"I don't think this is a good idea," the honorable Jane Pagett said, wringing her hands. "I don't think Mr. St. John is very good ton. I don't trust him."

Lady Miranda Rohan looked at her dearest friend with a wicked grin. They were sitting in Miranda's bedroom in the Rohan town house on Clarges Street as the young lady of the house prepared for a clandestine night out. "Oh, I don't trust him either," she said cheerfully. "That's half the fun. Don't lecture me, darling. I've been a very good girl for three seasons now, and this is the first time I've done anything even remotely naughty. They want me to find someone to marry, and I'm just…experimenting."

"I don't think your parents are going to let you marry Christopher St. John," Jane said tartly.

"No, I don't expect they will," she said with a sigh. "I don't think it's fair, though. They'd probably reject him because he has no money, but I have more than enough for both of us. We could live very well on my income."

Jane looked at her strangely. "Would you really want to marry Mr. St. John?"

Miranda shrugged. "He's as good as anyone, I suppose. It's not as if I were a great beauty and could take my pick. Certainly there are a number of men who'd have me, and I expect I'll end up with one of them, but in the meantime I just want to indulge in a tiny bit of wicked flirtation."

"You're very pretty, Miranda!" Jane protested.

"Well, I'm not a complete antidote," Miranda admitted. "I'm just ordinary. I'm neither tall nor short, plump nor thin, my eyes and my hair are a nice boring brown. My face is inoffensive. Nothing for anyone to take a disgust of. But nothing to induce a wild passion, though Christopher St. John seems quite enthusiastic. Though I expect he's probably more enthusiastic about my money than my person," she added in a practical voice.

"Then why risk your reputation by going to Vauxhall with him? Alone!" Jane cried. "I'd be happy to come with you, or you could take your maid …"

"Absolutely not," Miranda said briskly, tying her domino at her neck and pulling it around her. Her clothes were far too discreet and modest for a raucous night at the pleasure gardens, but the domino would be adequate disguise. "I want to dance wildly and drink wine and play cards for high stakes and laugh too loudly. I want to kiss and be kissed until I get tired of it, and I want to do it with the most beautiful man I've ever seen. You have to admit Christopher is beautiful."

"His chin is too weak," Jane said in a grumpy voice.

"Not as far as I'm concerned," Miranda said. "I'm only sorry this just came up, though I doubt I could have made my escape if you weren't here. My sister-in-law takes her duties very seriously since my parents have gone up to Scotland, and she's always asking me what I'm doing. The thing is, I don't want you to have to lie for me if anyone notices I'm gone."

"Well, I'm not going to lie for you," Jane said. "I'll tell them exactly where you went and with who."

"With whom," Miranda corrected absently. "And it won't be a problem. It'll be too late to find me, and my family knows I'm not an idiot. I'll be home around midnight, uncompromised, and no one need ever know. I just want a taste of freedom before I agree to marry one of those boring young men my brothers keep bringing home. Just a few stolen kisses while we watch the fireworks at midnight, and then I'll be safely back and chances are no one will even notice that I went out. And what can they do to me if they find out–beat me?"

"You know you'll manage to charm your entire family out of being angry with you," Jane said. "You'll even manage to charm me."

Miranda pulled the hood over her boring brown hair and reached for her loo mask. "That's because I'm adorable," she said pertly. "Don't worry about me, love. I'll be back before you know it."

Jane looked at her, worried. "I wish you wouldn't go. I don't think Mr. St. John is trustworthy."

"We've already gone over that. I'll marry someone trustworthy. I'll be just a tiny bit wicked with someone beautiful beforehand." She leaned over and planted a kiss on Jane's cheek. "Don't worry about me. I'll be fine." And a moment later she was gone.

There were times, looking back on that night, when Lady Miranda Rohan couldn't believe how stupid she'd been. How gullible, how certain of her own invulnerability that she never considered the danger. Christopher St. John was charming, rakish, ever so slightly dissolute, and spending a few unchaperoned hours with him should have been perfectly safe. He'd been so handsome. Penniless, but that hadn't bothered her. She would inherit more than enough for both of them. And after three years on the marriage mart there'd been no one she'd even considered as a possible husband, until Christopher had glided into her life, with his perfect face and tall, straight body, his white teeth and his charming smile.

She'd laughed when he'd suggested she elope with him. It took her far too long to realize that the closed carriage he was using to return her home was taking too much time, that while Christopher was dozing on the seat opposite her the road was becoming rougher. And when she pushed up the blind she saw only pitch-black night, not the lights of London.

She hadn't succumbed to hysterics, though she'd been tempted. She'd been firm, angry, determined. And in the long run, helpless. He'd maintained his charm throughout her protests. He loved her, he adored her, he couldn't live without her. And yes, without her substantial fortune.

