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Belle of the Ball (Desperate and Daring Book 2)

Belle of the Ball (Desperate and Daring Book 2)

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Lady Anabelle Darling plans to find a respectable husband who will love her. From the moment she meets Viscount Draven, she knows theres something dangerous about him. Draven offers nothing but sinful dalliance and forbidden pleasure.

Draven relishes the role of scoundrel. But Lady Anabelle tempts him to reform like no other. She's lovely when she's furious, and he cant resist luring her into his sensual game consequences be damned.

A single kiss wields the power to change everything between them and turn Anabelle's carefully crafted plan inside out. When Draven is confronted with losing Annabelle to another, he realizes it was never a game at all. Can he redeem himself and prove even scoundrels can love?

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Lady Anabelle Darling wanted to get married. It was never more apparent than right now, sitting in a pew in St. Georges, watching her dearest friend, Heather, and her duke stare at each other with rapturous love. Anabelle was supremely jealous—not that she should be—but she was. Heather had needed to get married with haste, and her options as far as gentlemen went had been narrowed down by circumstance to one. Fortunately, her one option had turned out to be the perfect choice—for Heather, at least.

Anabelle had no express need to marry. She simply wanted to. She wanted a man to look at her the way the duke dreamily gazed at Heather. She wanted to be in love. Her problem was that she hadn’t any gentlemen in her recent acquaintance to fall in love with. They were all amiable and suitable in rank and personality, but none of them had inspired adoration from her, or any emotions close to it.

It was time to get serious, and Anabelle needed a plan. She needed to stop waiting for the perfect man to fall at her feet and search for him herself. She would need to inspect the most eligible gentlemen of the season, and one by one, narrow them down to the one for her. It didn’t sound the least bit romantic, but at least it would give her the opportunity to discover whom they were versus what she wanted.

Anabelle focused on Heather and her duke again. Applause erupted around her, and Anabelle smiled. Then her heart clenched. She wanted to feel that way. Though thrilled for her friend, she wanted the same for herself. 

The bride and groom traipsed down the aisle and through the church doors. Guests stood as they passed, and Anabelle, along with her family, waited to exit the pew. As she entered the crowded aisle, she found a pair of mocking gray eyes glinting at her.

“A vigorous ceremony, wouldn’t you say, Lady Anabelle?” her nemesis, Lord Draven, said.

She gave him her profile, wanting to offer him little encouragement. “No, my lord. Vigorous is not a word I would use. I will say the ceremony was lovely, though.”

“You seemed quite moved, almost enraptured by the bride and groom.”

Now she turned to face him. “I’m happy for them. They seem quite in love. That’s something to admire.” 

She twisted away again in a dismissive manner.

“Egad, no. How terrifying to be a lovesick fool.”

There were titters of laughter following his remark, proof that their words were far from private, and that was dangerous. Anabelle had no desire to be seen conversing with him. She needed to distance herself from him for the sake of her reputation—and her marriage plans. Yet, she could still feel his attention on her. She could sense him watching her face, hoping for some sort of a reaction. An answering heat crawled up her neck.

Anabelle lowered her voice. “How fortunate for you, my lord, that no woman of full mental capacity would ever love you.” 

Those were the cruelest words she’d ever uttered in her life. She saw him smile, however, and that alarmed her. 

“You wound me deeply,” he answered, but his smile said anything but. 

She faced forward again, praying he would disengage from her and find his amusement elsewhere. 

Ahead of her, Hazel strolled between their mother and father, and beyond them, the open doors offered her an avenue of escape. Then the procession came to a halt. There were cheers from outside. The duke must be tossing coins into the crowd before whisking his bride away. Anabelle wished she could see it. 

Like a dark cloud, Lord Draven loomed beside her once again. “It’s a madhouse out there. It will take forever to reach my carriage.”

She refused to acknowledge him, stepping closer to her parents, but the other guests surged forward from behind her to see the theatrics outside. Anabelle planted her feet, determined not to be crushed against her family. A body bumped into the back of her and remained there. She peeked over her shoulder to glare at the offending person, but she was met with a cravat, and she swallowed as her gaze ascended, despite the dread she was feeling. 

His gray eyes met hers, amused and wicked.

“My apologies,” he whispered. “I’d move, but Lady Prendergast’s buxom figure is immediately behind me.”

Anabelle colored from head to toe. She took a deep breath, the expansion of her rib cage somehow bringing them even closer together. She felt caught against him, surrounded by the other guests, and yet completely alone with him at the same time. She wished to call out to Hazel but didn’t want to bring any more attention to herself and her scandalous position.

In the meantime, she refused to give him any of her attention. An odd tickle on the palm of her right hand caught her attention, however, followed by a finger gliding over her palm. She gasped and yanked her hand away, the ghost of the sensation still lingering. 

