| Author Darcy Burke
Darcy Burke

Excerpt: Intolerable

Book 3: The Phoenix Club

Chapter One

London, April 1815

At last, Lady Cassandra Westbrook had her best friend back. She was only sorry their reunion had to take place at this ball in Portman Square rather than a private sitting room where Cassandra could ask a dozen questions about Fiona’s elopement. It was all very romantic and fantastical and completely outside Cassandra’s ability to comprehend. But then she’d never been in love, and the notion of dashing off to Scotland to wed seemed like something from a novel.

Unfortunately, she could not pelt Fiona with questions, but she had hugged her tightly, drawing stares and likely disdain from the other guests who’d happened to see their delighted embrace or hear their excited squeals.

Fiona’s new husband, Lord Overton, was there too, of course, exchanging pleasantries with Cassandra’s eldest brother, Constantine. Then he introduced Fiona to Constantine’s lovely wife, Sabrina.

Though she’d resolved not to interrogate Fiona, Cassandra couldn’t contain her glee. She grabbed Fiona’s hand and squeezed. “I can’t tell you how glad I am that you’re back. The last few weeks have been quite trying. There is so much to tell you. And, of course, I must hear all about your trip. You’re a countess now!” Cassandra still couldn’t quite believe it.

Laughing, Fiona squeezed her hand in return. “Yes. It’s rather bizarre.” She edged a bit closer to Cassandra. “You didn’t become betrothed while I was away, did you?”

“No, but it’s not for my father’s lack of pressure on the matter. If I don’t wed by June, he’s threatened to marry me off to some indeterminate gentleman.” Cassandra looked at her sister-in-law. Sabrina was well aware of the duke’s obnoxiousness regarding Cassandra’s marital prospects. “Isn’t that right?”

“So he said.”

Cassandra narrowed her eyes. “I’ve decided I’m going to marry the next man I encounter. I hope he’s especially roguish. Father will hate that.”

At that precise moment, the Earl of Wexford arrived, greeting Fiona’s husband in his delicious brogue. Delicious? No, she must not think of him like that.

Prudence Lancaster, Cassandra’s wonderful companion and trusted friend, leaned close. “You should ask him to help you. Perhaps if he pays you attention, it will draw other suitors out.”

Cassandra blinked at her in keen admiration. “Brilliant,” she murmured. Turning to Wexford, she announced, “My lord, I think you should dance with me.”

Overton addressed her, his brow furrowed. “Ah, perhaps you’d like to dance with me instead?”

Cassandra didn’t understand why he appeared concerned but gave him a reassuring smile. “Thank you, but I think it must be Wexford.” She turned to the Irish earl. “In the meantime, let us take a turn, shall we?”

His answer was to offer her his arm. Cassandra placed her hand on his sleeve and regarded him from the corner of her eye. Tall and fit with ink-dark hair and riveting blue eyes, Wexford was almost tooth-achingly attractive. Only almost because there was the flaw of his crooked nose, broken in a boxing bout, or so Cassandra’s brother Lucien, who was one of the earl’s closest friends, had told her. In truth, Cassandra found the bend in his nose only added to his roguish charm.

Roguish. Precisely the type of gentleman her father would loathe. Which made Wexford incredibly appealing since Cassandra was sick of her father’s domineering behavior.

“You are very forward to ask me to dance,” Wexford said with a charming smirk, his gaze flicking toward hers as they began a circuit around the ballroom while they waited for the current set to finish. “But then, we both know you’ve a tendency for brazenness.”

“You’re not supposed to mention that. We have an agreement.” Cassandra kept her gaze fixed straight ahead. She didn’t allow herself to think about that incident of…brazenness. To do so was madness. Plus, they’d made a pact to forget the entire thing.

“I didn’t say anything specific.” His tone was light and innocent, but somehow his Irish lilt slathered everything he said in sin. He lowered his voice. “Am I to ignore everything I know about you, my lady?”

Cassandra ignored the delicious shiver that raced up her spine. “Do try.”

He exhaled. “Why did you ask me to dance then?”

“I require your assistance, and you did offer your support should I ever need it.” In fact, he’d come to her aid a few weeks before at a Phoenix Club assembly when an inebriated gentleman had become too bold with his hands.

“How may I be of service? Keeping in mind that the last time I helped you, your brother nearly thrashed me.”