"I won't marry you," she'd said firmly. "You can drag me in front of a minister at Gretna Green and I'll still say no."

"First off, Miranda darling," he'd said in the smooth voice she'd once found enchanting and now found irritating. "Ministers don't have to do the marrying in Scotland. Anyone is qualified. Secondly, you'll say yes, once you realize you have no other choice."

"I'll always have another choice."

"Not once you're ruined. Now, stop fussing. You've been spoiled and willful and now you're going to have to pay the price. We'll deal well enough together. I won't be a demanding husband."

"You won't be my husband at all," she'd said darkly.

"Now that's where you're wrong."

She'd hoped he'd take her to an inn where she could throw herself on the mercy of the innkeeper. Instead he brought her to a small cottage in the country, miles away from anyone else, with one sullen servant who'd ignored her.

It had been her own fault, Miranda told herself, refusing to cry. And St. John was right about one thing: it was up to her to pay the price. Just not the price he thought he'd guaranteed.

Because compromising her was not enough. St. John was a man who cared about the details, and the second night he took her virginity, to ensure his financial future.

It hadn't been rape. Miranda had curled up, holding her stomach afterward. She'd neither screamed nor fought, and when it became clear that it was going to happen she did her best to get into the spirit of the thing.

Vastly overrated. He kissed and slobbered over her breasts, actions that left her entirely unmoved. She'd never seen a penis that hadn't belonged to a baby, but she found the adult version fairly unprepossessing. It was short and squat in a nest of hair and really quite unattractive. It was just as well she didn't intend to seek out any future acquaintance with one.

It hurt, of course. She'd been warned that it would the first time, but St. John apparently considered her listless response to be arousing, for he repeated the process two more nights, and each night she hurt, each night she bled, and when he told her to prepare for him on the fourth night she'd slammed a water ewer down over his head, watching him slump unconscious at her feet.

It had been an oversight that she hadn't tried that before. If she'd just had the brains to consider brute force the first night she might still have retained at least her physical innocence, if nothing else.

She'd stepped over St. John's body, only slightly concerned that she might have killed him, went downstairs and headed for the stables. The hired carriage had been returned, but Christopher's showy chestnut was there, and it had taken her only a few minutes to saddle and bridle him, thanking God her father had always insisted his children know about horseflesh. Riding astride was its own misery, particularly considering St. John's attentions, but by the time she was an hour away from the cottage she ran into a small army come to rescue her, including her three brothers and her formerly annoying sister-in-law Annis.

"Don't kill him," she'd said calmly as she was bustled into the carriage they'd brought with them.

"Why not?" her brother Benedick grumbled. "Father would tell me to. Don't tell me you're in love with the creature?"

Her expression had answered that ridiculous question. "I just want to forget about it."

"Miranda is right," Annis had said, earning her eternal gratitude. "The more fuss we make, the bigger the scandal, and we'd like this to blow over quickly, would we not? I suggest you horsewhip him and leave him at that."

"He didn't touch you, did he? Didn't force himself on you?" Benedick had demanded.

It wasn't that she wanted to lie. But her fiery-tempered older brother would have gutted St. John if he'd known the truth, and even peers couldn't get away with murder.

"Of course not. He wants to marry me, not make me hate him."

Benedick had believed her calm assertion, and she and Annis had started back for London, while her brothers moved on for revenge. "I don't know if we're going to be able to keep this quiet, Miranda," Annis said in a practical voice. "You know how the gossips are, and I think Mr. St. John might have deliberately dropped a few hints before he absconded with you." Her dark blue eyes swept over Miranda, warm with sympathy. "I'm afraid you might be ruined."

Miranda ignored the sick feeling in the pit of her stomach. It was becoming second nature to her. "There are worse things in this life," she had said.

But in truth, it didn't appear that there were. Her parents had rushed back to England, her mother full of hugs and comfort and not a word of reproach, her father coming up with outrageously intricate plans to remove parts of St. John's anatomy and feed it to the fishes. When her monthly courses had arrived, on time, she had breathed a sigh of relief, and the rest of the family remained safely ignorant of her loss of innocence.

But in the end it hadn't mattered. Miranda was no longer welcome among the ton. Her invitation to Almack's had been politely withdrawn. Mothers and daughters had crossed the street rather than be obliged to speak to her, and when forced, gave her the cut direct. She was a pariah, an outcast, just as Christopher St. John had sworn she'd be.

He'd had the consummate gall to show up at her house and offer to do the honorable thing. He'd sworn that it was his passion for her that had overcome his scruples, that he would marry her and the scandal would soon die down. They loved each other, and his darling Miranda would soon get over her case of the sulks.

Marriage to him was still her only route. If she wished, they could even live in separate establishments, and he'd be certain to see that she received a generous allowance from the money that would now be in his control.

