Heart of Decadence is available for pre-order on Amazon in the boxed set Second Chance Love.
The warm walnut-paneled library of Lady Hamilton’s townhouse should have been comforting to Miss Amelia Burrowes. Flickering candles illuminated the room just enough to see, but still enough to conceal oneself if necessary. Soft leather cushions on the chairs and chaise, also in medium brown tones, invited one to sit and relax, while the red and tan Turkey carpet added a richness that soothed the senses. Altogether the room exuded a calmness and security Amelia needed in her life at this moment. Unfortunately, the room’s sense of well-being could not penetrate her growing sense of dread.
Outside the closed door, voices laughed loudly, making her jump. Heart racing, she listened keenly for the sound of one particular voice, her fingernails sinking into the arms of the chair until she feared she would tear the expensive upholstery. Yet she could not stop herself, for she was sure Mr. Burke would find her no matter where she hid.
When her mother first hinted that the family was once again attempting to find a husband for her, Amelia had smiled and tried to look hopeful. Her pretended interest and cooperation had always pleased her mother, every time the subject had sporadically come up over the past ten years. Every attempt had, of course, come to nothing. Amelia’s reputation had sustained irreparable damage when her betrothed, Jonathan, had died, and she had come to accept that her lot in life would be as a spinster. Mama had felt their loss of status keenly, but had settled, as she must, for a quiet life in the country.
Until this year. For next year her two younger sisters, Henrietta and Margaret, were supposed to make their come out. They could only do that if someone sponsored them, and Mama was determined that someone would. She was convinced that after all this time, Amelia’s reputation could still be repaired by a good marriage. Once Amelia was accepted back into society, then her younger sisters would most likely be invited to fashionable events and hopefully catch good husbands of their own. To make certain that happened, Mama had begun a campaign, carried out with military precision, to find a husband for her. It mattered little what the man was like, and not at all if Amelia liked him. Only his willingness to ally himself with a woman who had acted scandalously mattered in the least.
“Your father has been talking to various friends of his with connections,” Mama had told her a month ago. She’d brought her into the seldom-used front parlor and shut the door. “He believes to have found a gentleman, a young gentleman in fact, who would be willing to consider marrying you.” Eyes bright, cheeks flushed, her mother stared at her expectantly. “Isn’t that wonderful?”
“Of course, Mama.” Amelia had feigned an excitement she did not feel.
“A Mr. Lawrence Burke, of Chesterfield in Derbyshire.”
The name had meant nothing, but Amelia had smiled and nodded.
“We will be going up to Town for a few weeks of the Season at the beginning of May. Papa has arranged for you to meet the gentleman then and if you think you will suit, we can proceed with the settlements.” The relieved smile on Mama’s face told how worried she’d been about not only Amelia, but about the younger girls as well. “Your father is being extraordinarily generous with your dowry, but then we had to do something.” She sighed and gave Amelia the same pained expression she’d worn for the past decade when speaking of “The Situation.”
“I could not help Jonathan dying, Mama.”
“I know that, Amelia. Still, it has been a trial to us all for a very long time. I hope you will take advantage of Mr. Burke’s interest and make the match as soon as possible.”
That had been the end of the interview, but Amelia had had grave doubts about the coming introduction, especially when she was told it would take place at her aunt’s grand ball shortly after their arrival in London. Lady Hamilton, her aunt after whom she’d been named, had agreed, albeit reluctantly, for Amelia to attend her ball that opened the Season each year. Amelia had not been out in Society for almost ten years. She’d been to several local affairs in Benington during that time, well after the scandal had died down, of course, but never had she set foot in London since her betrothed’s death.
To do so now seemed to be tempting fate, but Mama had been adamant. Amelia must repair her reputation as much as possible. Amelia wasn’t at all certain that marriage, even after such a long period of time, would help her sisters’ plight. However, Mama insisted that to be seen on the arm of her newly betrothed would lend credence to her denial of any misconduct so long ago. She must be seen, but only with Mr. Burke, and must under no circumstances dance or flaunt herself until she was properly married.
Somehow, Amelia had not believed this scheme would work and now she was hiding from the man who was supposed to be her salvation.
Earlier in the evening, after dinner, Papa had introduced her to Mr. Burke, who had seemed rather nice on first acquaintance. A gentleman of one and thirty, not overly tall, with curly brown hair and eyes a shade darker, a full-lipped mouth, and a not-so-prominent chin, Mr. Burke could not be called unhandsome. He was, however, much different from Jonathan’s dark good looks. Mr. Burke had greeted her pleasantly, talked of generally approved topics, like the weather and boating, of which he seemed extraordinarily fond, then asked to escort her around the room.
Their conversation had continued in the general vein until they had reached the far end of the room, where no one could hear their lowered remarks.
“I must say, Miss Burrowes, your father’s letter putting forward his desire for our nuptials took me by surprise, but not nearly as much as the amount he has proposed for your dowry.” He’d smiled, revealing white, predatory teeth. “Much more than my uncle had given me to believe. I understand it is imperative for you to marry.” His eyes darkened and Amelia repressed a shudder at the hunger in them. “I believe I shall enjoy making the match very much.”
A sickening drop in her stomach made her steps falter. Every gentleman who had been interested in marrying her over the years had expressed more or less similar sentiments. She’d been lucky that none of the other attempts had born fruit, for those suitors had, by and large, given her the jim-jams when she’d thought about actually marrying them. They would have no affection for her whatsoever, simply lust for her body and for her father’s bank account. She supposed those would be the only reasons anyone would desire to marry a fallen woman, still it hurt to think her husband must be one so mercenary.
