Shy, bookish Sophie Brightwell is expected to make an advantageous match to improve her family's fortunes. However, Sophie's plans to make a spectacular debut go horribly awry when she and her three closest friends are expelled from a young ladies' academy for unbecoming conduct. Since the ton will be sure to close their doors on these disgraced debutantes, they determine that unconventional means need to be employed in the husband-hunting market. Rakehells—the beau monde's wickedest members—might be the only men willing to overlook a young lady's besmirched reputation.
But how does one catch a rake?
Nate Hastings, the devil-may-care Viscount Malverne, is the older brother of Sophie’s best friend, fellow disgraced debutante Lady Charlotte. When a terribly foxed Nate accidentally compromises Sophie, Charlotte strikes a wicked bargain: in order to avoid a scandal and the parson's mousetrap, Nate must help Sophie snare a husband. But as Nate fulfills his obligation and begins to instruct the lovely Sophie in the art of luring rakes, he soon finds himself battling his own fierce attraction to her.
About the Author
A former speech pathologist, Amy is happily married to her very own romantic hero and has two lovely, very accomplished adult daughters. When she’s not creating stories, Amy loves to cook up a storm in the kitchen, lose herself in a good book or a witty rom-com, and when she can afford it, travel to all the places she writes about.
Read an Excerpt
***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected copy proof***
Copyright © 2019 Amy Rose Bennett
Disreputable debutantes in the making!
A shocking scandal of epic proportions at a certain London school for
‘Young Ladies of Good Character’ shakes the ton.
Does your genteel daughter attend such a den of iniquity? Read on to discover ten things one should consider when choosing a reputable academy...
The Town and Ton Tatler: The Society Page
Mrs. Rathbone’s Academy for Young Ladies of Good Character, Chelsea, London.
Midnight, 1st February 1815
“Heavens. Take care, Charlie.” Sophie Brightwell winced as her friend entered her bedroom and carelessly pushed the door shut with her slippered foot. The resultant bang was decidedly too loud in the relative silence of the dormitory wing of the Chelsea townhouse. “You’ll wake Mrs. Rathbone for sure. If she finds out what we’re up to...” Sophie couldn’t suppress a shiver.
Lady Charlotte Hastings—or Charlie to her friends—threw her a disarming smile as she deposited a band box of contraband and a battered leather satchel on the end of the single bed. “Don’t worry so, darling Sophie,” she said as she untied the black satin ribbon securing the box’s lid with a flourish. “I just passed her bedchamber and she was snoring like a hold full of drunken sailors.”
Arabella Jardine, who was perched on the edge of a bedside armchair, pushed her honey gold curls behind her ears then smoothed her robe over her nightrail. “Aye, ‘tis true, Sophie,” she agreed in her soft Scots burr. “I suspect she’s been into the sherry again.”
Sophie pressed her lips together to suppress a small sigh. Even though she loved Charlie like a sister, the earl’s daughter didn’t have as much to lose as she did, or indeed their other two partners in crime this night—Arabella Jardine and Olivia de Vere—if they were caught flouting the young ladies’ academy’s strict rules. So whilst it was quite true that Mrs. Agatha Rathbone, the apparently upstanding, middle-aged headmistress of her eponymously named boarding school was fond of a tipple—or ten—on Friday evenings, and nothing short of an earthquake or a herd of rampaging elephants was likely to rouse her, Sophie was still anxious about the whole idea of a midnight gathering—especially given the fact it was occurring in the room she shared with Olivia.
Sophie’s pulse leapt once more as the door opened again, this time admitting her roommate bearing a tray of mismatched china teacups.
“Ah, perfect timing, Miss de Vere,” Charlie remarked as she lifted two dark glass bottles from the band box and brandished them in the air. “So what poison will you choose, my lovelies?” she asked, her topaz-brown eyes dancing with merriment. “French brandy or sloe gin?”
Olivia carefully placed the tray on the cherrywood bedside table then tossed her dark braid over one slender shoulder. “Wh-what do you r-recommend? I h-haven’t tried either one.” Her manner of speech was an unusual combination of the lyrical and the discordant, her tone low and melodious with an appealing smokiness. Yet it was her stammer that drew attention; Sophie knew it tended to emerge when Olivia was nervous or extremely fatigued.
“My grandfather let me try a wee sherry at Christmas,” added Arabella. “But I’ve never tasted brandy or gin.”
“Hmm. The brandy is probably a little smoother for non-seasoned drinkers. Perhaps we should all begin with that.” Charlie turned her bright gaze on Sophie. “Wouldn’t you agree?”
