Ripe for Seductionby Isobel Carr
The League of Second Sons
A secret society of younger sons, sworn to aid and abet each other, no matter the scandal or cost . . .
After the scandalous demise of her marriage, Lady Olivia Carlow knows the rakes of the ton will think her fair game. So when a letter arrives bearing an indecent offer from the incorrigible Roland Devere, she seizes/b>/i>… See more details below
The League of Second Sons
A secret society of younger sons, sworn to aid and abet each other, no matter the scandal or cost . . .
After the scandalous demise of her marriage, Lady Olivia Carlow knows the rakes of the ton will think her fair game. So when a letter arrives bearing an indecent offer from the incorrigible Roland Devere, she seizes the opportunity. Turning the tables on the notorious rogue, she blackmails him into playing her betrothed for the season. But no matter how broad his shoulders or chiseled his features, she will never fall prey to his suave charm.
When Roland boasted he'd be the first into Lady Olivia's bed, he couldn't have imagined that behind those brilliant blue eyes lurked a vixen with a scheme of her own. Still, Roland is not about to abandon his original wager. If anything, learning that the lovely Olivia is as bold as she is beautiful makes him more determined to seduce her into never saying "never" again.
4 Stars! For her third in the League of the Second Sons, Carr delivers not one, but two love stories that will charm and titillate readers. You will be easily drawn into the naught and bawdy era through Carr's deft prose."—RT Book Reviews"
Ripe for Pleasure is a very naughty pleasure indeed."—Bertrice Small, New York Times bestselling author of The Border Vixen"
Sensuous and sexy with flirty, witty dialogue. Truly a pleasure."—Maya Banks, New York Times bestselling author of Sweet Possession on Ripe For Pleasure: "
Sexy, sumptuous, and wicked smart."—Pam Rosenthal, award-winning author of The Edge of Impropriety on Ripe for Pleasure
Meet the Author
ISOBEL CARR is single, child-free, and a committed "dog person" (the bigger the dog the better). She has taught creative writing, horseback riding, and seminars on historical costuming. She can start a fire without matches and hitch a team of horses to a wagon. She can also spend nine hours in a Victorian corset without a problem but can't wear heels for more than four hours. She laughed all the way through every episode of Colonial House, and if she could only watch one movie for the rest of her life, it would be Impromptu.
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Ripe for Seduction
By Isobel Carr
ForeverCopyright © 2012 Isobel Carr
All right reserved.
There are three private gentlemen’s clubs on St. James’s Street in London, each with its own rules and regulations governing membership. They are filled each day with peers who can’t be bothered to attend to their duties in the House of Lords, let alone what they owe to their estates and family. Their ranks are frequently swelled by the addition of their firstborn sons, who gamble away their youth and fortunes while waiting for their fathers to die. What’s less commonly known is that there is also one secret society, whose membership spans all three: The League of Second Sons.
Their charter reads:
We are MPs and Diplomats, Sailors and Curates, Barristers and Explorers, Adventurers and Soldiers. Our Fathers and Brothers may rule the World, but We run it. For this Service to God, Country and Family, We will have Our Due.
Formed this day, 17 May 1755. All Members to Swear to Aid their Fellows in their Endeavors, Accompany them on their Quests, and Promote their Causes where they be Just.
Addendum, 14 April 1756. Any rotter who outlives his elder brother to become heir apparent to a duke is hereby expelled.
Addendum, 15 Sept 1768. All younger brothers to be admitted without prejudice in favor of the second.
London, April 1785
Bird chatter split the morning air, the sharp cries entering Roland Devere’s ears and cracking his head apart. He turned his face away from the sunlight streaming through the window and draped his arm over his eyes.
Never try to out-drink Anthony Thane. Never bet against Lord Leonidas Vaughn. And never fence with Dominic de Moulines. Three rules to live by.
And he’d broken all of them last night, though thankfully not in that order. The evening had begun with a bout of fencing at Angelo’s salle and ended in an utter debauch at Lord Leonidas’s house on Chapel Street. Vaughn’s wife had abandoned them to it with a queenly shake of her head, not even bothering to scold.
The soft tread of someone in some not-too-distant room finally forced his eyes open. It sounded as though whoever it was were tiptoeing about in their stocking feet, but the soft creaks of the floorboards were almost more irritating than the birds. No, they were more irritating. Infinitely so, as they spoke to an awareness of his presence and condition.
Roland pushed himself upright, head pounding uncomfortably as he did so. His coat was bound up at the shoulders, nearly swaddling him. He yanked it about. He was still fully dressed save for his shoes, which lolled beneath a chair across from the settee he’d spent the night on. His hair swung into his face, a dark, heavy curtain, and he shoved it back, hooking it behind his ears. A quick search of his pockets and the recesses of the settee failed to produce the black silk ribbon that normally contained his hair.
The last time he’d downed that much port he’d woken upstairs in one of the finer houses of the impure in Florence with a troupe of disgusting little putti staring down at him from the bed’s canopy, their sly smiles and tiny pricks lurid in the morning light. Vaughn’s drawing room was an infinitely more welcoming sight.
His own generation of The League of Second Sons had caroused their way through London, their band growing larger and more raucous as they went. They’d stormed Lady Hallam’s ball, invaded the Duke of Devonshire’s rout, and been ejected from the coffee house The League had made their own by the elder members who’d retired there for a quiet night. Ultimately, they had finished their evening here in Vaughn’s drawing room, or at least he had. No one else appeared to have laid claim to the other settee or the floor.
Roland had a vague memory of Thane flirting with Lady Ligonier in the bow window just before his memory went black. Perhaps Thane had been lucky enough to accompany the lady home. Lucky devil if he had. For the life of him, Roland couldn’t remember anyone taking their leave, but he must have been in quite a state if they couldn’t even get him up the stairs and into one of the guest chambers.
Roland ran his hands down his chest, yanking them away as a pin dug painfully into his flesh. He glanced down. A thin, brass dress pin, the kind used to hold a lady’s gown closed, secured a slip of paper to his coat. Roland tore it free, sending the pin flying.
His own drunken handwriting crawled across the paper:
I, Roland Devere, bet Lord Leonidas Vaughn one guinea I can beat Anthony Thane into the bed of Lady Olivia Carlow.