This time, however, something in Mr. Burke’s demeanor had so incensed her that she had made some slight excuse to be taken back to her mother. Mama had not been pleased, but Amelia did not care. If not for the dire consequences for her sisters, she’d refuse Mr. Burke and all of his ilk out of hand and request to be taken home to Benington immediately. As she could not do that, she had resorted to hiding once they had been announced at Lady Hamilton’s. The idea of being seen with the predatory Burke turned her stomach, although she likely must do so at least once tonight or face Mama’s wrath.
She’d no idea how long she’d been in the library, but she suspected Mama would send Papa, or one of her brothers who had turned out tonight, to find her. She hoped it might be her youngest brother, Tim, who she could possibly wheedle into remaining with her instead of doing his duty and dragging her back to the ballroom.
Her reverie was broken by the sudden opening of the library door.
“There you are, my dear.”
Discovered, drat it. Again, Amelia tightened her grip on the arms of the chair.
“I have been looking for you everywhere.” Mr. Burke smiled at her as he entered the library and shut the door. The hollow thud sounded like a death knell. “What are you doing in here? I think this is hardly the time to try and improve your mind.” He started toward her, his smile turning into a leer. “We might, however, take this opportunity together alone to become… better acquainted.”
Bounding out of the chair as though shot from a cannon, Amelia landed on her feet and backed toward the fireplace. “I do not think that is wise, Mr. Burke. Our betrothal is supposed to help repair my reputation. If we are to become better acquainted, it must be done properly, in full view of my parents and Lady Hamilton’s guests.” She must get them out of this place before he could damage her reputation even more or make it impossible for her to refuse his suit, which she now desperately wished to do.
“Come, come, Miss Burrowes. Or should I say, Amelia? Being alone with your intended cannot matter so much in the eyes of the ton.” Pacing slowly toward her, Mr. Burke held out his hand. “In your case, they may well assume we have been intimately acquainted as soon as the betrothal is announced.” He leered at her. “Why not make their suspicions correct?”
Completely outraged, Amelia stopped backing away. How dare he assume she would do such a thing? Even if her reputation was soiled, to think she would simply submit to his crude suggestion—and in her hostess’s library of all places—could not be born. The devil flew into her and she stalked toward him. “I will not stand here and be so insulted, Mr. Burke. I may not have the sterling reputation of the other young ladies of the ton, but common decency demands that you treat me with some respect.”
To her dismay, her outburst, rather than acting as a deterrent, seemed to inflame his ardor. His eyes widened, and he grinned as he continued toward her. “Ah, you do have spirit. I suspected as much. One does not come by a reputation such as yours without some spark of passion.” He licked his lips. “This arrangement may prove to be a better bargain than I could have hoped for.”
Dear Lord, she needed to get out of this room before he ruined her for once and all. Dodging around the chair, she made a break for the door, but he grabbed her wrist and swung her around to face him.
“What’s your hurry, my dear?” He showed his teeth again, making him look just like the wolf in the Grimm brothers’ story.
“Let me go, sir.” Amelia twisted her wrist, trying to break his hold, but he was strong. She’d likely have a bruise there tomorrow.
“Not without some token of your affection, surely? We must learn to get along amiably, mustn’t we?” Sliding his arm around her shoulders, he pulled her against him until it seemed every inch of her touched his body. “Much better, don’t you think?”
“I do not, Mr. Burke.” Well, this would teach him. She raised her foot and stamped hard on his. “Ouch.” Her soft kid slippers were no match for his leather dancing pumps. Now the arch of her foot ached.
“A veritable spitfire, aren’t you?” His grin widened. “Let’s see if that all that passion can be redirected.” He darted his head down toward her, seeking her lips.
“No.” Twisting her head from side to side, she tried desperately to avoid his mouth. “Mr. Burke, please. Stop.” She got her hands up between them and gave a mighty push, but the effort had no effect on him whatsoever.
It did, however, distract her from evading his determined efforts to kiss her, and he sank his mouth onto hers with a triumphant cry.
Amelia went still, hoping not to encourage him. If she held herself aloof, did not respond at all, perhaps he’d think her unfeeling. God knew she didn’t want his kisses, though he was remarkably gentle once he settled into it. Ceasing to struggle, she forced herself to relax, go limp in his arms, show that the kiss meant nothing to her whatsoever.
Unfortunately, that only seemed to encourage him. He ran his tongue along the seam of her mouth, pushing insistently, trying to gain entry. Oh, absolutely not. Once again she pushed against his chest, digging her palms into his jacket and trying frantically to back away.
The click of the library door opening froze Amelia as if she were a Greek statue.
“Kate? Are you in here?”
The man’s voice spurred her to desperate measures. The one thing she couldn’t afford was to be compromised by Mr. Burke. Then she’d be forced to marry him or become even more of an outcast in Society than she was presently. Praying for strength, she hauled back her hand and thumped him on his ear.
He grunted and released her.
Amelia sprang backward, her hands covering her mouth, scrubbing at her lips. Turning her gaze toward the door, she locked eyes with the startled gray-eyed gaze of a very tall, very handsome stranger.
The man’s eyebrows had shot straight up, but now returned to normal. His lips drew into a disapproving pucker. “Well, you certainly are not Kate.”