Proper Lady Christabel, the Marchioness of Haversham, is desperate to regain some letters that could destroy her—so desperate that she pretends to be the mistress of notorious gaming-club owner Gavin Byrne to accompany him to a scandalous house party where she can reclaim them. But when she agreed to let Byrne coach her on how a true mistress behaves, she never suspected how very . . . persuasive his wicked lessons would be.
Gavin is secretly determined to find the letters himself and use them for revenge against the noble sire who abandoned him to grow up in London’s worst slums. He’s also delighted at how very successful his “mistress lessons” are: it won’t be long before the luscious young widow is in his bed. But when Christabel catches Gavin in his own seductive net, he faces a difficult choice: to wreak the vengeance he’s planned all his life, or to protect the woman he may—to his own astonishment—need more than revenge.
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When choosing a lover, I made sure we both agreed to the terms of the liaison, so there would be no recriminations later.
-- Anonymous, Memoirs of a Mistress
Sometimes having half brothers was a bloody nuisance.
Gavin Byrne scowled at them both. The youngest -- Alexander Black, the Earl of Iversley -- was the only one of them whose mother had waited until he was full-grown to tell him that his real father was the Prince of Wales. Next came Marcus North, the Viscount Draker, whose massive build and scandalous past still had society calling him the Dragon Viscount. Draker had known their father most of his life and did not consider that a good thing.
It was Draker's study that they stood in now. And it was Draker who was behind this insanity.
"You want me to do what?" Gavin bit out.
Draker exchanged a glance with Iversley. "Perhaps our older brother is losing his hearing."
Iversley chuckled. "Perhaps so, now that he's in his dotage."
Gavin rolled his eyes. "I could whip you pups with one hand tied behind my back. And if you think wounding my vanity will provoke me into doing this, you've obviously forgotten whom you're dealing with. I was manipulating men before you grew hair on your ballocks." Though he should have suspected something when Draker asked him to arrive early for dinner. Gavin selected a prime cigar from the oak box on his brother's desk. "Why in hell would I do a favor for Prinny anyway?"
"For the reward, of course," Draker said. "Prinny is offering you a barony."
Ignoring the instant leap in his pulse, Gavin lit his cigar. A title wouldn't make up for spending the first twenty years of his life being called Byblow Byrne to his face, and the last fifteen being called it behind his back. It couldn't erase the stigma of being Prinny's unclaimed bastard.
Besides, he already possessed everything he required. His gentlemen's club had made him wealthy beyond his wildest expectations, he never lacked for a woman in his bed, and his friends were all viscounts, earls, and dukes.
All right, so perhaps those friends weren't the enduring sort, more interested in his wit than his welfare. And perhaps he was sometimes painfully aware of that invisible line of illegitimacy that separated him from them, despite his royal blood. But that was nothing to him. "Why should I care about a barony?"
"If you don't care for your own sake," Iversley said, "consider your future children. Your first legitimate son would inherit the title."
Gavin snorted. "That's no incentive. I don't plan to marry or sire a 'legitimate son.' With luck, I won't sire any children at all."
"Then consider this." Draker eyed him closely. "Titles are bestowed in Parliament by the Regent himself. It's the closest you'll ever get to having Prinny acknowledge that you're his son."
Now that gave him pause. The idea of Prinny being forced publicly to give a title to the bastard he'd denied for years was enormously tempting. Even if it was only a fraction of what he wanted from the man. "He agreed to that?"
"He did," Draker said.
Gavin chomped down on his cigar. "That doesn't mean he can't renege."
"He won't," Iversley insisted.
"He has before." His brothers knew what Prinny had done to Gavin's mother.
"I'll make sure he keeps his word," Draker said.
"Ah, yes," Gavin said dryly. "Now that you and our sire are such fast friends, you think you have some influence over him."
Draker snorted. "We'll never be fast friends, but to his credit, he's begun to regret his past actions. So yes, I have some influence over him."
Gavin shook his head. "I swear, you and Iversley have gone soft. Ever since you settled down with your pretty wives, you see the world through a haze of sentimental nonsense."
