Book 2 in the >Sinful Brides Series
Thanks to her older siblings, Lady Penelope Tidemore is no stranger to scandal. In order for her to make a good match, her secret longings for intrigue and romance must be quelled. Yet it is through terrible mischance that Penelope is caught in a compromising position—however innocent—with the darkly enigmatic viscount Ryker Black.
Mr. Black is no gentleman. Raised from the streets and proprietor of the most notorious gaming hell in London, Black lives in a world filled with debauchery and danger. Taking a Society wife from the very ton he despises is not part of his plan, even if the innocent Penelope turns his blood hot with desire.
But Penelope isn’t afraid of Mr. Black, and she soon discovers that his reputation as a scoundrel may be designed to hide a surprising vulnerability. As this unlikely husband and wife grow closer, they learn that what started as chance could end up sealing their fates.
Mrs. Dundlebottom insists we remain silent through her lessons on propriety and decorum. I tried, Fezzi. I truly did. Alas, propriety and decorum are highly overrated.
Penny Age 11
It was coming.
The mantra. Or litany. Or lecture. Or whichever one chose to call it. It was coming, as it invariably did when a Tidemore girl made her Come Out.
Seated on the ivory sofa with her hands clasped primly on her lap, Lady Penelope Tidemore stared at the pair across from her. Her mother, the Dowager Countess of Sinclair, and her brother,
Jonathan, the Earl of Sinclair, stared back. “Penny . . .” Jonathan began.
“Penelope,” she swiftly corrected. She gave him a pointed look. “Penelope, then,” he acquiesced. “As you make your entrance into Society, there are certain expectations . . .” He grimaced.
Yes, well, at least he, a reformed rogue who’d earned a scandalous reputation, saw the irony in giving any manner of lecture on societal expectations.
“Expectations,” Penelope prodded. Annoyance stirred. This meeting was more befitting a girl of eight than a woman of eighteen, nearly nineteen, years. Granted, with the early death of her father, Jonathan had been more father than brother, but this high-handedness set her teeth on edge.
Jonathan tossed his hands up. “Mother?” he entreated.
The Dowager Countess of Sinclair cleared her throat. “Yes, as your brother tried to say, there are societal expectations.”
Expectations that not a single Tidemore had fulfilled . . . Penelope steeled her jaw. Until her. “I made my debut,” she reminded them. Since then, they’d attended the theatre and dinner parties, but never anything more. No balls. No soirees. Nothing that young ladies new to the London Marriage Mart longed to attend.
She’d demonstrated her resolve to rise above gossip and prove to Society that scandal need not follow her family. After all, it was possible to have love . . . and be properly behaved and respected. She was sure of it. In a world where women had control over so very little, her reputation was something within her grasp, and she would not relinquish her hold. Even if her elder sisters and brother had proved deplorable models before her.
“Society will not be kind,” Jonathan said, and that frank warning brought her gaze back to him.
“Beg pardon?” Well, this was not the lecture she’d been expecting.
Her brother settled his ankle across his knee. “Given our family’s . . . ?” He swiped a hand down the side of his face.
“Scandals?” Penelope supplied.
“Scandals,” he confirmed with a nod. “Polite Society will not demonstrate any real kindness.” Yes, well, when one’s sister eloped with one man, only to marry another, and then one’s brother married the governess, and one’s other sister was wedded after a public scandal to a fortune hunter, gossip did follow.
Their mother leapt into the discussion. “Which is why it is so very essential, Penny—”
“That you remember”—her mother carried on over Penelope’s interruption—“to be everything and all things proper. All the time.” And there it was—the mantra. “The gossips are always watching. Always waiting for one to falter.” Her voice shook with the same force of emotion as if she were speaking of great battle plans to conquer the Continent.
Smoothing her palms along the front of her gown, Penelope looked between her mother and brother. “I am well aware of the stringent expectations. I also assure you I’m entirely practical and logical.” Even if she did dream of love, a lady could still be practical.