All three of their signatures were scrawled below the statement, Thane’s with an artful flourish that bespoke amusement and sobriety. Roland crumpled the note in his fist. How many witnesses had there been? Who’d been left by the time they’d degenerated into boasts and bets? Good Lord, Lady Olivia was, in to some convoluted way, very nearly a relative of Vaughn’s, as his sister was married to Lady Olivia’s first husband’s brother. What the hell had they been thinking?
A heart-shaped face, brilliant blue eyes under straight pale brows, a jumble of blond curls. Lady Olivia shimmered insubstantially before his eyes. She had been hotly pursued during her time on the marriage mart. An heiress and a beauty. She’d married well… or so it had seemed at the time.
Lady Olivia had been through a lot in the last year. He ought to know, having borne witness to all the most humiliating details of the scandal that had ended her marriage. She didn’t need the gentlemen of the ton making sport of her, but it was inevitable that she would be pursued like a vixen by a pack of hounds now that she’d returned to town.
Guilt at being one of those selfsame hounds surged before dissipating amid the rush of undeniable anticipation. Lady Olivia Carlow wasn’t quite a widow, nor was she ruined in the traditional sense of the word. Her situation was, in a word, unique.
Numbness spread through Livy’s hands as she read the letter that had arrived on the silver salver with the morning post. The tingling spread up her arms and coalesced into a blinding ball of fury inside her chest. She stared dumbly at the words, raking her eyes over the sentences that sloped haphazardly across the page and ended in a nearly illegible scrawl of a signature.
She’d known returning to town was a mistake. Had known it bone deep. But just when she’d convinced her father that it was a terrible idea for her to accompany him back after the Easter recess, her grandmother had started in, siding with the earl—against her—for the first time since her marriage had ended.
Her marriage. Livy’s stomach churned and she tasted bile at the back of her throat. Her marriage had been the great scandal of the ton the previous year, eclipsing even the runaway marriage of her former brother-in-law.
Bigamy wasn’t a word an earl’s daughter was ever supposed to become familiar with, let alone something she was supposed to experience. It was still nearly impossible to grasp that the man she’d married, the man she and her father had chosen so carefully from her legions of suitors, had already had a wife. Some Scottish cutler’s daughter who was, even now, happily remarried and living in Canada.
The crinkle of paper brought her head up from the insulting letter and pulled her out of the spiral of reminiscences. Her father was staring at her over the sagging upper edge of The Morning Post. Livy forced herself to pick up her teacup and take a drink. The tea was stone cold, and the sugar lay thick in the bottom, only half dissolved, but it served to settle her roiling stomach all the same.
“Bad news?” the earl asked, brows rising to touch his gaudy silk banyan cap. Livy smiled as her gaze lingered on the cap. It was fussy and old-fashioned. So unlike her father, but her mother had made it just before she’d died and so he persisted in wearing it.
Livy shook her head and refilled her cup. “No, just country gossip from Grandmamma,” she said, the lie coming easily to her lips. Lying was a new skill, but it had become a necessary one. She couldn’t possibly have been truthful about how she’d felt since her marriage had been invalidated. Not even with her father. Especially not with her father.
The earl smiled, his attention already slipping back to the news of the day. There were ink stains on his fingers. A sure sign that he’d torn himself away from his desk to join her in the breakfast parlor.
Philip Carlow was a man of intellect. A man who waged war in Parliament with verbs and won those battles with synonyms. But it wasn’t magic. He wasn’t like the bards of old, who could raise blisters with a word or lay waste to an army with a song. And today, she rather wished he were. Surely Mr. Roland Devere deserved some sort of reprimand for having made her such a preposterous proposal?
Livy smoothed the letter on the table and read it over again, sucking the marrow out of every word. Devere’s penmanship was atrocious. His quill had stuttered and splattered ink across one corner of the letter. There was a dark ring where a glass of wine had been set down on the sheet of foolscap, making several words run and blur, but his offer—and the insult therein—was unmistakable.
Devere was offering himself as the sacrificial lamb for the pyre of her marriage. Every widow must start somewhere, and he thought, perhaps, she would like to start with him. Arrogant bastard.
Livy toyed with a muffin, breaking off a piece and slathering it with ginger preserves. She chewed thoughtfully. If only she were a widow. Widows were given a great deal of leeway in their behavior. Such an offer might even have been tempting if she were. Roland Devere, dark as a gypsy, handsome as a fallen angel, would have been a very good start for a widow in need of entertainment.
As it was? No. Devere and his ilk were the last thing she needed. And this was just the beginning. Just a warning shot across her bow. She was damaged goods, and men who’d once vied for her smiles would be expecting something more—and offering a great deal less—this time around.
She swallowed and took another bite, letting the heat of the ginger linger on her tongue. Roland Devere was a pompous ass, and he deserved to be punished. No, not just punished. He deserved to be tortured over an extended period of time for his presumption, and he should serve a higher purpose as added penance.
Livy smiled and slipped the letter into her pocket. Not only should Devere do penance, he should serve as a warning to others, and she knew exactly how to go about making him of use.
There was a pregnant silence about his parents’ house in Berkeley Square as Roland entered the front hall. He could feel a chill in the air. The clatter of shutters being thrown open and the distant din of the cook berating the scullery maid stood out distinctly. The words ruined and clumsy echoing up from the kitchen told the story of some broken piece of crockery or spoiled luncheon dish.
The dim hall was a blessed relief after the god-awful glare of the streets. Roland had retrieved his shoes and escaped from Vaughn’s house with no one but an amused-looking maid as witness. His hat, along with the ribbon for his hair, seemed to have disappeared entirely, but his purse had expanded by a good hundred quid, so it seemed more than a fair exchange.
Emerson, his father’s butler, greeted him with wide, wild eyes, like those of a cornered dog. The man glanced furtively at the closed door to the drawing room, nodded warningly at a footman in green-and-black livery who stood waiting in the far corner, and held his hand out expectantly.
“My hat seems to have wandered off in the night,” Roland said with a shrug. “Fortunes of war, what.”
Emerson’s hand dropped to his side like a pheasant shot from the air. “Breakfast has been cleared, but I can have something sent up if you’re hungry, sir,” he said, not taking his eyes from the closed doors. “Ham steak, perhaps?”
