Kiss me, if you Dare by Alyssa Clarke
“Never accept a wager to kiss a rogue. There is the danger of winning.”—Duchess of Hartford, mistress of 48 Berkeley Square.
With those two defiant and rebellious words scrawled on a wagering board at a secret ladies’ club at 48 Berkeley Square, Miss Frederica Emelia Williams had tormented herself with thoughts of how and when she would kiss Percival Charles Deveraux, Marquess of Wolverton, for three wretched weeks. It was supposed to have been a lark between ladies who had imbibed too much whisky. It had felt naughty, and daring, and quite unlike herself, a lady who found most of her adventures between the pages of a good novel. Especially the gothic ones.
Frederica had secretly laughed at herself for throwing her hat in the ring. After all, the marquess was her guardian and almost thirteen years older than herself. She did not own any serious tendre for his lordship. It was a lark, a wager, a dare. A refrain she had repeated several times to herself when she lay in her bed at night, unable to stop thinking about him.
Days had turned into weeks, and she was no closer to coming up with a plan to allow her mouth to accidentally touch his. She could explain away a trip that landed her in his lap or fall where he caught her, and her lips just happened to be near his. Frederica believed she had convinced herself that she had pushed the wretched dare from her mind, and she had absolutely no improper feelings or thoughts toward the marquess.
It was utterly absurd that right at this moment, she was infuriatingly jealous of the woman locked in a passionate embrace with Lord Wolverton. The bottom had fallen out of Frederica’s stomach and in its space was an endless pit of swirling, uncomfortable sensations. The knowledge she wanted to be the one kissing him fanned the flames of Frederica’s anger and mortification.
At some point, the idea of kissing the man had moved from an amusing lark to an actual desire. Her guardian was singularly inappropriate to be the object of her attraction and impossible fantasies. The man was a known libertine about town who took women to his bed frequently, and rumors often mentioned the marquess did not own the intention of ever marrying. Worse, he treated Frederica with the lazy indulgence one did with a child.
The wretched man.
The lady in the hallway clung to him like a vine, and he broke the salacious kiss and chuckled. The low laugh was filled with such carnal promise Frederica wanted to stab him with something sharp. A clear indication her thoughts were muddled, for she was not given to any sort of violence. The marquess moved with slow, sensual intent, flushing the fashionably dressed lady’s body to his and arching her neck.
“What a shocking display,” Frederica said, injecting the right blend of humor and mockery into her tone as she sauntered down the lower steps of the staircase of the palatial townhouse.
The lady wrenched from his arms, a gloved hand coming up to cover her lips in affected dismay. Lord, she was beautiful with a perfectly svelte form and bright green eyes. And her pale green gown was simply scrumptious with its plunging decolletage and seeded pearls at the hem.
“Percy,” she cried, stepping slightly away from his body.
Shamelessly, she still clung to his arm, appearing ready to swoon. To Frederica’s mind, if her sensibilities were so delicate, she would not have been mauling/ravishing the marquess in the hallway. A servant could have come upon their lascivious display.
“Who is this?” she demanded pertly when the silence lingered.
“His Lordship has not told you of me?” Frederica murmured, dramatically pressing her hand over her chest. “Darling, won’t you introduce us?”
Outrage darkened the woman's eyes. “Darling?”
Lord Wolverton pierced Frederica with those impossibly beautiful obsidian eyes, lifting a brow at her endearment. His tall frame was of powerful, lithe elegance, and how handsome he appeared in his black trousers and jacket, accented by a dark silver waistcoat. She winked, and his lips tugged, but a full smile did not form. In truth, his expression became inscrutable, and nerves fluttered in her belly. She could feel every nuance of his stare as it skimmed across her features, no doubt wondering at her audacity. Frederica admitted she had been outrageous just now.
A strangely quizzical expression darkened his eyes. “I do believe I mentioned my ward lives with me, and I am also certain I spoke of her often-improper sense of humor.”
The lady sucked in a harsh breath. “This is little Freddie?”
Little Freddie? The woman in her was offended. “I am heartened to know I was not forgotten in conversation,” Frederica replied mildly, her heart jerking too fast.
His lady friend’s expression smoothed into a blank mask. “I thought Little Freddie, a child of perhaps twelve years, Wolverton, not this…not…a young lady,” she said frostily, ire sparking in her lovely eyes.
“Did you?” he asked, with no measure of concern.
In truth, he was barely civil, his insouciance a bit…intimidating. Even his guest seemed to think so, for she paused, looking uncertain for a moment. She rallied, lifted her chin. “Yes, I thought her a child. Won’t you introduce us,” she said with a smile that did not reach her eyes.
With a hand pressed against the lady’s spine, he urged her forward. “Lady Bartlett, may I introduce to you Miss Frederica Williams, my ward.”
Freddie had not met the widowed countess, but she had heard of her; she was rumored to have been left with great wealth from her departed husband. The lady was ravishing and did not need a protector. Hence she was the marquess’s lover for their mutual benefit. Swallowing down the tight feeling bubbling in her throat, Frederica dipped into a respectful curtsy that would make the marquess proud. “Lady Bartlett, a pleasure to make your acquaintance.”
