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Taming Ivy (The Taming Series Book 1) by April Moran (1)

Chapter 1

London, England 1839

Sebastian Tyler Sheraton Cain, eleventh Earl of Ravenswood and last of his line, did not believe in love.

Nor did he trust in a woman’s ability to maintain an enduring faithfulness.

The notion of angels singing or being struck by lightning upon seeing a beautiful woman? Or having his composure rattled by a comely figure? Patently ridiculous.

And he most certainly did not believe in rekindling affairs. Friends and acquaintances joked that Lucifer himself stood a better chance of finding his way into Heaven. When Ravenswood decided a relationship was over, whomever happened to occupy his bed became something akin to hell-scorched earth. And like dead ground, nothing would grow there ever again. The affair was erased from memory and never revisited.

Never.

The flurry of emotions the earl’s appearance triggered in Lady Veronica Wesley’s foyer proved puzzling. He endured a half-hearted slap to his face and squeals of joy as Veronica launched herself into his arms. While the stoic butler ignored their passionate kisses, she dragged Sebastian upstairs, her schemes for his amorous entertainment described in exacting detail. Intrigued by her creative imagination, he neglected to mention the true reason for his afternoon visit.

For an hour, his former mistress fulfilled all whispered promises until Sebastian took control. Thankfully the bedroom walls were relatively thick, masking the sounds inside; harsh breathing, little cries of pleasure, the creak of the bed becoming louder as Veronica writhed beneath him, her jeweled fingers tangled in the open fretwork of the mahogany headboard. Her moans climbed in steady increments, higher pitched and desperate as the afternoon slipped away. Sebastian played with her forever, slapping her plump buttocks each time her pace slowed, his hands meshed in the long hair streaming down her back, anchored tight and controlling. Riding her with steady thrusts, he forced her to move faster, finally allowing her to tumble over the edge of satisfaction, her knuckles the palest shade of alabaster from gripping the headboard so hard.

Sebastian never gave her a moment to recover, tilting her hips aloft, rocking harder and deeper until she gasped. Veronica preferred it rough on occasion and this certainly qualified as such. After attending his needs in the most diligent of fashions, it seemed fair he fulfill a few of her preferences. Only he’d not taken into consideration Veronica’s genuine delight in his return. She’d taken more of his time than anticipated. Another hour, possibly more, was lost while seeing to her pleasure. And although he did not mind making love all afternoon, it was not his intention.

Tugging her hair until she squealed Sebastian laughed softly, abruptly withdrawing to flip her over. When Veronica moaned in dissent, he kissed her hard and said quietly, “Hush...I’m coming back,” just before thrusting inside her.

Veronica squeezed him tight, legs curled hungrily about Sebastian’s waist, using her thighs and inner channel muscles until his shoulders contracted and his fingers dug painfully into the flesh of her buttocks. Their movements became almost violent until another climax crashed over her and his own pinnacle was obtained in a blinding rush of sensations seconds later.

Dropping his forehead dropped into the curve of her shoulder, sweat from his brow mingled with hers. Veronica exhaled a shaky breath of blissful wonder.

“God, Sebastian, you’ve no idea how much I’ve missed this. No one else can...” She stopped herself, the breathless words dying as her damp palms skated along his flanks. Smiling softly, she continued, “You should not have stayed away so long, darling.”

A low grumble rippled through Sebastian. He rolled away to prop himself against the headboard she gripped with desperation just moments before. Covering his nudity with a flick of the sheets, he raked a hand through his hair and waited for her to regain control of herself.

When Veronica’s color back faded to a shade of fine ivory and her magnificent breasts no longer heaved, Sebastian’s brow rose by an imperceptible degree. He gave a subtle clearing of his throat and she swung her legs over the edge of the mattress at the sound, pulling a velvet coverlet up from the floor to be fashioned into a makeshift sarong.

“Brandy or bourbon?” Her voice was subdued.

Bourbon.”

It was nearing three o’clock and a late February sun illuminated the lively street outside the townhouse on Piccadilly. But the murky interior of Veronica’s luxurious bedroom suited her, lending a mysterious, dusky glow to her exotic features. Using the coverlet as camouflage she stepped to an ornately carved sidebar. Glass clinked as the bottle touched a crystal tumbler.

