We all need some historical romances in our lives every once in a while, but every time I dive into one, I end up reading five in a row. This was my first encounter with Sarah MacLean’s splendid writing and the beauty of her language quite literally took my breath away. She paints a vivid picture of nineteenth-century London’s dark underworld and the characters it comprises, as well as of the city’s more affluent classes, the quality of her prose standing out in a genre known for its lyrical delivery. I was entranced by the detail, the cadence, the movement of her words, but above all, by a love story that is sheer beauty beginning to end. So I cannot express how EXCITED I am to share with you a sneak peek.
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, dis- covering the feel of her skin, the scent of it. Uncovering the sounds she made in pleasure. Would she sigh? Would she cry out?
He froze. This woman, with her plain face and her un- remarkable body, who talked to herself, was not the kind of woman Devil ordinarily imagined taking on walls. What was happening to him?
“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.”
She didn’t seem old.
Plain had occurred to him, but she wasn’t plain. Not really. In fact, she might be the opposite of plain.
That was absolutely not true.
“I was tossed over by a duke.”
Still not the whole truth. “And there’s the rub?”
“Quite,” she said. “Though it seems unfair, as the duke in question never intended to marry me in the first place.”
“He was wildly in love with his wife.”
She turned away from him, returning her gaze to the sky. “Not for her.”
Devil had never in his life wanted to approach another so much. But he remained in the shadows, pressing himself to the wall and watching her. “If you are unmarriageable for all those reasons, why waste your time here?”
She gave a little laugh, the sound low and lovely. “Don’t you know, sir? Any unmarried woman’s time is well spent near to unmarried gentlemen.”
“Ah, so you haven’t given up on a husband.”
“Hope springs eternal,” she said.
He nearly laughed at the dry words. Nearly. “And so?”
“It’s difficult, as at this point, my mother has strict requirements for any suitor.”
He did laugh at that, a single, harsh bark, shocking the hell out of him. “With such high standards, it’s unsurprising that you’ve had such trouble.”
She grinned, teeth gleaming white in the moonlight. “It’s a wonder that the Duke of Marwick hasn’t fallen over himself to get to me, I know.”
The reminder of his purpose that evening was harsh and instant. “You’re after Marwick.”
Over my decaying corpse.
She waved a hand. “My mother is, as are all the rest of the mothers in London.”
“They say he’s mad,” Devil pointed out.
“Only because they can’t imagine why anyone would choose to live outside society.”
Marwick lived outside society because he’d made a long- ago pact never to live within it. But Devil did not say that. Instead, he said, “They’ve barely had a look at him.”
Her grin turned into a smirk. “They’ve seen his title, sir. And it is handsome as sin. A hermit duke still makes a duchess, after all.”
“That’s the marriage mart.” She paused. “But it does not matter. I am not for him.”
“Why not?” He didn’t care.
“Because I am not for dukes.”
Why the hell not?
He didn’t speak the question, but she answered it nonetheless, casually, as though she were speaking to a roomful of ladies at tea. “There was a time when I thought I might be,” she offered, more to herself than to him. “And then . . .” She shrugged her shoulders. “I don’t know what happened. I suppose all those other things. Plain, uninteresting, aging, wallflower, spinster.” She laughed at the list of words. “I suppose I should not have dallied, thinking I’d find myself a husband, as it did not happen.”
“And now,” she said, resignation in her tone, “my mother seeks a strong pulse.”
“What do you seek?”
Whit’s nightingale cooed in the darkness, and she replied on the heels of the sound. “No one has ever asked me that.”
“And so,” he prodded, knowing he shouldn’t. Knowing he should leave this girl to this balcony and whatever future she was to have.
“I—” She looked toward the house, toward the dark conservatory and the hallway beyond, and the glittering ballroom beyond that. “I wish to be a part of it all again.”
“There was a time I—” she began, then stopped. Shook her head. “It doesn’t matter. You’ve far more important things to do.”
“I do, but as I can’t do them while you’re here, my lady, I’m more than willing to help you sort this out.”
She smiled at that. “You’re amusing.”
“No one in my whole life would agree with you.”
Her smile grew. “I am rarely interested in others’ opinions.”
He did not miss the echo of his own words from earlier. “I don’t believe that for a second.”
She waved a hand. “There was a time when I was a part of it. Right at the center of it all. I was incredibly popular. Everyone wished to know me.”
“And what happened?”
She spread her hands wide again, a movement that was beginning to be familiar. “I don’t know.”
He raised a brow. “You don’t know what made you a wallflower?”
“I don’t,” she said softly, confusion and sadness in her tone. “I wasn’t even near the walls. And then, one day”—she shrugged—“there I was. Ivy. And so, when you ask me what I seek?”
She was lonely. Devil knew about lonely. “You want back in.”
She gave a little, hopeless laugh. “No one gets back in. Not without a match for the ages.”
He nodded. “The duke.”
“A mother can dream.”
“I want back in.” Another warning sounded from Whit, and the woman looked over her shoulder. “That’s a very persistent nightingale.”
She tilted her head in curiosity, but when he did not clarify, she added, “Are you going to tell me who you are?”
She nodded once. “That is best, I suppose, as I only came outside to find a quiet moment away from supercilious smirks and snide comments.” She pointed down the line of the balcony, toward the lighter stretch of it. “I shall go over there and find a proper hiding place, and you can resume your skulking, if you like.”
He did not reply, not certain of what he would say. Not trusting himself to say what he should.
“I shan’t tell anyone I saw you,” she added.
“You haven’t seen me,” he said.
“Then it shall have the additional benefit of being the truth,” she added, helpfully.
The nightingale again. Whit didn’t trust him with this woman.
And perhaps he shouldn’t.
Copyright © 2018 by Sarah MacLean. Reprinted with permission of Avon Books, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.