Falling for the Marquess
From USA Today bestselling author Julianne MacLean comes a breathtaking historical romance trilogy set during the Gilded Age, featuring three American sisters who set sail for London to capture aristocratic husbands.
My Dear Miss Wilson,
I have no wish to spoil your chances of meeting the decent and respectable man you desire. Yet I find I cannot idly sit back and accept that I will never see you again, or – forgive me for my candor – kiss you again. If I were like other gentlemen, I would say good-bye to you now and wish you the best. But I have not behaved as a gentleman for many years….Do you understand my meaning?
So begins a very wicked correspondence between the scandal-ridden Marquess of Rawdon and Clara Wilson, an American heiress with more than a few of her own secrets to hide. Clara has come all the way to London to find respectability, but she has always craved excitement, and adventure has always sought her out.
This time, excitement is a man unlike any she has ever met before, one who is stunning, brilliant, and definitely not what her mother had in mind. Clara’s cautious younger sister Adele warns her to be wary and remember her past follies, but her spirited older sister Sophia urges her to risk it all for love. Clara knows the answer lies somewhere in between, but with her heart and her future on the line, the stakes will never be higher.…
NOTE: This novel was originally published under the title AN AFFAIR MOST WICKED in 2004.
Release date: August 20, 2020
Publisher: Julianne MacLean Publishing Inc.
Print pages: 398
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Falling for the Marquess
Lady Berkshire sighed contentedly as she handed her lover’s greatcoat to him. “Come back on Thursday?”
Standing tall and sumptuous in the corridor, his golden hair spilling onto his shoulders in unfashionable disarray, the Marquess of Rawdon smiled. His devilish charm filled the corridor like a beam of sunlight, radiant and warm.
Lady Berkshire, who was still flushed from their afternoon tryst, melted like hot butter before him, for she had just experienced, firsthand, the validity behind the rumors. Yes, it was all true. The beautiful marquess had a flare for the erotic. An intensity in the bedroom. A talent for lavish, liberal lovemaking.
He was Seger Wolfe, the Marquess of Rawdon, and among the ladies who liked to whisper in the dark corners of London’s late-night drawing rooms, he was England’s most coveted lover.
When he did not immediately accept her invitation, she tried again. “I’ll have strawberries and chocolate.” Beneath the melodic intent to entice, her voice was laced with pleading.
Seger considered her invitation with great care. It was not his habit to see the same woman more than twice in a single week, and never—under any circumstances—exclusively. Most women understood the boundaries merely by instinct. They knew not to ask, and not to become possessive if they wanted him to return another day, which almost invariably, they did.
He inhaled deeply and sighed, surprised by a sudden twinge of discontent that was unusual at a time like this.
“Perhaps on Friday,” he said.
Lady Berkshire’s big blue eyes lit up with anticipation. “Friday, it is.”
She stepped back into her bedroom and closed the door behind her with a gentle click.
Seger stood for a moment, staring down the long length of the empty corridor, questioning his response just now. Something had been missing lately from his usual enthusiasm for encounters like this, which made no sense. Lady Berkshire was a beautiful woman and an entertaining bed partner.
He continued to stand outside her door, staring at it. Then he realized something. He barely remembered what it felt like to make love to a woman because he loved her.
Seger exhaled heavily. How long had it been, and why was he even thinking about it now?
Bloody hell, he knew how long. Right down to the day. It was just under eight years.
Thankfully, eight years of superficial encounters and casual intimacies for the sole purpose of pleasure had emptied him of almost all memories of her, and he was glad. There was no point pondering them now. She wasn’t coming back. Death was rather firm in that regard.
He buttoned his coat and turned to leave, telling himself that this feeling of dissatisfaction would pass, probably as quickly as it had set in. Everything was fine, as it had been for the past eight years. Seger was content. He knew how to enjoy himself—and enjoy himself he did. He found great pleasure with women he didn’t know very well, and he enjoyed the superficiality of those relationships. The women were always cheerful and smiling. Nothing was ever complicated or distressing.
To be frank, he wasn’t certain he would know how to understand a woman’s deeper emotions even if he wanted to.
