London, 1824


Miss Lavinia Fenton considered the small shop to her left. A market of curios and collectables wedged in the cramped space between two adjacent -and much larger- shops with near identical merchandise. One might wonder how this nondescript store with no identifying signage remained in business, but looks could be deceiving and Lavinia knew that inside it held something different. Something special.

She pulled on the handle to the shop door and it opened, giving a little creak of its hinges. Opening it just enough to sneak through, she darted into the space, letting the door close quickly behind her. The enveloping darkness made her feel safe from the outside world. She stepped into the deeper shadows of the store, her slippers clicking on the floor with each footfall.

It took several moments for Lavinia’s eyes to adjust to the darkness enough to begin working her way around the many boxes and bins that cluttered the shop. There were things everywhere; trinkets, figurines, and old games. Shelves lined the walls, crammed with old and rare books and scrolls, with other objects amongst those too.

Lavinia peered towards the back of the store. At the end of the aisle was an archway that led out to a private backroom and in there she noted the gentle flickering of candle light. The darkness told her he was there, but a tightness always swirled in her gut before the candle light provided the necessary proof.

With a reserved smile, she hurried across the floorboards towards the back, on her way passing clerks in the dark aisles, working by candlelight. Several of the men seemed unaware of her presence, so intent upon their work, and that suited her well. A younger boy who helped around the store looked up at her as she passed, nodding to her.

“Misters in the back and he got somethin’ for you today, Miss.”

She lit up, biting her bottom lip to contain her excitement and rushing past. “Thank you, James!”

In the back she found him. Mr. Alistair Raine sat hunched over a work desk in the center of the room. Lavinia didn’t have to see what he was working on to know it was another of his painted miniatures. He leaned so far over and so close to the table that his spectacles slid halfway down his slender nose, and the long whips of his hair dangled free, dabbing unintentionally into the delicate brushwork. His mouth formed a slight O as he repeatedly blew shallow puffs of air, forcing the strands to temporarily dance out of the way.

He was a sight to behold.

His fingers moved like the wind itself, brushing the fine black paintbrush from side to side, creating an almost hypnotic motion across the canvas. The soft, smooth, ivory surface was a palette of color beneath his skilled touch. A smile spread across Lavinia’s face, as she rushed up to him, careful not to jostle the table where he worked.

He looked up to find her standing above him. “Ah, Miss Fenton!” His voice was low and husky, and carried just the hint of a French accent. He placed down the painting he was working on with exaggerated care, and stepped aside, knowing she would want to see. Coming around the table, she reached for the painting, asking “May I?” before touching it. With his approval, she lifted it carefully to hold it under the single candle beside her.

His work was masterful. The picture was an ode to the power of the sea, with billowing clouds, crashing waves, and a glorious, powerful sun rising over the surface of the water. “The gentleman who commissioned it,” he began, his voice as quiet as the shadows surrounding them, “intends it as a wedding gift for his bride. It is how she makes him feel inside.” Mr. Raine shrugged. “I am to believe that and so this is what we have.”

“I cannot help but wonder if he does not entirely intend it as a compliment,” Lavinia teased and he laughed with her. “You have done a marvelous job, Mr. Raine. How you are able to capture such depth and emotion in such small and yet spectacular detail simply amazes me. I truly hope to one day be as talented an artist as you.”

“I should be honored by such a comment. Perhaps one day, Miss Fenton, you will allow me to paint your beautiful face in such exquisite detail.”

Lavinia sucked in a breath. She had to admit she hadn’t been expecting that. Mr. Raine was a lovely man, attractive even, but he was not for her. He looked at her a little too close. Noticed her a little too much. And Lavinia did not like being noticed.

She preferred to hide in the sumptuous shadows of the dark, where her bold personality was obscured and her secret passions were well guarded. Not one for being the center of attention, Lavinia’s hidden taste for danger was always at odds with her desire to go unseen. There was part of her that always ached to cause trouble, to dabble in mischief, and do as she pleased.

But she was caught between two worlds: one where she was to be a demure, well-mannered debutante seeking a suitable husband, and another where she dreamed of living wild and free from the constraints of society and her duty to family.

Just as all women in her position, Lavinia’s entire life was dominated by men. They made every decision for her, determined her past and would determine her future too. Lavinia was resigned to that fate. Had accepted it long ago and would likely have no choice but to one day fulfill a certain role. But that did not mean she had to encourage the inevitable. Until then, she would linger at the edges of ballrooms and hide, hoping to remain unnoticed for as long as she possibly could.

Mr. Raine was a match for someone. He simply was not a match for her.

Lavinia smiled softly at him. “Perhaps one day, Mr. Raine.” She said, hoping that would be enough.

After a moment’s hesitation he accepted her response with a polite nod and lifted the lone candle to light his way as he went, presumably, to fetch her treasure. She watched as he disappeared behind a curtain, leaving her in near total darkness. But he wasn’t gone long.

Upon his return he placed a box small enough to fit in her palm on the table in front of her. Her eyes widened. “Is this it?”

Mr. Raine nodded, and as he gestured for her to open it, she couldn’t help but recognize the pride in his expression. He should be proud, she thought. He had gone through great lengths to procure this for her. With incredible care, knowing how rare and expensive the item inside was, Lavinia lifted the cover off the box revealing a rather ordinary glass jar. But it wasn’t the jar itself she was after. It was what the jar held. Lifting it before her eyes she let the light illuminate it.

It was her ultramarine oil pigment and Lavinia heard herself sigh with utter satisfaction at the sight of it. The color was deep and dark and brooding, as if the tiny glass space in her hands housed all the power and glory of the ocean, exactly as Mr. Raine had depicted it in his miniature. Only here, that power was condensed into this tiny container and Lavinia imagined that when she opened it, a storm would burst forth, lending wind and rain and thunder in all their magnificence to her hands like a gift from the gods themselves.

Perhaps she had a flare for the dramatic, but the color was just what she needed to complete her masterpiece. “Oh, Mr. Raine. You have done it.” Her voice was rich, low, and almost giddy with excitement. The color had been abundant and coveted by artists for centuries, even if it was more expensive than gold. But over time, as the stone it was created from had become more and more difficult to find, so too had the pigment made from it, until it was impossible to find in England. Or anywhere in Europe for that matter. The best alternative was Prussian Blue, which was a beautiful color in its own right. But for the piece she was working on now, nothing less than perfection would do.

Placing the jar back in the box, she allowed her wide smile to consume her face as she looked at Mr. Raine. “How much do I owe you?” With that, he dug a small piece of paper out of his pocket and slid it across the table towards her. Lavinia breathed in deeply. If he was unwilling to speak the number aloud, it must be expensive indeed.

She willed herself not to betray any outward expression before unfolding the note, but there was no steeling herself for the number that was written there. Her heart plummeted and she felt all her hopes and dreams plummet with it. There was no way she could afford the amount written on that little slip of paper. Her stomach tightened, as if it were being pulled into a vice.

“I am terribly sorry, Mr. Raine. I knew it would be expensive but it seems that I have overestimated my available pin money for the month. Might you be able to hold it for me?” Her cheeks flushed as she made the request, feeling like she was asking too much. He must have laid out his own coin to procure this for her and now she was leaving him out of pocket.

Mr. Raine reached for her hand, clasping it between the two of his own, with a gentle, reassuring smile on his handsome face. “For you, I hold it for one month. After that I sell to next in line.”

There was a line? Of course, there was. She was not the only artist in London. One month did not seem quite enough time to raise the money, so she turned her big, blue innocent eyes on him. “Would you consider two months?” Lavinia was not above using her feminine wiles to achieve a goal. Why should she be? It was the only true power she had.

Mr. Raine nodded, agreeing almost immediately, which made her wonder if he truly did have a line after all. Hope bloomed. “Are you certain?” 

With his assurance, they agreed upon a date for when she must return. And with a last longing look at her precious ultramarine, she slipped back into the shadows outside the cozy little room they’d been occupying.

As she made the way towards the exit, she silently cursed her brother, Vincent, the current Baron Trentham, for his maddening rationale. The man would not allow her frivolous expenses like pigment for her oils during the season. He was not unsupportive of her craft, but finances did not seem to be as abundant as they once were and he had been maintaining rigid control over them. She suspected the many gowns and other accouterments required of a woman during the season was already more than they could bare.

Of course, she could not fault him for that. She did not care to be a spendthrift either. This was a frivolous expense and she understood that. Yet, she did not see how it was any more frivolous than purchasing a fifth pelisse, which Vincent had happily approved just that morning. She thought about how she might somehow redirect some of the funds for all the gowns he purchased for the season, but she did not like to use trickery as a means to anything.

Lavinia took a deep, resigned breath. There was no getting around it. If she wanted her ultramarine, she would have to find a way to pay for it all on her own. 



Chapter 1

A week later Lavinia leaned against a towering column admiring the glittering candles decorating The Duke and Duchess of Winthrop’s ballroom. It was the first soiree of the season and one not to be missed, according to anyone who was anyone. Around her, Lavinia watched the couples spin across the dance floor, her mind unengaged with the evening events.

As of yet, she had been unable to acquire the necessary funds to secure her pigment. Time was already dwindling away, rushing towards her deadline more rapidly than she cared to acknowledge. Lavinia needed a plan. She sighed. She had no plan. It was hopeless.

Beside her, Lady Elinor Rothmere, Lavinia’s long time childhood friend whispered in her ear. “Why, you look positively despondent, Liv. You are not still dwelling on that pigment, are you?”

To Elinor’s left stood Miss Violet Chatsworth, whose acquaintance Lavinia had only made during her debut season. Violet waved a fan furiously at her red face. Dainty beads of perspiration speckled her forehead where delicately placed curls dampened and wilted in the oppressive heat of the ballroom. “Come now, Elinor. Lavinia has spent more than a year searching for it. Let us be supportive.”

Lavinia smiled at her friend. They had not known each other long, but from the first, Violet had found her passion for painting inspirational and had even posed for long periods, allowing Lavinia to practice for hours on end. Still, she could tell that neither Violet nor Elinor fully understood how important this color was to her. She had achieved something brilliant in her latest work. Something in her knowledge, her understanding of technique, had shifted, as if her whole life she had been standing just beside a well of extraordinary talent and somehow, she finally tumbled into it. Lavinia was certain that it would be the piece that finally made the world take her seriously as an artist. It was so marvelous, so open, how could they deny such talent, female or no?

The ultramarine pigment was just the thing to bring it to the next level. For her to be recognized as a master of her craft. So close and yet so far.

Elinor lifted her hand, covering her mouth with the wristlet of dance cards in her hands. “Do not swoon now, Ladies, but Lord Sanderson is headed our way.”

Violet hastily turned away, frantically blotting the sweat from her crown. “Why must the heat be so torturous! Am I wilting?” She asked, looking to Elinor for reassurance.

“You look sun-kissed, darling.” The comment only made Violet panic more, resulting in a rush of clarification from Elinor. “That is to say, you are beautiful. Lord Sanderson will undoubtedly think so, too.”

Lavinia reached for the hand Violet had buried in her skirts, giving it a squeeze. “Be yourself and he will not be able to resist you.”

With that, he was upon them, greeting the ladies with a bow and a kiss to the back of each of their hands, lingering imperceptibly longer over Violet. His green eyes darkened with something fierce and primal. Lavinia thought her insides would quake if a man looked at her that way. No wonder Violet was a puddle.

Lord Sanderson was dashing in his finely tailored garments, his coat and waist coat in matching green so dark it appeared black at first glance. And his crisp, white cravat framed a face that seemed chiseled from marble due to its intensity. Once he resumed an upright position, he looked to each of them. “Ladies, I trust you are enjoying your evening.”

Violet nodded. “We are indeed, Lord Sanderson. I do hope you are as well.”

Nodding in return, Lord Sanderson confessed the reason for his visit. “I am. Of course, I would enjoy it so much more if you would do me the honor of saving a dance for me this evening.”

Pink flushed Violet’s face. “I would be delighted,” she answered, offering her dance cards for him to claim a spot later that night. He hastily filled in his name with the small pencil attached and handed it back to her, giving a look of pure satisfaction.

“A pleasure,” he said with a final nod and departed.

Reaching for Violet’s elbow, Lavinia lended her strength. “You remained on your feet this time, Vi. See, your little blunder last week was nothing to dwell on.”

Taking a shaky breath, Violet closed her eyes. “How does one man have the power to affect me so?”

Elinor, not one to miss an opportunity to discuss eligible suitors, chimed in. “I dream of the day a man looks at me the way he looks at you, Violet.”

“I think you are forgetting that day has already come,” Lavinia snickered. “You mustn’t forget about Lord Dunbar’s infatuation with you.”

The ladies burst into laughter. Lord Dunbar was thirty years Elinor’s senior. A lifelong bachelor who never married or secured an heir. He was handsome enough at his advanced age, but when he looked at Elinor, he salivated like a hawk searching for its prey. His eyes were always on her, watching her as if she were a prized possession and he was trying to decide whether to snatch her up before someone else did. The thought made Lavinia’s skin crawl. It was unsettling. He also happened to be a complete bore.

Lavinia could not, would not, imagine being tied to such a man for her whole life. Sharing her life with a vulture who saw her as nothing more than something to own and to use for his own gains was the reality for too many of the women married off to peers. Worse still was the thought of sharing intimacies with him. Lavinia shuddered.

Elinor’s shoulders rose and fell on an inhale. “I wish I had the power to make any man fall in love with me.”

At that comment, all three ladies turned simultaneously, letting their eyes wander across the ballroom, taking in the available suitors. Many of them would make wonderful matches for someone. Lavinia simply prayed she wouldn’t be one of them. She had other things to do first. Paintings to complete. Goals to accomplish.

Brilliance to achieve.

She knew Vi and Elinor did not have the same passions as her. They looked forward to their nuptials, Elinor often pointing out that marriage offered freedoms the three did not yet have.

Lavinia did not see it the same way. Those freedoms only come with a husband willing to offer them. In truth, marriage offered little freedom for women. She knew that the wrong husband could forbid her her greatest passion and if Lavinia could no longer paint, she could no longer breathe. It was as essential to her as air. The lifeblood that nourished her days. And if she ended up shackled to a man who disapproved, she would gnaw off her own hand to free herself. Her left one though, as her right was her dominant and then, what would be the point?

In truth, Lavinia knew that it was an unlikely scenario. Vincent would no more force her to marry a man unworthy of her than he would treat a woman in such a manner by his own hand. He would protect her. She knew that. But she also knew his protection only went as far as her wedding day. Beyond that, there would be no one to save her from an unexpectedly cruel husband who chose to exhibit control over her in ways she did not want to think about. Refusing a disobedient wife her hobby would pale in comparison to some cruelties. And Lavinia would be disobedient.

In her mind, Lavinia already had one foot on the shelf. She would clutch desperately to each season, praying for a third and fourth and fifth, until she was firmly placed upon it. She could not imagine any greater satisfaction in life than to become a spinster. Free to paint her days away until the very end. The masterpieces she could create with that amount of time!

Elinor and Violet no more understood this about her than they understood how the stars hung in the sky. And as she looked at them fawning over the gaggle of attractive gentlemen set out before them like a buffet of sweetmeats in every flavor, she realized she did agree with Elinor on one thing. She too wished she had the power to make any man fall in love with her.

With that power, she would possess untold levels of control. And she would wield it. She would not stop at ordinary or passive. She would not settle for polite and kind. She would seek out and find the one man who could consume her entire being, claiming her breath and life as certainly as any brush dipped in soul-stealing blue pigment.

The thought formed an empty hollow in her gut. She could not deny that she wanted both. In this world, she would have to settle for one.

Vi jabbed Elinor with her elbow. “Who would you choose?”

All too eager to play the game, a wide smile spread across Elinor’s face. The joy visibly reached her amber eyes, which sparkled with matched mischief. “Oh, I think I could have my fun with Mr. Kendrick,” she purred.

Mr. Kendrick was tall, muscular, broad shouldered, and belonged nowhere near a debutante of any kind. His dark hair swept back from his brow into a style more suited to the Royal Cavalry than gentlemen of London society. His intense, deep-set black eyes held the promise of a devil. His taut face a masculine sculpt, with well-formed lips, and his cheeks bore the remnants of a beard that had been trimmed too short. He carried himself with the air of a man who knew what he wanted and intended to get it. No doubt his looks attracted many women, and she was unsurprised that Elinor wished to become the next in line.

Lavinia knew she could be. “Why don’t you, then?”

Both Elinor and Vi gasped in unison, Elinor’s eyes lighting in a way that Vi’s did not. She absently placed her hand on Lavinia’s arm. “I do not believe my father would be too pleased if I did that.”

“Why on Earth would you tell him?” Whispered Vi under her breath and the three chuckled.

“You think I jest?” Lavinia chimed in again. “I am serious, Elinor. You could have any man you wish for. In fact,” she added, her shoulders resolute, “we all could.”

The other two women looked at her skeptically before bursting out in another fit of laughter. “What are you on about, Liv? You may have started on the spirits too early tonight.”

In a strange way, their utter disbelief saddened Lavinia. Why could they not choose for themselves? “It simply cannot be that difficult.”

Vi and Elinor looked at each other, their faces told Lavinia that they were attempting to prevent another fit of laughter. Violet spoke first. “Pray tell, then why are we all in our second seasons? Where are the lines of suitors who cannot resist us?”

Lavinia rolled her eyes. “I am not implying a magical possession, as appealing as that may sound. Gentlemen court ladies to win our affections. It must work similarly in the opposite direction.”

“I daresay, they’re not looking for our affections, Liv. They are looking for our obedience,” Elinor pointed out and Violet cast an affronted look in her direction.

“Is that to say that Lord Sanderson does not truly desire my affections?”

“Of course not, dear. You two will be different.” Elinor patted her arm and Violet, who seemed to miss the hint of sarcasm in her tone, accepted the statement as fact.

“I see no reason why they shouldn’t be different; or why you shouldn’t expect something different,” Lavinia asserted to Elinor, surprised by the conviction in her own voice. “Choose your men, ladies, and go after them. Why not?” She waved her hand out towards the crowd for emphasis.

Placing a hand on her hip, Elinor pointed an unrelenting gaze at her. “If you are so certain, perhaps you should issue that challenge to yourself.”

“You know that I am attempting to prolong my unmarried days for as long as possible.”

“In other words, you are too scared to try and be proven wrong.”

Lavinia’s mouth turned into a small frown. “I am not scared.” And what if she was? “I am certain that if I set about it, I could choose any man in this ballroom and make him fall in love with me. You could, too. Both of you.”

Her two friends looked at each other, their eyebrows raising collectively, as if they shared a mind and conjured identical thoughts.

Oh no!

They turned to her in parallel, and together as one made a simple, yet all too predictable proposal. “Would you care to make a wager of it?”

Though, once they said it, Lavinia considered that the appropriate response might be ‘Oh yes!’ Perhaps this was her last hope of achieving her pigment. It would require wagering all her pin money for the next two months, but it would be worth if she won. And if she lost, well, she had given it her all.

Lavinia opened her reticule, searching for the folded paper on which Mr. Raine had written the amount he sought for her pigment. Upon finding it, she handed it to her friends. “This would be my wager.” They took one look at the number and immediately bobbed their heads in acceptance. They clearly did not believe she had even a smidgeon’s chance of winning.

Returning the note to her bag, Lavinia slowly turned her head, peering at her cohorts with narrowed eyes. “What are your terms?”

“He has to offer for you!” Vi shouted out almost too excitedly, then clamped her hand over her mouth to quiet herself. Lavinia could not help but laugh.

But that would mean to win, she also had to lose. She could not have both her ultramarine and her freedom under this arrangement. Was it worth that? She proposed a question. “Must I accept?”

Their mouths dropped open, again in unison. Vi recovered first. “You cannot mean to court a gentleman for the sole purpose of winning a wager that requires him to fall in love, all the while planning to refuse him if you win, Liv. It would be bad enough for you to openly pursue a gentleman in such a manner. But you could hurt someone.”

Then Elinor added, “You could ruin yourself.”

Now, the potential for that outcome was tempting beyond belief. But they were right. If she did this and succeeded, she would have to accept the offer. “Fine. When I win, I will do the honorable thing.” It was inevitable anyhow. Why sacrifice the one thing she truly desired to avoid a certain fate?

She could only pray that for once in her life fate would work in her favor. If it didn’t, she could always sabotage her suit or find a way to ruin herself before impending doom struck.

“I get to pick the next condition,” Elinor bubbled. Of course, there would be multiple conditions. “You cannot lie to him.”

It was Lavinia’s turn to let her mouth fall open. “I would never. Besides, would I truly be winning the wager if I used deceit. The intent is for him to fall in love with me, not someone I am pretending to be.” There was no other way she would have it.

The ladies seemed pleased by her response and Vi chirped, “For the next condition, I propose -“

Lavinia raised her hand, silencing her friend. “I will only agree to one more condition, so you better make it a good one.”

The two turned their backs to her, whispering conspiratorially in each other’s ears for a moment before turning around. Dread pooled in Lavinia’s stomach at the mischievous glow in their eyes. “We’ve got it,” Elinor claimed and with an exuberant nod, Violet told her.

“We choose the suitor.”

Immediately Lavinia swung her arms out to her sides in a halting motion. “No.”

“You don’t think we would risk marrying you off to someone you’d have an unhappy life with, do you?”

She hmphed. “If you do not believe that I can win, you certainly might try.” And she intended to win.

Considering this, Vi replied. “That is a fair point.” The two conferred again and circled back around to her, a new proposal on the tips of their tongues. “He will be no more than five and thirty. He will be attractive. He will be a good society match.” Vi explained.

“We will do our best, but we only know these gentlemen as well as you do,” Elinor continued. “If we chose poorly, we would never expect you to go through with it. It would be no different than any courtship not working out.”

“But you would not win the wager,” Violet added.

So, she had to marry to win. “That hardly seems fair.”

“It is a way out, Lavinia. Is your pigment worth this to you?” And with that question, Elinor inadvertently revealed their true purpose. They wanted her to let go of the pigment. Except it wasn’t just about the pigment. It would mean letting go of a dream and that was not something she was prepared to do.

The answer was yes. Her dreams were that important to her. She would not let them go for anything. With that thought, Lavinia closed her eyes, taking a long tumultuous breath and slowly blowing it out before answering. “Do your worst.”

Lavinia could see the moment the wheels began turning in their heads. Arms hooked, they dragged each other from side to side, peering around the attendees crowded about them and on the dance floor, pointing from one gentleman to the next. Though she could not fully tell who they were discussing, they appeared to be considering only the most eligible and handsome bachelors. After several lengthy discussions the two appeared to settle on someone. Elinor held up a finger in her direction as they turned for one last conference.

Just as they were about to look away, decision made, the crowd parted in such a way that it formed a straight path towards the terrace door, and what she saw there made her heart skid to an Earth-shattering halt. Oliver Blackwood, the Viscount of Whitley, stood silhouetted in the darkness of the outdoors, looking as breathtakingly beautiful as ever. From a purely artistic standpoint, she told herself. Lavinia certainly had learned how to appreciate the male form. If only she had the freedom to paint it.

To paint him. He was a Michelangelo. No. He was Bernini’s David. Handsome, but with an undercurrent of male virility that set her pulse to racing. His features were hard, carved from marble, his brow lending a darkness to his eyes that spoke of mysteries. His body, every bit the Renaissance warrior, Lavinia could plainly imagine him, slingshot in hand, ready to take on his Goliath.

He was too perfect to be real. And yet, he was.

The moment Lavinia saw him, she knew Elinor and Vi would cast their previously chosen suitor aside in favor of him. She closed her eyes against a wave of anxiety. And when she opened them, the absolute rapture of her friends’ expressions confirmed her greatest fear.

“You cannot be serious.”

Elinor turned her hands up. “You did not expect us to make it easy, did you?”

The universe seemed determined to conspire against her. Lavinia had said any man in this ballroom. She just hadn’t realized when she said it that this ballroom currently held London’s most ineligible bachelor.




Oliver Blackwood was not the stuff that fairytales were made of. He was more monster than man. More rogue than romantic. More cad than courtly. At least, that was how the ton told the tale. In truth, Oliver lived by a different moral code. One that he had, on too many occasions, failed at. He could not consider himself to be a man of honor if he did not accept truth of that.

And so, as he stood at the edge of the ballroom, a cool rush of Autumn air ruffling his neatly pinned cravat, he should not have been surprised that the ball was not the crush he anticipated. London’s Most Ineligible Bachelor had been invited, after all. 

