A Dangerous Beauty

 

ISBN 10: 0061231363
ISBN 13: 978-0061231360

 

Book I - The Widows Club

 

A Courageous Outcast . . .
Rosamunde Baird has lost everything and has no choice but to accept an invitation to spend a season with a dowager duchess and her clandestine ladies club. Determined to stay in the shadows and live quietly, she has sworn never again to come face to face with adventure and temptation, two things that brought her ruin years ago. But then the Duke of Helston dangles before her the very things she craves most...

Lord Fire & Ice . . .
Mysterious Luc St. Aubyn is well known for exuding blistering passion at night and frost the morning after. But dark mystery swirls around this audacious war hero. A tragic past has driven the Duke of Helston to hide the twin secrets of the dowager’s Widows Club and his own infamous writing talent. When he’s blindsided by his reactions to a virtuous siren, he has no choice but to reveal all during a scandal that will doom them …or save them, if only they dare to believe in love.

EXTRA . . .

 

Sophia's book, A Dangerous Beauty is in a movie! The fabulous romantic comedy, DORFMAN, has been in many film festivals and is available On Demand. 

REVIEWS . . . 

 

Best Regency-set Historical of the Year 
~ Reviewer’s Choice Award, Romantic Times BOOKreviews magazine

 

Best Historical 
~ Colorado Romance Writers Award of Excellence – current finalist

 

Best Historical 
~ NJRW Golden Leaf Award - finalist

 

“Richly emotional and lusciously sensual, 'A Dangerous Beauty' is simply superb.”
~ John Charles, Chicago Tribune

 

4 ½ stars, TOP PICK! And named a K.I.S.S. (Knight in Shining Silver) for June.

”Nash moves gracefully into the longer historical novel with the first in a merry widows series destined to make her a star. Readers will immediately take to her clever, passionate, emotional characters and wondrous love story. They’ll revel in the dowager’s antics, shed a tear at the wealth of poignancy and cheer for the lovers, while eagerly awaiting the next story.” 
~ Kathe Robin, Romantic Times BOOKreviews magazine

 

“Beautifully nuanced characters and elegantly polished writing infused with a wickedly subtle sense of wit blend together brilliantly in RITA-winning Nash’s exquisitely sensual, superbly romantic Regency historical.”
~ Booklist

 

THE MUSE UNLEASHED . . .

 

The inspiration behind this first Avon Historical unfolded during a lunch with a circle of girlfriends. Some wondered aloud how their lives would change if fate tossed a disaster their way – widowhood. Each woman’s reaction was so different. Some thought they would never recover, others thought they might find love again, and still others were brutally honest and were convinced they might even be happier alone or with new husbands (Oh dear . . .) Hence, the Widows Club series was born.

The character of the Dowager Duchess of Helston was modeled after my maternal great grandmother Merceditas Gonzales de Candamo Leglise, a tiny (under 5 feet tall) Peruvian aristocrat who married my French great grandfather, who at 6’2” towered above her. She was beloved by her children and grandchildren who called her Ata or La mouche –the fly—because she was so petite. There is even a fly on her arm in this painting of her as a young girl. As in the novel, the real Ata had a canary in a gilded cage. Ata’s fate, as well as other members of the Widows Club, will be revealed in later books.

As a wordsmith, I savor epigrams, little nuggets of wit by supremely talented writers over the ages. Each chapter of A Dangerous Beauty begins with an epigraph from The Devil’s Dictionary, a wickedly jaundiced tome by Ambrose Bierce (1842-1914). Though some Regency purists might question the use of quotations from a gentleman who neither lived during the (1811-1820) Regency period nor resided anywhere remotely near England (San Francisco, California), I hope readers will overlook these liberties and take pleasure in Bierce’s great wit.

Again I return to Cornwall with this series. Learn more about why I love this region of England more than any other here.

 

In Cornwall                                 Ata as a child                          Ata as a widow                          Ambrose Bierce

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

EXCERPT  . . .

