Alexander Edgware, Lord Xavier, has quite a reputation--for daring, wagering, and wickedness in all its delightful forms. But the wager before him is hardly his preferred sport: Xavier must persuade a proper young lady to attend his famously naughty Christmas house party--and stay the full, ruinous two weeks. Worse, the lady is Louisa Oliver, a doe-eyed bookworm Xavier finds quite charming. Yet to refuse the challenge is impossible--he will simply have to appoint himself Miss Oliver's protector. . .
Mischief Among Misses
Louisa knows her chance for a husband has passed. But she has no desire to retire into spinsterhood without enjoying a few grand adventures first. When Lord Xavier's invitation arrives, Louisa is more intrigued than insulted. And once inside the rogues' gallery, she just may have a thing or two to teach her gentlemen friends about daring. . .
"Delightfully romantic. . .will set your heart on fire." –USA Today bestselling author Julianne MacLean
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Season for Surrender
By Theresa Romain
ZEBRA BOOKSCopyright © 2012 Theresa St. Romain
All right reserved.
Chapter OneContaining Several Damned Nuisances
December 1, 1818 London
A man determined to play a role in polite society must accept the fact that he can never take a day's rest from it. And Alexander Edgware, the ninth Earl of Xavier, had played a leading role among the haut ton for years.
Today, though, he had a rheumy cold. To one known more for sin than sickness, this was an irritating development.
He'd greeted the day with bloodshot eyes, his head uncomfortably full and sensitive to sound and light. When the day greeted him in return with the inevitable gray drizzle of early winter, he decided to bypass the bow window of White's—his habitual seat of prominence—for the quieter warmth of the coffee room on the club's first floor.
As he sat in a leather wing chair before the marble fireplace, toying with a snifter of brandy, Xavier's feeling of well-being began to return. White's was a bell jar of wealth and influence, a haven of dark wood and costly carpets, attentive waiters, and fires built high enough to banish the wintry chill entirely.
Oh yes. And White's had the famed betting book. Sometimes he thought his life centered on that fat, worn leather folio. Which was all right with him, for there centered society.
He turned a page of his newspaper and scanned the column of on-dits through his quizzing glass. More gossip surrounding the recent death of the queen. Her many children couldn't stop squabbling, even with grief to unite them. Xavier was not displeased that he was unblessed— or uncursed—by siblings.
He skimmed over the accounts of royal misbehavior and found the next item. He could guess the identity of Lady S-; the Viscountess Shelton had recently been found in a state of undress with two footmen and a maid. Rather ambitious of her.
Ha. Here was another tidbit of scandal he understood. Lord L- has parted with his ladybird under mysterious circumstances. The unfortunate female must have failed to give pleasure ... or failed to give pain?
"It was the pleasure, of course," said a voice at Xavier's shoulder. A moment later, his distant cousin, the Marquess of Lockwood, dropped into the leather armchair next to Xavier's. "Damned nuisance, keeping a mistress."
Xavier folded his newspaper and regarded his cousin. They bore the same dark hair and olive-toned complexions, thanks to a shared Italian ancestor. Lockwood's eyes were pale blue to Xavier's gray, though, and just now the marquess wore a smug smile that Xavier would have considered beneath his own dignity.
"You look very pleased with yourself," Xavier remarked.
"Damned nuisance, being mentioned in the scandal sheets." Lockwood preened.
Xavier couldn't resist. "Quite a tragic day for you, if everything has become a damned nuisance. Well, don't trouble yourself, Lockwood. I believe Lord Lowbrough recently turned off his mistress, too, and likely everyone will assume the item refers to him."
Lockwood's grin fell. Brows knit, he snapped for a waiter. "Coffee. Sugar with it." He noted Xavier's snifter and added, "A brandy, too."
The marquess settled back in his chair and slung a booted foot across his other knee. "I'm better off quit of her. A man of the world has no need to buy such an arrangement, eh?"
"It depends on the tastes of the man," Xavier replied. "I always thought Melissande an elegant sort for a mistress, though her pug was grotesque. At my last year's house party, it soiled half the carpets in the east wing."