Lord Draven remained silent behind her, though she could feel him breathing against her neck. Then the shuffle moved again, and she lurched forward into Hazel. Her sister tossed a glare over her shoulder, her focus darting past Anabelle. Then she stepped back and linked arms with Anabelle, who gripped her arm, never more grateful for the existence of a sister. Anabelle could still feel him behind her, amused, predaceous, and watching her. She could also still feel the slide of his finger across her palm.

She clung to Hazel, because what terrified her the most was the answering urge to engage the predator in him. 

Once at the wedding breakfast, she did her best not to search for him over the many heads of the guests. Anabelle enjoyed the company of her family and friends as plate after plate of food was brought out. She ate until she was painfully full and then sat back in her chair and smiled as Hazel teased their father with outrageous requests for her own wedding. 

Anabelle regarded her sister, her twin, and thought how they differed from each other in so many ways. She was fair, like their mother, her hair a buttery blonde, her irises the palest of blue. Hazel’s strands were streaked with honey and wheat, something Anabelle envied, but her sister’s eyes mirrored her own, and Anabelle always found that comforting. Because of her sister, she was never truly alone.

Feeling at peace again, she searched for the happy couple. Anabelle found Heather and his grace stationed in the entryway, an endless procession of guests greeting them and offering words of congratulations. Heather was glowing. In Anabelle’s mind, she had never appeared happier. Again, Anabelle felt a pang of want, an envy for her own wedding, her own special someone. Love matches were rare, but they did occasionally happen. She fervently hoped she would be blessed by love, too. It wasn’t the time for such melancholy thoughts. It was a time for celebration, for Heather to shine brightly, and Anabelle wished her all the joy in the world.

She stood and pulled Hazel from her chair. “Let’s see who is in the drawing room.” 

Hazel nodded in agreement and followed. Progress was slow across the dining room, and they had to dutifully pause and greet acquaintances along the way. Reaching the entryway, the crowd thickened and they waited as the Marchioness of Dunwick made her slow exit with her cane.

“She needs a sedan chair with strong men to carry her about the house,” Hazel murmured.

“Could you imagine? It would be all the rage, but a tad inconvenient,” Anabelle tittered.

“I’d like to be carried by four shirtless men of excellent physiques with one attendant to feed me grapes at all times.”

“Hazel!” Anabelle admonished. “That’s positively…”

“Ingenious. That’s the word you’re searching for.”

“No, it wasn’t.” 

But Anabelle couldn’t help laughing. The compaction of guests had eased, and now they could slip into the drawing room. Each sofa and chair was full, however, and Anabelle saw no one she wished to speak with.

“I must visit the retiring room.”

“It’s this way, if I remember correctly.” 

Anabelle led the way. The room was also crowded, and so she elected to wait in the hall. Farther down, she could hear the laughter of gentlemen. A smoky haze was wafting from an open door. Curious, she eased closer. She could hear the clink of billiard balls. She paused and turned to retreat. A billiard room was a male haven not suitable for young ladies, according to her mother. 

Anabelle turned back toward the retiring room and hurried away, but not before hearing the firm steps of boots behind her. She slipped into an alcove, backing into a small table with a vase of flowers. She muffled a squeak as the table thumped into the wall. She prayed for invisibility, but the pair of boots halted before her.

“We meet again, Lady Anabelle.”

“It is not intentional, I assure you. I’m waiting for my sister.”

“Ah, yes,” Draven said. “Lady Hazel.”

“That is her name.” Anabelle moved toward the retiring room. “If you will excuse me.” 

“Don’t leave so soon.” He caught her hand. “I can’t help but feel this moment was meant to happen. That it’s serendipitous, even.”

She turned back to him with a brow raised. “You find a meeting in a hall near two rooms frequently visited by guests in a home in which we are both well acquainted serendipitous? Pray tell how?”

He inched closer. “I seem to have a knack for finding you alone.”

“We are not alone, Lord Draven,” she said, though she noticed the hall was deserted except for them. “At any moment, another guest—my sister even—will appear.”

He smiled. “Yes, but for the moment, we are alone.”

“I’d prefer that we weren’t,” Anabelle hissed. “I don’t wish to speak with you or be associated with you.” 

She didn’t like being so rude, but he was dangerous to her, a threat to her reputation and her husband-hunting plans. She also didn’t like the way he made her feel, unsettled and hot within his presence.

He stood up straighter, for once not amused by her distaste of him. “What have I done to earn such malice, if I may ask?”

Anabelle glared at him. “As if you don’t know. You are spreading a rumor we’ve kissed.”

“You are the only one who’s spread the rumor, my sweet.”

“You told me you told Lord Rigsby,” Anabelle said, seething. His calmness only upset her more.

“He is of no concern. He isn’t one to gossip, or care whom I kiss.”

“Then why did you do it?”

“Truthfully? To unsettle you. You need a good kiss, Lady Anabelle.”

