Excerpt from Perilous Pleasures

This is an excerpt from Perilous Pleasures coming March 27 from HarperCollins’ Avon Romance.

On a day late in February in 1803, Zoe Gervais, the illegitimate daughter of an aging French courtesan is about to leave the luxurious London apartment where her mother awaits the noble stranger she hopes to make her next protector. The rent is due and Zoe can't cover it with her meager earnings from her job teaching school, but as always, her mother has turned a deaf ear to Zoe's protests that she must cut back on her extravagance.

Her mother fixed her with an exasperated look. “Why should I throw away my money on the rent for a month that is already past? But a new gown—that is an investment! In return for the hundred pounds I paid for it, I will get two thousand pounds in jewels from this Lord Ramsay.”

“And gamble them away before the month is out. You’ll be begging me another loan by Easter.”

“...What an unpleasant tone to take with your poor mother who has sacrificed so much for your welfare. I can’t imagine where you got such a sour disposition.”

“From my father, the duke.” snapped Zoe.

Her mother heaved a dramatic sigh. “It’s such a pity you inherited only that from him—and his looks instead of mine. If only you hadn’t ended up with his enormous beak and those heavy features. It’s so unjust, though the heavens know I do not complain. But even if your father was an ugly man, there is no excuse for the way you go on. Even an ugly woman can develop charm, and you make no effort at all.”

“Perhaps I don’t want to be charming,” Zoe replied, but her words were cut off by a knock on the door downstairs.

“That will be Lord Ramsay, ma petite. Go hide yourself somewhere. I want to meet with him alone.”

Isabelle sent her maid to admit the visitor and arranged herself most fetchingly on the chaise longue, stretching out her legs so that their outline could be seen through the fine muslin of her gown. It was a pose that never failed to remind her admirers of why they admired her.

Zoe headed for the door that led out of her mother’s parlor.

Imbécile!” her mother shouted. “Not the bedroom! Find some other place to hide yourself. Sacre bleu, how can you teach in a school when you can’t understand the simplest thing? It is bad enough to have no charm, but to have no sense—” she shook her head in exasperation. “Well, he’s here now, so there’s no help for it. I shall have to introduce you to him, but once that’s done, you must go.”

In this, if nothing else, they were in perfect agreement. It would be a relief to return to the school, even if it meant abandoning her darling, spoiled mother to her thoughtless life of pleasure. She only hoped her mother would remember to repay her the many pounds she’d borrowed once she’d completed her negotiations with this new admirer. But it wasn’t likely. Her mother would always need new gowns and new bonnets, hothouse flowers and expensive scents. That her daughter might need something never entered her mind.

Just then the door opened and her mother’s visitor entered. At first all Zoe noticed was that he was unusually tall and that, despite the hint of warmth in the air that suggested an early spring, he wore a many-caped greatcoat of the sort that a gentleman would don this time of year only when preparing for dusty travel. In one hand he held a long, gold-handled cane with an odd device on the ferule that appeared to be some sort of serpent.

As soon as he entered, her mother rose to greet him, favoring him with a dazzling smile that displayed the shining white teeth of which she was, so rightly, proud. Her visitor didn’t return her smile, but simply removed his tall beaver hat with a polite flourish and bowed toward both of them.

Zoe had assumed that this latest man her mother had dredged up would be well into middle age, for as her mother had grown older, her protectors had grown older, too. But the man in front of her looked unlikely to be much over thirty. Nor was he unattractive. True, his chestnut hair was cut unfashionably long, and there was the faintest haze of golden stubble on his cheek, which gave him an odd look—not at all that of a man of the ton. But his features were regular and fine in a way that marked him as the product of generations of good breeding. Even though there was something outlandish about the cut of his coat, she would never have mistaken him for anything but a gentleman.

But her examination of her mother’s visitor came to an abrupt halt as she became aware that he was staring back at her, examining her with a curiosity equal to her own and making no attempt to hide that curiosity under a veneer of politeness. She tore her eyes away from his gaze, but not before realizing there was also something odd about his gold-flecked eyes.

La Belle Isabelle formed her lips into an inviting pout. “Your Lordship, how good of you to come. My young friend here was just on her way out.”

Zoe turned toward the door. Of course, her mother wouldn’t reveal their true relationship. Why trumpet the fact that La Belle Isabelle was old enough to have a daughter who was almost twenty-one?

Lord Ramsay made a perfunctory bow in Zoe’s direction. “Charmed,” he said, before turning back to Isabelle. “But let us get to the point. I am told you have a daughter.”

 “What interest can you have in a child?” Her expression betrayed her surprise. “My daughter is a mere schoolgirl.”

“A schoolgirl? I must have been misinformed. I expected her to be the exact age of your young friend here.”

La Belle Isabelle struggled to maintain her composure. “No. You haven’t been misinformed. Not at all.”

