Wicked and the Wallflower
For my father,
who was the first to hear about my Covent Garden crime lords,
and who never got to meet them.
Grazie mille, Papà.
Ti voglio tanto bene.
Announcement to Brazen and the Beast An Excerpt from Brazen and the Beast
About the Author
Also by Sarah MacLean
About the Publisher
The three were woven together long before they were aware, strands of spun, silken steel that could not be separated—not even when their fate insisted upon it.
Brothers, born on the same day, in the same hour, at the same minute to different women. The high-priced courtesan. The seamstress. The soldier’s widow. Born on the same day, in the same hour, at the same minute to the same man.
The duke, their father, whose arrogance and cruelty fate would punish without hesitation, stealing from him the only thing he wanted that his money and power could not buy—an heir.
It is the Ides of March the seers warn of, with its promise of betrayal and vengeance, of shifting fortune and inalienable providence. But for this sire—who was never more than that, never close to father—it was the Ides of June that would be his ruin.
Because on that same day, in that same hour, at that same minute, there was a fourth child, born to a fourth woman. To a duchess. And it was this birth—the birth all the world thought legitimate—that the duke attended, even as he knew the son who was to be his heir in name and fortune and future was not his own and still, somehow, was his only hope.
Except she was a daughter.
And with her first breath, she thieved future from them all, as powerful in her infancy as she would become in her womanhood. But hers is a story for another time.
This story begins with the boys.
The Devil stood outside Marwick House, under the black shadow of an ancient elm, watching his bastard brother within.
Flickering candles and mottled glass distorted the revelers in the ballroom beyond, turning the throngs of people within—aristocrats and moneyed gentry—into a mass of indiscernible movement, reminding Devil of the tide of the Thames, ebbing and flowing and slick with color and stink.
Faceless bodies—men dark with formal dress and women gleaming light in their silks and satins—ran together, barely able to move for the craning necks and flapping fans waving gossip and speculation through the stagnant ballroom air.
And at their center, the man they were desperate to see—the hermit Duke of Marwick, shining bright and new, despite having held the title since his father had died. Since their father had died.
No. Not father. Sire.
And the new duke, young and handsome, returned like London’s prodigal son—a head taller than the rest of the assembly, fair-haired and stone-faced, with the amber eyes the Dukes of Marwick had boasted for generations. Able-bodied and unwed and everything the aristocracy wished him to be.
And nothing the aristocracy believed him to be.
Devil could imagine the ignorant whispers running riot through the ballroom.
Why should a man of such prominence play the hermit?
Who cares, as long as he’s a duke?
Do you think the rumors are true?
Who cares, as long as he’s a duke?
Why hasn’t he ever come to town?
Who cares, as long as he’s a duke?
What if he’s as mad as they say?
Who cares, as long as he’s a duke?
I hear he is in the market for an heir.
It was the last that had summoned Devil from the darkness.
There had been a deal, made twenty years earlier, when they were three brothers in arms. And though much had happened since that deal had been forged, one thing remained sacrosanct: no one reneged on a deal with Devil.
Not without punishment.
And so, Devil waited with infinite patience in the gardens of the London residence of generations of Dukes of Marwick for the third in the deal to arrive. It had been decades since he and his brother, Whit—together known in London’s nefarious corners as the Bareknuckle Bastards—had seen the duke. Decades since they’d escaped the country seat of the dukedom in the dead of night, leaving secrets and sins behind, to build their own kingdom of secrets and sins of a different sort.
But, a fortnight earlier, invitations had arrived at the most extravagant homes in London—the ones with the most venerable names—even as servants had arrived at Marwick House, armed to the teeth with dusters and wax, with irons and airing lines. One week earlier, crates had been delivered—candles and cloth, potatoes and port, and a half-dozen settees for the massive Marwick ballroom, each now festooned with the skirts of London’s most eligible ladies.
Three days ago, the News of London arrived at the Bastards’ Covent Garden headquarters and there, on the fourth page, a headline in smudged ink pronounced “Mysterious Marwick to Marry?”
Devil had carefully folded the paper and left it on Whit’s desk. When he’d returned to his workspace the next morning, a throwing knife speared the newsprint to the oak.
And so it was decided.
Their brother, the duke, had returned, appearing without warning in this place designed for better men and filled with the worst of them, on land that he had inherited the moment he’d claimed his title, in a city they had made theirs, and in doing so, he revealed his greed.