Sebastian’s expression remained veiled. He understood why she pulled the drapes tight against the unforgiving daylight. Always curvaceous, Veronica was easing into plumpness, but he found no fault in that. That soft voluptuousness pleased him. And probably the other lovers she entertained in his absence.

Watching as she poured his drink, Sebastian felt a disappointing and infuriatingly familiar lack of fulfillment nag him. Despite the rigorous sex, his release proved empty rather bland. Sprawled amongst the tangled sheets like an indolent tiger, he wondered if his remoteness confused Veronica. He might as well be a stranger lounging in her bed instead of a well-known lover.

He’d never treated her with anything other than a casual indifference. A self-conscious attempt perhaps to retain the friendship shared before their affair began. That aloofness was necessary to maintain distance and it was his habit, as he came and went as he pleased, to never make a woman privy to his affairs. Veronica once foolishly questioned his frequent absences and it was that distance which allowed Sebastian to easily smile and say, “Now, that hardly matters in our situation, does it, my dear?” She was intelligent enough to never ask again, because if she had, he would have responded by obtaining a new mistress. No matter the state of the relationship, he’d be damned if a woman questioned his actions or dictated to him. Not ever again. Not after what he’d been through with his former fiancée, Marilee.

Fortunately, within Sebastian’s privileged world there was no shortage of willing prey. As he cut a wide swath through London and other cities abroad, the same women whispering of his atrocious habit of moving from mistress to mistress also sought his company, eager for the pleasure lavished upon them while they were his. Veronica resided happily in that category. Had he any intention of resuming their relationship, which he did not, Sebastian knew she probably always would. Hardly noble to think it but it was the truth.

She perched beside him, handing over a crystal glass. With burgundy velvet wrapped about her, a raven-hued lock of hair tugged between the fingers of one hand and a tumbler of bourbon twirling in the other, she presented an appealing picture. A huge mirror leaned against the far wall, reflecting every activity occurring in her bed and undoubtedly Veronica practiced this particular mannerism many times before it. She executed it perfectly. The precise, slow twirl of the drink, the perfect, sultry pout. The careful sip which drew attention to her full lips.

She broke the awkward silence first. “How did you find France, Seb?”

Sebastian downed the bourbon in one swallow. Get it over with, selfish bastard. Do not keep her hoping. “Quite easily once I crossed the Channel.” Because his particular brand of humor always eluded her in the past, it was surprising that her russet colored eyes narrowed with injured annoyance.

“I meant…”

“I know what you meant, Ronnie.” He chucked her under the chin, feeling slightly guilty when she brightened with the calculated use of affection. It was still easy to manipulate her. “I did not find much to amuse me there.”

Exhaustion proved a more fitting description of his four years abroad, the remembrance of last month’s liaison enjoyed with three (almost) famous ballerinas tamped down. That first year away from England, one spent romping on the beach with a forgettable mistress on a newly purchased sugar plantation in the Caribbean, proved wearisome. After her, during his aimless drift across different countries, a lovely, lady in waiting to the Queen of Spain held his attention for a time. Comfortably situated in an airy villa just outside the palace, Sebastian developed an appreciation for hot, strong coffee every morning and enjoyed fiery lovemaking with the dark-haired beauty. Until her irrational jealousy led him to break the affair. That she also found him in bed with the wife of a French ambassador complicated matters. Sandwiched during and between those mistresses, including Veronica, were women selected to ease the loneliness and hold his boredom at bay.

Frowning at the hollow depth of recollections, Sebastian rotated the empty tumbler between his palms. “I was not in France the entire time.”

“I missed you, Seb. Terribly, I’m afraid.” Setting her glass down, Veronica slid closer. Her fingers rested against the lower portion of his belly before twining with sly intent in the whispery black hair snaking a trail beyond the edge of the sheet. “Had you sent for me, I would have come to you. No matter the others warming your bed. A familiar face might have been welcomed in your travels.”

“Perhaps.” Taking a firm grasp of her hand, Sebastian removed it from his abdomen.

A small clock on the fireplace mantle chimed the hour. Damnation. Two hours wasted yet it felt like much more. Rolling from the bed, he remembered squandering days in Veronica Wesley’s bed and quite happily, too.

That time in his life could be centuries ago. A lifetime ago.