 

From Chapter 2

 

Suddenly they were at the crest of the hill and before them lay, in all its majesty, one of the most beautiful castles in southern England ...Amberley. The warm honey-colored stone reflected the early afternoon sun. The architect had practiced care and restraint in the symmetry of the design; two great turrets flanked the impressive middle. The inhabitants clearly possessed a fine fortune given the staggering window tax they must be forced to pay. There was mullion glass upon mullion glass, the myriad panes glittering in every direction. And this was only the rear of the castle.

 

Rosamunde Baird’s steps faltered as they wended their way through the pea-gravel footpaths toward the tiered upper levels. A group of people was gathered at one end of the property near the castle, and they appeared to be playing some sort of—

 

“Hallooo!”

 

A tiny, wizened lady dressed in the severest of mourning crossed toward them, a profusion of black lace in her wake.

Rosamunde whispered to her sister, “Well, brace yourself, dearest, this could be very embarrassing.” She whipped her bags behind her and sent up a prayer.

 

“Heavens,” the lady said breathlessly, bustling up to them. “You must be—” She let the question hang in the stillness.

 

“Mrs. Baird, ma’am. Rosamunde Baird, and my sister, Lady Sylvia Langdon. We’re lately of Barton’s Cottage.” She bobbed a small curtsy. “We’ve come to call on Her Grace.”

 

The older lady’s eyes flashed with humor and a magnificent smile made Rosamunde blind to the lady’s wrinkles.

Why, she looked like a mischievous gypsy, with her dark eyes and olive complexion.

 

“La! You’re looking at her. Delighted to make your acquaintance, my dears.” She smiled shrewdly. “I’m Merceditas St. Aubyn.”

 

Both Rosamunde and Sylvia swooped into deferential court curtsies, and Rosamunde felt the flush of embarrassment.

She had already offended the one person who had offered their only chance of escape. “Your Grace,” she whispered,

her gaze on the ground.

 

“No, no, my dears, we’ll have none of that here.” The dowager grasped her arm and tugged her to regain her footing.

 

“I’m delighted to have you join us.” She peeked at the bandboxes. “I take it you will both honor us with a nice long visit, then?”

 

“If your invitation is still open, Your Grace.”

“For as long as you like, Rosamunde. I may call you Rosamunde?” She linked arms with her. “I’m too old to

remember titles and surnames and the like. I find multiple hyphenated names the worst sort of pretension, don’t you?

I do believe the gentry invented them to irritate the rest of us. You may call me Ata, as all my friends do.”

 

“Yes, Your—Ata.” Rosamunde stared at the little lady. She had never had anyone become intimate with her so

quickly. In fact, never had anyone invited her to friendship other than in her girlhood.

 

“Come along, then. You can leave your possessions here. I’ll send a footman. Now tell me, Sylvia, are you adept at

archery? I have a divine bow made of—”

 

Rosamunde’s mind blocked the banter between her sister and the duchess as they crossed the vast gardens. She still

had so many questions, but was too polite to voice them. She tried to quiet her inner turmoil by breathing deeply. She

should tell the duchess about her notorious history before her courage failed her.

 

“Your Grace, I’m sorry to interrupt, but I must tell you a little about my past before we join the others,” Rosamunde

said hesitantly.

 

Your past? Why I refuse to dwell on sadness, my dear. Tragedy doesn’t last—that’s its chief charm. You’re only to

think of the future here. It’s the primary rule of my little group.” She paused and looked at her sideways. “You

haven’t forgotten that discretion is one of the other guiding principles, have you?”

 

“No, of course not,” Rosamunde replied. “But, I must tell you—”

 

“No, you must not. Not now, we’re almost upon them. I shall introduce you to the other members of the club. There

are four ladies who chose to join us here. You probably haven’t made their acquaintance as they are from other parts.” She paused. “And there are others to meet as well.”

Rosamunde inhaled sharply and wondered, not for the first time, if the new Duke of Helston was anything like his father. The former ruthless peer of the realm and his family had left Amberley soon after the scandal never to return.