Roland’s stomach revolted. “No. Thank you, but no,” he said. The butler’s gaze darted to him but returned to the drawing room doors as if drawn by a lodestone. “Everything all right, Emerson?”
“Her ladyship has a visitor,” he replied, using the tone usually reserved for disasters of epic proportions or royal visitations, which were much the same thing in Roland’s experience. But that wasn’t one of the king’s footmen. Nor one of the prince’s.
Roland studied the tall, solid double doors. Mysterious footmen aside, the most likely source of disaster was his sister. Margo, newly widowed and returned to England, was ripe for trouble. She’d spent the last decade in the midst of the French court at Versailles, where liaisons were an art form and no one played the game better than her husband, the comte de Corbeville.
Well, no one except, perhaps, Margo.
Headache forgot, Roland stepped past Emerson. At his touch, the door swung open without a sound. Silence filled his mother’s drawing room. It buffeted him like a cannonade.
His mother looked as though she’d swallowed a toad and couldn’t quite choke it down. Her mouth moved, but no words came out. The countess’s fashionably grizzled hair trembled, shedding bits of powder that danced in the bright morning sunshine like brilliant motes.
Seated across from her was Lady Olivia Carlow. The object of his wager smiled as she saw him, no hint of anger or reproach on her face. Behind them both, his sister, clothed in unrelenting black, sat in the window seat, sun flooding in behind her. Margo’s hands were idle on her needlework, poised as though frozen in time. Her expression was carefully, artfully, blank.
A deep sense of dread flooded through Roland. Lady Olivia smiled again, but there was a brittle edge to her expression, a hint of too many teeth. He knew that expression, having seen it on his sister’s face all too often. The lady was out for blood.
His mother finally caught her breath with an audible intake and attempted to gather her wits. “I’m so sorry, my dear. I don’t think—I-I-I didn’t quite—are you quite sure there isn’t some mistake?”
“I don’t believe so,” Lady Olivia said with alarming good cheer. “But here’s your son now. I’m sure he can clear up any misunderstanding.”
Dread flared into something closer to outright horror as Lady Olivia emphasized the final word. What the hell had he done last night? What had Thane—damn him—got him into? She couldn’t possibly know about the bet, and even if Thane had sought to hobble him by telling her—and had somehow managed to do so this very morning—there’d be no reason for Lady Olivia to run and tell tales to his mother.
Roland glanced at his sister, hoping for a hint as to what was afoot, but Margo merely raised one brow and then pretended to return to her embroidery. However, an amused smile lurking about her mouth was very much in evidence as she bowed her head. Margo was enjoying whatever little drama was underway, which boded ill.
Lady Olivia rose from her seat and stepped toward him. Her eyes pinned him in place, the deep blue a blaze of color in her pale face. One side of her rosy mouth curled up higher than the other as she smiled. She looked entirely too pleased with herself, too sure of herself. Whatever salvo had apprised her of the game they were playing, she was about to return fire.
“Mr. Devere”—her hand slid down into the pocket slit of her gown with an audible rustle and emerged with a small, folded sheet of foolscap—“did you, or did you not, make me this very charming offer of marriage just last night?”
She held the letter out, eyes daring him to take it. Roland plucked it from her hand and read it over, growing sicker by the second. He glanced back up to find Lady Olivia watching him, eyes steady and full of power. He’d seen a cobra once, brought all the way from India to dance at a duchess’s gala. The creature’s gaze had carried less threat than that of the lady who stood before him.
“Perhaps,” Lady Olivia said, her eyes never wavering from his, “Lady Moubray would like to read it and judge for herself if I’ve misunderstood your offer.”
Roland swallowed, his mind racing. What the hell was she playing at? She couldn’t possibly want to marry him. He was a younger son with a minor sinecure and a matching minuscule income. He hadn’t the power or position to wash away the scent of scandal that enveloped her. She needed a lord for that. If it were him, he’d be aiming for a duke. A royal one if at all possible.
“No need,” Roland said, refolding the note he’d obviously dashed off at some point after the night had gone dim. It was all he could do not to crumple it in his fist and chuck it into the fire. His friends had let him do it, too, perhaps even instigated it. The bastards. “My offer was unambiguous and quite genuine.”
“So I thought.” Lady Olivia’s smile became a triumphant smirk as she plucked the letter from his grasp and tucked it back into her pocket. “Perhaps when your mother and I have finished our tea you could escort me home.”
“Yes, Roland,” his mother said uneasily. “You should speak to Lord Arlington at once. It really isn’t at all the thing to be making offers to young ladies without speaking to their fathers first.”
She sounded as though the affront were to her, not Lady Olivia’s father. Perhaps she was hoping the earl would refuse his permission. Save them all from impending scandal.
Lady Olivia clapped her hands over her mouth. Her eyes met his, brimming with amusement at his mother’s evident horror. The countess stared at them both, her eyes full of confusion and concern.
“I’m my own mistress,” Lady Olivia said as she reclaimed her seat in a flounce of silken petticoats. She looked pleased as Punch after he’d beat Judy into submission. “But I’m sure the earl will feel as your mother does. He does so like to maintain the little formalities that keep us all civilized.”
Beneath her hand, Devere’s arm tensed and flexed. He reminded her of a grain-high horse being held back when it wanted to run. Livy tipped herself against him, pretending to stumble. He steadied her without missing a step. A gentleman and a rake at the same time, or perhaps his inclinations were mercurial? A gentleman by day and a rake by night?
The idea shouldn’t be thrilling, and yet…
“Do you have a key?” she asked, waving one hand at the fenced lawn that made up the private park at the heart of the square.
“Yes,” he said, glancing down at her as he fished about in the pocket of his coat.
“My father’s house is only around the corner.” Livy pulled him to a stop as she eyed the empty square. “And I think this is going to take a few minutes more than the walk there.”
Devere nodded stiffly, light winking off the cravat pin set neatly inside the fall of crisp linen. Livy smiled to herself. This was turning out to be far more entertaining than she’d anticipated. Perhaps she was cut out for wickedness after all.
“Peter?” She turned her attention briefly to her father’s footman. “Mr. Devere will see me home.”