Hearing envy creep into his voice, Gavin ruthlessly squelched it. He didn't envy his brothers their contented marriages. He liked his life -- liked being his own man, liked his easy, nonthreatening liaisons with the married women who turned to him for a few hours of wickedness here and there.
He liked being essentially alone and rootless. A scowl knit his brow. "So what must I do to gain this dubious reward?"
Iversley relaxed. "It's nothing, really. Convince Lord Stokely to invite a certain widow to the annual house party he throws for his gambling friends."
"How do you know about that?" Gavin asked.
"Prinny has his spies," Draker put in.
Gavin knocked some ash from his cigar into the tin bowl Draker kept for that purpose. "I take it that the woman is one of them? Or one of his mistresses?"
Iversley shook his head. "She's definitely not Prinny's mistress. And I would guess, having met her, that she's not a spy either."
"Stokely is very particular about his guests. They have to be adept at whist and comfortable with wickedness, not to mention discreet. Is she?"
Draker looked blank. "I'm sure she can be discreet, under the circumstances. I suppose she could pretend to be comfortable with wickedness, but I have no clue if Lady Haversham is any good at -- "
"Wait a minute -- the Marchioness of Haversham? She's the one you want Stokely to invite? Are you insane?"
That seemed to catch Draker offguard. "She's not your average marchioness," he said defensively. "She's General Lyon's daughter."
"That's probably why the bloody chit nearly blew my head off a year ago," Gavin said.
Draker blinked. "You've met her?"
"If you could call it that." An image rose instantly in Gavin's mind, of a small, raven-haired lass with a very large gun. "I rode out to speak to her husband at his estate about his mounting debt at the Blue Swan, and she put a hole in my cabriolet -- not to mention my hat."
Iversley smothered a laugh. "You mean, she didn't take a liking to you at once, like the other ladies in society?"
Gavin arched one eyebrow. "Apparently the good Lady Haversham didn't approve of her husband's gambling. She was reloading her repeating rifle when Haversham himself came out and coaxed her inside. Otherwise, I'd probably be missing a crucial piece of my anatomy."
He shook his head. "That termagant could never blend in at Stokely's, even if the man would invite her. She's clearly opposed to gambling, and probably wickedness, too." Gavin scowled. "I take it she didn't tell you of our disastrous first meeting?"
"No," Draker admitted. "And if it was so disastrous, why did she choose your name from among the list of guests Prinny procured?"
"She probably wants to get close enough not to miss this time," Gavin said. "With Haversham dead, she's settling old scores. How did he die, anyway? Did she shoot at him, too?"
"Nothing like that."
"Well, I didn't kill the man, if that's what this is about. He paid me in full right before he died, so I had no reason to wish him dead."
"She knows that. Besides, he died in a fall from a horse." Draker poured himself some brandy. "And how he died has nothing to do with it."
"But you don't know what does," Gavin remarked.
"Prinny wouldn't say, so you'll have to ask her yourself." With a sly glance, he added, "Unless you're too afraid of the woman to talk to her."
Gavin snorted. Yet another attempt to coerce him by pricking his pride. Hadn't Draker learned by now that he could see through such ploys? "I'll let the woman speak her piece. But she'd better be unarmed for the meeting."
Iversley shot Draker a smile. "What do you say, Draker? Shall you search Lady Haversham now or shall I?"
"She's here?" Gavin growled. "Have you lost your mind? You let her in your house, around your wife and son? Did you lock up your firearms first?"
Draker scowled. "We had to arrange a meeting between you and her that no one would find suspicious, so you're both here for dinner. But she can't be as bad as you say. The woman seems perfectly amiable, if a little...well -- "
"If that's what you call it," Gavin muttered. "Fine, go fetch the wench. After I hear why she wants to drag me into this, I'll consider your proposal."
Draker nodded and left the room with Iversley. Only a minute passed before Lady Haversham herself marched in. Up close, she was prettier than he remembered, despite her awful widow's weeds and lopsided coiffure. She also looked quite fierce for a woman who came up only to his chin -- a little spitfire with snapping green eyes and an impudent nose.
He stubbed out his cigar, though he wasn't sure why he bothered. Despite her title, Lady Haversham was no lady. She was a soldier in skirts.