Until now.

 

She had heard five years ago that the duchess had taken ill and preceded the old duke in death a scant month or two

before the duke had suffered a fatal carriage accident. Lord Sumner—Henry—it had been a long time since she had

allowed herself to think of him—had been lost at sea two years later.

 

It was rumored that the new duke, a former commander in the Royal Navy, had returned to London after assuming

the title. Not that she knew anything more about the mysterious gentleman. Her unreliable reports came from Cook,

who parceled out daily doses of weak tea and village gossip.

 

They approached a vibrant green lawn littered with several archery targets near a small bridge strangled by overgrown

wisteria vines. A large crowd of guests, gathered to cheer on the competitors, turned their attention toward them and

Rosamunde felt mortification trickle down her spine. Any hope she had held of not being recognized after her long

absence from society was extinguished by the many shocked and outraged expressions of the local gentry upon her

arrival.

 

Oh, this was every bit as ghastly as she had known it would be. The utter silence turned to sputters of disgust from

those who knew her. Inquisitive strangers pressed closer. She heard again all the whispered vileness of before.

 

Wanton ... soiled goods ...whore. The words swirled ‘round and ‘round her brain just as they had so long ago when

she had last entered the village church. Rosamunde forced herself to take shallow breaths. She gripped Sylvia’s hand

when she felt her trying to shrink away.

 

The tiny dowager duchess pursed her lips. “Goodness me,” she bellowed, “I’m certain I misheard the most outrageous

thing. Certainly none of the guests here to attend my granddaughter’s wedding would ever breathe a word against

one of my dearest and oldest friends.” She glanced at Rosamunde and winked. “I’m certain of it.”

 

Silence.

 

“I thought not. Come along Mrs. Baird, Lady Sylvia. I must introduce you to my grandson.” She tilted her head

toward a lone gentleman who was too distant to have witnessed Rosamunde’s embarrassment.

 

As they walked toward him, the fickle-natured crowd turned their attention to the duke, allowing her the chance to

regain a modicum of composure. She concentrated on the dark figure who wore his black hair tied in a severe queue, a

fashion of the last century.

 

Rosamunde could only see his profile, but the tinge of gray in his side burns proved he had passed his early thirties.

He wore none of the more vivid colors of the gentlemen down from town. Clad in unrelieved black with the exception

of a white shirt and cravat, he appeared in deep mourning as well.

 

He tossed aside a tall beaver hat, fastened an arrow in the long heartwood bow, and toed the chalk mark on the grass.

The severe line of his rugged physique suggested a sort of predatory power and raw masculinity. He squinted under

the noonday sun and took aim, his arm steady and sure. But at the same moment he let fly his arrow, Rosamunde

caught a feminine voice behind her tittering, “Why he’s the infamous Lord Fire and Ice, don’t you know.”

 

It was clearly enough to ruin his concentration and he missed the target’s center by a hand’s width. He cursed under

his breath and turned his black gaze to her. Did he think she had said it? A stream of pure awareness swept through

her and she inhaled roughly. She could feel the blood pulsing through every vein in her body as she stood rooted to the

spot.

 

A dangerous, shadowy expression perched above his long aristocratic nose, which showed the effects of a round or two

of physical altercations. His dark complexion stood out among the rest of the crowd of standard-issue pasty-faced, blue-

eyed Englishmen. And while he held not a hint of his deceased father’s or his brother Henry’s looks, if not for his

height, he resembled the kind-hearted dowager duchess more than anyone. Why then, did Rosamunde have the

oddest desire to flee? Or was it to rush toward him?

 

Rosamunde clenched her hands when she became aware they were shaking. He had stared at her too long and the tension was nearly unbearable.

 

The low hum of conversation halted, everyone noticing his impolite glare. He handed his bow to one of the ladies and crossed the short distance to his grandmother.

 

“Ah, another one, or is it two?”—he leaned to catch a glimpse of Sylvia—“of our fallen doves, I see.”