Lockwood raised his eyebrows. "How foul. Though it might as easily have been the woman as the dog, for she wasn't as elegant as you presume. I assure you, I'm through with her."
He took his brandy and coffee from the waiter and drained the snifter in one swallow. "Ah. That's the thing for an abysmal day like today."
He set the coffee cup down on a spindly table next to his chair, then shot a look at Xavier. "I say, Coz, you look as though you'd got the devil of a head. Late night?"
Xavier blinked, then realized: his reddened eyes could just as well be a legacy of drink as his cold. He seized the excuse, offering his most maddeningly secretive expression. "I'm not one to tell what I've been up to."
"No, the scandal sheets are eager enough to do that for you. Where were you last night? Didn't see you out on the Town."
Probably because he'd plummeted into bed before midnight. This cold had made him miserable all out of proportion to its severity.
"It wasn't one of the usual places," Xavier said with a slow, curling smile. "It was a private encounter."
Very private. Involving only himself and a headache powder.
Lockwood slapped his knee, bumping the spindly table with his boot. His coffee cup rattled a warning in its saucer. "Private, was it? Who was she?"
Xavier grinned, the sudden flash of mischief that made women swoon and call him wicked. "What makes you think there was a woman involved? Perhaps I simply stayed home and turned in early with a good book."
Lockwood hooted. "If you've read anything besides the on-dits lately, I'll eat one of your boots."
"If you so much as touch one, you'll find it planted in your arse."
Lockwood laughed again, as he was meant to. Ah, the ever entertaining role of Xavier: parrying, puckishness, and a touch of profanity.
The role certainly did not include any pastime so quiet as reading. So he didn't mention that, as a matter of fact, he'd read a little Dante before his bleary eyes closed the night before. He'd never claimed to be a scholar, but he had a knack for languages and a fondness for poetry.
He slid his feet closer to the fire, allowing its warmth to saturate the thick leather of his boots, then turned the subject. "We must set our wager soon for my house party, Lockwood, since it's less than three weeks away. We can enter it in the betting book before we leave."
Surely half of the White's betting book was filled with wagers between Xavier and Lockwood. The last had been only two days ago, when they'd bet two bottles of Armagnac brandy on who could drink his bottle quicker.
Xavier had won. Xavier always won. It was part of being Xavier. And when he had to go to the washroom soon afterward and cast up his accounts, no one noticed, because he talked his way into the wine cellar and returned with a bottle of still better brandy, which he shared among all the spectators to the bet.
That was part of being Xavier, too.
"I was thinking," he said, "of something to do with that opera singer. Signora ... what is it? Frittarelli?"
"Frittata," Lockwood snorted, and snapped his fingers for another brandy.
"Fellatio." The snort became a guffaw.
Xavier raised his eyebrows. "Language, language. You can only hope." He grinned to remove the sting. "I do think it's Frittarelli. She's singing tonight at Lady Alleyneham's musicale."
"I've heard she's quite a prime piece. I'll go and get a look at her. Will you come?"
Xavier didn't have to feign his shudder. "God, no. I'd rather have my fingers chewed off by a dog." His aching head couldn't bear a crowded room, a musical cacophony. Not today.
"No need for mutilation. I'll go alone and check out the wares." Lockwood raised his refilled snifter and inhaled deeply. "I've got a taste for that Grande Champagne brandy you ferreted out a few days ago. Excellent. Makes the Armagnac taste like horse piss."
Xavier regarded his own snifter of Armagnac. "It does well enough for everyday. But you're celebrating your freedom from your pug-loving mistress, aren't you?You ought to have the finest cru today. Let me stand you the bottle."
"Much appreciated, Coz. Indeed. I'll have another." Lockwood's eyes were a bit red-rimmed, and Xavier wondered if he was as pleased to be free of Melissande as he professed.
The parting of ways could have been due to lack of funds, not lack of pleasure. Xavier and Lockwood had grown up together, the last remnants of two illustrious titles. But where Xavier's had grown richer over the passing generations, the Lockwood marquessate's fortunes had dwindled.