Cassandra frowned. “I still don’t understand his behavior.” Her brother Lucien, the middle child, while Constantine was the eldest, was a jovial, generous person with an excess of charm. However, when he’d found out that Cassandra had danced with his friend Wexford at the Phoenix Club assembly, he’d angrily instructed them both that it was not to be repeated. When Cassandra had demanded to know why, Lucien had only said that she should listen to her older brother.

“Nor do I understand your behavior,” she added, peering up at Wexford briefly as they strolled near the open ballroom doors that led out to the garden. “Why would you let Lucien dictate with whom you dance?”

“I don’t, typically. But Lucien is one of my dearest friends, and you are his baby sister. Since I have four younger sisters of my own, I understand an older brother’s penchant for protection.”

Bristling at the word “baby,” Cassandra pursed her lips. “I will be twenty-two shortly. Why would I need protection from you? That is what I would like to know.” She stopped abruptly, tugging on his arm to force him to halt.
Around them, the ball swirled with vibrance and sound—sparkling candlelight, beautiful people, music, and laughter. There was also heat, but it was more tolerable here near the open doors.

Wexford was, of course, one of the most beautiful people in attendance. His coat of crisp black superfine sheathed his muscular shoulders to perfection, and the brilliant blue of his waistcoat made his eyes even more captivating. The nearly blinding white of his shirt and cravat, gleaming against the black of his hair and his coat elevated his entire appearance to that of an extremely fashionable—and dashingly attractive—gentleman.

When he said nothing, she gave his arm another slight pull. “Well?”

“Well what?” He looked bemused, and she wished she could kick him in the shin.

“Why does Lucien think I need protection from you?”

Wexford looked past her head for a flash of a second then threw his free hand up. “How should I know? As I said, brothers tend to act overprotectively when it comes to their sisters. I should like to know why you’re trying to prick his ire by asking me to dance with you.”

“I’m not trying to antagonize him. He’s not even here, if that makes you feel better.” Not that it mattered to her. She would have asked Wexford to dance anyway. Prudence’s idea had taken over her mind. “In any case, he will learn of my plan soon enough.”

“May we continue our promenade?” Wexford asked politely before adding in a whisper, “People are looking in our direction.”

Cassandra inclined her head, and they resumed their stroll.

Wexford guided them around a group of people who seemed oblivious to their approach or that they were blocking the unmarked promenade area. “Since you asked for my help, this plan involves me, I take it.”

“It does. I believe you are aware of my father’s edict that I wed this Season.” The duke had been lenient in allowing her to delay her Season for a few years, but now that she had made her debut, he expected her to marry by the Season’s end. Which was precisely why she’d asked for the delay in the first place. It was of the utmost importance to him that his only daughter have a very successful first Season, meaning she must be popular and marry.

“I am.”

“I have had precisely one caller. My father is disappointed to say the least.” He railed almost daily now as to how she could be such a failure. She was beautiful, the daughter of a duke, and not at all “empty-headed.” In his eyes, she should have been betrothed by now. What he failed to realize was that he intimidated nearly everyone in Society, and there was an unfortunate dearth of gentlemen on the Marriage Mart who possessed the nerve to court the Duke of Evesham’s daughter.

“How can I possibly help?” Wexford sounded quite skeptical.

“You can dance with me tonight and pay me a call on Monday. In addition, you can encourage others to do the same. No one—including you—needs to officially court me or actively pursue my hand. I just need my father to see that I am popular and that there may be competition. This will soothe his ire, and perhaps he’ll leave me alone for a spell.” She hated how disgruntled she sounded, but that was, unfortunately, how she felt at the moment. Thanks to her father.

“I must ask why you aren’t making this request of your brother. Lucien is the one who is known for granting favors.” As owner of the Phoenix Club, an exclusive organization that sought members who were often on the social periphery or in some way rejected, either mildly or emphatically, from Society, Lucien had gained a reputation for helping people in need, whether that be with employment, connection, or something of a more personal nature.
Cassandra tossed the earl a sly glance. “He can’t exactly pay me a call, can he?”

Wexford grinned, and Cassandra was powerless to stop the absurd thrill that tripped through her chest. “I suppose not. How will you keep him from tearing my limbs from me when he learns we not only danced, but that I paid a call on you?”

“I’ll handle him.” Cassandra wasn’t going to let any of the annoying men in her family, not her father or either of her brothers, meddle in her plans. She’d marry when she was bloody good and ready and not a moment sooner. She’d marry when she wanted to, not when Society—or her father—dictated. So far, she hadn’t even come close.

Wexford turned his arresting, twinkling eyes on her. “That I would like to see.”

