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Lady Allerton's Wager
By Nicola Cornick
Harlequin Enterprises Ltd.Copyright © 2003 Harlequin Enterprises Ltd.
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThe Cyprians' Ball was scarcely an event that featured on the social calendar of any of the debutantes of the ton, although more than one bitter chaperon had observed that it was the only place outside the clubs where all the eligible bachelors could be found. The most unobtainable of gentlemen, who would scorn to step inside the doors of Almack's Assembly Rooms for fear of ambush, showed far greater alacrity in striking up an intimate acquaintance of quite another sort, and a masquerade was ripe with all sorts of possibilities.
It was late in the evening when Marcus, sixth Earl of Trevithick, joined the crowds of revellers milling in the Argyle Rooms. Being neither a callow youth nor particularly requiring an inamorata, he had seen no need to hurry to be first through the door.
The room, with its elegant pillars and lavish decoration, seemed as gaudy as the birds of paradise that flocked there. Marcus knew that he was already drawing their attention. With his height, stature and wicked dark good looks it was inevitable, but he felt little pride in the fact. Once his name was whispered amongst the Cyprians he knew that some would lose interest and hunt for bigger game, for they were motivated by cupidity rather than lust. He had the looks and the title but he had little money, for he had inherited estates that had gone to rack and ruin.
"Been rusticating, Marcus? I had heard you were still in northern parts!"
It was his cousin, Justin Trevithick, who had clapped Marcus on the shoulder. Justin, the only child of a scandalous second marriage between Marcus's Uncle Freddie Trevithick and his housekeeper, was a couple of years younger than his cousin. The two had never met as children, for Marcus's father, Viscount Trevithick, had disapproved of his brother's morals and had steadfastly refused to acknowledge his nephew. When Marcus was twenty-two he had bumped into Justin at White's and they had hit it off at once, to the amusement of the ton and the despair of the strait-laced Viscount and his wife. Now, eleven years later, they were still firm friends.
Marcus and Justin shared the distinctive lean Trevithick features, but whilst Marcus's eyes and hair were the sloe-black of his pirate forebears, Justin's face was lightened by the fair hair and green eyes that in his mother had captured the attention of Lord Freddie. He turned and took two glasses of wine from a passing flunkey, handing one to his cousin. Marcus grinned, inclining his dark head.
"I have just returned from Cherwell," he said, in answer to Justin's enquiry. "I was there longer than I had intended. The tenant there has been fleecing the estate for some time, but -" he gave a sardonic smile
"- it won't be happening again!"
Justin raised his eyebrows. "I don't believe our grandfather ever visited that house. Towards the end he never even left Trevithick. It led the unscrupulous to take advantage."
Marcus nodded. He had inherited from his grandfather a bare fifteen months before and had swiftly discovered that people had indeed taken advantage of the late Earl's infirmity in his last years. It seemed ironic that his grandfather, whose soubriquet had been the Evil Earl, had himself been cheated in his old age. The Trevithick estates were huge and the subsequent confusion had taken until now to sort out. There were still places that Marcus had not had the time to visit, business that remained unfinished.
"Do you intend to stay in London for the little Season?" Justin asked.
Marcus pulled a face. "I should do, as it's Nell's debut. I would like to, but -"
"Lady Trevithick?" Justin enquired.
Marcus took a mouthful of his wine. "It is damnably difficult to share a house with one's mother after an absence of fifteen years!" He grimaced. "I have already asked Gower to find me a set of rooms - preferably on the other side of town!"
Justin smothered a grin. "I saw Eleanor at Almack's earlier this evening," he said, tactfully changing the subject. "Pershore and Harriman were dancing attendance, to name but two! She seems to have taken well, which is no surprise since she has all the Trevithick good looks!"
Marcus laughed. "I do believe that Mama is uncertain which of us to make a push to marry off first, though I believe she will have more success with my sister! I don't look to take a wife just yet!"
"Well, you certainly won't find one here," Justin said, turning back to scan the crowds. "Women of another sort, perhaps ..."
"Perhaps." Marcus allowed his gaze to skim over the ranks of painted faces. "It is a complication I could do well without, however."
Justin grinned. "There's one that would be worth it!"
Marcus turned to follow his cousin's gaze. The ballroom was packed and the dancers were executing a waltz, which was the excuse for much intimate and provocative behaviour. Yet in the middle of the swirling crowds, one couple stood out, for they danced beautifully but with total decorum. The gentleman was tall and fair, but he did not have much of Marcus's attention. The lady in his arms was another matter, however.
She was taller than most of the women present and only a few inches short of his own six foot. She wore a silver mask and her silver domino swung wide as she danced, revealing beneath it a dress in matching silk that clung to a figure that Marcus could only describe as slender but voluptuous. Her face was pale with a hint of rose on the cheekbones and her ebony black hair was piled up on top of her head in a complicated mass of curls that was just asking to be released from its captivity. Marcus grinned. Her hair was not the only thing that looked as though it would benefit from being given its freedom - the silk dress hinted at all sorts of delightful possibilities and he was already entertaining the idea of peeling it off her like the skin of a ripe fruit. Glancing around, he realised that at least half the men in his vicinity were thinking along the same lines and his grin broadened. Perhaps they had tasted the fruit already, for the very fact that she was at the Cyprians' Ball marked her as no lady. Marcus shrugged. It mattered little to him who had been before him, but he had every intention of being next in succession.
"Setting your sights, Marcus?" Justin Trevithick enquired, a smile in his voice. Like the Earl, he was watching the dancing couple. "From what I've just overheard, you are at least tenth in the queue!"
"I don't like waiting in line," Marcus murmured, not taking his gaze from the girl's face.
"Who is she, Justin?"
"Damned if I know!" Justin said cheerfully. "No one does! The guesses are inventive and range wide, but no one can put a name to the face!"
"What about the lady's escort?"
Justin was laughing at his cousin's persistence.
"Now, there I can help you! The fortunate gentleman is Kit Mostyn! A shame we are not on terms with the Mostyns and cannot beg an introduction!"
Marcus gave his cousin an incredulous look, then laughed in his turn. "Mostyn! How piquant! Then it will be doubly enjoyable to take the lady away from him ... "
Justin raised his eyebrows. "Is this love or war, Marcus?"
Excerpted from Lady Allerton's Wager by Nicola Cornick Copyright © 2003 by Harlequin Enterprises Ltd.
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.