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A Season for Treason
Author: Golden Angel

 


Prologue

 

 

Mary - One Year Earlier

 

Debutantes were supposed to avoid rakes at all costs.

It was not a hard and fast rule, but the debutante who ignored the social guideline did so at her own risk.

Mary was not a risk-taker. She never had been. She left the risk-taking to her parents, who were consummate travelers and happiest when exploring uncharted territory and facing unknown dangers. Of course, she had no firsthand knowledge of their preferences, but she gleaned it from the many letters they had sent her over the years and listening to their conversations during the occasional visit.

There were three people in the world who she relied upon completely. She had recently received a letter from one Eveline Stuart, requesting Mary learn everything she could about the Marquess of Hartford. Mary did not question the appeal—rather, she did not wait for an answer after sending her own letter back to Evie—but immediately began to investigate the Marquess.

Gossip was easy to come by, viable information much less so, and an actual encounter was nearly impossible… until the Somerset ball.

Walking on her cousin Thomas Hood’s arm, Mary was surprised—and a tad shocked—to see one of her acquaintances standing with the Marquess of Hartford. Lady Arabella Windham was one of the very few people Mary had met in London she would consider a friend. She was also a debutante and the sister of a duke, so what the devil was she doing with a man whose mere presence could tarnish her reputation? Being the sister of a duke gave her greater leeway than other debutantes, but there were still limits.

Even if Mary had not been curious about the pairing, she still would have attempted to direct her cousin that way. Especially when she realized he was eying a small group of ladies who were definitely not friendly. She knew Thomas was considering Lady Winifred Bellmont as a possible wife. It was her duty, as his cousin, to save him from himself. Really, she was killing two birds with one stone.

“Look, there’s Lady Arabella,” she said, tugging gently on Thomas’ arm to gain his attention. His head swung around, the expression on his face turning disapproving.

It was all Mary could do to keep her eyes from rolling upward. Thomas’ taste in women was extremely poor, in her opinion. Lady Arabella was kind, warm, and entertaining—the very opposite of Lady Winifred.

But Arabella was not her true target. Her true target was the man standing next to her. Tall, broad-shouldered, and so handsome, almost too beautiful for words, the Marquess’ tawny hair and amber-gold eyes made her think of a lion. Which made the nickname she’d overheard one man use even more appropriate—Rex.

The King.

Not the actual King, of course, but the moniker suited him. Never mind he was something like eighteenth in line for the throne. He acted as if he was the ultimate authority wherever he went. Mary wondered what it was like to have that kind of arrogant confidence. Even more annoyingly, it did not detract from his appeal one whit.

Thomas had not moved from his spot, but it did not matter. The Marquess and Lady Arabella were coming closer while Thomas appeared to be lost in his own thoughts, more interested in the ton’s reactions to the couple than in their approach. Mary wondered if Thomas would ever realize his trenchant disapproval of Lady Arabella stemmed from his attraction to her. Unlikely. Stubborn ass.

Well, she would do what she could for him, but in the meantime…

“Hello, Lady Arabella,” Mary said as the couple came within earshot.

Lady Arabella’s warm brown eyes widened, and she hesitated, but she covered her pause quickly.

“Good evening, Mary,” she said, smiling sincerely. There were so few sincere smiles among the ton, seeing one was always refreshing. Mary smiled back. “Have you just arrived?”

Well, blast.

Rather than introducing Mary, Lady Arabella was ignoring both gentlemen as if they were not there at all. Which was likely beneficial for Mary’s reputation with the ton, but not very helpful when it came to Evie’s request. If she could not gain an introduction to Hartford, she would not be able to speak with him without ruining her reputation completely.

The social strictures of Society were extremely frustrating sometimes.

“Not long ago,” Mary replied glibly, covering her disappointment. “It was a bit of a crush coming in.”

The familiar patter of social chatter was easy to fall into, allowing Mary to examine Hartford in her immediate proximity rather than from afar. This close, he was even more disturbing to her senses, as if he were a lodestone and she a compass, she kept peeking glances at him.

He was as beautiful as a fallen angel, golden and dangerous all at once. Gossip said he was the head of a debauched society supposedly even more secret and perverse than the Hellfire Club. It was so secret, no matter how she listened, she had never been able to even learn the name of it or any member other than Hartford, who apparently cared very little if people knew he was drenched in depravity. Supposedly, he had a score of mistresses tucked away around London, including a duchess, and had fought more duels than any other man in Society, never losing.

When his head tilted and their eyes met, his amber-gold gaze seemed to pierce her, as though he looked past her exterior, right into her soul… as though he truly saw her. No one saw Mary. Not unless she showed herself to them. She was the ultimate wallflower, able to go unnoticed by entire throngs of people, vanishing into the background as if she did not actually exist. When Hartford looked at her, she felt suddenly exposed and very vulnerable.

His gaze moved on, ending the moment but leaving her rattled enough to be thankful for Thomas’ interruption since she had completely lost track of what Lady Arabella was saying.

“Where are your brothers?” Thomas’ aggrieved tones announced his belief they must have lost track of their sister for her to be in such company.

While she was grateful, she did not have to respond to whatever Arabella had been saying, Mary had to stifle the urge to step on her cousin’s foot or comfort him. The man truly did not know how to handle his emotions when it came to Lady Arabella and was completely oblivious why the lady overset him so easily.

The twit.

“I believe they’re by the refreshments,” Lady Arabella responded tartly.

Before Thomas could respond, the violins sounded, and Lady Arabella brightened, turning her head to smile up at Hartford. The large, beautiful man smiled back down at her, and Mary was struck by a sudden, unexpected bolt of envy.

“My dance, I believe,” Hartford said smugly.

“You believe correctly.” The look Arabella bestowed upon him was full of flirtation before she turned back to Mary. “It was lovely to see you again, Mary. I hope we can speak more later this evening.”

Thomas and Mary watched the couple head to the dance floor. Mary sighed inwardly. They did make a handsome couple. If her cousin did not get his head out of his arse soon, it was likely he would end up with a woman who was very poorly matched to him.

She glanced up at Thomas, who was still glaring after the retreating pair.

Time to get back to work.

“Thomas? What’s wrong?” She pushed worry into her voice and eyes, pulling his attention back to her before anyone noticed how he was looking at the Marquess and Lady Arabella. Thomas was a protector, first and foremost, which made him rather easy to manipulate. He would not want to burden Mary with his troubles, and therefore, he would push them aside and return to his duty.

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