The lady nodded her head regally and stared down her pointed nose as if she expected Frederica to scuttle away. Worse, her expression implied she found her lacking. Barely preventing herself from rolling her eyes, Frederica smiled politely and said, “If you will both excuse me, I was heading to the library for a book to read.”
The countess smiled tightly. “Yes, run along dear; the adults require privacy.”
Frederica swallowed her growl of ire, started to turn away, and the marquess’s voice arrested her.
“I will join you, Freddie. Countess, I will escort you to your carriage. I have some matters to discuss with my ward that cannot be delayed,” the marquess said.
A shocked gasp sounded, and biting back her smile, Frederica hurried down the hallway and entered the large and well-stocked library. A few minutes later, the door opened on a silent whisper, and the marquess’s uniquely male scent wafted to her. Keeping her nose buried in a book, she gave no indication she knew he was near. But her heart had stirred to life and pounded much harder than it had earlier.
“I thought you were spending the evening with Duchess Hartford and Lady Cantrell,” his lordship said, walking over to the side mantle where he poured himself a generous splash of brandy. “How is it that you are home so early?”
“It is after eight, my lord. If not at a ball, a debutante would be expected to be abed.”
That was the ruse she had told him to sneak off to a private ladies’ club to which she belonged at 48 Berkeley Square. The dare for the night had left her feeling breathless and a bit out of sorts, for it involved the very man before her. He was a man of wealth and consequences, a very dashing and handsome one with a reputation for breaking women’s hearts, and somehow the very idea of being wicked with him tempted debutantes and coquettes to try their wiles on him. That Frederica was on close and intimate terms with the marquess when he remained enigmatic to most of society felt like a delicious guilty pleasure.
Who dares to flirt and kiss Lord Wolverton at Lady Wembley’s midnight ball?
So many ladies had laughingly tossed their hat into the ring, giggling and spinning ribald jokes freely concerning him.
She had sat quietly on a sofa in the corner, thinking that if anyone should kiss Percival Deveraux, Marquess of Wolverton, it would be her. Henrietta, who had spied her expression, had laughingly said Freddie had weeks to kiss the man on another dare, and if she should not act, someone else would.
Except Frederica had no idea how to even start winning such a wager when she knew deep inside she had developed a most violent tendre for the man. He truly had a dangerous reputation, and every mother knew he had vowed to never marry despite being so eligible.
“That does not explain your presence. Did something happen?”
The note of concern made her smile. “No. I simply had a mild headache and traveled home before anticipated.”
“Ah. And how are you feeling now?”
“Much better. Aunt Cecily gave me one of her dreadful tisanes before she departed for Lady Middleton’s ball.” His aunt did not live in the marquess’s home, but she paid an alarming amount of visits and sometimes stayed over.
“You seem out of sorts, Your Lordship, and I am to blame. You did not need to send home your…countess on my behalf,” she murmured, toeing off her shoes and delicately crossing her legs at the ankle. “My plans were to read for the evening. I would not have tip-toed past your door.”
He said nothing on her unladylike posture but took a healthy swallow of his drink. He stared at her with a look of cool boredom. “I only brought her to visit because I believed the house would be empty,” he said with a tenseness that was unlike him.
Was he put out because she had caught him with his lover? Perhaps he thought her a complete innocent who had no idea of his reputation. The idea was laughable but entirely possible. “To visit?” Frederica asked archly, suspecting he had planned to bed the countess for the night.
“Yes. I would have escorted the countess out before you arrived home.”
The very idea of them tangled amidst the sheets on his bed set her teeth on edge. Striving to do away with the ridiculous feeling, she took a steady breath.
“You intended for the countess to be your next lover.”
He made a choking sound and lowered his glass to stare at her in clear amazement.
“Do I extend congratulations, Your Lordship? The rumors suggest you have been celibate for months and wondered which charming beauty would next secure your attentions.”
“What in God’s name do you know of what happens between a man and a woman to speak so casually of me taking a lover?”
Frederica blinked, and then humor bubbled up inside, and she laughed. “We ladies are not as ignorant as men seem to think we are.”
Of course, she would never confess her wealth of knowledge had been gleaned since she joined 48 Berkeley Square a few months ago. “I am fully aware of your proclivities. There is no need to dress them up for me, Your Lordship.”
“You better damn well not be aware of them,” he muttered darkly, suddenly looking too dangerous.
She lifted a shoulder in a casual shrug. “And if I am?”
“What did you do with my little Freddie?” he demanded with a soft hiss.
A strange heat surged inside her. “Little Freddie became a woman,” she said softly, a dangerous thrill bursting in her heart.
Something decidedly dangerous entered his eyes. He took a sip of his brandy, staring at her with a hooded gaze. “I wonder, did some gentleman assist with this metamorphosis?”
That half-smile was not terribly reassuring.
“No need to dust off your dueling pistols. I daresay you are the only libertine with whom I am familiar.”