But greed, in this place, on this land, was not permitted.
So, Devil waited and watched.
After long minutes, the air shifted and Whit appeared at his elbow, silent and deadly as a military reinforcement, which was appropriate, as this was nothing short of war.
“Just on time,” Devil said, softly.
“The Duke seeks a bride?”
A nod in the darkness.
Silence. Not ignorance—anger.
Devil watched their bastard brother move through the crowd within, headed for the far end of the ballroom, where a dark corridor stretched into the bowels of the house. It was his turn to nod. “We end it before it begins.” He palmed his ebony walking stick, its silver lion’s mane, worn from use, fitting perfectly into his hand. “In and out, and enough damage that he cannot follow us.”
Whit nodded, but did not speak what they were both thinking—that the man London called Robert, Duke of Marwick, the boy they’d once known as Ewan, was more animal than aristocrat, and the only man who had ever come close to besting them. But that was before Devil a
Tonight, they would show him that London was their turf and return him to the country. It was only a matter of getting inside and doing just that—reminding him of that promise they’d made long ago.
The Duke of Marwick would beget no heirs.
“Good chase.” Whit’s words came on a low growl, his voice ragged from disuse.
“Good chase,” Devil replied, and the two moved in expedient silence to the dark shadows of the long balcony, knowing they would have to act quickly to avoid being seen.
With fluid grace, Devil scaled the balcony, leaping over the balustrade, landing silently in the darkness beyond, Whit following. They made for the door, knowing that the conservatory would be locked and off-limits to guests, making it the perfect entry point to the house. The Bastards wore formalwear—preparing to blend into the crowd until they found the duke and dealt their blow.
Marwick would be neither the first nor the last aristocrat to receive a punishment from the Bareknuckle Bastards, but Devil and Whit had never wished to deliver one so well.
Devil’s hand had barely landed on the door handle when it turned beneath his touch. He released it instantly, backing away, fading into the darkness even as Whit launched himself back over the balcony and onto the lawn below without sound.
And then the girl appeared.
She closed the door behind her with urgency, pressing her back to it, as though she could prevent others from following with nothing but sheer strength of will.
Strangely, Devil thought she might be able to do just that.
She was strung tight, her head against the door, long neck pale in the moonlight, chest heaving as a single, gloved hand came to rest on the shadowed skin above her gown, as though she could calm her ragged breath. Years of observation revealed her movements unpracticed and natural—she did not know she was being watched. She did not know she was not alone.
The fabric of her gown shimmered in the moonlight, but it was too dark to tell what color it was. Blue, perhaps. Green? The light turned it silver in places and black in others.
Moonlight. It looked as though she was cloaked in moonlight.
The strange observation came as she moved to the stone balustrade, and for a mad half-second, Devil considered stepping into the light to have a better look.
That is, until he heard the soft, low warble of a nightingale—Whit cautioning him. Reminding him of their plan, which the girl had nothing to do with. Except that she prevented it from being set in motion.
She didn’t know the bird was no bird at all, and she turned her face to the sky, hands coming to rest on the stone railing as she released a long breath, and with it, her guard. Her shoulders relaxed.
She’d been chased there.
A thread of something unpleasant wove through him at the idea that she’d fled into a dark room and out onto a darker balcony, where a man waited who might be worse than anything inside. And then, like a shot in the dark, she laughed. Devil stiffened, the muscles in his shoulders tensing, his grip tightening on the silver handle of his cane.
It took all his will not to approach her. To recall that he’d been lying in wait for this moment for years—so long he could barely remember a time when he wasn’t prepared to do battle with his brother.
He was not going to allow a woman to knock him off course. He didn’t even have a clear look at her, and still, he could not look away.
“Someone ought to tell them just how awful they are,” she said to the sky. “Someone ought to march right up to Amanda Fairfax and tell her that no one believes her beauty mark is real. And someone ought to tell Lord Hagin that he stinks of perfume and would do well to take a bath.
“And I should dearly love to remind Jared of the time he landed himself backside-first in a pond at my mother’s country house party and had to rely upon my kindness to get him to dry clothes without being seen.”
She paused, just long enough for Devil to think that she was through speaking into the ether.
Instead, she blurted out, “And must Natasha be so unpleasant?”
“That’s the best you can do?”
He shocked himself with the words—now was not the time to be talking to a solo chatterbox on the balcony.