And it had been her father, Adrian Rohan, the Earl of Haverstoke himself who'd thrown him down the stairs of their vast house on Clarges Street.

Miranda had retired to the country for a few months, until a new scandal occupied the ton's attention. Not for one moment did she believe her sins would be forgiven—she was ruined, now and forever, and nothing would change it. But by the time she returned life had moved on, and so had Miranda.

And she had discovered, to her immense joy, that being ruined was much more fun than being on the marriage mart. She didn't have to simper and flirt with shallow young men, she didn't have to make certain her every move was accompanied by a footman and an abigail. She bought a house of her own, just a pied-a-terre that was nevertheless all hers, and she rode in the parks, ignoring both the cuts and the importunate young men. She went to the theater and the library and Gunters, and while she enjoyed the companionship of her cousin Louisa, the older lady was mostly deaf, sadly stout and the most indolent creature on the face of the earth.

For the first time in her life Miranda was free, and she reveled in that freedom. She had her staunchly loyal family and she had her dearest friend Jane and the rest of the Pagetts. In truth, she'd lost little and gained everything. Apart from the trouble the whole contretemps had brought upon her family, she didn't regret it. By the following spring she'd happily settled into her new life, and she wouldn't have changed it for the world.

Christopher St. John didn't fare nearly as well.

The house on Cadogan Place had always given him an unpleasant feeling in the pit of his stomach. It wasn't that the place was huge and dark and gloomy, sitting on the edge of the better areas of town, a bit too near the purview of the criminal class that haunted the darkened alleys and side streets. It was the man who owned that house, the man awaiting him and his excuses for failing to do what he'd been paid to do. It was The Scorpion, known more formally as Lucien de Malheur, Earl of Rochdale, who would sit there and look at him with those colorless eyes, his thin lips curling in disdain, one elegant hand gripping the top of his cane as if he'd like to beat a man to death with it.

Christopher St. John shuddered, then shook off his nervousness. A light, icy rain had begun to fall. February in the city was always dismal. Had it been up to him he would have stayed out in the countryside with Lady Miranda Rohan warming his bed. If the bitch hadn't clocked him one and taken off.

And she and her family were proving most unreasonable, he thought, absently rubbing his bruised shoulder. He had a cracked rib, a broken wrist, several torn muscles and scrapes and bruises over most of his body. No, the Rohans didn't seem likely to become sensible any time soon.

He raised his hand to knock on the massive black door, but it swung open before he reached the knocker, and Leopold, Rochdale's sepulchral majordomo, stood there, staring down at him with strong disapproval.

Leopold was part and parcel of Rochdale's general peculiarity. The servant was immensely tall–possibly six feet seven–and skinny in his black clothes. Someone once likened him to a giraffe in mourning, and St. John agreed. A very unpleasant giraffe. He had some sort of accent that no one could decipher. Rochdale had picked the odd man up during the travels that had occupied him for most of his adult life, and Leopold only added to the mystery surrounding his employer.

"He's waiting for you," Leopold said in an unpromising voice, receiving St. John's wet coat and hat and handing them to the waiting footman, also dressed in funereal black.

St. John grimaced as he straightened his coat of superfine, not made by Weston but a reasonable facsimile if one didn't look too closely. Appearance was paramount in his position. He found that if one looked and acted as if one belonged, then usually one was welcomed.

He followed Leopold down the long dark hallways, ending up in the depressing library where he usually met with the earl. It was deserted, of course. Rochdale always liked to make an entrance.

A small fire burned in one grate, doing little to warm the cavernous room. Why in the world anyone would want so many books was beyond him. And all these books had to have been acquired by the current earl. The previous one had lost almost everything in a short-lived, profligate life.

He heard the familiar approach, that ominous step that wasn't quite even, the bite of Rochdale's walking stick hitting the ground heaver than mere stylistic use, and an unconscious dread filled him. The door opened, and light flooded the room.

"They've quite left you in the dark, dear Christopher," Rochdale purred, moving forward with his barely halting gait. "How remiss of my servants. Or perhaps how prescient. I gather you haven't come to celebrate our success in your little venture?"

Christopher swallowed. "I did everything I could. Those damned Rohans. Any other family would have been begging me to marry the girl. Any other girl would have been besotted and grateful."

Rochdale said nothing, moving to a chair by the fire and sinking down gracefully, his ruined face in shadows. "Ah, but I warned you those Rohans are not like other people. Am I to presume those bruises and cuts on your face are the result of the brothers' attentions?"

"And her father's. My entire body's nothing but bruises and cracked bones."

"Refrain from showing me. I certainly don't doubt the Rohans would take their revenge. You're lucky they didn't spit you like a goose."

"By the time they found out I'd bedded her it was too late. We were already in London and I refused the younger brother's challenge. I could have bested him easily–he's nothing but a boy–but I decided he wasn't worth having to flee the country for. You know how they've gotten about dueling recently."