Peter looked skeptical, but he didn’t bother to argue with her. He merely nodded and walked briskly off in the direction of Arlington House. Livy took a deep breath. She didn’t need a witness, even a chance one, for the conversation they were about to have.
Devere led her carefully across the street, as solicitous as if she actually meant something to him, and let them both into the small park. It was deserted at the moment, not even a solitary nurse with her tiny charges or a footman with his employer’s lap dog making use of its oyster-shell paths.
From beneath the shade of the wide brim of her hat, Livy studied Devere’s profile. He had a long nose that turned down at the tip, like the ones on so many of the statues in Rome. He was swarthy like a Roman too, the shadow of beard on his jaw still visible even though she could smell his shaving soap.
He’d left her alone with his mother for less than ten minutes, but he’d returned shaved, in a clean suit of clothes, and with his hair neatly tied back rather than tumbling in riotous waves about his shoulders. She rather missed the pirate, which must surely be a very great failing on her part.
In the middle of the open square sat a stone bench, placed at the crossroads of the paths bisecting the immaculate lawn. Devere led her directly to it, dusted it off with his handkerchief, and motioned for her to sit.
He sat down beside her. Long lashes obscured his dark eyes. Devere’s hands locked into fists, giving away the simmering anger and uncertainty that he’d otherwise masked. He knew he was caught, and he didn’t like it one little bit. Livy bit back a smile.
“I’d like to apologize,” Devere began, pitching his voice low even though there was no one but her to hear him. “I honestly don’t even remember writing that letter, not that pleading inebriation makes its contents one jot less insulting.”
Livy sucked in one cheek and nodded. He sounded sincere, but she couldn’t let him off so easily. Not when his mistake could keep him at her beck and call all season.
“Let us lay our cards on the table, Mr. Devere. You have put yourself entirely at my mercy, and in my present circumstances, I do not find a letter such as the one you sent particularly forgivable.”
His head snapped about, and his nostrils flared. He’d only now realized how thoroughly he was trapped, and to how great an extent he’d placed himself in her hands. She almost felt sorry for him. Almost.
“It was, however,” she went on, “very much what I expected after the events of last year. My father thinks the world will take pity on me, but you and I both know differently, don’t we?”
Devere dropped his gaze to his hands. The seams of his gloves strained. Yes, he knew very well how he and his peers viewed widows and fallen women—game to be stalked, meat for their tables. Her status as something of both would simply add to the frenzy of the hunt. She’d become a singular prize.
“Seeing as the world is what it is,” Livy said, “I must formulate a plan of defense. And since you have so obligingly volunteered, I shall allow you to be of use.”
“By marrying me?” He glanced up, staring at her, dark eyes seeming to beg for clarification. Livy steeled herself. Those eyes would make a weaker woman reconsider the wisdom of constant exposure. But the woman she was today had been forged in the fire of ruin and quenched in scandal broth. She wasn’t likely to succumb to a handsome face and a pair of smoldering eyes.
Her own rising anger sent a jolt of strength through her. Livy smiled, knowing that her expression was too predatory for a proper female but unable to change it to something more demure. Devere sounded horrified at the idea of marrying her. Good enough to bed, but not good enough to wed. Not anymore, anyway. Her husband had been the one to commit a crime, but she was the one paying for it. If Souttar hadn’t died, she’d have been tempted to kill him herself.
“I remain a very good catch, you know,” she said, ruthlessly pressing on. “I’ve complete control of my dowry already, near fifty thousand pounds. And the earl intends to pass only the title and one small, entailed estate to the distant cousin who’s his heir. Everything else will come to me, even Holinshed Castle.”
Devere nodded, the muscles in his jaw popping out as he ground his teeth. “But,” Livy said, allowing her smile to soften, “I shan’t hold you to it. Give me the season, serve as my shield, and then we can go our separate ways.”
He looked grim, keen intelligence flaring behind his eyes. “A broken engagement will be the final nail in the coffin of your reputation.”
Livy nodded. “I’m counting on it. One more soupçon of scandal and my father will never again force me to accompany him to town. I can live out my days as I choose, mistress of my own destiny.”
“As long as you understand what you’re doing,” Devere said, his tone clearly implying that she didn’t. “When you give me my marching papers, you’ll hand over that damned letter?”
“Of course,” Livy said. “You’ll have earned it, believe me.”
A long-standing affection?” the Earl of Arlington said, not looking for a moment like he believed a word of it. The man’s brow furrowed, eyebrows pinched with doubt and something that looked like the beginning of annoyance.
“Yes, my lord,” Roland said, doing his best to appear earnest. It wasn’t his most practiced or natural expression, and it didn’t come easily. Especially when what he felt was a chaotic mix of excitement, dread, and anticipation. He might have been blackmailed into the role of Lady Olivia’s choosing, but it positioned him perfectly to carry out the bet he’d made with Vaughn and Thane. And the beauty of it was, she didn’t even see it.
Lady Olivia’s father, who couldn’t be more than a decade older than Roland was himself, simply stared back at him, looking unconvinced. The man must have married before he’d even reached his majority to have a daughter who was already nearly five-and-twenty.
Roland shook off a niggle of discomfiture. How far could he push things before the earl’s doubts flared into outright disbelief?
“I lost her once,” Roland said. “Not being an ideal candidate for the hand of an heiress, I didn’t fight for her as I should have, but I don’t mean to make such a mistake twice.”
“Meaning that you see yourself as more than fit to ask for her hand now that she’s damaged goods.” Roland held his breath as Arlington’s lips pressed into a thin, hard line. The earl wasn’t mincing words, and though he was a good deal younger than Roland’s own father, he was clearly every bit as used to having his own way. Privilege of being a peer. Their rarefied position in the world lent them all a certain arrogance regardless of their age.
“No, my lord. That’s not at all the light in which I see this, though I’ll admit that others might.” Roland leaned forward, holding his gaze steady, praying his argument was a convincing one. He’d had scant time to formulate it before being thrust into action and his head was starting to pound as last night’s debauch once again caught up with him. “Lady Olivia has done nothing wrong. She’s the wounded party, and I’d die to defend that fact.”
Arlington’s grimace softened. “Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that, Mr. Devere,” he said with a bit of a sigh as he settled back into his chair. “I had my way in her first marriage. I take full responsibility for the disaster that ensued. Seeing as I failed so miserably, I’m prepared to let Livy have her way now, and if you are her choice, so be it.”
