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Your luck hasn't changed, young man." Lord Shelbrook spread out his winning cards with a gleeful flourish, which Julian Clay, the Earl of Westleigh, deliberately ignored. He was too experienced a player to betray his chagrin at having spent another evening having his pockets picked by his host.
You're a heartless witch, Lady Luck, to save a man's life only to leave him mired in poverty.
"Barnaby, if that were true, I would not be sitting here tonight in your elegant home." Julian tossed his own cards facedown on the table, conceding defeat with a graceful flick of his wrists before stretching his long legs. "But perhaps a change of pace..." His words trailed into an artful yawn, demonstrating a show of fatigue and boredom at the game, and effectively ending his self-inflicted torture for the evening.
Shelbrook began to count his small windfall, too distracted to note that his guest's attention had shifted to the large portrait of Lady Shelbrook over the mantel.
Julian studied the icy blue eyes and aristocratic angles of the woman's face, aware that the painter had barely masked the subject's haughty nature. With her golden curls and strawberry complexion, his hostess was exactly the sort of woman who had once held great appeal for him. She was beautiful, sexually voracious, and married.
So why does my stomach churn every time the delectable harpy bats her eyelashes in my direction?
Julian shrugged and stood as Barnaby swept his winnings into his pockets. God knows I could use the release, he lectured himself silently and Beatrice was more than willing when it came to a clandestine romp with one of her husband's acquaintances. Julian's old reputation had preceded him, and his hostess had made it clear that her hospitality came with certain expectations namely, that he would make her unwitting husband a cuckold on command. He'd naturally obliged her, an easy enough concession to make in light of the lady's enthusiasm, but his own interest had waned after the first less-than-stellar tumble. Hers, on the other hand, had grown. The woman was becoming a pest. But it hardly seemed courteous to complain to a man about his wife's lovemaking when he was getting a fashionable address at which to hang his hat while he was in town, and all in exchange for the "pleasure" of his company. It was the kind of rent he could afford, at least.
He forced himself not to sigh. "I believe I'll head out, Barnaby."
"Care for company?" Lord Shelbrook looked up eagerly, like a child ready for sport.
Julian shook his head. "And have you pick my pockets out in public as well?" He smiled to soften the blow, unwilling to insult his current host by declaring that he couldn't bear to hear more of Lord Shelbrook's insipid stories of his "wild young days." Shelbrook's hospitality, though occasionally irksome, was posh and well timed.
And timing was everything.
Barnaby's happy countenance dimmed a bit, but he recovered quickly. "Very well. Off with you, then! I wouldn't expect a young man like you to linger in a dusty house with an old married man when London's entertainments await you."
"You aren't decrepit just yet, friend." Julian clapped him on the shoulder, soothing Shelbrook's pride. "Another night?"
"By all means!" Barnaby rang for a carriage, and within moments, Julian had made good his escape.
Before leaning back against the cushions to gather his wayward thoughts, he instructed the driver to head toward a fashionably dangerous part of town. His return to London had been just as he'd envisioned it, but nothing felt the same. He'd expected to simply return to his life and resume enjoying the delights of each moment as he had before. In the past, Julian had made no effort to account for the productivity of his days. Instead, he'd savored the thrill of good cards in his hands, or an eager woman at his side. He'd cared for nothing but the pursuit of pleasure and his next social engagement.
The carriage lurched, and Julian winced at the twinge in his side, shifting his weight to relieve the dull, familiar ache. He'd spent too many idle hours this evening trying to wheedle a few winning hands from Shelbrook, and his recently healed wound wouldn't let him forget it. Julian wasn't the kind of man to dawdle over his recovery, and after months on his back and limping around the countryside chafing at the restrictions of his injury like a chained bear, he'd been only too happy to make his escape from his doctor's endless coddling. London beckoned, and he wasn't going to let the vague discomfort that lingered in his side stand in his way. Hell, it probably rankles Drake more than my ribs pain me to think that I, his worst enemy, saved his beloved Merriam's life...and he's in my debt to this day.