Not that he wanted to. He did not.
Seger descended the stairs and, with firm resolve, expelled those thoughts from his mind. They did him no good.
He let himself out the front door of Lady Berkshire’s London house, glanced up and down the street, then crossed to where his coach was waiting a few doors down.
He reminded himself that there was much to look forward to that evening. He had a ball to attend—a Cakras Ball. As always, it promised to be a tantalizing feast for the senses. Exactly what he needed for a distraction. He would no doubt meet a number of interesting women there. Beautiful women. Adventurous women.
He climbed inside his coach and signaled to the driver to move on. His blood quickened as he anticipated the evening ahead.
The London Season
It is finally upon me—my first London ball. You cannot imagine how nervous I am, for I fear I will not fit in, that everyone will see through me and know I am not one of them.
I hope that will not be the case, for I do long to be a part of society here—the daily rides along Rotten Row, the receptions, luncheons, and evenings at the theater. It has been an exhausting but glorious experience so far, though I admit most of my acquaintances have been frustratingly superficial.
I realize, of course, that that is to be expected. I am in England after all, and people are reserved. I suppose my frustration comes from what occurred with Gordon two years ago. I must be an oddity. I crave adventure and my heart wants it, yet I know how dangerous it can be. I know I must strive to move beyond that mistake if I wish to live a proper and virtuous life. I only hope that my heart has not become too complicated. Sometimes I find it difficult to simply smile and be pretty, which is what is expected of me. I want something deeper than that. Something more honest. Indeed, what a challenge this is going to be....
Your loving sister,
Already late for her first ball in London—quite notably the most important ball of her life—Clara Wilson stood in the doorway of her sister’s boudoir, watching her chaperone, Mrs. Gunther, flip through a large stack of invitations.
“I’m sure it’s one of these,” Mrs. Gunther said, spilling a few of them over the edge of the silver salver onto the mahogany desk. “It has to be.”
Mrs. Gunther was a staunch woman—the only person her mother trusted to act as Clara’s chaperone in London. She was a great social matriarch in America and came from a very prestigious family, but unfortunately for Clara, Mrs. Gunther’s memory was not as sharp as it once was.
“It was at—or somewhere near—Belgrave Square. I at least know that. I remember Sophia describing it.”
Clara’s tiny heels clicked over the marble floor as she crossed the room to peer over her chaperone’s shoulder. There were certain to be a number of balls “at or somewhere near” Belgrave Square that evening.
“Is there any way I can help you remember?” Clara asked. They had to find it soon, for they were already late.
Mrs. Gunther flipped through invitation after invitation. They all looked the same—square, ivory cards with fancy titles in lavish print—and they all belonged to Clara’s older sister, Sophia.
Three years prior, Sophia had become the first American heiress to marry a duke. She and her husband, James, were immensely popular among the Marlborough House set, and there was never a shortage of social engagements to attend at any given moment—which made the task of finding the correct invitation all the more difficult now.
“The Wilkshire Ball, the Devonshire, the Berkley....” Mrs. Gunther said. “No, no, no. The Allison Ball. Could that be...? Wait, Lord and Lady Griffith.... Was that it?”
Mrs. Gunther continued to guess haphazardly at the names, and Clara’s hopes for the evening took a dive. Everything depended on this one night, and if Clara did not make an appearance at the ball, there might not be a second chance. For Clara—the latest American heiress to invade aristocratic London—had to pass the test. In order to be accepted and welcomed into British society as her sister had been, Clara had to glide into a London ballroom and win the approval of the Prince of Wales. Otherwise, she would end up returning to New York where her position in society was fragile, to say the least.
“Ah.” Mrs. Gunther turned to face Clara and handed her the invitation. “Here it is. The Livingstons on Upper Belgrave Street. I’m certain this is it. We can go now, my dear.”
Letting out a breath of relief, Clara smoothed a gloved hand over the antique lace on her French silk gown and touched the glittering diamond-and-pearl choker at her neck. She led the way out of her sister’s boudoir, the precious ivory invitation safe in her hand.
