Leander Talbot’s life changed forever when his wife died. He is now reluctantly venturing back into society, knowing that, as the Earl of Ockley, he must marry again to produce an heir. But he can’t bring himself to the sticking point. Instead, he spends his time evading the matchmaking mamas of the ton.
The dark and dangerous Duke of Arden is an infamous libertine. It is said that he seduces innocents, and there are even more sinister tales whispered of his predilections. Only the wild young blades who form his retinue know the truth, but he is shunned by all save those wishing to court notoriety.
A chance meeting brings Leander into Arden’s orbit. Ignoring the warnings about Arden’s intentions, Leander is drawn into a seductive world of sexual indulgence. There, he finds the freedom he craves from his overbearing family. By the time he suspects Arden might have ulterior motives, it may be too late to save his reputation—and his heart.
He sighed slightly. He had immersed himself in work and duty since Bella’s death, but it was only now he understood how removed from his contemporaries he had become. Most faces here were unfamiliar to him. Take the character in the corner—a dark complexion, his dress rich but careless in a way that proclaimed he cared little for the opinion of society. Leander was certain he had never set eyes on him, though the deference with which his circle of friends was treating him indicated that he was a man of some standing. He took the opportunity to ask the servant who brought him a glass of champagne.
“His Grace the Duke of Arden, my lord,” the man informed him.
The name was one with which Leander was familiar. It was a name with which all of London and some of the more enlightened provinces were familiar. Arden represented all that was decadent in the ton, his philandering ways extending far beyond opera dancers and actresses to ladies of quality. And it was not only widows or liaisons with married ladies, for it was said of him that he had ruined more than one young maiden. The number of duels that he had fought and won, the drunken orgies at which he presided, and his losses and gains at the gaming table had all assumed the proportions of legend. There were still darker things whispered about him. Only the coterie of wild young blades who formed his retinue knew the truth of these, but the intimations were there, and Arden remained unrecognised by all save those wishing to court notoriety.
Leander became aware that Arden was returning his gaze, his heavy-lidded eyes holding what appeared to be a gleam of amusement. As Leander watched, Arden raised his glass in a mocking salute before putting it to his lips and tossing back the contents.
Perhaps it was the champagne, perhaps it was the shock of realising that his acquaintances now viewed him as a prig. Whatever the reason, some demon prompted Leander to his feet. In defiance of all proper behaviour, he crossed the room to Arden and introduced himself.
Those dark eyebrows raised briefly, a noble head was inclined, and one of the young men clustered around Arden was moving from his seat, offering it to Leander.
“So you’re Ockley.” The duke’s aristocratic fingers curved elegantly around the stem of his glass and his dark eyes surveyed Leander as he sat. “I didn't think this to be your sort of place. I'd thought you more of a White's man.”
The provocation was there. It was well known that Arden had been pre-emptively blackballed by the respectable club lest any member lose their faculties and propose him for membership.
“Indeed?” Leander said stiffly, his somewhat lamentable temper aroused by Arden’s dismissal of him as a priggish bore. “And I thought you a legend, sir. A cautionary tale used by protective parents to keep young cubs in line.”
Reaction rippled through the assembled ranks, but Leander’s gaze was on Arden's face. A smile touched his lips as he looked at Leander. “A palpable hit, Ockley,” he murmured. His voice was rich and soft, with a hint of steel that intrigued Leander.
“Lea.” Henry's voice broke in. He was not precisely floored, but he was foxed enough to ignore all dictates of manners as he tugged insistently at his brother's arm. Knowing that if he resisted, Henry would only become more forceful, Leander allowed himself to be raised to his feet. His brother had been the same since nursery days—when he wanted something, he wanted it now, and it was usually attention he craved. Leander directed a small bow towards Arden, whose smile had widened at the spectacle Henry was making of them both, before following his brother's urgent strictures to leave immediately.
Henry pulled Leander down the staircase and out of the house, Burnage following close behind. Once on the street, away from the interested scrutiny of those gathered within, Leander swung round on his brother.
“What in God's name possessed you to behave in such a way?” he demanded, annoyed and embarrassed.
The anger in Henry’s eyes was magnified by the amount of champagne he had drunk. “For God's sake, Lea—that was Arden.” Fury and disgust filled his voice.
“And that is sufficient for you to make a fool of yourself, and of me?”
“How can you not know?” Henry was withering. “He is a devil of the worst kind—libidinous, dissolute, a libertine without a shred of decency, preying on men and women alike. Had you told me this is one of his haunts, I would never have agreed to come.” His gaze flicked to Burnage before returning to Leander. “You judge us to need a chaperone, but you require a nursemaid.”
Leander wrenched his arm out of his brother's tenacious hold. “Is that what you think of me? An innocent at large, unable to fend for myself?”
“Not precisely,” Henry replied, rather unconvincingly. “But you haven’t seen what Thomas and I have.”
“That’s true, Henry,” Leander told him with deadly calm. “While you've been fighting to save this country from the threatened incursion of our enemies, I've been working to ensure there's a country worth returning to.”
He thrust his brother from him and strode away, fuming. Hell and damnation, but his brother was as blinded by tales of his exploits as was their mother. He believed the stories with which she had filled his head as a child, reading the translations from the Greek that Leander’s father had made. He thought himself to be living the part of some hero with a duty to save the lesser mortals around him.