As he watched his sister, Grace, twirl around on the dance floor in Lord Stowe’s arms, an acrid taste formed in his mouth over the fact that Stowe was the only man there he would consider for her. When he secured the invitation, Oliver had been warned this could happen, had prayed it would not, and now he bore witness to the truth: despite all the work he had done to rectify his image in the eyes of the ton, Oliver Blackwood, Viscount Whitley, still stood condemned. 

The most bitter part, that if Oliver remained as closely involved in Grace’s season as he wished, she would face the consequences for his foolish actions. She had grown into a lovely, vivacious woman, deserving of dozens of suitors. He wanted a perfect season for her, one which resulted in her being settled with a loving husband by the end of it. 

More importantly, he wanted to do what an older brother should do. Be there for her to guide her and help her choose. What a farce. Oliver knew so little about finding love that not only had he failed to find a wife after six long seasons, but he’d succeeded in leaving a trail of heartsick women in his devastating path. He’d been so ruinous, so cavalier, they’d blacklisted the dishonorable Oliver Blackwood from every such event for years. 

He could not fault them.

As the final notes of Grace’s dance drew to a close and the crowd parted, something caught his eye. He found it -or rather them– across the ballroom. Three women; each pair of eyes aimed at him like a trio of arrows. Two of them looked unabashedly at him, amusement etched across their features, which, admittedly, was different.

But it was the third who had caught his initial attention. She held his gaze with the intensity of a predator. There was no trace of amusement there; instead, he sensed… Oliver had to think on it for a moment, trying to identify the emotion in her eyes. Was it fear?

He wondered what her friends had told her about him. Oliver thought to give her a little fright and he let his mouth slide into a sly smile, tipped his head in her direction, and playfully questioned her stare with a cocked eyebrow. She immediately looked away and the other two dissolved into laughter.

It was only then, when no one was watching, that he allowed himself a moment to take the rest of her in. Her face was pretty, her lips pink and full, with high cheekbones, an elegant, refined nose, and a mouth that was just a little too wide. Although he liked that. Her hair was the color of sable and it sat twisted up atop her head in a delicate chignon.

From there, Oliver let his gaze trail down her body and couldn’t help but notice that she was softer, curvier than most women, something that had always appealed to him when there was not much at all that did. But that was where it ended.

Grace arrived at his side, having separated from her dance partner. “Won’t you dance, Oliver?”

“I would love to dance with you, sister,” he replied, holding out his elbow for her, knowing full well it was not what she meant.

She latched affectionately onto his arm. “Not with me, silly. With another young lady. Surely there must be someone here you wish to dance with?”

His eyes drifted involuntarily back to the space where the three ladies had been, but they were gone. “I am here for you, Grace. Do not worry about me.”

“But I do worry about you, Oliver.”

He knew she did. Grace was the only person who knew the greater reason for his ‘continued state of perpetual aloneness,’ as she liked to call it. “You know my priority is you. When you are wed, then we may worry about me.”

Grace’s shoulders sank. “I see no reason why we cannot attempt both at the same time.”

Taking his eyes from the dance floor, Oliver turned to his sister. He could see the same understanding and concern as ever. She did not want to leave him alone. “Your best chances of securing a match are if I remain at the edge of the ballroom. We agreed upon this.”

Grace ground her teeth together and squeezed his arm hard in annoyance. “No one is thinking of the past anymore, except you.”

She was incorrect. All they thought about was the past. This being her first season, Grace did not know the full extent of his dismissal from society. More aptly, he had not been dismissed entirely, as he was still welcome amongst the fast set, gentlemen and married ladies, and the darker side of London where innocence was no virtue. But events with fresh, marriageable debutantes present, Oliver’s roguish, rakish ways were not to be had.

It mattered not that Oliver was not the nefarious evildoer they believed him to be. It was true that he had stumbled, repeatedly, as he pursued a wife with a naive optimism that was eager to the point of foolishness; making blunder after blunder, hurting woman after woman, year after year.

He grew hot with embarrassment simply thinking about it.

None of that had ever been Oliver’s intention and he suspected that the ton knew that there was more innocence to his behavior than they allowed for. But the ton was not the ton without malicious gossip and the tendency to exaggerate. So, while Oliver had meant well, and that excuse held for a while, over time, the invitations tapered off until they ceased to land at his door altogether.

To defend himself would be to malign a lady, and that was not something Oliver would ever do. As such, the only reason he and Grace received tonights invitation, along with a handful of others this season, was because Her Grace, the Duchess of Winthrop, had taken sympathy upon him after spending several seasons attempting to regain a small measure of trust.

He began by ingratiating himself with the gentlemen and married ladies he still had access to. Those from his clubs. Acquaintances through the few friends that remained loyal to him. While many gentlemen were open to a renewed connection, Oliver remained a pariah to nearly every woman of polite society.

Following that, he dedicated an entire season to the events he did not need an invitation to attend, and while there, he abided by a rigid code of honor. He laid out rules for himself and followed them the way a knight followed orders handed down from his king. His behavior was beyond reproach. His bows extra deep. He was the perfect image of a proper gentleman.

And still, it did not help.

It was not until Oliver heard the moniker that followed his name when spoken by a feminine tongue that he finally understood the full depths of the issue. He was no longer Oliver Blackwood, Viscount Whitley. Instead, he had assumed the title of Oliver Blackwood, London’s Most Ineligible Bachelor.

It was then that it finally dawned on him. He had just spent years giving the mistaken impression that his interest in regaining access to society was due to a renewed desire to secure a wife.


With doors shut in his face at every avenue, society made it clear they would not allow it. He had not yet done enough to resume his place as an eligible bachelor and likely never would. Oliver had no interest in securing a wife for himself anymore; his sole interest was Grace. But he could hardly explain that to them when they refused him an audience.

Nevertheless, it was with that moment of clarity, Oliver finally understood what he would have to do. He would have to be Oliver Blackwood, London’s Most Ineligible Bachelor. He would have to live it. Play the role they assigned to him.


Or at least until Grace was wed.

It was only then, with this new enlightenment, that Oliver began to make traction, and he did so by avoiding women at all costs. He did not make eye contact. He did not dance. He did not go for drives or talk about their hobbies with them. In fact, he did not talk to them at all. The lone exception was if an introduction was made to him; or the conversation was initiated by them. During those encounters Oliver kept his responses brief but polite, showing just enough interest as to not appear rude, and leaving the conversation before continued interest could be implied.

Physical relationships with women of any kind were also strictly forbidden, as to appear properly chastened, fully appraised that he was not to be had. By anyone. And while that part had come easy for him, society was unaware of that fact, which he saw as an advantage.

He stood at the edge of society, alone, waiting for others to approach him. When they did, he did not talk about himself. He spoke only of Grace. Grace’s accomplishments. Grace’s beauty. Grace’s humor. But not so much that it became something they wished to avoid. At some point, though he did not know precisely when, they began to accept that he intended to remain a bachelor. That he was now and forever would be Oliver Blackwood, London’s Most Ineligible Bachelor.

He had managed to convince the world that he was unavailable. Not only according to their standards, but also according to his own. And while a few women had even grown a bit softer towards him, perhaps due to his dedication to Grace, there were still a frighteningly small number of society mamas who would agree to an invitation.

The Duchess of Winthrop was one such lady, and had even offered to sponsor Grace herself and let her stay with them for the season. But Oliver, hesitant to relinquish so much control, did not immediately accept the offer. Though, now he was reconsidering it, realizing that he probably should have accepted when Grace failed to receive a voucher to Almack’s due to his reputation, while her’s was pristine.

He looked to Grace; she looked mesmerized by the wonders of London society. Her eyes bright, cheeks flushed with excitement and her lips slightly parted as she gazed at everything around her. Her dark hair soft and pinned up in a coiffure he considered a marvel of engineering. He wanted her to have an incredible season. To make friends, experience all London had to offer, and to be courted.

But what Oliver hoped for most of all was that she would have what he would never have himself. He wanted her to fall in love and for someone to love her in return. He would do everything in his power to ensure that outcome. He wanted her loved and adored the way she deserved. Nothing less was suitable for Grace.

Grace wanted him to participate in the season, not only as her guardian, but as a potential suitor to a debutante unaware of his past. But there was no hope of that without sacrificing her love for his own, and that was another thing Oliver would not do. Truth be told, he did not think he would ever dare to try again.

Marriage was not in the future for Oliver. He understood that now and one day, Grace would understand too. Oliver swallowed a thickness in his throat, looking away from her.

So too would she eventually understand that secrets and society went hand in hand. “You must remember that nothing is ever as it seems. That they do not discuss it in front of you does not mean they do not discuss it.”

Giving him a lopsided grin, Grace complained, “It is a wonder that you wish me to participate in a society that ostracizes my own brother. Why would you wish me to marry a man who may think ill of you?”

“You may yet find a gentleman who is amicable towards me. The ladies are who despise me. And before you argue again, once you are married, I will be an afterthought. You’ll be accepted in society and you will live the life you deserve.” Oliver slipped his fingers between hers, giving her hand a squeeze. “Promise.”

Grace stamped her foot lightly on the ground. It was a thing she did to annoy him and he smiled in return as she said, “I still believe there is hope for you, Oliver. If you would just-“

“Grace,” he gently cut her off. “I know you wish a love match for yourself, as I do for you. I will not lessen your chance of that for my own happiness when I am not unhappy from the start.”

Not even if he were.

If rumor got out that he was actively seeking a wife, it would eliminate all of Grace’s options, for neither of them would ever receive another invitation again. Oliver would have to take Her Grace up on her offer, if it were even still an option, and then he would not be able to oversee this. That was not something Oliver was ready to do.

She seemed poised to object, but Oliver silenced her. “That is the end of it, Grace.”

“Ugh!” She grunted in a rather undignified manner. “You are the worst,” she shoved her shoulder firmly into his in protest.

“Never fret, sister. Your next suitor is on his way to save you from me.”

Oliver extracted his arm from hers as he greeted the two of them, then, as planned, he stepped a few feet away, giving them a chance to talk without her brother looming over her.

As he diverted his attention from his sister, Oliver couldn’t help but seek out the trio from earlier, but there was no sight of them. In his mind, he thought of the solitary woman, again attempting to decipher the code in her eyes. He initially thought it was fear, but it wasn’t that. There was determination. Challenge. And something else. Something he wanted to identify.

And that… well, that was curious, indeed.


Chapter 2

“It’s as if she’s wearing some form of gentleman repellent.” Oliver commented as he looked out over the sprawling gardens beyond the terrace. The view from where he stood was majestic and he watched Grace stroll beside Lady Julia, daughter to The Duke and Duchess of Winthrop. After making her acquaintance at the ball earlier in the week, they struck up a fast friendship and Oliver was grateful to learn she invited them both to the garden party they attended now. It was good for Grace to have such a family in her corner; even better for her to make a friend. 

Lord Sedgewick Vairs, Oliver’s best friend leaned lazily against the marble banister of the terrace, brow cocked in question. “A gentleman repellant?” The two had met as boys and though they were quite different, their friendship was the strongest bond Oliver had ever experienced, the exception being his bond with Grace.

Yes, a gentleman repellant.

Waving an irritated hand at the scene before him, Oliver ground out through clenched teeth, “Look at them, Sedge. The way they ignore her,” he seethed, his voice more forceful than he intended.

Momentarily shifting his gaze to his friend, Oliver noticed the mild annoyance etched across his features. Lifting his hands in faux surrender, he corrected himself. “Oh, I forgot, it’s ‘Wick’ now,” punctuating the statement with a roll of his eyes and an exaggerated bow.

“It suits,” he shrugged.

Oliver snorted, clapping Wick on the back as he leaned in. “According to who?”

Wick’s pale white cheeks mottled with a boyish patchy red blush, but he wagged his eyebrows, a gleam in his eye when he responded. “I shall never tell.”

When a man was as tight lipped as Wick, one considered a partial confession a victory. Oliver knew Wick was sweet on someone. He’d witnessed it often enough to recognize the signs. In stark contrast to Oliver, the man found someone new to fall in love with each season. It was lust, not love, of course. Desire. A need to be near to and to touch another human being.

Envy, hot and heavy stole through him. Lord knew he tried, but Oliver had never felt anything remotely similar to what Wick described, and he’d watched the behaviors of other men closely enough over the years to know that there was something fundamentally broken about himself.

He did not want.

He did not crave.

Indeed, the only thing he craved was to know what it would feel like to crave a woman. To need one. To want to feel her in his arms. To want to lay with her, skin to skin.

At some deeper level, he understood it would be a singular experience to both do and want at the same time. To ache for that specific someone. But for Oliver, physical intimacies had only ever served his baser needs.

What he did desire was something altogether different. He wanted the Juliet to his Romeo. The Hero to his Leander.

The Guinevere to his Sir Lancelot. 

Not just a friend, but someone he was bound to right through to the core of his being. And if Oliver had learned anything, it was that you do not find that kind of love without a little spark. Without a bit of magic.

He wanted that magic with a near soul-crushing desperation.

So much so that for too long, he let it rule him to the point of destroying his own future. If only it came as easy to him as it did for Wick, whose heart Oliver had seen broken on too many occasions. Together they were perhaps the two most naive fools in all of England.

In the distance, Grace and Lady Julia had taken a seat beneath a shaded tree and Oliver couldn’t help but notice how those nearby scattered like a flock of starlings. He had to mentally stop himself from retrieving her and leaving at once. But it wouldn’t do for her to run scared and he knew she could handle herself.

Wanting to think of anything other than how terribly he failed her, Oliver fixed his eyes on the lake that stretched across the back side of the property. Its surface was smooth like glass on the windless day. With the sun high in the sky, the glare off the water reflected an ethereal glow that illuminated every leaf and petal in the finely manicured gardens.

Beyond that, a thicket of trees, the canopy reaching up to the blue sky, the trunks of the trees so close together as to seem almost like a single tree with many branches intertwined. It was an idyllic scene that should have made for an ideal afternoon. Instead, something was missing.

The emptiness that resided permanently in Oliver’s gut had intensified as Grace prepared to enter society. And now that she was here and he saw her hopeful eyes, he remembered a time when he had once felt the same. Optimistic. Excited to discover what was in store for his future. God how he prayed Grace would not have the same defect as he.

His attention was grabbed again when Wick suddenly erected his stance, pushing his spectacles up his long nose with his pointer finger. He kicked Oliver in the shin; harder than he intended judging by the apologetic look on his face.

“Bloody hell, what was that for?” And then he noticed. No more than twenty paces away, sipping gingerly on a glass of unidentifiable punch, stood Lord Alexander Ross, brother to Lady Helen Ross, one of Oliver’s many blunders.

Oliver cursed under his breath, looking away in the hopes he wasn’t noticed. He disliked confrontation, and wherever Ross was, confrontation followed. The only time Oliver liked to confront someone was when he had an épée in his hand.

Unable to keep himself from doing so, he snuck a glance over his shoulder, and in that very second, Ross’s gaze flicked in his direction. They made eye contact and he immediately he turned and began walking towards them.

Damn it all. Why had he looked!?

Oliver took a fortifying breath and approached, preferring not to let Ross control this encounter on his own. As Oliver headed for him, he watched the expression on Ross’s face. It was a mixture of intrigue and annoyance, as if he hadn’t expected Oliver to be so bold and was simultaneously irritated and amused by it. His smarmy grin made Oliver wish to punch him in the face.

As he drew closer, Oliver deliberately slowed his pace, adjusting his stride to convey one of casual curiosity. To complete the effect, he did not come to a halt until he was uncomfortably close. Near enough to count the many ruffles of Ross’s cravat. He examined it for a moment, then raised his eyes to pin him with a look of amused condescension.

“You’re quite the peacock, aren’t you, Lord Alexander?” Oliver slid his gaze over the man’s waistcoat. It was detailed with frills and fine embroidery in the shape of tiny golden roses, but all the ornamentation on it was lost beneath a mountain of billowing lace. The blue color matched the sky so perfectly he almost blended into it. “I daresay, the color is most becoming on you.”

Wick hovered beside him, ready to intervene, if necessary, but Oliver had the distinct impression his friend wondered what possessed him to antagonize Ross in this manner. Oliver knew Ross well from their days at Eton. The man was an instigator. He provoked often and unnecessarily. He was no knight of the fellowship, and Oliver refused to be intimidated by him.

Ross worked his jaw, his eyes flitting between Oliver and Wick, then back to Oliver. “You dare to speak to me that way?” The polite tone of his voice belied his menacing words. He acted as if this was some casual encounter when it was anything but. As soon as Ross turned towards them, Oliver knew he planned to deliver a very specific message. All Oliver needed to do was to exhibit a little patience and Ross would undoubtedly inform him of it. Rather than say more, Oliver chose to wait him out, a sardonic eyebrow raised in Ross’s direction.

Silence stretched between the three men for what seemed like an eternity, until finally Ross broke the tension. “I see your sister has finally entered society.”

Ah, this was about the sister. Not Grace, but Helen. He enjoyed reminding Oliver of his failures once per year at a minimum. “She has.” Oliver took another step closer, daring him to say a disparaging word about Grace.

Ross, the younger son of a Duke, wouldn’t likely take that route. Above all else, he would remain a gentleman, or so Oliver hoped. “She is a lovely girl. I was pleased to make her acquaintance earlier today.” Oliver struggled not to betray his irritation and before he could reply, Ross spoke again. “I wonder, might I pose a question to you? I have a bit of a riddle I would like your help to solve.”

Gooseflesh rushed in waves across his body. This was it; the thing Ross had come to say. Oliver would not dignify the question with a response. He waited. Unmoving. Staring Ross down like a viper ready to strike if necessary.

After what he assumed Ross considered an appropriately long pause, Ross leaned in and presented his riddle. “One wonders, why you would expect us to take care of your sister, when you failed to take care of ours?”

Rather than anger, shame pounded through Oliver’s veins. How he would love to grab the ruffled cravat around his neck and twist it in his hand until it was tight enough that Ross begged for mercy. Instead, he apologized. Again. “As I have said many times over the years, I regret what transpired with Lady Helen. I never intended to hurt her.”

His interest had been sincere, but just like all the others, it never blossomed. Never turned into that need. That drive to possess her and to be possessed by her. Oliver did her a kindness by not offering for her. Instead of binding her to a man who would be unhappy with her for their whole lives, he set her free. Her love was not reciprocated and while Oliver felt like a cad for it, he was certain that Lady Helen was better off without him.

Oliver questioned why Ross would have wanted a life like that for his sister; why he continued to be so angry when she had been married off to an Earl years before.

Ross’s lips tilted into a smirk before leaning close to whisper directly in Oliver’s ear. “Perhaps I shall not intend to hurt your sister.”

One day he would have to ask Wick how he did it, but the wily little guy was between them so fast, Oliver barely had a second to react. Ross backed up, rubbing his thumb across his bottom lip with a chuckle. His tongue tasted the corner of his mouth, as if he enjoyed the venom of his own words. Casting one last amused glance at Oliver, he tuned in his heels and walked away.

“That bastard.” Oliver cursed. “We’re getting Grace and leaving at once.” But as soon as he turned around, he saw Grace across the courtyard, heading towards him with purpose. Something was wrong. When she reached him, he noticed her eyes looked glassy. “What is the matter?”

Shaking her head, she evaded the question. “I wish to leave.”

He would butcher whoever upset her. After parting ways with Wick, the two headed for their carriage, and once inside, Oliver pressed again. “What happened?”

Grace’s shoulders rose and fell on a deep, steadying breath. “Nothing happened, brother.”

“I am to believe that?” Oliver replied, skepticism lacing his words.

Grace leveled him with a look he had never seen before. In her expression he saw dawning comprehension. “Not one lady approached me or offered to call. I could only bear it for so long.” Oliver felt a knot in his stomach as she spoke. “This is how you are treated. They give you the cut direct, Oliver. Why did you not tell me?”

He turned towards the window, unable to take the way she looked at him. But he answered honestly. “They do not do to me what they did to you today. No one would snub a Viscount.”

It was Grace’s turn to look away as she crossed her arms over her chest protectively. There was a tension in her body she never exhibited before. She finally understood what he was so worried about. Oliver was terrified she would be the one to pay for his mistakes. It was why he had worked so hard to fade as much into the background of this process as possible. To be there and also not. Because he had to protect her. He had to make sure she did not end up targeted by someone like Ross. Or worse, meet someone like Oliver himself.

Oliver understood now that he was the repellent. His presence -his mere existence- was spoiling her chances.

As though Grace could read his thoughts, she made a suggestion that stabbed him directly in the heart. “Lady Julia assured me that Her Grace’s offer still stands.” She hesitated, then said the words Oliver was dreading. “I believe it would be wise to accept.”

That ever-present hollowness inside grew wider. He could not deny that it was a solution, or at least a partial one. But the thought of it made bitterness bite at the back of his tongue. If Grace was raising it, that meant she had already made up her mind. There was no point in attempting to dissuade her and Oliver was not entirely sure he should anyhow.

“This is what you wish?”

She nodded and in that moment a combination of pain and regret struck him so forcefully, he could barely breathe.

“Very well.”




Lavinia hurried towards the back of the conservatory behind their small London townhouse. It was a beautiful, yet practical space, with a large picture window that boasted an impressive view of their modest gardens. It was also Lavinia’s favorite place to be.

It was here that Lavinia spent her mornings, always rising before dawn to sketch the tiny creatures that came out of their hiding places as the sun began its journey across the sky.

And late at night, before she could attempt sleep, Lavinia cherished the quiet solitude of the conservatory, darkened from the night sky. Vincent often questioned her sanity for wanting to sit with only the pitch-black sky above her and a lone candle to paint by. The glass walls, filled with the inky blackness of the outdoors unsettled him. But for Lavinia, that darkness brought her focus.

The world faded away and the only thing she could hear was the sound of her own heartbeat in her ears and the steady wisp of her brush against canvas. Outside, each passing day brought changes in the weather and those changes were reflected in Lavinia’s work. From the gentle rustle of leaves to the booming thunder that sometimes rattled the many jars of pigments, oils, brushes, and other supplies scattered about the tight space.

But the best moments were when lightning joined and lit up the sky with its fiery dance, the light and shadow casting eerie and enchanting shapes across each surface. Lavinia studied them. The bend of light, the way colors adjusted with each flash, and how the glistening drops of rain caught its brightness, glowing strong before fading in a moment so quick, Lavinia doubted she would ever capture it in paint.

Tonight, it rained, but a gentle rain that did not threaten to bring the sky down with it. Droplets rolled steadily down the glass as Lavinia opened a jar of pale-yellow pigment, tapping it out on a large, flat stone. Lifting a jar of linseed oil, she pulled the cork, the satisfying pop signaling the pleasure to come. She tipped the jar, drizzling a stream over the pigment before setting it aside and grabbing a pallet knife.

She set to work mixing her paint. Using the knife, she worked at the thick mixture, scraping and mixing until the color took shape. When the texture felt right, she switched her knife for the heavy muller she used to work the grains of pigment and oil together. She slid it across the smooth stone in a continuous figure-eight motion and the smell of linseed oil and pigment filled the air.

As the mixture became thicker and more fluid, Lavinia periodically stopped to scrape paint back to the center of the stone and off the sides of the muller before starting the process again. She found the rhythmic motion to be meditative, her body moving in time with her hand.

Lavinia loved the act of creating. Of making something out of nothing. It made her feel a rush of power that she could never quite describe.

Slowly, she became aware of a faint light growing behind her and the fall of familiar footsteps coming down the path from the house. The door to the conservatory creaked and Vincent stepped into the cramped space, bringing with him the smell of rain from outside..

“Vinnie,” he whispered, using the nickname they shared between themselves. “It’s three o’clock in the morning. You know I do not like you out here by yourself so late.”

Chuckling, she paused for another round of scraping, but this time, she set it aside to focus on Vincent. “What, precisely, do you think will happen to me, brother?” She questioned, her voice teasing.

He ignored her, instead turning his attention to her canvas. “How is it coming along?”

“It’s not. I have been distracted.” Frustrated, Lavinia ran a hand through her hair, inadvertently streaking yellow paint across her brow and Vincent tweaked it with a brotherly smile.

Setting the lantern that guided him on the floor, he leaned against a work table shoved into the corner, folding his arms over his chest. “I cannot pretend I haven’t noticed. Do you wish to talk about it?”

It was the wager. Lavinia was sorely contemplating not going through with it. She did not know much about Viscount Whitley, but what she did know was enough to question the wisdom of this endeavor.

At the advent of her first season, Vincent sat her down and gave her a list of gentleman’s names who she should not consider for a husband and Oliver Blackwood’s name had been scrawled in big, bold letters, with emphasis! at the very top. And out of all the men on that list, his was the one name that Vincent made a point to speak out loud.

