For King and Country, Three Notorious Rakes Will Put All Their Seductive Skills to Work.
After All, The Fate of England's Monarchy is in Their Hands.
Since the death of his fiancée, Nathaniel Colton's polished boots have rested beneath the beds of countless wayward wives and widows of the ton. He's careful to leave each lady smiling, and equally careful to guard his heart. So seducing Lady Georgette should pose no problem. But the beautiful reformist is no easy conquest, and Nate's considerable charm fails to entice Georgette to his bed. To woo her, Nate will have to make her believe he cares about someone besides himself--and no one is more surprised than Nate when he realizes he actually does.
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"Confound it! Can't a man lose his shirt in peace?" Lord Nathaniel Colton, along with every other gentleman in White's, looked up from his cards, distracted by the loud clatter followed by a dull thud. The door to the exclusive coffeehouse stood propped open to the elements because some poor blighter had collapsed at the threshold on his way in.
Or possibly out, Lord Nathaniel surmised, it being difficult to tell from the way the body was splayed under the lintel, like a marionette whose strings had been cut. The wet breath of January washed through the open door and over the assembly of gentlemen who'd escaped their domestic entanglements for the company of their peers, morning papers, and steaming cups of Arabica bean bliss. No one else seemed to be stirring to go to the fellow's aid, so Nathaniel rose from his seat at the poque table.
"A wager first," Lord Gobberd said loudly. "Is the man alive or dead?"
No one in the coffeehouse so much as twitched. Even at the ungodly hour of eight in the morning, there were several good chaps about who might eventually have gone to the gentleman's assistance. Or at least closed the door behind him. However, the announcement of a wager over the matter froze them in place. Nothing took precedence over gambling.
"Alive," Nathaniel said, not because he was naturally optimistic, but because it didn't seem sporting to bet against the stranger at the door.
"Very well, I say dead. The stakes?"
All of Nate's chips were committed to the current hand, so he had nothing more on the table to offer. He removed the leather shields protecting his cuffs from smut that accumulated on cards and gaming tables. Then he took off his gold wrist studs and added them to the pile. Lord Gobberd, who was likewise invested in their game, rummaged in his waistcoat pocket and pulled out a much folded piece of yellowed paper.
"The deed to a house in Covent Garden." Gobberd knuckled his eyes and squinted at his cards again. Then he tossed them down. "Shall we dispense with the game and let this side wager decide the entire matter? Winner takes all."
They'd been playing since yesterday afternoon, pausing only to use the necessary and eat and drink enough to keep body and soul together. Between the two of them, Nathaniel and Gobberd had emptied the pockets of a dozen men and accepted IOUs from a dozen more. The gleaming pile of spoils in the center of the table constituted a small fortune. Certainly more than enough to meet Nate's needs for the next ten years.
And pay off the debt to his tailor besides.
"Done," Nathaniel said. Evidently Gobberd's hand was a sorry one, but there was no point in haggling over the stakes if a man's life might hang in the balance. He strode toward the door, knelt beside the fallen figure, and felt the man's neck for signs of a pulse.
He'd done it often enough during his brief military career, so it took him only a moment to find the throbbing vein. Sluggish, but unmistakable.
Nathaniel didn't see an obvious wound, so he propped the young gentleman into a sitting position. The man's head, which was topped by a disreputable-looking deerstalker, lolled back, revealing a round-cheeked face punctuated by a wispy attempt at a mustache. Nate knew the type-a country mouse fresh from a stint at Oxford who was now immersing himself in the more questionable delights of London. Nathaniel didn't recognize him, but since he'd stumbled into White's and the cut of his tweed jacket was impeccable, the gentleman must be a peer, or the son of one.
The fellow smacked his lips twice and his head wobbled from side to side. He didn't open his eyes, but a string of mild obscenities streamed from his lips, confirming Nate's assessment that he was indeed among the living.
"Mr. Worley, some smelling salts, if you please, to help him recover his wits." Nate shook his head at the strong scent of gin wafting up from the groggy fellow. If a man was determined to get foxed, gin was a quick way to go, but Nate preferred whisky when the occasion called for self-inflicted oblivion. "And as much black coffee as he'll take."
Nathaniel took a couple chips from the poque table and flipped them toward the steward to pay for the inebriated gentleman's care. Then he reattached his wrist studs, scooped the rest of his winnings into his top hat, and started toward the keeper of the wager book who held the actual funds represented by the chips.
"Hold there, Colton." Lord Gobberd stopped Nate with a fleshy hand to his forearm. "You've got to give me a chance to break even."
"Winner takes all. Your words, not mine, sir." Nate shrugged him off and continued on his way. Gobberd's half-whispered "Damned cheat" reached Nate's ear.
Nathaniel turned and skewered the man with a steely gaze. "Am I given to understand you feel yourself ill-used, Lord Gobberd? If you have a complaint, I shall be only too happy to give you satisfaction."