A bittersweet victory, at best. The scars he carried would always remind him of the fateful night he'd stepped in front of a bullet intended for the Duchess of Sussex.
It could have been worse, though, Julian thought as he subtly moved again to protect his right side. His archnemesis and former friend, Drake Sotherton, the Duke of Sussex, had planned to bury Julian with debt but had relented in light of those recent events. The slate had been wiped clean, and Julian's complete financial ruin had been narrowly avoided, but neither man had had any desire to take their reconciliation any further. Too many years had passed and they'd inflicted too much pain on each other to repair their friendship; besides, Julian acknowledged that he was altogether the guiltier party in the matter, and he wasn't foolish enough to seek forgiveness from Drake for cuckolding him with his first wife, Lily.
Ah, Lily! You'd have deliberately made a villain out of a monk to win a wager for a shilling, and you'd still have looked innocent to the world.
She'd brought out the worst in him, and he'd wanted her for all the wrong reasons. Only after facing his own death could he admit that what he had shared with Lily had never even remotely resembled love. The tangle of the tragedy still amazed him, but he dismissed the sordid affair with Lily from his mind. The past was long gone. There was nothing to do but face the present and the future. Julian had been touted as a hero for fending off the duke's murderous servant after she'd confessed to killing Lily, and he had returned to London to discover a mountain of invitations from eager members of the Ton. The Earl of Westleigh was now a much-sought-after commodity for the social season, and he marveled at the strange twists and turns of fate that guarded his reputation. He was hardly angelic, but no one seemed to recall this fact when guest lists were drafted. Julian's notoriety only added to his appeal, while Drake was still practically persona non grata for scandalously seducing a shy little widow, openly keeping her as his mistress and then marrying the poor creature.
Julian shook his head. All sins were relative, and he'd been extremely lucky that the worst of his own shortcomings had missed public notice. Still, he'd survived only to find his pockets empty despite Sotherton's generosity. Years at the gam-ing tables had won him little, and now reality loomed. He had a title and lands, but no substantial income.
Luckily, the Ton remained ignorant of the dire extremes of his financial situation. Being relatively broke wasn't uncommon amongst the Peerage, but his opportunities would be limited if the meager state of his credit became a topic of public banter. The invitations on his morning trays would evaporate and his circumstances would disintegrate rapidly.
No one in the Ton knew (though a few friends might have guessed that his "cupboards were bare"), but Julian wasn't the kind of man to waste sleep or time worrying over the specters of scandal and bankruptcy that haunted his steps. Nothing was going to keep him from the Season ahead.
I'll make the best of it and laugh in the face of disaster. After all, isn't that what heroes do?
He would have to take his cache of goodwill from playing the hero and use it to create opportunities to recover his fortune. Either Lady Luck would start to smile a bit more sweetly in his direction or he might have to consider the unthinkable. Julian shuddered. A marriage of convenience to some dull, wealthy dove and God help me. I think I'd rather the bullet hadn't missed its mark.
Not that he wasn't aptly suited to the role of fortune hunter, but he found the very thought of it nauseating. It was one thing to seduce the lovely women of the Ton for the sheer thrill of the hunt and another game entirely to track down a rich prize for his survival. Light pockets didn't mean a man couldn't afford a touch of pride. He'd never wasted time in the past considering his personal honor, but apparently even the Earl of Westleigh had his limits.
Better to risk ruin in games of chance, he intoned silently, than the ruin a wife could wreak. Matrimony seemed an encumbrance at best, and at worst...An image of Beatrice in his dressing room just yesterday afternoon, on her hands and knees begging for his cock, flitted past his mind's eye. He'd experienced firsthand how easily a married woman could be "led astray," and he'd wickedly encouraged more indiscretions than he wanted to admit to. He'd never wasted any pity on the husbands, feeling certain that any fool blind enough to while away hours in brothels and clubs without realizing that his wife wouldn't wish to enjoy her own adventures deserved what he got. Julian knew full well that a woman's capacity for pleasure matched a man's no matter what the crusty pillars of society touted.