At the skeptical looks that passed between them, she frowned.
Penelope had not always been proper. Given that, a stern sit-down with her mother and brother was certainly not unmerited. Nonetheless, this inability to see her as a young woman grown, and above those childish antics she’d once been famous for, chafed. “I am no longer the child you see me as,” she said in even, modulated tones that only deepened the wariness in her skeptical kin’s eyes.
Also, not undeserved. As a girl, she’d actually been quite mischievous and always troublesome. Or, as her mother had long lamented, “the bane of my motherly existence.” Well, one of the banes. The title of bane had been applied to all the Tidemore daughters in equal measure.
“It is not my intention to cause a scandal.”
“That is my point exactly,” Jonathan said with his usual frankness. He uncrossed his legs and set both booted feet on the floor. Had he made a point? She really hadn’t remembered it. “I worry—”
“We worry,” their mother said in a show of unity with her son, “with your . . .” Penelope narrowed her gaze, as Jonathan searched for his next words.
“Romantic spirit,” he settled for.
My romantic spirit? “That you’re unprepared for the extent of Society’s viciousness,” Mother said in the same calming tones she’d used when Penelope had scraped her knees as a girl.
In short, they believed her a daft, empty-headed ninny.
“As such,” Mother supplied for her son, “you may not deliberately seek out scandal . . .”
“Why would anyone deliberately seek out scandal?” Penelope asked dryly.
Mother blinked wildly. “Well, they wouldn’t.”
“We wish you to be careful, Penny,” Jonathan said bluntly. “We wish you to know despite your expectations there are those who would like nothing better than to see a lady fall, and I’d not have you become that woman.”
She widened her eyes. “Is this why we’ve avoided the ton events?” Her mother’s cheeks flamed a guilty red.
“We haven’t avoided the ton events,” Jonathan mumbled, shifting in his seat like a boy who’d just been caught with his hand on the dessert platter.
Penelope proceeded to tick off on her fingers. “First, we were a month late arriving for the London Season.”
“It was cold?” their mother put in, her voice weak.
“Then, I had to be fitted for a wardrobe,” she carried on, wiggling her index finger.
“Which is customary,” Jonathan pointed out, tugging at his cravat.
“For it to take more than a month to receive my wardrobe?” A wardrobe of frilly, white monstrosities. But one matter of discontent at a time.
It was Jonathan’s turn to flush. Good. He should feel guilty. The miserable bugger.
Penelope warmed to her argument. “Following my debut, I’ve been to the theatre.” Twice. “Lord and Lady Drake’s formal dinner. Lord and Lady Drake’s informal dinner. Lord and Lady Waxham’s recital. But never a ball.”
Silence met her damning list. Then, what could they say? The traitors.
“You left your . . . diary in the parlor.”
Her mother’s words held Penelope frozen—suspended. Surely she’d misheard? “You read my diary?” she choked out. Humiliated shame and shock rolled through her, setting her body afire with heat. All the intimate, poignant, hopeful words she’d set to page read by her mother. Groaning, Penelope buried her face in her hands. “How could you?” She’d misplaced that precious book when they’d arrived in London for the Season. She’d turned the townhouse upside down, eventually finding it in her chambers. Only to now find the blasted thing had been found, read, and then properly planted. She dropped her hands to her lap and glared.
Jonathan coughed into his hand. “It was merely the first two entries.”
She singed him with a look. “They are”—were—“my thoughts.”
“And they were enough for us to know to worry after your romantic hopes for the Season.”
Her body jerked. She’d fashioned herself into a proper lady, abandoning her hoydenish ways. Only onto the pages of her diary had she poured her deepest hopes and dreams as a woman, and her brother had read them.
Two entries—may as well have been page two hundred twenty-two for the words she’d inked there. She curled her toes into the soles of her slippers. “Is that all?” she seethed.
The pair seated across from her exchanged glances.