A moment later, they stepped out of the brilliantly lit manor and into the dark, still night. Mantles buttoned at their bare necks, ivory fans dangling from their wrists, they walked down the stone steps to the coach.
As soon as Clara reached the curb, however, her heel imposed upon a crack and she stumbled. The invitation went sailing out of her gloved hand, and she toppled sideways into a tall, extravagantly liveried footman who caught her and righted her before she even had a chance to notice him standing there.
Clara collected herself. “My word. Thank you!”
Without a hint of a smile, the man stood like a palace guard, his face made of stone.
Clara sighed hopelessly. The English. Pray, the people she would meet tonight would have a little more personality. A sense of humor at least.
Clara picked up the invitation and looked at it more closely. “What’s that symbol in the corner?”
Mrs. Gunther squinted at the small triangular medallion printed on the card, with the letters MWO above it. “I’ve no idea. I’ll ask Sophia when we see her.”
The footman handed them into the crested black coach with shiny silver fittings, then hopped onto the page board as the vehicle lurched forward and turned toward Belgravia.
A short while later, they pulled up in front of a grand manor house, lit up like a sparkling jewel in the night. Clara heard music from the orchestra inside while couples moved past the large windows, twirling on the dance floor to a Strauss waltz. A mixture of excitement and apprehension sizzled through her veins, and she gathered up her silk skirt to follow Mrs. Gunther out of the coach.
They made their way up the stone path to the front door beneath a massive portico. A broad-shouldered, bald man stood at the entrance, and when Clara and Mrs. Gunther approached, he stepped in front of the door, which was closed tightly behind him.
Mrs. Gunther rolled her shoulders in that haughty way of hers, a skill she had perfected. “We are here for the ball,” she said in her best matriarchal voice, with one intimidating eyebrow raised.
“Do you have an invitation?” His deep, booming voice didn’t intimidate Mrs. Gunther. She kept her eyes fixed on his as she reached into her purse.
“Here.” She handed it to him.
He glanced over it, then lifted his narrow gaze to assess each of them individually. Clara felt a prickling of dread, as if they were about to be turned away. Was this how her Season in London was to begin? A failure, before she even set foot in the door?
There was suspicion in his voice. “You’re American?”
“Yes,” Mrs. Gunther replied.
“You’ll be a novelty, then.” He stepped out of the way of the door and opened it. “You’ll find the masks on the oak table just inside the entrance.”
Mrs. Gunther eyed him incredulously. “Masks?”
Clara nudged her through the door before she could question him further about the mask theme, for Clara did not wish to appear as if they did not belong. She wanted to fit in.
Once they were inside, Mrs. Gunther said, “I did not like that man.”
“Neither did I. I’ll feel better when we see Sophia and James.”
They found a large crystal bowl full of feathered masks just inside the door, and Clara chose a cream-colored one to bring out the auburn highlights in her dark brown hair.
A woman walked by while they were donning their masks, and Clara could have sworn she wasn’t wearing a corset. Clara’s lips fell open. She was about to say something to Mrs. Gunther but caught herself. Surely, she had been mistaken.
They withdrew to the cloak room to freshen up, then made their way across the crowded grand hall toward the ballroom.
As soon as Clara stepped inside, her mood lifted. She relaxed and cleared her mind of all the mistakes she feared she would make, for what a dazzling room it was. Couples swirled around the floor in bright splashes of color and glitter. The music from the orchestra seemed to come from the blue beyond, so skilled were the musicians, and all the ladies and gentlemen looked elegant and happy.
A footman approached with a tray of champagne and offered glasses to Clara and Mrs. Gunther.
Mrs. Gunther shook her head and waved a hand to decline. The man’s brow furrowed, and he looked at them strangely. “Really, you must,” he said in a pleasant tone, raising the tray toward them again. “Lord Livingston would be disappointed if you didn’t try it.”
Clara, still wanting to fit in, took a glass of the bubbly and carefully sipped, savoring its delicious taste and delighting in the way it poured heat through every limb. The footman winked at her as he left.
“Did you see that?” she said to her chaperone.