“If he wants to meddle, he’ll have to tell me exactly why he doesn’t want me dancing with you.”

Chuckling, Wexford steered them toward the dancefloor since the set had ended and the next was about to begin. “You may be disappointed to learn there isn’t anything nefarious behind your brother’s…brotherliness. Trust me, we just don’t like to think of our sisters as romantically, er, involved.”

“That’s silly. I have no trouble thinking of my brothers in that way. I want them to be romantically happy.” Especially her brother Constantine, whose two-year marriage had seemed incredibly unhappy until very recently. She was thrilled that he and his wife, Sabrina, whom Cassandra adored, had seemed to have finally fallen in love. It gave Cassandra hope.

“It’s good that you aren’t bothered by it since Lucien makes such behavior look as regular as breathing,” Wexford quipped.

“Which makes him an absolute hypocrite.”

Leading her onto the dancefloor, Wexford moved them into position as others gathered around them. “I’d argue that his affairs are less romantic and more, ah, never mind.” He glanced about, as if to silently tell her they should change the subject since others would overhear them.

The music started and their conversation became far more mundane as others joined. Throughout the set, they periodically touched, and Cassandra tried to pretend the awareness that jolted through her meant nothing, that she felt the same thing—to a lesser extent—when she touched the other gentleman in their square. It would be far easier to ignore Wexford if he wasn’t so deuced attractive.

And if the incident hadn’t happened.

She would not think of that. Instead, she considered her options for a husband and pondered whether she’d want to wed someone by the end of the Season. After watching Constantine and Sabrina find their way, Cassandra was willing to entertain the notion of not being in love with her husband at the time of the wedding, but she would choose someone with whom she would hope there would be love someday.

What if there wasn’t?

She wouldn’t think of that either. At least not tonight. She was taking one day of the Season—rather, one event—at a time. For now, she was just thrilled to have her best friend back in town. She’d felt so lonely in her frustration the past three weeks while Fiona had traveled to Gretna Green for her wedding to the Earl of Overton. But as of tonight, Fiona was back and Cassandra would once again have a partner in her misery.

Except she wouldn’t really. Fiona wasn’t suffering through a Season in which she was expected to marry. She had been, when she and Cassandra had first met back in February. But since then, Fiona had fallen in love with her guardian, of all people, and now they were happily wed.

Wexford took Cassandra’s hand for the dance, and his eyes met hers. It vaulted the touch to an entirely new level as the connection stretched and held. She knew in her bones he was thinking of the incident. A flash of heat suffused her, and it had nothing to do with the cloying temperature of the overstuffed ballroom nor the exertion of the dance.

Jerking her attention to the other young lady in their square, Cassandra asked an inane question about her gown. Anything to keep her mind from straying where it could not go.

When at last the set was finished, Cassandra wished she could walk back to Prudence on her own, but that would be gauche. So she took Wexford’s arm and left the dancefloor.

“What time would you like me to call on Monday?” he asked. “Shall I bring flowers?”

“You’ll help me?” She hadn’t been sure, despite the fact that he’d pledged to assist her in any way he could.
“Even though it puts me at considerable risk from Lucien’s wrath, yes.”

“I’ll explain the matter to him,” Cassandra said, eager to deliver her brother a setdown when it came to his attempts to manage her. “Please call whenever is convenient for you. Flowers are not necessary, but they would be a nice touch.”

They’d arrived back at Prudence. Pale with eyes the color of moss, Prudence possessed an ethereal quality that was completely at odds with her no-nonsense attitude. If she’d been born to a higher station, she would almost certainly have been the Incomparable of her debut Season.

“Thank you for the dance, my lord.” Cassandra took her hand from Wexford’s arm.

“It was my pleasure, Lady Cassandra. Enjoy the rest of your evening. I shall look forward to seeing you soon.” He bowed before leaving them. As he walked away, Cassandra watched his muscles ripple beneath the black superfine before tearing her gaze from him and turning toward Prudence.

“Is he going to help?” Prudence asked without preamble.

“He’s going to call on Monday. But he is certain Lucien will become angry. I should try to speak with him tomorrow.” Particularly since she’d told Wexford that she would. Also, because she really wanted to know why Lucien was being so obnoxious about Wexford of all people. They were friends, after all.

Prudence glanced toward the dancefloor. “What about Lord Glastonbury?”