"I know," the earl said gently. "I'm surprised the two older didn't challenge you. The oldest in particular–I believe his name might be Benedick? If you'd managed to kill him it might have mitigated this disaster."

"They were both in Scotland, taking the girl with them," Christopher said in a sulky voice. At least this particular interview was going far better than he'd anticipated. It was a balm, after the total failure of his plans for Miranda Rohan.

"Ah, I see. So let me understand this. You were to seduce the Rohans' sister, marry her, and kill the older brother when he challenged you to a duel. Yet you have failed me on every level. Am I correct?"

"I did seduce the girl." Christopher's voice was defensive. "She just refused to marry me."

"Then you clearly must have botched the job. Did you rape her?"

"I didn't have to. Once she knew it was inevitable she stopped fighting."

Rochdale shook his head. "I chose you for your handsome face, your reputation as a lover, and your deadliness with a sword. I'm sorely disappointed in you, St. John. You may leave me."

Initial relief flooded through him, followed by dismay. He'd been half afraid Rochdale would have…he wasn't sure what he'd been afraid of. It had been silly. "But what about the money?" he said, trying not to let the panic show in his voice. "You promised me five hundred pounds to abduct her, and then I'd have her marriage settlement. Since I don't have that I'd think a thousand pounds would be a more reasonable recompense."

Rochdale laughed softly, a sound that sent a chill down St. John's backbone. "You forget who you're dealing with. Your reward for a thoroughly botched job is the knowledge that I won't arrange for you to be gutted in some alleyway when you least expect it. And you know I can. I have a goodly portion of London's criminal class at my beck and call."

A cold sweat broke out on Christopher's forehead. "At least the five hundred pounds ." His voice a whine now. "I'm out of pocket for the cottage, the carriage, any number of things …"

"Then you shouldn't have failed." His voice was like silk. "Leopold, see him out."

The servant had appeared silently behind them, and St. John jumped, startled. One look at the man's impassive face and he knew he was bested. He opened his mouth to hurl a threat, a recrimination, but Rochdale's voice stopped him.

"I wouldn't if I were you. Killing you here would be so inconvenient."

Christopher closed his mouth with a snap. And followed Leopold though the dark house, out into the cold, cruel streets of London in the rain.

If you want a job done well you'd best do it yourself. Wasn't that what the old saying was? Not that the Earl of Rochdale listened to old sayings, but in this case it was true. He'd chosen the best weapon he could, and the idiot had failed him.

His wants had been simple. The Rohans had destroyed his only sister, bringing about her death. He'd wanted to return the favor, with the hopeful side-benefit of killing Benedick Rohan, the architecture of Genevieve's destruction. Though he could have been just as happy at the thought of Benedick living with the knowledge that his precious little sister was trapped in a life of misery with a gazetted fortune hunter and womanizer.

St. John had proven a miserable failure, and with his bungling it was unlikely that another pretty young man would get anywhere near her. Trust the Rohans not to care if one of their own was ruined in the face of society.

Clearly it was time for him to take a hand in the situation himself. He couldn't rush into anything–she would be whip-shy for a bit. He'd have more than enough time to decide exactly what form his revenge would take.

He would wait. Wait until they'd lowered their guard. Wait until he had everything in place. Wait until his prey had no idea that she was simply the pawn in a game of revenge.

And then he would pounce.


Two years later

Lady Miranda Rohan stood before the window of her cozy house on Half Moon Street, staring out into the rain. She was restless. She hated to admit it—she'd always prided herself on her ability to find interest under almost any circumstances. At the advanced age of twenty-three she considered herself a resourceful young woman. She'd faced disaster on a social scale and come through the other side, independent and happy, with the support and affection of her large family and closest friends, and, indeed, ostracism had unexpected benefits. She didn't have to attend boring parties, dance with odious men who simply wanted to ogle her and her inheritance. She didn't have to survive miserably crowded gatherings and lukewarm punches and boring conversations filled with salacious gossip and little more. Particularly since nowadays she was more than likely to be the topic of that gossip.

No, enough time had passed. Her transgressions were no longer half so interesting. There were always more exciting scandals around. She didn't have to spend time with those judgmental wags who'd tell her she was simply reaping the rewards of her foolish behavior two years ago. Foolish, not truly wicked, but in a society where those two words were interchangeable, Miranda Rohan was living with the results.

Normally she didn't care—she found life to be full of interesting things. She read everything she could get her hands on, from treatises on animal husbandry to paeans to the classical poets. She found nature to be boundlessly fascinating, and while her own efforts at the pianoforte and singing were decidedly lackluster, she still found great enjoyment in pursuing those two disciplines. She was an exceptional horsewoman, both as a whip and a rider; she had a limitless capacity for affection for both dogs and their haughtier cousins, cats. She had a gift with children and according to her dear companion Louisa she readily sank to their level.