"Good evening, Mr. Byrne." She thrust out her blackgloved hand as boldly as any man.
Gavin took it in a firm grip, then in one quick motion, jerked her around so he could clamp an arm about her waist and hold her still from behind while he smoothed his other hand down her starched wool gown.
She began to struggle. "What the devil -- "
"Be still," he growled. "I'm making sure you didn't pack a pistol in some pocket."
"Oh, for pity's sake," she muttered, but stopped fighting him. After a moment of enduring the indignity of having his hands on her, she snapped, "My pistol is in my reticule, which is sitting in Lord Draker's drawing room. All right?"
The woman was a walking arsenal. "All right." He released her, not because of what she'd said, but because running his hands over her petite but surprisingly womanly figure had perversely aroused him. He didn't want her to know it, however -- the female was liable to shoot off his cock for its impertinence.
She faced him, crossing her arms over her chest. "Well? Will you help me?"
Nothing like going to the heart of the matter. "Why me?" he countered. "The last time we met, you weren't exactly impressed with my credentials."
A small smile touched her lips. "You mean I nearly put a hole in your credentials. I suppose I should apologize for that."
"That would be a good start."
She lifted her chin. "I was only trying to save Philip from certain ruin."
"Ruin! Your husband paid off his debt easily enough."
A weary sadness passed over her face. "Yes, he did. He gained the money by selling to Lord Stokely something belonging to my family."
Suddenly, things began to make more sense. "That's why you want an invitation to Stokely's. To retrieve your property. Or more accurately, to steal it."
"If I could buy it back, I would. But Lord Stokely won't sell."
"You asked him?"
"His Highness asked him." When Gavin's eyes narrowed, she added hastily, "On behalf of my family, of course."
Not bloody likely. Prinny didn't have a philanthropic bone in his body. Whatever her property was, Prinny clearly had a vested interest in it. Otherwise, he would never offer Gavin a barony to help recover it.
"How can you be sure it's at Stokely's estate? He has a town house. He might even possess a special vault at a bank."
"He would never let it that far out of his sight. Besides, his town house has only a couple of servants in residence; it would be too easy to break into. He wouldn't take that chance."
"Yet you think he'd take the chance of inviting you to attend his party, knowing that he has something you want that he won't sell to you."
"He doesn't know that I know he has it."
"I beg your pardon?"
"My husband told Lord Stokely that he'd received it from Papa, when in reality, Papa had given it to me, and Philip had stolen it without my knowledge. I didn't even realize it was gone until Lord Stokely wrote to His Highness about it and the prince summoned me to London."
"Why in God's name would Stokely write His Highness?"
She blinked, as if realizing she'd said too much. "I-I have no idea."
Liar. For the moment he let it pass. "And how does this tangled web concern me?"
She arched one eloquent eyebrow.
"Ah, you've decided I should help you steal your property back because your husband sold it to pay me."
"If he hadn't gambled with you -- "
" -- he would have gambled with someone else. Your late husband's weakness for cards isn't my problem, Lady Haversham."
"I should have known a man like you would have no conscience."
"Yes, you should have." When she glared at him, he added, "It's all moot, anyway. There's only a slim chance I could help you even if I wanted to."
"What do you mean?"
He laughed mercilessly. "Stokely only invites a certain type of person to his house party, and you're not it."
"Because I'm not a gambler."
"Because you're not a certain sort of gambler." Gavin lit a new cigar and took a long puff. "However, I might consider retrieving your property for you -- "
"No," she said tersely. "I have to retrieve it myself."
What the bloody hell could this mysterious property of hers be? "At least tell me what you wish to steal and why."
She stiffened. "I can't do that. And if you insist upon it, I shall have to ask someone else to help me."
"Fine. If I can't get you into that party, though, no one else can."
An expression of sheer incredulity spread over her pretty features. "Didn't they tell you that you'll gain a barony out of it?"
"I've succeeded very well until now without one, so that's not much of an inducement."
"What if I said that helping me would be a service to your country?"
He laughed. "That's even less of an inducement. What has my country ever done for me that I should put myself out for it?"