“Yes.” A burst of curiosity overcoming her trepidation, Sophie leaned across the quilted counterpane to examine the jumbled contents of the box. “So, what else have you smuggled in here?”
An enigmatic smile tugged at the corner of Charlie’s mouth. “Oh, this and that,” she said as she passed the bottle of brandy to Olivia to dispense. “All will be revealed after we raise our glasses—or I should say cups?—in a toast.”
“A toast to what?” Arabella asked as she took her brimming teacup from Olivia. Beneath her gold-rimmed glasses, her pretty nose wrinkled when she sniffed at the amber liquid. “You are being altogether too mysterious, Charlie.”
“To us, of course. And our new society.”
Sophie arched an eyebrow. “And does this society have a name?”
“It certainly does.” Charlie handed a teacup to Sophie then beamed as she added, “Right, my darling girls. From this night on, we four shall henceforth be known as The Society for Enlightened Young Women; a society which will aim to provide its members with a stimulating education in all manner of worldly matters not included in this academy’s current curriculum. Such knowledge will, of course, be invaluable when each of us leaves here and is subsequently obliged to embark on a quest to secure an advantageous match during the coming Season. And as we all know how cutthroat the marriage mart can be, I, as head monitor, feel it is my incumbent duty to begin your supplementary tutelage sooner rather than later.” Her gaze touched each one of them. “If we are all in agreeance...”
Olivia nodded, Arabella murmured ‘yes’, and Sophie’s brow knit into a suspicious frown. “What worldly matters in particular?” she asked.
Charlie cast her a knowing smile. “Why matters that all men, young and old, know about, but we, as the fairer, weaker sex, are supposed to remain ignorant of until we are wed. But by that time, I rather suspect it is too late. To my way of thinking, it would be much better to enter into marriage with one’s eyes wide open. And dare I say it, perhaps we might have a little fun along the way too?”
“Are...are you referring to sexual c-congress?” whispered Olivia, her doe brown eyes widening with shock.
“Yes, I am. Amongst other things. The art of flirting is also an essential skill any wise debutante should have in her arsenal, and naturally, it is a precursor to any activity of an amorous nature.” Charlie turned to Sophie and raised a quizzical brow; her eyes glowed with anticipation. “What say you, my friend? You haven’t responded yet.”
Sophie worried at her lower lip as she considered Charlie’s proposal. Even though she hailed from County Suffolk and possessed a rudimentary knowledge of ‘sexual congress’—as it pertained to the mating rituals of farmyard animals at least—there was still much she did not know about the ways of the world—and the male of the species—compared to Charlie.
Indeed, Lady Charlotte Hastings was the only one in their close-knit group who had several brothers—one of whom was a well-known rakehell. And she also had a bluestocking aunt who was purported to be a ‘liberal thinker’ and ‘a woman ahead of her time’. For these reasons, Sophie didn’t doubt for a moment that Charlie possessed unique insights into the male mind and a singular knowledge of taboo topics.
Unlike her confident, highborn friend, Sophie was not a member of the haut ton. But if Charlie was prepared to equip her with the skills and knowledge of a sophisticated debutante, she’d be an avid pupil. She’d much rather possess a modicum of self-assurance attending ton social events when the Season began in earnest. Heaven forbid that she should come across as a naïve and nervous bumpkin who blushed and stammered whenever an eligible gentleman asked her to dance or even cast a glance in her direction. “Your idea has some merit,” she at last conceded with a smile. “After all, forewarned is forearmed. How often will we meet?”
“Oh, once a week I expect,” said Charlie with a wave of one elegant hand. “And only when we are certain Rathbone is three sheets to the wind. Which always seems to be on a Friday.”
Sophie inclined her head. “Then I agree too.”
“Excellent.” A spark of mischief lit Charlie’s eyes. “Now, if we were male students, at this point we’d no doubt plight our troths by doing something dreadful like expectorating across the room, or slicing open our palms to make a blood oath, or at the very least we’d all expel some kind of foul air from an orifice we shall not speak of.”
A delighted bubble of laughter escaped Arabella. “Oh, Charlie. I suspect you are quite right. But I think your original suggestion of a toast will suffice.”
“Yes indeed,” agreed Sophie.
Charlie’s smile widened as she moved to the center of the worn hearthrug. The firelight limned her unruly chestnut hair in gold and in that moment, Sophie couldn’t help but think her friend bore more than a passing resemblance to a fiery Valkyrie or Artemis, the Huntress—she was a determined young woman on a mission and she would not be thwarted.