Gobberd's Adam's apple bobbed uncertainly. His mouth snapped shut. Even if Nathaniel had cheated, he was far too good a swordsman to insult with the accusation and every man in White's knew it. Besides, he hadn't cheated.
Lord Gobberd mumbled a hasty apology, jammed his hat on his head, and beat a path to the door. Nathaniel didn't turn away till he was certain the man was gone. Gentleman or no, Lord Gobberd had always struck Nate as the weaselly sort, the type who might shank a fellow in a crowd when he wasn't looking.
Nathaniel collected his winnings and started toward the door with a satisfying bulge of banknotes and IOUs in his pockets. The deed to Gobberd's house was tucked into his waistcoat. Given the location of the place, Nate was fairly sure it wasn't the man's personal residence. A Covent Garden address was more likely to house Gobberd's light-o-love, if the miserable old curmudgeon had one.
And if he does, it only proves some women are able to overlook a great deal to keep a roof over their heads.
"I say, Colton," Sir Martin Daventry called out, making Nate pause at the doorway. "Mother is hosting a bit of a rout on Thursday next. Be a good chap and put in an appearance, would you?"
The invitation surprised Nate. It was the first he'd received from anyone respectable since he returned from France three years ago. After the disaster of Maubeuge, his disgrace kept him on the fringes, but not quite expelled, from Polite Society. He wondered what had prompted Daventry to forget that Nate clung to respectability by a thumbnail.
"And be sure to bring Lady Caroline," Daventry added. "Mother's had the Broadwood tuned for the occasion."
As I thought. Nathaniel was being tolerated for the sake of his sister's prodigious talent. Caro in attendance at a party was as good as engaging a concert pianist for the occasion. In addition, she was far too beautiful for Nathaniel's comfort. When she made her official "come out" once the Season started, he and his father and brother would need rather large sticks with which to beat off prospective suitors. The Colton men were determined that only the worthiest would pass their gauntlet.
"Will your charming sisters be in attendance?" Nate asked. Debutants were sometimes classed as "coltish" for their lithe arms and long legs. The Daventry twins had earned the designation.
"They will indeed."
Unfortunately, the Daventry twins were considered coltish not for the length of their limbs, but for the size of their teeth.
"Ah, then I shall make every effort." Not to be there, Nate finished silently.
Still, for Caro's sake he ought to go, he decided as he left the coffeehouse. It was some months before her formal debut, but it wouldn't hurt for potential suitors to see her in an informal venue.
Wind whipped down the man-made canyons of four-story structures as Nathaniel trudged along. He turned up his collar and shoved his fists into his pockets. His eyes burned after the full night of gaming, but he knew sleep would flee from him, even if he found a bed.
It was January. Again. And the 25th. Again.
He wondered if he was doomed to relive this hopeless anniversary each winter or if his heart would ever feel anything. Again.
It was easy enough to pretend his life went on. To all appearances, his was a full plate. Since his return from the Continent, his polished Hessians had rested beneath the beds of numerous wayward wives and widows. Throughout the Upper Ten Thousand, tales of his bed skills were whispered behind countless lace fans. While Nathaniel was careful to leave each lady with a smile on her face and no regrets when he tugged on his boots again, he was equally careful never to form a close attachment to any of the women he bedded.
He couldn't bear to lose anyone else.
Without his conscious volition, his feet found a path to the gated churchyard. The outer walls and floors of the little stone structure were honeycombed with small cells that were occupied by the bones of the faithful departed. So a patch of hallowed ground sprouted gray headstones of varying heights for those who'd had the misfortune to depart this world after the church proper's niches were already filled.
He stopped before a granite slab that had been there for only four years. Not long enough for rain and wind to turn the engraving into dark dimples in the stone.
"Hello, Anne." His voice sounded unnaturally loud. He'd meant only to whisper. Anyone passing by would think him late for Bedlam. Nathaniel squared his shoulders and decided he didn't care. "It's been a while, I know. I've been meaning to come by. Truly. But there's something I must do, you see, and it's something you won't..."
Hang it all, there was no way to explain this tangle to her. Not in a way she'd understand. He wasn't sure he understood it himself. Now that he was committed to it, he didn't see any way out except going through with the blasted agreement. He hoped his father and older brother would appreciate the lengths to which he was prepared to go on the family's behalf.
Of course, if he succeeded, chances were good that Mr. Alcock would never let his family know how near they'd come to losing everything. And if he failed...
"Thought I might find you here, Colton."
"Speak of the devil," Nathaniel said under his breath. Evidently merely thinking of the fiend was sufficient to call him forth. "What do you want, Alcock?"
"What we all want-a sound British pound, better drainage in the poorer quarters of London, and for the Duke of Cambridge not to marry the Marquis of Yorkingham's daughter." Fortescue Alcock's tight-lipped expression made it clear he considered all three of equally vital importance. "As a Member of Parliament, I'm working diligently on the first two. Why, I wonder, has there been no progress on the last item?"
