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The Earl of Her Dreams
By Anne Mallory
HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.Copyright © 2006 Anne Mallory
All right reserved.
You're just like your uncle. All you think about is women and pleasure.
The Marquess of Penderdale
to his son Christian, age eighteen
Christian Black strode with long, purposeful steps into the bustling courtyard. The overhead sign proclaiming the Dragon's Tale Inn swayed gently in the cool breeze. Even with a winter storm approaching, the action at the coaching inn refused to still.
Christian ducked. A whiff of leather and a fluttering whisper were his only warnings as a stable boy accidentally tossed the ribbons too far. A quick "Sorry, sir!" and the boy fetched the ribbons and was swallowed by the milling crowd.
Christian smiled. The activity at the coaching inns provided the best entertainment in country towns.
Ostlers jockeyed horses around weaving carriages, and bystanders yelled out encouragement as the drivers displayed their coaches and finery to best advantage.
"Come stay the night here, love. Best service in town."
Christian looked up to see a buxom blonde leaning provocatively over the rail, her assets nearly spilling over the wood as she showed her finery to best advantage as well. He did so love the cold weather when it displayed such bounty so beautifully. Her tight calico bodice strained against her perked breasts, practically begging him to release themfrom their confines. In his twenty-five years he'd never had a problem coaxing any woman from her confines.
He winked at the blonde, and she tossed him a saucy, provocative smile before sashaying inside. His blood flow concentrated in one specific area as he chronicled all he could do with those two luscious offerings. After his business was seen to, of course.
A long-legged, curvaceous diversion was already responsible for his current predicament. He'd have to revisit that curvaceous diversion at some point. He had left far too early. What had she said her name was? Samantha? Sarah? It was something that started with an S.
Not that it mattered. It was his name they always screamed, and not the other way around. He was good at something after all, no matter what his father said.
Christian glanced at the rest of the onlookers leaning against the wooden railing to catch a glimpse of the courtyard spectacles. Guests and workers hung over the inn galleries, even now, in the dead of winter, their breaths released in cold puffs, to watch the fanfare of the entering and exiting carriages.
The audience oohed over the livery colors of the rich, and sympathized with the gaping faces of those relegated to taking their first trip in the -rumble-tumble baskets on the public coaches. They cheered the freshly scrubbed and harnessed horses that were proudly, or impatiently, waiting their turn, aahed over a coachman putting on a dramatic show in his many-caped driving coat, and laughed outright as every once in a while a reckless driver too preoccupied with strutting to his coach stepped in the present a restless horse had left in his path, uncovered or hidden by the fresh straw.
The postman blew his horn and galloped through town, the other horsemen giving him wide berth. The crowd cheered at the sight. Christian tugged at his left glove, paying little heed to the departing coach. Perhaps switching clothes with one of his servants hadn't been such a grand idea after all.
His valet, Bertrand, had nearly had apoplexy as it was, exclaiming the clothes far too coarse for his master to wear. But Bertrand had finally given in, accustomed to Christian's whims, and he was nothing if not steadfastly loyal. It was just a good thing Christian was stubborn; otherwise Bertrand would have resigned him to dandy hell years ago.
He looked up from his examination of the glove and abruptly stopped.
Two stately carriages were lined up for departure, and he recognized the coat of arms on the second as that of a lesser family of the ton. He discreetly donned his hat, tugging it lower until a few dark strands obscured his face. It had been arrogant to remove the hat in the first place. Not that arrogance had ever stopped him before.
Slipping into the crowd, Christian waited for both carriages to process out before tipping his hat back up and sauntering into the inn. The din of the raucous crowd was replaced by muffled noise from the adjoining taproom, and the smell of straw and animal droppings swapped for that of baked chicken and ale.
"Good afternoon, sir. Be with you in a thrice," the cheery innkeeper said. He turned to give last-minute instructions to the buxom blonde maid from the gallery, who sent Christian a lascivious wink before exiting the room.
"Now then, how may we be of service? Post or travel?"
Christian slipped on a charming smile. "Actually, I would like a room for the night."
The innkeeper tugged his bushy auburn mustache, which was at odds with his balding pate. "My apologies, good sir, but we are full for the evening. Perhaps the Green Toad on the other side of town?" He grimaced, obviously chagrined at having to turn away business.
Full? That wouldn't do at all. Christian increased his smile from amiable to charming. "That's most unfortunate. My good friend Anthony told me how excellent the service is here, and that the Dragon's Tale is a much finer establishment than the Green Toad."
The innkeeper's chest puffed out. "Too true, too true." He looked down at a logbook. "But all our rooms are full. The traffic is especially good around the holy days, and we see a fair number of visitors on the post road. Coaching traffic continues to increase our load."
The innkeeper eagerly rubbed his hands together. "Thinking about adding a third section to the Dragon. Possibly making it into a triple gallery like the Four Swans in Bishopsgate. Could hold plays and the like. Would have to move the stables of course, seeing as we only have the two sides currently. And the--"
Excerpted from The Earl of Her Dreams by Anne Mallory Copyright © 2006 by Anne Mallory. Excerpted by permission.
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