“Your daughter is a teacher, is she not, at Mrs. Endicott’s Select Female Academy?” He pronounced the name in a tone heavy with sarcasm.

But how could he have known such a thing?

Clearly, her mother wondered, too. The vapid expression with which she disarmed her male admirers had been replaced for the moment with one more calculating. “How do you come to know so much about my daughter?”

“I’ve made it my business to know everything about you.” His smile betrayed no underlying good humor. “For example, I know that your daughter is not only of the same age as this young woman here, but shares her coloring—brown hair and eyes—and is of a similar stature. Indeed, a reasonable man might conclude this young woman was your daughter.”

Her bluff called, her mother threw down her cards. “You are very well informed, Your Lordship. Indeed. I won’t attempt to mislead you. This young woman is my daughter.”

Zoe felt her cheeks burn as their visitor turned the full force of his gaze on her. She braced herself for what always followed, the surprise mixed with pity that so beautiful a mother should have so ugly a child. Her mother’s suitor made no reply, but the tightening of his lips revealed what he was thinking.          

Her mother hurried on. “I must beg you to forgive me for not introducing her to you, your Lordship, but really, what would you have had me say, in view of the delicacy of the situation?” She shrugged one exquisite, half-naked shoulder and then blushed prettily. “Zoe, darling,” she said in an unmistakably maternal tone, “make your adieux to Lord Ramsay.”

But before she could comply, he broke in. “There is no need for your daughter to make her adieux, Madam,” he said. “I should like her to remain with us while I discuss my intentions with you.”

Her mother’s perfectly plucked eyebrows rose. “That seems hardly the thing, milord. She is still a young and innocent girl. This discussion is a matter between the two of us, non?

No,” Lord Ramsay replied in an exaggeratedly English accent. “I am not French enough to dispose of a young girl’s future without allowing her to be part of the conversation.”

“But surely, your Lordship, it was our future you’ve come here to discuss. It is hardly appropriate for a young child to be present at such a time.”

“It is your daughter’s future that concerns me.”

Zoe stopped dead, her heart fluttering. Her future?

“Whatever could you want with my daughter?” Her mother’s voice rose. “Surely you don’t know her—or do you?” She stared at Zoe. “What mischief have you been hiding from your mother, ma petite? Lecturing me so severely and then getting up to who knows what tricks on your own.”

Lord Ramsay interrupted. “The girl is blameless. This is the first time we’ve met. But it is she who is the subject of my interest. I must apologize if my intent was not made clear to you in my letter.”

Zoe saw her mother’s face fall, if only for a moment, as the import of his words struck home. What a humiliating mistake to have made! Though how understandable—until now no man had shown the slightest interest in paying court to her daughter—so ugly to start with and made all the more hideous  after the smallpox had left her scarred—not that Zoe cared. She’d never had any wish to become some roué’s plaything to be toyed with and later tossed aside.

But her mother was not easily flustered. Composing herself, she protested, “Your Lordship, this is so sudden. My daughter is still so young, such an innocent—I cannot bear to think of losing her.”

“Your daughter is twenty and lives for the most part at a school.” Lord Ramsay was no longer smiling. “Any arrangement we can come to can only relieve the anxiety you must have about her future.”

“That is so true, Milord, but still, it is no little thing to dispose of the future of a child. I want the best for her.”

“I cannot doubt it.” Again that undisguised sarcasm in his voice.

He reached into his pocket and withdrew a small but ornate box, which he held out toward Zoe. Compelled by his rigid gaze, she took it from him. It was surprisingly heavy. As she slowly pried it open, the glint of gold and a shimmering green stone met her eye. It was a bracelet in the form of a dragon. A large emerald formed its eye. Magnificent, but barbaric, too.

Almost as barbaric as the transaction it implied.

But before she could react, her mother swooped down and grabbed the box, lifting the bracelet off the thick gray padding it rested on and examining it greedily with the eye of one well versed in the appraisal of jewelry. Only after turning and twisting the gem to catch the light and weighing it with one hand did she restore it to Zoe and give her judgment. “Quite a nice piece. But of course there must be matching ear bobs, too. It’s impossible to wear such a bauble without them, and my daughter has led such a sheltered life that, naturally, she has no other jewelry.”

Lord Ramsay directed a look of annoyance at Isabelle. “The bracelet is but a token of what is in store for her, were I to find her suitable. There could be more.”

Suitable for what? Zoe could barely believe what she was hearing. But her mother was taking it in stride. “She would have to have her own carriage,” she demanded. “And bank shares. A girl is only a virgin once.”

An unpleasant smile flashed across Lord Ramsay’s gaunt features. “But that is the question, isn’t it? Is she still a virgin?”

“Of course she is! Do you not think I would guard the virtue of my lone child like a hawk?”

“No, I do not, not in view of the eagerness with which you appear to be willing to bargain it away.” He turned to Zoe. “Is your mother telling the truth, girl? Are you still a virgin?”

