Emma Chadwick always assumed she'd live and die the daughter of a Regency gentleman. But when her father's death reveals a world of staggering debt and dangerous moneylenders, she must risk her good name and put her talent for mathematics to use, taking a position as bookkeeper at London's most notorious gambling hell. Surrounded by vice and corruption on all sides, it is imperative the ton never discovers Emma's shameful secret or her reputationand her lifewill be ruined.
But Roderick Bentley, the hell's sinfully wealthy owner, awakens a hunger Emma cannot deny. Drawn deep into an underworld of high stakes gambling and reckless overindulgence, she soon discovers that to win the love of a ruthless scoundrel, she will have to play the game...and give in to the pleasure of falling from grace.
What Reviewers are saying about Luck Is No Lady:
"Smart and Sexy."Booklist
"SEXY AS SIN!"Addicted to Romance
"Lively plot, engaging characters and heated love scenes make this a page-turner...Sandas has created a book readers will enjoy."RT Book Reviews
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London, May 1817
Emma resisted the urge to press her fingertips to her temples. A headache had started just over an hour ago and was increasing in strength by the minute. She was irritated and exhausted, but she was careful no one would know it to look at her.
Holding her position along the wall, Emma concealed her discomfort beneath a fixed and proper demeanor. The attentive focus of her gaze was the only thing to suggest her state of vigilance as she scanned the ballroom.
She spotted Portia quickly enough. The youngest Chadwick was eighteen and her dark mahogany tresses contrasted dramatically with her all-white ball gown, allowing her to stand out amidst the crush of debutantes. Her eyes sparkled beneath a thick fringe of lashes and her smile was engaging and pretty as she looked up at her dance partner.
A frown pulled at the space between Emma's brows. There was something odd in her sister's manner.
Portia's smile was too stiff and the sparkle in her eyes was not from pleasure but rather a glazed sort of half focus. In spite of the girl's agreeable expression, it was clear she was nearly bored to tears. Thank goodness she had enough presence of mind to try to hide it. It was not common to Portia's nature to express anything other than exactly what she was thinking. That she did so now gave Emma some hope her sister might be taking this husband hunting business seriously.
Scanning the other couples sweeping past her in the ballroom, it took a few more moments for Emma to catch sight of her other sister. Lily Chadwick did not share Portia's dramatic characteristics. Her hair was a lighter shade of brunette and her features were softer, less striking.
Lily at least appeared to be genuinely enjoying herself, Emma noted. Her dance partner was a mature and distinguished gentleman who had danced with Lily at a ball just last week. Emma narrowed her gaze. A thread of anxiety pulled taut through her chest as she noticed the gentleman holding Lily a bit closer than what was appropriate.
If Portia needed to be watched for her willful irreverence, Emma needed to keep just as close an eye on Lily for her naïveté. The middle Chadwick sister was an idealist. Her reserved nature and genuine desire to see the best in people made her vulnerable to dishonorable men who might think to take advantage.
Emma's headache worsened.
As her sisters' guardian, it was her sole responsibility to keep them safe and secure until they traversed to their husbands' households. When she had the brilliant idea they must have their social debuts, Emma had underestimated the level of anxiety inherent in being responsible for them as they navigated the dangerous waters of the haut monde.
The girls had been presented only a few weeks ago, but already potential suitors had started to call on them regularly. Lily and Portia did not have the lure of large dowries, but the Chadwicks did have an earl on one of the loftier branches of their family tree. Emma hoped their noble connections and charming natures would be enough to garner acceptable proposals.
Distracted by concern for her sisters and the headache pressing at her temples, Emma almost failed to see the threat approaching her. Luckily, the flashing color of a garish green-and-pink-striped waistcoat in her peripheral vision managed to draw her attention. A groan of dismay caught in her throat. The rotund figure of Lord Marwood pushed toward her through the crowd. It wasn't an easy task. His width measured almost two men across and he didn't stand tall enough to see above many of the guests' shoulders.
Of all the people who might have remembered Emma from her own debut seven years ago, it had to be this man.
Her entrance into society had been cut short by her mother's illness, but she would never forget her disturbing encounters with Lord Marwood. His intentions had been dishonorable when she had been a debutante, but were doubly so now that she was twenty-five and considered an unfortunate spinster. He had already taken several opportunities to hint at his desire for an intimate association with her. And now he was heading her way, his face florid with his exertions to forge a path through the crushing crowd.
Emma cringed at the thought of having to endure even a second of his company. Aside from the fact that she had absolutely no intention of involving herself with the man in any capacity, that he continued to seek her out was becoming a problem for another reasonpeople were beginning to notice his dogged interest. And that was unacceptable. Emma could not have any gossip surrounding her or her sisters' presence in society.
Without considering how it might look, she made a rash decisionsomething Emma rarely didand turned to slip through the crowd toward the nearest door. She did not once look back as she fled the ballroom.
