Teaching scandalous young men a lesson? This is not your typical book club
To Rebecca Sherringham, all men are open books-read quickly and forgotten. Perhaps she's just too practical for love. The last thing she needs is another bore around-especially one that's supposed to be dead.
Captain Lucius "Luke" Wainwright turns up a decade after disappearing without a trace. He's on a mission to claim his birthright and he's not going away again until he gets it. But Becky and the ladies of the village Book Club Belles Society won't let this rogue get away with his sins. He'll soon find that certain young ladies are accustomed to dealing with villains.
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Sinfully Ever After
By Jayne Fresina
Sourcebooks, Inc.Copyright © 2014 Jayne Fresina
All rights reserved.
Was it any surprise, Rebecca thought crossly, that she, at the age of seventeen, already viewed men with such a cynical eye?
She looked again at the words scrawled haphazardly across a scrap of paper.
Temporarily light a few shillings. Be an angel and bring Mother's music box, quick as you can.
Crumpling the note in her gloved fist, she cursed. "Angel, indeed! If I had a halo, I'd choke you with it, Nathaniel Sherringham."
She peered in through the tavern window. A red blob among several, her brother was identifiable mostly from his familiar, unbound laughter.
How much, she wondered with that awful, sinking pit in her stomach, had he wagered and lost this time? Sometimes she was surprised to find she still had a full head of hair when she woke in the morning, since Nathaniel once tried to pay a debt by offering her abundant bronze locks as payment.
Taking a deep breath, as if it might be the last fresh taste she would ever have, Becky pushed open the door and stepped inside that smoke-filled tavern.
The noise fell away to a surprised murmur as faces turned to observe her through the gray cloud. They couldn't know, of course, that if anyone tried to lay hands upon her, she had an officer's pistol hidden inside her muff and she itched for a chance to use it.
Men! You'll never find a group of women sitting around, drunk, with nothing to do but throw money away and fondle loose persons of the opposite gender, she thought.
"Ah! Here she is!" Nathaniel's drunken shout greeted her as she marched to his table, parting the foggy whorls with brisk, impatient sweeps of one arm. From the lack of focus in her brother's blue eyes and the way he slouched in his chair, she could tell he'd been there for quite some time. Around the table, his opponents were in a similar state of disrepair, all in their cups, all staring at her.
Except for one.
Although Rebecca had meant only to skim the other players with disdain, her scornful gaze tripped to a halt.
In that crowded den of vice, his were the only eyes that didn't take obvious note of her arrival. He was too preoccupied by something he kept inside his coat — a small bulge guarded possessively. His winnings, no doubt. But when one of the other men alerted him to the change in their surroundings, he slowly turned his head to where Rebecca stood.
Two dark eyes in a deeply tanned, weather-bitten face met her gaze. As he found her staring back so boldly, he hitched forward, she supposed to get a better look at her. Rebecca did not flinch from studying him — or as much of the man as she could see — in the same way. He was rugged rather than handsome, no more distinguished or dashing than any other fellow about thirty. His hair and eyes were black as a moonless midnight in winter. A daubing of firelight revealed that his nose was slightly crooked and the bridge flattened — no doubt by a well-landed thump, for he looked the sort to attract knuckles and serve plenty of his own. Oh yes, she knew the type.
His chin was square and unshaven, his cheek scarred. The large gray coat he wore must be heavy, but he didn't seem to mind the additional heat. He had claimed the only piece of furniture in the place that was made to keep out drafts — an old-fashioned, high-backed settle chair of the style once found in medieval castles. And that, she thought suddenly, is where he belongs too, in some long ago past of lawless mercenaries and conquering warriors.
Nathaniel waved a tankard in Rebecca's direction and burped. "This is my sister, a terrible, nagging, ingrate wench. And this" — he swung his arm back again to point at the large slab of trouble across the table — "is Lucky."
No one had ever looked less suited to their name.
Neither had anyone ever looked at Rebecca the way this man did. As if he saw right through her clothes. Right through her skin to where her heart was beating.
Those two coal-black eyes narrowed and his gaze intensified, seeking out her corners, curves, and dips with unwavering, unblinking attention.
"Well? Where is it?" Nathaniel demanded, his chair creaking violently as he twisted around to face her again. "You did bring the music box, like I said in my note?"
She tore her gaze from the other man. "No, I did not. Since it is all we have left of our mother, I certainly will not let you give it away to a stranger. If you were sober, you would not think of it either."
All eyes turned to the strapping fellow across the table. Only his fierce regard remained focused on her.
Meanwhile, Nathaniel's face now matched his uniform. "Damn you, Becky. Don't lecture me. Fetch the music box."
"Fetch it yourself."
He couldn't, though. The chair and table were all that kept her brother semi-upright at that moment.
Raising her voice to address the grim observer in the settle chair, she demanded, "How much does he owe you, sir?"
The lack of response from Lucky's lips brought an ominous weight of silence to the crowded tavern.