“I am no longer a child. I . . .” resent. Be calm, Penelope. Do not feed their perceptions. “Appreciate your concern, but do not require any lectures. I intend to be all things proper and polite. As such, you needn’t keep me from all the balls and soirees.” Events she desperately longed to attend. After all, how was a lady to otherwise find love and an honorable husband? She brought her shoulders back. “I am not Poppy,” Poppy who’d long been the most troublesome of all the four Tidemore girls.
A loud growl sounded from the hallway and Penelope looked to the panel. No doubt, Poppy was at the keyhole even now.
“We know you are not Poppy,” Mother said, placating her, earning another distant growl. She wrung her hands together and cast a worried look at Jonathan.
Penelope had tired of their cryptic looks and gestures. Could they not say precisely what it was they thought?
Jonathan spoke with an unexpected solemnity. “We are attending the Duke and Duchess of Somerset’s ball this coming Friday.”
And all ladylike decorum went out the proverbial window. Penelope rushed to the edge of her seat. A ball. Not the miserable stuffy event at Almack’s or her own modest come-out affair. Excitement stirred.
Excitement that her brother promptly quashed.
“I do not want to see you hurt, Penelope.” The way Patrina and Prudence had been. The reminder hung in the air.
Yes, her two elder sisters had eventually found love . . . but their path to happiness had been fraught with heartbreak. Penelope had witnessed enough of it to know she could do without the heartbreak part. Fortunately, she was the logical Tidemore.
“My judgment is sound. As I said, I’ve no intention of bringing scandal to the family. I’ll not run off with a scoundrel. I’ll not be trapped by a fortune hunter. Have I missed anything?”
Additional looks were exchanged. Jonathan shook his head. “That is all.”
With aplomb, Penelope rose. Her skirts settled in a noisy taffeta rustle about her ankles. Then, with a grace and decorum her mother had long lamented that Penelope would never be in possession of, she marched out of the room, closed the door behind her, and started down the hall.
Annoyance warred with an eager anticipation for the coming event she would attend.
They would question her judgment. They would worry after her like she was a child because that is precisely the light in which they still saw her. What they failed to realize was that Penelope’s path to proper reform had been set after her eldest sister Patrina’s scandal. And then after her brother’s scandal. And her path was determined only further by the latest scandal a year earlier, of her elder sister Prudence. After all, it was one thing to be an always-laughing child, delighting in mischief, but it was quite another to be sobered by the reality of the world around you. The real truth, long lectured by Mama, and confirmed by life— there are consequences to your actions.
A harsh whisper filled the corridor. “What rubbish was that?”
Penelope shrieked. Her youngest sister Poppy, of seventeen years, stepped directly into her path. Poppy brandished a newspaper.
“You startled me,” Penelope scolded, stepping around her and resuming her forward march.
Poppy fell quickly into step. “‘Not Poppy,’ you said,” her sister muttered, waving about the paper in her hands. “You sound like a stodgy bore when you talk.”
“I sound practical and logical,” she said instantly. From the corner of her eye she glared at her sister. “And I am not boring.”
“You weren’t boring. You are now.”
That sharp retort raised another frown. She’d not debate the merits of her character with Poppy—Poppy who still traipsed over country estates in breeches and swam in lakes. “When you make your Come Out, you’ll understand the need for decorum.”
Her sister snorted. “If you think I’d marry a man who wanted me to be proper and logical,” she said in a high-pitched tenor, mimicking Penelope’s earlier words, “then you’re far less sensible than you credit yourself.”
They reached Penelope’s chambers, and she pressed the door handle. Her sister spilled in ahead of her. With a sigh, she followed behind and closed the door.
“It is hardly fair you get to attend the Duke and Duchess of Somerset’s ball,” said Poppy, still waving about the paper. “It is the singularly most interesting event of the Season. They are calling it the Event.” The younger lady dropped her voice to a conspiratorial whisper. “The papers say the duchess’s brother, Mr. Black, the notorious gaming- hell owner, will attend. The bastard son of the Duke of Wilkinson.” She dropped her voice even further. “They say he has killed men.”