 

“Luc,” his grandmother hissed. “Your metaphor is about as misplaced as your aim.”

 

He ignored her. “Quite a little covey we have. And few dogs to enjoy the hunt.” He smiled, revealing large dazzlingly white teeth, one just crooked enough to make him appear even more devilish, if that was possible.

 

A few titters drifted from the audience and Rosamunde felt anew the embarrassment of her situation. Why, every Cornish family of noble mien was here. And while they dared not say another word against her lest they incur the dowager’s disfavor, they could and would all stare at her and remember her downfall. Eight years would seem like yesterday to the gossips, who could recite every last major scandal from the last two centuries with a clarity that would astound fusty historians.

 

“Ladies, I beg your forgiveness.” The dowager turned to her grandson. “Luc, may I present Mrs. Baird and her sister, Lady Sylvia Langdon? My dears, Luc St. Aubyn, the Duke of Helston.”

 

He leaned close and grasped Rosamunde’s hand before bringing it to his lips. “Your servant,madam.” His heavy lidded eyes glanced up from her hand and he murmured, “I do so hope you are the widow, as opposed to your sister?”

 

It was then that Rosamunde realized his eyes were not black at all, just a very deep, arresting midnight blue. But his manners—abominable. His grandmother was of the same mind, if her expression was any indication.

 

“I am, Your Grace.”

 

He eyed her shrewdly.

 

“Care to join our little entertainment? The other ladies have had a turn.” He dusted off the edges of his hat and donned it. “Amusing little activity, really. Provides diversion for both spectators and participants.”

 

“Thank you, Your Grace. But,”—she glanced at the ground—“I’m in mourning and must decline your invitation.”

 

“That shouldn’t stop you. Why I’m in mourning too, Mrs. Baird,” he muttered. “Mourning the loss of my solitude and freedom.”

 

His grandmother stamped a cane perilously close to his right boot. “And I’m mourning the loss of your manners.” She harrumphed. “It’s unfortunate that I’m in perpetual mourning because of you.”

 

He threw back his head and laughed before offering his arm to Rosamunde. “Come, Mrs. Baird, I invite you to explore the joys of throwing off the shackles of good manners. Let us engage in serious foul play. Devil’s rules.”

 

She cocked her head in misunderstanding. “Devil’s rules?”

 

He placed her hand on his arm and drew Sylvia to his other side. A frisson of heat snaked through his linen shirt and coat to race through Rosamunde’s arm.

 

“All’s fair, and extra points for poor sportsmanship.” He leaned forward to whisper wickedly, “Perhaps Elizabeth Ashburton will teach you a few tricks.” He glanced at the demure lady who had distracted him earlier.

 

She was not going to play. She had taken a life-time oath to forsake all manner of tomfoolery soon after she married, and this audacious gentleman was not going to make her break her promise to herself, even if he was their host.

 

“Perhaps my sister shall join you.”

 

“No, no, Mrs. Baird. You’re here to have fun. Grandmamma insists upon it for her specialfriends.” He looked at her knowingly. “Now then, the object of the game is to impress everyone with the beauty of one’s form.” He winked.

 

“Two points if you can make someone swoon.”

 

“I doubt I can make anyone swoon, sir.” She dropped his arm when they reached the small group of archers. She was not going to let them convince her to—

 

“Come now, Mrs. Baird. You would deny Her Grace the pleasure of watching you enjoy yourself? Or are you the rare female who hates to exhibit herself?” He paused and examined his fingernails. “You don’t look the sort, if I do say so.”

 

“I kindly thank you for your invitation, however, ladies of a certain age, such as mine, should engage their time more usefully and leave the delights of youth to the younger set.”

 

“Are you suggesting I am too old to—?”

 

An elegant lady with blonde tresses stepped forward and interrupted him. She was as delicately beautiful as a porcelain doll bedecked in pale blue lace and pearls, but her claws were as sharp as a barnyard cat’s. “Why, is it. . .why, fancy that. Lady Rosamunde Langdon, or it’s plain Mrs. Baird now, is it not?”