Stay away from Viscount Whitley. Oliver Blackwood is a suitable match for no-one.

She could almost still hear the quality of his voice as she remembered those words. They were laced with disdain.

She sighed, wishing that she hadn’t agreed to this foolish wager. Vincent reached out, giving her a little shove to rouse her from her thoughts. “Vin.”

He had asked what distracted her. What could she say, really?

I’m engaged in a wager to make the one man you despise fall in love with me? Oh, and I am doing it all for paint.

Lavinia did not think that would go over well.

Coming to lean against the table beside him, Lavinia rested her head on his shoulder. They had always been able to share anything. While she didn’t think it would be wise to tell him about the wager, she wondered if she could better determine whether she should pursue this course by gaging his reaction.

Why not?

Looking to the heavens for strength, she mustered up the courage to ask her question. “What do you know of Oliver Blackwood, Visc-“

Vincent shot to his feet so fast he nearly knocked the table over and sent Lavinia with it. She was certain he was about to let loose a string of obscenities, but somehow found a measure of control within himself. 

“Why would you ask such a question?” There was an edge to his voice that told Lavinia this wasn’t going to be a lighthearted exchange.

“I, ah,” Lavinia searched her mind frantically for a response. “I heard some rumors and I was curious.”

Vincent narrowed his eyes, as if he did not quite believe her. Then he closed them, taking a deep breath before letting it out slowly. She couldn’t help but notice the rigid tension in his frame. If the mere mention of Blackwood’s name wound him this tight, what would he say if he knew what she was planning?

He would no doubt throttle her.

Bowing his head, Vincent pinched the bridge of his nose, and Lavinia wondered if he was trying to decide how much to tell her. Eventually, he ran his hand through the wavy brown hair atop his head, his blue eyes wary. “What did you hear?” Her brother was not stupid. Before answering anything, he wanted to be apprised of her existing knowledge on the subject. 

“Only that he is considered to be London’s most ineligible bachelor. It’s a rather dramatic title, is it not?”

“No. It is not, Liv,” he insisted. “Trust me.”

Lavinia pushed away from the table and returned to her stone, circling the muller around again. “How am I supposed to trust what no one will say to me?”

Silence was his response and Lavinia waited.

“I cannot believe I am saying this,” Vincent breathed, letting it out slowly before continuing. “What do you want to know?”

Victory pulsed through her as she spun around, almost too excitedly. “I want to know why they call him that. What else would I ask?”

Vincent contemplated that question, appearing pleased that Lavinia could not answer it on her own, which only made her more curious about Oliver, as opposed to less.

“Suffice it to say, the man does not have an ounce of loyalty in his body. He is a dishonorable cad, who lives for his own selfish desires and has no regard for those around him. His only aim is to get what he wants, and he does not care who he hurts in the process.” The longer he spoke, the redder Vincent’s face turned.

“Come now, Vincent, you cannot honestly believe tha-“ Lavinia trailed off, hearing the naiveté in her own words.

“To put a finer point on it, Vinnie, the man is a rogue. Do not go anywhere near him. Do not look at him. Do not speak to him. You could be ruined by the mere association. Do you understand me?”

In the dark, Vincent’s cobalt eyes were vivid with an urgency that surprised her. He was dead serious. “I understand.”

And yet she did not. How could a man ruin a woman simply by speaking with her or looking at her? Vincent did not make quite the argument he thought to. He’d only piqued Lavinia’s curiosity. With each passing second the desire to know how it would feel to have a man ruin her with a glance grew stronger.

It sounded positively divine.

Vincent stood there silently, contemplating her response. Pure suspicion in his eyes. “Your tone does not convince me.”

Lavinia huffed, throwing her hand in the air. “If I do not sound frightened enough to you, dear brother, perhaps it is because you’ve just described half the gentleman of the ton.”

He looked at her incredulously. “You want details, is that it?”

As a matter of fact.

Lavina glared back at him and the two engaged in a battle of wills. Who would back down first? Lucky for her, Vincent never won this game. He held for longer than she thought he would, but she knew victory once again when his mouth began to move. 

“Oliver Blackwood is the worst thing that could happen to an unmarried lady. If he pays you any attention, at all, you must ignore him” He stepped closer to her, his eyes intent and unyielding. “He will seem like a kitten at first, Liv. He will charm you. Make you feel unique, as if you are something dear. Something special.” Vincent nearly spat the word. “Hell, he might even make you glow.”


“But you must remember it is all an act, Liv.”

Her brows wrinkled.”What do you mean?”

Shaking his head, he continued. “It is a facade. He will charm you into temptation and cast you aside the moment he tires of you. No matter the pretty things he whispers in your ear or the promises he makes, Lavinia. You cannot trust a word he says.” She could see the warning in his eyes.

Unable to resist, she pressed her luck. “What precisely did he do to-“

“Lavina,” he said quietly, and there was something in his voice that made her stop talking. “Do not defy me on this. I know several men whose sisters were hurt by this man. I do not wish to see you harmed, too.” 

Somewhere between her thoughts she heard a muffled “Good” come from Vincent and Lavina wondered what she agreed to. Rather than ask, she said, “I should like to paint now.”

Leaning forward, Vincent kissed her on the forehead. “Do not sleep the day away.”

They bid each other goodnight and Vincent opened the door, but before parting, he turned back with one final message. “Lavinia, whatever Oliver Blackwood says or does, he is no gentleman. You would be wise to remember that.”

Lavinia nodded, waiting for him to go before returning to her paint. As she scraped it onto a palette, she looked to the far corner of the conservatory. A tall easel held the current pinnacle of her life’s work, covered in a cloth for protection. Though Lavinia knew she had many more great works inside her, she was beyond proud of this one.

But she could not complete it until she had her ultramarine. Without it, it would not be her. That familiar desperation returned her center, gnawing at her relentlessly.

Oliver Blackwood was her only hope. How angry Vincent would be with her if she got entangled with Viscount Whitley. But she had to admit that the part of her that craved danger wanted to discover what sort of possession this man could have over her soul.

And it had to be possession. No one would warn so many women away from anything less than total, all-consuming possession. The way Vincent described it, the Viscount was a man whose words were imbued with a magic so powerful, a woman’s most secret desires were his for the taking.

Lavinia burned at the thought of it.

She thought back on the few times she’d seen him out in society. They were few and far between. Blackwood hovered at the edge of ballrooms the same way he hovered at the edge of society. Not entirely ostracized, but neither was he accepted.

Lavinia suspected he was well appraised of that fact too, for he hid behind curtains and pillars, lost in the shadows where he could go unnoticed. Where he could hide. And there was something about that proclivity that terrified her in the most delicious way. It drew her to him and made her want to discover what comforts he found in the darkness.

And beyond all rationality, it made her wonder if they could find each other in the darkness too.

There was something sinful and mysterious about him that called to her. He sounded dangerous and exciting and enticing, all of which, Lavinia could not deny, both disturbed her and tantalized her at once. Since the wager, she could not stop thinking about his dark eyes, his long lashes, and his sensual mouth. Her stomach clenched imagining what it might feel like to kiss those lips. What spells could his tongue unleash upon her body? Into her soul?

Oh, the attraction was bone deep. Purely physical. She wanted to glow.

Lavinia realized right then that she was going to do this. Wasn’t madness the mark of all great artists?

There was only one hitch to her plan. Despite attending several events that she, Elinor, and Violet predicted he would attend due to his sister, they had not seen him again. Recently, Miss Blackwood had also been permanently at the side of Lady Julia. Lavinia wondered if Oliver had found a more suitable place for her.

If so, all the better for Lavinia.

Now she just needed to find a way to put herself in his path. It was time to do some research and formulate a plan.

As she thought about what the imminent future held, Lavinia could not help but feel sorry for poor Oliver Blackwood. He knew not what the God’s conspired for him.


Chapter 3

“Unhand her!” Wick shouted, throwing down his gauntlet in the overgrown grass at Oliver’s feet. They stood beneath a willow tree that dominated the shared backyard of their two St. James townhomes. “You have dishonored her. I challenge you to a duel.”

Oliver dropped his hands to his side, falling out of position. “I do not believe that is how they would have said it.”

Wick jabbed him in the shoulder with his knightly sword, the tip of it clanking into the metal of Oliver’s newest and most prized possession: a near identical reproduction of a medieval suit of armor. Ordinarily he would have worn chainmail to fight with Wick, but he could not resist trying it out. 

One of his spaulders, a single plate of steel that fastened around each of his shoulders with leather straps, bore the brunt of Wick’s jab. Over his chest was a metal breastplate, polished to a gleaming finish. The center bore a shield inlaid with silver and gold leaves; it depicted three gold lions down the center. The rest of his body followed suit. His legs were protected by full leg armor; the bottom part painted a dull brown and the top part, which went up to his thighs, was polished to a shine. His arms were covered, too, and for his hands, he wore two gauntlets, etched with an intricate design that shined as bright as silver and gold.

At the top of his head was a helm, complete with a face guard and a thick, curved visor. The only thing he was missing were the heavy boots. He would be able to run faster without them, and Wick was already difficult to catch.

“Stop breaking character.” Wick poked him again and the weight of Oliver’s armor nearly toppled him backwards.

“You have not yet told me which character am I to be.” Oliver stated, raising his sword and testing its weight. He then twirled around, holding the sword above his head, and spun back again.

Across from him, Wick had chosen a lighter, and arguably, much wiser costume. He also bore a helm, but rather than armor, he was dressed in a white tunic, and over that a blue cloak that trailed behind him as he walked. Underneath, he was protected with chainmail. A long, plain wooden staff was tucked under his arm for dramatic effect, but they would be fighting with swords.

Wick kicked his gauntlet out of the way and shouted, “You are a common thief and a coward and I will teach you how to be a man of honor.”

Oliver smiled, raising his sword, “I am no common thief.” He then turned his head to look at Wick, bending at the knees to ready himself. “As for being a coward… I have never seen a man of honor use such poor weapons.”

Wick raised his staff, “Do you challenge me?”

“I do.”

Wick tossed his staff aside, grabbed his sword from where he had stuck it into the ground, and the two men charged each other. They met with a clang of metal against metal. Oliver quickly parried Wick’s first swing with his sword, ducking underneath the blade and pushing it aside with his shoulder. He spun quickly, the weight of the armor and the blade making it hard to move fast, but he was able to block Wick’s next attack, a low swing.

As they fought, Oliver thought about the first time he felt the weight of a real sword in his hand. It had been like no other feeling in the world. A rush of something thrilling exploded through Oliver’s veins. His father had given him a small wooden toy as a boy and he had his fun with it. But holding the cool metal of a true hilt in his palm, feeling it heat under his strength, and knowing the rush of wind as he executed a flawlessly calculated attack was always potent and provocative.

Oliver had never been interested in the typical gentleman’s pursuits. He did not participate in other sport or hunting; and to his great chagrin, he never become more than an adequate horseman, stalling any hopes of learning to joust. Instead, he was vastly more interested in swords and books. Better yet, anything that combined the two.

His passion for reading and history had him seeking out anything he could get his hands on, but his true love was the Medieval period; when chivalry and romance reigned. His favorite authors included Sir Thomas Malory, Chaucer, and Sir Walter Scott. And it was in this that he found his kinship with Wick. As a youth, other boys teased Oliver about his interests, but Wick had been different.

For Wick, books were not just something to be read, but something to be lived. More than just words and images, they were adventures to seek out and experience. And when they could not find a comparable activity, they invented their own. As they grew from boys into young men it was at his insistence that they started their private reenactments, which they kept up to this day.

Today was pure foolishness, but there was also a very serious side to Oliver’s love of swordplay. Even after decades of study and practice, the initial feeling he had from holding his first sword never waned. While he knew he was unlikely to ever engage in real battle, he’d attacked learning the art like a knight attacks his enemy, without mercy. He’d trained until he had become so proficient that his blade seemed to dance, rather than move like an actual sword.

It was this that helped him feel a kinship with Wick, whose dedication was rivaled only by Oliver’s. Oliver had fought better men than Wick, but no one he’d ever encountered could match Lord Vairs for speed and accuracy.

They sparred back and forth, each moving in a fluid, rhythmic pattern, the blades creating a kind of hypnotic pattern in the air. They were both aware of their opponent’s moves, each trying to figure out the others, but Oliver consistently had the advantage.

Between thrusts and jabs, they conversed. “How is Grace settling in with Lady Julia?” Wick posed the question as the tip of his sword jammed painfully into Oliver’s armpit.

“She only just left yesterday.” As he spoke, his chest heaved, attempting to drag in enough air to fuel their activity. “She plans to join me for a ride tomorrow. I expect she will fill me in then.”

Nodding, Wick attempted a ridiculous spin, which had his blade fluttering from his grasp and Oliver took the opportunity to attack, knocking him back with a solid thrust. Wick landed on his back and Oliver smiled, his face reflecting the joy of his efforts. “What is this, Wick, afternoon tea?”

As Wick recovered, Oliver continued. “Before she left, Grace told me that Lady Julia was forbidden to visit her here, as I live here too.”

“Fuck,” Wick snarled and began circling around his opponent. “That cannot have felt good to hear.”

It felt bloody awful. Despite everything he’d done to prepare, he failed. This time, Oliver attacked with anger, but Wick was ready for it, understanding his friends’ current mood.

“Do you know what else?” Oliver said, his sword flashing in the sunlight. He used it to blind Wick, then attacked, and as his friend moved away from his blade, Wick pushed off from the ground, dodging it with a speed that astounded. “I feel as if someone has been following me.”

The crease between Wick’s brows wrinkled and he shoved his spectacle into place with the back of his wrist. “Elaborate.”

Shaking his head, Oliver attempted to put the sensation into words. “It is just a feeling. As if I have eyes on me all of the time.

“Even now?”

Oliver threw his hands in the air. “No, not now, Wick. When I am about town.”

It was at that moment that Wick noticed how Oliver had dropped his guard, and before he saw it coming, Wick attacked. Oliver parried, but the weight of the armor slowed him, allowing Wick to free his blade from his grasp. With a flick of the wrist, Wick sent the sword flying and knocked Oliver to the ground.

Wick stumbled backwards as Oliver lay where he fell, their breaths ragged and hard.

“Wick, I almost had you” Oliver laughed, looking at the other man.

Peering back at Oliver with an enormous grin, Wick said “You lost the moment you put that armor on.”

Oliver let out a bark of laughter and held out his hand. “Help me up.”

With a laugh, Wick took Oliver’s hand, helping him to stand before heading back inside, through the door that led outside from Oliver’s study. About twelve years earlier, two homes had become available that just so happened to be situated on two adjacent lots. Seeing the opportunity, he and Wick bought them and connected the two with a shared space between their respective studies.

At the time, Oliver had imagined an entirely different future there. One with a family to dote on. Now he was just glad to have his friend nearby.

Once inside, they were greeted by Oliver’s butler, who was quite taken aback by the sight of the two men’s appearance. His expression said more than words could, but Oliver had the presence of mind to notice. “Nothing to be concerned over, Tinsley. It is still the year 1824.” It was certainly not the first time he had seen them like this, so Oliver was not quite sure why the man continued to look affronted.

Tinsley held a tray out to him. “My Lord, you received a missive.”

Oliver looked at him quizzically, as he rarely received letters. He plucked it from the tray and with a bow, Tinsley departed.

Flipping the envelope around in his hand, Oliver inspected it. It was weighty, folded from a fine quality paper. The texture of it was smooth and soft, as though it had been treated to keep it from tearing easily.

On the front, a flourish of delicate strokes was written to his attention: The Right Honorable Viscount of Whitley. The way the ink was set on the paper had a surprising artfulness too it, as if it were applied by brush rather than pen. The sweeping gestures were lovely. His address, bold in its sophistication.

Running his fingers across the words, feeling their texture, he realized they were formed in paint as opposed to ink.

How curiously strange.

Whoever sent this had tuned his name into a work of art. The complexity and attention to detail formed a lump in his throat. Someone had spent time on this.

On him.

Oliver cringed inwardly at the pitiable thought.

“Ol, are you well?” Wick pulled him back to reality.

Clearing his throat, Oliver waved the envelope. “I am most curious as to where this came from.”

Turning it over, he noted the nondescript seal and popped it open. Inside was a folded piece of paper. On second thought, it was canvas, not paper. With each passing second Oliver became more intrigued. As he set the envelope aside and unfolded the canvas, he caught a scent. A hint of turpentine and something floral underneath. Unable to resist, he brought it to his nose. The scent was faint but unmistakable. Roses. And it was suspended in the paint itself.

It might have been the most delightful little note he ever received.

“I think you’re supposed to read it, not smell it.” Wick provided unhelpfully.

Finally, Oliver read the note and, damn, but he was bloody intrigued. Someone had indeed been watching him and tonight, he would find out who.

Royal Opera House. Tomorrow morning at 3. I will be the lady in cerulean blue.




As Oliver had instructed, his coachman rolled into position at the dark entrance of an ally several streets down from the Royal Opera House. Wishing to maintain a touch of anonymity, he rode in a plain carriage with nothing to identify him as Viscount Whitley. From this angle, he could see the entrance clearly, offering a measure of protection as he waited for the arrival of his lady in cerulean blue.

Beneath his cloak his favorite épée was coiled within its sheath, at the ready, should this prove to be an elaborate robbery. Wick had wanted to accompany him for that very reason, and he probably would have been wise to accept the offer, but he wanted to explore this alone, sensing a greater mystery here than mere robbery.

Oliver spent the better part of the afternoon staring at the letter, feeling the paint beneath his fingertips, attempting to memorize the scent. Strange how strong a hold it had on him. This was the hopeless romantical fool in him that longed for something more than…

He took in his empty carriage; considered his empty St. James townhouse.


He closed his eyes against a pang of longing so deep it crushed his chest until he couldn’t breathe.

Scrubbing his hand over his face, he muttered to himself, “Pull yourself together, Oliver.”

He hated this. Hated the season and all the memories that came with it. He counted the days for Grace to be wed, so he could leave London for good. He knew not where he would go. Somewhere -anywhere- where he was not invisible. Where maybe he would no longer have to be alone.

Oliver thought back to a time when he enjoyed the season. When this idle lifestyle suited him well and he held the respect of his peers. The decision to find a wife was the worst he ever made.

Without knowing what the letter was about, it was difficult to anticipate whether it was wise to become involved in whatever scheme he was about to be pulled into. Oliver hoped that, whatever this was, it would put some spark back in his life. But he was not entirely illogical; he understood that was not likely to happen.

Forcing himself to stop dwelling on the past, he refocused to the here and now. Nabbing the window curtain between his pointer and middle finger, he slid it open a touch wider to make sure he wasn’t missing his lady.

She still hadn’t made an appearance and Oliver considered that she was doing the same as him. Grabbing the handle of the carriage door, he made the decision to get out. It was that or risk missing her.

The night was chilly and wind rustled the curls at his nape. Tapping the top of his hat forward to cast more of his face in shadow, Oliver took the hilt of his epee in his right hand under his cloak and began towards their rendezvous point.

The busy area was never completely devoid of people, even at this late hour, and Oliver slipped his way through a light crowd, hugging the shadows where he could. With each step, he felt his heart quicken. His pace slowed when he rounded a corner, and he saw her standing by a lighted lamp post, no more than ten steps away.

Oliver knew it was her the moment those eyes found his. Her features were mostly lost under the hood pulled about her face, but he recognized that halting gaze.

Or was his mind playing tricks on him?

She was from his trio of ladies. The one he had given that sardonic tilt of his head to. All at once, Oliver felt hunted. Checking his surroundings, he sought out the other two ladies, as if they too would be there, ready to pounce.

He wondered what game they played.

When he looked back, the woman had vanished from her spot. Oliver cursed under his breath, but he quickly spotted her cerulean gown peeking out from beneath her pelisse where it caught the low glow of the lamplight. Her pace was even as she turned down a corner, looking over her shoulder at Oliver.

The tilt of her lips said follow me.

And he did. A smile spread across his face; he couldn’t help it.

Getting the feeling that she wanted to maintain distance between them to avoid any risk of being spotted together, he let her hold her lead. Echoing her speed, he slowed when she slowed, and gained only when necessary.

They worked their way through the streets of Covent Garden, until they were so lost, Oliver was not certain he could find his way back to his carriage.

Eventually, he saw her head for a doorway and as she stopped walking, he did too. Oliver caught a whiff of something vaguely familiar but not unpleasant. He realized it was perfume. It smelled like roses again, and something else. Before he could place it, she turned to glance at him, then slipped through an open door.

Oliver followed. Approaching the door slowly, unsure what to expect. Pulling it open, he was greeted by the smell of old books. Leather and dust. The scent of paper and ink. Books stacked high all around the room, and at the end, an archway led into an even darker space. Instinct told him that was where she fled.

With his first step, the floorboards creaked beneath his feet. Slowly, he made his way toward the back, staring up at the ceiling where a series of small windows let in whispers of light from the unusually bright night sky.

As he continued on, he reached out and brushed the book spine of one of the older books. He paused in awe, his eyes transfixed on the delicate gold lettering, before passing through the archway. The floor beneath his feet turned soft, a rug of some sort covered the cold wooden floor. The lady in cerulean blue struck a match and the dim light revealed a once intricate design woven into the threadbare Persian rug beneath his feet.

His heart was pounding in his ears.

Facing him, she leaned back against a large table in the center of the room, and with a little hop she pushed herself up, sliding onto its surface. In the flickering light of the candle, Oliver could now confirm that it was she. The woman from his trio of gawkers. She looked at him, the same look of curiosity in her eyes, but this time a smile played at the corners of her lips.

He approached the table. Neither of them speaking.

Her hair was swept up into a simple chignon. Her skin looked soft and creamy; a touch of peach caressed the apples of her cheeks. Oliver wished he could see the color of her eyes, but there wasn’t enough light in the room and her thick, dark eyelashes only cast them deeper into shadow.

The silence between them stretched and he wondered if this was part of her game. An effort to unsettle him. If so, she would not succeed in her efforts. Oliver was quite accustomed to long silences.

But rather than hold out, he decided to make the first move.

“You have a peculiar way of seeking an introduction, My Lady,” he said, keeping his voice low as he meandered about the chamber, taking note of the items around them.

This back area was some sort of artists studio, though surely not her own, which made him wonder what a woman of Quality was doing roaming the streets of Covent Garden on her own at this hour. Suspecting she would not appreciate the lecture, Oliver kept those thoughts to himself. 

He could smell the undercurrent of turpentine and oil. And something else. Oliver closed his eyes attempting to place it. An Earthy smell, damp and slightly metallic in nature. Perhaps clay or ground stone.

Oliver turned his gaze towards the table where she was sitting, watching him with those dark, mesmerizing eyes. She smiled, then picked up a lone paint brush from the table, swirling it absently into the palm of her other hand.

“One must get creative when they seek an audience with a man like Oliver Blackwood,” she offered by way of explanation.

Her voice sounded as soft and velvety as her mouth looked. The unbidden thought caused a unique dip in his stomach, though Oliver was not certain how to describe what he felt. Hollow and yet filled with something at the same time. He could not identify it and the feeling dissipated in a flash.

“And what kind of man is that?” he asked, keeping his voice cool and measured.

The woman ran the tip of the brush along her bottom lip in a manner that Oliver could only assume was meant to be seductive. Was that what she came for? He couldn’t say it would be the first time, but he would have to admit to disappointment.

Wrong man, sweetheart.

She pursed her lips. “I hardly think you need me to appraise you of your own reputation, My Lord.”

Strolling past a shelf, Oliver reached out and ran his fingers along the edge, tracing the line of small, black figures etched into the grain. “What of your reputation?”

“We shall not be discovered here.”

Oliver admired her confidence, but he was not so convinced. “How can you be so certain?”

She tilted her head slightly, her gaze searching his, as if the answer were written on his face. “A lady never reveals her secrets.”

He gave a wry laugh. “It does appear that you enjoy surrounding yourself in mystery and intrigue.”

The woman’s smile deepened. “I suppose that one needs a little mystery and intrigue in their life, otherwise it all blends together, does it not?”

Her response surprised him, her thoughts so close to his own. “I could not agree more. But I do not like when it is used to shroud deceitful intentions,” he answered and turned back towards her. “Why did you seek me out?”

A hint of satisfaction played across her mouth and Oliver wondered if she had just won some secret battle within herself to make him ask that question, rather than raise it on her own. Placing her palms on the table behind her, she leaned back and crossed one of her legs over the other, causing her skirt to lift, revealing one delicate ankle sheathed in a white stocking.

That small expanse of silk did something to him. His blood pumped just a little harder through his veins. He wanted to taste that silk, feel it against his body. An odd thought, so foreign to his usual sensibilities.