She looked exasperated. "It's not as if it would be much trouble for you. You merely need to convince Lord Stokely to invite me to his house party. Just tell him I'm your whist partner or something."
"Do you play whist with any competence?"
She stuck out her chin. "I can manage well enough."
The chit was lying again. Badly. "Stokely is always my partner." Gavin dragged hard on his cigar. "Besides, his house party includes a very scandalous set -- his friends would shock you."
"I'm not that easy to shock. Remember, I spent many years abroad. I've seen more than the average Englishwoman."
He'd wager she'd never seen anything like Stokely's party. "All the same, it can't be done. Stokely only invites longtime gamblers whose playing he knows."
She frowned. "Other people on the guest list don't fit that description -- like Captain Jones."
"True, but his mistress, Lady Hungate, does. That's also why Lord Hungate and his mistress will be there. You only get an invitation to Stokely's by being a serious gambler or a serious gambler's lover, spouse, or mistress."
Her face brightened. "Why didn't you say so? You can get me invited as your mistress!"
He stared at her. Few people could astonish him; the hot-headed Lady Haversham had done so twice. This was the most novel invitation he'd ever received.
And oddly enough, the most intriguing.
He trailed his gaze down her body, lingering over her ample bosom and the black fabric that hid what he'd discovered was a trim waist and nicely plump arse.
When she blushed, he nearly laughed aloud. The woman screamed innocence, so why the devil was she offering him this?
Dropping her gaze from his blatant one, she said, "You're not taking a mistress to the affair already, are you? I know that you and Lady Jenner -- "
"Not anymore." He stubbed out his cigar. "I'm between mistresses at present. But you can't be serious about this."
"Why not? I realize I'm not the sort of female you generally prefer -- "
"You mean, the sort who don't shoot at me?"
She scowled. "I mean, the statuesque, blond, shameless sort rumored to hang on your arm at every social event."
"You seem to know a great deal more about me than I know about you."
"Your preference for a certain type of female is legendary. I can't alter my height and my coloring -- or the fact that I get what I want using my brain, not my bosom -- but I believe that with some tutoring, I could make a convincing enough mistress."
"You'd require more than tutoring." Taking her by surprise, he snatched out the demure black fichu tucked into the bodice of her gown. "You'd have to shed these abysmal widow's weeds, for one thing. No one would ever believe I'd go about with a woman dressed like a crow."
Her gaze locked with his, fiercely defiant. "And I suppose you'll expect me to cut off my unfashionably long hair and torture it into silly curls -- "
"No, nothing so drastic." He liked long hair and he couldn't wait to take hers down. "But you could use the services of a lady's maid to dress it better."
She stiffened. "I have a lady's maid. She's just not that good with hair."
"A lady's maid who doesn't dress hair. Of course." He ran one finger along the too-high line of her bodice. Her nicely filled bodice. "And I assume she's also responsible for your prim gowns."
She thrust his hand aside. "I can acquire more fashionable gowns if necessary."
A smug smile touched his lips. "Ah, but can you learn to tolerate my lascivious touch?"
"I'm sure I could play the fawning female well enough. How hard could it be to act the role?"
His smile vanished. "You're suggesting that you pretend to be my mistress?"
She blinked. "Of course. What else?"
His disappointment surprised him. "If you're willing to risk scandal by pretending to be my mistress, you might as well be my real one."
She looked alarmed by the very idea. "Why would I want to do that?"
"The obvious reasons -- entertainment, companionship...pleasure. It's not as if you have to protect your virtue. Widows can do as they wish." Just how far would she go to gain her "property"?
He bent close and caught a whiff of her scent -- exotic, unfamiliar, and more spicy than sweet. Amazing. He would have expected the chit to bathe in lye. That glimpse of the real woman further intrigued him.
"Having you as my mistress is the one thing that might induce me to help you," he said in his best seductive whisper.
To his surprise, she burst into laughter. "You don't even like me."
"Not when you're shooting at me." He skimmed his finger along her jaw, exulting when her breath quickened. "But if you were to focus all that fierce energy on pleasing a man in bed -- "
"As if I know anything about that." She pushed his hand away with another laugh, but this one was strained. "I'm a respectable woman, for pity's sake."
