Her Wicked Marquess by Stacy Reid




Chapter One


            Vanguard Hall

            There were degrees of wickedness, and tonight Lady Maryann Eleanor Fitzwilliam was going to be terribly wicked.

            She was determined to take revenge on Lady Sophie, a beautiful, reigning diamond of the ton, who thought it amusing to harass those she deemed inferior to her because of their lack of wealth and connections.

            Unfortunately, this meant the wallflowers of the last few seasons, to which Maryann had been relegated, were forced to the sidelines by Lady Sophie and her coterie’s idle gossiping. Maryann and her friends had become thoroughly tired of the sobriquet of “wallflower.” Four years ago, for a moment in time, she had been well-loved by the fashionable set, until she had found it impossible to be as mean-spirited and vindictive as many of their number. Then they had cut her from their coterie, avidly whispering and laughing about her behind their fans to all who would listen.

            And that, unfortunately, was the majority of young society women.

            Lady Sophie might be the sister of a most sought-after duke, but she and her beautiful coterie were bully-ruffians, and tonight she would surely discover her cruelty had a price. Maryann would be the instrument of Lady Sophie’s lesson. After all, Maryann had recently impressed upon her dearest friends that it was time to be daring and take whatever they needed, for waiting like biddable ladies had garnered them nothing—not love, or family, or any measure of independence or happiness.

            Maryann glanced surreptitiously about the gardens, tapping her feet impatiently, wondering why her older brother—Crispin—one of her closest confidants, was taking so long. They had agreed to meet at this section of the gardens once the supper waltz ended.

            Pushing her spectacles up the bridge of her nose, she worried her bottom lip, hoping that she hadn’t sent him to his death when she had urged him to collect a few grass snakes and critters by the pond. The summer night was overly warm, but a few days ago, he had been abed.

            It was that very reason the family split their time between their town house in Berkeley Square and Vanguard Hall, their manor on the outskirts of London. Vanguard Hall was close enough to town that many were more than willing to travel to the Countess Musgrove’s home for one of her balls or garden parties, and it was far enough away from the pollution of London to help Crispin recover whenever the shortness of breath that sometimes plagued him reared its ugly, frightening head.

            A shuffle amongst the potted flowers had her whirling around.

            “There you are!” she softly cried, hurrying over to the dark figure stooped in the shadows. “Crispin, thank you! I knew you did not approve of my revenge, but you came through for me. Where is the bucket?”

            The figure went remarkably still, and a niggle of an uncomfortable awareness bloomed inside Maryann. She bit back her cry of protest when, with an almost imperceptible motion, the man melted deeper into the darkness and vanished the way he had come.

            “Crispin?”

            A few moments later, he appeared with the bucket.

            “Oh, thank goodness,” she said with an approving smile. “I truly could not do this without you.”

            He nodded once, and she turned around to peer into their parents’ massive and overflowing ballroom. Crispin had originally suggested it should be a masked ball; however, that had been considered too scandalous by her mother for the Musgroves to carry out. Still, a few of Crispin’s friends had worn masks to enter, but most discarded them when the countess had discouraged such frivolity. But that was enough if anyone should see her and Crispin now. They would report of two people in masks, and the countess would have to recall that it was several guests who had worn those artful coverings.