He shocked Whit more, if the harsh nightingale’s call that immediately followed was any indication.
But he shocked the girl the most.
With a little squeak of surprise, she whirled to face him, her hand coming to the expanse of skin above the line of her bodice. What color was that bodice? The moonlight continued to play tricks with it, making it impossible to see.
She tilted her head and squinted into the shadow. “Who’s there?”
“You have me wondering just that, love, considering you’re talking up a storm.”
The squint became a scowl. “I was talking to myself.”
“And neither of you can find a better insult for this Natasha than unpleasant?”
She took a step toward him, then seemed to think twice of approaching a strange man in the darkness. She stopped. “How would you describe Natasha Corkwood?”
“I don’t know her, so I wouldn’t. But considering you were happy to lambast Hagin’s hygiene and resurrect Faulk’s past embarrassments, surely Lady Natasha deserves a similar level of creativity?”
She stared into the shadows for a long minute, her gaze fixed to a point somewhere beyond his left shoulder. “Who are you?”
“No one of consequence.”
“As you are on a dark balcony outside an unoccupied room in the home of the Duke of Marwick, it seems you might be a man of quite serious consequence.”
“By that rationale, you are a woman of serious consequence.”
Her laugh came loud and unexpected, surprising them both. She shook her head. “Few would agree with you.”
“I am rarely interested in others’ opinions.”
“Then you mustn’t be a member of the ton,” she replied dryly, “as others’ opinions are like gold here. Exceedingly cared for.”
Who was she?
“Why were you in the conservatory?”
She blinked. “How did you know it is a conservatory?”
“I make it my business to know things.”
“About houses that do not belong to you?”
This house was almost mine, once. He resisted the words. “No one is using this room. Why were you?”
She lifted a shoulder. Let it drop.
It was his turn to scowl. “Are you meeting a man?”
Her eyes went wide. “I beg your pardon?”
“Dark balconies make for excellent trysting.”
“I wouldn’t know.”
“About balconies? Or trysting?” Not that he cared.
“About either, honestly.”
He should not have experienced satisfaction at the answer.
She continued, “Would you believe that I enjoy conservatories?”
“I would not,” he said. “And besides, the conservatory is off-limits.”
She tilted her head. “Is it?”
“Most people understand that dark rooms are off-limits.”
She waved a hand. “I’m not very intelligent.” He did not believe that, either. “I could ask you the same question, you know.”
“Which?” He didn’t like the way she wove the conversation around them, twisting it in her own direction.
“Are you here for a tryst?”
For a single, wild moment, a vision flashed of the tryst they might find here, on this dark balcony in the dead of summer. Of what she might allow him to do to her while half of London danced and gossiped just out of reach.
Of what he might allow her to do to him.
He imagined lifting her up onto the stone balustrade, discovering the feel of her skin, the scent of it. Uncovering the sounds she made in pleasure. Would she sigh? Would she cry out?
“I shall take your silence as a yes, then. And give you leave to tryst on, sir.” She began to move away from him, down the balcony.
He should let her go.
Except he called out, “There is no tryst.”
The nightingale again. Quicker and louder than before. Whit was annoyed.
“Then why are you here?” the woman asked.
“Perhaps for the same reason you are, love.”
She smirked. “I have trouble believing you are an aging spinster who was driven into the darkness after being mocked by those you once called friends.”
So. He’d been right. She had been chased. “I have to agree, none of that sounds quite like me.”
She leaned back against the balustrade. “Come into the light.”
“I’m afraid I can’t do that.”
“Because I’m not supposed to be here.”
She lifted a shoulder in a little shrug. “Neither am I.”
“You’re not supposed to be on the balcony. I’m not supposed to be on the grounds.”
Her lips dropped open into a little O. “Who are you?”
He ignored the question. “Why are you a spinster?” Not that it mattered.
He resisted the urge to smile. “I deserved that.”
“My father would tell you to be more specific with your questions.”
“Who is your father?”
“Who is yours?”
She was not the least obstinate woman he’d ever met. “I don’t have a father.”
“Everyone has a father,” she said.
“Not one they care to acknowledge,” he said with a calm he did not feel. “So we return to the beginning. Why are you a spinster?”
“No one wishes to marry me.”
The honest answer came instantly. “I don’t—” She stopped, spreading her hands wide, and he would have given his whole fortune to hear the rest, especially once she began anew, ticking reasons off her long, gloved fingers. “On the shelf.”