Flopping against the abundant pillows in a huff, Veronica’s pretty face turned sullen. Sebastian hunted for his clothes, feeling her hungry gaze devouring his naked form. Finding his shirt lying on the floor near the door, he gave it a slight shake.

“I saw your aunt a week past at the Hadderly ball.” Her voice wobbled, thin and high. “It was her first social event after…everything.”

Sebastian paused in fastening the ivory buttons. Veronica was not stupid. She was beginning to understand the purpose of his visit and would say damn near anything to delay his departure. He hauled on his breeches in silence, hoping to find his boots quickly. Earlier she had yanked them from his feet with the skill of a master blacksmith removing shoes from a racehorse, flinging each expensive boot over her shoulder without a care for where they might land.

“Was she there?” Overturning a velvet-tufted ottoman, he trusted his revulsion in the subject matter was not too apparent.

“Yes.” Veronica seemed torn between wanting to say nothing more yet also wanting to please with information. Desperation to bind him to her by any means was chewing away the edges of her dignity.

Sebastian’s mouth twitched with a ghost of a smile. Jealous women made excellent informants. And spies.

“Such a strange thing. Lady Kinley was ghostly white after speaking with your aunt. Everyone speculated as to their conversation, although none were privy to it.” Her restless fingers plucked at the sheets. “Lady Garrett departed immediately. She missed the entire fiasco.”

“Fiasco?” Sebastian murmured. Veronica held little fondness for the recent source of gossip in London’s uppermost echelons of society. And it was disgraceful - men flocking to that girl simply because one mad, infatuated soul took his life after the loss of her fickle attention.

“One can hardly describe it as anything else. Quite appalling, even if the ton is clamoring for Lady Kinley, proclaiming her this Season’s “Darling Incomparable.” It was scandalous... enough to guarantee Lady Hadderly’s ball would be declared a sensation.” An unconscious thread of admiration curled into Veronica’s tone. “Viscount Basford stepped in on Lord Walsingham and as they argued Count Monvair waltzed off with her. Basford stormed after the count, everyone began pushing and shouting. Lady Hadderly feigned a swoon, just after vowing to see them all banished for the rest of the Season from every ball. Not that she possesses that sort of power, but she does hold a rather high opinion of herself. In the midst of it all, Lady Kinley just vanished! While old Lord Hadderly shuffled about, howling about silly girls, fainting fits and ill-mannered men.”

“Enough, Ronnie,” Sebastian grated out between clenched teeth. Thank God. One elusive boot peeked from beneath a flowing puddle of burgundy-hued velvet drapes. A moment later, its mate was located behind a decorative screen close to the commode room.

He regained his composure by the time he shrugged into a forest green afternoon coat, one he tossed onto the floor with no care for its exorbitant cost. While checking his appearance at a vanity table, messy with cosmetic pots and perfume vials, Sebastian pulled a tiny box from his coat’s inner pocket, placing it amid the clutter. Running a hand through his tousled black hair to bring it to some sort of order, he was amused by Veronica’s reflection in the mirror. She was pinching her pale cheeks, biting her lips to bring some color to them.

Sebastian motioned her to come to him, planting a distant kiss to those reddened lips. “Thank you for an enjoyable afternoon.”

“Will you come again tomorrow?” Her eyes held a shimmer of tears. She already knew his answer but was compelled to ask regardless.

“You know I won't, Ronnie.” He lifted her chin with a forefinger. “However, we shall remain friends, if you grant me that honor.”

Veronica accepted the official ending of their affair with admirable grace and pragmatism. “We’ve been friends for so long, something like this cannot possibly jeopardize it. I can give Lord Alimar serious consideration now, I suppose. He’s been quite persistent to make more permanent arrangements. Told me I was foolish to wait for you, but I've had other lovers since you left.”

Sebastian detested this element of affairs, the final chapter, this closing curtain. Although his mistresses praised his generosity and compassion, garnering accolades for kindness to a woman at the end of his use of her never failed to strike him as rather bizarre. Veronica was taking it better than most, but then again, she had years to prepare herself for this moment.

“Should you ever require anything, you have only to ask. I can arrange it so you would never…”

“You needn’t even say it, darling,” Veronica interrupted with a small, sad smile. “I know very well a kind heart exists in there.” The palm of her hand pressed flat to his chest as she sighed. “Somewhere beneath all this glorious wickedness.”