She followed politics, gossip, science, the sciences, the arts.

And at that particular moment she was ready to weep with boredom when she swore she would never be bored.

"This winter is lasting forever," she announced disconsolately, staring at into the dark, dismal afternoon. Half Moon Street was a mere two streets over from the Rohan family manse, which, unfortunately, did her no good. It was deserted, as the rest of her noisy, sprawling family had gone up to Yorkshire to await the birth of her newest niece or nephew.

"It will last just as long as it always does," Cousin Louisa said placidly. Louisa was in truth the most stolid creature alive, and therefore the perfect match for an outcast like Miranda Rohan. Her great girth allowed her no more than the least taxing of social venues, and her calm, placid nature was a balm to Miranda's rare emotional outbursts.

"I should have gone to Yorkshire with the family," Miranda said, swinging one foot disconsolately.

"And why didn't you? Granted, the thought of traveling that far brings on a most severe case of the vapors in an invalid such as myself, but if you'd been with your family there would have been no need for me to accompany you on such an arduous journey, and you wouldn't be pacing this house like one of those lions they show at the Bartholomew Fair."

Miranda forbore to point out that, in fact, none of Cousin Louisa's duties had been strictly necessary. After all, ruined was ruined, and even the presence of a middle-aged cousin of impeccable lineage and reputation couldn't do anything to lift Miranda's banishment.

Not that she wanted it to, she thought defiantly. It was just that she was…restless.

It was distressing. She wouldn't have thought she needed anyone's company to make her happy, and she'd always been perversely happy that ruination meant she no longer had to spend her life trying to attract a suitable husband.

But that was before she knew what true isolation was. Before her world narrowed down to her boisterous family, her dearest friend Jane and the rest of the Pagetts, and the indolent and comfortable Cousin Louisa.

And right now everyone was out of town. Her brother Charles's wife was just about to give birth to her second child, Benedick's new bride was increasing, and their parents were thrilled.

They'd begged her to accompany them, but she'd refused, making up a believable excuse when the truth was far simpler. When Lady Miranda Rohan was a member of the household the social invitations dwindled to a trickle. Society had already accepted that the wild Rohans were prone to misbehavior, but when it came to young ladies of the ton, rules were rules. Miranda was an outcast, and the Rohans, proud and loyal to a fault, didn't leave their daughter behind, no matter how great the opprobrium of the ton. Miranda's best choice was to simply absent herself, allowing her family to enjoy themselves without second thoughts.

Unfortunately Cousin Louisa could scarcely make up for the energetic Rohans, given her tendency to fall asleep at unlikely moments. Normally this would have been no problem, but in March even the few members of the ton who did recognize her were still out of town, including dearest Jane.

"You need to do something to stop that appalling fidgeting," Cousin Louisa said with the small, catlike yawn she seldom bothered to disguise. "Why don't you go to the library and see if there are any new French novels? Something saucy to take your mind off things?"

"I went yesterday. I've already read everything that interests me, saucy and otherwise," she said in a disconsolate voice. She kicked at her skirts. "Listen to me! I sound like a nursery brat who's lost her favorite toy. Forgive me, Cousin Louisa. I'm not usually so tedious."

Cousin Louisa yawned behind her fan. "What about a walk?"

"It's raining," Miranda said in mournful accents.

"Is it?" her companion said sleepily, not bothering to turn her head to look out the window into the dark afternoon. "I hadn't noticed. Go to the theater."

"I've seen everything, and my problem is right now—" Miranda made a sound of disgust. "I can't imagine what's wrong with me! I'm not usually so ill-tempered."

"You're usually so good-natured you exhaust me. In truth, child, you're wearing me out at this very minute. I'd suggest you go practice on the pianoforte but you're always a bit too enthusiastic, and I need my nap without music thumping through the house. Go for a drive. Take the curricle. It looks as if the rain has stopped for now, but if it begins again you can simply have the groom raise the hood."

Miranda seized the notion like a lifeline thrown a drowning man. "That's exactly what I shall do, minus the groom. I'm entirely capable of driving myself, and if the rain begins again I'm sure I won't melt."

Cousin Louisa uttered a long-suffering sigh. "I do wish you wouldn't insist on flying in the face of conventions. Society has a long memory, but I'm certain there are any number of people, short of the most proper, who'd eventually overlook your…er…fall from grace if you'd just give them proper reason to."

It was an old argument, one Miranda had given up on ages ago. She could spend the rest of her life doing penance and being grateful for the scraps of acceptance tossed her way, or she could embrace her new life on the outskirts of polite society, no more apologies to anyone. The choice was simple and she'd made it without a second thought.