Lifting her chipped Spode china teacup, Charlie caught all of their gazes and led the toast. “Well then, without further ado, let us all raise our cups and drink to The Society for Enlightened Young Women. Long may we prosper. And may we all find happiness wherever life takes us.”
Sophie, Olivia, and Arabella raised their cups and in unison proclaimed, “Hear, hear,” before they each took a sip of brandy. Then Olivia coughed, Arabella gasped, Sophie’s eyes watered, and Charlie laughed.
“Oh, girls. It’s not all that bad, is it?” she asked, rubbing Olivia’s back.
“Where did you get this...this fire water?” Sophie wiped her eyes with the sleeve of her flannel nightrail.
Charlie took another sip before replying. “My father’s study here in London. He won’t miss it. And even if he does, he’ll probably assume Nate took it. He’s such a devil.”
Nate—or Nathaniel Hastings, Viscount Malvern—was Charlie’s older brother and as the eldest son of the family, was heir to the Earldom of Westhampton. Sophie had met him in passing two months ago in Hyde Park when she’d been out walking with Charlie, so she could certainly attest to the fact he was wickedly handsome—a man who could easily make females blush just by casting a sinful smile their way. Indeed, Sophie rather suspected she’d resembled a boiled lobster when Charlie had made the introductions.
Of course, Charlie had warned her, Olivia, and Arabella on numerous occasions that Nate was a rogue to his very bones, and exactly the sort of man they should be wary of when they made their debuts. He seduced women regularly, without care or regard for their feelings or their ruined reputations. He was definitely not the sort of man who wished to marry any time soon.
But despite Charlie’s warnings, a small part of Sophie had always thrilled to the idea of capturing the attention of a man like Nate, even if it was just for a little while. What was it about wicked rakes that lured her—and perhaps other women—like a candle flame lured the hapless moth? The glint of mischief in Lord Malvern’s dark eyes had seemed to contain a promise as his gaze had traveled over her that cold winter’s day: Come with me and I will show you sensual delights. Forbidden things both bright and burning. Secret things that are inherently dangerous yet irresistible. No wonder she still blushed at the memory. The heat in her cheeks had nothing to with the brandy she sipped...
The sound of Arabella calling her name pulled Sophie from her ruminations and she approached her bed to examine the other illicit items Charlie had brought with her to supplement their ‘education’. Aside from a jar of sugared almonds and one of barley sugar sweets, there were several leather-bound volumes, a slender silver box, and a folio which Charlie had just pulled from the leather satchel.
Sophie put down her cup and picked up one of the books then gasped. Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure, Volume I.
“Charlie,” she breathed. “Where on earth did you get this? You know it’s banned, don’t you? That the author was arrested?” She’d once overheard two older women at the circulating library discussing it in excited whispers behind one of the standing shelves when they’d come across another not-quite-so-scandalous book entitled Pamela; or, Virtue Rewarded.
“Of course I do,” replied Charlie. “And to answer your first question, I found it in my father’s library, along with Volume II, and these...” She fanned a sheaf of sketches and drawings across the counterpane that put Olivia to the blush and sent Arabella into a paroxysm of laughter.
Sophie leaned closer and her eyebrows shot up when she saw the erotic nature of each picture. “Oh, my Lord,” she whispered, picking one up with shaking fingers as heat crawled over her face. “What, in heaven’s name, is he doing to her?”
Charlie grinned. “That, my dear Sophie, is one of the many things you’ll become enlightened about.”
Behind her glasses, Arabella’s gaze sharpened with interest as she picked up the ornate silver box, unfastened the clasp and lifted the lid. “Cheroots, Charlie? Are these for us to try?”
“If you like,” she said, taking one of the slender, quite feminine looking cigars from the box. “My Aunt Tabitha calls them cigarillos. Her tobacconist makes them especially for her using a tobacco blend from Seville.”
Olivia also picked up one of the cigars and gave it a small sniff. “My g-goodness. Perhaps we should call ourselves The Society for Scandalous Young Women.”
“Well, we will only be deemed scandalous if we are caught,” Charlie remarked as she plucked a taper from the spill vase on the carved wooden mantelpiece. She dipped it in the flame of a candle and touched it to the end of her cigarillo until the tip caught alight. Then, after inhaling a small breath, she expertly puffed out a delicate cloud of smoke. The earthy yet sweet scent of burning tobacco filled the room.