The mistress's departure, whatever the reason, provided an excuse for Xavier to bear the cost of Lockwood's brandy. When the two men wagered, they never staked more than a token sum. As often as they bet against one another, Lockwood would have been ruined otherwise.
"The wager, then, now that you're fortified," Xavier said. "If not la signora, would you care for a match race? I've a new gelding that's at least as fast as your Tarantella."
"Not fast enough," Lockwood said with a slight hiccup. "The wager, I mean, not the horse. No, much better to bet on the party itself, if it's to be the usual sort of raucous affair."
"I'm not inviting Prinny again, if that's what you have in mind." The dissolute Prince Regent had ruined as many carpets as Melissande's pug the previous year.
"No no." Lockwood batted the suggestion away like a cobweb, wobbling in his chair. "It's no kind of a challenge to get Prinny to a house party, and a challenge is what we want." He rotated his snifter slowly, then rapped it down onto the table at his side. "I have the very thing. I'll wager that you can't get a respectable young woman to attend. Ten pounds on it."
Xavier never declined a bet, but that didn't mean he never remolded it to suit his preference. He shook his head. "I won't risk an unmarried lady's reputation, Lockwood. Much better that we bet on la signora or someone of her kind."
"But we need a challenge. Naturally, the young woman would be permitted a chaperone."
"No, it won't do." Xavier stared down the length of his stretched-out legs. The sheen on his boots was mirror bright despite the drizzle and puddles outside. He had to watch his every step in order to keep them looking just so.
Lockwood tried again. "Your house party's always a roosting place for the birds of paradise with no place to go for Christmas. Just give it a festive air to appeal to the sparrows, too. Mistletoe in the corners, punch every night— revelry will be expected. If you're as charming as all the world says, you should have no trouble in persuading a respectable young lady to attend."
Xavier adopted Expression Number Three, Amused Tolerance. "You said it, Lockwood, not I. I've never professed many virtues."
"The best way to gain virtue," Lockwood replied with his own attempt at Expression Number Three, "is to employ your well-tried methods of seduction. Yes?"
"I'll hardly gain virtue for myself by stealing it from a young lady," Xavier said smoothly. "Though as I said, I have no high aspirations for myself in that area."
"No debauchery need be involved. All you need do is invite the young lady. If she attends, and stays for the full two weeks, then you win the bet. All very proper." Lockwood smirked. "Unless the lady proves otherwise."
Xavier mirrored Lockwood's smirk but hesitated. His annual house party wasn't exactly the type of party a young lady of quality ought to attend. And he'd never wagered on anyone's reputation but his own.
At his hesitation, the marquess pounced. "If you're afraid you can't do it, you could forfeit the bet. Here, I'll enter the wager in the betting book, and then we'll forget the whole thing."
He held out his hand. "Ten pounds on it?" His expression was guileless, but his eyes were not.
Xavier's fingers flexed, and he clenched them into a fist.
He couldn't decline the bet. He had a reputation to uphold: this creation, Lord Xavier, whose exploits were as much figments of others' imaginations as they were of his own doing. One of Lord Xavier's best-known qualities was that he never turned down a wager. And he never lost.
"No tenner for you," he said in his breeziest voice. "Enter the bet, and name the young lady. N'importe qui."
Lockwood's smile turned feral. He motioned for a servant and demanded writing implements and the betting book, a leather-bound affair of seeming ancientness.
He deliberated over the entry, writing down his name and Xavier's first, then the stake of ten pounds. "It wouldn't do to write the lady's name in the book. But I've hit upon the very one, as you've given me the choice. You shall invite Miss Oliver."
The name was a gut-punch.
Xavier dropped his eyelids, slow and sleepy, to cover his surprise. Louisa Oliver. Damnation.
If there was any young lady in London who was certain to decline an invitation from Xavier, it was she—that quiet bluestocking with uncommonly wary eyes. He knew Miss Oliver blamed him for the scandal that had swirled about her sister's engagement earlier that year.
But he couldn't back out now. And he couldn't allow himself to lose.