In stark contrast to the crowded room behind her, the grand hall of their host's London town house contained only a few people crossing the parquet floor as they meandered between the rooms opened for guests. Emma maintained a sedate appearance while she rushed toward the far end, thinking only to put as much distance between herself and Lord Marwood as possible.
As she took a moment to debate between turning down a narrow servants' hall or entering one of the smaller rooms extending from the entry hall, a couple came through a door to her left. The lady was a pretty blond and the gentleman was a towering hulk of a man with dark hair and a trimmed beard. They barely took notice of Emma as they passed by.
"I told you I was alone," the lady said with a pouty frown. "Why must you always act like a jealous boor? Do you not trust me?"
"I know you were with someone..."
The conversation was lost as they continued across the hall. Emma glanced behind her and caught a glimpse of pink-and-green stripes inside the ballroom. Lord Marwood was nearly to the door.
Her stomach clenched with dread.
In a steady, logical corner of her thoughts, she was well aware of how irrational she was behaving. Ladies did not run from ballrooms in a panic to avoid an unsavory interaction.
But if she were overreacting by running from Lord Marwood, what did it say about him that he would be so intent on following her?
Fueled by annoyance and an absurd touch of fright, Emma swept into the room just vacated by the arguing couple. It was a small study lit with only a few glowing candles. She hesitated inside the door as her eyes became accustomed to the dim light, but the thought of Lord Marwood being not far behind spurred her forward.
She needed to hide.
Long drapes hung from ceiling to floor in front of two sets of windows. Emma rushed to the nearest window and swept behind the heavy velvet curtains. The thick material fell around her, and she became ensconced in darkness.
Not a full minute later a creaky whisper floated through the room in a singsong cadence. "Hell-lo, sweet poppet. Are you hiding from me, my dear?"
Alarm flashed through her, and Emma sucked in a breath. Marwood had crossed the hall with surprising speed once he didn't have the crowd to hinder him. Could he have seen her enter this room? Lifting her hand to her throat, she measured her racing pulse as she forced herself to remain still and silent. If the old peer were to catch her now, not only would she be humiliated for hiding in such a cowardly fashion, the privacy of the study ensured she was not likely to get past the dreadful man without a few bruising pinches or worse.
Her flight from the ballroom had been unbelievably foolish. Nothing good ever came of impulsive decisions. The swift deterioration of her current situation proved that well enough. Her only hope now was to remain hidden.
As she pressed farther into the darkness, the unexpected scents of leather and cognac mingled in the air around her.
A floorboard creaked as Lord Marwood came farther into the room.
Emma took another step back, and the heel of her slipper came down unevenly on something behind her. She faltered in a sudden loss of balance. Alarm flashed at the thought of tumbling from her hiding place right at Lord Marwood's feet.
Just as she reached to grasp the curtain to stop her fall, a strong arm slipped around her waist and she was pulled back against a solid body. Her stomach flipped, and a harsh breath of shock flew through her teeth at the realization she was not alone behind the curtain.
A large, warm hand fell upon her shoulder with gentle but insistent pressure, and she barely heard the low "Hush" murmured in a masculine voice.
"Where are you, sweeting?" Lord Marwood crooned again.
The stranger behind her shifted his weight and Emma was drawn more fully into his hold. Her back curved into his chest and his arm tightened around her waist. She could feel the hard line of his jaw resting against her temple as his breath fanned over her neck and bare shoulder.
Shivers chased across her nerves and a numbing weight invaded her limbs. Emma's instinct for self-preservation struggled to find direction. Stay in the embrace of the unknown stranger or break free and take her chances with Lord Marwood?
She pressed her lips together and forced her breath to a slow and even pace through her nostrils. One threat at a time, Emma. Staring at the edge of the pale light where the curtain met the wall, she prayed for Lord Marwood to give up the hunt.
Shuffling steps brushed across the carpet not far from where she stood. Every muscle in her body tensed. The stranger flexed his hand at the curve of her waist in a silent communication to remain calm and still. His other hand remained on her shoulder. He did not wear gloves and he circled his thumb in soothing strokes against her nape.
She understood his intention was to quiet her, but Emma had never been touched in such an intimate manner and the result of his actions had quite the opposite effect.
Unsettling sensations flared across her skin, and her stomach trembled as she was flooded with a new and strange sort of panic. She pressed her knuckles to her mouth to keep from making a sound.
Voices rose up in laughter and conversation out in the hall. Forcing her attention back beyond the curtain, she realized Lord Marwood seemed to have stopped moving. Then his shuffling steps and heavy breathing started up again as he moved away from her location. Another minute later, it seemed her pursuer had left the room.
She released a long breath as some of the aching tension eased along her spine. Her subtle movement caused the stranger to loosen his hold.
