London, August 1, 1817
“What say you, Regan: red, white, or green fire?”
Fifteen-year-old Lady Regan Bishop pursed her lips together as she studied the open book. “Why settle for one when we could have them all?” She tapped the left page with a grimy finger. “However, according to the book we should focus on making each skyrocket in a separate batch. There will be less risk of a disastrous outcome or some such nonsense.”
“Utter rot,” Christopher Courtland, Earl of Vanewright, said cheerfully. “I have done this dozens of times, and I still possess all of my limbs.”
Eight years older, Vane, as he was called by family and friends, treated Regan as an equal and fellow member of the Lords of Vice rather than a troublesome younger sister who always seemed to be underfoot. It mattered little to her that her older brother, Frost, Earl of Chillingsworth, was the true member of Nox, the notorious gentlemen’s club situated at 44 King Street between Covent Garden and the clubs of St. James.
With the exception of Frost, the members of the Lords of Vice were the closest thing Regan had to family. Her father had perished in a hunting accident when she was a mere babe, and her eccentric mother had abandoned her young children several years later when she ran off with her lover.
“Why do you encourage her?” Hunter, the Duke of Huntsley, demanded, observing Regan’s and Vane’s efforts from a respectable distance. He bit into the crisp flesh of the apple in his hand and chewed. “Frost will happily murder you if you blow up his sister.”
“No one wants your surly opinion, Your Grace,” Regan said loftily.
She cast a glance in Hunter’s direction and stifled a giggle. Nicolas Towers, Duke of Huntsley, was a handsome devil with his long dark hair and amber eyes. If a lady was unaware of the duke’s wicked appetites, she might foolishly have mistaken him for a chivalrous knight. However, Regan knew the gent better than most. Hunter was no fair lady’s knight, but rather a sorcerer who seemed to seduce women with his voice alone.
Unimpressed with such skills, Regan sniffed. Long ago, she had decided that she preferred white knights over sorcerers. “You are welcome to join us if you like.”
“I must respectfully decline your generous offer, my dear girl.” Hunter gestured with the apple toward the two wooden buckets of water at his feet. “I am merely on hand to put out any fires. The last time I assisted the mad chemist, his antics burned the hair off my left arm.”
Regan laughed, recalling the incident. “You singed your fine frock coat and eyebrows, too,” she reminded him gleefully.
“Best you remember my fate.” Hunter waggled his dark eyebrows at her. “You would look like a plucked goose without all that pretty hair on your head.”
“Do not listen to him,” Vane said, delivering his sneer over his right shoulder before his attention returned to the canisters arranged on the table. “What color should we start with, Regan?”
She dismissed Hunter’s snort with a graceful wave of her hand. “Red,” she said decisively to Vane.
“Sticks or without?”
Regan glanced up from the array of canisters and bowls scattered on the table and met Vane’s clear blue-green gaze. “What do you recommend?”
“Sticks,” he said, reaching for the canister of powdered sulfur. “Less work and it will keep His Grace from pissing his drawers.”
Hunter tossed his apple core at his friend, hitting the young earl on the right shoulder.
“You should have a care with your language, Vane. You are in the presence of a lady.”
Regan fluttered her lashes at Vane. She raised her voice an octave and said, “Almighty hellfire, Lord Vanewright, do have a care. Such coarse language will cause me to collapse with a fretful case of vapors!”
Both Regan and Vane laughed. Even Hunter smiled ruefully at the outrageous suggestion that a few impolite words would cause Regan to swoon. She was made of sterner stuff than most of the silly ladies of the ton. With Frost as her reluctant guardian, Regan had been practically raised by the members of the Lords of Vice.
While her upbringing might be considered unconventional by most, Regan had reveled in her freedom. She had learned something from each gentleman. From Frost, she had learned much about the world. He had also taught her how to articulate her views in a forthright manner that would make most ladies blush. Hunter shared his appreciation of prime horseflesh, and Vane, his love of chemistry and his penchant for playing with fire. Sin, the Marquess of Sinclair, taught her to fence. Reign, Earl of Rainecourt, taught her how to avoid a fist, which he often teased her was likely to be a regular occurrence because of her cheekiness, while Saint, the Marquess of Sainthill, honed her gaming skills. And finally, there was Dare, or Lord Hugh, as he was called by his family. The second son of the Duke of Rhode had shared his afternoons with her, teaching her how to fish and swim when she was younger.
To her great disappointment, Dare had abruptly ended their private adventures two years earlier after he had declared her a proficient swimmer.