Swallowing, Oliver looked away, letting his gaze sweep once again across the room as he awaited her reply. The space was both cluttered and sparse at the same time. A variety of things lay about in haphazard stacks and piles. It reminded him of the chaotic mess his father always left in his library before he died. Nothing was ever placed in its own space; never given a spot where it belonged.

Oliver preferred a much more orderly way of things.

The lady continued her silence, watching him closely, and Oliver wondered what she was thinking. Ordinarily he was quite good at reading people, but her expression, while laced with a certain tension, was otherwise unreadable.

When no answer came, Oliver took a step, the heel of his boot landing heavily on the floor as he began to circle the room. As he moved around the table at the center, he watched her. She sat perfectly still and composed, as if waiting for some signal from him.

Oliver could not deny that she was beautiful. There was no question about that. Her skin was pale, but glowing with a soft, rosy tint. Her lips, lush and full, a deep pink blush that contrasted starkly with the creamy quality of her skin. Her large eyes, framed by long lashes, were something out of a storybook. A fairytale. And she held herself with an elegance that was both natural and refined.

She followed him with her eyes as he circled, her head turning as he wound behind her, until she could follow him no more. He had the strange compulsion to touch her, wondering if she might evaporate into dust when he did so. Because she felt like a dream.

Coming to a halt before her again, Oliver snared her eyes with his, holding them as he awaited her reply. She raised an eyebrow, but said nothing, so he took several more steps forward, until he was close enough that she had no choice but to tilt her head back if she wanted to maintain eye contact. Which Oliver sensed she most certainly did.

When she spoke again, her voice had dropped an octave. “You see, Lord Whitley, I have come to ask you a very important question. One that requires privacy to discuss.” The words were low and raspy, filled with a sensual timbre that made the muscles in his groin tighten in an unfamiliar way. Her lips quirked at the exact moment he felt it, as if she had somehow willed the sensation.

Disappointment flooded his veins, her purpose now clear. But he held her gaze. Waiting for her to reveal the question, and as he did, that plump bottom lip of hers disappeared into her mouth momentarily, only to reappear glistening in the candle light.

Oliver set his hands flat on the table, caging her between his arms. He leaned into her as she angled marginally away from him. Again, her scent danced across his nose. Roses and something distinctly female. He still could not place it. If she was nervous, she did not betray it, but Oliver’s heart pounded hard against his chest. “You have my full attention.”

His response pleased her. The wanton’s eyes flashed with pleasure, her lips curving into a soft smile as she reached out and gently ran her fingers along the side of his face. And as the tip of her finger touched his skin, she left a trail of heat in its path that was so foreign and unexpected that Oliver’s breath caught in his chest.

At last, she asked her question, her eyes meeting his, voice low, throaty and inviting. “Oliver Blackwood, how would you like to fall in love with me?”



Chapter 4

Clearly, Oliver Blackwood thought Lavinia had come for a different type of seduction. The moment she asked her question, something shifted in his expression. Surprise etched itself across his features, but he quickly squared them as to appear entirely unaffected.

The Viscount was taller than she imagined from the distance across a ballroom. As he leaned over her, she fought the urge to let her gaze glide down his torso. She did not need to note any more of his frame to feel dwarfed by his size. And yet, she could not help herself. His shoulders were broad and muscular, his chest wide. Framed by his arms as she was, they descended into shadow, his thick biceps nearly blocking out the light of the candle.

Despite her rapidly fluttering heart, Lavinia took the opportunity to examine his face up close. His nose was long and straight, his brows drawn together as if in concentration. His generous mouth was bold and possibly the most sensual she’d ever seen on a man. To paint those lips; or those thick, dark eyelashes that curled around his deep-set, obsidian eyes. She sighed inwardly.

She let her eyes wander; felt like that was what he wanted her to do since he made no move to break the spell of her scrutiny. His skin was pale, like hers, and she was not surprised considering how much time he spent in the dark. Hiding. Perhaps waiting.

Why had he come? Why had he chosen to reveal himself to her?

Letting her eyes drift, she admired his chin. It was strong and angular, with a hint of morning stubble. Lavinia wondered of the texture, never having touched a man’s beard before. Vincent and her father had always kept themselves closely shaved.

Dipping her eyes lower, she found the thick column of his neck wrapped in a pristine cravat. Heat radiated from him, enveloping her in a smoky desire so palpable it stunned. She breathed him in, tasting his scent like an unknown spice. A heady mix of wood smoke and rain. Fresh, masculine musk. It stirred her and she could not help but wonder what his lips would taste like.

What would he do if she leaned in and pressed her lips against his?

The wild, reckless impulse nearly undid her, but thankfully he pushed away from her and sweet, stabilizing air rushed back into her lungs.

“What sort of a question is that, Miss-?” He let his deep voice trail off, indicating he would like her name.

Lavinia supplied it, saying only “You may call me Liv,” and noting the irritation on his face when she did not offer her full name, despite being appraised of his. It allowed her to maintain a modicum of control.

“Miss Liv,” he repeated. “I ask again. What sort of question is that?”

She shrugged, maintaining an air of nonchalance she did not feel. “One I need an answer to.” In truth, she felt like she was playing with fire.

His eyes darkened. “Then the answer to your question is, ‘I wouldn’t’.”

Admittedly, Lavinia did not expect him to be so direct. But this answer suited her purposes well. Uncrossing her legs, she pushed herself off the table and dusted off her hands. “You seem to have misunderstood my query, My Lord.” Reaching up, she pulled one of the long ribbons tying the pelisse at her throat, working it lose before slipping it off her shoulders and tossing it on the table where she previously sat.

Slanting her eyes in his direction, she watched his face as he took in her blue gown. She’d chosen it for the way it fitted perfectly over her curves, the square bodice snug against her chest, accentuating her bosom. But the man did not notice, or if he did, he hid it well.

Arms shifting beneath his cloak, they settled across his chest, causing the opening to part in the front. The left side slid back along a stretch of something silver.

A sword.

Lavinia tried not to betray her thoughts with her eyes, suddenly feeling as if she made a grave error in judgement by doing this.

What was she doing?

What had she been thinking? To meet a strange man like this in the middle of the night. To meet him like this.

She was thinking that a man like Oliver Blackwood would want to be met in the dark. Where he was comfortable. And she wanted that as well, because the dark was her territory too. She hoped that there was part of him, like her, that craved adventure and passion.

And she believed that to meet him in a ballroom would be so very… well, it had been done. She did not know much about Oliver Blackwood, but she did know that whatever he saw on ballroom dance floors was not for him. As it was not for her either, that seemed an ill-advised place to begin this quest.

Lavinia had spent the past several days attempting to track him down. She began by following Lady Julia until she found the Viscount’s sister. Once Miss Grace had been located, she followed her until the two had gone riding at the park. From there, she followed Blackwood himself; and was nearly discovered a few times.

But all of this had taken several days and with time ticking, Lavinia knew she would need to take action sooner than later. The moment she discovered Oliver’s address, she crafted her note and sent it with a loyal footman.

Now, he was there. In front of her.

With a sword.

Why ever was she always so melodramatic?

“What, precisely, did I misunderstand?” His voice, low and velvety, sent an all-over ripple through her body.

Lavinia walked towards him, refusing to be daunted by his enormous presence. His true height was evident now, and she would have to tilt her head back to maintain eye contact. Instead, Lavinia chose the coy approach, keeping her eyes averted, she reached out to touch the hilt of the sword attached to his hip.

His hand was on hers in an instant, enveloping it between the cold metal and the warmth of his skin. The contrast was startling, like touching both ice and fire at once. Body rigid, Lavinia had no of ridding him of the weapon. He had not worn it for show.

When he spoke again, the tone was soft and smooth. “It is impolite to touch a man’s sword without his permission.”

Unable to keep from smirking, she replied, “Then give me permission.”

His mouth tilted into an enigmatic smile as he stepped towards her, still holding her hand under his. “I would rather you get to the point.”

“Very well.” Lavinia pulled her hand out from under his, caressing the spot he touched as if she felt burned. “I was not asking whether you would enjoy falling in love with me, or whether you would be open to it.”

His eyes narrowed, pinning her with an irritated look, and Lavinia knew his patience was wearing thin.

“What I meant was,” she continued, “how would you like for it to happen? How do you prefer to be courted by a lady, Viscount Whitley?” She looked him in the eyes then, waiting for what she said to sink in.

After several long, heart-stopping moments, a mixture of disbelief and amusement began to work its way through his features. First at his mouth, where one corner barely resisted the urge to turn up. Then to his nose, where his nostrils flared. And finally, to his eyes, where the corners crinkled and sparkled with humor.

His hand came up to touch his aristocratic nose as he turned away from her, bowing his head. At the thought that it was possibly to avoid laughing directly in her face, a hot wave of mortification washed over her. She understood that her behavior was mostly artifice, but was it so difficult to believe someone could fall in love with her?

Her cheeks raged and Lavinia turned away from him too, giving herself a moment of composure. What had come over her? Pigment was not worth this much. She suddenly felt the need to escape, but bursting from this room and running like a madwoman didn’t seem an option that would improve the situation, so she waited him out.

When she looked back at him, he remained turned away from her. His head was bowed, eyes closed, and he pinched the bridge of his nose, much like she had seen Vincent do many times. He was lost in some inner turmoil weighing how to respond, so Lavinia allowed him time.

He remained there long enough for the heat of embarrassment to be gone from her cheeks. He finally dropped his hand and looked at her momentarily before again considering the room. Lavinia gave him a wide berth as he looked anywhere but at her.

After enough time had elapsed that she couldn’t wait another second, she prodded him. “Have you no reply?”

A low rumble came from his chest. He was laughing, but not in a way that sounded as if he found this comical. More… ironic. “Miss -” He trailed off again.

“Liv,” they said in unison and he chuckled.

“Miss Liv,” Viscount Whitley rubbed his jaw, his strong thumb working across the sharp angle. “This begs the question, are you planning to court me?”

His voice sounded so incredulous, so disbelieving, yet she could tell they were not flippant. The tone was laced with shock and something that she thought to identify as longing. The thought made her feel rather warm all over. 

As she considered an answer, she recalled her commitment not to lie and figured that her best course of action was to remain vague. “If I were to say yes?” She said, her voice lilting towards the last word, tossing it back to him. His move.

Oliver Blackwood lifted his gaze then. He studied her face and she had the impression that he was trying to understand some buried secret about her. She felt as if he peered into the very depths of her soul.

At length, he drew in a shallow breath, taking a step back from her, and answered. “I would ask why?”

The way he emphasized the word why hit her like a fist. It reached into her gut and tightened. Twisted. Why? There was something so hallow and lonely about it. So utterly empty. As if it was so wholly unanticipated, so unfathomable that someone would consider courting him. Lavinia no longer felt bothered by his initial laughter, for it hadn’t been aimed at her. It had been aimed at himself. 

Why? The question also demanded an answer. A truthful one. 

Suddenly the idea of telling this man that this charade was all part of foolish wager made her feel ill. Oliver Blackwood was a man shunned and here she was playing with his emotions.

“I must apologize, Lord Whitley. The truth is my friends influenced me to do this.” That was not a lie.

He took a step forward, but instead of looking at him directly, she waited until she heard his boots halt before her. He was close enough again to touch her. She could smell him, still that musky scent that she’d found so attractive.

He looked down at her and she sensed that he was hoping to appear inscrutable; but to Lavinia, he looked angry and hurt, and somewhere underneath that, there was frustration and annoyance, too. 

Blackwood eyed her suspiciously. “I thought your lady friends might be involved in this. You conspired something that day at The Duchess of Winthrop’s ball.” He shocked her. He was far more observant than she had thought to give him credit for. “Are your existences so unsatisfactory that you require London’s Most Ineligible Bachelor to spice it up for you?”

The bitterness in his words only reemphasized how insensitive this wager was. This was never the intention. Lavinia shook her head, apologetically. “It is not like that. I made a ridiculous wager with them and you got caught in the line of fire, I’m afraid.” Looking him in the eyes, she said “I am sorry to have wasted your time, My Lord.”

This was an enormous mistake.

With that, Lavinia decided to make a mad dash. She spun around, grabbing her pelisse and blowing out the candle at the same time, preparing to bolt, but when she backed up, she slammed directly into the wall of his chest. His hands came up to grab her shoulders, holding her against him.

“You do not think I will let you go that easily, do you?” His breath felt hot on the back of her neck.

Of course, he wouldn’t. The was Oliver Blackwood, after all. The cad of all cads according to half of London. And yet, standing there in his arms, she doubted it. Because his grip was already softening, and Lavinia thought if she tried to escape again, he would let her go.

“I have no intention of keeping you here against your will,” he explained, his voice gentle. “I simply want to hear about this wager.”

As if this wasn’t mortifying enough already. His hands fell away from her then and she turned around to face him. When she didn’t immediately answer, he added, “As this wager involves me, I believe I am entitled to know what the wager entails, do you not agree?”

She wanted to die. Lavinia hesitated, but the look in his eye demanded a response, and she realized he was not wrong. He deserved a response. “I wagered that I could make any man in the room fall in love with me,” she explained sheepishly.

But instead of being angry, he snorted. “And you chose me?”

They chose you.”

At that, a deep, guttural laugh broke from him. He leaned forward a little from the force of it. “Your friends have a delightful sense of irony.”

Did they? He seemed let in on some secret she did not understand.

The Viscount lifted his hand, covering a lopsided grin, before gestured towards her, his finger pointing as he posed another question. “Why would you engage in such a wager?”

Her shoulders slumped. This man was too curious for his own good. It was clear that Lavinia was not getting out of this without revealing the full fiasco, so she decided to tell him whatever he asked. 

“I have been attempting to locate a rare pigment for over a year. I finally found it, but it,” a fresh wave of heat washed over her at having to reveal something so personal about her family’s financial situation. “I am not able to afford it and, quite frankly, I am desperate enough for it that when my friends presented the wager, I agreed without thinking of the consequences.”

Blackwood seemed to consider this for a long moment, then he turned on his heels and Lavinia wondered if he was going to let her go. But instead he fished for something in a pocket beneath his cloak. He pulled it out but Lavinia could not see what it was. He lingered there with it, contemplating whatever it was.

And then he lifted it to his nose, his head turned slightly in profile. It was her note. Closing his eyes, he drew in the scent, savoring it, before looking back at her. “You painted this?” Lavinia nodded as he continued to ponder the letter. “How did you know I would find this so appealing?”

For some unexplainable reason his question made her want to groan, she began to throb in all the dark, forbidden places on her body. “I-” What could he possibly mean by that? “I knew no such thing. I simply did what I thought I would enjoy.”

One perfectly angular brow shot up and Lavinia noted that he looked both pleased and intrigued. “Now, that,” he punctuated the air with is finger, “is interesting.”

It was? Lavinia would have loved to learn how, but instead of elaborating he stuffed the note back into his pocket, saying “You have satisfied my curiosity.” He spun in a circle, peering around at the windows where the first rays of morning were beginning to crack through. “Now, it is best that I see you home before the sun fully rises.”

Lavinia put her hand up in protest. “There is no need for that, I assure you. I will see myself home.”

“Mis Liv, despite what all the gossips in London would have you believe, I am a gentleman, and I cannot in good conscience leave you stranded in Covent Garden in the middle of the night, unchaperoned. It is not safe and while I do not know your family, I feel certain that they would not be pleased with me if you were somehow harmed.”

On the contrary, Vincent would probably have his head for even suggesting she get in his carriage. Not to mention that she knew her way around Covent Garden quite well, as this was where Mr. Raines shop was and she purchased all her art supplies there. They had developed a friendship and he gave her lessons, so she was there frequently.

However, she usually came during the day, often with her maid or a footman. And if she was honest with herself, the walk from where the hackney dropped her off that night was a trifle frightening. Plus, if Oliver Blackwood planned to harm her, he already had ample opportunity to do so.

“It would be my honor to escort you home,” he pressed, offering his elbow to her.

If Lavinia knew anything about a gentleman acting on his honor, there would be no convincing him to let her go on her way alone. So, between that and all of her other reasons, she acquiesced.

However, she did not accept his elbow, for some reason feeling as if touching him would be a mistake.

Viscount Whitley followed behind her. “I trust you can find our way back?”

She nodded and led the way, taking a shorter route back, not wishing to extend her time in his presence longer than necessary. As they walked, she put her hood up and kept her head down to obscure her identity and she occasionally felt his hand on her elbow or the small of her back. There just gently, to ensure she did not slip and fall.

When they reached his carriage, he asked where they were going and she belatedly realized she just lost any remaining anonymity she may have had, but she told him where her and Vincent’s St. James townhouse was and he communicated that message to his coachmen.

The Viscount surprised her again by putting the steps down and opening the door himself, offering her a hand inside. Lavinia took it and he held her securely as she made her way up. He followed her in, closed the door firmly and gave the roof two solid knocks. The carriage lurched into motion a moment later.

“There is a blanket under your seat if you are chilled.”

Lavinia smiled. “I am quite comfortable, thank you.”

They rode in silence for a while and Lavinia took in the interior of their coach. Despite the rather plain exterior, the interior was luxurious. The seat cushions were covered in a velvet-looking material and Lavinia knew there must be a plush rug on the floor, judging from the way it crushed beneath the tips of her slippers. Thick curtains covered the windows and the back of the seat also had a low back with a padded pillow, which was nice to rest one’s head upon.

She looked to the man across the carriage and discovered he was staring at her. He looked as if he was contemplating something vitally important.

Lavinia smiled awkwardly at him, “Is something the matter?”

Viscount Whitley’s eyebrows rose. “I find I am still thinking of your wager.”

“What of it?”

“Did you and your friends agree on specific terms?”

She nodded, “Of course.”

“What were they?”

Lavinia laughed. Oliver Blackwood was not what she expected. Not that she had known what to expect, but it wasn’t this good humored, even-tempered, gentleman. He was a surprise. “Must I tell you?”

Blackwood shrugged, “I suppose not.”

His eyes shifted to the window now and suddenly she regretted her answer. Strange how he held such a draw for her, how she wanted him to see her in the dark.

“You are aware of one,” she offered, and he returned his attention to her. “My friends choose the suitor. That was part of the agreement. Though, there were some additional specifications.”

He leaned forward, as if on tinter-hooks. “Pray tell, Miss Liv.”

She had to admit, he charmed her. “He was to be under five and thirty, handsome, and a good society match.”

Her answer elicited a bewildered expression from him. “Your friends believed I am a ‘good society match’?”

Her brow wrinkled, “Why of course. Why wouldn’t they?”

Blackwood laughed deep in his chest. “I am beginning to question whether you are as aware of my reputation as you claim to be.”

She most assuredly was not, and that was becoming all too apparent to Lavinia as well.

The carriage rolled to a stop and, peeking out the curtain, she saw that they were a few doors down from her townhouse. He opened the door but before he jumped out, Lavinia stayed him with a hand on his forearm.

 “I apologize for my behavior, Lord Whitley.” He nodded, before she added, “May I trust in your discretion as a gentleman?”

He raised an eyebrow; they were the most emotive eyebrows she had ever seen. “I do not know, Miss Liv. Can you?” And she knew why he asked the question. Because no one trusted him. Nor did they consider him a gentleman.

The thought only made more guilt pound through her veins. She nodded. “I believe I can. You seem like a man of honor to me, My Lord.”

He accepted her answer and jumped out. After putting down the steps, he raised his hand for her. Again, she took it and the heat of his fingers sent a warm buzz through her veins. Lavinia was unable to help but notice how solidly he held her as she descended. As if he were carved from stone.

She turned to bid him good night, but before she could, he took her elbow, stepping close. She had to tip her head back to look at him. Above her, he loomed, his large frame almost blocking the light from the street lamps. His face was only inches away, a sensual and wicked smile playing on his lips.

The air around him vibrated with an intensity when he finally asked, “What do you think your chances are of winning your wager, Miss Liv?”

“I, uh,” She scrambled for words. Any words. They all seemed to escape her. “I do not intend to continue with it.”

His eyes darkened and he pulled her closer. His gaze traveled up from her throat to her lips, lingering there a moment too long, before meeting her eyes; and with a low, husky chuckle, he said, “I would not have expected you to give up so easily.”

With that, he winked at her, and bid her good night.


Chapter 5

Golden light spilled into Oliver’s bedchamber, illuminating the large four poster bed in the center of it, where he soaked up the sun’s rays alongside the memories of the night before. What a treat the night had been.

Looking towards the clock on the mantle, he tried to determine the time. Damn. It was late in the afternoon. Knowing Wick would be hard at work in the library, Oliver burst from his bed and blew past his Valet, only stopping to grab the dressing gown he held out, before darting out of the room. He tossed the gown on as he hurried down three flights of stairs to his study and headed for the connecting door to his and Wick’s shared library.

“Wick!” Oliver yelled as he barged through the large oak door.

Wick was indeed in the library, and by the looks of things, had been there for most of the day. The large round table at the center, crafted from heavy timber, was covered with parchment scrolls, papers, and maps. Several inkwells and quills were set about the large surface and notes were scrawled across many of the papers.

The room itself was bathed in soft sunlight coming through the high windows, giving the space an ethereal, almost otherworldly look. Windows at the back of the room were open and a lovely autumn breeze rolled in, ruffling the papers, bringing the sound of birds chirping in the garden with it.

Lord Vairs stood atop the table, dressed in a loose-fitting white shirt and blue breeches, hands wrapped around a map held out before him. Wick glanced over his shoulder, threw the map down and ran across the large table surface towards Oliver. “Ollie! I’ve got it! My next great tale!” His hands flailed out before him.

Oliver brightened. “That is great news. Do tell me about it.” When Wick had a moment of brilliance, it was best not to interrupt him, so Oliver pulled out one of the twelve chairs around the table and sat, allowing Wick to launch into his idea.

“The year is 1864,” he began.

“Oh,” Oliver leaned forward excitedly. “It happens in future times. I am intrigued, Wick.”

“The year is 1864,” he repeated, his hands making sweeping motions across the map. “An army of knights have invaded. They are led by a dark Queen who rules over the lands.” He stopped to take a breath and took a sip from his glass of water. “There are six major kingdoms involved, but we will only focus on three…”

As Wick launched into his tale, Oliver sat quietly, listening and occasionally nodding, but his attention was repeatedly pulled elsewhere. He could not stop thinking about his lady in cerulean blue. Liv. Oliver had to admit, last night had been the most interesting thing to happen to him in a long while.

On the table in front of him, Wick crouched, looked up towards the ceiling and waved his hands about, his fingers wiggling as he moved them. “…and the people are called… the Unseelies, like the fairies…”

The irony of a woman wagering that she could make him fall in love with her when he could not fall in love with anyone at all. He wanted to laugh all over again. It was absurd. He should be offended.

And yet, he wasn’t.

He was fascinated. Not just by the scenario that played out before him, but by the woman’s unshakable confidence. As if she knew something he didn’t. It was a ridiculous notion, and Oliver knew that, but the part of him that believed deeply in magic and romance, seemed determine to latch onto this opportunity and not let go.

Wick continued with his story, but the words faded into the back of Oliver’s consciousness. “…a war princess…” He pointed to a line of green across the map. “They live underground, away from the light of the sun…”

The more Oliver pondered it, he could not help but appreciate the beauty in the symmetry of this situation. There he was, all but ready to give up on love entirely, and the universe dropped this beautiful, beguiling creature in his lap.

That had a touch of magic to it, did it not?

Oh, Oliver knew it wasn’t wise to encourage her. Not with everything Grace had on the line. But Oliver had always had a bit of an issue with controlling his impulses where love was concerned. His cheeks grew warm, just as they always did whenever he thought about that. 

“Ollie, are you here?” Wick snapped his fingers in Oliver’s face as he sat down on the edge of the table, dangling his legs off the side.

Shaking his head, Oliver said, “I apologize. My mind is elsewhere.”

“With your lady in blue?” Oliver nodded and quickly filled Wick in on the events that transpired. “You are not honestly considering playing along with this are you?” Wick asked, his voice thick with concern. “What about Grace?”

“I would never do anything to compromise Grace’s chances.” He’d considered that carefully in the hours since dropping Miss Liv at her home. He made an impulsive comment, telling her not to give up, but that did not mean he shouldn’t think on it longer now. He could still put a halt to this if he wanted to. The question was, did he want to?

No. He did not. He’d be lying to himself if he did not acknowledge that. But what he wanted to do and what he should do were two different things, and Oliver knew this fell squarely in the should not do category. If it were only he involved, he could damn the consequences. With Grace’s future involved… Well, he could not allow his own selfishness to get in the way of that.