Cousin Louisa was too good-natured to argue. "Enjoy your drive, my dear, and try not to wake me when you return. I sleep so dreadfully that my little naps are crucial."

In fact Louisa slept at least twelve hours each night, aided by her admitted fondness for the French brandy Benedick provided for them. And since she found the trip up the stairs to her bedroom too exhausting to accomplish more than once a day, she tended to nap in the salon.

By the time Miranda had changed into driving clothes the horses had been put to and she could hear faint snores drifting from the drawing room. In fact, Louisa slept like the dead. The house could fall down around her and she wouldn't notice, she thought with an affectionate smile.

One of the great joys in Miranda's altered life was her curricle and horses. She loved driving, and owning her own carriage and pair delighted her to no end. In truth, she would have loved a phaeton, in particular a high perch one, but she'd resisted temptation, deciding her family already had enough censure to deal with.

She never confided this particular concern to her brothers; Benedick would have immediately purchased the most outrageous equipage he could find for her. They were loyal to a fault. She adored them all, but in truth they'd been through enough, and she'd discovered that an insult to a family member was always more painful than an insult to oneself. And the pain that she caused them was far harder to deal with than her own censure.

She headed for Hyde Park, perversely enjoying the cold, damp air. She could feel her hair escaping the confines of her bonnet, and she knew her cheeks would be flushed and healthy, rather than the fashionably pale, but she didn't care.

She let the horses out a bit, enjoying the sensation as they pounded through the park. Perhaps she ought to go out to the countryside, to the family estate in Dorset, but that would scarcely solve her problem with her family away in the north. She would still be kicking her heels in frustration, bereft of any kind of stimulation apart from the solitary enjoyment of books and the theater. She had no one to talk with, no one to laugh with, to fight with. And it looked as if it would continue that way for the rest of her life.

An unexpected fit of melancholia settled down around her, and she bit her lip. She made it a rule never to cry about her situation. She was simply reaping the rewards of her own foolishness.

But after endless days of rain and gloom she could feel waves of obnoxious self-pity begin to well up. The damp wind had pulled some of her hair loose, and she reached up a gloved hand to push it out of her face.

The swiftness of the accident was astonishing. One moment she was bowling along the road, in the next the carriage lurched violently and she just barely held on to the reins, controlling the horses and keeping them from trying to bolt.

She knew immediately that something must have happened to one of the wheels, and she hauled back on the reins, trying to stop the frightened beasts, trying to maintain her seat and not be tossed into the road, just as a huge black carriage came up from behind her. Within moments two of the grooms had jumped down, pulling her frightened animals to a halt.

It had begun to rain again, and Miranda was getting soaked. The carriage had stopped just ahead of hers on the road, a crest on the door, but she didn't recognize whose it was, and she was too busy castigating herself as an absolute idiot, a total noddy for letting the horses panic like that. Her curricle was tilted at a strange angle, and she scrambled down before anyone could come to her aid, passing the broken wheel and moving to the leader's head, taking the bridle in her hand and stroking his nose, murmuring soothing words.

The footman she'd displaced went back to the dark carriage and let down the steps, opening the door, holding a muffled conversation with someone inside before returning to her. "His lordship wonders if you would do him the honor of allowing him to assist you," the groom said politely.

Bloody hell, Miranda thought, having been taught to curse by her brothers. "I thank him, but he's already come to my rescue."

A voice emerged from the darkened interior of the carriage, a smooth, sinuous voice. "Dear child, you're getting drenched. Pray allow me to at least give you a ride home while my servants see to your horses and carriage."

She bit her lip, glancing around her in the rain. There was no one else in sight, and she certainly couldn't handle this on her own. Besides, he was of the peerage—he was unlikely to be terribly dangerous. Most of the titled men she'd known were elderly and gout-ridden. And if he offered her any insult she was quite adept at kicking, biting and gouging, all skills that would have stopped Christopher St. John two years ago…if she'd possessed them then. Her father and three brothers had seen to it that she would never again be at the mercy of any man.

"You are very kind." Giving up the fight, she handed the reins back to one groom as she allowed the other one to hand her up into the darkened carriage. A moment later the door shut, closing her in with her mysterious rescuer.

He was nothing more than a shadowy figure on the opposite seat of the large, opulent carriage. The cushions beneath her were soft, there was a heated coal box near her feet and a moment later a fur throw was covering her, though she hadn't seen him move.

"You're Lady Miranda Rohan, are you not?" came the smooth voice from the darkness.

Miranda stiffened, glancing toward the door. If need be she could always push it open and leap to safety—they weren't moving that fast.

He must have read her thoughts. "I mean you no harm, Lady Miranda, and no insult. I simply wish to be of service."

It was a lovely thought, but she still wasn't certain that she trusted him. She glanced out the window. "Where are you taking me?"

