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By Joanna Maitland
Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.Copyright © 2004 Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.
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Chapter One"I have been waiting too many years for this, Hugo. Nothing you can say will make one whit of difference." Kit Stratton spoke with quiet certainty, smiling calmly across at his elder brother as if they were discussing the turn of a cravat, or a new blend of snuff. He lounged back in his chair, with one immaculately booted leg thrown carelessly over the arm, and watched his brother. It might have been Kit, rather than Hugo, who was the owner of this comfortable, book-lined study.
Sir Hugo Stratton ceased his angry pacing and stood looking down at his brother in obvious exasperation. "For God's sake, Kit, you must be out of your mind," Hugo said bitterly. "Stratton Magna has been in the family for generations, yet you would risk losing it to that old harridan on the turn of a card. You cannot intend to go on with this senseless charade. Besides, it all happened years ago. Cannot you let it lie?"
"No." Kit shook his head decisively. "You forget what she did to me ... to us. She acted out of pure malice, Hugo, and I swore then that I would have my revenge on her one day. I mean to do it now."
"And it matters nothing to you that you could lose the family estate in the process? By God, I wish -"
"You wish, now, that you hadn't persuaded John to leave it to me in the first place, don't you, Hugo?"
Hugo coloured a little. "John will be turning in his grave," he said. He sounded very near to losing his temper. "And I ..." He gave a snort of disgust. "What a fool I was. I was the one who persuaded John to leave Stratton Magna to you, instead of to me. I was the one who said that you needed land of your own in England, so that you would stop playing the rake in Vienna. I was the one who thought you would -"
"Settle down and raise a brood of hopeful children?" finished Kit sardonically, rising to refill his glass. "Never. Unlike you, I have no turn for the infantry, so I am more than content to leave the getting of Stratton heirs to you. You know very well that I have no intention of being caught in parson's mousetrap. Much too close for comfort with Emma. If she hadn't chosen you instead ..." He allowed himself a wry smile. He had been the brother who compromised the heiress, but Hugo had been the brother who married her - for Hugo was the brother she loved. Hugo and Emma had been married for five years now, their happiness shadowed only by the deaths of Emma's father and of John, the eldest Stratton brother. Now Hugo was the head of the Stratton family, a baronet, and enormously wealthy. He had no need of the family estate at Stratton Magna.
"Believe me, I do appreciate your generosity," Kit continued, smiling still. He was determined to retain the upper hand in this encounter. "I can guess what you were thinking, you and John, when you decided to leave Stratton Magna to me. But, as the oldest surviving brother, you should have inherited the family estate, not I. If I had known what you were planning to do, I might have warned you of the risks you were running."
"Might you?" said Hugo with biting sarcasm. "If I'd known what you were planning to do, I might have held my tongue. As it is -"
"As it is, Stratton Magna is mine now and I can have my revenge on Lady Luce without breaking my word to you. I swore to you, then, that I would never gamble for more than I could afford to lose. Until I inherited the estate, I was in no position to come back to England and face her. Now, I can," Kit finished simply.
"You could have come back for good when John died," Hugo said pointedly.
Kit sank back into his chair. It was now well over a year since John and his wife had died in that terrible carriage accident. The family had expected Kit to remain in England after the funeral, but he had not been prepared to oblige them. "I had ... other things on my mind," Kit said, staring down into his wine. "Distractions, you might say, one of whom is now in London." He looked up at his brother. He could see that Hugo's anger was waning now. "You may be sure that I learned my lesson well over Emma. Resolved then to devote all my attentions to ladies of ... er ... experience who would pose no threat to my single state."
"Provided their husbands did not catch you in their beds," put in Hugo sharply. "You might not have come off with a whole skin if they had challenged you."
"As it happens," Kit said with studied nonchalance, "I was caught out a couple of times. And I did come off with a whole skin."
"Good God!" Hugo was laughing in spite of himself.
He had always found it difficult to remain furious for long. "And how many of the poor cuckolds did you kill?"
"None," said Kit with a bland smile. "That would have been ungentlemanly. I was guilty, after all. And the ladies in question were -"
Hugo shook his head decisively. "Enough of your diversions, Kit. We are not here to discuss your successes in the petticoat line. Heaven knows, half of Europe seems to be aware of those. We are here to discuss this preposterous proposal of yours. You cannot be serious. You could lose everything to that woman. And after the last time, surely you -"
"After the last time, I have absolutely no intention of losing to her," Kit said emphatically, rising to his feet. He put a hand on his brother's arm. "Nothing you can say will change my mind, Hugo. You cannot imagine how demeaning it was for me to be forced to come to you, cap in hand, to beg for the money to pay those debts. I knew that you would have to take it from the dowry of the lady I had compromised. Can you imagine how that felt? I may have been only twenty-two at the time, but, believe me, Hugo, it rankled. And it rankles still. I was a hair's breadth away from utter disgrace."
Hugo paused, gazing up at the huge portrait of Emma above the fireplace. He clearly had his temper well in hand now. "I do understand, Kit," he said at length. "But it was all a very long time ago. Everyone has forgotten what happened. You will simply stir it all up again if you challenge the woman. Let it lie."
"No. I cannot. I have spent five years waiting for this moment and I intend to relish it." He raised a hand as his brother made to speak. "Don't be so ready to assume that I will lose this time. Believe me, I have no intention of doing so."
The corner of Hugo's mouth twitched slightly. The long scar on the side of his face was barely noticeable now, except where it twisted his smile. "And precisely how do you plan to ensure that, brother? Are you become a Captain Sharp in your time on the continent?"
Kit smiled ruefully. "No, though I have learned to recognise them pretty well. I have no need to cheat. All these years of play have improved my game immeasurably. You know well enough that I was always lucky with the cards and the bones. Nothing has changed there. I am just more practised than before. I have no doubt that I shall win ... especially as I hear that Lady Luce seems to have lost her own knack for the cards. Did I not hear that she is called "Lady Lose" nowadays?"
Hugo nodded, somewhat unwillingly.
Excerpted from Rake's Reward by Joanna Maitland Copyright © 2004 by Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.. Excerpted by permission.
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