“Ha, it’s clear you’ve done this before,” declared Arabella. Following Charlie’s example, she used a taper to light her cigarillo, before placing it between her lips. She drew a breath then promptly burst into a fit of coughing so violent, her glasses were dislodged.
Charlie’s brow dipped into a concerned frown. “Gently, gently. Don’t breathe in too deeply.”
“Oh...That’s...that’s truly awful,” gasped Arabella. Her face had turned a sickly shade of green. “I’m sure my lungs will never be the same again.” Wrinkling her nose, she held the smoking cigar away from her like one might hold a dead mouse by the tail. “I’m sorry, Charlie. I don’t think I want any more.”
“That’s quite all right.” Charlie took it from her then glanced between Olivia and Sophie. “Would either of you like to try?”
Olivia shook her head and Sophie crossed to the window, drawing back the dull blue utilitarian curtains. “No thank you, Charlie. And I think we should let some fresh air in. If Mrs. Rathbone notices the smell—”
“Mrs. Rathbone has noticed the smell. And the raucous laughter and chatter.”
Oh no. Oh no, no, no. Her heart vaulting into the vicinity of her throat, Sophie whirled around then nearly fainted. In the open doorway, her plump arms folded over her ample chest, stood a glowering Mrs. Rathbone. Even though she only wore a rumpled nightrail, a coarse woolen shawl, and a linen cap that was askew, her informal attire didn’t diminish her gravitas or the seriousness of the moment in the least. From beneath heavy gray brows, her pale blue eyes skewered them all in turn. Arabella’s countenance was green again, Olivia was as white as the bed sheets, and Sophie wondered how she continued to remain upright when her knees felt as though they were made of blancmange.
Charlie, on the other hand, looked remarkably unperturbed. She tossed both of the cigarillos into the fire and lifted her chin. “Our apologies for disturbing your sleep, Mrs. Rathbone. We shall, of course, retire immediately. If you would just give me a moment to gather my things—”
Charlie had barely taken a step across the rug when Mrs. Rathbone raised a hand. “Stop right there, my gel,” she barked. Her glare swept over Sophie’s bedside table and bed, and then her fleshy face turned an alarming shade of crimson when she took in the nature of the scattered sketches. “What. Are. Those?” she demanded in a shaking voice. When no one responded, she raised a quivering hand to her equally quivering jowls. “And what have you all been drinking? Brandy? Is that a bottle of brandy I see? And another of gin?”
“They’re for medicinal purposes,” began Charlie but Mrs. Rathbone jabbed a finger in her direction.
“Not another word out of you, Lady Charlotte.” The headmistress all but charged across the room and snatched up both bottles. Although her expression still bordered on furious, Sophie thought she detected a covetous glimmer in the woman’s eyes. “This behavior is outrageous,” she continued as she tucked both bottles into the crook of one arm. “Beyond the pale. Smoking? Imbibing alcohol? Studying lewd material? And all in the middle of the night! I can scarcely believe it. In all my years as the headmistress of this establishment, I have never, ever encountered such shocking conduct from young ladies. You should all be ashamed of yourselves. Just wait ‘til the school board hears about it!”
Charlie inclined her head. “Yes, it is shameful,” she agreed in a contrite tone that almost sounded sincere to Sophie’s ears. “And although you forbade me to speak, Mrs. Rathbone, I feel compelled to confess that everything you see on the bed—the books, the sketches, the cheroot cigars—and the bottles of gin and brandy, all of it belongs to me. I alone bear the blame. Miss Brightwell, Miss Jardine, and Miss de Vere are innocent of any wrongdoing.”
Mrs. Rathbone narrowed her eyes. “Yet all of these proscribed items are in Miss Brightwell’s and Miss de Vere’s bedchamber. And”—her gaze darted about the room—“I spy four teacups that all contain a liquid I suspect is brandy.” She gave an inelegant sniff and looked down her flushed nose at them all. “As far as I can see, each one of you is guilty of unladylike conduct in the extreme and subsequently, you are not fit to remain within this academy’s walls. In the morning, I shall send word to your families and begin the process of having you all expelled.”
Arabella sucked in a startled breath, Olivia wrung her hands, and Sophie felt as though a massive weight had just crushed her chest, expelling all the air from her lungs. Oh, dear God, no. This couldn’t be happening. What would her family say? Her mother? Her step-father?
But it was happening. Even Charlie’s face was ashen.
As Sophie struggled to drag in enough air to breathe, Mrs. Rathbone issued instructions to Charlie and Arabella to gather up all of the offending items off the bed, and Olivia was ordered to tip the contents of the teacups out of the window into the frosty garden bed below.
