When she and the others had first arrived, Maddy had surveyed a back hall where she’d seen a couple donning jackets before entering. They hadn’t returned. “Could you help me get out?”
“I seem to recall that you’d never leave with me.” He leaned back against the wall and drew a knee up, still holding her skirt. “‘No’ a chance in hell’ to be exact.” He smirked, then immediately stopped as if even a cold smile was unwelcome. She’d seen people do that when they had missing teeth, but his were white and straight and perfect. Perfect like everything else about him. Except for his arrogance.
“Then release me.”
“I’ll see you clear of this place . . . for the kiss I almost stole.”
She had an insistent need to kiss him and, of course, her well-developed sense of preservation—these were not at cross-purposes, yet now was not the time. With a long-suffering sigh, she said, “If I must. But only after you get me to safety.”
He showed no alarm about what was happening outside. “A kiss now, or more later. What would one kiss hurt?”
“What would it help?” When he remained unmoved, she said, “Oh, fine.” She crossed to him, then reached her hands up to his neck. Tugging him down, she briefly pressed her lips to the corner of his.
When he stood fully once more, he said, “Ah, aingeal, that was sweet, no doubt of it. But it was no’ quite what I had in mind.” He cupped his palm over her nape. “I’m demanding a deep kiss. Until you’re panting.”
“Panting?” she murmured, gazing up at him. “Truly?” How . . . titillating.
With his other hand, he cradled her face and brushed his thumb across her bottom lip. “It’ll be easier just tae show you . . . .”