Sensing freedom, she tried to step away, but his arm tightened and he drew her back again. Her momentary relief in escaping the immediate threat of Lord Marwood gave way to intense concern as awareness of her shadowed companion rushed back to the fore.
"I would not venture out just yet." Though he kept his voice to a low whisper, Emma detected a cultured rhythm to his speech and decided he was most likely another guest rather than a servant of the household. The smooth scent of rich cognac flowed with his words, and she was reminded that young women had more to fear than aging peers with groping hands and lecherous smiles. "He may return for a second look."
She forced a measure of control over her rioting senses. "Are you suggesting I am safer here with you?"
"You must have decided so, or you would not be here now."
She did not miss the amusement in his voice. He was right. Despite the disconcerting sensation of being pressed so close to him that she could feel the vibration of his words along her spine, she did not experience the same awful dread as she did just thinking of being alone with Marwood.
She chose not to comment on that realization. "Will you release me?"
"Of course." He dropped his arm from around her waist, sliding his hand over her hip in a subtle caress.
Emma suspected it wasn't entirely unintentional, and she ignored the thrill that splayed along her nerves as she turned to face him.
The night sky contained a sliver of a moon, and only the faintest glimmer of light came in from the windows. It was not enough to make out any of the stranger's defining features, but it did allow her to see he was tall, broad of shoulder, and dressed in the evening wear of a gentleman. The edges of his black coat were parted, revealing a white dress shirt and a neckcloth in serious disarray.
The state of his dishevelment gave her pause as a disturbing thought occurred to her. "Why are you behind this curtain?"
He relaxed against the window frame and crossed his arms over his chest. "I doubt my answer will make you feel better about your current circumstances."
Emma's suspicions solidified. "You were consorting with the lady I saw exiting this room," she stated, keeping her voice to a low murmur. "You hid to avoid being discovered by her husband, didn't you?"
"An intelligent deduction," he drawled.
Emma tilted her head, peering at his shadowed form. "You do not sound ashamed of such dishonorable behavior."
There was a long pause. "Perhaps I am not an honorable man."
Foreboding pressed at the edges of her awareness. "Are you also a coward to hide from the consequences of your actions?"
It was not in her nature to be intentionally challenging, but anonymity bred courage it would seem, and a smart tongue.
"No more than you, I would say." His tone dipped into one of inappropriate familiarity. "Avoiding unnecessary confrontation is often less about cowardice and more a matter of astute self-preservation. Would you not agree?"
"Surely you do not think to compare your circumstances to my own?" The idea was so ridiculous, she couldn't bring herself to be offended.
"They are not so different."
"Is that so?" She felt compelled to argue. "Do tell."
"The only difference is you recognized the threat of your pursuer from the start and took flight. Whereas I, poor fool that I am, was blinded by feminine beauty and did not realize the danger until it was too late."
"How dreadful for you," she commiserated with mock gravity as she stared at the loosened material of his neckcloth. "You obviously came frighteningly close to the very edge of ruin."
He dipped his chin and a chuckle rumbled from his chest. "The lady was quite persistent."
She arched an eyebrow, though she knew he couldn't see it. "And I suppose you concealed yourself in order to safeguard her dubious honor?"
"Indeed," he said with a slow nod. "I am devoted to protecting fair ladies from the dire consequences of their own reckless behavior."
"How fortunate for me to have bumped into you when I did," Emma replied wryly. As odd as it was, she was enjoying their unusual and anonymous banter. It was wonderfully liberating to be so bold.
"It was my pleasure."
His words curled around her in the darkness, recalling her to the potential danger he still presented. He had not made any inappropriate advances beyond his initial embrace, but there was no denying her vulnerability should he choose to be more forward.
The encounter had gone on long enough. She turned to reach for the edge of the curtain, intending to sweep it aside. "Though I am grateful for your assistance, it is time for me to go."
"If you wish," he replied in a lighter tone, "but Marwood is likely still lying in wait just beyond this room."
Emma started and looked back at the stranger's shadowed form. "How did you know it was Lord Marwood?"
"I recognized his labored wheeze and wide-stepped gait. Not to mention in addition to his insatiable hunger for beautiful young women, Marwood is well-known for enjoying a good chase."
Emma remained still as she considered his words. He could be right. The thought of running into Lord Marwood out in the hall swamped her with trepidation. But to stay where she was...alone in the private alcove with a shameless rogue...
"I can promise not to ravish you if it makes you more comfortable." His voice was colored with dark amusement.
A shiver trickled down her spine, but she countered boldly. "You can make such a promise, but I would be a fool to take you at your word."
"Have I given you reason to doubt me?"
"Just a moment ago when you suggested you had no honor."
"Right, there was that," he replied with a distinct lack of concern. "You seem to be in the midst of a quandary. Risk capture at the hands of Marwood or stay here with me."