Lady Clarissa has decided to live life on her terms. After the end of a ten-year betrothal, she wants nothing to do with marriage or the men of the ton. Least of all her friend’s brother, the very charming Lord Markham, or Hearts, as many ladies call the oh-so-handsome earl.
Markham pursues relationships with no ties that bind. Acting the rake leaves everyone satisfied...until he overhears a wager that could lead to Clarissa’s ruin. He can’t help but step in and claim she’s his intended bride.
Clarissa is appalled. She did not need to be saved. Reluctantly, she agrees to the fake courtship, if only to experience what the rakish Markham can offer. But when lust becomes love, Clarissa must make up her own terms and bet it all on Hearts.
Each book in the Lords of Chance series is STANDALONE:
* Scandal in Spades
* Heart’s Desire
* Diamond in the Rogue
About the Author
Wendy LaCapra has been reading romance since she sneaked into the adult section at the library and discovered Victoria Holt and Jane Aiken Hodge. From that point on, she dreamed of creating fictional worlds with richness, intrigue, and passion. Her stories have placed in several contests, including the 2012 Golden Heart® and her debut series, a trilogy about three Ladies who refuse to play by Society’s rules, was released by Entangled Scandalous. She lives in NYC with her husband and loves to hear from readers.
For new release information, join Wendy’s Newsletter: http://bit.ly/GetWendyNews
Read an Excerpt
Percival Stanley, the fifth Earl of Markham, discerned the faint scents of rose, jasmine, and lavender in the sweat-thickened air of Lady Darlington's ballroom. Any soiree given by the Duke of Shepthorpe's eldest daughter was bound to be a crush; this one was no exception.
Silks rustled, candlelight flickered, and laughter harmonized with strains of violin music, tempting those inclined to dance. Markham's yearning to step into the joyous fray hovered on the edge of his senses like a kiss denied.
Five years past, his father's death had left him grieving and indebted. Since then, he'd summoned his inner resources, and, with quiet perseverance, slowly improved his family's circumstance.
Now, his estate ledgers' mind-numbing jumble of red numbers had transformed into neat lines of blessed black. When Parliament was in session, instead of feeling daunted by the great, domed arches of Westminster Palace's Lesser Hall, he strode confidently to his seat in the House of Lords. And, just last week, the Lord of the Treasury had even asked him for his advice.
Markham turned fond eyes to each of his two sisters — their lives had improved as well.
His older sister Katherine, once deemed by Brummell to be the most unmarriageable lady in England, was now happily wed to the powerful Marquess of Bromton. And his younger sister, Julia — vexing though she could be — had been introduced to the ton last Season and subsequently crowned a diamond of the first water.
All was well that ended well.
Although — Markham rubbed the back of his neck as he shifted his sheepish glance back to Katherine — that summary skimmed over some thornier facts.
For instance, Markham had persuaded Bromton to woo Katherine after Markham won Bromton's estates in a high stakes card game. And, although Markham had specified Katherine must wholeheartedly agree to the match, Katherine had been mortified when she found out what he'd done. What was more, his meddling had indirectly exposed Julia to the attentions of Lord Rayne, a rake and former friend.
So, even though Markham's sisters thrived — Katherine was an object of envy, and Rayne had fled the country, ensuring Julia's secret remained intact — their good fortune did not make him any less culpable for placing them — the most important people in his life and the only family he had left — at risk of scandal and humiliation.
He needed to do better. Be better.
He was not only an earl, he was head of the Stanley family. Which meant he must soon begin the search for a suitable bride, and forever put aside the more tempting pleasures of Town for a staid, practical marriage.
The wealthy widow Mrs. Sartin passed by in a cloud of citrus scent, glancing in his direction and favoring him with a sultry smile.
He nearly groaned.
Surely, he could experience a Season of indulgence before squeezing himself the rest of the way down duty's narrow crevasse?