"To your house on Half Moon Street, of course. No, don't look so distrustful. The sad fact is that London society is a hotbed of gossip, as I've discovered to my own detriment. Everyone knows of your…ah…unique lifestyle." His voice was gentle, unnervingly so.

"Of course," she said with a grimace. "You would think polite society had better things to do than concern itself with me, but apparently not. There is nothing worse than having the world judging you, making up outrageous stories and even worse, believing them."

"In fact, there are any number of things that are a great deal worse." His voice was dry. "But I do understand exactly what you mean. I've been the victim of the same sort of malicious gossip for most of my life."

Miranda was trying to tuck her wet hair back inside her bonnet when she paused. She imagined she looked like a rain-swept slattern, but perhaps her odd rescuer could no more see her than she could see him.

"You have?" she said, curious, her own misery banished.

"I beg pardon—I've been most remiss. Allow me to introduce myself. I'm Lucien de Malheur." He paused for a moment. "You may have heard of me."

Miranda didn't blink. So this was the notorious Scorpion, the fifth earl of Rochdale. She peered through the darkness with renewed fascination. "You're right," she said with her usual frankness. "Even in my cloistered existence I've heard the stories. Compared to you, I'm St. Joan."

His soft laugh was oddly beguiling. "But we both know that gossip is seldom true."


"Occasionally an element of truth colors a story. Doubtless you've heard that I consort with criminals, that I'm debauched and evil and lead young men to their financial ruin and consort with the notorious Heavenly Host. Don't look so shocked—I realize people seldom admit the organization even exists anymore, but it's a very badly kept secret. And you would have heard of my deformities, doubtless exaggerated to the point where I'm better suited to Astley's Circus and its objects of Wonder and Horror."

He'd been described in exactly that way, but she wasn't about to admit it. "And what is the truth?" She didn't have to look out the window. She recognized the sound of the pavement beneath the carriage, the pattern of cobblestones on the narrow street. They were already on Half Moon Street. Too soon, she thought, frustrated. This was the most interesting thing that had happened to her in weeks, perhaps months.

For a moment he said nothing, and she had the odd sense that he was weighing something, considering something new and unlikely.

"The truth is, Lady Miranda, that I am an ugly brute with a lame leg and I prefer not to impose my ugliness on unsuspecting strangers."

She wanted to see him. For some reason she was quite desperate to set eyes on the notorious, reputedly villainous earl, and she suspected his words had been formed with just that intent.

They had pulled up outside her small, immaculate house. "I've been warned," she said with humor in her voice. "You can show me and I promise not to scream or faint."

His soft laugh was her answer. "I'm afraid I don't know you well enough yet, Lady Miranda. I would never trespass on so short an acquaintance."

She picked up the important word. "Yet?" she echoed warily.

"Please," he protested, once again reading her doubts. "I do only wish to be your friend."

"A friend I can't see?"

"I'll make a bargain with you, Lady Miranda. You're fond of music, are you not? If you agree to attend a musical evening at my house in Cadogan Place you'll have no choice but to look at my unfortunate face. And no, don't go jumping to conclusions again. The twenty-four people who've been invited have all accepted with flattering alacrity. I would be honored if you joined us."

She probably shouldn't, she thought. She knew she shouldn't, but the risk sounded so tempting, and in faith, what did she have to lose?

"I was planning to go out of town, my lord…."

"But surely you can put your departure off for a few days? London has been so devoid of company you must be bored to tears. Indulge yourself, and me."

"I shall have to see." It was tempting. It had been so long since she'd held a conversation with anyone outside her small circle, and she was strangely drawn to him, another outsider. She'd be a fool to walk into trouble again. Still, there was always the chance that common sense would reappear as needed.

He seemed to take her pause for acquiescence. "I'll send my carriage round for you, since I expect it will be a while before your curricle is repaired. Wednesday next, at nine."

"I shall see," she said again, being careful. The servants had opened the door to the carriage but the gray, dismal light penetrated no deeper than his shiny black boots.

He took her lack of agreement in stride. "You can come or not as you please. In either case, my men will have your horses back in no time, and I'll see to the return of your carriage as well. In the meantime I'm most delighted to have met you, and honored to have been of some minor assistance."

To her surprise he took her hand, bringing it to his lips in the dark of the carriage. The touch of his mouth was light, but against her bare skin it was oddly…disturbing. What in the world had she done with her gloves….

She practically scrambled away, almost falling down the lowered carriage steps. She might have heard a soft laugh from the shadows, but realized that was absurd.

"A bien tot," her mysterious rescuer murmured.

And a moment later he was gone.

Lucien de Malheur, the Earl of Rochdale, sank back against the well-cushioned squabs, tapping his long pale fingers against his bad leg. He was feeling meditative—he always prided himself on his ability to shift with the changing winds, and having spent a mere ten minutes in Miranda Rohan's company had changed those winds quite significantly.