Augustine Phelps. A prime example of the many reasons Rosamunde chose to bury herself in one of the most unfashionable corners of England. She glared at her but held her tongue. Her old rival had recently affianced herself to a Hanoverian baron of questionable pedigree and unquestionable stupidity.

 

“How you’ve changed, Rosamunde. But then I suppose one can hardly be surprised.”

 

Sylvia faded into the crowd as fast as a pickpocket on payday. Confrontation had never been her sister’s forte.

 Auggie took a deep breath and a joyfully evil gleam lit her eyes. “Many a lady has lost her looks after undergoing half of what you’ve endured ...or rather, earned.” The last was whispered and a giggle escaped at the end to lighten the tone.

 

The duke cleared his throat and turned to his grandmother. “And I always thought brides-to-be were”—he cupped his hand near his mouth to smother his voice—“innocent chicks ...or rather hens as the case may be. But clearly they are buzzards in waiting. And why, I ask you? Don’t they know only widows have a chance at true domestic bliss? It’s the brides who have everything to fear.”

 

Rosamunde choked on her laughter.

 

Augustine blanched and sputtered most endearingly. “Well,” she continued, “I wouldn’t count on her to join the game. She doesn’t mix with—with people of our stature.”

 

“Heaven’s no, Auggie. We peasants know our place.” Rosamunde regretted her audacious words and was shocked by her rash comment. She had thought a lifetime of repentance and withdrawal from society had ruthlessly cured her from almost every instance of impetuous behavior—until now.

 

Her Grace yanked her grandson’s arm and he leaned down. In a very rude stage whisper, the little dowager motioned toward Augustine. “She is not one of us.”

 

“Well, I say—” Augustine breathed, aghast.

 

“Yes, and altogether too much,” the duke interrupted her with a glare.

 

 

Augustine Phelps, ill suited to the task of true aristocratic pretension, blushed and walked away to join the large flock of luncheon guests.

 

His Grace appeared completely bored by such caterwauling. He thrust a bow into Rosamunde’s hands. “Your turn, Mrs. Baird. Widows first, then buzzards and everyone else—including peasants.”

 

The satin-like finish of the hardwood caressed the palm of her hand. It had been years since she had felt the weight of a bow in her hands, and yet it felt so familiar. The almost forgotten excitement of childhood competition filled her belly along with guilt for forsaking her promise to herself. Everyone knew the path to hell was paved with ...oh, but she would appear ungracious, she reasoned, if she refused again.

 

The bell signaling the start of the late picnic nuncheon clanged and the spectators’ interests proved fickle. Bows and fine figures held nothing over cold lobster and warm strawberry tarts.

 

“Well, Mrs. Baird?” he asked, perilously close to her ear.

 

“I don’t perform before an audience, Your Grace.”

 

His expression was mocking when he leaned down to his petite grandmother and whispered something. Ata immediately began clapping and ordering the lingering guests to the small tents on the other side of the gardens.

“Now, Mrs. Baird, this is becoming tedious. Do let’s get on with it. Your refusal to play has left me aquiver.” He

sighed in ennui. “I’ve promised to engage in one round with each of the widows and one round it will be. Then you may retire to your room for the rest of your stay if you desire. To embroider. Or whatever it is you do.”

 

Rosamunde narrowed her eyes.

 

*            *            *

What the devil was she doing? Her stance was perfect, the arch of her back forming a graceful slope in contrast to the astonishing strength she possessed in her arms. She stood as he had always pictured Diana the Huntress, steady and sure, confidence emanating from every pore while a slight breeze teased tendrils of her raven black hair around her face. Her starkly pale complexion held not a hint of rosy glow to offset her strangely haunting eyes. Not blue, not green, but some otherworldly color between the two. He had only ever seen eyes like that in a remote corner of Wales, where it was said the sea and the sky were captured in the eyes of the natives.