A chill skittered along Penelope’s spine, and she tamped down the irrational response. “Do not be silly. I’m certain he hasn’t killed men.”
“He does own a gaming hell,” Poppy pointed out.
Of course, with her tendency to listen at closed doors, she’d have gleaned long before Penelope details of the duke’s ball. Then the girl’s words registered. How many years had she spent dreaming of infiltrating those clubs visited by her brother? “A gaming hell?” she breathed, unable to keep her intrigue buried. Penelope’s cheeks turned hot. You do not care about gaming hells. You are a lady. You are polite . . .
Penelope gave a toss of her curls. “He is a duke’s son,” she corrected Poppy.
“Yes, and he has a title, but he refuses to be addressed as Lord Chatham or any variation of his title.” Poppy dropped her voice to a hushed whisper. “They say he kills men and women who call him anything other than Mr. B—hey,” Poppy cried out, as Penelope plucked the paper from her fingers. Ignoring her sister’s sharp protest, she proceeded to skim for only the relevant details on the page. It could have been a ball in a barroom and she would have been thrilled to attend. Granted, a barroom ball would be interesting for any number of reasons. She gave her head a shake. If I were one of those hoydenish ladies. Which she decidedly was not.
“There,” Poppy said; leaning over her shoulder, she jabbed her finger at the middle of the page. “It promises to be the most attended ball, and you are going, while I remain here.” In her normal dramatic fashion, she flung herself upon the bed and collapsed on the feather mattress.
While her sister bemoaned the unfairness of being born last, Penelope gazed over the article.
. . . The Duchess of Somerset’s brother, bastard son of the Duke of Wilkinson and gaming-hell owner, Ryker Black, Viscount Chatham, will be in attendance.
Penelope tossed aside the scandal sheet. It landed atop her nightstand with a soft thump.
“No doubt Mother is hoping the ton will be too focused on the duchess’s bastard brother to bother with a Tidemore,” Poppy said, pushing herself up onto her elbows.
“Undoubtedly,” Penelope said wryly. She firmed her jaw. Polite Society would inevitably see the truth, even if her family did not. She’d matured from hoyden to proper young lady. And despite her brother’s cynical views to the contrary, some worthy gentleman would look beyond her family’s name, and past the whispers, to see Penelope.
“It hardly matters,” Poppy said, flipping onto her stomach, kicking her legs up.
Do not rise to her bait. You are a proper lady now. “What hardly matters?” Penelope asked.
“Well, scandal will eventually find you. After all . . .” Her sister flashed a wicked grin. “We are Tidemores.”
Where Penelope sought the stability of a predictable life, her youngest sister openly delighted in the scandalous reputation the Tidemores had earned.
“There will be no scandal,” she said firmly.
Poppy quickly climbed to her feet. “Ah, yes,” she said, waggling her eyebrows. “What is the mantra? ‘No scandals. No elopements or rushed marriages. You are to be everything and all things proper.’”
All the time. Her sister had forgotten that last crucial detail. Penelope tossed her black ringlets. “I assure you, there will be no scandal.”
An inelegant snort burst from Poppy. “Yes, I daresay, I’ve heard that before”—she rolled her eyes—“from the other three Tidemore siblings.” With a jaunty wave, Poppy skipped to the front of the room. Yanking the door open, she exited and closed it hard behind her.
With her sister gone, Penelope grabbed the copy of the Times and quickly reread the words written there.
Her first ball. Well, if one didn’t include those staid events at Almack’s with warm lemonade and not even a waltz for the lords and ladies present. This moment would be one she always remembered. And for her cynical brother’s reservations, and her mama’s fears, Penelope had greater expectations for her eventual entry into Society.