Grace would, of course, tell him to seize the opportunity. Sometimes he wondered if she wanted a future for Oliver more than she wanted one for herself. All the more reason why he did not plan to consult her on the matter.

Leaning back, Wick laid down on the table, tucking his forearm behind his head like a pillow. “What is your plan, then?”

“To be honest, I don’t have one.” Oliver thought more seriously on the matter, sharing his thoughts with Wick. “What if I were to encourage her to conduct this wager in secret?”

“I am not sure that is a good idea,” Wick said, skepticism lacing his voice. “You have never been improper with a lady and the gossip mill keeps grinding. If you were caught with an innocent, you would be crucified and she would be ruined beyond repair.”

Wick was not wrong, and ruining Liv was not an option for Oliver. That he could not live with.

As Wick sat beside him an I a silent show of support, Oliver focused on the problem, trying to work through a solution, and there was one solution that could mitigate this issue should that situation arise. It lingered there in the back of his mind, waiting for Oliver to acknowledge it. When no other options came to him, he hesitantly said the thought out loud. “I could simply do what I failed to do all the previous times.”

Wick sat up and looked at Oliver, his brows furrowed even deeper. “Do you mean to offer for her?”

Oliver laughed nervously. “What I mean to say is that if,” he emphasized, “I were to aid her in winning this wager, then I should also be prepared to offer for her at the end of it, regardless of the outcome.”

“You only just met her. You do not even know her full name!” Wick stated, but his words were not as bold or hard as he tried to make them sound.

Oliver shrugged, “People have married on less.” True, Oliver did not want to be one of them. He had courted Helen for two seasons and still did not offer for her, despite having built a lovely friendship, precisely because he did not want a loveless and passionless marriage. And then he proceeded to do the same again, six times over.

Closing his eyes, he shook off a wave of queasiness. He was a fool to think this would go differently, but as illogical as it sounded, Oliver could not shake the feeling that this was his last chance. That this woman was her, or there was no her. She was simply not out there. And if she was not out there, he might not have love, but he could still have a family. He would love to be a father one day. Perhaps this was his chance. Who other than this woman would give it to him?

He understood there was an air of desperation about his feelings. It just hurt so very, very much to think of going his whole life without true affection. Without love. It was not as if any woman would do. It was quite the opposite, in fact. Oliver knew there was one woman. A specific one, meant for him and him alone. He only needed to find her and then maybe he would experience the feelings that had evaded him his whole life. Desire. Attraction. Deep, all-consuming love. To want to protect and care for someone his whole life through.

“Wick,” he looked at him, hoping his friend would understand. “Would it be so unforgivable of me to take the one small opportunity I have had in years to seek out a connection with someone?”

Wick considered this for a while, eventually answering, “I do not think I am the one who can answer that. I just urge you not to make a rash decision.”

Leaning forward, Oliver rested his elbows on the table. “This is exactly why I wish to speak with her again. Perhaps we can come to some agreement to help each other.”

“You wish to ask her to help you fall in love?”

Oliver grinned, “Do you not see how serendipitous it is? Our goals are aligned.”

Wick looked dubiously back at him while he thought back to Liv. She had enjoyed that little stunt of hers. Luring a known rogue under the cover of night. The chit was lucky Oliver was as gentle as a pussy cat. Had he been someone else, the night could have unfolded for her in a drastically different way.

But Liv had enjoyed the thrill of it, Oliver knew, for there was an edge to her every move. Her every breath, every glance, hummed with a subdued but feverish passion. And while much of it seemed planned and practiced, there was an innocence about her too.

She wanted. She craved. And the sight of it was almost intoxicating. 

Oliver couldn’t help but wonder if she, like he, was someone who sought mystery and magic. And if they had that in common, perhaps there were more commonalities to explore between them. “Wick, there was something about her. I believe she would enjoy a little magic in her life and I should like to give it to her.”

Lord Vairs pressed his lips together in thought, appearing doubtful. “I can see there is no talking you out of this. But,” he said, the furrow between his brows growing even deeper, as if each concern chipped away at the crevice. “Have you considered that you could fall in love with someone who does not love you in return?”

The question made Oliver grow quiet and pensive. He had considered it and he knew that outcome had the potential to destroy him. Utterly. He swallowed the dread, burying it deep. He could end up hurt, that was a risk, but least he would not go to his grave with a heart made of stone. “That is a chance I will just have to take.” Besides, if history was an indicator, it was more likely to end the other way around.

With that, Wick jumped off the table and flung open the oak door to his study. “Bathe and attire yourself. We will meet back here in one hour.”

“Where are we going?”

His friend looked over his shoulder, “To make magic happen.”



Violet wiggled her bare bottom in Lavinia’s direction, as she nestled herself deeper into the cushions below her. “Are you absolutely certain no one is here, Lavinia?”

“I promise, Vi. Vincent is out for the afternoon and the servants have all been given the day off.” Lavinia set her easel down in the grass in a clearing behind her conservatory, giving the legs a shove into the ground for stability.

Elinor dragged a heavy iron garden chair beside the stone path descending from the back of the house, and settled herself into it. “Never fear, Vi, I will keep watch for you.”

“Is this how you want me?” Violet asked as she looked over her shoulder in Lavinia’s direction. The ladies had carried a luxurious, tufted bench from Vincent’s study out from the house and placed it right at the perfect angle to catch the sun. Beams of light streamed in through the canopy of tree leaves, dancing a pattern across Violet’s skin as she reclined there, feeling the soft brush of the air as it blew across her exposed flesh.

Lavinia could not help but notice the beautiful curves of her friend’s body. She looked like a sculpture, with her slender waist and delicate limbs draped haphazardly over her shapely form. Her long hair fell over her shoulders in perfect, smooth golden waves. Violet was the perfect subject for painting. The sun glinted across her flawless skin as she smiled up at Lavinia. She beamed as though she had been waiting her whole life to be captured on canvas by Lavinia’s hand.

“Are you certain?” She asked again, but before either of the others could answer, Violet added, “If Vincent walked down that path right this moment, Lavinia, he is going to receive quite a hello, good afternoon, if you know what mean.” The three laughed.

In her iron chair, Elinor crossed her legs, leaning forward to rest her elbows on her knee. She looked towards Violet, a mischievous grin spreading across her face. “Would that be so bad?” Her voice held a teasing edge.

Lavinia’s eye’s widened. She turned away, pretending she hadn’t heard the comment, not wanting to think of her brother in such a way, and began sketching Violet’s silhouette across the prepared canvas.

Elinor and Violet sat quietly while she concentrated on getting her painting started, but after a lengthy silence, Elinor jumped from her seat as if electrified. “You have kept us in suspense long enough, Liv! Tell us what happened with the Viscount?”

The charcoal stick in her hand shattered, spattering black powder across the white surface of her canvas. Not quite ready to share what happened yet, she dodged the question. “Before we get to that, Vincent is pressuring me to join him tomorrow for a musicale with Lord and Lady Barrington. I believe he sees his son, Lord Henry, as a suitable match for me.”

Both her friends’ mouths drew into a silent ‘O’.

Oh, indeed. Lord Henry was a fine man. Handsome, jovial, age appropriate. She could not fault Vincent for thinking of him as a potential suitor for her. But Lord Henry did not excite her. He did not make her body pulse. Lavinia doubted Vincent would want to her to confide that concern, however. “You two will be there, yes?”

“Of course,” they chorused, Elinor elaborating, “How unfortunate that your time will be so monopolized by your friends that you will have little left to spend with Lord Henry.”

Lavinia smiled warmly at the two. “Perfect.”

Adjusting herself on her bench, Violet shimmied, attempting to get more comfortable. “Now, get on with it. I want to hear about Viscount Whitley. Distract me from this lumpy cushion.”

Well, she supposed she could not put it off any longer. “I failed.” She stated, leaving it at that.

Violet rolled towards her, leaning back on her elbows, thrusting her bare breasts into the sky. “You failed?”

“Perhaps you could provide us the details,” Elinor pressed.

Not wishing to dwell on it any longer than necessary, she explained as plainly as she could. “The man is too clever by half. He knew right away that I was playing a game and I ended up confessing the wager almost immediately. I realized how wrong I was to manipulate someone for my own gain, apologized profusely, and he escorted me home.”

Across from her, Violet pressed her hand her mouth and glanced at Elinor’ her eyes crinkled with delight. Laughter erupted from their chests that was so infectious, Lavinia could not help but laugh with them.

Lifting her brush, she dabbed it repeatedly into the green on her palette until the paint worked its way fully into the bristles. “I must confess, it is rather humorous.”

Lavinia watched the dappled shadows decorating Violets back rustle in the breeze. They formed an intricate pattern that waved like a kaleidoscope when turned, changing shape, highlighting nooks on her body that begged attention. She loved to work these moments into her art, using them to add drama and depth.

Extending her hand, palm up, towards Lavinia, Elinor wiggled her fingers, “Sounds like it is time to pay up.”

What an absolute failure this wager was.

Groaning, Lavinia ignored her, analyzing the little shapes she wanted to call out all over Violet’s body, and as she did so, she noticed something peculiar. The shadows began to shake and vibrate. Vigorously and in such a way that did not seem natural. She looked up at the tree and right then a flock of birds burst out from branches, squawking and flapping angrily into the sky.

And then everything went still again as a few green and golden leaves drifted prettily around them. 

“Curious.” Violet whispered.

Turning back to her friends, Lavinia thought back on the last moments of her carriage ride with the Viscount and gave them a knowing smile. “Oh, I am not certain I lost just yet.” She could still feel the way he gripped her elbow, his fingers firm and warm, but with a touch of caution about them. How he pulled her closer, his solid form so close and yet how he held himself so tightly. As if he yearned for something and fought against it at the same time.

How she understood that compulsion.

Was that why he encouraged her? The man was a dichotomy. Both a rogue and a rake, known best for leaving a trail of heartbroken and ruined woman in his wake. At the same time, he was a man who showed only the barest interest in the opposite sex. How could both be true?

Leaning forward, Elinor swatted Violet’s leg playfully, “Liv has a plan. That is never a good sign for us.”

Violet pouted.

“Rest assured, I do not have a plan. He-,” she paused, reaching for a filbert brush to work on filling in some of the areas within the silhouette shape. “He was rather amused by the whole situation. I am not entirely sure he wanted me to give up.”

Hadn’t he directly encouraged her not to?

I would not have expected you to give up so easily.

She could still feel his words, his voice like velvet.

Behind her came another round of furious movement from the tree. All three women snapped their gazes in its direction, shielding their eyes from the sun. “What on Earth?”

“It must be some sort of animal,” Elinor offered.

“Perhaps it’s a cat!” cried Violet. “Or even an owl.”

“Or an different bird,” Elinor added.

Lavinia hardly thought it mattered what it was. “Whatever it is, it stopped again.” She took the opportunity to fill her friends in on the whole night in more detail, keeping only some pieces to herself. Like the way her body responded so keenly to his nearness. And the emptiness she sensed in him; that self-deprecating laugh. She did not think he would like her to reveal that.

“It does sound as if he meant to encourage you,” Violet agreed.

“Be careful, Lavinia,” Elinor warned, “this is Oliver Blackwood.”

That was true. But Lavinia could not shake the feeling that the Oliver Blackwood she met last night was not the Oliver Blackwood of all the ton’s rumors. He did not seem diabolical or conniving, nor was he as arrogant as those who whispered of him. Rather, he seemed more than a little bit…lost.

At the thought, a tightness in her gut welled, spreading high into her chest. Lavinia could not explain it, but she sensed a sorrow in him that felt like a twin half to her own, and she was more than curious to explore it.

Overhead, a branch snapped and a small limb came crashing down, landing about thirty paces to Lavinia’s right. All three women sprung to their feet, Violet snatching her discarded gown for cover. “Perhaps we should clear away from here.”

Lavinia quickly set to work at relocating her supplies back into the conservatory, grumbling over the lost afternoon, while Violet stuffed herself back into her dress and Elinor tugged hard at her laces. “What do you mean to do about Blackwood, Liv?” She asked with a grunt.

“Truthfully, I need to think on it.” Once thing she realized from their encounter was that she had been misguided and thoughtless in the endeavor, and regardless of the Viscount’s bewildering encouragement, the whole idea if it no longer sat well with her.

A vision of him appeared in her mind. Him holding her letter and raising it to his nose; his eyes closed. He savored the scent. Breathed it in so deep it felt as if he breathed in Lavinia herself. He was more than interested. He needed. Wanted. Maybe not her specifically, but something. She was certain of it and she wanted to know what it was.

Gathering up the last of their belongings, they turned to head back up the path towards the house. Violet wrapped her arm around Liv’s and the three paused in the garden. “Wait for a sign to guide you, that is what I always say.”

Wrinkling her nose at Violet, Lavinia chuckled, “I do not think I have ever heard you say that.”

Just then another crack came from the tree and this time a much larger branch broke off. All three ladies stumbled backwards as it crashed down, even though it landed far enough away that they were in no danger at all. Above them, an opening formed in the canopy where the branch had been and sunlight filtered through like beacons. The sky was brilliant, streaked with pink and orange, and the flurry of leaves around the opening gave the appearance of sparkles.

Lavinia stared at that glorious, magical space, knowing she would want to capture it in paint. Unable to tear her eyes away, she memorized the details, the angles and colors and forms and textures. This was why she painted. To capture these rare moments of beauty that filled her soul.

So enraptured she was with the scene that she did not notice, at first, that something suddenly fell from the light. Swift and fluttery, it floated down, swirling from side to side in the breeze. As it tumbled towards them, Lavinia tried to make out what it was. Small and cream colored, a spot of blue in the middle, with long golden ribbons streaming behind it.

It sank to the ground landing at her feet, where she, Violet, and Elinor simply stared at it. It was an envelope.

Elinor jabbed her elbow into Lavinia’s ribs. “Well, are you not going to open it?” She asked as if the letter had arrived normally at her doorstep.

She snatched it from the ground, turning it over in her hands. The envelope was elaborately decorated with gold and pink ribbons, and embossed with tiny golden swords. On the back, a blue wax seal held the envelop closed, and pressed in it was the shape of a lion.

The physical response her body had upon seeing that small shape, was indescribable. It started at her core, deep within her chest, and slowly swept across her entire body, like a wildfire raging through dry land. Her skin felt prickly and alive. She tingled.

Popping open the seal, Lavinia pulled out a small card from inside. Simple and scrawled across it in an elegant hand, it said, “Meet me again” with an address below that.

And it was signed, -O

It was from her Viscount and Lavinia could not be more pleased.



The letter had been Oliver’s idea. The method of delivery, Wicks. Neither of them thought receiving a missive directly to her door from Oliver Blackwood would go over very well for her, so other alternatives were in order.

Besides, a letter sent to the door was not clever enough for Oliver. He wanted to charm her, to do something that might make her smile. Admittedly, delivering a message from the heavens was not exactly what he had in mind, but as always, Wick pulled through for him.

Knowing where Liv remained while in London for the season was already proving advantageous. The home was not far from Oliver’s and the two set off an hour earlier to walk the short distance and scope out the area. Their original plan, to pay a servant or happen upon her, went to the wayside when they arrived and heard the ladies’ lilting voices carry over the wall surrounding her property. The lot was at the end of the street, and anyone walking by would know they were there, if not exactly what they were saying.

Oliver leaned heavily against the trunk of the tree; Wick’s booted toes digging into his lower back as he reached for a branch. “I don’t know about this, Wick,” he whispered.

Wick, still on Oliver’s back, squatted and pat him on the head. “Your lady is just over there. We throw the envelope at her. It will be perfect. Trust me.” He stood back up, stepped on Oliver’s shoulder, grabbing a branch above him and scurrying up and out of site.

Almost instantly he came back down to crouch on top of Oliver again. “One of them is nude.”


“Nude!” Wick shout-whispered.

That is unexpected, indeed.

“Which one?” Oliver winced at his own question, then quickly added, “Well, do not look at them, then. Close your eyes.”

“I cannot climb a tree with my eyes closed,” the little monkey argued.

“Then look at the tree, Wick,” he bit out, growing tired of Lord Vairs weight on top of him. Wick hopped up then and his feet disappeared into the branches.

It felt like an eternity that he was out of sight. A flock of birds escaping the canopy told Oliver that Wick reached the top of the tree. There was a lot of rustling and several cracking sounds that he was certain would alert the women’s attention. And it had, their chatter repeatedly grew quiet with each unnatural sound coming from the branches above.

Wonderful, Oliver would be branded a pervert, too.

Then in a flurry of activity, Wick came scurrying down the tree, jumping right past Oliver and landing on the ground in a crouch. “Run.” Was all he said before sprang forward and took off.


Oliver looked behind him and just then the three ladies burst from around the corner, sliding out into the street, ready to give chase. But Oliver was not the running type, so rather than flee, he walked into the middle of the street, turned fully towards them, and executed a flawless bow, his hand sweeping out in an elaborate gesture. “Good afternoon, Ladies.”

The trio approached in unison and he waited for them to make their way, undaunted. He looked to Liv, she mocked him with a raised eyebrow and he chuckled deep in his chest. In her hand was the envelope and she twirled it around before tapping it against her lips.

She came closer, the other two ladies lingering behind her, stopping an arm’s length away. “You have a peculiar way of delivering a letter, My Lord.”

Oliver couldn’t help it; he broke into a broad smile. “You will discover many peculiar things about me, I’m sure.”

Smirking, she took another step closer and he found he liked that. As she moved in, he couldn’t help but seek out her scent. He breathed gently in, waiting for it to catch his nose. In that moment, the wind blew a loose tendril around her chin, and with it came the urge to tuck it away, if just to feel the silkiness of her hair. His fist tightened to keep himself from doing exactly that.

She smelled like roses again, and… something musky. An oil perhaps. Maybe an herb of some kind. One day he would identify it.

“You say that as if you expect to see me again, and often.”

Damn. He loved how direct she was.

Out of the corner of his eye, Oliver noticed Wick had reappeared and was huddled up close to the other ladies, introducing himself. The taller one with red hair looked at him as if she planned to eat him for dinner.

While they amused themselves, Oliver returned his attention to Liv. He crossed his arms over his chest, adopting a relaxed pose. “If you are open to it.”

Her eyes widened just a bit, followed by her nostrils. Barely a reaction, but enough there for Oliver to read it. She was curious, but also, potentially in over her head, courting danger with the dreaded Oliver Blackwell as she was. “Bring your friends if you wish.” He gestured towards them. “I will send a carriage.”

Oliver watched her work through her options, her features shifting infinitesimally from moment to moment. But it was her eyes that drew him in, like all the other times. They were blue. But not an ordinary blue. They were deepest, darkest, most seductive shade he’d ever seen. There were stories in those eyes, of secrets and passions. And they were as soft and inviting as her pillowy lips.

His gut clenched hard as the thought, drawing up something inside him that was tight and hard and so incredibly foreign that he nearly stumbled back from the force of it.

Liv licked her lips. “Send the carriage.” She tapped the envelope on his chest and backed away, adding, “You will have to wait and see if we get in it.”

The other ladies immediately flitted to her side; Wick returning to his. “Will she come tonight?”

Oliver smiled after them, “Yes, I believe she will.”


Chapter 6

Closing the terrace door behind her, Lavinia turned toward Elinor and Violet, who were huddled up beneath the darkness of an overgrown tree. Knowing that Vincent fully expected to hear bubbles of laughter and innocent lady mischief long into the night, the three had put on an extra boisterous show in the parlor next door to his study before making a production of heading to bed. Then they waited for Vincent to depart for his own chamber before skulking down the stairs and through the servants quarters at the back of the house. 

Pressing her pointer finger to her lips, signaling for quiet, the two ladies nodded, picked up their skits, and followed Lavinia down the path past the conservatory. The property was surrounded by high brick privacy walls that, in the past, had been safe and solid, but now were long in need of repair. In the far corner was a patch of crumbling wall with an opening large enough for the ladies to squeeze their bodies through, so long as they aided each other to maneuver their skirts through as well. 

Once on the other side, Lavinia peered down the street looking for the carriage she had ridden in just the night before. It was there at the end of the street and they set off in that direction. The carriage was nestled amongst several other parked carriages, hiding in plain sight. Walking quickly, the ladies skirts made quiet swishing noises in the silent night. As they approached, one of the carriage doors swung slowly open, eerily on it’s own, for the coachman remained atop his perch. 

They looked back and forth at each other, eyes questioning, but nevertheless began to climb single file into the conveyance. Elinor, being the last one in, turned to close the door but it suddenly snapped shut before she could. “Oh!” She cried, yanking her hand back in surprise. A moment later the carriage lurched into motion, jostling Elinor back into her seat.

Smoothing her hands over her gown, Elinor straightened herself. “Someone is in a bit rush.”

“We are nearly an hour late, perhaps he needs the necessary,” Violet said, excusing the coachman’s behavior with a laugh. Looking to Lavinia, she asked, “Where are we going, anyway?” 

Shrugging, Lavinia unfolded the Viscount’s note, which she held tightly in the palm of her hand. “We only have an address. It is here in Saint James, but I don’t recognize it.”

Snatching the letter from her fingers, Elinor examined it. “Perhaps we should have asked Vincent before we left,” she mused, handing the missive to Violet, only for Lavinia rip it from her fingers and stuff it into her reticule.

“Do not even jest about such a thing. If he knew what we were doing, I fear I would never be allowed to leave the house again,” she said with a visible shudder. 

With a chuckle, Elinor patted Lavinia on the knee. “Do not fret, Lavinia. Vincent shall never be the wiser. Not unless you win the wager and you’re forced to tell him the name of the man to whom you’ve promised yourself.”

From across the carriage, Violet playfully kicked Elinor for her insensitive comment, while Lavinia closed her eyes, sinking into her seat as realization dawned. Of course she had known it, but until that moment, she hadn’t permitted herself to think on it. Vincent would come to know about this wager and when he found out, she suspected he would be angrier than she’d ever seen him. As a result, Oliver Blackwood may just find himself unwittingly on the other end of Vincent’s dueling pistols. 

If only she could have it all: her pigment, spinsterhood, and Oliver Blackwood hidden in the dark, waiting there for her and her alone. 

However, she could not have it all. Lavinia would have to play out this carefully. She did not intend to lose both the wager and her brother’s trust. He could only find out if she won. Of course, Lavinia did not wish to lose Vincent’s trust at all, but it was his lack of trust in her that formed his rules to begin with. With that in mind, it was easier for her to defy them. Lavinia loved and trusted Vincent, but at times, she couldn’t help but be bitter that he did not trust her to quite the same capacity, merely because she was a woman. 

Pushing herself up in her seat, her resolve strengthened, she stated, “I will deal with Vincent when the time comes.” She was an adult and she did not need her big brother to make decisions for her. 

The three ladies quieted and watched the scenery go by the windows as the carriage made it’s way down the residential streets of Saint James. “Have either of you noticed how quiet this carriage is?” Violet piped up eventually, patting the seat beside her and the walls, as if measuring its sturdiness. “It rolls like we’re on a cloud.”

“I was thinking the same, like we’re floating,” Elinor agreed. “It’s lovely.”

The carriage was rather luxurious, but Lavinia wasn’t distracted by it. Her nerves quaked. “We don’t even know if the rumors about him are true,” she burst out suddenly, leaning towards Violet, as if her friend had just been protesting the merits of their late night rendezvous, which of course she had not been doing. “They are just rumors, after all.” Lavinia looked to her friends for reassurance. “Right?”

Violet’s shoulders slowly raised and lowered. “To tell you the truth, I don’t even know what the rumors are. I’ve never heard them. Only his moniker. Isn’t it enough that he’s referred to as ‘London’s Most Ineligible Bachelor’? No one earns a title like that without reason.”

Stretching her legs out, Elinor rested them on the seat across from her, making herself comfortable. “I’m more curious why he wishes to engage in this wager to begin with? What is his motivation?”

“It is Oliver Blackwood,” Violet answered, as if that was a good explanation and the girls laughed before fading into an awkward quietness. Perplexed, Violet added, “I see what you mean, Lavinia. We jest about him and imply that he is rogue and a cad, despite not truly knowing why.”

Lavinia thought back to Vincent’s warnings about the Viscount. “Vincent described him as disloyal, dishonorable, and selfish. A man who lives for his own gains. And I do believe the word rogue was indeed used.” She didn’t mention the parts about making women glow with his words or ruining them with a glance. Those ‘warnings’, which to Lavinia sounded more like enticements, she kept for herself. “Though, none of the time I have spent with him has given me that impression.”

“Oh, and how much time has that been? Ten minutes in Mr. Raine’s book shop and an uncomfortable carriage ride home? You must be an expert on the Viscount now.” Elinor teased.