"My mistresses generally are. That doesn't mean they can't enjoy themselves in the bedchamber."
Her amusement vanished. "May I be frank, Mr. Byrne?"
He bit back a smile. "When have you ever not been?"
"I would prefer to be your pretend mistress. If you don't mind."
"Ah, but I don't need a pretend mistress. I can have a real one whenever I wish."
Her eyes narrowed. "Are you saying you won't help me unless I become your mistress in truth?"
"That's exactly what I'm saying." It was less a bluff than he'd like. The idea of making Lady Haversham his mistress had begun to hold a certain appeal.
Take care, man, he cautioned himself. It was fine to desire the woman, but her usefulness lay in the property that Prinny seemed so eager to have her regain. Gavin meant to get more than a barony out of this. He would settle for nothing less than Prinny's public confession of how he'd wronged Gavin's mother.
Never mind that it might cause a scandal that Prinny could ill afford these days. Gavin wanted the record set straight. But he needed leverage for that, which Lady Haversham might provide -- if he didn't let his lust for the woman run away with him.
A long sigh escaped her. "Oh, all right. I suppose I can endure having you lie atop me and do your business if I must."
That brought him up short. "Lie atop you and -- "
"I endured it well enough with my husband, so a few encounters of the sort with you won't hurt me."
Her heavy sigh alerted him. She was calling his bluff, but doing it in a way designed to put him off, the clever chit.
"Ah, but if you shared my bed, it would be -- "
"Yes, yes, it would be sheer bliss with you. Of course."
Her sarcasm didn't fool him, either. "Then we're agreed."
She stiffened. "I don't think it's quite fair for you to ask an additional payment for your services when His Highness has already offered you a barony." When his eyes narrowed, she added hastily, "But I'll meet your price if I must."
Now she was trying to reduce his seduction to a mercenary act. But her shaking hands gave her away -- this was all bluster. Damn, but this must be important to her -- and to Prinny.
He ought to keep pressing her to see how far she'd go, but the truth was, he liked his women willing. What pleasure would there be in taking a woman to bed who didn't want to be there? If he agreed to her scheme, though, he'd have plenty of time to bring her round. And that would make the pleasure even sweeter in the end.
When he said nothing, she added, "Shall we seal the deal now? You gentlemen are usually quick with your swiving, so I could throw up my skirts, and you could take care of matters before anyone guesses -- "
"Enough, madam, you've made your point." Not the point she thought she'd made, but an effective one nonetheless. "Where did you learn a word like swiving, anyway?"
She eyed him coolly. "I've spent most of my life in the company of soldiers. My father is a general, remember?"
"Right." Which was why, when pressed to the wall, she had tried to outmaneuver him. Little did she know that it would take an army of general's daughters to outmaneuver him.
"Very well," he said smoothly. "I agree to keep this a masquerade only." The relief in her eyes at not having to share his bed pricked his pride. "For the moment."
"Are you sure?" she snapped. "Because I could still -- "
"Watch it, my sweet," he said in that soft, deadly tone that men knew to beware. "Best to stop while you're holding the winning hand." He dropped his gaze to her trembling mouth. "You won't get another."
He walked to the door and opened it. "Now run along like a good little girl and let the men talk. My agreement with you is conditional upon whether His Highness will agree to certain terms of mine. And they don't concern you."
Though she bristled at his insulting dismissal, she nodded and headed toward the open door. "Thank you for your help, Mr. Byrne."
"No need to be formal. If we're pretending to be lovers, call me Byrne as everyone else does." He arched one eyebrow. "Or feel free to call me 'darling.'"
An inelegant snort escaped her. "Feel free to call me Christabel."
"For God's sake, how did a general's daughter get such a fanciful name?"
"I had a mother, too, you know." With that she stalked out, her lovely hips swinging.
As heat rose in the wrong places, he marveled at the perverse intensity of his attraction to her. She had a mother, did she? Then it must be some Amazon or fairy queen or succubus from hell. No mere Englishwoman could possibly have spawned that whirling dervish of a female.