“I’m sorry,” mouthed Charlie as she picked up her band box and followed a tearful Arabella and a righteously indignant Rathbone out of the room.
As soon as the door clicked shut, Sophie sank onto her bed and hugged a pillow against her chest. Hot tears of mortification and despair scalded her eyelids.
There was sure to be a scandal of monumental proportions. Thrown out of a young ladies’ academy. Her reputation and that of all of her friends would be ruined. There would be no invitations to Almack’s. No invitations to anywhere at all. Only stares and whispers, closed doors and censure wherever she went.
Her parents would be livid, her younger sisters heartbroken.
She was only eighteen but she would be forever branded as a woman of loose character and questionable morals. A hussy.
Sophie swallowed, attempting to dislodge the gathering ache in her throat. How on earth was she to meet her love-match now? She’d never make a socially and financially advantageous union as her family had hoped she would; indeed, without such a marriage, there was a very real chance her step-father might lose Nettlefield Grange and the accompanying estate. How shocking that her dreams and her family’s livelihood could be crushed to dust because of her folly.
The weight on her chest was back and her heart felt as though it might crack beneath the strain.
“Do...do you think there’s any chance Rathbone m-might try to hush things up? To preserve her own and the school’s reputation?” murmured Olivia in a voice husky with tears.
Sophie dashed away her own tears with shaking fingers. “I expect she might try to, but if she takes this to the school board, word is bound to get out. Who doesn’t love a juicy piece of gossip? And besides Charlie, none of us have any social connections that would hold sway with Rathbone. I really don’t think there is anything we can do to stop our expulsion.”
Olivia’s eyes glimmered with fresh tears. “We’ll be socially destroyed then.”
Sophie’s heart broke just that little bit more at witnessing her sweet friend’s distress. She cast aside her pillow and crossed to the other bed. “Yes, Olivia,” she whispered as she enveloped the trembling girl in a hug. “I’m afraid we will.”
What sort of gentleman would wager another to procure a pair of a certain noblewoman’s drawers? Surely not a respectable one, but then some might say boys will be boys, especially when the boys in question are the ton’s most notorious rakehells. Read on to discover what happened last night at one of London’s most prestigious addresses...
The Town and Ton Tatler: The Society Page
Astley House, Cavendish Square, London
Midnight, 5th March 1818
“Bloody hell, Nate,” growled Gabriel Holmes-Fitzgerald, Lord Langdale. “How in the devil’s name are you going to climb up there?” He gestured at the second floor of the elegant white brick townhouse. “You’ll break your neck.”
Nate Hastings, Lord Malvern, grinned as he shrugged out of his dark blue superfine evening jacket and tossed it to Sebastien MacQueen, Lord Sleat. The marquess had agreed to stand guard with Maximilian Devereux, the Duke of Exmoor, whilst he fulfilled the dare they’d challenged him to earlier in the evening. At stake was a wager of four hundred pounds and he was determined to win. “Maybe. But aren’t you coming with me, Gabriel? If I’m to pilfer a pair of the infamous Countess of Astley’s drawers, I’ll need someone to witness that they’re actually hers don’t you think, and not a guest’s or even the housekeeper’s?”
Gabriel grimaced and ran a hand through his disheveled black hair. “God damn you. All right.” He blew out a resigned sigh before throwing his own jacket to a scowling MacQueen.
Nate suspected the burly Scot who looked more like a pirate than a Highlander because of his eye-patch, hadn’t reckoned on playing the part of valet during their alcohol-fueled escapade.
Oblivious to MacQueen’s glowering stare, Gabriel circled his shoulders and cracked his knuckles as he added, “Might I suggest we scale the iron fence and then try to find a way in around the back?”
“My thoughts too,” drawled Max. He dropped the stub of his cheroot onto the pavement and ground it out with the toe of his glossy black Hessian boot. “Only, why don’t I pick the lock on the gate to minimize the spectacle of several men illegally entering Lord and Lady Astley’s townhouse in the dead of night. I don’t know about you, but I don’t fancy spending the rest of the evening explaining myself to the Runners if a passerby or a neighborly good Samaritan notices us.”
“Good point,” agreed Nate. He stepped aside to give the duke room to work his magic on the gate’s lock. Within moments, the gate swung open on well-oiled hinges and then all four of them ducked down the side path that led to the enclosed courtyard garden at the back of the house.