“Thank you, my lord,” Roland said. The sensation of a heavy weight pressing down on him grew until he had to force himself to breathe. It was done.
He’d wanted her father to agree, needed the man to do so if he was to keep his side of the bargain, but now that the earl had done so, the responsibility of defending Lady Olivia from the ton fell to him. Something that felt almost like guilt washed through him. Roland shook it off. There wasn’t any room for guilt in the game he and Lady Olivia were playing.
“Don’t thank me yet,” Arlington said with a familiar, skeptical look in his eyes. “I think you might both regret your haste a few months hence.”
“You mean you think your daughter might come to see that she had better options than a younger son?”
“To be frank, yes, and also, you might find defending her exhausting. It eats at you, you know, watching someone you love being persecuted and knowing that you’re powerless to prevent it.”
The front door shut with a soft thump that would have gone unnoticed if Livy hadn’t been on tenterhooks waiting for her father’s summons. She let her breath out and spread her hands over her stomach to keep from being sick. Only the wall of her stays shored her up and kept her from wilting.
Her father had sent Devere away. Panic welled up, choking her as effectively as a pair of hands about her throat. If the earl had said yes, she’d have expected to be fetched down to receive his blessing. Her mouth went dry. Without Devere, she was at point non plus. Out of options, save for the unappetizing one of brazening her way through the season on her own, fending off advances—without causing yet another scandal—as best she could.
Livy stood up and forced herself to go downstairs and find her father. If he and Devere hadn’t come to blows, she could still salvage things. The earl had never been good at denying her something she really wanted.
She cracked the door to the earl’s study open and peeked in. Her father was standing at the window, shoulder braced against the painted sash, gazing out at the street. He turned as she entered, an expression of wry amusement on his face.
The tension drained out of her. Whatever had happened, he wasn’t angry.
“What are you up to, pet?” he said, leaning back against the windowsill. “I remember all your suitors, and Roland Devere was never among them.”
“A younger son?” Livy said, closing the door behind her. “Of course not. Peers of the Realm, and the heirs thereof. No one lower than heir to an earl made it into the lists, though there were several who would have liked to have done.”
The earl shook his head, clearly not appreciating her levity. “I’ve told Mr. Devere that I’ll allow you to have your way, but I wanted to talk to you privately before giving the match my blessing. Are you sure, Olivia? Really sure? There’ll be no taking it back once an announcement is made.”
Resentment of that simple truth warred with relief. “I’m sure, Papa. I know exactly what I want.” Or more to the point, she knew exactly what she didn’t want: a life spent paying for the sins of someone else.
For a moment, Livy thought she’d shown too much of her hand, but the earl’s expression altered as she watched and the moment passed. “I’ve no objection to Mr. Devere,” her father said, “but I should prefer if you waited a bit before making any kind of public declaration. Let the ton at least see him court you publicly for a few weeks at least.”
“Privately, you may consider yourself betrothed,” the earl said as he strode toward her, footsteps muffled by the thick Turkey carpets that were layered haphazardly over the floor. He gave her a quick hug and brushed his lips across her forehead. “I hope he makes you happy, darling.”
Roland plucked two glasses of wine from a passing footman’s tray and handed one to Lady Olivia with a slight obeisance. Lent was over, Parliament was back in session, and the ton had returned to London in force, ready for the Season and a few months of unabashed indulgence. His parents were among the first to throw open their doors, and their soiree was a perfect setting for Lady Olivia to reemerge.
One corner of Lady Olivia’s mouth curled into a smile as she accepted the glass. Her fingers slid along his. Desire jolted through him. He wanted to taste that mouth, to drink down every gasp and cry. And he had every intention of doing so at some point before the lady gave him his congé. Even if there wasn’t a bet to win, bedding Lady Olivia Carlow would have been irresistible.
She tipped her head back, drained the glass, and plucked the full one from his hand without so much as an apologetic glance. Roland chuckled as she took a dainty sip from his glass, batting her eyes at him as she did so. She knew full well that he truly had meant everything in the letter he’d sent. The game was afoot.
“Moubray House will be filled to the rafters in another hour,” she said, her gaze moving out over the crowd as the first strains of the opening minuet momentarily brought the cacophony down to a dull roar.
Lady Olivia’s tongue darted out to wet her lips. Roland’s pulse leapt as his heartbeat settled into his groin with an almost alarming ferocity. Behind her, the room was a sea of swirling, colorful silks and velvets. The familiar steps of the dance turned chaos into practiced order as if by magic.
“Would you like to join them?” Roland said as a footman took the empty glass from him and disappeared into the crowd. Anything to get his hands on her, even if it was only during the decorous steps of the minuet.
Lady Olivia shook her head, the jeweled pins set into her pale hair winking in the light, bringing life to her powdered coiffure. “Not just now,” she said, her intake of breath causing her breasts to swell high above the confines of her bodice. Roland stared at the creamy expanse of skin. How far down would he have to delve to find a nipple? He could almost swear there was a hint of rose areola peeking over the edge of the dark silk with every breath.
A low, throaty chuckle brought his attention up to her face with a snap.
“If you weren’t so dark,” she said, “I think I might be able to make out a blush.”
“Because you caught me taking in the scenery?” He raised his brows dismissively. Magnificent scenery it was, too, a fact of which she seemed all too cognizant.
“Because I caught you considering it as if it were yours, Mr. Devere. It’s not,” she said with a little shake of her head, “and it never will be. Shall we take a turn about the room?” She slipped her hand into the crook of his arm and pressed her magnificent bosom tightly against him as they wove through the crowd that milled about at the boundary of the dancers.
“Never?” Roland said, a grin pulling at his lips. “Are you quite sure of that, my lady?”
She glanced up at him, the blue of her eyes deepened by the kohl she’d smudged into her lashes. Roland fought the sensation of drowning. She held him there, captive in a private moment in the midst of the throng.
“Did you mistake the terms of our bargain?” Lady Olivia said, a cool hint of warning in her tone. She sipped her wine—his wine—then set the empty glass on a narrow, flower-strewn commode as they drifted past it.
“I don’t believe so.” Roland forced himself to look away and study the crowd as he led her toward some imaginary destination. “But I also don’t believe the terms are so cut and dried.”