The avidity with which he awaited her answer was even more shocking than the crudeness of his question. “That’s none of your business!” she snarled.

“To the contrary. It is essential that I know.”

She refused to dignify him with an answer, returning his stare with one she hoped was even ruder. He dropped his eyes, letting his insolent gaze drift from her marred face to her thin chest and downward along her narrow flanks to her spindly legs. After a pause that stretched out so long she felt she must cry out in agony, he said, “You needn’t answer. You are clearly a virgin.”

She gasped, but couldn’t bring herself to contradict him.

“Milord,” her mother joined in. “Since you are satisfied on that point, we must discuss further these arrangements. She will need a carriage—”

“A carriage. What else.”

“The bank shares. They could be arranged?”

Lord Ramsay shrugged. “I would have to determine if the girl is worth it.”

Her mother continued to bargain, as if she were negotiating with a grocer for a particularly fine joint of mutton. But she must be mad. Ugly as Zoe was, there was no good reason why a man like this would be interested in her—a man who was a stranger to both of them and who knew all too much about her, even the name of the school where she earned her modest living.

And his manner was so cold and sarcastic. Why did her mother persist in bargaining with him, ignoring these obvious signs of danger as she demanded that he provide her daughter with a house in town and pin money, acting, for all the world, like a mother of the ton negotiating a marriage settlement for her daughter.

Except, of course, that it wasn’t a marriage settlement she was negotiating.

What could explain his interest in her? It couldn’t be lust, whatever he might be pretending. She knew too well what lust looked like, having grown up surrounded by the men whose passions her mother so expertly manipulated. But she saw no lust in his deep-set eyes. Why would there be, with the way she looked?

So it must be something else. Perhaps she was the butt of some ill-conceived wager. Perhaps some idle pink of the ton had bet this haughty lord that he couldn’t deflower an ugly woman. Or perhaps he needed to purchase three virgins as part of some perverted scavenger hunt. The men her mother consorted with were capable of concocting such a prank, and under other circumstances she might have even seen the humor in it—but not now. Not when she was the butt of it. Not when her mother was desperate for the rent, and Lord Ramsay was her only way of paying it.

But whatever his game was, she’d had enough of it. She was ugly, yes, and unprotected, but she deserved more than this, even from a stranger. She wondered what he’d lose were he to lose his wager, and hoped it would be a lot.

“You may go to hell with your offer.” She tossed the bracelet back at him, flinging the satin box after it.

He fielded both surprisingly deftly, considering his size, then drew back. “It wasn’t enough for you?”

“No offer would be enough. My virtue is not for sale.”

“Ah, but that is where you are wrong,” he said with an unpleasant look. “It has been sold these last nine years. There’s no need for me to offer you carriages and bank shares, Zoe Gervais. Didn’t your mother tell you about her bargain?”

A look of horror had swept over her mother’s face, but she protested, “What are you talking about? What bargain?”

Lord Ramsay fixed her with a hard look. “You know full well what bargain. The one you made in France. The masquerade is over. I indulged myself in it because I was curious to see how low you would sink, but now that I know, there’s no more reason for playacting. I’ve come to claim her.”

“Who are you?” her mother whispered, clutching her throat protectively with her hand.

“Think back. Ignore my hair. Back then it was in a queue, and I was far younger—and much more innocent—as innocent as your daughter claims to be. Look at me more closely. Do you remember me, now?”

Her mother peered at him. Then her hand went to her mouth and she gasped out, “Mon Dieu, Adam Selkirk. I thought you were dead.”

“You may wish I were before this day is done, but I lived—no thanks to you.”

“So all this”— she gestured toward his letter—“and calling yourself Lord Ramsay—was it just a ruse to get me to admit you?”

He shrugged, sending a quiver through the many capes of his greatcoat. “Selkirk is my family name, Ramsay my title, but I didn’t choose to use it in France in ‘93. It wouldn’t have fit the temper of the times.”

“No,” her mother agreed. “Not with the tumbrels rolling to the guillotine, so full of men with titles.”

“And with women, too—as you of all people must know.” His voice was cold, but his eyes were burning.

“But it was so long ago,” Her mother protested. “It’s like a dream to me now, a very bad dream, but still, I’ve forgotten so much.”

“And I have forgotten nothing. How could I? I may still be alive, but Charlotte is not.”

Her mother shrank back. “Poor child! So they killed her too. Those terrible men. May I give you my condolences?”

She stopped and turned her beautiful face toward him, filled now with the wistful expression that had always been one of her most effective.

This time it failed.

“You may give me nothing,” Lord Ramsay snapped. “Except the satisfaction of knowing that at last Charlotte will be avenged. I have come to retrieve your pledge to him.” He held up the discarded bracelet. Its serpent’s eye glimmered dully.

“The Dark Lord?”

“Who else? He’s on his death bed, but before he dies he wishes to see the girl you sold him.”