The Viscount Glastonbury was the single gentleman who’d called on her. They’d also danced a handful of times over the past fortnight. She’d seen him briefly this evening, but he hadn’t asked her to dance again. “He doesn’t seem to be interested in a courtship.”

Which was too bad. He was one of the only gentlemen she’d met who didn’t set her teeth on edge. He possessed both charm and wit and wasn’t completely intimidated by her father. That alone put him in a class by himself.

“You’re sure His Grace didn’t scare him off after he called?”

“I don’t think so.” Cassandra had arrived in the drawing room to find her father speaking with Glastonbury. The conversation hadn’t seemed tense, and Glastonbury hadn’t left before the requisite quarter hour. During that time, he’d been relaxed and amusing, just as he was when they danced. She realized they’d only danced once since then. Perhaps her father had said something. No, surely not. He’d commented that Glastonbury was a good candidate, and the earl wouldn’t have asked her to dance after that if he’d been warned off.

Eager to change the topic from who may or may not court her, Cassandra scanned the ballroom. “Where did Fiona go?” She and her new husband had been with Prudence when Cassandra had left to promenade with Wexford, as had her brother Constantine and his wife Sabrina.

“She and Overton went to make the rounds. They are the talk of the ball. Again,” Prudence added.

Three weeks earlier, their elopement had been the on-dit of the Season, but Overton’s mother, the dowager countess, had quashed any mention of wrongdoing. She’d declared them a love match, all but putting an end to speculation about what might have happened between Overton and his ward. Did it matter since they were lawfully and happily wed?

It did to many in Society. The ton was rapacious in its hunger for notoriety and scandal.

“Hopefully in a good way,” Cassandra said. She would hate for her friend to be subject to harassment or rudeness. “We can’t catch up properly tonight, but perhaps we’ll have time tomorrow.”

Or not. Fiona was a newlywed, and Cassandra would have to share her with Overton now. At least she still had Prudence, who’d been Fiona’s companion before the elopement. Cassandra had been thrilled when her father had hired Prudence to be her companion, particularly since her sponsor was her careless Aunt Christina. Cassandra was fond of her, but she was always abandoning Cassandra at events. Tonight was no exception since she’d arrived with Cassandra and Prudence earlier, and they hadn’t seen her since. Why Cassandra’s exacting father allowed his sister to continue in the role was beyond her, especially since Sabrina had offered to act as sponsor and had done so rather wonderfully for a short time. Until the duke had become angry with Constantine and punished him by removing Sabrina from the position.

That Cassandra couldn’t even choose her own sponsor was another point of irritation. In some ways, she was eager to marry just to get away from her controlling father. She didn’t understand his behavior this Season. He’d always been gruff and even cool, particularly after her mother had died when she was seven. But he’d also indulged her. Until this year. Now he couldn’t wait to get rid of her.

Had she done something wrong?

Well, yes, she had, but no one knew about that. No one but Wexford.

And no one else ever would.

“Glastonbury is coming this way,” Prudence whispered.

Cassandra straightened her shoulders and pushed away the nagging thoughts of her father and of Wexford. Smiling brightly, she dipped a slight curtsey as the earl arrived.

“Good evening, Lady Cassandra.” He took her hand and bowed. “The ball is far more exciting with your presence.”

Where Wexford was dark with a hint of danger and wickedness, Glastonbury was golden and elegant. He looked the consummate London gentleman. His blond hair waved artfully over his forehead while his pale, blue-green eyes sparkled like the sea. His easy smile ensnared every female in its captivating web, for he had a way of making one feel as if she were the only woman in the room. Aunt Christina had made that observation. Now, as Cassandra basked in the warmth of his smile, she tried to grasp that sensation.

She just didn’t feel it—they were in a crowded ballroom. It was impossible to think she was the only woman present. Perhaps she just wasn’t romantically inclined.

“It’s lovely to see you, Lord Glastonbury,” Cassandra said as he released her hand.

“I was hoping we might dance the set after the break. I understand it’s a waltz.” His golden brows arched briefly as he gave her a flirtatious look.

They’d waltzed once before, and he was an incredibly accomplished dancer, probably the best she’d partnered with. Cassandra smiled demurely. “That would be lovely.”

“I shall look forward to it. In the meantime, I must make a quick circuit. I’ll find you back here?”

She wondered why he didn’t ask her to promenade but then didn’t care since she saw Fiona was returning toward them. “Brilliant,” she said, flashing him a brief smile and hoping he would immediately take his leave so she could have a few minutes alone with her friend. And with Prudence of course.