So he'd been a bit imprudent in the past. What he needed was a set of rules to rein in his more reckless impulses. Rules such as: no lightly given trust, no informal address, no gambling, no wagers, and ... Too complicated.
An ironclad, easily recalled motto would be much more the thing. Something pithy and balanced, like ...
No mess. No excess.
Yes. The phrase was near Benedictine in its simplicity. Although embracing monastic living was definitely not part of his plan.
He returned Mrs. Sartin's intimate smile, making sure to fill his expression with the promise of sensual satisfaction.
The widow embodied everything he could wish for in a lover. Though older, she was lovely, and, as for discretion, they'd already had two liaisons last Season with no one the wiser. She was wealthy, poised, and utterly uninterested in a long-term arrangement.
No mess. As for excess ...?
Well, Mrs. Sartin was rather excessive — in all the best ways. She was a lady who understood — and indulged — her pleasure ... pleasure he would be more than happy to oblige.
Mrs. Sartin, speaking through a series of silent fan motions, suggested they meet on Lady Darlington's terrace.
Cautiously, Markham scanned the room. Julia remained by the refreshment table, thoroughly occupied with her friend, Lady Horatia. Not much farther away, Katherine kept sisterly watch, flanked by three of her friends, including Lady Horatia's sister and their hostess for the evening, Lady Darlington.
The ladies had everything in hand. No one would miss him for a moment or two.
He answered Mrs. Sartin with a slight inclination of his head. She moved toward the doors in the back of the room, her deep blue gown catching the light as a rare white peacock feather bobbed from her silvery turban.
He waited an appropriate amount of time, thinking of the different kinds of sighs he could coax with that feather. Then, he headed for a different door to the terrace — one located at the end of the corridor just off Lady Darlington's entry hall.
As he passed through the crowd, his gaze accidently landed on Lady Clarissa Laithe — one of Katherine's dearest confidants, sister to the rake who had almost ruined Julia, and Markham's self-appointed, overly enthusiastic castigator.
While Clarissa extended warmth and frequent smiles to everyone else in his circle, for him, she had only scowls. And tonight, her light eyes were, as usual, drenched with disappointed disapproval.
She cocked a delicately arched black brow as if to say — even I did not think you could sink so low.
His gut pierced with a familiar pain of being lanced. Not that he ever intended to reveal how she affected him.
Instead, he flashed his most raffish grin — Didn't you? You have no idea.
Her mouth fell into a pout, and she looked away. He thrilled with a peevish sort of triumph. That scowl made one hundred and fifty.
Markham hadn't any idea why she balled up her ire and cannoned deadly spheres of wrath solely in his direction. However, if he had not decided to make a game out of goading — then counting — her discharges, he might have been more seriously hurt by the frequency of her unerring aim.
And surely, he was close to reaching some kind of universal record, and loathing was better than indifference.
He frowned. Isn't it?
With an intentional shrug, he refocused on his current mission. Clarissa's opinion of him was none of his concern. He was unattached for now, and happily so. And, if he was discreet, respectful, responsible, and kept to his new motto, he could have a marvelous Season without having to justify his actions to anyone.
Anticipating a more receptive welcome from Mrs. Sartin, he slipped outside.
Light rain glowed in the light spilling out from the ballroom. Droplets misted against his cheeks as he strode across the terrace.
"Markham, darling," — Mrs. Sartin took his arm and then led him into a shadowed shelter — "I thought you'd never come."
"Of course I came." He rested his hand on the trellis behind her and pressed his lips against her ear. "I live to oblige, don't you know?"
"I remember." She made an appreciative sound. "Hearts" — her gloved hand crept up his arm — "you were aptly named."
Though he'd once appreciated being grouped with the older and more polished Lords Bromton (Spades), Farring (Clubs) and Rayne (Diamonds), he'd tired of the card-suit moniker bestowed on him.
"Hearts seems rather silly, don't you think?"
"Silly?" A blond curl that had escaped her turban bounced as she shook her head no. "I heard you earned the name because of your ease attracting women. Have you ever considered what lies behind that ease?"