"Very well; I'll wager that Miss Oliver will be in attendance," he said with an incline of his head. "For the full two weeks."
"Excellent." Lockwood shut the betting book and handed it back to the waiting servant. "This will be amusing, watching you try to behave yourself for two weeks."
"Amusing for others," Xavier muttered.
His mind was tumbling over his memories of the dark-eyed Miss Oliver, who had already gauged and dismissed him. The only woman ever to do so.
She had been lovely, though. Lockwood might be right: this house party could be exactly the challenge his life was missing. Xavier had a way of finding pleasure in unexpected situations.
And he'd finish by taking another ten pounds from his cousin. His Christmas gift to himself.
"If you'll excuse me, Lockwood," he said, rising to his feet. "It seems I have some invitations to dispatch." But they wouldn't be the invitations Lockwood expected.
Already, Xavier's head cold seemed less bothersome.
Chapter TwoContaining All the Ingredients for a Scandal Broth
Three weeks later Surrey
"Brewing a scandal broth is vulgar, my girl," Estella, Lady Irving, commented as her carriage turned onto the long, shaded drive to Clifton Hall. "I won't have it said that I attended for that reason."
Louisa Oliver suppressed a smile. "No one would dare say such a thing of you, Aunt. They would be far too frightened."
Her aunt harrumphed. "It's not as though this house party will match the scandals of past years. Xavier's tidied up the guest list."
"Much to your dismay?"
"To my delight, my girl." She gave Louisa's cheek a pinch. "If it promised to be any more scandalous, I couldn't have brought you along. And if it promised to be any less scandalous, there wouldn't have been any point in coming myself."
The countess loved tittle-tattle with a passion that not even a recent family scandal had cooled. She had jumped at the chance to chaperone Louisa to Lord Xavier's house party, certain that it would involve enough intrigue to curl her still-bright auburn hair without the use of tongs.
For the first time in years, Lady Irving traveled without the comfort of her French lady's maid, who had recently married and been allowed a holiday. Thus far, Louisa had observed that this privation had decreased her aunt's never-plentiful patience.
The countess frowned at Louisa. "Not fretting about missing the family Christmas, are you?"
"I'll answer that with the heartiest 'no' you can possibly imagine," Louisa said.
Her aunt shot her a sharp look. "Yes, I suppose you would."
In recent months, "family" had meant Louisa's stepsister, Julia, and brother-in-law James, at whose country house she'd been living. Kind and protective, they hadn't wanted Louisa to accept the unexpected invitation to Lord Xavier's house party. Though Xavier and James had been friends for years, Xavier had handed the shocking news of James's and Julia's first assignation to one of London's tawdriest scandal rags. Terribly unkind of him, though Julia and James had soon married. They enjoyed life in the country and were now expecting their first child.
Whereas Louisa had spent the preceding months cataloguing their library. And as quiet weeks stacked up, she'd catalogued herself along with the books, and she wasn't at all satisfied with the entry:
Oliver, the Honorable Louisa Catherine. Twenty-one years of age. Spinster. Tallish. Dark hair and eyes. Shy of strangers. Inclined to be sharp-tongued. Over-fond of books.
At least she was broad-minded. No one could deny that, considering her family's scandal had involved the end of Louisa's own engagement to James.
As it hadn't been a love match, she hadn't been deeply hurt when James turned instead to Julia. Still, there was no sense in ending the year as a hanger-on to their wedded bliss. At this house party, she hoped to add a few lines to her Louisa catalogue.
Got kissed. Found some interesting new books. Made peace between James and Xavier and convinced the polite world of my charm. Got kissed some more.
That would be her Christmas gift to herself. With the holiday only four days away, and the New Year approaching, it was time for a change. Past time.
"You're blushing, my girl," Lady Irving said. "Not thinking of something you shouldn't, are you?"
"I'm so pure-minded that I can't imagine what you're talking about," Louisa lied. "It's warm in this carriage, that's all."
Excerpted from Season for Surrender by Theresa Romain Copyright © 2012 by Theresa St. Romain. Excerpted by permission of ZEBRA BOOKS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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