Rubbing his hands together—the night was devilishly cold—Nate craned his neck and examined the upper floors at the back of the house. Subdued light filtered out of a central second floor window—probably the casement window above the main staircase—and through the filmy curtains hanging in another window farther along to the right. The windows and French doors on the ground floor that led onto a flagged terrace were completely dark. “Have any of you been inside before?”
MacQueen gave a soft huff of laughter. “Aye. At Covent Garden a few years back. Lady Astley and I shared a theatre box. But a gentleman isn’t supposed to kiss and tell, is he?”
“I meant the townhouse, you dog. Not the countess.”
“I have,” said Max. “I attended a ball here a while ago, but from memory, the main bedrooms are on the second floor on the eastern side.” He nodded toward the window on the right.
“It’s a dashed nuisance that there’s no trellis to scale or even a nearby garden wall to climb,” murmured Nate. He turned to Max. “Do you think you could pick the lock to the French doors?” He was still well liquored after spending the last five hours drinking at White’s and he didn’t really want to crack his head open over a scandalous countess’s drawers. Skulking about the inside of the Astley townhouse, whilst risky, was a far less dangerous prospect than attempting to scale unclimbable walls with only the pitiful light of a thin crescent moon to see by. He might be foxed but he wasn’t stupid.
Max shrugged a wide shoulder. “Probably. But it will cost you.”
“Go on. Name your price then.”
Max’s white teeth gleamed in the darkness. “Your bottle of Renaud and Dualle cognac. The ninety-five vintage.”
Bastard. Nate heaved a sigh. “Very well. Agreed.”
Max withdrew a pen-knife from the inner breast pocket of his black evening jacket and proceeded to prize open the second lock with a few deft slides and twists of the knife’s small, thin blade. He carefully pushed open the door and stepped aside with an exaggerated flourish. “Gentlemen...”
MacQueen chuckled softly from behind them. “Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do.”
Cheeky sod. As if he’d even think about seducing one of the Scot’s former conquests. Nate cast a sideways glance at Gabriel as he followed him through the door. He wouldn’t put it past the Earl of Langdale though. He was the randiest devil out of the lot of them.
The room they’d entered appeared to be the library; the glowing coals in the banked fire gave off enough light for Nate to make out floor-to-ceiling bookcases, the bulky form of a large desk, and several wingchairs by the fireside.
Praying his new leather Hussar boots wouldn’t squeak, Nate quickly traversed the room then cracked open the door. The hall beyond was softly lit by several wall sconces and half way along he could see a wide staircase with ornate iron balustrades. Thankfully, there was also no one in sight. Apparently Lady Astley liked to retire early. Or perhaps she wasn’t even here at all, a circumstance which would be most fortuitous considering Nate had to steal into her chambers.
“We’re sure Astley is away, aren’t we?” Gabriel murmured from behind him.
“Yes. Max overheard him chatting at Gentleman Jackson’s two days ago. He’s returned to his Gloucestershire estate for a week or two.”
Nate slipped through the door and walked as swiftly and silently as he could to the marble staircase. At least it wouldn’t creak. Gabriel trailing close behind, they slunk up the stairs until they reached the dark gallery. Again, the area was deserted and silent as the grave save for the ticking of a nearby longcase clock; its gold face gleamed in a ray of pale moonlight that had penetrated the casement window above the staircase landing.
“God only knows which room is Lady Astley’s,” whispered Gabriel as they started down the hall. The thick Turkish runner deadened their footfalls as they passed potted palms, marble busts, and several closed doors.
“There.” Nate stopped and pointed to a strip of light edging the bottom of one of the doors. “I suspect this might be it. It’s worth a try at any rate.”
Gabriel cursed beneath his breath. “Christ. I hope she’s asleep.”
Inhaling a bracing breath, his pulse pounding like a battle drum, Nate tried the brass handle. When the lock clicked, he grimaced. Shit.
He waited for the space of a breath. And then another, but nothing happened. Expelling a measured sigh, he pushed the door open a fraction and peered into the softly lit chamber beyond. The glow from the fire and several low burning candles revealed a sitting room with decidedly feminine furnishings: the overstuffed armchairs were upholstered in pale blue and gold brocade, the window was festooned with frothy lace curtains, and a floral Aubusson rug carpeted the floor before an elegant fireplace of white marble.
But best of all, the room was empty of occupants.
Nate slid inside and Gabriel followed.
“Hopefully the countess has a dressing room apart from her bedchamber,” Gabriel whispered.