Again setting aside the newspaper, she grabbed her diary and carried it to her secretaire. Quickly flipping through the book, she found her last entry and claimed the narrow wood seat. With a smile, she reached for her pen, and began to write.
This promises to be the most memorable evening of my life . . .
The Meaning of Christmas ~ A Christmas with the Blacks
Ryker Black was hiding.
And in a linen cupboard, no less.
Raised on the streets of East London, and even more recently, head proprietor of England’s most ruthless gaming hell, this was a position Ryker Black had never been in. After all, he didn’t hide. Enemies and challenges, he faced head-on, fearlessly.
This however, this was altogether different—this was his household, overrun with family and strangers and servants and—
Panicked, Ryker took a long draw from his cheroot. He let the smoke fill his lungs, and slowly exhaled.
But then, since he’d met—and married—his wife, Penelope, every aspect of his life had been transformed. Ryker was no longer the gaming hell owner, responsible for overseeing the Hell and Sin Club. That responsibility had shifted over to his brother, Adair.
Instead, Ryker oversaw the Paradise Hotel, one of many joint-ventures, he shared with his siblings. He didn’t live above gaming hell floors, but rather, with Penelope, and their two babes, Paisley and Patrick, resided in an opulent Mayfair hotel.
Therefore, one could say, in every way, every part of his existence had changed…for the absolute best. He lived in a state of perpetual joy; a joy he likely didn’t deserve because of the sins of his past.
And yet, complete as his life and his family were…there were so many aspects of this existence that were so new, that he didn’t know what to do with them. Where the only course that made sense…was escape.
Raising his cheroot to his lips, he took another pull.
The tread of determined footfalls drew ever closer, and he made himself go absolutely still.
Keep going…do not stop…
The pair of footsteps came to a halt close to the door he hid behind.
Silence rang in his ears…broken a moment later by his precocious sister-in-law, Lady Poppy Poplar. “He’s hiding.”
“He’s not…hiding,” came a loyal, albeit, undeserved defense from his wife, Penelope.
His heart swelled. He’d never believed it possible to love this fully or completely—
“He is,” Poppy insisted. “And he’s not so very good at it.” A fist thumped determinedly upon the panel. “I know you’re in there, Ryker. All the Tidemores have gathered to create boughs of holly, and you are the only one missing.”
Yes, he’d made it as far as the room where his recently acquired family had gathered to construct decorations for the Paradise…before taking off in the opposite direction.
There came a little sniffle. “Is that smoke?” Poppy answered her own outraged question. “He is smokinnng, Penelope.”
Reflexively, Ryker tamped out that damning scrap…on the nearest shelf.
Which also happened to hold a neat stack of immaculate white linens.
The end of his cheroot singed a black mark upon the fabric.
Ryker cursed roundly.
“We hear you,” his sister-in-law said loudly. “And smell you.”
“Behave,” came his wife’s chastisement.
“I do hope that scolding is reserved for your husband and—”
“It isn’t,” Penelope said bluntly.
There came further whisperings; his wife’s more insistent than his sister-in-law’s. A moment later, there was a sigh. “Very well,” Poppy said. “I’ll go.” She raised her voice ever so slightly. “But you really must take your husband to task for smelling up your linens.”
Ryker’s ears went hot.
What had become of him? First, hiding. Now, blushing. He dropped the stub of his cheroot on the floor at his feet.
Who would have imagined that he, whom the toughest street thugs had cowered before, should have a sister-in-law taking him to task, and so splendidly?
“I take it…you are in there, dear heart?”
A smile tugged at his lips. Dear heart. Who would have imagined that he would ever be a man to earn that endearment…or that he’d welcome it as he did? “I am.”
The door opened a fraction. Penelope slipped in, and then drew the panel quietly shut behind her.
He didn’t bother with pleasantries. “I’m hiding.”
“I see that, Ryker.”
How very matter-of-fact she was.
Shame settled around his gut. “Men don’t hide, Penelope.”