 

But now, at the last second before she released her arrow, she closed those troubled eyes—not one but both of them.

Surprisingly, her arrow missed the center by less than a foot. But still . . .

 

“It would help if you kept your eyes open,” he drawled. “Perhaps you need an incentive? I’ve found prizes are remarkable at improving aim, Mrs. Baird.”

 

“With your strange rules, Your Grace, I’m astonished you’re offering advice to better my game.”

 

“Touché.” He paused. “But you’ve piqued my interest.” He faked a polite yawn. “I long to see how well you do with your eyes open. So what shall it be? Everyone has a price, Mrs. Baird,” he murmured. “Everyone.”

 

A hint of a breeze played with a wisp of her hair, covering her lush lips for a moment. She said not a word.

 

“Come, come, Mrs. Baird. What is your fondest wish?”

 

Her eyes darted to her sister, sitting apart from the throngs of people. Lady Sylvia’s lovely profile was in relief against the lush verdure of the willow tree behind her.

 

“Ah, selflessness is your goal. A common flaw of my grandmother’s destitute widows. Too bad it’s not more of a passionate turn, but then I suppose we don’t know each other well enough for you to confide in me.” He was determined to provoke her. He didn’t know why her cool nature inflamed his outrageousness. Usually, it took more than an unusual face to roust him from his world-weariness. It had been a long time since he’d had an interest in anything except his sister, grandmother and his clandestine writing.

 

She raised her chin but was silent.

 

“A hundred pounds says you can’t hit the bull’s-eye in—let’s see—shall we say five tries?” He watched anger war with pride in her expression.

 

“A hundred pounds for each arrow in the center?”

 

Oh, she was intriguing. “Always willing to up the ante for a lady, Mrs. Baird. Let us be clear, then. We shall each have five chances. Any of yours that remain in the center, after all play, will be eligible.”

 

“All right.” Her voice might have been quietly warm and inviting, but her eyes were as cold as a kitchen maid’s hands in winter.

 

“Don’t you want to negotiate the terms should I best you, madam?”

 

She lifted her chin and stared at him.

 

“Hmmm, no help from you again, I see. I think I would fancy a bit of your embroidery should I win. It’s sure to be exquisite.”

 

Her lips twitched just the slightest bit before she assumed her stance. The line of her figure was as rock steady as before. There was a sort of animal-like sleekness to her form as she concentrated on the target. And then, with a speed that astounded, she shot five arrows in rapid succession. Only one fell short of the mark.

 

“A pity, Mrs. Baird.” He shook his head and nudged a case open next to the bows and arrows on the ground. As he fingered the hinge, he heard rather than saw a single shocked intake of breath from her direction.

 

Without glancing at her, he picked up his unusual-looking ivory inlaid double-barreled long gun and tucked it to his cheek. With a single well-powdered shot, more than half the quills in the center were rendered into a tangle of broken shafts and charred feathers.

 

“Cheater.” Her voice was so low he barely made out the word.

 

“Devil’s rules, Mrs. Baird, devil’s rules.” He turned to her as he checked the smoldering flint and priming pan. “Or perhaps just bad manners. Shall I take another shot or shall you concede, then?”

 

 

She ignored him as she placed the bow she had been clenching on the stand. “I suppose your rules include reneging on debts of honor too?”

 

“Naturally. That is the beauty of them. They constantly evolve as necessary.”

 

“Your logic is as sinful, I think, as you, sir.”

 

“We understand each other perfectly, madam.”

 

As he watched her tall form retreat toward her sister under the tree, he contemplated this thorny new dilemma. How was he to arrange a surreptitious small windfall for this, this—he could feel the blood pounding in his chest—mesmerizing witch? It had been a long time since he felt anything moving in the vicinity of his heart. Perhaps it was just the deviled eggs. They had appeared a bit questionable, sitting in the sun.

 

Reneging on a debt of honor, indeed. Why, even Lucifer had a code of conduct.