Regan discreetly glanced down at the gentle curves of her breasts beneath her drab brown dress, and hid her knowing smile. As much as she missed those lazy afternoons by the lake, she was secretly pleased that Dare had finally noticed that she was no longer a little girl.
Or a sister.
Unfortunately, she was uncertain how to proceed with the stubborn gentleman. How could she entice Dare into courting her, if he was deliberately avoiding her? With her thoughts centered on Dare, Regan absently reached for the marble pestle.
“Regan … watch out!” Hunter shouted, stirring from his slouched position.
The warning came too late, as Regan’s hand collided with the glass-and-brass lamp. Hot oil and flame splashed into several bowls, creating a brilliant, blinding flash of white.
Regan screamed, staggering backward away from the shriveling heat as the table became engulfed in flames. Her throat closed up on her as the black smoke threatened to steal the remaining air from her lungs. She felt strong hands catch her and drag her away from the building conflagration, while Vane and several servants frantically tried to extinguish the fire before it destroyed Nox’s kitchen.
“Are you hurt?” Hunter shouted at her, sliding his hands roughly over her as he searched for hidden injuries. He lightly tapped her on the cheek when she did not respond to his queries. “Regan!”
“I am well,” Regan snapped, attempting to untangle her arms from his unyielding hold. “I am—odds bodkins!” Her words were slurred as she swayed.
To Regan’s utter dismay, she slumped into a very ladylike faint.
* * *
Dare stuck his head out the coach window and eyed the commotion on King Street with impatience. He withdrew and pounded on the trapdoor to get his coachman’s attention. When the small door slid open, he asked, “What can you see from your perch, Cager?”
The coachman coughed. “A fire, milord. The air is fouled with smoke, and I just caught sight of the fire brigade’s pump. It appears we’ve missed most of the excitement. A damn shame if you ask me.”
Bloody hell! It was the perfect ending to a spectacularly awful day. Always the dutiful son, Dare had paid his respects to his father as was expected of him, and the afternoon had quickly disintegrated into a debacle with the appearance of his older brother and his wife.
“Can you tell which building was ablaze?” His friends were going to be disappointed if Madame Venna’s brothel had been burned to the ground by a careless patron.
The coachman’s face filled the opening. “I daresay it might be Nox, milord.”
With a muttered oath on his lips, Dare kicked open the door and leaped from the coach. He pushed his way through the crowd that had congregated on the street. As he approached Nox, he noticed the narrow black column of smoke that was sluggishly rising from the back of the building.
Dare broke through the crowd and circled until he saw what remained of Nox’s kitchen. What had happened during his absence?
Where the hell is everyone?
His head snapped to the left, and there he saw Vane, Hunter, and Saint crouched down with Frost’s sister sitting on the ground between them.
As he hurried toward his friends, his blue-gray eyes narrowed on the slender young lady, noting the charred holes in her ugly dress and the caked soot marring her too-pale complexion. “What happened?”
Regan’s vivid blue eyes gleamed with unshed tears. “It is my fault,” she said, her voice husky from the smoke. “I was careless.”
“Oh, someone was careless, indeed,” Dare said, shooting an angry glance at his friends.
“What started the fire?”
“A slight mishap with fireworks,” Vane said, the casual, almost amused tone in his voice attaching little importance to the seriousness of the incident.
Dare grabbed Vane and backed him against the nearest tree. “You call this a slight mishap? Christ, man, you almost blew up Frost’s sister!”
Behind him, Regan slowly climbed to her feet with Saint’s assistance. “Dare, leave Vane alone. He was not responsible for the fire. If you feel the need to throttle someone, it should be me. I was the one who knocked over the oil lamp.” She covered her mouth with her dirty hand and moaned.
At the faint sound of distress, Dare released Vane and walked toward Regan. The misery in her eyes was eloquent as her tears cut muddy tracks down her face. When he gently pried her hand away from her mouth, she cried, “Oh, God, Frost is going to kill me!”
“Do not fret, sweet. If you are unhurt, your brother will only maim Vane for his foolishness.”
Dare caught Regan in his arms as she swayed. He swept her up and held her slender body tightly against his chest. “How bad is the damage?” he asked, directing his question to Hunter.
The duke gestured at the partially burned kitchen. “Not as bad Vane deserves for his recklessness. The kitchen will have to be rebuilt, but the rest of Nox is solid. The gambling resumed the moment the smoke cleared from the main rooms.”
