London society is cruel for a young woman whose father is an avid gambler. Miss Grace Ashton is not one to stand idly by while her family becomes destitute. Donning a mask, she slips into the night and attends the infamous Raven Club to confront the proprietor. But nothing prepares her for the sinfully attractive and wealthy Ian Swift.
Ian is intrigued when Grace walks into his gambling club but refuses her offer of a few jewels to pay her father's large debts. Unbeknownst to anyone, Ian has inherited the Earldom of Castleton, and he must reluctantly take his place in Society. But Ian's manners as a gentleman have suffered. He needs a tutor, and he knows the exquisite lady standing before him is the answer.
But soon tutoring turns to flirting, which unfortunately lands both of them in...marriage?
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The Raven Club,
An Undisclosed Location in London
He didn't look at all like a gentleman.
Tall and lean, the man standing in the corner of the gambling club looked more like a pirate, with dark hair that reached just below his collar and a bronzed complexion that spoke of hours in the sun.
Miss Grace Ashton reached up to adjust her half mask as she stood in the entrance of the Raven Club. She wasn't one to take such a reckless risk. It mattered naught that her mask, combined with the hood of her cloak, hid her identity. Her stomach had been in knots ever since she'd stepped out of the hackney.
Ian Swift stood alone, his gaze scanning the faro and whist tables. He was dressed in a white shirt and buff-colored trousers — no coat, waistcoat, or cravat. She'd overheard whispers of the notorious gambling club owner in the ladies' retiring room, and she'd wondered if the rumors of his aristocratic lineage were true. Other disturbing gossip came to mind. He was ruthless, without compassion, and never forgave a debt.
A cold-hearted man.
And yet, she had no choice but to seek his aid.
She wove her way through the room and glanced at the gamblers sitting at the tables as she passed. Men and women gazed at their cards with an avaricious intensity that made Grace shiver. Smoke wafted around her, and the sound of rolling dice from a nearby hazard table made her frayed nerves tighten.
Her attention returned to the man standing alone in the corner. Aloof and unapproachable, he exuded an air of command. She walked forward and halted before him. He didn't bow, didn't move. The only indication that he'd noticed her at all was a sideways glance.
She cleared her throat. "Mr. Swift?"
He turned to face her, and she sucked in a breath. Up close, he was taller and more powerfully built that she'd thought. Without a coat, the wide breadth of his shoulders strained against his shirt. She'd heard there was prizefighting in a boxing room in the back of the club. He looked like a pugilist himself — hardened, strong, and roughhewn — nothing like the refined and elegant men of the ton. Heavens, he wasn't even clean shaven but had a day's growth of stubble on his cheeks. Her pulse skittered alarmingly.
Coal black hair gleamed in the candlelight of the chandeliers, and an unruly curl rested on his forehead. He was graced with strong cheekbones and a determined jawline. A thin scar across an eyebrow marred what many would consider a perfect masculine face. But it was his eyes that made her want to step back. Dark as midnight, his gaze boldly swept her from head to toe.
She grew warm and felt a curious sweeping pull in her stomach, causing her uncertainty to grow.
He gave her a quick glance. "If you're seeking to join one of the tables, ask for Brooks."
She shook her head. "You misunderstand, sir. I'm not here to gamble."
"Then you missed the boxing match."
She frowned. "The match?" He must be speaking about the club's pugilist activity, a barbaric form of gambling, in her opinion. It was also forbidden by law, but clearly that hadn't stopped Swift from offering such entertainment. Based on his dress, she wondered if he'd just stepped out of the ring himself. A smudge of dirt marred his right sleeve, and his hessians, though of good quality, were dusty and unpolished. A dandy would immediately dismiss his valet without a reference. "I'm not interested in that, either."
"Then you shouldn't be here at all."
His stare was unnerving, intense and intelligent at the same time, causing a flurry within Grace. Heat swam up her neck, and the air seemed to grow heavy.
From his dismissing tone and arrogant stance, it was clear he wanted her gone. Under any other circumstances, she gladly would have obliged and fled. But she couldn't. Her livelihood depended on it.
"I need to discuss a different matter with —"
"Not gambling. Not here to watch a fight. I'm a busy man." He turned away.
A heavy feeling settled in her stomach. She couldn't allow him to turn his back on her. She hadn't come this far, risked this much, only to return home without a solution to her dilemma.
"Wait! Please, it's a matter of grave importance. My father frequents your establishment far too much."
His gaze returned to her. "I see. You must be the meddling daughter."
"The concerned daughter," she said sharply.
"Pardon," he said, a hint of mockery in his tone. "If I may be so bold as to guess. You are the concerned daughter who wants to reform her wayward sire."
"He doesn't need complete reforming, just from habituating this particular place."
A flicker of amusement lit his eyes. "Look around you. Men come here to escape. They gamble. They drink. I don't drag anyone through my doors, nor do I force them to stay against their will."
"Not physically, perhaps. But you prey upon their weaknesses."
He glared at her, frowning. "What exactly do you want Miss ...?"
She raised her chin a notch. "It's Miss Grace, and I'm asking you to refuse my father admittance into your club." She withheld her surname, not willing to reveal it until she had his cooperation.