Their gazes held until Sebastian cleared his throat and turned to gather the remainder of his personal items.

It was too damn easy to shed the women in his life. A pretty bit of jewelry, a few kind words and he was free to carry on. It was almost embarrassing. Still, relief overrode the prick of shame when he glimpsed Veronica’s dismal face peering down from the second story bedroom window.

She must believe he could not see her as she stood half hidden behind the wine-red drapes. Sebastian nearly raised a hand in farewell before thinking better of it. The stale air of London was hardly an improvement over the bouquet of sex, bourbon, and faint cigar smoke found within Veronica’s suite of rooms, but it blotted his guilt until it eased. As his luxurious coach merged onto bustling Piccadilly Street, those drapes fell back into place.

Veronica probably facilitated between giddiness and disbelief over his parting gift. The golden topaz and diamond necklace with matched earrings cost a small fortune, a penance gladly paid for the failure in officially ending their affair four years before. Settling against the leather squabs, Sebastian shoved her from his mind. She was his friend, but also just another woman, one in a long string effortlessly replaced. It was a pattern often repeated in his life; a few coins spent, a meaningless token and an emotionless ‘thank you’ for hours wasted making loveless love.

Over and done.

* * *

“She’s little more than a high-born, spoiled courtesan.”

Lady Rachel Garrett’s shrill voice was as ear piercing as Sebastian remembered. Her hands twisted in her lap, making him want to give her something. A ball of yarn, a chicken that needed plucking. Anything to absorb that frantic energy and put it to good use.

“Perhaps,” he replied.

“She’ll bewitch you as she did my poor Timothy.”

Impossible.”

“Men foolishly pursue her.” Rachel clasped her gaunt cheeks in distress. “You’ll be one of many.”

Sebastian just spent the past half hour listening with a calm detachment to his aunt’s histrionics. Now, his lips quirked. It was possible the young countess had done little to entrance his cheerful, romantically inclined cousin, but it did not absolve her guilt. Swirling his brandy, he contemplated various methods of escaping this dreadful meeting.

“She cares not that he is dead!” Aunt Rachel wailed.

“That, madam, is most likely true.” Pulling a crumpled piece of vellum from a drawer of his desk, he wondered if Ivy Kinley cared that Timothy was dead. She had killed him, after all. Indirectly of course, but she was the instrument of his destruction.

Rachel watched him with shadowy eyes, perched on the edge of a leather club chair in Sebastian’s study, her spine painfully rigid. She possessed the air of a small black crow, stricken with grief yet alert with private loathing.

Sebastian eased out the deep crinkles of the page before pinching the bridge of his nose. Thanks to Rachel’s incessant despair upon learning his intentions, he now had one hell of a headache. And no matter how many times he read this letter, he’d come no closer to understanding his cousin’s disturbing fascination with the Countess of Somerset. Nor to unraveling the mystery behind it. The anger contained within the tear stained ink was as bewildering as Timothy’s chaotic swings between despair and adoration.

My Dearest Ivy,

I’ve called upon you countless times and still that damned butler won’t allow me entrance! He treats me as if I’m the lowliest chimney sweep or a piece of rabble seeking your charity. It is unacceptable, but I know full well he only does your bidding.

I long to hold you, to feel the sunlight of your smile. You know I adore you. You know you are mine. Ivy, I need you. Without you, I am nothing. I feel nothing. Can you understand my simple words? I am nothing without you.

My sweet Ivy, my heartless, beautiful love. These past weeks have been hell. My headaches grow worse, my medication as useless as sugar water. But I think you do not care. Damn you, goddamn you! Do you see the depths I’ve fallen to? I curse your name and hate myself for it. Your cruelty blinds you to my suffering. Or do you know my torment and find this agony amusing? Does it please you? Knowing this wretchedness has beset me?

What have you done to me? God, what have I done to you? Ivy, I beg you to see me again. Today. Tomorrow. Now. I don't care. This is torture and I cannot bear it. I am in Hell and you are the Devil’s own angel, but I love you. I know you love me. Your affections could not have lies. Please, before it is too late. What must I do? Tell me how to make you love me again. Because I must have you. I must. I simply cannot live without you.