Mrs. Gunther touched her arm. “Pardon me? Oh, my dear, you don’t have a dance card.” She stopped a lady passing by and asked her.
Clara left the issue of the winking footman alone.
The woman, wearing a black and white feathered mask and a garnet gown trimmed in velvet, laughed. “We don’t bother with names here,” she said, then continued on her way.
Clara suddenly felt as if she’d followed Alice down the rabbit hole.
“Perhaps it’s because the Prince is coming,” Mrs. Gunther surmised. “They say he is not at all as prim as his mother, and he prefers to move with the fast set.”
“What if someone asks me to dance?” Clara whispered. “What about introductions?”
“No one else seems to be bothering with them.” Mrs. Gunther’s concerned gaze swept the room, and her voice took on that haughty tone again. “This is highly improper. Where is Sophia? I would like her to explain what we are expected to—”
At that moment, a young gentleman with gold spectacles and fair hair approached and bowed. “May I have the honor of a dance?”
Clara glanced at Mrs. Gunther who hesitated at the man’s informality, then nodded, albeit reluctantly. Clara was surprised her chaperone allowed it without a proper introduction, but she supposed the woman felt as anxious and out of place as she did and didn’t want these eminent lords and ladies to know it.
So, not wishing to defy her chaperone, Clara allowed the gentleman to take her champagne glass and set it on a table. She then accepted his gloved hand and walked onto the floor with him. They danced a waltz—she had yet to see any other dance performed—and when it ended, he escorted her back to Mrs. Gunther, thanked her, and went on his way.
“That was lovely,” Clara said, “but this is not at all how Sophia described it. She said the necessity for social graces was as bad, if not worse than New York, and she’d had a very difficult time. That man did not even know who I was, nor I he.” She leaned closer to Mrs. Gunther, and whispered, “A few of the gentlemen aren’t wearing gloves. Look at that man there.”
Another couple twirled by.
Mrs. Gunther raised her chin in the air. “I don’t know what the world is coming to. We may be approaching the end of a century, but I hardly think society should act in such an uncivilized manner—noble or otherwise. Why, at one of my balls....”
Just then, a tall, imposing gentleman entered the ballroom. Clara’s attention flitted away from her chaperone’s social commentary and landed lightly upon the man now standing just inside the doors. He wore a black suit with tails and a white necktie and waistcoat, and his hair—golden and wavy like ripe wheat in the wind—was an unfashionable length, reaching his shoulders. He stepped into the room with his hands clasped behind his back and tossed his head in a most arrogant manner, throwing an errant lock of that golden hair away from his face.
He wore a black mask that matched his attire, and consequently Clara could only see his chin and mouth. It was a beautiful mouth, she decided as she watched him move closer and smile and nod at a passing gentleman. A mouth with full lips and perfect white teeth. There was a deep dimple centered on his chin, and his angular jaw was firm. Clara took another slow sip of the champagne.
He must have sensed her staring, for his gaze came to rest intently upon her. Briefly, they watched each other, to the point where it almost seemed improper, yet Clara could not tear her eyes away. Not that she was feeling brave or daring. To the contrary, she was dumbfounded and completely stuck, like a butterfly with its delicate feet caught in honey.
Gracious, but he is handsome. She knew it in the unexplored depths of her being, even though he wore a mask.
He wasted not a single second. He set out on a path toward Clara, his eyes never veering from hers. She sucked in a short, shaky breath, oblivious to whatever Mrs. Gunther was going on about. All Clara could do was watch that beautiful man saunter like a lion across the floor, his shoulders broad beneath his jacket, his gait slow and sure and languid.
He stopped before her, said nothing, and held out his hand.
Mrs. Gunther stopped talking. She saw the gloved hand beside her and turned to look at the man who belonged to it. He simply nodded at her, then lifted his hand another fraction to pull Clara out of her stupor and boldly indicate that he wanted to dance.
In complete silence, Mrs. Gunther stared at the gentleman. Clara could only presume that her chaperone was caught in the honey, too, for though her lips were parted, no words were coming out of her mouth.
Laying her gloved hand in his, and without an introduction, Clara allowed him to lead her onto the floor.