He stiffened, and for a moment she thought she had pushed him too far, but then he threw back his head and laughed. Straight white teeth flashed in his bronzed face, and the corded muscles of his neck were revealed.
She stared. She couldn't help herself. She'd never seen a man's naked chest, and although he wore a shirt, its top two buttons were undone and she could clearly see the sprinkling of dark hair.
His lips curled in a slow, wicked smile as if he knew her illicit thoughts and was fully capable of satisfying each one. "Now why would I want to refuse your father admittance? I'm not in the habit of turning away patrons."
"You don't understand. Father is a baron, and he always behaved respectably. He never gambled, never drank ... not until Mother died during my first Season three years ago."
"Ah, I see. I take it your Season did not go well." His voice softened a bit.
"Of course not. It was spent mourning the loss of my mother." To her dismay, her voice broke slightly.
"It won't help."
"Even if I turn him away from my club, your father will go elsewhere. It won't solve your problem."
Whatever glimpse of sympathy she'd thought she'd detected was gone. The cold, hard gambling hall owner was back. She bit her lip, and his gaze dropped to her mouth.
She felt an unwelcome stirring of heat in her veins. As a third-year debutante, she was not entirely unaccustomed to male attention. She'd danced at balls, taken private walks in the garden, and had even been kissed. But she had yet to receive a marriage proposal. If she was truthful to herself, she hadn't been devastated at the time. She'd found them all dreadfully boring, couldn't envision a life of matrimony bound to any of them, and had intentionally dissuaded any serious interest.
But Ian Swift was entirely different from the men of her acquaintance. Others had looked at her as a gentleman should look at a lady, whereas Swift's stare was earthy, intense, and good heavens ... lustful.
She took a deep breath and strengthened her resolve. "There's something else."
"Ah, there always is," he drawled.
"Father's debts here. I want to pay them."
One dark eyebrow shot up. "You have money?"
She clutched her reticule. "I do." She didn't have banknotes, only the remaining pieces of her mother's jewels. She'd kept them hidden from her father and prayed they were valuable enough.
He stepped to the side and motioned to a staircase leading up to the second floor. "Then by all means, please follow me."
* * *
There was something about her.
Blue eyes gazed out from behind her half mask. Her hair was hidden beneath her hood, but he could see the curve of her cheek and her swan-like neck, the skin smooth and satiny. She was clearly from quality, far from the type of women he associated with.
Ian Swift led her up the stairs to the second floor of the club. His man, Brooks, who was in charge of the whist, faro, and macao tables tonight, looked at him questioningly.
Ian never took patrons upstairs and certainly never mysterious ladies who just walked into his club. He nodded curtly to let Brooks know all was well.
His attention returned to her. She was shorter than he liked his women, and the top of her head would barely reach his shoulder. Despite the slight tremble of her fingers, she walked with her head held high. Women frequented his club, many of them ladies who chose to wear masks like hers to conceal their identities. He'd never before cared to see one of their faces. But this one was different. It was well past midnight, and he wondered how she had escaped her household to travel into the night and visit the Raven Club.
They reached the landing, and he led her down a carpeted hall. He opened the first door on the right and motioned for her to enter.
It was an opulent room with a large oak desk, matching leather chairs, and thick Oriental carpet. He ran his business here. Numerous papers beneath polished stone paperweights and leather-bound ledgers were stacked neatly on the desk. A large globe rested on an end table in the corner. But it was the window overlooking the casino floor below that drew the eye. He could see everything from here — the flurry of his dealers' hands, the excitement of the winners, the sorrow and despair of the losers.
It was Ian's kingdom, his domain, and he ruled it with an iron fist.
An undeniable curiosity rose within him as he watched her. She stood straight and clearly hoped to appear confident. But Ian knew better. Her shoulders were tense, her breathing quick and shallow, and her fingers twisted the cord of her reticule.
At the moment, he didn't give a damn about her father's debt. His motive for bringing her to his private office was entirely different. She'd drawn his interest from the first moment she'd walked into his club.
He motioned for her to sit in one of the leather chairs, but she shook her head. "That's not necessary. I won't be long. As I said, I'd like to pay my father's debts to your establishment. If you would let me know the precise amount, I — "
His curiosity increased. "Lower your hood. I don't do business with anyone concealing their identity."
She was hesitant. He leaned against his desk and waited, anticipating her response. He was surprised at how badly he wanted her to comply. Slender hands slowly rose to lower her hood. Dark hair fell in soft waves to her shoulders.
Her hands trembled a bit as she untied the mask and removed it.
His reaction was swift and violent, and to his credit he didn't move a muscle. She was beautiful with clear blue eyes, flawless skin, and full lips. Still, he was accustomed to beautiful women. It didn't explain his interest. She was young, but not a fresh-faced debutante. She'd already mentioned that she'd experienced three Seasons, and he wondered why she wasn't married by now.
She looked at him expectantly, and he realized he was staring. "Your payment?"
She opened her reticule and withdrew a diamond necklace, the stones glittering beneath the lamplight. "Not banknotes, but my mother's jewels."
"Tsk. What would your father say if he knew you were offering me your mother's jewels?"