Rolling her eyes, Lavina started to respond, but Violet spoke up before she could. “Plus earlier today when he and his strange little friend stopped by to deliver that letter. Don’t forget that.”

“Alright!” Waving their flippant responses away with a hand, she added, “You’re both right. The truth is, I do not know anything about Oliver Blackwood or his intentions.” She sighed before continuing. “It appears I have some questions to ask tonight.”

Pulling up to a turn in the road, the carriage halted, waiting for another to pass before heading left. As it sat there, Violet peeked out the curtain on her side of the carriage and gasped. 

Shoving the same curtain aside, Elinor filled the window to look for herself, blocking the view from Lavinia’s sight. “I do not think I ever noticed a castle in the middle of Saint James before.”

“A castle?” Lavinia repeated incredulously, leaning forward to get a glimpse of whatever had caught her friends’ attention, but just at that moment, the other carriage passed, blocking her view and before she could see anything they turned onto the street. “What do you mean, a castle?”

Looking back at her, Elinor smiled. “I mean exactly that, a castle.”

That answer helped not at all. “How could there be a castle in the middle of Saint James that we have never seen before?”

“I am not sure, but it does appear to be the address on that missive Blackwood and his adorable friend delivered earlier.”

As they rolled into a roundabout at the end of the street, Lavinia tried to desperately to see out the window, but it wasn’t until it came to a halt in front of the large structure that she could see it, and even then, the top was lost overhead to a view blocked by the roof of the carriage. Just then the door popped open, again with no assistance, and when Lavinia looked to the ground, a set of steps were already placed neatly in position.

The Viscount seemed to know a little about mystery and magic, a dawning knowledge that Lavinia had to admit only made her more keen to stay the course on this little adventure of hers. Stepping out of the carriage, she finally had a chance to take in the building they’d been delivered to. 

Her gaze traveled slowly from the ground at her feet, up towards the dark night sky, taking in the scene before her. Just ahead of her, off the edge of the sidewalk, stood an elaborate iron gate, decorated in a delicate filigree of intertwined vines and flowers. A few yards behind the gate was a short walkway, made of red pavers with black pebbles lining the sides; a set of steps leading down into a sunken garden beyond.

And across the way, there did indeed stand a castle. 

A small, modest castle, but a castle nevertheless. The thought almost made Lavinia laugh. Who had a modest castle in the center of Saint James? Apparently, Oliver Blackwood. That was who.

While modest, the castle was unlike anything Lavinia had seen before. It was made up of two main structures, each about four stories tall, and remarkably similar in size and shape to the townhouses that surrounded it. Between them, they were connected by an area about one third the height, with a massive oak door punctuating the center. 

To each side of the door, luxurious fabric banners were fastened to the peaks of the center structure, where they billowed gently in the night breeze. Several nearby torches strategically lit the intricately detailed imagery sewn into the long stretches of satin and silk. 

Both scenes reminded Lavinia of the medieval tapestries she had seen in museums. Only these were bold and brilliant, rather than dulled from centuries of age. The banner to the left of the door depicted Merlin the magician in his role as one of King Arthur’s Knight’s of The Round Table, fighting against the evil sorcerer, Morgan Le Fey, while the banner to the right was more romantic in nature, showing a medieval knight embracing a beautiful, enchanting woman. At first glance, one might think it was Sir Lancelot and his lady, Guinevere, but the hero had flowing black hair and the lady in his arms was an unidentifiable maiden, her face lost under the glare of a magical sword. 

As the banners rolled in the soft wind, they shimmered under the torchlight, casting glimmering reflections across the garden beneath them. From there, Lavinia’s attention was drawn again to the two matching halves of the castle. Though they were large and rectangular, like every other townhouse on the street, Lavinia knew they were meant to be turrets. More torchlight guided her eyes towards their peeks, where small barred windows glowed with a fiery hue, and above them were the castle’s battlements, capped with sharp crenellations. 

From behind her, she felt Elinor approach, leaning in close enough for Lavinia to feel the heat of her friends body directly behind her as she whispered in her ear. “Who in the world is Oliver Blackwood? And what have you gotten yourself into?”

Lavinia couldn’t fault her friend for stating the obvious, for she was wondering the same thing. 

“What are we waiting for, Ladies?” Violet asked, stepping towards the gate. “Shall we go in?”

“I, for one, was waiting for the gate to open of its own accord. I am a little disappointed that it did not, to be honest with you,” Elinor huffed as she picked up her skirts and pushed her way through it. 

The other two followed, descending into the sunken garden before crossing it, then climbing the enormous stone stairway to the oak door. As they approached, shimmering patterns of orange light glinted and flickered across the surface of the door in a mesmerizing dance, as though something of great importance lay behind it. The effect didn’t seem real and Lavinia found herself focusing on it, wondering how he achieved such brilliance. She couldn’t help but dream of all the ways she could paint a scene such as this. 

It was only for this tendency to analyze minute details, along with her understanding of light and shadow that Lavinia was able to make sense what she was seeing. It was a trick of the light. Intricate carvings in the wood extended through to the other side. On this side they looked like swirls of neat little vines. The other side was undoubtedly a different pattern all together. And somehow they connected in between. Lavinia knew that on the other side there would be a fire burning, likely a large one, and each of these carvings caught that light in a different way, the beams emanating from the door at different angles. The resulting effect was that the patterns appeared to shift and change as one grew closer or moved further away from the door, or simply by moving ones head from side to side. 

Lavinia wanted to study it some more, but no sooner than all three of them landed on the top step did the door begin to swing open, eliciting a squeal of excitement from Elinor, as it appeared to once again be moving without assistance. A slow, creaking sound emanated from its metal hinges as they strained against the weight. With a clunk it stopped, the sound of metal rubbing against metal as it was locked into position.

Inside was a wide hall with marble flooring that stretched from their feet to a grand fireplace across the way. Within it, a fire burned merrily, its warmth spreading outward from the hearth to fill the large chamber. Off to the right side, stood Oliver’s friend and the sight of him made Elinor wiggle beside her. “I was hoping he would be here,” she confided loud enough for him to hear. 

He rushed forward, bowing in the process. “Good evening, Ladies. How wonderful of you to join us.”

Violet curtsied, saying, “How wonderful of you to have us,” while Elinor stretched out her hand for a kiss, echoing with, “What she said,” as she gestured towards Violet. 

Elinor’s hand obediently kissed, the small man turned towards Lavinia, affecting an even deeper bow. “The Viscount eagerly awaits your company. If the three of you will follow me, I shall bring you to him.”

As they headed towards the right side of the room, Lavinia absorbed the rest of it, her eyes devouring every fantastical detail. She marveled at the intricate wood carvings on the walls that seemed to hold up the ceiling, and at the magnificent tapestry that hung above the mantle, its colors depicting scenes of knights and maidens galloping through fields, or soaring through the clouds on horseback. In the far corner, another tapestry hung, showing a battle scene, and beneath it, The Viscount had several suits of armor standing sentinel. The one in the center elevated on a dias, a long sword resting on its chest.

They traveled around the side of the fireplace, through a narrow passageway that blazed hot and bright due to it’s proximity to the hearth. But rather then stifling them, the warmth was invigorating, almost intoxicating, like leaning into the sun with your eyes closed on a hot summer day. Lavinia relished the way her skin drank it in.  

As they made their way around to the other side of the passage, it eventually dawned on her that Oliver’s friend was dressed in some sort of medieval costume, something akin to a medieval squire, which prompted a question from her. “Were we supposed to arrive in costume?”

“Not tonight,” he answered cryptically and the three ladies couldn’t help but cast curious glances at each other, each shrugging in response. 

The passageway opened back up again and they emerged into a much larger room which shared the heat of the same fire. If the exterior of the castle was an homage to King Arthur, this room was even more so. The center was dominated by a large round table, divided into twelve sections, each painted in alternating blue and white. Lavish chairs were positioned around the table, each with thick, red bolstered cushions that featured ornate patterns, woven in shining, silvery threads. To the left and right sides of the room were two sets of doors with carved wooden trim that matched the decorative details of the surrounding seating. Above the table hung an elaborate chandelier, comprised of dozens of candle-lit glass globes that reflected the warm glow of the fire, casting the room in an opulent, golden hue.

To Lavinia’s immediate right was a vast collection of swords, each more magnificent than the last, mounted inconspicuously, so that they appeared to be floating. The other side of the room, to her left, was a cluttered disorderly mess full of books with papers poking out of them. Scrolls and maps littered the floor and the walls were lined with shelves that stretched from floor to ceiling, full of volumes that looked rare and mythical.

Lavinia had a feeling this was not the Viscount’s corner, the man’s appearance always so neat and well-appointed that she doubted he had a disorderly bone in his body.

At the far end, two open double doors led out to a terrace, their heavy red velvet curtains pulled back to let in the only natural source of light in the room. As twilight was upon them, the light that emanated in from the outside world was a cool, ethereal blue, and framed within it, was Viscount Whitley, much the same as he had appeared at the Winthrop ball.

This time, however, the scene had been carefully orchestrated, as had been their whole arrival. Obviously. But Lavinia wasn’t sure whether to be charmed or irritated. Was Oliver Blackwood truly this eccentric, or was this the wool being pulled over her eyes?

Leaning over, Violet whispered, “Perhaps this is the reason he’s been shunned.”

Elinor elbowed her in response. “So, he is a little bookish.”

“A little?” Violet asked in disbelief, but anymore talk of the subject would have to wait, for Blackwood was headed in their direction. After welcoming them and curtsies and bows had all been executed, he added, “Please forgive me, I was remiss earlier today in introducing you to my good friend, Lord Sedgwick Vairs.” Oliver gestured towards the costumed man beside him.

Nodding, Lord Vairs added, “You may call me Wick,” and from beside her, she heard Elinor murmur his name hungrily under her breath. 

Ignoring her, Lavinia greeted Wick and then turned towards their host. “You’ve certainly gone out of your way to give us the royal treatment tonight.” Oliver nodded, seemingly pleased that she noticed. “I admit, I breathlessly anticipate what other wonders you may have in store for us this evening.”

His eyes flashed with amusement. “Nothing too dangerous, I assure you. Perhaps a walk through the garden sounds pleasurable to you.” All three ladies agreed before following Oliver and Wick out the open doors at the far side of the room, Lavinia apologizing for their tardiness along the way. “Unfortunately, my brother stayed up later than usual and we were unable to leave when expected. We can only stay for a short while.”

“A short visit then,” he smiled agreeably.

Once outside, Oliver angled himself towards Lavinia, extending his elbow to her. At the same moment, Wick extended both of his to Elinor and Violet and the two of them latched on with broad smiles, chatter immediately exploding between the three of them as they headed towards the terrace steps leading down into the garden. 

Lavinia looked at Oliver’s arm. He noticed her hesitance and his brows raised questioningly. “I promise you, it does not have teeth.”

An involuntary laugh bubbled from her. “I beg your pardon?”

“My elbow,” he pointed at it with his opposite hand, waving his fingers about. “It won’t bite you,” he assured her, unbending his arm as if to prove it. She looked at him curiously and when he repeated his demonstration she couldn’t help but bite back a smile. “Come try it out for yourself,” he offered, his eyes twinkling. 

Giving in, Lavinia placed her hand tentatively on his arm and they fell into step behind Wick and the other ladies. “If you find anything sharp in the crook of my arm, you be sure to tell me.”

“Alright, alright!” Lavinia burst out laughing. “You’ve had your fun.”

Beside her, he gave her a jovial shove of his shoulder. “Forgive me, I thought it might help break the tension.”

If that was the case, the man had sorely miscalculated. Whatever tension was there before was only magnified ten-fold now that her hand was wrapped around his solid bicep. Beneath her fingers, the muscle flexed to the rhythm of their steps, the feel of his body beside hers sending hot darts of sensation to her core.

They descended into the yard below where a path wound it’s way through a thicket of trees that towered above the property, blocking her view of the night sky. Moonlight peeked through the canopy, bathing the world in shades of amber. The night felt particularly quiet, the only sound that of Lavinia’s heart pounding in her ears drowning out the peals of laughter from the others ahead of them. 

Oliver seemed as content as Lavinia was to continue on without talking, and that was fine by her. She needed time for her senses to acclimate to his nearness, but the way his body brushed against hers as they walked was not helping.

In the past she had compared him to a sculpture by Michelangelo or Bernini. But that comparison did not do justice to a man like Blackwood, for sculptures did not flex and move under her grasp. They did not breathe, their large chests rising and falling before her eyes. Nor did they emanate heat in such a way that it made her own body grow warm in response. They didn’t look down at her with devastating obsidian eyes and charming smiles. And they certainly did not smell like man.

Oliver Blackwood smelled like man. All hot virility and sensual, primal energy that made Lavinia want to press herself firmly against him and deeply inhale the sweet muskiness that was Viscount Whitley. 

Resisting the urge to look up at him, Lavinia instead absorbed her surroundings. They seemed to be on a walking path that wove itself needlessly in twists and turns, extending what would otherwise be a short walk into the garden area. After the facade and interior of his home, she half expected to stumble upon a variety of medieval woodland creatures, or perhaps Merlin himself lighting their course by wizardry. But it was remarkably normal by comparison. 

Ahead of them, the path came to an end at a set of wide steps that opened up into a small clearing, and just beyond that was a one of the most lush and serene gardens she had ever seen. If she wasn’t mistaken, it too was medieval in style, only here it was done with a refined elegance that felt less like theater and more like historical reverence. 

The garden was thick with an underbrush of artfully overgrown shrubs, plants and autumn flowers. Taller trees strategically dappled the sky, allowing hints of the stars above to peek through, casting the area in alternating patches of shadow and moonlight. Cobblestone walkways traveled deep into the vegetation, leading to private little pergola’s that were draped with sheer fabrics for privacy, and in the distance, she could hear the sound of splashing water from a fountain. Torches lit the way along the winding paths, echoed by fireflies that danced and twinkled amongst the flowers.

Lavinia couldn’t help but wonder if the Viscount had let the insects loose himself, purely for dramatic effect. With that thought in mind, she finally allowed herself to look up at him, as if she would find the answer written on his face. 

He was not watching her reaction as she suspected he would be. Rather, he too was taken by the beauty of the garden, as if he were seeing it for the first time himself. “I see you have an interest in botany,” she said, finally breaking the silence. 

“Hmm,” Oliver redirected his gaze to her. “Oh, no. Only in a purely aesthetic sense, that is. I simply love how it transports me to another time and place.”

The answer tugged somewhere in Lavinia’s heart. The man seemed perfectly content so she had no reason to believe he was anything but. Yet, she couldn’t help but wonder what was so unsatisfactory about the here and now that he wanted so desperately to leave it. 

The man was an enigma. A contradiction at every angle. He was a man who society saw as ineligible, but by all other accounts was as equal a match as any other society gentleman. He was deemed a cad and a rogue in his pursuit of women, while at the same time appearing wholly disinterested in them. The ton branded him as ill-suited and immoral, while to Lavinia he seemed more like Prince Charming than any nefarios evil-doer she ever knew of. 

What were they seeing that she did not? What secrets were these rumors hiding?

Because the rumors, whatever they were, had to be untrue. In her gut, Lavinia knew there was more to Oliver Blackwood than the secrets the ton whispered about him. There had to be.

Right then, Lavinia knew that if she didn’t turn back, she would either marry this man or become the latest in a long string of heartbroken women, because she had every intention of finding out what mysteries lay inside this conundrum of a man. Whether the ton would one day brand her a Viscountess or ‘London’s Most Naive Debutante’…

Well, that remained to he seen.











Chapter 7

A quarter of an hour earlier, when the ladies hadn’t arrived as expected, Oliver had been ready to accept that this adventure was coming to a close before it had begun. He rationalized that they could be held up for any number of reasons, as ladies did not exactly have the same freedom to come and go as men. But then, Lavinia had been able to meet him in Covent Garden in the early hours of the morning, so a jaunt around the corner in Saint James did not seem a difficult task for a woman like her. 

It was with relief that he escorted her beside him now, surprised at how eager he was to get to know her. Not because of the inherent promise of her wager, but because the lady piqued his interest in a way no other had. What sort of woman engaged in wagers for paint, orchestrated secret rendezvous to Covent Garden in the wee hours of the morning, and unquestioningly accepted magical envelops dropped from the sky?

Perhaps one that might spark the fancy of a man who lived in a makeshift castle in the center of Saint James for no other reason than it pleased him to do so. She brought with her a renewed hope that he lost long ago. Only a week earlier he’d been telling himself he would never dare try again, and now here he was finding reasons to do exactly that. He was either incredibly fortunate, or ever the fool.

“I see you have an interest in botany,”

“Hmm?” By all appearances, he’d been lost in the beauty of the garden, but the scenery surrounding him was the furthest thing from his mind. “Oh, no. Only in a purely aesthetic sense, that is. I simply love how it transports me to another time and place.”

Her expression shifted, as if his answer had given her pause, but when she spoke again, there was no hint at whatever thought had crossed her mind. “Well, you have an eye for beauty, My Lord. Won’t you show me more?”

“I understand we’re newly acquainted, but if we were observing proprieties, you would not be here to begin with. Given that, please call me Oliver.” She nodded and they continued after Wick and the Ladies, until they veered of a path to the right and Oliver stopped once again to ask, “Would you like to remain with your friends or find some place we can speak privately?”

At the question, Oliver felt her tense beside him as she worked through the options before her. Would she throw herself head first into this wager and allow herself to be escorted into the darkness with a notorious rogue; or would she remain within a safe proximity of her friends?

Of course, Oliver knew she was safe either way. While rumors may say otherwise, he was not in the habit of despoiling virgins. Especially not innocent, blue eyed ones who were more book-smart than street-wise. Despite her bravado and obvious self-assurance, her eyes betrayed her uneasiness. There was an innocence about her, an honesty and earnestness in her gaze that made him wonder why she would put herself in harm’s way.

For pigment.

Oliver couldn’t help but wonder if there was more to it than that. If she was searching for something more, something that perhaps she herself hadn’t even identified yet. His heart took note, sending a wave of warmth washing over him.

Oliver watched her eyes flick toward the other side of the garden where the other ladies had turned off, undoubtedly weighing all the lies she had heard about him with her desire to win this wager. While Oliver knew they were lies, Liv did not, and that was why from there on out, each decision would be hers. 

Placing his hand over hers in the bend of his arm, he drew her attention back. “To talk. Nothing more.” Then he added, “I give you my word,” not knowing whether his word would mean anything to her. But as a man, Oliver understood that trust only grew with promises kept. So he gave his word anyhow, knowing that if he had any chance of this ending the way he hoped it would, he needed to begin fostering that trust now. 

There would come a time when the rumors would cause her to question him and his motives, if they weren’t doing so already. He knew that one day they would swirl in her head, giving her doubt upon doubt about who he truly was and what he really wanted. The only way to combat the weight of the tons lies would be with absolute honesty between them, so when the time came, she would know he was a man she could trust. 

At length, Liv squared her shoulders, saying, “I have questions for you. Would you rather answer them in private or in front of the others?” 

Oliver couldn’t help but smile at the cleverness of turning the question back on him. In order to win her wager, Oliver had to fall in love. To Liv, it might seem logical to bend to him, to yield to his desires in lieu of her own. But that was so far from what he needed it was the exact opposite, so instead of answering, he leaned forward, offering her a piece of wisdom. “If you think the fasted way to my heart is catering to my ego, you are firmly on your way to losing this wager, Miss Liv.”

Taking a half step back, she looked up at him, an expression of surprise on her face. “Is that what I was doing?”

He shrugged, “Is it not?”

At that she chuckled and steered down the path to the left, away from her friends, notably dodging the question altogether. From behind them, one of her friends called out “Wick says we will come find you in little while, Lavinia!”

She waved after them and fell back in step behind him. “You are wrong by the way.” He raised a brow and she continued. “I was not attempting to cater to your ego. What man wouldn’t want to be alone with a beautiful woman in an enchanting garden?”

What man indeed? Until a few moments ago, Oliver would have said he was that man. But the thrill he felt when she finally turned left instead of right, warned him that was no longer the case. At least not at that very moment. “Touche.”

Lavinia continued, “I’ll have you know, I was being genuine. I do intend to ask you some difficult questions about your past and I wasn’t certain whether you would prefer to be accosted alone or -“

“Or by all three of you?” Oliver interjected, hs voice laced with humor, causing Lavinia to smirk up at him. 

“Or,” she said, emphasizing the word heavily before continuing, “with your friend by your side. The two of you appear to be quite inseparable.” At the tail end of her sentence, she gestured at Oliver and Wick’s homes over her shoulder. 

“Ah, you noticed-“

“That you live together. Yes. It would be hard to miss,” she added with a warm smile that only accentuated the fullness of her lips.

“We don’t live together, just next door to one another.” Turning, he pointed to each of townhouses. “The one on the right is Wick’s. The one on the left is mine. We share the space you came in through today.”

“You two must be quite the pair,” Lavinia remarked with an easy smile.

“He is like a brother to me. You and your friends seem equally as close,” he acknowledged and she agreed. 

They quieted as they came to a bend in the path and headed for one of the secluded pergola’s, where she paused to lean casually against one it’s pillars. “May I ask you something?”

At the question a bolt of nerves exploded in his stomach, anticipating the beginning of her intended inquisition. But it was merely more small talk. That was fine, as he wasn’t in a rush to frighten her off with truthful answers. “How did you make it look like a castle?”

Oliver threw his head back with a laugh. That was what she wanted to know? 

Pushing away from the pillar she walked around him, reasoning out what she’d seen. “I suspect that if I were to return at any other time of day, or” she gave him a pointed look, “any night when you are not entertaining certain guests, that these two homes blend in with every other house on the lane. It’s how you placed the torches to strategically direct the viewers eye. Am I correct?”

He couldn’t help but be amused by the way her eyes narrowed as she tried to work it out. At the same time he was fascinated by the way she studied everything around her. One thing was for sure, Oliver was never going to be bored with her company; that much he could tell already.

“A magician never reveals his secrets,” he joked and she playfully shoved him, making him laugh harder. 

“I’m to believe you are a magician? Come now, Oliver, you will have to do better than that.” The sound of his name on her lips tightened the muscles in his stomach. Another new sensation elicited by this woman. 

Clearing his throat, he replied, “Wick is the magician, not I. He would be quite displeased with me if I were to divulge his methods. Wonder is his specialty.”

Across from him, Lavinia scrunched up her eyes, nose and mouth in comical disbelief. “Did you just say ‘wonder is his specialty’? Whatever does that mean?” No sooner had she asked the question than she gestured at him, changing directions. “More to the point, if wonder is Wick’s specialty, what is yours?”

“Mine?” Oliver smiled. “I am more like a magician’s assistant. Or possibly a jester. You will have to ask Wick to be certain.”

For a moment, she laughed along with him, but after several long heartbeats, she drew quiet again. Standing up straight, she looked right at him, her eyes suddenly serious and Oliver could tell immediately that small talk was over. Lavinia swallowed and dread washed over him. He was not ready to move on. He wanted more of the last few minutes.

“What they say about you,” the tone of her voice had changed from a moment earlier. No longer jovial, now soft and a little stern. “None of it is true, is it?”

The question astonished him, so much so that he felt the impact of it spread over his skin like a caress, and the warmth in his belly grew hot and tight. He could not recall the last time anyone had given him the benefit of the doubt. Was pretty certain it had never happened. 

“Tell me you are not so naive as to trust the word of the rogue that the rumors are about?” 

Raising her chin a notch, Lavinia rebutted, “If not your word, then whose?”

Stepping closer to her, he held her gaze. “I would urge you to form your own opinion.”

“Nevertheless, I should like to hear it from you.” Liv held his gaze in return, unflinching, and for a second Oliver couldn’t help but admire her determination. She was a woman not easily cowed. 

Carefully, he considered his words. “To be honest, it depends which rumor we are discussing, so you will have to be more specific.”

Lavinia cocked her head to the side, her eyes narrowing suspiciously. “Some of them are true, then?”

“There is a smidgen of truth in all lies. All good ones anyhow, as that is how they are most effective.” Taking another step closer, he looked at her candidly. “Part of the reason why the rumors about me have taken such hold is because they are almost always based on a small kernel of truth.”

She absorbed that confession, her eyes flicking away from his and back again. “I admit, that is not the answer I expected. Why would you tell me that when you could have easily denied it.”

Oliver shrugged, “It does not suit my purposes to lie to you, nor do I have any interest in doing so. Only time will prove that to you,” he said, giving her a meaningful look before finishing his sentence, “if you feel you can look past whatever you’ve heard about me long enough to discover the truth for yourself.”