And now that he was a "selfless hero," he didn't think there was a bedroom door in London he couldn't breach.
As the carriage moved through the streets, Julian felt unsettled. A restless mood undermined his usual confidence. Courtesans with soft hands awaited him on silk sheets, ready to soothe the fire in his blood, but a new reluctance overtook him. Those same soft hands would be outstretched for payment, and he'd tossed the last of his coins onto Shelbrook's table that evening. He could request more credit, but his appetite waned at the thought of owing money for sexual favors.
The impulse to visit his old haunts passed, and Julian called to the driver to redirect him to a different address one engraved on an invitation he'd received earlier in the week and had almost tossed away. His mood lifted as the carriage turned around. Julian took a deep, slow breath. It was time to venture out into the respectable world and see what entertainments his peers had to offer.
After all, a man could only lose for so long.
"What a dear little thing you are!" Lady Morrington repeated again, her blue-gray curls bobbing sympathetically as she led her newest young friend toward a table near the windows. "To put up with such tiresome company!"
"Not at all," Eve Reynolds lied sweetly. "You are too kind to allow me to impose on your game." She gave each of the aging biddies at the small table a look of awe and admiration, as if she'd felt honored to be in their glorious presence. It was a performance too subtle for the theater but well suited to the intimate stage of an evening with the Peerage. The three women preened in response, openly pleased to find a young, respectful lady so aware of her place and with so much apparently to learn about their card games.
"It is no imposition," Mrs. Cuthbert pronounced as she reached up to pat Eve's slender hand. "I only wish we'd a few more younger guests to keep you better entertained. I cannot think that Sophie, Margaret, and I are lively enough company for you."
It was true that Mrs. Margaret Wickett's card party wasn't a great draw for the younger set, but Eve's uncle had chosen it for exactly that reason. The small, fashionable gathering was tailor-made for their purposes. A dozen card tables were spaced throughout the gold and green salon, allowing guests to play or mingle about to watch the different groups. Unlike the rowdier gambling venues of the city, these elegant private parties were more comfortable and intimate, so few guests really worried about their purses. They were more likely to relax and wager without fear of the consequences, confident in the knowledge that the games were strictly for fun. So while her uncle, Mr. Warren Reynolds, made an overt show of bonding with the men just two tables away, loudly winning and losing in equal measure, she'd been quietly left to play the role of an inexperienced and naïve young lady with the older women, laying the trap once again.
"You are the very best of company, Mrs. Cuthbert, and I only hope I can follow your lead." Eve lowered her eyes to her hands, wishing for a brief moment that she'd been a thousand leagues away, far from Mrs. Wickett's grand salon, the card parties, and the endless games her uncle expected her to play.
"Isn't she a dear little thing?" Lady Morrington intoned. The ladies nodded in agreement, and Mrs. Cuthbert waved another invitation to the open chair next to her.
The matter settled unanimously, Eve demurely took her place to complete the foursome. The cards were dealt, and she retrieved her cards only after the others had collected theirs. The feel of the cards in her hands reassured her, and an odd calm settled over her as she began the ritual of play. Through her lashes, she noted the ladies' telling expressions and mannerisms as they studied their cards and anticipated either victory or defeat. After only a few rounds, Eve had a complete command of her opponents. She knew when they would yield and when they would increase their wagers, when they thought they had a hand of great strength and when a show of finesse might have served them better as the opportunities of good leads came and went. They were not without skill, and Lady Morrington, despite her propensity to prattle about her extreme "shy and delicate nature," was a potential tiger when it came to her tricks.
But she was also the wealthiest woman at the party and Eve's primary quarry.
Time passed quickly, and Eve did her best to win sparingly and lose with notable grace, letting her partner garner the glory. It was not as simple a task as it appeared on the surface, but she wasn't new to the nuances of "nearly" winning and the women seemed amused and touched by her sincere efforts to keep up with their lively pace of play.
