Raven Deverell laughs her way through life - and through men - on a dare and a jest. She's having fun, never letting anybody too close, and thumbing her nose at the strict rules of society. Why comply with standards set by the upper classes, since she's been told she will never belong there? And she wouldn't want to, anyway.
As one of those scandalous, rebellious Deverells, she does as she pleases and nobody would dare get in her way.
Until a stray wink from the back of a horse brings her mischief to the disdainful attention of Sebastian Hale.
Born to duty and a title, Hale lives his life by those proper rules, and he will not let this wayward young woman -- in a most improper pair of men's riding breeches -- set his world asunder. She might think it amusing to masquerade as a male jockey and claim victory over his horse, but this is one wicked, reckless game she won't win. As the Earl of Southerton, he is a man above reproach, a man who can make or ruin a reputation. And he doesn't like to lose.
The scandalous Miss Deverell has chosen the wrong opponent to wager against this time.
Perhaps she has finally met her match.
She felt the stinging, envious rebuke of every woman there, while the men watched in varying degrees of amazement. Queen Victoria herself might have entered the ball at that moment and possibly been mistaken for a small, plain woman of no particular importance. If she was noticed at all.
Because the very proper, well-respected gentleman, Sebastian Hale, Earl of Southerton, was dancing with the notoriously naughty Raven Deverell. An odd couple, indeed.
"Why are we dancing?" she demanded. "I didn't hear you ask me."
"If I asked, you would have made some dainty protest about resting your feet or feeling faint and requiring a chair."
"Oh, is that what women usually say to escape your horrid clutches?"
He looked confused for a moment, that stony face cracking slightly. "I do not recall what they say."
"Well, I can assure you I would have come up with much better excuses." She smiled. "None of which would have been dainty."
"Thus the reason I did not ask."
"But it is rather gratifying to cause such a stir. I didn't even need to show my ankles, fall into a fountain, or slap anybody's face this time. Apparently dancing with you is just as likely to cause a public scandal."
"Is that your aim then?"
"Why not? Life can be so very dull otherwise. I thought perhaps you felt the same, which would explain why we're here."
His eyes narrowed as they peered down at her from a lofty height. "We are dancing, Miss Deverell, because while we are in motion no one can overhear our conversation, nor can they interrupt us. At least for another few minutes. And I would like you to know that I certainly do not court scandal. I put myself out considerably to be here and give you a piece of my mind."
"Are you sure you can spare any? Don't trouble yourself on my account."
His scowl deepened. "I am not a man who suffers fools gladly, neither do I put myself out for any minor circumstance. Very few indiscretions do I consider worthy of my time to intervene."
"Crikey! Aren't I special?"
"Yes. I'm sure you're very... singular."
Looking him up and down with an appraisal as scathing as she could manage in her current state of amusement, she said, "Unlike most folk, I am not afraid of you. I don't need anybody's approval or their good opinion. I could just walk away and leave you standing here like a fool."
She felt his gaze wandering over her lips, then down her throat, beyond the thin string of emeralds and pearls her father had bought her, to the lace that trimmed her décolletage. "I keenly await your attempt," he said.
His expression was unchanged, but his hand tightened around hers. At her waist his fingers spread, drawing her body a half inch closer. Her pulse skipped.
"But I'm sure you want your winnings, Miss Deverell," he added, "and you don't want your young friend banned from racing his horses, just because you broke the rules for him today."
"Do you threaten me, sir?"
"I prefer to call it fair warning."
He wasn't handsome, she decided, but there was something about his features that kept her looking at his face, as if she could not look away. Dare not. Some men had to be watched, because one never knew what they might do next.
Matthew had called him predictable. That was a mistake.
"But it's not only about the rules of the Racers' Club, Miss Deverell. Horse racing is not a sport for women. You could be hurt. Badly. You could even be killed. Apparently Matthew Bourne doesn't care about that."
"However, since it's my body and my life, I ought to be allowed to do as I please with it. If I ever wanted to ride in a race, it is my decision. Don't you think?"
"No," he replied flatly. "What an utterly ridiculous idea."
She stared. "That I should choose what I do with my own body?"
"Not if it may bring you harm." He looked down, and sounded out of breath when he added, "I would take issue with anyone causing you to be—" Then he raised his eyelids again. "That is to say, causing any lady to sustain an injury."
"But women ride to hunt."
"If they ride in any hunt on my estate, they mount side-saddle, keep well behind the men, stay with a cautious chaperone, and they do not ride out all day."
"Sounds to be the most riveting, joyous fun." She retrieved her hand from his to pat her mouth while she yawned.
Having snatched her gloved fingers back and gripped them even more tightly, he looked away from her for a moment, nostrils flaring. "These are precautions to keep the women safe."
"You could just bore them to death and have done with it. They'll be extremely safe once they're in a grave."
He looked at her again, his eyes black with anger. "I suppose that is the only time you'll behave yourself, Miss Deverell."
"They'll have to dig me a very deep hole."
His cheeks sucked inward slightly as he looked down at her. "Women should know their place and their limitations. When they do not, they become a liability."
She gave a little snort of amusement. "It seems we will never agree on this subject. We have only known each other for a matter of minutes and yet already we have found something to argue about. My body and what I do with it." Then she smiled, for he was truly looking quite distressed. She thought a little sweat had broken on his brow. "Thus the first hurdle toward friendship is crossed, your lordship."
He squinted. "Friendship?" he echoed the word as if it was something outrageous she'd suggested. "I very much doubt you and I could ever be friends, Miss Deverell."
For a moment she was speechless, which didn't happen often.
"You are too young to heed the wisdom of your elders," he added, terse.
"And you are too narrow-minded to be fair and reasonable."
"Indeed. I suspect we would be at odds on a great many subjects, Miss Deverell."
"Then it's a very good thing that you don't own me, your lordship, and I don't have to listen to you, unlike all your sycophantic followers."