Nate nodded and pointed toward a door that stood ajar on the other side of the room. If Lady Astley was actually asleep, perhaps he just might pull off this prank and win the wager after all. He hoped to God the rumors were true that the notorious countess did indeed wear drawers. Perhaps he should have asked MacQueen a bit more about his amorous encounter with the woman.
He’d made it halfway across the sitting room when all hell broke loose. A yapping terrier, no bigger than a sewer rat, charged from the open doorway and launched itself at Nate’s ankles.
Fuck. Nate stooped down to pick the dog up in the hopes of muzzling it, but it latched onto the silk sleeve of his shirt. Snarling, its beady black eyes glimmering with hell fire, its tiny fangs bared, it threw its small weight backwards, yanking and tugging in a series of rhythmic jerks. The distinctive sound of fabric tearing filled the room.
“Do something,” growled Nate over his shoulder at Gabriel, but his friend’s attention was focused on the door from whence the terrier had come.
Bloody, bloody hell.
Nate straightened and his gaze locked with that of a very attractive, very scantily clad woman. Her flaxen locks tumbled over one pale slender shoulder, and her silk and lace nightrail was so flimsy, it was practically transparent. Indeed, Nate was certain he could see the dusky pink of her jutting nipples. The triangular shadow at the apex of her thighs...
He swallowed and summoned his most charming, lopsided smile. “Lady Astley,” he said as smoothly as he could with a small bow—a maneuver which was no mean feat considering Bexley was still attempting to chew through his left boot as though on a mission to sever his Achilles tendon. “My sincerest apologies for invading your rooms and disturbing you at this late hour. But please allow me to introduce myself. I am Nathaniel Hastings, Lord Malvern. And my companion,” he gestured over his shoulder, “is Gabriel Holmes-Fitzgerald, the Earl of Langdale.”
Lady Astley crossed her arms, an action which pushed up the creamy mounds of her round, tempting breasts. She arched an eyebrow. “I know who you both are,” she drawled in a voice husky with sleep. “Why are you here? What do you want?”
I want you to call your vicious rat of a dog off my ankle, was Nate’s first thought but instead he simply donned his rake’s smile once more. “I’m afraid it’s rather an inane and innocuous reason really. I was dared by my friends to filch a pair of your famous drawers.”
He didn’t see the point in lying to the woman. And anything else he could come up with on the spur of the moment would sound equally as bad.
She threw back her head and laughed, a sinful throaty sound that curled around his spine and made his balls twitch. “You know, I’m inclined to believe you, Lord Malvern,” she said, her eyes dancing with amusement. Her gaze dropped to the ravaging terrier and she clicked her fingers. “Hush, Bexley. Come.”
The dog at last let go of his boot, and with a disdainful shake of its curling tail, it trotted over to its mistress.
Lady Astley crooked her finger and beckoned. “This way, Lord Malvern and Lord Langdale. I wouldn’t want you to go away empty-handed considering the trouble you have already gone to.”
Nate traded glances with Gabriel and his friend shrugged as if to say, ‘why not?’.
Bemused, Nate followed the countess into her lavishly appointed bedchamber. An enormous four poster bed, its sheets and blue silk counterpane rumpled, dominated the center of the room. Bexley leapt into a bedside armchair, turned around three times, then plopped down with a censorious huff.
“Over here,” called Lady Astley as she padded through to her dressing room. The doors of a large beechwood armoire stood open and the countess was rifling though a pile of filmy and silky undergarments when Nate entered.
With a flourish, she held up two pairs of drawers; one of dark crimson silk embroidered with white roses, and the other a rich cream satin pair. Her mouth curved into a seductive smile. “You can each have a pair if you like. They’re French. All I require is a kiss...from both of you. Also in the French style.”
Holy hell. Nate ran a hand through his hair. He’d heard the Countess of Astley was a sexually brazen woman, but he hadn’t realized how brazen until now.
Gabriel cleared his throat. “As much as we’re flattered by your offer, Lady Astley, I’m afraid the dare only required Lord Malvern to procure one pair of drawers.”
“Please, call me Camilla,” she purred, approaching them both. She rubbed the crimson drawers against her flushed cheek. “Perhaps I could model them for both of you? Then you can decide which pair you like best.”
Nate’s cock jerked. Whilst his body would appreciate the show, his head told him to beware. The woman was clearly propositioning both of them, but he wasn’t going anywhere near her unless he was wearing a French letter. And fool that he was, he hadn’t brought a single one with him.
Gabriel could do what he liked of course.