His gaze had fallen to her feet and now, as it made its way slowly upward again, Rebecca was forced to recall a time in childhood when Nathaniel, in retaliation for her accidentally burning out the seat on a pair of his breeches, had tried selling her off to a maharajah's nine-year-old son. Of course, she was delivered safely back in time for nursery dinner, but ever since then, Nathaniel had looked for some way to unload his irritating little sister, preferably at profit to himself, and she suspected he wasn't always joking.
Caught in the ruthless grip of this stranger's perusal and with no music box to satisfy his debt, she wondered exactly how inebriated and desperate her brother need be before he offered her up whole again to a willing buyer.
This man wasn't likely to return her in time for tea and crumpets.
Best take the bull by its horns. Problems like this didn't solve themselves, did they?
Raising her voice, she repeated, "How much has my brother lost tonight, sir?"
Still no reply, just that hard stare and a slight flaring of the nostrils.
Becky inquired politely, "Are you hard of hearing?"
The corner of his mouth struggled into a lazy sneer, winched upward with resentful effort. "I don't answer questions from wenches or magistrates."
She sighed. "Well, that's an obstacle, certainly, but not insurmountable. I once reasoned with a sulking orangutan when he stole my best straw bonnet and tried to eat it, so I daresay we'll manage somehow. A fair compromise can always be reached."
The ridges in his brow deepened. "I don't compromise, and I don't discuss business with a bit o' petticoat. When I'm owed a debt, I collect on it."
"Thank you for the fascinating slice of insight into your magnificence. I appreciate knowing where I stand from the start. Now it's my turn."
Stormily silent again, he kept one hand on the lump he guarded against his chest under his coat and leaned back into the creaking slats of the old settle, the winged side of pitted, carved oak casting his face in partial shadow.
"I am not frightened of you, sir," she assured him. "I once stared down a bull that got free of its rope in a crowded souk. I've climbed a banyan tree — barefoot in a monsoon — to rescue a litter of stranded kittens, and I helped a lady give birth in a flood-trapped barouche while the men around me flew into hysteria."
Her brother confirmed all this for the watching crowd with a wry smirk, a hiccup, and a very sloppy shrug.
"And while that air of sinister mystique might impress others," she continued, "I've never found inscrutable particularly appealing as a characteristic. But then, I have no patience for riddles. I prefer a direct approach and the minimum of fuss. I don't like too many bows on my bonnets or sugar in my tea, and roses bring me out in a rash." Since he would not move out from behind the winged side again and appeared to be under the misapprehension that their conversation was complete, Rebecca walked up to his chair and, much to the amazement of her audience, pushed aside the crooked table to face him head on. Firelight revealed again the narrowed eyes through which he observed her in mild horror, as if she carried some deadly tropical disease.
"So that's me for you. Now might we proceed? I'm in rather a hurry, if you don't mind. I've got a pair of abandoned breeches to rescue from a stray bathing machine."
One thick, black eyebrow rose slowly, questioning.
"It's a long story and more than I care to bother you with, especially as it's only Tuesday and from the scars on your face, you've got your own gauntlets to run."
His thin lips tightened as he looked around her at Nathaniel, who had almost tumbled out of his chair when she thrust the table aside. Then, finally, another low rumble of thunder emerged from that reluctant mouth. "Run home, freckled wench, and fetch that music box, like your brother here said. Bear in mind, the last soul who tried to cheat me got his teeth knocked down the back of his throat. You wouldn't want that to happen to your brother's fine set, now, would you, Gingersnap?"
If her dander was not already up, it would be when he called her that.
The thunder cracked again, louder this time, for the benefit of his fellow degenerates. "Bloody women, never can follow a simple order. Too busy running the tongue to pay heed to a man's needs. Knew a ladybird once that never shut up, even when we were knocking boots. Put me off me rhythm. Only way to keep her quiet was turning her face down in the pillow. By the time she had breath back to complain about me using the servants' entrance, I'd made me delivery and was out again."
The men all laughed. Cronies, the lot of them, Becky thought angrily.
His gaze returned to her. "What? Still here, Gingersnap?"
"The name, sir, is Miss Sherringham. You may favor brawn over brains, but surely you can absorb that much."
She heard the rustling of men moving around her, but one warning look and a menacing growl from Lucky halted their advance. "This isn't one of your fancy drawing room parties, Gingersnap. You're on my territory. There are no misses here."
"There is, however, a great deal of cock-and-bull. I'm afraid I've had my fill of that."
"I doubt it. You wouldn't be walking straight if you'd had mine."
Laughter swelled around her again, but she shouted above it. "Since we're dispensing with all polite address, I'll call you Thickheaded Buffoon, shall I?"
"You're getting my bristles up, missy."
"Fancy that. At least you know when you're being insulted — you can't be so very stupid."
"Be careful you don't get on my bad side, young lady."
"Nor you on mine. I can't claim to have knocked out a set of teeth, but I have a mean pinch and a bite that's raised many a tear in a spiteful bully's eye. And I'm not afraid to use them."