Nathaniel clenched his fists and wondered if Fortescue Alcock had any idea how close he was to being throttled to within an inch of his life. Nate had never bowed to the will of any man. It rankled his soul to give in to this one. "I'll get to it in due time."
"That's just the trouble. Time is of the essence, milord. The royal duke's emissary is paying court to Lady Georgette nearly every day. Once she accepts Cambridge's suit, there'll be no recourse. Trust me, it's one thing to seduce an unattached virgin. Quite another to deflower one who's formally betrothed to a royal duke." Alcock sent him a sly sidelong glance. "Not that it would be impossible for you to achieve, given your past performance, but frankly, I doubt even you'd care to face the consequences of tweaking His Highness's royal nose in that manner."
Alcock was right. Once the lady was betrothed to a member of the royal family, seducing her would rise almost to the level of treason.
Frustration boiled in his gut. "Why did you choose me for this blasted assignment?"
Alcock stared at Anne's gravestone. "You know the family well. You have a natural point of entry into this situation. Lord Rhys Warrington is making spectacular progress with his prospective duchess, so I can't rightly reassign him to Lady Georgette, but if you'd prefer this particular lady be plucked by your friend Sir Jonah Sharp, I could-"
"No, I agreed to do it."
Not that Nathaniel had much choice in the matter. Either he accepted Alcock's Faustian deal or the bastard would dredge up the whole sordid mess at Maubeuge again.
Nathaniel and his friends, Lord Rhys Warrington and Sir Jonah Sharp, were implicated in the same stunning defeat at Maubeuge that occurred just before the English victory at Waterloo. There had never been enough evidence of treachery to do more than taint them all with the whiff of scandal. Now Alcock claimed to have proof that would see Nate brought before the House of Lords in chains for spying for the French and leading his men into a trap.
The scandal would ruin the Colton name and crush any hope of his sister making the brilliant match that was her due. Since their father, the marquis, had suffered several debilitating losses in the market in recent years, the family was counting on Caroline to raise their power and influence by snagging a wealthy, well-connected husband.
If Nathaniel suffered the disgrace Alcock threatened, Caro would be fortunate to land a position as governess with a family of the middling sort.
All Nate had to do to avoid this calamity was steal Lady Georgette's chastity, making her ineligible for the Duke of Cambridge's attention. It was a tangled web, with more than a few innocent flies about to blunder into Alcock's sticky labyrinth. But when was anything political ever less than a spider's lair of lies, broken promises, and arm-twisting deals?
"Haven't you anything better to do than decide which virgin needs debauching?" Nate asked between clenched teeth. "You're no better than a bawd in Covent Garden."
"How dare you, sir." Alcock puffed up like an enraged peacock. "I am trying to save the throne. There is no matter more important to the Crown. We absolutely cannot leave King George's successor up to some mad race by his sons to find a bride."
Nathaniel ignored Mr. Alcock and stared down at Anne's headstone. He waited for the familiar hollow ache to begin, but even grief refused to surface. He was a dry husk.
Maybe it was better this way. If his heart shut down completely, it would be easier to do what he must.
"I said I'd do it and I will," Nathaniel said testily. "Now leave me be."
"Good. That's all I wanted to hear." Alcock turned to go. "Oh, my sources tell me the lady is paying a visit at a house in Covent Garden this morning. Unsavory place, what? But it seems Lady Georgette is a bit of a crusading prig. Out to save the world. Perhaps you'd do well to track her down before she gets into trouble on her own."
Nathaniel grunted, leaving it to Mr. Alcock to decide if the sound constituted agreement. Actually it was simple surprise. The house he'd won from Gobberd that morning was in the same unsavory neighborhood.
Fate, it seemed, had a sense of humor.
He waited till the man's retreating footsteps vanished completely. Then Nate knelt next to Anne's grave. He wished he'd thought to bring flowers. She'd always loved them.
For a moment he imagined her as he'd seen her for the last time, arms full of irises to arrange in a crystal vase. Fresh-cheeked, eyes bright, brimming with health and such innocence, Anne was sweet as the armful of blooms she carried.
The memory of his first love caused his chest to constrict painfully.
There it was finally. A genuine feeling. Like the fellow who'd stumbled into White's that morning, Nathaniel was still alive.
At times, there was reason for doubt.
Merely forcing air in and out of one's lungs didn't constitute living. Even when Nate buried himself in hedonistic pleasures, he rarely felt that rush of guilty exhilaration sinning was supposed to deliver. A part of him watched from outside his body and wondered if his soul had already died and was merely waiting for the rest of him to cease to function.
Nothing would be gained by further stalling. He stood upright. "I won't be back for a while, dearest. Maybe never. I doubt you'd want me here in any case," he told Anne. "You see, I have to seduce your sister."