Dare gave his friends an exasperated look. “Then why is Regan sitting in the mud?” He whirled about and headed for the front of the club. “Has anyone sent word to Frost?”
“I asked them not to,” Regan murmured into his coat.
Dare grunted at the news. His friends would have ignored Regan’s request and sent for Frost. Regan would not appreciate the men’s high-handed actions, but Frost was her guardian. He deserved to know what had happened.
Dare nodded to Berus as he walked through the front door and headed for the stairs. If the steward of Nox had thought it odd that Dare was carrying Frost’s sister, he was polite enough to keep his mouth shut.
“Do you require assistance, milord?”
Find Frost, Dare mouthed silently to Berus. “Lady Regan requires some privacy while she recovers from her mishap,” he went on aloud for Regan’s benefit, ignoring the steward’s raised brows as he strode by the servant. “See to it that we are not disturbed.”
All of the doors and windows had been opened to clear the smoke. However, Dare was confident that no one would follow them upstairs to the private rooms that only the founding members of Nox used.
“Very well, milord.”
As he entered the large drawing room, Dare bumped one corner of the billiards table with his hip while he made his way to the nearest sofa.
“You can put me down, Dare,” Regan said as she brought a hand to her hair and pushed the unkempt mess from her tearstained face. “I vow never to faint again. It was a humiliating exercise.”
His grip tightened at her confession. “You fainted?”
Regan sighed. “A momentary weakness. If I have a say in the matter, it shall never happen again.”
Dare froze at her horrified gasp. “What is it?”
“I cannot sit on the sofa!”
“Of course you can.” He ignored her protest and dropped her on the sofa. “See? You’re sitting.”
Her eyes seemed to glow as his actions sparked her temper. “Have you noticed that my dress is covered in soot, mud, and other things that I dare not contemplate too closely?” she demanded. Her arms opened, encouraging him to inspect her ruined dress.
Dare crossed his arms over his chest and brought a fist to his mouth to conceal his grin. Poor Regan. She looked like a bedraggled waif who had never been intimate with soap and water. He knew from experience that she was a fetching little minx when she was scrubbed clean.
Dare scowled at the unbidden thought.
He walked over to the small cart and concentrated on the glasses and several crystal decanters. “You need something to calm your nerves.”
“My nerves are just fine.”
Dare poured her a small glass of brandy anyway. Picking up his own glass, he tossed back the contents and winced as the brandy burned a path down to his gut. He poured more brandy into his glass, and picked up Regan’s before he returned to her side.
His gaze strayed to her dirty skirt. Hot embers from the kitchen fire had burned a dozen holes into the fabric. There were large smears of soot across her bodice as if Regan had used the front of her dress to clean her grimy hands. The delicate features of her face looked like they had been painted in soot. Only her eyes and ears seemed untouched by today’s mischief. Much of her thick black hair had been freed from the long braid that she preferred to wear. The uneven lengths suggested that she had been close enough to the fire to scorch some of the strands.
“Christ, you’re a mess, Regan.” He handed her the glass of brandy. “Drink it.”
Regan took the glass and sniffed suspiciously at its contents. “I do not particularly care for brandy.”
“Now, that is a shame. Drink it anyway.” Dare sat down next to her on the sofa. “You’re going to need some false courage when you face Frost.”
Regan managed a baleful glare as she sipped the brandy. After several generous swallows, she took a ragged breath. “Why? Do you think he will be very angry with me? Turn me over his knee?”
Dare cupped his glass with both hands and studied the amber liquid. “So that is why you begged everyone not to summon your brother. You are worried he might paddle your backside for this mischief, eh?” When she did not reply, he added, “Regan, Frost indulges your every whim. Mayhap more than he should. Vane has more to worry about than you.”
His heart clenched when Regan squeezed her eyes shut in a futile attempt to stem her tears. “Ho, what is this?” Dare set his glass on a side table and pulled her onto his lap before he recalled that she was too old to be comforted in this manner.
Regan was no longer a little girl whom he and his friends could coddle and spoil. Two years ago, when she stepped out of the lake dressed only in a wet chemise molded to her body, Dare had realized that his thoughts about Frost’s sister were not innocent or brotherly. From that day forward, he had tried to put a respectful distance between him and Regan.
Regan seemed oblivious to Dare’s inner conflict or the possibility that anyone could enter the room at any moment. Like a cat, she curled against him, pressed her face into his shoulder, and shuddered.
“You can talk to me,” he said, his body noting how perfectly she fit against him.