I love you. Yes. I love you. But damn you, damn you, you are killing me. As surely as if you twist all these knives in my heart

~Timothy

His cousin died in his private rooms, here at sprawling Ravenswood Court on Grosvenor Square, his dark head of curls pillowed upon this very letter. A decanter of brandy teetered on the edge of his personal desk, the liquor forming a puddle on the expensive rug. Beside Timothy’s stiff hand lay an empty bottle of laudanum and a bowl of sugar cubes. A writing quill, the silver nib crusted with dried ink, was still clutched within his fingers.

Lady Garrett’s cries for justice resulted in the bobbies being called in.

“An unfortunate tragedy,” Inspector Barrett declared. “I’m afraid nothing can be done in the matter, milady. No law exists preventing a young lady’s refusal of a gentleman’s courtship.”

“An unintentional death,” Old Doctor Callahan determined upon meticulous examination of the suite and Timothy’s body. The official declaration guaranteed his cousin’s final resting place in the family plot, complete with all necessary blessings of the Church. Rumors of suicide escaped nonetheless.

Sebastian shot his aunt a sharp glance when she sniffled. “You must trust my judgment on this matter, Aunt Rachel.” He hoped she would not collapse into sobs again and sighed with relief when she did not.

“It’s scandalous…this notion you have of courting her. After what she did.” As if realizing the hysterics annoyed him, Rachel stated this in a more restrained manner.

His aunt was correct; it would be scandalous. But had he been in London, this whole madness might have been avoided. Shouldn’t he bear a bit of the responsibility for the tragedy? From the time he’d come to live with them at the age of four, Timothy idolized Sebastian. In fact, the boy emulated him and in the careless manner of an older brother, Sebastian loved his cousin as well. Much could have been done to alleviate the situation before Timothy harmed himself. How the carefree and jovial young man spiraled so quickly into such a dark pit over a woman was difficult to comprehend. And in just a few months’ time according to Rachel. Damn it, Timothy, you love-struck bastard. Did you not learn anything from my mistakes with Marilee? Now I’m left to deal with your irrational mother, all the damnable gossip. And the heartless little bitch who caused your downfall.

The uncharitable thoughts of Aunt Rachel caused a stab of guilt. His father’s eldest and only sister was suffering the loss of her sole child. For his father’s sake, and Timothy’s, Sebastian summoned forth his most sympathetic nature.

“There will be times you question my actions.” His eyes flickered over the woman, evaluating her reaction. “I’ll caution you not to interfere.”

Rachel’s mouth curved in a tight slash of disapproval. She’d lost a stone in the time he'd been gone. It did not compliment her gaunt face, marking her far older than her sixty years. Her husband’s demise and the impoverished state due to his gambling debts had not aged her as Timothy’s passing had. A haunted expression flitted in her blue eyes whenever she spoke of the girl responsible for her son’s death nine months before and Sebastian thought his aunt’s return to society was far too soon.

“I want Lady Kinley to suffer for what she did to Timothy.”

“She will.” The assurance was firm. “In a method of my choosing.”

After Rachel exited his study Sebastian pondered the latest scandal involving the Countess of Somerset. A popular wager emerged in the gaming hells and private gentlemen clubs during the months following Timothy’s death, a grotesque amusement for those with deep pockets and a sense of the macabre. Some fool, obviously lacking a clever bone in his body, devised the appalling title, Taming the Countess. The objective of the game hinged upon one’s ability to withstand the charms of Lady Ivy Kinley. Ultimate victory was twofold; one could not end up as dead as the unfortunate Lord Timothy Garrett and one must capture the lady’s hand in marriage. Of course, considering the size of the fortune in question, it was not simply the countess herself men were so eager to capture. Survive her or win her

His family now the brunt of sordid entertainment, Sebastian had no sympathy for the girl caught in the midst of the scandal. It was incomprehensible the ton, notorious for its fickle nature, was fascinated with her.

It was seven years before when Sebastian first met the young countess. The day he arrived at the Somerset estate was one of his first social calls following a year of mourning his own father’s death to a sudden illness. His recollection of that afternoon, and memories of a disagreeable twelve-year-old little girl crowned with frizzy brown hair, her face sprinkled with unfortunate freckles, were far from pleasant.