A few more hands, dear ladies, and then we shall see if this was money well spent or
"Is that the Earl of Westleigh?" Mrs. Cuthbert said in a whisper that could have carried across a battlefield. Eve lost the thread of her thoughts as she watched the women titter and blush like schoolgirls, gaping at the man in question, who, Eve guessed from the direction of their stares over her own head, was still in the doorway. A rustle of similar exclamations swept through the room, and Eve bit her lower lip to hide her frustration as Mrs. Cuthbert continued, "Margaret! However did you manage it?"
Mrs. Wickett blushed before putting her cards down. "Whatever do you mean? Now, if you'll excuse me, I'll make sure Mr. Wickett doesn't get a chance to make the earl regret his decision to come."
Eve deliberately refused to turn and look behind her at the fascinating paragon that could make Mrs. Wickett rush from her chair. She was sure that the man wouldn't appreciate another person openly staring at him.
"What luck! I've never known the earl to bother with a gathering such as this, but then again...perhaps his brush with death has taught him to appreciate the finer things in life." Lady Morrington set her own cards down to await her friend's return.
Eve's eyes widened at Lady Morrington's strange pronouncement. She was positive that she'd missed a critical step. Brush with death? "Why would any gentleman avoid good company such as this?"
Mrs. Cuthbert answered without taking her eyes off the scene unfolding across the room behind Eve. "It's quite a saga, but let us just say summarily that we were too staid and boring for the vibrant young Lord Westleigh. But it seems he has had a change of heart."
Lady Morrington nodded. "I overheard Lady Shelbrook say he's been the consummate gentleman and guest since his return from the country. I understand he is staying in their townhome while hunting for a new house of his own in London. But she seemed quite taken with the man."
"What woman wouldn't be?" Mrs. Cuthbert noted sagely, shocking Eve a little with her open appreciation of the mysterious Earl of Westleigh. A dozen questions rattled forward in her mind, but she knew better than to voice them. Her interest could easily be misinterpreted, and she had no desire to have these women think her overeager on the subject of death-defying noblemen who interrupted a perfectly good evening's work. But the urge to turn in her seat was almost more than she could bear.
Damn it. Whoever he is, he needs to sit down somewhere and let Mrs. Wickett return to the table so that we can finish this hand! I was so close!
At last their hostess returned and took her place, her cheeks decidedly rosier. "I invited him to sit at the colonel's table, though he said he wished to observe a while before settling in."
"He's observing our young friend, it seems," Lady Morrington said with great enthusiasm. "What a delightful turn!"
Eve knew it was her own imagination that sent a shiver down her spine, as if his gaze had actually been touching her skin and making her body react. A flush crept across her cheeks, but she resolutely ignored it and studied her cards. To turn now would only fuel the women's gossip and spark a humiliating conversation about fated meetings and the fanciful attachments of youth. He was still behind her and out of view, but she decided at that moment that if he'd been Adonis himself, he wouldn't have gotten a single glance from this earthbound female. Eve Reynolds had far more important things on her mind.
"Speaking of turns, was it not your lead, Mrs. Wickett?" Eve asked with her best show of shy manners. "I confess, I've almost forgotten which suit is trump for this hand!"
While looks were exchanged, the ladies apparently decided to forfeit the chance to tease her any further, though none of them failed to indicate to Eve at every moment where the earl was standing in the room as he observed the players. Like groundhogs watching a hawk overhead, their gazes were continually drawn to the latest arrival to the party. Eve struggled to keep them on task.
"Shall we re-deal and begin again?" Eve asked.
"No need, dear thing," Lady Morrington replied. "Margaret, it's your lead, and this time do try and read Mrs. Cuthbert's mind."
The women laughed at the jest, and Mrs. Cuthbert nodded. "I am staring at my cards as pointedly as I can. Ah, the elusive rapport of a good partner!"