She looked up at him, her eyes clear and unafraid. “Let us see if you are half the man you claim to be, Oliver Blackwood. I confess, I know not a single rumor about you other than that ridiculous title the ton has handed down to you. Will you be the first person brave enough to tell me exactly what it is I am supposed to be afraid of? Because as of yet, I am having difficulty distinguishing it for myself.”

Holy hell. Oliver was stunned. Could she possibly be speaking the truth? She knew absolutely nothing about him. That sounded preposterous. Or perhaps Grace was more intuitive than he gave her credit for. Had the gossip finally dwindled to nothing more than the occasional mean-spirited reminder of his failures?

Before he could speak again, she added “What did you do that was so wrong no one will forgive it?”

He was so taken aback that for a moment he could only stare at her, but he eventually found his words. “Do you mean to tell me that you engaged in this wager without knowing the full scope of who you are dealing with?”

Lavinia wandered over by a nearby torch, admiring the delicate tracery of their tall stands. Beneath the light, her cheeks flushed and she cast him a glance from beneath her lashes. “They do not spell these things out for us, you know.”

Pondering that, he realized it had merit. Lavinia’s brother wasn’t likely to sit her down and tell her the sorts of things Oliver heard about himself at gentleman’s clubs. He supposed he wasn’t half the man he claimed to be after-all, because he found he did not want to tell her. The thought of it alone made him queasy.

When was the last time he had a conversation with a woman that was not tainted by rumor and lies? When would he ever have the chance again? 

But strangely, he didn’t want to let her down. She had formed some opinion of him that hinged on his response. Oliver guessed that she had been trying to get at this information, but had been met with dead ends. Now she had no one to turn to except the man himself. Somehow he knew that to not answer would be a failure in her eyes. And he really did not want to fail yet another woman. 

Oliver wanted to be selfish and deny her, but how could he after she had placed such innocent trust in him tonight? Approaching her, he tugged at her elbow, drawing her away from the torchlight. Drawing her close so she could see the truth in his eyes. “I will tell you, if that is what you wish. And we can go froward with the weight of all those rumors pressing down on us. Rumors that have absolutely no bearing on you and I, or the here and now.”

“Or?” Lavinia leaned into him. Barely. Almost imperceptibly. Her chest rising and falling in a deep, unhurried breath that filled Oliver’s senses like a fragrant perfume. Her body fairly vibrated from his nearness. Or perhaps it was his body that vibrated in the wake of hers. He wasn’t certain he knew, the sensation so unfamiliar. So extraordinary. 

“Or,” he repeated, pulling her even closer, holding her gaze steady and sure, “You could just get to know me as a man. As Oliver Blackwood.” 

Looking up at him, Oliver watched Lavinia’s eyes shift as what he was suggesting settled. And he prayed that she would agree. That she could forget about rumors and gossip, that she could look past the fact that the whole of London had deemed him the worst sort of cad. He had never wanted anything so badly in his life.

And that knowledge seared across his body like a brand, hot and sharp. Not because he had told himself a million times over that he had no hope, but because for the first time in his life, that hope was attached to someone. Suddenly that hope was no longer intangible. It was no longer met with a faceless woman of unknown origin. All of a sudden, that hope was firmly tied to Lavinia. She was different.

She was his.

What a reckless, impulsive thought that was. It hardly even made sense given everything he know about himself. But this wasn’t attraction. It wasn’t love or even lust, nor was it wild desperation. No, it was vastly more simple than that. Oliver just wanted more. More of this. More of her. In whatever small little increments he could get. 

If he had to navigate that and contend with a thousand rumors at the same time, then so be it. But if he could convince her of this, maybe he would have a chance of succeeding this time around. 

“If you will do this for me, Lavinia, I promise to place my trust in you too. I’ll tell you all my truths, even those never heard by another woman. Or any other man, for that matter.”

Lavinia’s eyes grew wide. “‘Are you trying to woo me with secrets, Viscount Whitley?”

Now that was a unique spin to it that Oliver rather enjoyed. “I suppose I am,” he laughed. “Though, I fear that once I share them, you will see the fruitlessness of your endeavor, turn around and walk out of here and out of my life forever. And I really do not want that to be the outcome of this evening.”

She licked her lips, her tongue sliding across the rose petal pink skin. “Nor do I. I vote we hold secret spilling for another evening, then.”

Oliver couldn’t help but smile as relief pounded through him, but he need confirmation, so he asked, “Does that mean you will hold off on rumor hunting too?”

Backing away from him, Lavinia grinned coyly in his direction. “Under one condition.”

“Name it.”

Tapping a finger to her mouth, she appeared to consider her words before speaking. “I do not wish to be made a fool of. I want your word that you will tell me should something from your past become important for me to know.”

Again, seeking the word of a rogue. “You are lucky that I am not the man the world thinks I am, or you would be on the verge of walking into fire, my dear.”

“Nevertheless.” She beckoned for an answer and he gave her one with a smile. “You have my word.”

Ahead of him, Lavina wandered down a path that led into the center of the garden, where a fountain bubbled from the center of a large stone bowl. The water cascaded down from a low marble balcony, falling into the pool below. She wandered over to it, sitting on the edge to lean down and pluck coins from the floor of the pool, shaking off her wet hand as she came up with a pile of them. 

“For shame, those are someone’s wishes,” he scolded teasingly.

Lavinia looked at him over her shoulder, saying, “Now they are my wishes,” flipping one coin expertly between the middle finger and thumb, then flicking it towards the pool. The silver coin flashed in the air as it spun, hanging in there for longer than it should have, before gravity took over and pulled it down into the water with a small splash.

She repeated the process for all the coins in her hand; all the while Oliver watched, fascinated not only by her dexterity, but by her complete ability to be at ease with him. He supposed that was in part due to the fact that she hadn’t been privy to all the gossip. But even Lady Helen, his first of many debacles, was never this comfortable around him. Never fully herself. 

It was part of why he had such difficulty connecting. It was next to impossible to truly get to know someone under the watchful eyes of the ton. Other men found it easier. A pretty face for their marital duties and a mistress on the side was all they needed. But that would not do for Oliver. He needed more than a pretty face before he would even be able to perform his marital duties. He needed more than an occasional bedmate in a wife. 

He needed more. Full stop. 

Lavinia was already more than any other woman he’d ever met. He couldn’t help but wonder how many more surprises there would be as he unfolded her, revealed all her layers. How she would react when he exposed his own. 

Dyring her hands off on her skirt, she sat down on a nearby garden bench. Oliver made no move to join her, as he wanted to give her space, so instead he leaned against a one of the corinthian-style columns that decorated the area surrounding the fountain. 

At length, she finally raised the question he knew was coming, but that he dreaded the most. “Why are you doing this?” 

He dragged in a long, steady breath. This was one of the secrets they spoke of before, but Oliver was unwilling to take the cowards route now. He pushed off the column, taking a seat beside her after all. “I’m sure it must seem odd that I would entertain this wager of yours for seemingly no good reason of my own.”

“That is true, but I am coming to learn that everything about you is a little odd, given” she waved her hand about, gesturing at… “well, everything.” 

He chuckled in acknowledgement. “While that may be true, I do have reasons. I am not simply a bored eccentric.”

“Well, that is reassuring,” she replied even as her hands fidgeted nervously in her lap. 

Oliver was not sure it should reassure her, as the truth was infinitely worse. “The truth is,” he bagan, trying to decide how much to divulge at this juncture. It wasn’t that he wanted to keep secrets between them. He’d promised her he wouldn’t do that anyhow. But the issue at hand was complicated. So complicated that at times Oliver wasn’t certain even he fully understood it himself.

He decided to be forthright with her, knowing that it would reveal several of those kernels of truth he mentioned earlier. But at least she could form her own opinions without being swayed by the masses.

“I courted six different women over the course of seven seasons, leading each one of them to believe I would eventually off for her, and then failed to do so. By the eighth season, I had already used up the last chance anyone was willing to give me.” Oliver resisted the urge to close his eyes under the heat of embarrassment as he felt warmth creep up his neck. Instead he looked straight ahead, unable to look at her even though he wanted to gauge her reaction. 

Lavinia was still for a long time and Oliver just sat there and breathed, praying she did not laugh, that the latent desire in her eyes wouldn’t be gone when he dared to look again. It had been so long since any woman had seen him as anything but a cad. It had been a nice reprieve while it lasted, for all of five minutes. 

From the corner of his eye, he sensed her mouth working, searching for the right words. He understood, as he didn’t know what they were either. At length she said, “And the reason you never offered, that’s the secret, isn’t it?”

“Clever girl.” He finally looked at her again, telling her the whole of it. “I am unable to form romantic attachments,” he told her and when that delicate brow wrinkled in confusion, he explained further. “I do not feel attraction, or for that matter, fall in love.”

He could tell she wanted to ask questions, but right then the voices of Elinor, Violet, and Wick drifted through the trees on the opposite side of the fountain. They came to a stop just outside the clearing, giving Oliver and Lavinia a moment or two to wrap up their conversation. 

“It seems we’ve run out of time,” he stood up and offered her his hand. She took it and he tucked hers back into his elbow, heading out of the garden. “We will have to pick up where we left off another time. Later this week?” Oliver asked hopefully. 

Rather than answer, she asked a question of her own. “If you truly believe you are incapable of falling in love, why on Earth would you agree to this?”

“It’s simple really,” he shrugged nonchalantly. “I pray that I’m wrong, and you are my last chance to find out.”

Her body tensed again, just as it had earlier, and he wondered if it was an involuntary reaction when something made her inexplicably nervous. “That is a lot of faith to put in a woman who engaged in this wager for paint.”

Oliver halted then, turning fully to her he held her gaze, attempting to communicate with his own the inherent folly of staying this course. “Know this, Lavinia, if you continue with this wager after tonight, knowing what I just told you, it will no longer be about your pigment. Because every step of the way I will force you to acknowledge that you want to fall in love with me every bit as badly as I want to fall in love with you.”

She opened her mouth to protest, but he silenced her by taking another step closer, so she would feel the nearness of his body.

“You said before that you do not wish to be made the fool.” He paused, letting the memory of her earlier words sync up in her mind before continuing. “Nor do I.

Should you succeed, you’ve won your wager, but I can’t help but wonder where that leaves me when it’s all over. That is why I will have no choice but to do everything in my power to make sure you fall in love with me. And I will stop at nothing, because I am unwilling to risk my heart on a woman who is unwilling to risk her’s too. So if you wish to pursue me, know that I will pursue you in return. That I will be relentless, determined,” he paused, holding her gaze for a moment before adding, “and at times quite charming.”

Oliver winked at her and she rolled her eyes at him with a laugh. “Cute,” she muttered adorably. 

But he was all seriousness now and he placed one hand on hers, locking their gazes. “I am not joking.”

Lavinia looked back at him, her expression unreadable until she quirked a smile. “Good.”

That was all he needed for relief to flood through him. “We have an understanding, then?” She nodded once and they resumed walking. “There is one other thing I must raise? I have a sister in her first season.”

“Lady Grace,” she acknowledged. 

“Are you two acquainted?”

“No, we have not had the chance to meet. Surely in the future.”

“Certainly,” he agreed, but quickly continued to his point. “If you and I were to court publicly,” was all he managed to get out before Lavinia yanked her arm free in protest. 

“Oh, no, no, no, no, no.” She held up her hands to ward off any possibility of him pursuing this idea. “Absolutely not. I mean, it would only create more gossip. It could ruin your sister’s chances. And my brother, Vincent, would never allow it. No, our best chance is to conduct this courtship entirely in secret.”

When she finished, he stared at her for a moment before replying. “We are in agreement, then?” To which a bubble of laughter escaped her throat.

“Oh, were you going to say that?” Leaning over, she latched back on to his arm with ease, so different from how this night began. 

They followed Wick and the other ladies back up the path, through the house and out to their carriage. “Thank you for coming.”

“It was a pleasure, Viscount Whitley,” she responded with a curtsy, and Oliver couldn’t help but wonder if she used his true title as some sort of message to him. That wherever the future took them, they could go there without the other looming over them like a dark cloud threatening a storm. 

While Elinor and Violet cooed over Wick some more before he loaded them into the carriage, Lavinia looked over her shoulder back at the castle, trying, he guessed, to discover the secrets she already knew were hidden in the shadows. He was awed by how perceptive she was, her keen attention to detail. She was a woman who saw truths hidden in the dark. If he wasn’t careful, she would unearth him. But perhaps that was what he wanted.

When she looked back at him, she must have seen something written on his face. “What are you thinking?”

Oliver hesitated, uncertain he wanted to tell her. So he evaded. “I’m thinking it’s a wonder you came inside at all.” He gestured at the castle, “It is a trifle over the top, is it not?”

With that, Elinor popped her head out the window of the carriage. “I loved it,” she purred, drawing the word love out seductively.

“You may not be a bored eccentric, Oliver, but you are still eccentric,” Lavinia said as he helped her into the carriage. Adding just before closing the door, “I just so happen to like eccentricities.”

“Good,” he grinned and closed the door behind her. Seconds later, the carriage lurched forward, rolling only half a meter before coming to a halt again, Lavinia sliding the window aside, and popping her head out this time. “I forgot. How will we communicate?”

Beside him, Wick lit up and Oliver knew exactly what he was thinking. “I think we can come up with a plan for that. Keep an eye out for it.”

“Or ear,” Wick interjected, and Oliver chuckled.

“Um, I will do that.” Lavinia answered, a confused expression on her face as they rolled away.



Chapter 8

Face down in her bed, blankets pulled high over her head to block out the late afternoon sun, Lavinia willed herself to wake up, splash some water on her face and begin the day. Upon arriving home the evening before, the ladies snuck back into the house for some sleep, but while Elinor and Violet disappeared to their guest rooms, Lavina had felt the need to paint. 

The evening had left her a jumble of emotions and when her feelings rode too close to the surface, Lavinia let them spill onto canvas rather than bottle them up. 

She had left Oliver’s castle with none of the answers she intended to seek out. The look on Elinor’s and Violet’s faces when she confessed that fact was comical to say the least. She should have pressed him for answers. Should have insisted upon them. But she caved to his every suggestion.

She was weak.

Still, she had gained other, possibly more useful knowledge to get at the heart of Oliver Blackwood.

I am unable to form romantic attachments.

I do not fall in love. 

Suddenly, Lavinia had understood his comment from the night at Mr. Raine’s shop about the irony of her friends choosing him as her suitor. 

Except, she didn’t understand at all. What did he mean? How did he know he couldn’t fall in love? Lavina had never been in love, but she felt certain she had the capacity for it. Why did Oliver believe otherwise?

Ever since he had said those words to her the night before, a pit had set up residence permanently inside her gut. The night of their first meeting she had sensed a loneliness in him and what he had provided her was proof that her instincts were correct. 

Oliver Blackwood was aching. Oh, he had a jovial exterior, which so far seemed sincere. But Lavina couldn’t help but wonder what pains that facade was hiding. She wanted to find out. To uncover him, expose all the raw wants and needs he had yearning beneath the surface.

Lavinia painted long into the morning, thinking about everything she’d learned about him, and all the questions she still had. It was only when her friends came to bid their goodbyes after waking that Lavinia finally put her painting aside and went to sleep. She’d have stayed abed all day if she could, but she had Lord Henry’s musicale to attend. 

Crushing her eyes closed, she pressed her face into her pillow with a groan before rolling over and flipping the covers away. Without the heavy weight of the blankets and quilts muffling the sound, she noticed a strange noise in the distance. A cooing. 

Or more like a “hooo”, followed by a “coo” and then another “hooo”. 

“What in the world?” She sat up trying to figure out where the sound was coming from. 

“Hooo. Coo. Hooo.” Dozens and dozens of coos and hoos were coming from outside. “Coo. Coo. Hooo.”

Padding over to the window, she pushed the curtains aside. Her room overlooked the avenue to the side of their house where deliveries were made to the kitchens below. A large wagon with various bins, boxes, crates, and cages stacked into the back was rolling away. An annoyed Vincent chased behind, clutching a large cage in his hands that he desperately wanted to give back. 

Lavinia pressed the back of her hand to her mouth, covering her laughter right as Vincent turned and looked pointedly up into her window. Ridiculously, Lavinia gasped and ducked. He knew exactly where she was in the house and the impulse to hide from him was rather silly.

When she peeked out the window again, he was gone and a door slammed below causing her to jump. Then a moment later, “Lavinia!” echoed from two stories below. She snorted. Vincent angry had always been a funny affair to her. 

Standing, she grabbed a dressing robe and headed down to his study where she knew he would be waiting for her with whatever creature was in that cage. 

As she entered his study, she found Vincent standing between the door and his desk, a large cage dominating the center of it. 

“Hooo. Coo. Hooo.” The cage called to her. 

“Vincent, what is it?” She asked from behind him as she walked sleepily into the room. 

The moment he heard her voice, his head whipped around, eye’s brimming with accusation. For what, precisely, she did not know, but he was about to tell her. His hand came up, snapping open a sheet of folded paper she did not initially notice and began to read from it.

“Dear Miss Lavinia Fenton,” he said, his voice deep and clipped as he punctuated each word. “The London Homing Pigeon Society is delighted to inform you that you have won two month’s of homing pigeon services.” Letting his hand drop heavily to his side, he bowed his head and pinched the bridge of his nose, then whispered, “What did I just read?”

Unable to resist laughing, she replied, “It sounds as if I have won a pigeon!” Her voice was filled with her smile as she reached out and took the letter from Vincent’s grasp. The parchment was old and faded, as if it had been written long ago. Around the edges of the letter was a delicate motif of leaves and flowers, all done in black ink. At the top of the page there was an ornate crest depicting two pigeons in a wreath of roses and daisies.

Scanning the first sentence, she picked up where Vincent left off. “You are entitled to receive up to one new pigeon each day,-“

“Each day!?” Vincent shouted in horrified disbelief, his eyes wild and white. “What do you mean, each day?”

“I’m certain the letter will tell us if we attempt to finish reading it.” She raised the letter again and started over, “You are entitled to receive up to one new pigeon each day. Simply release the pigeon with a message and a new one will be delivered on the morrow.” Looking to Vincent, she shoved the paper back in his face. “See? It sounds quite straightforward.”

Her brother eyed her skeptically. “I do not understand. Where does it take your message?”

The question amused Lavinia. There he was putting on quite the show as if he were beyond perturbed, but Vincent could not resist seeking out the details. “Why, I presume to the-” Lavinia paused to scan the letter for the name of the society. “London Homing Pigeon Society.”

Closing his eyes, Vincent shook his head as if he were trying to work out a difficult puzzle. “Let me be certain I understand this correctly. You release the pigeon and it travels back to the Homing Pigeon Society. They then send another back to you, only for you to release it back to them, just to get another in return? Am I understanding this correctly?”

She shrugged. “I believe so.”

Vincent drew in a long, low breath that sounded more like an exasperated sigh than anything else. “I have never heard of anything so inanely pointless in all of my life.”

It might sound pointless to Vincent, but Lavinia suspected these little creatures would be anything but pointless to her. However, she was not about to share that with Vincent, so she shoved past him to look at the little cooing bird in the cage without a reply.

It was the most adorable thing. Perfectly white, with fluffy chest feathers and bright golden eyes, its tail fanning out behind it. The birdie looked up at Lavinia with such a pure and sweet gaze, she could not help but laugh and poke a finger through the bars of the cage to stroke its head.

“Please remove that thing from my presence,” Vincent grumbled.

“Why Vincent, you cannot possibly be so upset over such a little creature. He even has a name.” She added, noticing the engraved placard at the top of the cage. “Sir Pippin!”

Vincent ignored her. “Whatever would posses you to enter a drawing for homing pigeon services? Have you taken a sudden interest in espionage?” Vincent inquired with a dark scowl. 

“Oh, look, he has something tied to his leg. Help me open the cage.”

Lavinia, paid Vincent little attention and began to fiddle with the latch holding a tiny doorway in the cage closed, but before she could make any progress, he yanked the cage away. “Absolutely not. We are not allowing this beast to fly around our home.”

Lavinia couldn’t help but giggle at his comical outrage. “Beast, Vincent? Sincerely? It is but a small bird. And please be carful; you’ll startle him.”

“Nevertheless, you are not keeping him.” He groaned, running his hand through his hair in annoyance.  

Lavinia crossed her arms defiantly over her chest. “I think what you mean to say, big brother, is that I am not keeping him here in your study. I see no reason why I should not be allowed to keep him in my own room. Unless you are no longer my brother and have decided to become a tyrant instead.” she argued. 

For a long moment, Vincent held Lavinia’s gaze while an internal battle played out on his face. He wanted to capitulate, and likely would, for Lavinia had always had Vincent wrapped around her little fingers, but his lingering hesitation and the way he was staring at her made her wonder if there was something he was not saying. 

He thought she was hiding something, and she couldn’t help but wonder if he knew it had something to do with Oliver Blackwood. It had been a mistake to mention him to Vincent the other night. Now his hackles were raised.

On the other hand, she could simply be paranoid. 

At length Vincent nodded hesitantly from side to side. “Fine,” he sighed with more of a groan than a word. “You can keep him, but do not release him in the house.” With that, he handed the cage out to her and Lavinia snatched it from him with glee. 

“Thank you, Vinnie,” she grinned and kissed him on the cheek before dashing for the door. 

He called after her, “One more thing, Lavinia. Might you have an idea as to where my bench has wandered off?” he asked, pointing to the empty spot on the floor where the the bench Violet had sat on for their painting session in the yard the day before usually sat.

Grimacing, she clenched her teeth together, lips drawn out wide, with a slight downturn. She had accidentally left it outside, hadn’t she?

“I apologize Vincent, Violet posed for a new painting yesterday. I borrowed your bench and,” She grinned sheepishly, shoulders cinching around her head, “I may have left it outside.”

Immediately, Vincent launched himself into a tirade about how the bench was their great-great-great-great-grandfathers and he had brought it to England from France after it was given to him by a French Merchant who, frankly, Lavinia had very little interest in. But the bench was important to Vincent, and she felt poorly for not taking better care.

She was about to apologize again when Vincent abruptly cut himself off, changing direction entirely. “Violet? You were painting Violet?”

Lavinia narrowed her eyes at him suspiciously. “She poses for me rather often actually,” she replied, curious to see Vincent’s reaction.

The man tried to act casual, and to anyone else, he might have succeeded, but Lavinia knew her brother. He fidgeted when he was nervous. And Vincent did not like to fidget. So when he was about to fidget, he shoved his hands deep into his pockets and perfected an air of nonchalance so convincing he had even deceived their own mother, once-upon-a-time.

“Is that so?” He asked, first stuffing both hands into his pockets, then turning to look at random papers on his desk only to release a hand to haphazardly shuffle them about the surface. “I had not realized. You usually show me what you are working on.” Head still angled towards the papers, he peered up at Lavinia, eyebrows raised in question, before lifting a glass of amber liquid casually to his mouth for a sip.

“Oh, I havn’t shown you these because she is nude on most of them.” Lavinia made the statement bold and matter of fact and Vincent sputtered, choking on his drink, his face growing crimson.

Apparently Vincent had at least a passing fancy where Violet was concerned. Lavinia pocketed that information for later, and after assuring him that she would return his bench to its home in his study, she bolted for the door, desperate to make an exit for more reason than one now.

Behind her, Vincent had collected himself and shouted a reminder that they were to depart for Lord and Lady Barrington’s in only a couple of hours, but she could hardly be bothered to feign interest. “I will be ready!” Lord Henry was the furthest thing from Lavinia’s mind. She wanted into that little pouch tied to Sir Pippin’s leg.

It had to be from Oliver. No one else would send her a pigeon. 

On second thought, Elinor might send her a pigeon, but why she would do that, Lavinia did not know. Therefore, it had to be from Oliver.

Back in her room, she shut and locked the door, then hurried over to her writing table in the corner, placing Sir Pippin and his cage gently on the surface. Before opening it, she took some time to admire the craftsmanship that was poured into this absolutely gorgeous cage. Like everything having to do with Oliver, it possessed a sense of whimsey and magic. 

The cage was made of dark polished wood with ornate carvings etched into the surface of each bar. They wove a delicate pattern of branches, leaves, and flowers, all of which would have been incredibly difficult to create by hand. The bars that ran across the top were perfectly aligned so as to allow easy access to the small space below. A tiny latch was attached to the bottom and a heavy door, lined with red velvet, was affixed to the front.

“Hooo. Coo. Hooo.”

“I hear you Sir Pippin. Let us discover what message you have for me.” Lavinia’s voice was soothing as she opened the door and slowly reached her hand into the cage. Sir Pippin, apparently at ease with humans, scuttled right into her hand. 