The laugh that escaped before Livy could stop it turned heads all around them. The crowd seemed to step back, leaving the two of them on display in their own little tableau. Devere seemed oblivious to the room’s collective attention battering them like the waves of a storm. The air of anticipation made Livy’s head swim.
With an elegant bow, Devere settled her on one of the long, padded chaises that lined the walls of his parents’ ballroom. He claimed the seat beside her, flicking out the skirts of his coat with practiced ease. The sensation of dizziness grew stronger, and Livy took a deep breath, trying to shake it off. He was just a man. A man like any other.
“You believe there’s room for negotiation?” Livy said. Let him flirt all he liked. Truth be told, it was a pleasant change from the quiet life she’d led at her grandmother’s and the strained unpleasantness of her former husband’s house.
Devere smiled in response to her taunt, and Livy tapped her left cheek with her fan. His smile widened, and she could feel a responding flush rising on her cheeks. It would be so very easy to succumb.
“That’s a no that means yes, my lady.”
“That’s a no that means fetch me a drink, Mr. Devere,” she replied as she flicked her fan open. Dizzy, faint, flushed, she felt as though her skin might burn right through the layers of linen and silk that encased her. He looked at her as though she were a morsel on a plate. As though he could eat her in one bite. Swallow her whole.
“Your wish is my command,” Devere said. “I shall return momentarily.”
He stood and slipped into the crowd. Livy plied her fan a little more rapidly. Tonight he was every inch the gentleman, at least on the outside: hair formally dressed, its usual curl almost entirely tamed, wide shoulders encased in dark, subtly striped tobine, gloves and evening shoes lending him a polished air. But that smile was all pirate. Or all djinn, if she was to stick with the theme suggested by his quoting The Arabian Night’s Entertainment.
Devere glanced back over his shoulder, dark eyes filled with promise. Heat pooled in her belly and a sudden wave of longing coursed through her. Livy crammed it down, crushing it ruthlessly.
Roland Devere was a rake who’d made a reprehensible overture. Giving in to his blandishments and seductive glances was madness. Playing the jilt at Season’s end was going to put her beyond the pale as it was. Falling pregnant or being caught in flagrante delicto, however, would be mortifying to her father and would transform her false engagement into a real one instantly.
Scheherazade had woven tales to preserve her virtue from the sultan. Livy suddenly realized the comparison was not as apt as she might like. She was more likely to spend the Season concocting reasons to keep herself from presenting her virtue to Devere like a present on Boxing Day. The thrill that skittered up her spine when he touched her, however decorously, was dangerous. And even knowing the danger, she couldn’t prevent herself from glorying in the sensation.
Livy kept her chin up as several gentlemen eyed her as they passed. She knew them all. Mr. Gleeson. Lord William. Lord Medways. Their looks of open appraisement were exactly why she’d forced Devere into this charade.
Give any one of them so much as a smile and they’d interpret it as an open invitation. Deny them what they expected, what they wanted, and she risked them claiming to have enjoyed her favors out of spite. There was no way to win the game, only to refuse to play at all. And no way to refuse to play except to out-maneuver them from the beginning.
Devere stepped out of the crowd, wide shoulders blocking her from the three men’s view. Relief washed over her, the feeling almost more dangerous than simple lust. He wasn’t protecting her out of the goodness of his heart. She’d be wise to remember that.
Devere reclaimed his seat and handed her another glass of peppery burgundy. When she looked up, the men were gone, doves fleeing before a hawk.
“Let us return to the subject of negotiations.” Devere’s voice curled around her, seductive as a caress.
Livy sipped her wine, steeling herself for battle, and watched Devere over the rim of her glass. The terms were hers, and they were firm. They had to be.
Devere leaned in, close enough that she could feel his breath whisper hotly across her skin. Livy resisted the urge to retreat. If he thought for a moment he had her on the run, she’d never regain the ground she’d lost.
“Perhaps what I’m speaking of isn’t really a matter of negotiations,” he said, the words barely discernible above the din of the room. “It’s more a matter of a confession. I promised to defend you, to protect you, to squire you about and spend my days at your beck and call, but I never promised to behave like a eunuch while doing so.”
A thrill shot through her, and the wineglass tumbled out of Livy’s grasp, sending a shower of crimson liquid down her skirts. It wicked into the silk even as Devere cursed and yanked his handkerchief from his pocket.
“Rolly?” Devere’s sister, the comtesse de Corbeville, appeared before them, her mourning gown stark but fashionable in every small detail. “What kind of dolt gives a woman red wine to drink in a squeeze like this? I could swear I taught you better.” She sounded half disgusted but looked entirely amused, her dark eyes brimming with laughter.
“You did, dearest,” he said apologetically, ceasing to dab at the ruin of Livy’s skirts.
“Come along, Lady Olivia,” the comtesse said, a sly smile hovering about her lips. “Let us see what can be done to remedy the situation.”
Livy rose and Devere’s sister bore her off, pushing her way through the crowd as though her mother’s guests were nothing but chickens loose in the garden. She clearly expected them to make way, and they did, though the entire room seemed to follow their every step with rapt attention.
“Don’t worry,” the comtesse said as they ascended the stairs. “Paxton was with me at Versailles. She’s got worse than wine out of silk over the years, believe me.”
They reached the quiet refuge of the comtesse’s suite of rooms, and Livy found herself thrust down into a chair while a maid of indeterminate years frowned over the damage to her gown and then set to work with powders and brushes and chamois cloth.
Devere’s sister strolled over to her dressing table to fuss with her hair. She toyed with the curls of her fringe, primping them into place, and then turned her attention to adjusting the small silhouette that adorned her bodice. She caught Livy watching her, and her eyes sought Livy’s in the reflection. “Are you really going to marry my brother?”
Livy glanced at the maid, and the comtesse burst into laughter. “Paxton doesn’t speak a word of English.” Devere’s sister turned about and sat down on the delicate gilded bench beside the dressing table. “You and my brother put on quite the little show the other morning, but whatever was in that letter, it wasn’t a proposal. Rolly looked as sick as a horse when you handed it to him.”