Her spine stiffened and she stood even taller, a feat he didn't believe possible. "If he knew the remaining pieces still existed, he would have taken them to gamble. I would think that is of no consequence to you. All that matters are their worth."
His desire rose at her defiance. No one spoke back to him. "You're wrong," he said. "I don't need jewels."
"But they can be sold for —"
"They could be paste."
Her fine brows drew downward. "I assure you they are real."
He shrugged. "Still. It's not good enough."
"I have nothing else to offer!"
He had an inexplicable urge to rile her more, to ruffle her perfect poise. His gaze roved and lazily appraised her. "You're wrong. You most certainly have something else to barter." The words slipped easily from his lips before he could ponder them. He'd never forced a woman into his bed, and he had no intention of starting now.
But she didn't know that, did she?
Her sapphire eyes flared with outrage. "You're not a gentleman."
"I never claimed to be."
"I realize now coming here was a mistake." She pivoted on her heel just as his fingers snaked out to grasp her wrist.
She gasped at the contact and stared at his dark fingers wrapped around her satin glove. Her scent coiled about him — not the cloying flowery perfume he was accustomed to, but lavender that reminded him of a cool summer breeze of his family's country estate in Kent.
A lifetime ago.
She looked up and met his eyes. Rosy lips parted, and the pulse at her nape quickened.
The corner of his mouth lifted. "So quick to run? Surely your sire is worth such a small price?" He was taunting her. Something about her aristocratic bearing and the unconcealed judgment in her blue eyes incited the beast in him.
"How dare you! My virtue may seem a small price to you, but I am a lady."
She still wore her cloak, but he saw the neckline of a simple, blue dress beneath. The bodice was embroidered with roses, and it enhanced her prettiness. He wanted to know more about her, starting with her full name.
"And as you pointed out, I'm not a gentleman. I'm a businessman."
"I should have known. Is profit all that concerns you?"
"For someone who's had everything in life handed to you, you shouldn't judge. But I promise you that I'm generous in bed. You won't be disappointed."
She jerked her hand away. "You know nothing of my life."
"Perhaps not, but assuming your proffered jewels are true diamonds, and the fact that you've deigned to risk leaving the safety of your home to visit an infamous gambling club well after midnight, I can only assume your father's debt is substantial."
She gave him a hostile glare. "Not substantial enough to consider such an ungentlemanly offer."
"Kisses then. One kiss for every hundred pounds that's owed to me." It was an outrageous proposition, but he had the urge to provoke her, to see her reaction.
Her eyes widened in astonishment. "Your arrogance is astounding. You cannot know the amount without knowing my father's name."
"Then tell me."
"It is of no consequence now." She angled her head to regard him. "You do not strike me as a man who would be satisfied with a simple kiss."
"You're right. They won't be simple pecks, but true kisses. Lingering ones. And as long as I deem necessary to satisfy the debt."
Her flush spread lower on her neck, and he wondered how far down it would go. He could make out the slope of her breasts beneath her cloak. He should have insisted she remove the garment.
"I see now this was a mistake. There is no point in bargaining with the devil. Good evening."
She turned and headed for the door.
He went to the window and watched as she hurried past the gaming tables and made for the entrance where his doorman stood. A part of him wanted to chase her, drag her back to his lair.
Ridiculous. He avoided her sort. He preferred lusty and voluptuous actresses or widows. The sorts of ladies of the night who frequently flocked to his club and made their interest known. Women who knew what he expected, wanted pleasures of the flesh in return, and never placed demands upon him.
He never entertained ladies from proper Society, no matter how many seductive looks and blatant propositions he received. It made no difference that at one time he'd belonged in her world.
He'd left long, long ago.
He went to a sideboard and poured himself a whisky. He sipped the fine alcohol, mulling over the lady's visit. Her request to refuse her father admittance into his club was foolish and naive. But the lady's second request to pay off the debt with jewels was much more interesting. He made a mental note to find out the identity of her father.
Why did she fascinate him?
She was lovely, but many attractive women sought him out. Perhaps it was the combination of innocence and fire in her sapphire eyes that drew him. Or her loyalty to her father.
Loyalty that Ian knew firsthand was rare.
He opened the door and snapped his fingers. A young boy of about twelve with a gap-toothed smile appeared in the doorway.
"Follow the lady, Soot. Tell me where she goes."
The lad nodded and scurried off.
She'd return. He'd bet on it. And despite his business, Ian Swift was not a betting man.CHAPTER 2
Grace fell asleep in the parlor chair of her father's Grosvenor Square town house. The long case clock in the corner of the room chimed five o'clock in the morning just as the front door opened.
She jumped to her feet. "Father! Where have you been?"
Baron Newbury halted outside the parlor doorway. "Grace? What are you doing up so early?"
"What are you doing out so late?"
He took a step forward, wavered unsteadily on his feet, and braced himself with a hand on the doorframe. His graying hair looked as if he'd repeatedly run his fingers through it in agitation. His face was pale, his eyes bloodshot, and he reeked of alcohol and tobacco.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "How to Tempt an Earl"
Copyright © 2018 Tina Sickler.
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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