“I’d be happy to take the crimson pair, Lady Astley,” he murmured in a voice that was clearly graveled with lust. Stepping forward, he tilted up her small chin. “For your original price of a kiss.”
The countess pouted prettily for a moment then licked her lips. “Very well,” she whispered. As she closed her eyes, she pressed her body against his. With the crimson drawers still in hand, she cupped his half-hard length.
Nate groaned. The woman was sin personified. Best he get this over with before he began thinking with his cock instead of his brain. He bent his head and claimed her mouth in a brief but thorough kiss. When he pulled away, Lady Astley was smiling.
“Oh, that was wonderful, Lord Malvern,” she breathed as her eyes fluttered open. She pushed her drawers into Nate’s hand then turned her desire-glazed gaze to Gabriel. “Would you like a kiss too, Lord Langdale? I wouldn’t want you to feel left out.”
Gabriel gave her a wolfish smile. “Why thank you, Camilla.” One of his hands slid around the countess’s slender waist and he pulled her against him. “That’s most considerate of you.”
Nate quietly exited the room. Whilst he had indulged in a ménage a trois on the odd occasion, it had never been with another man’s wife. Or another man, for that matter.
Besides, he’d achieved his aim for the night; he had procured a pair of Lady Astley’s drawers.
Ignoring the low growl that emanated from the bedside chair, Nate headed for the hall and the stairs. When he gained the terrace, Max and MacQueen emerged from the shadows.
“What the deuce happened up there?” whispered Max. “We heard a dog yapping. And where’s Gabriel?”
Nate brandished the crimson drawers in the air. “Everything is all right,” he said. “Lady Astley is a most...amenable woman, even if her bloody terrier isn’t.”
A snort of laughter escaped MacQueen. “Isn’t she just? If the recent rumors I’ve heard about her are true, I’m surprised she didn’t proposition both you and Langdale.”
“She did. But I thought I’d leave Gabriel to it,” admitted Nate. “I got what I came for and it seems you all owe me four hundred pounds.”
“Good God,” breathed Max, ignoring the fact Nate had won the bet. Staring up at the second-floor window where the light still shone he continued, “Now I’m regretting the fact that I didn’t offer to go up with you.”
MacQueen handed Nate his evening jacket. “You could always take Langdale’s coat up to him,” he said to Max. “And then see what happens.”
“I wouldn’t unless you had some prophylactic sheaths on you,” warned Nate.
Max grinned and patted his pocket. “I always come prepared.”
MacQueen slapped him on the back. “Well, what are you waiting for, Your Grace?”
Max tossed Gabriel’s jacket over his arm and headed for the French doors.
“Just watch out for the terrier,” called Nate after his retreating back. “It might be small but it’s a nasty piece of work.”
“Shall we call it a night then?” asked MacQueen when they stepped out onto Cavendish Square. Somewhere in the distance, a clock struck the half hour.
Nate sighed. His head was clearer than it had been earlier on, but annoyingly, lust still fizzed through his veins. He knew he wouldn’t sleep unless he did something about it. So he could either drink more, or slake his desire elsewhere. Both seemed like a good option. Although he’d lived with nightmares for years, they had been much worse since Waterloo. Not just for him but for his fellow brothers-in-arms: Max, Gabriel, and MacQueen. They’d all been there, and each of them still wrestled with the mental aftermath. Especially MacQueen—although the scarred Scot would probably stake his heart with his dirk if he ever suspected Nate knew his emotional scars were worse than anyone else’s.
“It’s early yet. Why don’t we stop by Pandora’s Vault?” he suggested. It had been at least a week since he’d last paid a visit to the exclusive ‘gentleman’s club’, an establishment that was both a high-class brothel and gaming hell. It was also quite conveniently located; just a hop, skip and a ten-minute stagger away from his bachelor’s residence, Malvern House, in St James’s.
MacQueen grinned. “An excellent idea. And if you need a sheath,” he pointed to his breast pocket, “I have several.”
“Brilliant.”As Nate watched the Scot hail a hackney cab, he grimly acknowledged, not for the first time, that the life he and his friends led was more than a little unhealthy. It could certainly be diverting, but there were moments, like now, when a bleak hollowness in his chest. A bone deep emptiness. Sometimes he believed his father, Lord Westhampton, might actually be right: that he was a good-for-nothing scoundrel who would never amount to much.
Christ, he needed a drink and a woman. Perhaps two.
And sleep. Most of all he needed dreamless sleep.
Perhaps he’d achieve that blissful state by dawn.