Livy bit her lip and studied the comtesse. She was beautiful, but there was something almost brittle about her, and it wasn’t merely the severity of her mourning clothes. If anything, black suited her. It made her look like a Spanish noblewoman, darkly intriguing.
“Is it so hard to believe that your brother would ask me to be his wife?”
“It’s impossible to believe,” the comtesse said, though her tone wasn’t unkind. “Just as it’s impossible to believe you’d say yes if he did.” Devere’s sister held her tongue for a moment, waiting for an answer. When Livy remained silent, the comtesse smiled and shook her head. “Not going to admit it’s a sham? That’s fine, too. I wouldn’t either if I were playing a deep game.” She picked up a small glass bottle and applied the stopper to her throat. The faint scent of orange blossoms wafted across the room. “I shall simply have to watch and speculate. It should make for an interesting Season at the very least.”
The maid finished with her ministrations, and Devere’s sister came over to examine the results. “Bon!” she said. “Good as new. And now I shall return you to the ballroom, but not, I think, to Rolly. Let’s give him something—someone—to be jealous of, non?”
Making headway, are we?”
Roland turned to find Anthony Thane had appeared silently beside him, the sound of his approach masked by the din of the music and chatter that filled the room. The big man had a wry look of amusement on his face.
“More so than you.” Devere sipped his wine and continued to study the crowd, waiting for his sister and Lady Olivia to return. They’d been gone entirely too long for his liking. Lord only knew what Margo might say. His sister had always verged on the outrageous, and a decade at the French court certainly hadn’t done anything to change that. She’d been dubbed la folle Anglaise at Versailles—the mad Englishwoman—and she was still very much the same madcap.
Thane chuckled. “Should I cut you out, popinjay?”
Roland fought back the urge to warn his friend off. He’d find out soon enough that Lady Olivia wasn’t inclined toward a turn as a wanton widow. In the meantime, it might be entertaining to watch him try his luck.
“Feel free to make a fool of yourself, mountain. In fact, I’ll take myself off to the card room, leaving you a clear field, if you’ll promise to come and fetch me when you can no longer stand the pain of rejection.”
Thane’s brows rose, but he didn’t lose one iota of his smug confidence. And under normal circumstances, he might have stood a chance.
Roland’s mouth curled into a grin as he made his way to the card room. It almost felt like cheating, but Thane was more than overdue for a set-down. Bastard had the devil’s own luck with women and cards. Women tended to be impressed with Thane’s impressive height and his elegant demeanor. A tame beast. That was what his last ladybird had called him.
Inside the room the countess had dedicated to gentlemanly pursuits such as cards and smoking, Roland found a handful of his friends gathered round one table, some of them playing hazard while the others merely looked on.
“Mamma would have apoplexy if she knew you were dicing in her house.”
Dominic de Moulines grinned at him with boyish abandon, his teeth blindingly white against the dusky skin he’d inherited from his African mother. He rattled the dice in their box. “Then it is a good thing la chère comtesse won’t be coming in to verify that we’re playing decorously at whist, non?”
Roland shook his head at the Frenchman and claimed a spot beside him. De Moulines sent the dice tumbling down the table and there was a collective groan of annoyance as he won yet again.
Lord Leonidas Vaughn caught Roland’s eye. “I’ll bet you a guinea our chevalier can’t keep hold of the dice for another three goes.”
Roland met Vaughn’s gaze. There was a disreputable glint in his green one, and Roland had learned long ago to never trust the sincerity of the blue one.
“I think I’ve had enough of one-guinea bets this week,” Roland said, reaching for the decanter on the table and refilling his glass.
There was a collective, silent pause at the table before his friends burst into guffaws of laughter. One of the tables of whist players grumbled loudly while glaring at them.
“How are you progressing?” Lord Malcolm Reeves said when he’d regained the ability to speak. “You appear to have all your limbs intact, so I assume she didn’t show the letter to her father.”
Roland glared at his friends. “How could you have let me send such a letter?”
“You were unstoppable,” Vaughn replied.
“Dead-set,” Lord Malcolm added.
“I believe the phrase you used at the time was a slave to your muse,” de Moulines said, twisting the knife with obvious glee. “You were adamant that your poesy be sent immediately. There was no deterring you.”
“You could have stopped me,” Roland protested.
Vaughn smiled, pleasure and amusement leaking out of every pore. “Isn’t our pledge to aid and abet one another in our endeavors?”
Margo propelled Lady Olivia back into the ballroom with one hand at the small of her back. They were nearly of a height, but there was something about the girl that made Margo think of her as delicate, as younger than she actually was. With her big blue eyes and heart-shaped face, she looked like a child, or, more accurately, like a child’s expensive doll.
If Lady Olivia wanted to survive the season and whatever game she and Rolly were playing, then Lady Olivia was going to have to set the tune. If the girl let Rolly get away with doing so, it would be disastrous. Margo sighed as the girl’s expression hardened when the swirl of guests swallowed them up. What was her family thinking? She wasn’t ready to face down the ton. Not by a long shot.
“Let me see,” Margo said, surveying the room, one finger at her lips. She needed just the right candidate. Her perusal stopped as Anthony Thane nodded to her. Margo smiled back, but shook her head no. Thane was tall, imperious, handsome in a rough sort of way, but he wouldn’t make Rolly the least bit jealous. They were too good friends for that.
Thane put his hand over his heart as though shot, and Margo burst into laughter. The man she’d known when she made her come-out hadn’t had a humorous bone in his body. He’d changed while she’d been gone. Well, if the truth be told, so had she.
“Come away, my dear,” Margo commanded, pushing her charge forward into the crowd. “Mr. Thane won’t do at all for our purposes. Well,” she added, glancing back at him through the crowd, “he might do for mine, but not for yours. We need someone a little grander than Thane to torture Rolly with.”
Lady Olivia stared at her, looking slightly thunderstruck.
“Have I’ve shocked you?” Margo said with a sigh, cursing her blithe tongue. “Sometimes I forget how English the English can be.”
“But—but you’re English,” Lady Olivia said, a hesitant smile that looked to be half confusion pulling at her lips.
Margo made a dismissive gesture with one hand. “I was English,” she said, steering the girl firmly past one of her own hopeful-looking swains. “Stay away from Lord Omsbatch.”
“You just smiled at him.”