His scowl wavered and finally crumpled, relaxing into a bewildered grin. He shifted into a more casual pose but still retained the aura of one holding court over his minions from a throne. Like Caesar, he considered her as if she, Cleopatra, had just been unrolled from a carpet at his feet. "Well now, I've always steered clear of redheads and didn't much like the look of you when you first tipped up." Slowly he rubbed his chin. "But I like a wench with bite. You're growing on me."
"How nice." She smiled with deliberate sweetness. "Perhaps, if you've made sufficient protest at being confronted by a mere woman, we can negotiate and conclude this business to the circumspect and logical satisfaction of all parties."
"Satisfaction? Oh, I'm sure we can find satisfaction." His grin widened slowly. "Come sit on my knee."
"I said logical and circumspect."
He squinted. "Not familiar with 'em."
Having seen her brother perform in similar ignorant fashion whenever he felt himself losing a quarrel, Becky remained unmoved by the display and explained sharply, "With prudence."
"Damn! Prudence too? I can't take on two wenches tonight." He slid a measuring glance down at his thigh. "Reckon I'd have enough to handle with just you alone, Gingersnap."
More laughter erupted.
"Aye," he added, his voice lower now, tempered just for her. "You're enough for any man, I daresay."
For a moment, she forgot her purpose there. His stare possessed a certain mesmerizing quality. The heat of the tavern must be getting to her, she decided. Of course she knew he was only trying to make her flustered so he could laugh and dismiss her. The idea that Rebecca Boadicea Sherringham could be made to blush was a common misconception among her brother's friends too, when they first met her.
"Mind what you say to my little sister," Nathaniel slurred belatedly from somewhere behind her. "I won't have you insulting the nagging wench. She's my sister and I can insult her. But not you."
Lucky made a sudden lurch forward, his impressive bulk poised as if to seize her.
"St-stay where you are, sir!" Becky gasped in surprise and swiftly withdrew her pistol from its hiding place. "Don't you dare move. Any of you."
Although she warned all the men there, the pistol was aimed at one in particular. The man in charge.
Amendment: the man who thought he was in charge.
He stared for a moment and then tipped back into his chair again. Amusement gradually warmed his expression, along with something akin to admiration. She hesitated to call it that, because what man would look approvingly on a woman who pointed a gun at his chest?
A madman perhaps.
"What do you find so amusing?" she demanded.
"I was just thinking about the last time I enjoyed the company of a young wench with a fiery temper. Lovely warm pair of apple dumplin's she served up for my pleasure. But I wonder if your fruit wouldn't be even sweeter, being so fresh and untouched." He ran a fingertip over his smile. "You are untouched, eh, Gingersnap?"
"Call me that name once more and I'll shave an inch off both your ears with this pistol."
The man finally lost his grip on a deep, hearty laugh that seemed to take him by surprise. "My ears? Usually other parts of mine get threatened. More vital parts, if you get my drift."
"I assume you refer to the grape and two plums in your breeches? You would place greater significance on those soft fruits than you do on anything else."
His eyes gleamed, some of the darkness broken now by dancing light as he studied her face. Each pass of his gaze over her cheek felt like the caress of a rough hand, but one that tried, surprisingly, to be gentle.
"I'm beginning to regret my stay here is only brief." He paused, considering her with his head tipped to one side. "I've avoided these shores for a great many years. A storm at sea forced the captain to make port unexpectedly, but in the morn I'll be off again with the tide."
How strange that he told her that much, explaining himself to a woman, but his words were loosened now, as well as his smile.
"Is there a price on your head?" She wouldn't be surprised.
"Perhaps. Worried for me?"
"No. Why should this matter of your transient nature concern me?" Becky demanded.
"You ain't the sort of wench I can enjoy for a single night's tryst."
"I certainly am not and —"
"I'd want to savor you for longer than that."
She wasn't usually lost for a reply, but this man made her thoughts change course, made her tongue stumble.
"I'd teach you a few things you don't know about men," he added. "You and me — we'd set the bed afire."
He had a brusque honesty, a gruffness she couldn't help but appreciate, even when he made the most improper remarks. After all, she'd warned him that she preferred straightforward conversation, so it would be foolish to complain now that he told her exactly what he was thinking. Not that she needed his words to confirm it. His eyes were eloquent enough.
"I tell you what," he said. "You'll owe me ... a kiss."
Becky stared, lips pursed. At that moment, she couldn't answer, because a heavy pulse had begun deep inside her body and taken over all her capacities. It put her blood under unusually excitable pressure.
"One kiss from you," he repeated, "will clear your brother's debt to me."
"That's all?" The words exploded out of her on a wave of startled breath.
"That's all, Gin — Miss Sherringham." He paused, eyes laughing. "Disappointed?"
She lowered the pistol and glanced over her shoulder to see that Nathaniel had dozed off in his chair.
Lucky didn't move an inch, but an invisible energy was somehow transferred from his body to hers, felt in a ticklish sensation that made the curls at the nape of her neck tremble. "Get on with it then," she snapped. "Lucky."
Excerpted from Sinfully Ever After by Jayne Fresina. Copyright © 2014 Jayne Fresina. Excerpted by permission of Sourcebooks, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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