A whirling dervish who thought to put him off by implying that his lovemaking would be a chore, or worse yet, a business transaction. But that wouldn't last long. He would have the Widow Haversham begging for him to take her if it was the last thing he did.
He'd built a fortune on his ability to mix business with pleasure, so he would play her game for now, but in the end he'd have it all -- her mysterious property, his revenge upon Prinny, and a willing Christabel in his bed.
Iversley's voice snapped him out of his reverie. He looked up to find his brothers approaching. After they entered the room, he shut the door. "I'll do it."
"Excellent," Draker said.
"But I have an additional condition. I want a private audience with Prinny when it's done."
"Why?" Draker asked.
"I have my reasons."
Draker eyed him intently, then sighed. "I'll see if he'll agree to that."
"He'd better if he wants me to help Christabel."
"Christabel?" Iversley said.
Might as well tell them the plan. They'd hear of it soon enough. "Stokely will only invite the good widow if she's my mistress. So she will be."
Draker drew himself up. "I hope you did not coerce that poor woman -- "
"Did I mention that she'll be my pretend mistress? We're perpetrating a deception like the one you and Regina perpetrated with your pretend courtship."
"It may have started out as a pretend courtship," Draker retorted, "but it didn't stay one for long."
A smile curved Gavin's lips. "Exactly."
"I thought you didn't like Lady Haversham," Draker snapped.
Gavin thought of Christabel's soft, curvy body pressed to his, of the quickening of her breath when he'd touched her -- of the stubborn will that he would greatly enjoy bending to his own. "She grows on a man."
The overly moral Draker frowned, but Iversley burst into laughter.
"What's so funny?" Gavin asked.
"Draker's pretense with Regina eventually led to marriage," Iversley said slyly. "Or had you forgotten?"
When Draker began to chuckle, too, Gavin retorted, "Don't worry. I have no interest in marriage." Only once had he even considered it, as a green lad of twenty-two. But Anna Bingham had cured him of that nonsense.
"Women have a way of changing a man's mind," Iversley said.
"Not bloody likely." His idiot brothers' sly winks and knowing glances annoyed him. "Besides, Lady Haversham appears quite happy with her current situation."
Draker lifted one eyebrow. "That could change, too."
"For God's sake, you're as bad as your wife, with her talk of connubial bliss and falling in love. Contrary to what Regina seems to think, some bachelors actually have no interest in love."
The disaster with Anna had taught him that there were lines even "love" didn't cross, that his preference for sophisticated women could only be assuaged in illicit physical liaisons. No respectable woman would marry him unless she was after his money, and he had no desire to endure such a hypocrisy of a marriage.
Besides, the more adulterous affairs he engaged in, the more cynical he became about marriage, his brothers' happy unions notwithstanding. Any woman worth her salt married for financial or social advantage. Would Katherine or Regina have married his brothers if they hadn't had titles?
He didn't explore that question further, for it made him uncomfortably aware of the main difference between him and his half brothers. Their mothers' husbands had claimed each of them as legitimate sons. Gavin's mother hadn't had that choice, which was why he would be Byblow Byrne until he died.
Unless he became the Baron Byrne. He certainly liked that idea. Especially if forcing Prinny to set matters straight and acquiring the intriguing Christabel as his real mistress were part of the bargain.
"So it's settled," he said, ready to change the subject. "I'll get Christabel onto Stokely's guest list, and our sire will hand me a barony."
"Yes, it's settled," Draker said.
"We're glad you agreed to this," Iversley added. "It's time you got something more from our alliance than entertainment."
"Don't worry. When this is done, I intend to get a great deal more than entertainment from it." When Iversley looked speculative, Gavin added quickly, "This calls for a toast." He poured brandy all round, then lifted his glass. "To the Royal Brotherhood of Bastards."
They all echoed the usual toast, then drank. When he went to refill Draker's glass for the second toast, his half brother shook his head. Gavin glanced to Iversley, who was clearly toying with his glass to avoid having it refilled.
"You two really have gone soft," Gavin muttered, then refilled his own glass and raised it defiantly. "To our noble sire," he said loudly. "May he rot in hell."
Copyright © 2005 by Deborah Gonzales