He had not.
"Satisfaction, darling. And satisfaction is never a silly matter. Not for women, anyway."
"Well." His smile sounded in his voice. "I'd be happy to know I've satisfied you."
"You know you have. You've no idea how few men place their lover first." Her sigh mixed gratitude with breathless anticipation.
"Why, when Emily recommended you —"
"Emily?" he interrupted. "Do you mean Mrs. Whitehold?"
Mrs. Sartin nodded. "Emily ... Mabell ... Constance ... They all gave you high marks. They said you were attentive, open to the unusual, willing to —"
"A moment, please." He stopped any further revelations with a finger to her lips and swallowed roughly, thinking of his former lovers. "Do you know Mrs. Whitehold, Lady Batsford and Lady Constance well enough to use their Christian names?"
"I do." She patted his arm. "Although we find your insistence on observing correct address charming."
The terrible blush that had always been his blight crept into his cheeks.
"Markham, darling, do not expect me to believe your friends do not talk." She paused. "Well, perhaps not Spades. I can see Bromton being discreet. He is married to your sister, after all. But Clubs? That smile of Lord Farring's is too wide not to be hiding devilish secrets. And Diamonds?" She made a dismissive sound. "Everyone knows Lord Rayne is an absolute rogue, especially in bed. Why, a few minutes alone with the man would be enough to ruin an inno —"
"Please, Mrs. Sartin."
Damnation — his voice had been too harsh. Mrs. Sartin had no way of knowing about Julia and Rayne. But that wasn't his anger's only source. Up until this moment, he hadn't realized how she'd seen him.
He'd assumed the name Hearts implied an appealing nature. But Mrs. Sartin described something entirely different — the kind of man who treated intimacy as sport.
Is she wrong?
He had gone out of his way to pleasure older, single lovers. He'd made it a point of pride to always show said lovers respect, and to make certain they were completely satisfied. They had promised him nothing, and he had returned the favor.
But somehow, he'd missed the main, the crux. Respect, politeness, and discretion aside, these interactions ... they'd been exclusively about pleasure.
Which meant — devil take it — he was a rake.
His blush deepened to brushfire.
He loathed rakes.
A rake had wooed Katherine, then broken their engagement, which had led to her long banishment from Society. Another rake had nearly inflicted the same fate on Julia.
"Markham, come back to me," Mrs. Sartin coaxed. "If we ladies do not talk, how are we supposed to learn which men to engage and which to avoid?"
He blinked. "I hadn't considered the inherent dangers a lady might face when choosing a ... a particular friend."
"Men rarely do. And that's the problem, isn't it?"
He shifted uncomfortably. If Mrs. Sartin and her friends shared their experiences, their sharing could not have equal import to a man's excessive boasting. How else were they to protect one another?
"I apologize." He took Mrs. Sartin's hand in his. "I've enjoyed our liaisons, I hold you in the highest regard, and —"
"Then let us abandon this discussion, sneak over into your garden, and then up into your bedchamber."
He cleared his throat. "I'm afraid I must decline."
She withdrew her hand. "But why?"
He tousled his fingers through his now damp hair. "I hadn't realized ... I mean, I never intended to cultivate the reputation of a rake. And, no matter how tempted, I am determined to take more care."
She harrumphed. "Your entire generation is too preoccupied with these things."
"Darling, my heir is older than you."
"Right," he said, shamefaced.
"Now you have an attack of conscience! Do you know how difficult it is to find a respectful, skilled man incapable of forming the kind of attachment that leads one to lose one's head?"
Inwardly, he cringed, though he could not argue. That had been his aim, after all.
No mess. No excess.
But he certainly wasn't incapable of forming an attachment. He kept sentiment confined by design — not that he was about to reveal such a private part of his character or the painful reasons why.
He sighed and touched Mrs. Sartin's cheek. She was so very beautiful. He found all warmhearted women beautiful, each in their own way.