Play resumed, but Eve couldn't shake the sensation that she was being studied from afar. She managed her cards by rote skill and finally gave in to the gnawing need to see for herself this paragon of a rogue who had avoided good company until the specter of death had driven him to Mrs. Wickett's salon.
If only so that I can set this foolish curiosity aside and concentrate!
Male laughter at her uncle's table gave her the perfect excuse to shift back and steal a subtle look at the room's other occupants. She'd expected to pick him out after a quick search, but she almost gasped out loud at the shock of finding him instantly for there was no mistaking the "vibrant young earl," and his gaze was most decidedly locked on her.
He was the most unnervingly handsome man she had ever seen. He was a study in gold, with his tawny blond hair and eyes the color of molten amber. Even his skin betrayed an unfashionable tan that added to her impression of vibrant power. Tall and well formed, he looked like a Thoroughbred stallion straining at the slips, trapped in a room full of dodgy ponies so completely out of place that she immediately forgave the older women for acting like blushing schoolgirls. After all, she'd turned to peek at him, and, like a dunce, she'd gotten caught in the act.
All pretenses evaporated under the intensity of his study, and Eve didn't think the Earl of Westleigh was the sort of man to miss even a casual observer's glances. His eyes never wavered from hers, and she felt a shiver at the danger. Long seconds strung together, and Eve was aware that with each tick of the clock, the threat was growing. Still, she felt unable to look away. The Earl of Westleigh was the most breathtakingly gorgeous man she'd ever seen. His look was an inquiry so pure and primal that every fiber in her ached to answer him. She lifted her chin defiantly, challenging him to be the first to end it. A gentleman would cease this scandalous study and let a girl gather her wits!
But this gentleman had other ideas.
His golden brown eyes telegraphed amusement at her dilemma, as if he'd been enjoying her discomfort, and a new wave of restless heat danced over her skin.
"Oh, my!" Mrs. Cuthbert's exclamation finally broke through, and Eve turned back in her chair, facing the ladies with a genuine sense of embarrassment.
"I-I see that the...I hope I haven't held up the game," she finished weakly, fighting off the sensation that she had just been floating a few inches above the floor.
The ladies laughed. "Aren't you a dear little thing!" Lady Morrington said with a gleam in her eye. "I believe I can speak for all of us when I say that our group will seem all the duller for lack of your company."
Oh, God. She's dismissing me, and Uncle Warren will have a hysterical fit when he realizes I've failed to
Mrs. Cuthbert chimed in merrily, "I know you speak for me! I'm not one for gossip, but I should hate to miss a firsthand account of Miss Reynolds's social season especially now."
Lady Morrington nodded decisively, her scheme confirmed. "I realize that cards are a dreadful waste of your youthful hours, but I insist that you join us for our Tuesday afternoon gatherings. It is a bit of whist, or whatever game suits us, but we would love to include you. It is nothing so grand as this, but perhaps if your uncle will allow it "
"Yes, thank you. I will ask him," Eve said.
Relief pushed away the panic that had choked her at the thought of her uncle's reaction at her botching this first critical step in his ambitious plans. It was more than she'd hoped for a standing invitation to a weekly game of cards and an entrée into their small wealthy circle. The earl's presence had probably been the deciding factor in Lady Morrington's spontaneous proposal. The gossiping old birds were hoping to have a front seat at the handsome earl's pursuit of her, apparently mistaking his lustful looks for gentlemanly interest. They were going to be disappointed, but Eve wasn't about to be the one to spoil her victory by telling them. She made sure her expression revealed none of her emotions. Normally, she was a master of the art of disguising her true feelings, but now...
He was still there.
It was easy to recall the look in his eyes and to feel that heat uncoil within her again at the thought of the wicked invitation she'd read in his gaze. The older women's reactions were no mystery. It seemed the Earl of Westleigh was not a man any woman could effortlessly ignore. But Eve was not about to melt into a puddle and yield an evening's victory to a distracting rogue with golden eyes and smoldering good looks. She had waited too long for this Season and a chance for freedom.