The visit was made with considerable reluctance, an onerous duty owed in part to the friendship his father shared with the Earl of Kinley. Sebastian came to pay respects on the recent passing of Kinley’s wife, Caroline. Since Kinley held many of Britain’s influential men in the deepest, darkest wells of his pocket, failure to convey personal condolences would have been considered a grievous insult. Having just turned twenty-two at the time, the reins of the Ravenswood earldom newly in his hands, Sebastian could not risk offending so powerful a man.

A dark-grey haired butler operating in a dazed fog failed to collect his coat and hat, leaving Sebastian awkwardly holding the items in his hands. Kinley’s entire staff appeared stunned by the death of their lady. As the butler silently led the way down the hall, two downstairs maids wept into their handkerchiefs, not bothering to pretend otherwise when Sebastian’s gaze swept over them. The house possessed an air of despondency, with dark gleaming furniture in want of dusting, the curtains drawn tight against the brilliant sunshine.

When Kinley joined him in the west drawing room Sebastian became privy to the unnerving spectacle of a notoriously self-composed man downing several tumblers of brandy. It was a peek into a private world not meant to be seen, the earl dropping the acerbic manner cultivated since his brush with financial ruin years before. This Kinley staggered about in a haze of grief. Lady Caroline’s death was not surprising, having been ill for the past two years, but the earl’s composure was one of a devastated man.

An hour of stilted conversation crept passed before Sebastian deemed it safe to depart. Kinley stared with blank eyes for the majority of the visit while his guest said all the necessary things and fidgeted at the slow passing of time. Checking his watch with a relieved sigh, Sebastian murmured his farewells, pausing when raised voices rose in the hall. Something heavy and probably very expensive crashed to the floor just outside the door just as a whirlwind of velocity burst into the room. An interloper, clad in dirty breeches and a yellowed linen shirt, slammed the door with such force the walls shook.

His dignified exit ruined, Sebastian sank into his chair by the fireplace.

“Were you going to tell me? Did you plan to roll me up in my bedsheets? Dump me in a coach to take me away? Without even a word from you? Is this what you planned? Answer me!” A shabby, gray tweed cap obscured any discernible features; the tattered bill yanked down so it hovered above the bridge of the wearer’s nose.

Damn. A disgruntled servant had come to exact revenge against the earl. Or could it be some unfortunate soul from the nearby village who managed to barge his way into the house? Where were Kinley’s servants? They ought to be rushing in to remove the intruder at any moment.

Kinley stumbled back against the sideboard. Reaching for the decanter of brandy, his hand quivered. “My intention was to inform you this afternoon.”

Carefully crossing a leg over the other, Sebastian’s eyebrow rose in faint horror. Kinley might be accustomed to strangers invading his wife’s ancestral home but this ragged trespasser spoke with painful familiarity.

“You planned this. Weeks ago.” The accusation was snarled. “Before Mama even died…admit it!”

The ragged creature possessed a feminine voice. Hoarse, broken but undeniably female. Ah, it was easy to see if one bothered to look close.

She scowled in fierce disapproval at the decanter in Kinley’s fist. A scrap of black ribbon gathered a mop of brown hair at the nape of a sweaty, dirt streaked neck. Those knotted curls could use a comb and soap. For that matter, she needed a good scrubbing all over.

Failing to notice the third party observing the quarrel, her full lips lifted in a sneer. “It’s not even noon, Father.”

At the thread of violence in the girl’s tone, Kinley spilled the majority of the brandy down his leg. Taking up a cloth, he blotted at the stain as something resembling gratitude flashed across his features. He waved a hand toward the fireplace. “My dear…the Earl of Ravenswood has come to offer his condolences. May I present my daughter? Lady Ivy Elizabeth Kinley. Now, Countess of Somerset.”

Sebastian silently groaned. Escaping unnoticed from this little drama, or whatever one wished to call it, was impossible now. When she pivoted toward him, a whirlwind of feral heat, the tiny ripple of unease he felt embarrassed him. She was a child. Unable to do any real harm, but her battle stare rivaled that of a seasoned knight. Rising from his chair, he clasped his arms behind his back in afterthought. A simple precaution, in case the girl’s teeth snapped in his direction. After all, it appeared wolves had raised her.

He bowed. “Lady Kinley.” Such a shame the old and esteemed title is wasted on this ill-mannered creature.

Her spine jolted into a rigid line. Delicate hands with dirt tinged fingernails fluttered to the cap on her head before she reached back to smooth the frizzy tangles bunched at the nape of her neck. Indecision flickered in gold-flecked aqua eyes while she trembled with the panic of a cornered fox. She blinked. And blinked again.