Like his father, he had a weakness for women.
His "noble" impulse to save Katherine had almost destroyed his sisters. How much more destructive would his distorted knight errant inclinations be if he unleashed them on someone he loved in a romantic sense? Surely, he would end up devastating himself as well as the object of his affection.
Just as his father had his mother.
His anger petered out into an immolating throb.
"I haven't pursued an attachment." For everyone's good, including his own.
"And why should you? You have everything for which a young man could wish. Your talents have made several ladies happy, all of us too wealthy in our own right to require carte blanche."
And now what he'd considered carefree truly sounded sordid.
"I must go." He gentled his voice. "But let us not part in anger."
She lifted her brows and inhaled, resigned. "Are you sure you will not change your mind?"
"I am sorry, Mrs. Sartin." He looked into her eyes. "Will you allow me to kiss your hand and thank you for the lovely times we had together?"
"Very well." She gave him her hand.
He kissed her glove. "I thank you for your honesty."
She gazed longingly at the place where he'd pressed his lips. "Must you be so tiresome?"
"I am afraid I must." He adjusted his waistcoat. "Would you like to return first, or shall I?"
She groaned. "You go. A bit of cool air won't hurt me."
Despite himself, he smiled. "Good night, Mrs. Sartin."
"Good night, Lord Markham."
He headed toward the door to a corridor that led to the entry hall, willing away the urge to spit. The whole conversation had left a foul taste in his mouth.
How had he become a rake and not noticed?
Clarissa's coolly dismissive gaze — number one hundred and fifty — materialized in his mind — you finally understand what I have always known.
If he saw her now, he'd find no triumph in provoking another scowl.
He wouldn't even return to the soiree, except that prudence dictated that he be seen again. He grasped the door handle, pulled, and — oomph.
He recognized Clarissa's absorbing scent at once — jasmine. Not light and feminine, but thick with musky undertones, and yet still achingly sweet.
The mystifying minx forever chastising him tangled in his arms as if she'd leaped directly from his thoughts ... and the approximated embrace left him frozen. Her lithe, athletic form contrasted with the fey-like softness of her ample breasts — a contrast he suddenly longed to explore and to savor.
He'd left the terrace angry and hurt and frustrated — those feelings vanished.
Holding Clarissa was like holding a favored recollection, a memory that restored. Even more perplexing?
He did not want to let her go.
* * *
A few moments ago, Clarissa had chosen to eavesdrop, fully understanding that, if caught, she'd suffer embarrassment.
She hadn't understood her peril.
Embarrassment was tripping on one's petticoat, missing a crumb at the corner of one's mouth. Crushing her nemesis's cravat with a rouge-darkened cheek and leaving behind a bright pink imprint on his starched linen shirt wasn't mere embarrassment.
It was complete humiliation.
She'd attempted to avoid the collision by ducking into the adjacent servants' stair, but Markham had been moving with uncharacteristic singleness of purpose, and she hadn't time to avoid his chest.
His uncommonly broad chest.
A chest with a cheek-sized valley conveniently situated over his rapidly beating heart.
The edge of his collar tickled her nose. She sniffed and was engulfed by his scent. Spicy and dark ... rather like tea. The richly steeped kind that lingered on the tongue, hot and tart.
Warming from the inside out.
Just like she was warming right now.
She jerked back, pinched her lips, and glanced up. His pupils were still wide from the darkness outside. Rain had dampened his amber hair into the color of newly fired brick. Much to her dismay, those dimples that never ceased to raise her ire failed to appear.
He exhaled harshly. "One hundred and fifty-one."
He shook his head involuntarily. A rain droplet transferred to her cheek.
"Never mind." He released his grip on her elbow, and the room swayed, absent his sturdy support.
She stepped toward him, and he stepped back.
Did he find her that abhorrent?(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Heart's Desire"
Copyright © 2019 Wendy LaCapra.
Excerpted by permission of Entangled Publishing, LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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