She blinked. “I don’t understand.”

“Frankly, neither do I, but I find that the more I think about not kissing you, the more convinced I am that I should. The rumor may be untrue, but I can’t let it die unless I do it in truth.”

“You want to kiss me?”

“I think I’ve made that quite clear,” he uttered condescendingly.

Anabelle was baffled. “Why?”

“Why not? You are a challenge to be met.”

“A challenge?” She was fuming now. She glanced around, determined to give him the set-down he deserved but not where they could easily be seen and overheard.

“This way.” Draven took her hand and tugged her farther down the hall. He paused at the billiard room and peeked in. Satisfied no one was paying attention, he tugged her across the open door and farther down the hall to a plain sitting room. Then he closed the door behind them, released her hand, and folded his arms across his chest.

“You may commence with your tirade.”

Anabelle didn’t know where to begin. She wanted to rip apart his character and insult him as grievously as he had insulted her. “Have you no heart?” 

He frowned. “I beg your pardon?” 

“You behave as if this is all some sort of game, but this is not a game. My future hangs on a thread of respectability. I have nothing but a dowry and my good name to offer a husband. My purpose in life is to marry and marry well. I happen to want to also achieve a marriage of significant affection.” 

Her eyes burned with the threat of tears, and she turned away in humiliation.

“Are we speaking of love again?” he asked after a moment.

She couldn’t face him, but she nodded. “I know you think it’s absurd, but it is of great importance to me. I wish to find a husband I can love, and be loved in return, but I cannot do that if you destroy my every chance with the threat of a kiss we did not share. A meaningless, insignificant kiss.” 

Anabelle dabbed at her lashes and took a deep breath. A semblance of calm returned now that she had vented her feelings. She didn’t sense his approach until he stood right behind her.

“My kisses are never meaningless or insignificant.”

She stiffened. 

He set his hands on her shoulders and turned her around, tipping up her chin once she faced him.

“Did you hear me?”

Anabelle nodded, mesmerized by the streaks of silver in his dark gray irises, which stood out like bolts of lightning frozen in time.

“I want to kiss you because you need to be kissed. How else are you to know whether a man is capable of love, of all things, if you’ve never experienced any of the emotions that lead to it? If you’ve never felt what happens between a man and a woman, how will you ever know what love is?”

Anabelle didn’t have an answer. She couldn’t even find the power to resist him as she should when his hands slid around her back and pulled her into him.

“One kiss is all I’m asking for, and then you will know exactly of what I speak. Perhaps it will even help you find what you are searching for.” 

He leaned his head forward slowly. He didn’t wait for her assent, but neither did he ask. His lips touched hers slowly, and then molded around hers confidently. 

At first, she felt nothing but shock, but then the warmth of his mouth and his body began to penetrate her. Anabelle did not resist him as his kiss grew in boldness. Instead, she let go of her restraint and let herself experience it with all her senses. His lips were soft and sultry, something that was at odds with his cold and cutting demeanor.

His body was warm, and she could feel the hardness of his chest against her breasts. His arms were strong around her but not crushing her, and she found the sensation pleasant. She eased against him as his lips parted. His tongue teased the seam of her lips. Curious, Anabelle parted her lips, the velvety slickness of his tongue gaining entry little by little until she opened fully.

Light and colors danced behind her lids as the gentle kiss became sensually overwhelming. Somehow, she forgot how to breathe. Forgot how to do anything but taste him. He tasted of brandy and a wildness she didn’t understand. Anabelle was simply overcome, the wonder of this daring new experience overriding all thought and rationale. 

His tongue darted and explored. She responded involuntarily, her own tongue answering his, doing things she didn’t even know she could do. The rest of her was frozen with amazement, too stunned to do more than hold onto him.

Then he withdrew from her, and Anabelle blinked rapidly as her wits returned. When she focused on his face, she found him sporting a peculiar frown. She backed away from him, an unavoidable humiliating blush covering her cheeks. She bit her tongue, burying the absurd urge to apologize. For what, she didn’t know, but he was clearly displeased with the kiss.

“Now that you got what you wanted, kindly leave me alone,” Anabelle said in a rushed manner. 

He didn’t move or say a word. 

She hurried from the room, distraught and angry. She didn’t know what to think or what to do. She moved down the hall and rushed to the retiring room. Hazel was not present, but a maid stood by with towels. Anabelle sat before a vanity and stared at her reflection. Her color was high. It was obvious that she was upset. She wished to bury her head in her hands, but this wasn’t the time or place. So she took a deep breath and fanned her cheeks. 

She needed to return to the party as serene as she had been when she had left it. Hazel was probably searching for her. She stood with her back straight and her hands steady once again. It was just a kiss. Anabelle could admit that the kiss had greatly affected her but apparently not him. It was better that way. Now he would leave her alone, and she could go on with her matrimonial plans.

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