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By Ann Elizabeth Cree
Thorndike PressCopyright © 2003 Ann Elizabeth Cree
All right reserved.
Chapter OneSussex, July 1813
He never would have anticipated that the means for his revenge would come through his wife. But when he saw how Justin Everard, the young Marquis of Wroth, looked at Isabelle, the sudden admiration in his eye, the way his gaze frequently fell on her during the interminable dinners, he knew he had found his tool. He would destroy Wroth, and with that destruction bring about the destruction of Wroth's father, the Duke of Westmore. And then his own father's death would be avenged at last.
He had made his plans carefully. The two-week house party had proved perfect. He had thrown Isabelle in Wroth's way as frequently as possible, appealing to her disgustingly sweet nature to befriend him. With satisfaction, he had watched Wroth become more enamoured with his wife each day. But, despite Wroth's reputation, he made no move to actually seduce Isabelle, instead treating her with a protective chivalry which set his teeth on edge. For he needed an excuse to call Wroth out. To his fury, he realised his wife was succumbing to Wroth's charm. There was nothing overt in her behaviour, for after two years of marriage she was still too prudish, too rigidly moral to ever display an illicit passion. If anything, she was undoubtedly horrified at her lapse.
He did not love Isabelle. He had married her because, as Baron Allingham's only child, she had brought to the marriage a generous portion. And in two years, on her twenty-fourth birthday, she would inherit a sizeable fortune from her grandmother.
He had married her as well because he desperately wanted an heir but, despite her lovely body with its supple curves and his persistent efforts, she had failed him. Her barrenness only made him despise her more. But she belonged to him and he could not let her go unpunished.
So the plan he had devised would destroy not only Wroth, but humiliate and chastise Isabelle as well.
The knock on the door startled Belle. She had crept upstairs early as she had every night since arriving at Greystone nearly a fortnight ago. The other female guests of Sir Farley Greystone were too busy with their cards and gossip and lovers to notice or care if she left.
She rose from the edge of the bed, her heart thudding. She unlocked the door and opened it. Eliza Pomeroy, her husband's current mistress, stood on the other side. "Your husband wants you below," Eliza said without preamble.
Belle stared at her, her stomach taking a sickening turn. "But why? Is he still not at play?" She could not imagine what he could possibly want.
Eliza looked at her, and her expression was not unkind. "Yes, and he wants you there. I think you had best go straight away. He is not in a pleasant mood."
But then Lucien rarely was, except when it served a purpose. And since she had served her purpose when he married her, she rarely saw the charm he could turn on at will. She followed Eliza down the hallway and down the winding staircase to the floor below. To her bewilderment, Eliza led her to the small saloon where there always seemed to be a card game in progress. She stepped inside the dimly lit room, its stale, rancid scent of smoke, sweat and alcohol assailing her senses. Confused, she saw several men still sitting around one of the small tables. She looked away, embarrassed to be there.
Lucien rose in a fluid motion that was rarely impaired by drink. He had removed his coat and his elegant waistcoat was rumpled. He came to her side, smelling of brandy. "Ah, my lovely wife." His eyes glittered down at her with an odd sort of excitement.
She suppressed the shiver that darted through her and forced herself to look at him and speak calmly. "Mrs Pomeroy said that you wished to see me."
"Yes. I do." His mouth curved in a cruel smile. He caught her wrist in a hard grip and pulled her around so she was forced to face the others. "My wife, gentlemen. And my next stake."
She froze. She heard Sir Farley say, "Damn it, Mil-borne. It's one thing to wager your doxy, but your wife. Not at all the thing."
Lucien's grip tightened on her wrist. He laughed. "Why not? I've nothing else left. She is my possession, even more so than any man's doxy. So, who will cover?"
"You are mad." Lord Wroth spoke. Belle's head jerked up. She had not known he was there. For an instant his eyes met hers, but there was none of the warmth and laughter that had lurked there since she had arrived at this hellish house party.
She looked away, humiliated and ashamed beyond belief. "Lucien, please do not do this," she said softly.
He didn't glance at her, his fingers only dug into her arm more, his gaze fixed on Wroth. "So, what do you wish to wager for a week with my wife?"
"What do you want?" Wroth asked.
Her stomach turned even more sickeningly. He couldn't possibly be considering Lucien's offer.
"Five hundred pounds," Lucien said.
"One thousand," Lord Banbury said. His gaze went to her face and fear shot through her. He was thin and had a pallor that seemed unnatural and the whispers she had heard of his sexual proclivities had sickened her.
"Two thousand," Wroth said. His voice was so cold she hardly recognised it.
"Very well. Two thousand." Lucien laughed again. He released her so abruptly, she nearly stumbled. With a numb horror she watched him take his seat.
Her eyes never wavered from the game but she hardly knew what took place. Her mind and body no longer seemed connected and when the last of the cards were played, it hardly registered. Not until Lucien stood. "She is yours, Wroth."
Shock coursed through her. "No," she whispered.
Wroth rose and came towards her. "Come with me, Belle."
She backed away. "No. I cannot."
"You must come with me. You cannot stay here."
She stared at him. "I will not do this."
Lucien was at her side. "You have no choice, Belle." He glanced at Wroth. "Leave us for a moment." He took her arm and dragged her from the room to the hallway.
His eyes glinted. "Do not worry, my dear. It will not be a permanent arrangement. Just a week." He cupped her chin, his fingers hard against her flesh. She kept perfectly still. "Although I've no idea why you find the idea so repugnant. I have seen how he looks at you, and how you look at him. I only trust you will show more willingness in his bed than you do in mine, or I doubt he will feel you are worth two thousand pounds. On the other hand, he may enjoy tutoring you. I will own, I've not much patience for blushing virgins. I had thought at your age you might prove a more adept student, but I was wrong. At least you've no fear of his getting you with child."
His cruelty still managed to pierce her like a sword. She resisted the urge to beg for she knew it would only inflame him more.
Excerpted from Duke's Mistress by Ann Elizabeth Cree Copyright © 2003 by Ann Elizabeth Cree.
Excerpted by permission.
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