“Do you know why I have been spending my days at Nox?” Regan straightened and took another sip of brandy. “Lady Karmack. She has taken an interest in me, of late, and has been badgering Frost endlessly.”
Dare rubbed Regan’s back. “What does she want from Frost?”
Regan grimaced. “My brother will not say. Needless to say, Lady Karmack is a disapproving old biddy. Can you believe that she actually lectured me when she caught me wearing breeches?”
The outrage in Regan’s hoarse voice made Dare chuckle. He could not stop himself. Regan could be as outrageous as her brother when she put her mind to it. “And why do I suspect, my darling Regan, that you deliberately sported your scandalous togs in front of the lady?”
Regan huffed and shifted on his lap. Dare stifled a groan. “Frost would not let me slip a beetle in Lady Karmack’s teacup so I had to do something!” Almost nose-to-nose, their gazes met. “Oh, Dare, I fear that Lady Karmack hopes to convince Frost to send me away.”
Her lip quivered.
Dare swallowed thickly as he concentrated on Regan’s lower lip.
“Rubbish. Frost is not sending you away from us.” He gave her a reassuring smile as he tenderly stroked her hair. “Nor will he bow to a stranger’s opinion.”
“Lady Karmack is a distant cousin,” Regan corrected. “Very distant. My father’s side of the family, I believe.”
“Well, the details hardly matter since you belong to us,” Dare said before he could stifle the words. His stomach muscles clenched as the fear he saw in Regan’s expression faded and was replaced with a sly, very shrewd look that he never expected from her.
“Do I?” she asked, a small smile teasing her lips. “Will you be my faithful white knight, Dare?”
Dare stiffened at the innocent question. He doubted Frost had told his sister about Dare’s pathetic attempt to play a fair lady’s white knight, and the bitter betrayal that still managed to turn his stomach when he dwelled on it. “I refuse to play the chivalrous knight for any lady.”
Instead of feigning hurt feelings, Regan had tossed the words at him like a taunt. The question heated his blood faster than the brandy. After the afternoon he had endured with his difficult family, the lady was playing with fire.
“Chivalrous knights care little about being rewarded for their good deeds.” The corner of his mouth quirked at her crestfallen expression. “I, on the other hand, thoroughly enjoy claiming my rewards whether or not I deserve them.”
As far as Dare was concerned, he had earned a hefty reward for resisting Frost’s tempting little sister. Two years ago, he had managed to keep his hands off her, had he not? He had kept his distance, even when a part of him had longed for the chase.
Now Regan was sitting on his lap with a mouth that was just begging to be kissed. Covered in soot and grime, she should not tempt him in the slightest.
Unfortunately, his unruly body did not seem to care.
“And what reward do you deserve, Dare?” she whispered.
Lust coiled in his gut. “This…”
Regan’s eyes widened as Dare claimed her mouth. It was not the tender kiss a man gave an innocent such as Regan. His lips glided over hers with the purpose to claim and dominate. Dare expected her mouth to taste of sweet innocence, but instead he tasted brandy and the slight bitterness of the soot. With a murmur of encouragement, he used his teeth to nip her lower lip. Regan parted her lips in surprise. Dare ruthlessly took advantage of the reaction and pulled her closer as he deepened their kiss.
In the distance, he heard the sound of a glass breaking. Dare almost smiled. Regan had dropped her glass of brandy. His body hardened as he felt her tentatively touch his arm. She tilted her face toward his, and tried to mimic his sensual ministrations to her willing mouth. The hesitant touch on his arm quickly became a restless caress. Minutes later, Regan had brazenly slid her hands up Dare’s arms and wrapped them around his neck.
A not-so-discreet cough from across the room was as effective as a bucket of cold water dumped on the couple.
Dare avoided Regan’s startled gaze when he ended the kiss and glanced toward the open doorway. He was not surprised to see an expressionless Frost. Dare did not recognize the older woman standing beside Regan’s brother, but considering his luck of late, he assumed the woman gaping at them was Lady Karmack.
“Frost is going to kill me,” Regan whispered so softly, Dare doubted anyone else had heard her.
Dare kissed Regan on the forehead and gently nudged her off his lap. He had been aroused by their kiss, but the scowl Lady Karmack was giving him should wither the rigid flesh soon enough.
Dare stood and waited for Frost to challenge him. He did not have the heart to tell Regan that if her brother was going to kill anyone this evening, it was likely to be him.
Copyright © 2011 by Alexandra Hawkins