Slowly, a devilish gleam lit those fascinating eyes, the corners of her full mouth twisting with slow contempt. She ripped the bedraggled cap from her head. Two russet-colored leaves drifted to the floor to blend with the intricate golden hued pattern of the Aubusson rug.

Her father winced, swallowed his brandy in one huge gulp and refilled the glass to overflowing with an even shakier hand.

The curtsy executed by Lady Ivy Elizabeth Kinley, the new Countess of Somerset in her own right and all of twelve years of age, was a rude mockery, made more so by the rough garments she wore. A flick of her wrist sent the cap sailing through the air to land on a marble bust of a nameless Greek god residing atop a marble pillar in the corner. The ragged piece of tweed swung three precarious circles before coming to rest at a haphazard tilt to obscure one vacant staring eye with rakish flair.

Her mouth formed a silent “oh!” of astonishment at the unintentional perfection of het aim and some devil within Sebastian longed to dare her to try such a trick again. It was a struggle to hold his tongue. The chit would no doubt delight in challenging him to a hat-throwing contest. And she would likely win.

With methodical preciseness Lady Ivy Kinley proceeded to scrape her battered riding boots against the beautiful rug, leaving a multitude of pungent smears. Was that dirt or something else? Did he really wish to know?

“Lord Ravenswood, is it?” Ivy’s eyes flared in silent triumph at leaving him and her father speechless.

She managed to make his title sound like a curse word. Her manners were atrocious. While Sebastian did not usually condone such drastic measures, if Jonathan Kinley did not take a strap to his daughter’s well-titled backside, it would prove an admirable exercise in restraint. A bit of discipline would do her a world of good.

Gaining her mother’s inheritance, now a countess in her own right, Ivy surpassed her father in status and titles. A complete lack of parental guidance existed in this girl’s upbringing; the formidable Earl of Kinley apparently had no bloody clue on how to handle his daughter.

Ivy swung toward her father, dismissing Sebastian while he continued examining her. Like bejeweled ornaments, a few burnished leaves hung ensnared in the web of her plain brown hair. Despite those god-awful muck-encrusted boots and her disinterest in soap, Ivy somehow carried the freshness of a summer storm sweeping through a meadow, the outdoors on and around her. The pungent earthiness of horse sweat accented the mix of contradictions. Shoving her into the usual pigeonhole assigned to children of nobility would be an impossible task. He wondered how past governesses might have dealt with the girl, for she was surely an apt student and one difficult to control.

As for her features, she was neither an attractive child nor an ugly one. Like a puzzle with missing pieces, leaving it impossible to create a pleasing image, nothing about the young countess fit together. With awkward arms and elbows, surprisingly long, coltish legs and a fat, frizzy ponytail of hair she kept tossing to one side as though it aggravated her to no end, she was at odds with herself. Her lips were too full in a face still round with the remnants of a baby’s chubbiness. A smattering of buff-colored freckles danced across a raw, arrow straight nose; an unbecoming flush of crimson splotched her pale cheeks. Haunting blue-green eyes touched with gold were swollen and red-rimmed, but eyelashes resembling sable-hued spikey feathers lent a doe-like appearance. Streaked with dirt and faint tracks of either tears or sweat, her chin jutted out in a most stubborn manner. No, everything did not fit together in the girl’s face, strong hints of maturity clashing with the features of an obstinate child.

Realizing she was under scrutiny, the girl swiped an arm over her face. The grimy shirtsleeve blotted the wetness away but added to the stains marring her cheeks.

“You’ve arranged to send me to that horrid place and Mama’s dead scarcely a month.” She no longer shouted and the clipped, moderated tones of her voice were pleasant to the ear. It was the voice of an adult trapped within a youth, a child left to fend for herself for far too long. “I need more time, I can’t-” Chewing her bottom lip until it was crimson and plump, her eyes swelled with incriminating moisture. She inhaled, held it, before allowing the breath to whoosh out almost silently. “Father, I cannot go. I will not go.”

With remarkable aplomb, she wrangled her emotions into check. Sebastian shifted his feet, uncomfortable with a sudden comprehension. She wouldn’t cry. Not this one. Not in front of others. An element of ice lay inside her. This girl was strong. Perhaps more than her perplexed father could even begin to contemplate.