Penelope scoffed. “Don’t be ridiculous. All people hide. I’ve hidden from my mother countless times. My brother, is notorious for doing the same. I have it on good authority that my brother-in-law, Tristan was also guilty of the offense, where my sister was concerned and—” Penelope touched the tip of her finger to the corner of his mouth. “That is better.”
He caught her wrist, and dragged it to his lips for a kiss. “What is, love?”
“You make me smile,” he said with a bluntness that teased another grin from his imp of a wife.
“And yet, you’re in here instead of joining me.”
“I was checking the linens?” Even to his ears, those five words emerged as a question.
Leaning down, Penelope squinted at the articles in question. “Then, it is a good thing you are, because it appears, at some point, this top one was burn—ah,” her words ended on a laugh as he caught her close about the waist and dragged her into his arms. “You are going to give us away, Mr….”
Ryker kissed her.
It was the feeling of home and warmth, and the blazing heat that came with their every embrace.
Reluctantly, he drew back.
Penelope’s long, black lashes fluttered open. She wore a dazed smile. “Were you trying to distract me, husband?”
“Of course, Oi was.”
“And that honesty is just one of the reasons why I love you, Ryker Black.” A somberness settled over her features. “Which is why I’d ask why you’re in here?” She worried at her lower lip. “Is it too much?”
He shook his head. “No. No. That isn’t it.” She gave him a look. “In part it was.” Large gatherings of people had often proved stifling; oftentimes, sending him into a panic. And yet, the sentiment when he’d stepped out of his rooms that morn, passed a gaggle of servants, carrying bright garland, hadn’t felt all that different.
“What is it?” Penelope asked gently.
“The ‘otel is full,” he said, slipping back into his Cockney, and not able or caring enough to try and correct his speech.
“I think you’d be pleased that our attendance is so high,” she ventured haltingly.
“Oi am. It’s not that. It’s… celebrating with everyone.” His panic redoubled. “An’ ‘oliday decorations an’ parties an’…” His shoulders sagged. “It’s still foreign,” he said, unable to meet her gaze. Staring instead, over her head, to the other row of linens. “Oi still don’t understand any of it.” Finally, he made himself meet her eyes. “Oi grew up hungry an’ cold, Penelope.” He drew in a deep breath. “An’ Oi know we ‘ave celebrated together, in the past, but this is different.” His voice grew slightly pitched as he spoke. “The idea of taking part in holiday revelries…”
“What?” she urged when he left those words unfinished.
“I feel exposed. I’m with people who understand…” With a sound of impatience, he slashed a hand about. “what all this is.”
“They aren’t ‘people’, Ryker,” she gently corrected. She paused. “They’re family.”
He grunted. “I know that.” And he did. And yet, when he’d come upon them… “You were all laughing and singing songs.” The lyrics of carols he’d never even heard…and had reminded him how foreign this world still was to him.
Understanding lit her eyes. “Oh, Ryker, what all this is…it isn’t about the revelries or the décor.”
He furrowed his brow. “It isn’t?” Because that seemed largely what the Paradise had become this past fortnight.
Penelope ran her fingertips along his cheek. “Well, that is part of it. But if there were just lovely decorations, and not family organizing the gathering and decking the halls together, then…it would just be…empty. Don’t you see?” she went on softly. “The holidays are about being with those you love…and smiling and just…being together.”
Just being together…
He let that explanation roll around his mind.
So much of his life had been about being the best, and never showing weakness. Never letting on that one didn’t understand something. Those views had shaped him.
And now, because of his wife, because of Penelope, he saw the truth: spending Christmastide with a large family, was about just that…being with his wife, and their children, and the large family he’d found through his wife.
Another smile dimpled Penelope’s cheek. “You’re smiling again.”
“I’m ready,” he said.
“Then, I am ready, too.” Penelope slipped her fingers into his, and led him from the room, and on…to join their family.