“What a little darling you are.” 

Holding him gently, Lavina sat on her bed, Sir Pippin in her lap, and ever-so-carefully detached the tiny scroll from an even tinier leg. It was a good thing she had such control with her fingers. Painting had taught her a steady hand. 

It didn’t take long for her to work the message free, but she set it aside to pet Sir Pippin for a while. Just then, a knock came at the door. It was her maid informing her that she had prepared a bath for Lavinia. 

“Thank you, Sarah. I will be along shortly.”  

Lavinia secured Sir Pippin back into his cage and unrolled the little scroll. It was blank. Her shoulders dropped in disappointment. 

Hadn’t he some message for her? What good would a one way method of communication do?

“Boo,” she pouted, and with a pat of Sir Pippin’s head through the slats of the cage, she treaded off to the bath. She would have to solve this riddle later. 


Three hours later, Lavinia was sandwiched between Lord Henry and Vincent as they watched a group of young ladies giggle and sing to the tune of a harpsichord. The musicale had turned out not to be so much a musicale as a gathering of acquaintances who possessed an interest in music. The environment was more casual than formal, which surprised her, as she had automatically imagined Lord Henry would be the most suitable match Vincent could find, which in Lavinia’s limited experience had most often meant boring and old.

But Lord Henry was neither. She had known he was young and attractive by most women’s standards, having met him on several other occasions, but until that evening they had never had a chance to converse at length. And since Violet and Elinor had failed to make an appearance as promised, she was left with no form of rescue from the tour of Lord Henry’s home offered upon their arrival.

A string quartet filled the main hall where people milled about drinking punch and chattering. A large library to the left of the hall was dominated by a gathering of gentleman who sang a medley of baroque-era songs. Opposite the library, ladies gathered in a luxurious drawing room, taking turns playing the pianoforte for one another.

As they’d wandered deeper into the home, Lavina witnessed an abundance of musical activity, each room seemingly with its own theme. In some, the furniture had been pushed aside, carpets rolled up, and people danced and laughed merrily. And, in some cases, drunkenly. Other rooms were silent and still, filled only with the sound of music being played around them.

Overall there was an ambiance of warmth and coziness that had surprised Lavinia. So much so that she had even found herself enjoying the occasion, despite her annoyance with her friends for abandoning her and the constant presence of Oliver at the back of her mind. 

More like at the very front of her mind. As she, Vincent, and Lord Henry had funneled into the room, Lavinia had caught sight of Lady Grace across the way, but she was quickly shuffled out of sight again before Lavinia could see who she was with. 

However, she didn’t need to see to know it was Oliver. The very moment she saw Grace, her skin began to buzz. It was as if her body was aware of his presence. And as Lavinia sat listening to the six ladies sing their hearts out at the front of the room, she burned with the desire to look about and find him. His eyes were on her. She knew it, could feel it. She could sense the heat of his gaze and it made her want to melt in her seat.

Unable to resist the impulse, Lavina let her eyes wander, scanning the room in a way as to not alert Vincent. At last, her eyes found Elinor and Violet pressed up against a wall in the shadows, several others crowded in front of them. So her friends had not abandoned her after all. They smiled at Lavinia when they noticed that she’d seen them. 

Then Violet tilted her head to the right quickly before uprighting it again and repeating the motion several times. When Lavinia cinched her brows in confusion, Elinor took over, performing much more exaggerated gestures, cocking her head to the side repeatedly, and making swooping motions with her face in a particular direction. Lavinia had to stifle a laugh before she caught on and finally looked in the direction her friends had indicated, and there he was. 


He was twenty or so paces to the right of the singing-sextet, backed into a corner, deep in shadow where he was hardly noticeable. And he was staring right at her.

Lavinia stopped breathing, frozen under the weight of his dark gaze. A wave of cool gooseflesh rushed over her body as heat bloomed in her belly and spread through her veins, the contrast causing her heart to race. It beat hard in her chest, thudding like a drum in time to the clash of music that bled together throughout the house. 

The two of them held that connection, as if their gazes were linked together by an invisible chain preventing them from looking away. The longer they held, the more breathless Lavina felt. She knew she should look away, but she couldn’t. 

A moment later, Oliver snapped his eyes away, breaking the spell. Lavinia looked to Vincent then and noticed he was also watching her intently. Knowingly. 

Had he seen? Suddenly, her heart raced for another reason. Panic. But when her eyes flicked back over to where Oliver had been standing, he was no longer there. 

She would need to be more careful, or Vincent would catch on to her. He already suspected something, she could tell. He might not believe she was actually cavorting with Oliver Blackwood in real life, but she had given Vincent a glimpse of her interest and her brother was no fool. 

Smiling at him nonchalantly, Lavina gave his had an affectionate squeeze and returned her attention to the performance as if nothing had occurred. When it was over, she nearly jumped out of her chair in her rush to exit the room and find Elinor and Violet. Excusing herself to find the necessary, she turned away from her escorts. Vincent caught her arm, warning, “Do not go far,” making her wonder if he was aware of Oliver’s presence.

With a nod, she ran off, dashing into the crowded hallway, peering over heads to find her friends and finally spotting them being forced back into the main hall by the horde of guests headed in the opposite direction from where she stood. Amongst them was Lord Henry, Vincent, and Lady Grace. 

No Oliver. How odd. 

Just then she felt something being pressed into the palm of her hand from behind. She grabbed it reflexively, swiftly turning in place to see who it was, but while there were several people milling about, none of them paid her any heed. 

Looking in her hand, Lavinia discovered a folded piece of paper. Inside was a short note. 

“Third floor. Take a left from the stairs. Last door on the right.”

A thrill raced through her. 

Quickly, Lavinia folded the piece of paper and stuffed it into her reticule and began making her way to the set of stairs she’d seen earlier off the side of the main hall. Though every fiber of her body wanted to rush through the crowd and scramble up the stairs, she willed herself to maintain an air of calm. With Vincent and Lord Henry off ahead of her, she didn’t need to worry about being caught by them. She watched as they made their way into the Library, then she turned and skulked off to the stairway, working herself into a crowd that was ascending at the same time as her. 

While most of the partygoers stopped at the second floor, Lavinia continued up to the third on her own, hoping no one would notice her. Once she reached the first landing and rounded the corner to head up the second half of the flight, she found herself alone and took off, flying up the steps for the third floor. 

At the top, she took a left and hurried down to the last door on the right. It was closed and she raised her had to knock, but that felt absurd, so instead she took a deep, settling breath, and creaked the door open, slowly peering around the edge of it into the dark. As Lavinia stepped inside, it appeared to be empty. 

The room was a small study. A desk was nestled in the corner with papers on it and an old chair seated in front. In the center of the left wall, was a large stone fireplace, a painting of a galleon ship at sea above the mantel, matching the theme of the room, which was decorated in a nautical fashion. It smelled like old books and dust and the scent of paper and there were ocean maps and volumes full of seafaring tales. 

A window provided the only source of light in the room and as Lavinia turned away from it, assuming she’d found the wrong room, her eyes adjusted, finally noticing Oliver watching her from…where else but a dark corner?

“And you claimed it is I who surrounds themselves in mystery and intrigue,” she said by way of greeting him, recalling his comment from their first meeting. 

Oliver chuckled and pushed himself away from the wall he’d been leaning against, leaving the darkest shadows behind and coming into full view. 

Lord, he looked incredible. He was dashing in a suit so perfectly pressed there was not a wrinkle to be seen. His cravat was folded to perfection and pinned elegantly beneath his firm, clean-shaven jaw. The jacket was dark burgundy in color, with a navy waistcoat beneath it. Threads of gold wove an intricate pattern of something Lavinia could not make out. His lower half was encased in a pair of rich brown breeches, made from a fabric that looked soft to the touch, like suade. The whole ensamble hugged his body firmly, outlining his broad shoulders, muscled arms, and lean torso. Not to mention his strong thighs and his…

Lavinia diverted her eyes back to his face, but not before he caught her admiring him. Thankfully, he was gracious enough not to comment on the matter. “I apologize. I needed to be sure we would not be interrupted. I’ve been an acquaintance of Lord and Lady Barrington for many years, and I knew this room would be unoccupied.”

“This is risky,” she pointed out but Oliver only shrugged. 

“Perhaps I think you are worth the risk.” His voice was soft like silk. And that was one of his greatest charms, Lavinia concluded. It poured over her like honey when he spoke, making her blood warm. “I trust you received my delivery earlier today.”

She nodded with a smile. “At my brothers great displeasure. Communicating by pigeon is one of the more unique ways I’ve ever sent correspondence, but I admit, I’m charmed by the whole thing.” The confession made Oliver look inordinately pleased with himself, and he seemed unable to resist a broad grin in her direction. Lord almighty, those perfect teeth made her knees weak. 

Lavinia continued, “I was a little disappointed to discover Sir Pippin’s note was blank. I presumed there would be a message from you.”

As she made the comment, she turned and began perusing the shelves, wanting to look anywhere but at the man who dominated the room. She was nervous. She felt awkward. But even as she hoped he wouldn’t notice, she couldn’t help but slide her gaze back to his, simultaneously wanting to look at nothing but him. He mind warred. 

Crossing his arms over his chest, Oliver wandered over to the desk in the corner and dropped himself into the old chair, spreading himself out in such casual male elegance that the battle for her attention was entirely won by the man himself. He was vastly more appealing than the endless nautical guides cluttering up the shelves. 

The ton might have another title for him, but the man was all Viscount. All pomp and circumstance. Pride etched into his every movement. It was yet another dichotomy of Oliver Blackwood, for the man also emanated humility and grace. 

At length, he just looked at her, his eyes piercing, seemingly penetrating her soul, like an instrument searching for a song. “You are more clever than that.”

Her brows instantly snapped together. “What, precisely, does that mean?”

“I’m certain you will figure it out,” he answered, leaning forward and resting his elbows on his knees. “I did not know you would be here tonight, but when I saw you earlier, I decided to seize the opportunity to speak with you once more. There is something that has been on my mind since we parted.”

He had been thinking of her? The notion made something inside her flip over. Oliver Blackwood was thinking about her.

She, Lavinia Fenton

“It occurs to me,” he continued as he stood up and approached her. “After I shared with you,” he paused, searching for the right words, apparently not finding any, “what I shared with you, I did not give you adequate time to think about what it meant or to ask questions. While there will be time for answers at a more appropriate time and place, it only seems right that I offer you an out. There’s still time to undo this, Lavinia, if you are having second thoughts.”

The expression on his face was one of such determination and intense seriousness that her breath caught. And all those feelings of excitement of what was to come began to die a slow and miserable death in her heart. Lavinia was not having second thoughts, but Oliver apparently was, and she felt that disappointment like a blow.

Her mouth worked to say something but nothing came out, and Oliver, being as perceptive as he was, immediately noticed the shift in her mood. He lifted his hands, grasping her elbows and drawing her close to look directly in her eyes. “You are risking everything on a man who cannot fall in love. I am warning you, Lavinia, you will likely lose this wager, and if we are not extraordinarily careful, possibly your reputation in the process. Are you certain you wish to proceed?”

As if punctuating Oliver’s statement about being extraordinarily careful, a crash came from outside the door and both their heads whipped around in its direction. A reminder that they were already not doing a very good job of proceeding with caution. 

Raising his finger to his mouth in a shushing motion, he walked quietly over to the door, grabbing the handle as gently and quietly as possible before tensing his grip and holding it firmly closed. They waited. Then someone attempted to open the door, the handle held firm in Olivers hand as he prevented it from rotating. From the outside, the door would appear locked, despite there being no lock on the door. Lavinia could only pray it was not Lord Henry or some other household member who was aware of that small detail. 

The sound of laughter and feminine whispers worked their way through the wood barrier and Lavinia knew at once it was Elinor and Violet. “It’s alright. You can open it.” Oliver gave her a questioning look, and she assured him it was safe. “Trust me,” she she said meaningfully, thinking about his promise from the night before.

And he did. Slowly opening the door just a crack and peering out before letting it swing wide. He ushered the two ladies in before they were seen and closed the door behind them again. 

“Were you following me?” Lavina asked, annoyed by the interruption. 

“We were finding you,” Elinor explained. “Vincent is looking everywhere for you. You must come with us right away so we can be your alibi.”

Lavinia’s annoyance immediately turned to gratefulness, “What would I do without you two?”

“Likely be ruined seven times over by now,” Violet answered, eliciting a sideways chuckle from Oliver who was now making his way back over to her.

“We again find ourselves short on time. Think about what I said. If you decide not to come to our next meeting, I will understand.” With that, he backed away and added. “I shall remain here for a few minutes after you leave. That should give you ample time to escape.”

The way he emphasized that last sentence hit her heavy in her gut, as if he’d meant something other than escaping this study and Vincent’s scrutiny. He warned her to escape him. For good. To walk away while she still could. And all it did was resolve her commitment to the course all the more. Unable to tell him that right there and then, however, she smiled back at him before leaving the room with her friends.

As they dragged her towards the main hall, Elinor and Violet grabbed things from corners in halls along the way. At one point, Elinor reached behind a column, materializing a comically tall cup of punch that she thrust into Lavinia’s hand. Violet dashed into an empty room just to the left of the the third floor stairs and produced a tray of desserts, which she carried down the steps to the second floor landing where people were once again milling about. Then, just as they were about to head down the last flight to the ground floor, they abruptly turned, Violet stuffing a chocolate dessert into Lavinia’s mouth before she could protest, Elinor shoving her halfway behind a decorative curtain.

They then began to laugh in an overly loud manner, Violet giving Lavinia a playful punch to her shoulder. “The desserts are delicious, but six, Lavinia? I think you have had enough?”

Behind Violet, Lavinia spied Vincent approaching them and finally realized what they were about. “But they are divine,” Lavinia joined in with the farce, talking around her mouth of chocolate somethingorother.

“I should have known you were seeking out the dessert tray,” Vincent teased, being fully appraised of her love of sweets. “Lord Henry heard that you play the harpsichord and expressed an interest in hearing you play.”

Lavinia’s eyes grew wide. “Is that so? I wonder how exactly Lord Henry came to know of such a thing.” She mused despite the obvious answer. 

“Lavinia, you are a lovely woman and you would have many suitors if you would simply present your best self to society. If you will not do that, then I will do it for you.”

Why, thank you brother, she cringed inwardly.

Unfortunately, they had now lingered long enough on the second floor landing for Oliver to make his way down from the floor above. He landed at the bottom, not more than a few paces away from where they stood. Surveying the crowd, his eyes passed directly over each and every one of them without so much as a hint of recognition. Then he saw someone in the distance and he waved before heading over to them. 

Beside her, Vincent visibly tensed. “If I had known he would be here, you wouldn’t be.”

She feigned a shocked look, swatting him on the arm. “Pish, Vincent. This isn’t over that silly question I asked the other day, is it? Trust me, your feelings on the matter could not have been more clear.” And they were. Lavinia simply disagreed with his assessment. 

Vincent hesitantly let the subject go, pulling a pocket watch from his coat. “There is another performance in a quarter of an hour in the drawing room on the main floor. Lord Henry asked that we join him.” It wasn’t a question of whether she wanted to. As far as Vincent -and all of society, for that matter- was concerned, a lady’s wishes on the matter were irrelevant. “I need to excuse myself for a moment, but we shall converge there.”

He took off and fifteen minutes later, after telling Violet and Elinor about her brief meeting with Oliver, she did as her brother bade and met up with him and Lord Henry for another performance. But while there was an expectation that she would be where he asked her to be, as well as to engage in polite conversation, she was not about to fawn all over Lord Henry as Vincent obviously wanted her to do. 

She showed him only enough interest as to not appear rude. Friendly, and that was all. There was not a spark of romance to be had between them and by the time their evening was done, she had made that clear, if not to Lord Henry himself, very much so to Vincent. 

They rode back to their townhouse in silence, Vincent looking angrily out the window, his arms crossed over his chest as he brooded. Lavinia was not interested in having an argument about her future prospects so she remained quiet. Thus far, that strategy had allowed her to fall victim to blessedly few of those conversations, but she had the distinct feeling that this time, she was on perilously dangerous ground. 

Vincent was bothered by her disinterest in getting married, and she honestly could not blame him. It was her sole purpose in life, after all. Whatever would she do without a husband?

In all seriousness, she did understand. He was responsible for her and that must be a heavy burden to bear. If she never married, he would always be responsible for her, and while she knew Vincent would never be bitter over such a thing, that didn’t mean he didn’t want her to find happiness with a family of her own. 

Her brother looked to her with narrowed eyes. “I am trying to understand you, Lavinia. One might think you are set on becoming a spinster.”

What was she to say to that? Indeed, Vincent, I have something to tell you…

But she wondered if that was still true. Because as of late, she’d been set on making Oliver Blackwood fall in love with her, and that led to the very opposite of spinsterhood.

Vincent continued, “You hardly gave the man a chance. He is a good gentleman. Yes, he is a second son, but I never thought that sort of thing would be of importance to you.”

“It isn’t.”

“He is intelligent, good natured, not the stuffy old bore type, which I believe you expressed disinterest in a time to two.” He stopped speaking, looking at her as if he’d asked a question. 

He hadn’t but it was obvious he felt it was her turn to speak. “Who would want to be with a stuffy old bore?” She said, tilting her hands up in question. 

Vincent groaned. “Take this seriously, please Lavinia.”

“What would you like me to say? More to the point, what would you have me do? Feign an interest that I do not have?”

“Of course not,” he assured her. “But could you not attempt to get to know the man.”

She guffawed openly, but said nothing. Get to know him? As if that meant something. Very little was real in a society courtship. It was part of what she loathed so much about how it was done. 

“I am simply trying to understand what is wrong with the man,” he snapped after a long pause, his voice harsh and without patience.

Lavinia finally snapped back, unable to bite her tongue a moment longer. “Fine, you wish to know. Then I shall tell you. Here it is, so listen carefully,” she shouted, leaning towards him for emphasis. “Lord Henry does not make my horses gallop.”

The moment she said it, Vincent’s eyes shot wide open, then slammed shut as if he had witnessed something horrific. He went red. Covering his face with one hand, he bit out, “My God, Lavinia.”

Warmth bathed her face, her shoulders rising and falling in a deeply mortified breath. Well, she had said it. She could not take it back now, so she forged ahead. “As uncomfortable as it might be to hear this, Vincent, I need you listen.” Lavinia waited for him to object, continuing when he didn’t. “I am aware that once I am wed, I will be required to perform certain wifely duties.”

Vincent’s ducked his head even lower, sinking into his seat. He pinched his brow and his lips pressed into a grim line, as if he was forcing himself to listen. Or trying not to. Lavinia wasn’t sure which.

“I would like those duties to be,” she paused, searching for a word that would not leave her unable to ever face him again. She settled on, “pleasant,” and cringed, closing her own eyes so she did not have to witness his reaction.

After several long beats, she opened them again and found Vincent watching her. He gave her an awkward smile and a shallow nod. “Understood.” Swallowing, he redirected his gaze out the window.

Lavinia averted her own eyes then. And prayed for death.

Once they arrived home, they said strained goodnights and left each others company so quickly Lavinia had to laugh about it. But all was forgotten as she entered her room and found Sir Pippin sitting where she left him. Her maid, Sarah, had brought him some food as Lavinia had requested before she left for the evening. 

Now the little pigeon sat there cooing quietly in some bedding at the bottom of the change. What had Oliver said earlier when Lavinia said she was disappointed there was no message?

You are more clever than that.

Did that mean there was a message? Slowly, she rotated the cage, examining it. Both the top and the bottom of the cage had enclosed areas that she could not see into. Running her fingers over the areas, she searched by feel for something, though she did not know what. She repeated the steps along the bottom, not feeling anything remarkable. 

What she needed was a better look and it was too dark in her room. Grabbing a candle from a drawer in her desk, she propped it up in a holder and lit it. Not wanting to startle Sir Pippin with it, she first opened the cage and took him out, settling him on the open lid of a jewelry box as a makeshift perch, watching for a moment to see if he would try to take flight. The little love just cooed and remained where she put him, so she patted his head and resumed her task. 

Holding the candle near the exterior of the cage, she rotated it once more, and finally she noticed a thin outline of a drawer in the bottom portion of the cage. It was flush against the wood frame surrounding it so tightly that the two pieces must have started off as one. In fact, it was so perfect that Lavinia thought it might not be a drawer at all, but just how it was crafted. 

But she knew there was a message, so she forged ahead. There had to be a latch somewhere. Something that would release the drawer. Having thoroughly checked the outside, she turned to the inside of the cage. Reaching in, she avoided poking around the nesting at the bottom, hoping the release would be located in a less disgusting portion of the interior. 

Lavina reached in, bending her arm up towards the top of the cage, where the other enclosed area was. She felt around, pressing around, but there was nothing. 

“Hmm.” Lavinia pulled her arm out, defeated. Apparently she was not as clever as Oliver thought. “Sir Pippin, tell me how to open it, will you?”

Then it suddenly occurred to her that the message must be in the letter that was sent along with the cage. 

Grabbing it, she spread it out on the desk, holding the candle over it. How silly of her, she was expecting some elaborate puzzle, but right there on the back of the letter were feeding instructions, along with a note about a storage compartment with supplies on the bottom. All she had to do was lift the cage and pull out the drawer from under the lip. 

She did exactly that and the top enclosed part of the cage made a clunking sound, as if something had been released. She quickly rummaged through the bottom drawer, only finding things for Sir Pippin. Then, setting it aside, she turned back to the top section.

This time, it was loose and she was able to slide the top back and disconnect it. It was attached by a string that snaked itself down a hole in one of the cage slats, which must have been what released it as she opened the drawer. She let it dangle gently on the side of the cage and looked in the top where she found a flat black box, a small piece of parchment affixed to the the top with a drop of wax. 

She pulled the note off and opened it. 

“For our next adventure.” Scrawled beneath was the next date and time that his carriage would arrive to whisk her away to a mysterious location. She would have to wait a whole three evenings before seeing him again.

With a sigh, she set the note aside and lifted the box from the cage. It was heavier than she anticipated, and polished to a shine that glinted under the candle light beside her. 

She hesitated to open it, thinking about how he had left this here for her. The man seemed to always go above and beyond. And as of late, he was going above and beyond for her. For no other reason than that he wanted to fall in love. The thought made something unfold deep inside her. Opening. Blossoming. Sending tingles through her core and to the very tips of her limbs.

There was something quite charming about it. He was not looking for someone to love him. Well, he was. But Lavinia sensed that was not what felt so urgent to him. No, the urgency was to be the one who did the loving. He wanted to devote himself to a partner. To give all of himself.

How could she not find that endearing? When had she ever met a man like that before? 

Taking a breath she opened the box. 

Resting on a bed of black satin was a venetian mask. Based on what she knew of Oliver so far, she would have expected it to be elaborately decorated with intricate and ornate patterns. But this mask was dramatically more simple by comparison, and all the more beautiful for it. It was all black, the surface lined with a soft material that slid under her thumb like silk. Black feathers were affixed to the top in a delicate and sophisticated fan, their colors shifting towards deep blue, green, and purple under the candle light. Small jewels were sewn along the edges of the feathers, fading out as they worked their way down towards the eyes. 

And that was all there was to it. It was exactly the mask Lavinia would have chosen for herself. Dark and moody, a shimmer of color, not unlike her ultramarine. 

She had been wrong earlier when she assumed that Oliver was having second thoughts. A man with second thoughts doesn’t send pigeons with secret messages and beautiful venetian masks to a lady he knows is out to make him fall in love. 

The fact that he still had tried to warn her off, only further solidified her intentions. She intended to go to their next rendezvous. She waned more. More of Oliver Blackwood. More time to unravel the mystery of him. 

It was not a difficult decision for her to make, so she turned to Sir Pippin, declaring, “I shall miss you Sir, but I have to send you off with a message now.” With that, she wrote her own message on the blank slip that had been around the birds leg, gently reattached it to him, and headed over to her window. Opening it, she sat him on the edge where he looked back at her, his big golden eyes too adorable for words. Lavinia patted his head a final time and he took off, flying into the night sky.

Lavinia set the cage to rights before readying herself for bed and climbing inside. Then as she lay there, thinking about what came next, she had to acknowledge that this was no longer about her pigment. 

It was about something else entirely. 

But Lavinia wasn’t sure if it was about fulfilling her need for adventure, about her tendency to lean into mischief, or if it had now become about Oliver himself. She needed to figure that out before she got hurt. Before she hurt someone else. Because in her gut she sensed that Oliver yearned for something so great, it had the potential to destroy him.

And if he fell in love while she did not, Lavinia knew, instinctively, that it would tear him apart.