“Hmm.” Another sip of his drink. “Let’s discuss Lord Crawford.”
She stiffened. “No.”
Rebellion surged inside her. “I will not marry that man!”
Those eyes, so penetrating and unflinching, settled on her. “That man is a viscount with an income of twenty thousand pounds per year. He has no bad reputation or debt following him, and he has expressed a sincere interest in your hand. Why do you refuse him?”
Her heart pounding, she closed the book and jerked to her feet. “You forget to mention he is a widower with three children, who has told me he likes that I am plain in the face, for it means I will not be tempted by others to behave scandalously. The gossips speak about his first wife and her great beauty and all the lovers she paraded with about town.”
His expression smoothed. “You would allow gossip to influence your decision?”
“I am using my heart, and it does not long for him!” She fisted a hand on her hip. “I’ve told you, if you are this insistent on me being married off, you marry me, Your Lordship.”
Amusement slanted his mouth, and she sniffed.
“You believe saying you’ll marry only me will have me shaking in my boots like a lad, hmmm?” He came over to her and used a lone finger to tilt her chin. “I am your guardian, and you will do as I say. Idle threats and stubbornness will not sway me from my duty.”
Their eyes met, and she was painfully aware of his touch on her chin. An aching awareness of him and that they were intimately alone shot through her. If the world had not seen him as her legal guardian, from this encounter alone, she would have been irrevocably ruined. Frederica took a step closer to him. His eyes flared at her actions, and she lifted her chin. “I dare you to make me.”
This time he laughed, and chucked her under her chin gently, as her brother often did. The familiar action brought a lump to her throat and reminded her that the marquess saw her as little Freddie. “Why do the rumors say you will never marry?”
“I have no desire for matrimony.”
She considered his words. He was decidedly wicked, with an air of dangerous sensuality surrounding him and a reputation for being a flirt and a rake. But he was more than his reputation, as evidenced by the fact many mothers still tried to toss their daughters at his feet. The marquess was also known for his shrewdness in business investments, his brilliance on the floor of the House of Lords, where he was frequently lauded for always championing the motions that supported reform for poorer citizens. It wasn’t only the scandal sheets she devoured when they mentioned his name but also the political tracts. “Did someone break your heart?”
He contemplated that for a moment longer. “Does a man need to be wounded to decide not to marry?” he drawled with amusement. “I enjoy being a bachelor, and I am not tempted by the wedded state.”
She buried the foolish ache inside her heart, scoffing at herself. The marquess had never given her any encouragement for her to feel any sort of disappointment. Yet she could not pretend she did not have feelings for her guardian, nor did she want to love or hope in vain. Frederica went over to the mantle and poured herself a glass of sherry. He stared at the glass, a small frown on his face, but he did not protest her choice of drink. She hid her smile into the glass as she took a sip. Perhaps she needed to shake things up a bit, do something…anything…to let him see that she was a woman and not a little girl.
Frederica would not have thought like this a few months ago. Then she had been shy, even around the marquess, and London had seemed too large and overwhelming. At her first ball, he had gallantly stood up with her. After sitting out several sets for no gentleman asked her, she had been thrilled to be dancing and with someone so dashing and sought after. Many had stared with clear envy, and that had made her feel as if she floated on air. To her great mortification, Frederica had stepped on his toes and even knocked her forehead on his chin. The marquess had tried to reassure her all was well, but she had been too humiliated to listen and had fled the ballroom to the gardens, where she had burst into tears.
It was there she met Lady Charity Rutherford, who had invited her to call upon 48 Berkeley Square the following day. Frederica visited and had found a place where she felt as if she belonged. She’d learned to dance beautifully without the condemning eyes of the ton looking on. She’d improved her natural talent at watercolors, discovered the art of fencing, and was currently learning about investments. She had established the powerful bonds of sisterhood and a deep, abiding friendship with several ladies.
At 48 Berkeley Square, Frederica had grown to ignore the discomfort of being mocked as a wallflower and the pain of being overlooked by many. She loved to read. That she was only pretty and shorter than most other ladies did not make her inferior. She’d learned when a lady wanted something that seemed beyond her reach, one must dare to go beyond the bounds of propriety and the roles they were taught to abide by from high society.
Life was too fleeting and precious to live only at the whim of others. She owned to all impulses and cravings most young ladies had. She eventually wanted a kind and loving husband, to be the mistress of her own home, and have delightful children. With someone she loved and respected, a gentleman who would feel for her in the same regard.
She certainly could not sit and agonize over what might have happened if only she had dared a little. Frederica did not want to reflect on her life years from now and think back with longing and despair, if only she had kissed him even once, or found the gumption to dance with him again, or confessed her burgeoning feelings for him. For without a doubt, she was captivated by her guardian, the most fascinating man she had ever met in her life.
Life must be lived, not endured.
She did not want to live with regrets. Still, a lady must have a plan. As the poet Virgil said ‘Audentis Fortuna iuvat.’ Fortune favors the bold, and in her situation, surely a wallflower who dared to be wicked would surely find success.