Look your fill, sir. I'm no simpering debutante to faint when you smile.
Julian deliberately chose a table in proximity to the dark-haired young woman who had sparked his curiosity. He'd almost missed her at first, but something about the way she held herself...Truly, she wasn't his type he favored the more classically lovely English roses, with their golden curls and pink, creamy curves, but there was something about her that compelled a thorough study. With pale skin and coal black hair, she had a vague, exotic air about her. Julian decided that while she was no stunning beauty, with her unfashionably wide, albeit lush mouth and high cheekbones, she was lovely nonetheless. She lacked the delicate features and heart-shaped face that seemed to be in vogue, but her eyes were undeniably stunning. Fringed with long, black eyelashes, they were a sapphire blue he hadn't expected. This was no porcelain doll. She was far too vibrant and unique, despite the demure cut and dark blue color of her gown. Her figure seemed sleek, though he could only guess at her height. The more he stared, the more she seemed like a gypsy queen sitting there so calmly among the colorless people of the Ton. She was young, but she didn't appear to be frivolous or naïve. She'd fearlessly stared him down, and by the look of her play, she was equally fearless when it came to the turns of a game.
As he'd strolled the salon, it had been her play that had held his rapt attention. She was graceful and controlled. And now, as he covertly continued to study the dove, he was amazed at the subtle workings of her strategies.
Or I'm reading too much into the lamb's cards because somehow the sight of her lips is making my mouth water so ready to taste...He wondered how long the façade of polite civility would last if they were alone, if she would tremble coyly before giving in to a sensual nature she attempted to hide from the world. Or would she ignite at the first stroke of his tongue, the first sweep of his hands?
He shook his head and glanced at the dismal cards in his hand, swallowing a grimace as he barely managed to break even. A change of venue had done little for his luck, but by God, the mystery woman was worth a few more miserable hands.
His opponents chattered mindlessly and all too readily offered to share the information he sought about the exotic young bird in their midst. Over each spread of cards, another tantalizing detail was revealed. She was a debutante. Her uncle, a Mr. Warren Reynolds, was a man of means, though no one at the table was sure of his industry or the source of his vast fortune. Mr. Reynolds had lofty connections and had been introduced by enough of the Ton that he and his niece were welcome amidst the bluest bloods of London if not by right of birth, then by invitation. Her uncle sat three tables away, and Julian noted that the man kept a better eye on his niece than he did on his cards.
Miss Eve Reynolds. What a puzzle you are...
As if he'd spoken her name aloud, he watched the subtle stiffening of her back as if she thought to play the prude and ward off his attentions. From a loose gathering on her head, long sausage curls trailed down her neck to hang down between her shoulder blades, each lustrous black spiral begging to be touched. He speculated about the length of her hair, if he was to remove all the pins and combs. A fleeting image of fingering the smallest wisps back from her delicate ear, or raking his hands through the soft silk of her hair so that he could bury his face in the fragrance, sent his blood pulsing into the pit of his stomach. Julian knew he was on the brink of an arousal that would trap him at the table no matter how bad the cards.
An inconvenient moment to be distracted, sadly. So much for the advantage of a clear head! But for the first time in his life, he felt disconnected from the game. The thrill of the chance to win a fortune was hollow, and the cards at his fingertips felt cold. His brow furrowed at the sensation. Julian tried to remember another occasion when he'd felt indifferent to chance. Even earlier in the dull quiet of Barnaby's study, he'd experienced the sweet hope of winning and the dance of the cards across green velvet had commanded his attention.
Now all he could think of was the debutante nearby and wonder if Lady Luck wasn't toying with him after all.
"Another hand, Lord Westleigh?" the gentleman dealing asked politely.
His gaze flickered back to her profile, and his smile was pure sin. "At the very least."
Copyright © 2008 by R. Renee Bernard