“I’m sorry, my dear,” Kinley muttered in a gruff voice. “It’s already arranged.” He stared into his drink as if to find fortitude at the bottom of the glass. When he rubbed his eyes, Sebastian recognized the gesture of extreme weariness. He’d seen his own father do the same many times,

Tossing back his brandy, Kinley suddenly pinned Ivy with a bright blue gaze. “I’ve business to attend in Ireland over the next few months and you will not remain here with no female supervision. You shall love Miss Chase’s Seminary for Exceptional Young Ladies. During breaks you may come here when I’m in residence, or you may visit Kinley House if I am in London. Now, might I suggest you pack a few of your personal things? You depart first thing in the morning. The stable master will have your mare delivered there by the end of the week. Or Heather can remain at Somerset. Regardless, you shall be at the seminary next week.” A few spoken words and Jonathan Kinley regained control of the situation, his daughter and himself.

Ivy deflated, becoming very small and very young very quickly. She was no match for a father who’d outwitted and outfoxed far more cunning opponents than one defiant, awkward daughter with horrid manners. The dizzying swiftness of Kinley’s actions, using a pony as leverage, left no doubt his reputation was well earned. His brutality truly did extend to his own flesh and blood.

When the earl cleared his throat as a pointed reminder, his daughter offered a beautifully executed curtsy with downcast eyes. She might still plot revenge with the cunning of a well-seasoned royal courtier behind this dispirited façade, but she hid it well.

“Pardon my interruption, Lord Ravenswood.” The cap was retrieved from the morose Greek god, smashed back onto the girl’s head.

The door closed behind her with a soft click and Kinley’s gaze shot to Sebastian. “The young have no idea what’s best for them. Caroline’s death has been very difficult for Ivy.”

Sebastian waited for him to continue but Kinley stared off into the distance for a long moment. Maybe he contemplated the challenges faced in raising an ill-tempered, frizzy-haired daughter without a mother’s tender guidance.

“I thought it best she spent some time with girls her own age. You see she possesses an uncompromising nature.” Kinley gave a rueful bark of laughter. “Other than her beauty, I fear she bears none of her mother’s gentler traits.”

Lady Caroline Kinley possessed an enchanting loveliness her daughter failed to inherit. Apparently, the earl saw something only a father might. Sebastian nodded politely. “She is most certainly her father’s daughter.”

With an unusual gift for remembering details, he pondered his recollection of that day. He recalled his uncomfortable position in the chair, the tired despondency on Kinley’s face. The desperate wildness of the childish, obstinate countess. Little suggested the girl would one day become the darling of London, nothing to hint Kinley’s daughter would become a great beauty, twisting hearts about her tiniest finger until a man believed he must possess her or die trying. A woman held power with sex or the promise of it. Lord Kinley used his wealth to manipulate men; his daughter applied sex to the same effect. Was it the promise of satisfaction or the refusal of further encounters that spurred foolish Timothy to his demise?

Sebastian would not stand idle, could not allow yet another deceitful woman to make a fool of him or his family. Could not allow Timothy’s death to go unavenged. Unfortunately, his gullible cousin followed Sebastian’s own path when it came to falling in love with a heartless woman and had paid the ultimate price.

The memory of a forlorn, fierce little girl grieving her mother pinched him again. Sebastian shoved it aside. His hardened heart held no room for pity. Ivy Kinley’s ruination was a necessity and would provide an amusing pursuit. Women were impatient to be used by him and like others, she would tumble into his bed. Revenge for Timothy’s sake would be found between the countess’s thighs. He’d find a bit of pleasure for himself there as well. If he were fortunate.

He would collect pieces of her, fragments held in his hand until nothing remained of the countess but an empty shell. At the end of the game, the tattered collection would be crumpled and discarded. Not in his usual manner, with kind words and an expensive trinket presented for time spent between the sheets. No, this would be different. When he finished with her, Lady Kinley would be acceptable only to the palest fringes of Polite Society. She would not be anyone’s “Darling.” There would no longer be sonnets to her beauty, no accolades of adoration. No more eager suitors vying for her heart and hand. She would be ruined and tamed and Sebastian would delight in the destruction.

I'm coming, Countess. Get ready for me.