She picked up her train and looked into his eyes, and they glided harmoniously into the waltz. They went around the room a few times before he spoke.
“You’re a fresh face at one of these things.”
“I’ve only just arrived from America,” Clara replied. She would have liked to add “my lord,” or “sir,” or maybe even “Your Grace,” but without the introduction, she didn’t know what to call him.
His lips twitched with what looked like pleasant surprise. “America, you say. How wonderful. Permit me to welcome you to our shores.”
“Thank you,” she replied.
This was not at all how Clara had imagined this night would begin.
“I’m visiting my sister,” she told him.
He did not ask who her sister was.
They continued the dance, swirling around the room with such fluid grace, that Clara did not feel the least bit dizzy. Her partner was by far the most skilled dancer she had ever encountered. His hand held the small of her back firmly yet lightly, guiding her around the room as if she were as light as fairy dust.
When the waltz ended, they came to a graceful finish near a tall potted fern. Another waltz began—a slower one—and her partner inclined his head at her. “Shall we dance another?”
Again, she was surprised by this blatant disregard for the rules of etiquette. He should be returning her to her chaperone by now. She glanced over at Mrs. Gunther, who was trying most unsuccessfully to look at ease. Clara remembered the old adage, “when in Rome,” and decided she should simply follow this Englishman’s lead.
“I would be honored.”
They moved into position again, and a shiver of excitement moved through Clara as his hand returned to the small of her back. He led her into the center of the ballroom, where they moved about at a more relaxed pace.
“I must say,” he commented, in a deep, sultry voice, “you are an extraordinary dancer. I was fortunate to have found you before some other man. I believe I would like to keep you.”
Clara laughed. “You cannot keep me.”
“Ah, but I wish I could. At least until you tire of me and send me on my way.”
Clara felt a hot thrill at his flattery. “Sir, you are flirting with me, quite shamelessly.”
“Because I am a shameless man—at least in the wake of your exquisite charm. You are undeniably the most intriguing creature I’ve encountered all evening. All year to be precise.”
Clara’s cheeks felt like they were on fire. “I don’t know what to say in response to such overdrawn compliments. You don’t even know me.”
“Overdrawn? You underestimate your allure. You should allow me to prove it to you.”
“Prove what to me?”
“That you are exquisitely charming.”
Their conversation was decidedly out of her realm of experience, and though it was exhilarating in ways she had only dreamed of, it was most definitely improper. She urged herself to remember that. He was a complete stranger. Did he not realize the scandalous nature of his flattery?
And yet, she could not bring herself to change the subject. “How will you prove it?”
“How would you like me to?”
Clara wasn’t sure she could speak, even if she knew how to answer such a slippery question.
“I am completely yours,” he said, his expression friendly and open—a delightful change from what she had become accustomed to since arriving in England. “I am at your disposal. Your humble servant. Here for your pleasure.”
She stared in shock for another few seconds, then couldn’t help herself. She laughed out loud. Maybe it was nerves. “I’ve never met anyone quite like you.”
And who was he, exactly? All she knew was that he was someone very daring and very grand. Everything about him was exciting and magnificent and lordly. He was such a glorious change from the ordinary.
He gazed at her. “Look around you. Every man on the floor is taking notice of you here tonight and wishing he had spotted you first. They are each hoping that I will soon disappear and leave you free once again.”
Clara did look around. The other gentlemen were simply dancing with their partners, not looking at her at all. “I’m afraid I don’t see it.”
“No? How else can I prove it to you, then? I know. Feel my heart. It’s racing.” He pulled her hand to his chest and held it there.
Stunned by this physical intimacy in the middle of a crowded ballroom, and flustered by the feel of the man’s hard chest beneath the flat of her hand, Clara felt his heartbeat. It was not racing. He was as calm as a lake in the deep of night.
Utterly beguiled and falling into a lazy daze, Clara missed a step.
Her partner righted her and continued on without missing a beat, holding her hand out again, where it should be.
Clara’s mouth felt suddenly dry. In fact, she could hardly breathe. Did this man always have this debilitating effect on women? If so, she was in for an engaging, perhaps difficult, first season there if she ever encountered him again.