Margo stopped and turned to face her brother’s supposed bride. “What I might do is very different from what you should do, Lady Olivia. After the life I led in France, and the roué I married, no one really expects me to play the grieving, saintly widow. Etienne’s death is generally thought to have been a relief, though most people aren’t rude enough to say so to my face. You, on the other hand, are balanced upon a knife’s edge. Smile at Lord Omsbatch, and you’ll fall one way. Turn up your nose, and you’ll at least maintain your precarious position.”
Lady Olivia opened her mouth to protest, but nothing came out. She licked her lips. “And if I marry your brother?”
Margo broke into a grin of pure amusement. “If I thought for a moment that you were going to commit such folly, I’d throw you at Lord Omsbatch without hesitation. He’s not a very nice man, but at least he has the title and fortune to resurrect your standing in society.”
“And you think that’s what I want?” Lady Olivia sucked in a sharp breath and caught her lips between her teeth.
Margo stared the girl down. “No, I’m fairly certain that it isn’t. That’s what worries me—”
“Livy, dear, there you are.” The Earl of Arlington’s greeting cut Margo off, and his daughter sighed with obvious relief. “Hello, Papa.” Lady Olivia offered her cheek to her father, and the earl kissed it. “Done fleecing your friends at cards?”
“Impudent brat,” the earl said with an indulgent smile. “Madame de Corbeville, isn’t it? I think you were younger than my daughter when I last saw you.”
“I think you must be right, my lord. Though it makes me feel ancient to own it.” Margo found herself staring at the man. She certainly had been much younger, so much so, in fact, that she remembered Lord Arlington as being old, and he was nothing of the kind. Chagrin flooded through her.
“Fishing for compliments?” the earl responded with a lively, teasing look. Instead of lines of dissipation, Arlington had laugh lines etched into his face, and his eyes were every bit as blue as his daughter’s. Ridiculously, Margo’s heartbeat wavered and then ticked upward.
“Were you ready to go, Papa?” Lady Olivia said, a proprietary hand on her father’s arm.
“So early?” Margo said, even as the earl said, “No, darling, I just couldn’t seem to find you earlier.”
“Nothing to worry about,” Lady Olivia said, glancing uneasily between them. “Just a little mishap with a glass of wine.”
The sudden awkwardness of the moment was shattered by the appearance of Anthony Thane. He greeted them all with a very elegant bow. “Lady Olivia, I was hoping for the honor of a dance. My lord, with your permission?”
Lord Arlington nodded and waved them off. Thane swept Lady Olivia out into the sea of dancers. “And you, my lady,” the earl said, holding out his hand to her, “perhaps we could—not dance, obviously—take a turn about the room, and you could tell me the latest news from Versailles.”
Livy glanced back over her shoulder. Her father and Devere’s sister were flirting. And at the moment, they looked as though they were unaware anyone else in the room even existed. She’d never seen her father look at a woman that way. In fact, she’d never seen her father look at a woman period. Somehow, it had never occurred to her that he might.
Livy swiveled her head about again as she and Thane slid into the set that was already underway. Her father and the comtesse were gone, lost in the crowd. Feeling a bit at sea, Livy forced her attention back to her partner and the dance.
A woman several couples up the line glared down at Livy, her face pinched and haughty. Lady Pearson. They’d been friends before and during Livy’s marriage, or so Livy had thought. After a whispered conversation and a long, pointed stare, Lady Pearson and her partner stepped out of the set.
Anger snapped through Livy, bringing her chin up. Her head began to throb, a sharp stab behind her left eye. Livy shook off the pain. She had every right to be here. She’d been invited just as they had, and she’d not done anything wrong. Not once in her life had she taken a misstep that was worthy of even mild reproach, let alone banishment. At least not until a couple of days ago…
She circled palm to palm with Thane, and he bent to whisper, “Don’t pay them any mind.”
Livy forced herself to smile and pretend that such a snub didn’t smart, that having her partner notice didn’t make it infinitely worse. This was only the beginning. Engaged to Devere or not, there were surely plenty more slights to come in the next few months. He could keep the gentlemen at bay, but nothing could prevent the ladies of the ton from treating her poorly. And clearly previous friendship wasn’t going to save her either. Did Lady Pearson think Livy’s disgrace was catching?
“Thank you, sir, I won’t,” she said on the next pass, forcing the words out as she pinned a smile to her face.
Thane led her through the steps with surprising grace. She’d expected a certain roughness based on his size alone. There didn’t appear to be an ounce of fat on him, but he was almost intimidatingly large. Devere topped her by a good six inches. She barely reached Thane’s shoulder.
They were only halfway up the line when the music came to an end, the violins stretching out the final notes long after the other instruments had fallen silent. As Livy rose from the prescribed curtsy, Thane retained her hand, placing it securely on his arm. “Would you like a drink, my lady?”
Livy nodded. “More than anything,” she said with a laugh. “Is there champagne?”
“If we can’t find a footman with champagne, we can form a raiding party and procure some. I happen to be more than familiar with the cellars.” He stood to his full height and glanced about the room. “I don’t see a single suit of Moubray livery in circulation. Let’s try our luck in the drawing room. They wouldn’t dare leave the dowagers unattended.”
Thane reappeared in the card room looking entirely too pleased for Roland’s liking. “I left her with your mother in the drawing room,” Thane said as he filled a glass of brandy for himself and cast a jaded eye over the table.
With the same self-satisfied expression still plastered on his face, Thane strolled away to join a knot of older Whigs who were in heated discussion beside the fireplace.
Roland tossed back the contents of his own glass and nodded to the table. His friends grinned back. Bastards, every one. They were enjoying this far too much. If they discovered that he was firmly under Lady Olivia’s thumb, there’d be no living it down.
He discovered the supper dance underway as he went in search of Lady Olivia. Hungry guests were already heading toward the dining room. Roland pushed past them, feeling like a salmon heading upstream.
Lady Olivia was exactly where Thane had left her, sitting on a settee beside Lady Moubray, with the Duchess of Devonshire, the duchess’s sister Lady Duncannon, and Lady Melbourne finishing out the circle. A beautiful trio, composed of some of the most scandalous—and powerful—women in the ton.
Excerpted from Ripe for Seduction by Isobel Carr Copyright © 2012 by Isobel Carr. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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