She was lovely. He didn't know why he should be surprised—no one had ever referred to her as anything less than presentable. To be sure, she had brown hair when the current fashion was for blondes, but her eyes were extraordinary. She had a low, melodious voice and her soft mouth, when it wasn't set in a tight line, was full of good humor.

Which frankly surprised him, given that she'd spent the last two years in isolation, without much hope of having anything change in the near future. He would have thought she'd be a bit more subdued, even crushed.

Lady Miranda Rohan struck him as someone extremely difficult to crush. Thus, the challenge was immediately appealing. The Rohan family had a debt to pay, and so far they'd gotten off too easily. Even their only daughter's fall from grace had failed to disturb their equanimity.

That would soon change.

All her watchdogs had finally left town. Every single one of the notorious Rohans were in Yorkshire, days away, leaving her behind. Alone. Unguarded. Vulnerable.

It had been simple enough to have one of Jacob Donnelly's men sabotage the young woman's curricle. He'd run the risk of a dangerous accident, but it was a chance worth taking, and he'd come to her rescue like the proper gentleman he was. She hadn't suspected a thing.

And now he was very glad he'd decided to do something about the soiled dove. So far the Rohans had faced disgrace with total hauteur and defiance. As he would have, had he ever been fool enough to get caught in his various illegal and immoral activities.

Lady Miranda's brother Benedick had no idea his former fiancée had a half brother living in the tropical islands of Jamaica. A half brother determined to gain revenge no matter the price. Taking Benedick's sister had perfect symmetry, and Lucien liked symmetry.

Besides, Lady Miranda had quite caught his fancy. His original plan had been simply to meet her, so he could better decide the best way to continue his vendetta. Vendetta—he rather fancied the word. The raging fury of old Italian families wiping each other out over an imagined slight—that was a similar, albeit more well-bred, version of what drove him.

One look at her windblown countenance and he knew he'd be a fool to leave it to anyone else to ruin her.

He should have known better than to delegate the task the first time. But then, he'd never realized that there could be all sorts of added delight in drawing Miranda Rohan into his web.

He was halfway to his home on Cadogan Place when the idea came to him, and he laughed out loud.

He knew exactly how to crush the Rohans, to leave them unable to rescue their sweet, ruined little girl this time, unable to do anything at all about it.

He would marry her.

The thought of Lady Miranda in the Scorpion's hands would drive them mad once they knew who and what he was. They'd protected her from everything, even her foolish disgrace. But they wouldn't be able to protect her from her lawful husband.

The more he thought about it the more delightful it seemed. He had no intention of hurting the chit. If he was desirous of inflicting pain there were always the infrequent meetings of the Heavenly Host where like-minded people could happily while away an hour or so.

No, Miranda would survive the marriage bed with no more than her spirit beaten down. He would drive the laughter from her eyes and from those of all the Rohans.

It was a very practical solution to a number of issues. He'd been meaning to find a bride these last few years. He was halfway between thirty and forty—more than time to find a wife. Miranda Rohan would do admirably.

He'd get a couple of children on her, quickly, and if she survived childbirth he'd keep her at his estates in the Lake District, as far away from her family as he could manage. Pawlfrey House was a cold, grim place deep in one of those shadowed valleys that abounded in the Lake District, and he doubted even a woman's touch could make it more appealing. It would be a difficult life for any brats she might happen to bear him; he'd most likely bring them to a warmer climate to be raised.

Miranda, however, would remain at the house. She would never see her family again, and his familial debt would be repaid. Genevieve would at last rest in peace, knowing he'd avenged her, and he might very well return to his travels. Even the sunnier areas of this blighted island were a little too raw and cold for his liking.

He remembered the taste of Lady Miranda's skin when he'd kissed her hand. Oh, this was going to be quite delightful. He could indulge his taste for villainy and no one would know what he planned until it was too late.

No shoddy abductions or protestations of love. He would propose their union as a business venture, though he certainly didn't plan to start out that way. He suspected she wouldn't be wooed, which was just as well. It would take time to fix his interest with her, and time was his enemy. As soon as the Rohans learned who he was they'd be on their guard, and he hated the thought of being forced to do anything clumsily.

No, the advantage was definitely on his side, and when had he ever failed to take full use of such a boon? He would have her eating out of his hand well before her family even caught wind of it.

She would probably view the thought of him as a lover with extreme distaste. Tant pis. She would learn to like, if not him, at least the things he could do to her. He was a most accomplished lover when he cared to be. And she just might be worth the effort.

The rain was pounding down by the time he reached his house, but rushing made him clumsy, and he mounted his front steps leisurely, ignoring the drenching. Indeed, he was a man who relished storms over insipid blue skies. And they were in for tumultuous weather.