They danced a little longer, and she noticed his pace was slowing, growing more leisurely. Clara found herself avoiding his gaze. He had knocked her off kilter with that last little flirtation.
The waltz ended, and the orchestra paused. The sound of pages turning filled the silence. Clara raised a hand to her cheek and felt a bit faint in the heat of the room. Or perhaps it was this man’s effect on her that was causing her to feel fuzzy-headed.
He sensed her distress with perfectly timed precision. “Would you like a cool drink? There is a punch bowl in the supper room.”
“Please,” she replied.
He offered his arm, and she permitted him to escort her into the next room, where a long buffet table was overflowing with tea cakes and crumpets, large bowls of colorful fruit, clotted cream and towers of frosted peaches. There were shellfish on silver platters, cheeses and meats, and cakes and candies and berries.
The gentleman led her to the punch bowl, filled a glass and handed it to her. She took three large gulps before she realized it was burning her throat. It tasted bitter with some sort of spirit.
She tried to swallow without croaking or making any facial contortions, then smiled politely at him and carefully set the cup on the table. She wasn’t about to have any more of that beverage, whatever it was. She didn’t want to end up smelling like a distillery.
“Better?” he asked.
“Yes, better.” Except that my throat is on fire! She tried to clear it. “Thank you.” Her response barely squeaked out of her.
“Would you like to see the Fuseli? It’s in the main hall.”
She swallowed again. “I’m not sure that I should be away from my—”
“You can’t come to Livingston House and not see the Fuseli.”
Clara looked up at his elegant mouth, heard the sound of his seductive voice, and felt a buzzing sensation somewhere deep within herself, along with a desire to follow him wherever he led her.
“I suppose I could go and have a peek.”
“‘Have a peek.’ What a charming American expression.”
He offered his arm to her again, and she went with him to the main hall, determined to take one look at the masterpiece, then politely thank her partner and ask him to escort her back to Mrs. Gunther.
Out in the hall, other couples were whispering quietly in corners, and Clara found the whole atmosphere somewhat dreamlike. The ladies seemed to float around as if bewitched by something, and the gentlemen spoke in hushed tones. The masks gave it all a rather mysterious flavor, as if they were all supposed to keep some great collective secret.
Clara attributed her odd perceptions to the few sips of champagne she’d had, and that scalding beverage in the punch bowl.
Her handsome escort stopped before a painting that hung at the bottom of a wide, circular staircase. “Here it is.”
Clara looked up. “It’s The Nightmare.”
She sensed the man quietly studying her face. “You know your art.”
“Yes, though I’ve only read about this one. I had no idea it would be so—”
“So....” Dare she say it? She looked up at the curvaceous contours of the sleeping woman’s breasts beneath her gown, her arm limp and flung down to the floor. “So erotic.” She continued to stare in silence at the details: the grinning devil, the luminescent horse entering the bedchamber from some other, unnatural world.
She could feel those gleaming green eyes watching her, taking in her response to the painting.
The man leaned closer. “Some say it leads to the dark recesses of the mind.”
The heat of his breath in her ear caused a wave of gooseflesh to surge across her skin.
He moved silently behind her as she studied the painting, and his presence at her back was more unsettling than anything she saw in The Nightmare, for the man standing at his ease behind her was true flesh and blood, sumptuous and beautiful, and he was breathing hotly against the damp back of her neck.
“My word, but you are lovely,” he whispered.
Unaccustomed to such open flattery, Clara grew breathless. “Thank you.”
She turned to meet his gaze and tried to imagine what he would look like without his mask. He must surely be the most handsome man in all of London. He certainly had more charm and appeal than anyone she had ever met in New York or Paris.
“Come with me, darling,” he said softly.
He was smiling now, like that grinning devil in the painting. He took her hand and slowly backed up. Captivated by the playful glint in his eyes and the engaging way he looked at her, Clara followed him around the bottom of the staircase until she realized, with hazy, besotted awareness, that he was leading her away, into the dim, private shadows beneath the stairs.
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