“See you soon then.” He departed, and Cassandra realized she and Fiona had enough time to visit the retiring room before she was due to dance with Glastonbury.

Fiona arrived, pressing her hands to her flushed cheeks. “My face hurts from smiling.”

Cassandra laughed lightly. “Welcome to being a countess.”

“Tobias whispered nearly the very same thing in my ear not a quarter hour ago.” She shook her head with a faint smile. “He’s off to the gaming room for a bit, so I’m quite happy for the respite.”

“Excellent, I thought we would go to the retiring room,” Cassandra said.

Fiona’s warm brown eyes lit. “This reminds me of the first time we met when you swept me away to the retiring room so we could become acquainted.” She turned to Prudence. “Not just me, of course. How are you, Pru?”

“Very well, my lady.”

“No, don’t do that.” Fiona laughed as she vigorously shook her head. “I am still Fiona to you.”

As they made their way to the retiring room, Fiona told them about their trip to Scotland. It was obvious she was blissfully happy. Cassandra was thrilled for her friend but felt a pang of envy too. One of the things they’d had in common was the fact that they were relatively alone. Both of Fiona’s parents were dead, and she’d only had her family’s long-time maid, who’d come to London with Fiona as her chaperone. Cassandra had a father and her brothers, but she still felt alone, probably because she was the only female in the family. Or because she missed her mother, especially this year, as she’d embarked on her first Season.

When they were settled in a corner of the retiring room, Fiona asked about Cassandra’s Season. “I know you aren’t betrothed yet, but are there any prospects?”

“Just Glastonbury at the moment.”

“What about Wexford? I saw you dancing with him again.” Fiona had been present at the Phoenix Club assembly when Cassandra had danced with him before. That had been the night before she and Overton had eloped.

“That was merely a ploy to provoke other parties.” Cassandra flicked an amused glance toward Prudence. “Thank our Pru for the brilliant idea of having Wexford pretend to show interest. He’s going to pay a call on Monday. Hopefully, that will calm my father into leaving me alone for a while.”

Fiona grimaced. “His pressure regarding your marriage has increased that much?”

“Daily.” Cassandra leaned back in her chair and drummed her fingers on the arm. “He’s insisting I marry by the end of the Season. If I don’t select a husband, he’ll choose one for me.”

“How horrid.” Fiona gave her a sympathetic look. “I’m so sorry I wasn’t here to provide support, but I am glad you’ve had Prudence.” She smiled at her former companion.

“I honestly don’t know what I would do without her.” Cassandra sent Prudence a grateful glance.

“So you must wed,” Fiona said matter-of-factly. “We will find you an acceptable husband. No, not acceptable, we will find someone who will sweep you off your feet and with whom you will fall madly in love.”

“I’d prefer he fell madly in love with me first.” Then Cassandra would know things would work out, that her marriage wouldn’t be cold and lonely. She absolutely didn’t want to be in a position of unrequited love.

“How could he not?” Fiona grinned.

“Because he’s terrified of my father.” Cassandra let out a rather indelicate snort. “That seems to be the reason for my lack of suitors. They’re all completely cowed by him. It’s not that they have to work up their courage for a single interview with him, they must have the internal fortitude to suffer him for a lifetime.”

“They’re all ridiculous,” Prudence said crossly, surprising them. “If they’re not bold enough to even give you a chance, they aren’t worthy of your attention. Glastonbury may be the perfect match. You like him, don’t you?”

“I do. He’s an excellent dancer.”

“I shall hope there is more you like about him than that,” Fiona said.

What could she say? Their conversations had been shallow thus far. She hardly knew him. Still, he did possess the bravery others did not. For that, she would give him many extra points. “I am still getting to know him. So far, he’s quite pleasant.”

“Well, that’s a start.” Fiona lowered her voice and leaned slightly toward Cassandra. “Does he spark a…magnetism?”

Cassandra had used that word to describe sexual attraction to Fiona after she’d arrived in London. Fiona had been horribly unaware of such matters, not that Cassandra was an expert. “Not as yet. But he is very handsome.”

The word magnetism made her think of one man and one man only: Wexford. Ever since the incident, she felt a pull toward him. But given what had happened, that was only normal. It didn’t mean she felt anything for him or wanted to repeat their encounter.

“Well, that’s a promising start,” Fiona said. “We’ll sort this all out and by the end of the Season, I project you’ll be quite happily wed like me.”

That sear of envy returned, burning across Cassandra’s chest. She wanted that but doubted it would come to pass.

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