Excerpt: Invitation to Ruin
The rogue Society had dubbed “The Lord of Wicked” lurked in the dimly lit recesses of Lady Sudbury’s ballroom. To most people the room was the epitome of warmth, with its blaze of candles and displayed finery, but for Anthony James Craven, the fifth Earl of Wickham, it held absolutely no appeal.
He was here to partake in his favorite pastime—sin and vice. Appetites that a notorious rake craved drew him like a malefactor summoned to hell. Thanks to his father, he was full of sin. Sin he could never atone for. Instead, he chose to lose himself in pleasure. Pleasure, at least temporarily, helped him block the memories he would give his very soul to forget.
He kept to the shadows, hiding from the sycophantic throng, while he searched for the one woman who’d enticed him into breaking all his own rules and attending the event of the Season.
His lips curved in anticipation of the night’s forthcoming liaison. He raised a glass of burgundy to his mouth in mock salute, letting the alcohol take the sting out of the unenviable position of having to hide from mothers of young unmarried daughters.
In the concealing darkness he felt the primitive stirrings of the hunter. His eyes had begun seeking their prey as soon as he’d arrived, over an hour ago. He sank deeper into the shadows, searching for the flesh-and-blood goddess he intended to seduce.
Lady Cassandra Sudbury, a curvaceous young widow with a taste for the erotic, would be his by the end of the night. Anthony stirred from his position propped against the ballroom wall and observed his quarry’s bold approach.
With each dainty step she took toward him, his amusement grew. She worked her way through the masses with an air of innocence reborn; yet if tales were to be believed, Cassandra could corrupt a nunnery.
The blazing draft-buffeted wall candles cast flickers over her burnt-orange silk dress, which indecently hugged her every curve. The gleaming Sudbury diamonds, attracting as much attention as her cleavage, emphasized her pale slender neck. Like an opium pipe to an addict, the exposed skin called out for him to lick, suck, and taste.
Moist pink lips parted in an inviting smile. Cassandra moved behind him, using one delicate hand to cup his left buttock while the other slid under his evening jacket and up his back.
Her soft form molded itself against him, her person hidden from the crowds in the ballroom by his height and size.
“Lord Wickham, is there a reason you’re lurking in the shadows?”
Her husky voice caressed him more than the insistent fingers stroking his backside through his tight, and ever-tightening, black breeches. Both tactics achieved their desired outcome. His member instantly stood to attention, and Anthony smiled to himself. Lady Cassie, as he preferred to call her, was recently out of mourning, and she was playing with fire.
Anthony let his silence hang expectantly before murmuring, “I knew if I ignored the most beautiful woman in the room she’d come to me.”
Light laughter mocked his senses as she moved to stand directly in front of him. “You know me so well.” She trailed her hand over his hip to rub the most intimate part of him, her body shielding her actions from the pomp and ceremony in front of them. “Something’s hard….” Her hand moved more purposely. “Speaking of coming …”
Anthony soaked in the beauty of the woman bold enough to service him in full view of her guests. Very soon she would be his mistress—this very night, in fact. He’d waited long enough.
He did not move, or give any sign of the sparks searing through his body at the practiced fingers stroking him. “If you do not still your hand, I won’t be responsible for my actions.”
She gave a throaty laugh. “In view of the guests? I don’t think so.”
Gritting his teeth, he flashed Lady Cassie a taut smile. “Take a peek over my shoulder, sweetheart.” His jaw tightened as he struggled to control his body. “Where do you think that door leads? If you don’t behave, I’ll pull you into the billiard room, lock the door, and ravish you on the table until you can no longer walk.” He lifted her free hand and kissed the air above her glove. “Guests or no guests.”
At his promise she moaned softly, and he felt her fingers tremble with desire. Cassie stood on tiptoes to whisper in his ear, “Come to my bed tonight, and we shall see who wears out whom.”
If she thought he’d not accept the challenge, she was sorely mistaken. Cassandra thrived on games of flirtation. Anthony thrived on challenge.
He inwardly smiled as she peeped up at him from beneath incredibly long lashes and rubbed her hand longingly one more time, caressing his erection to the point of pain before she set him free. “Tonight?” she whispered.
Anthony’s pulse ratcheted up a notch as Lady Cassie moved close, pressing her plump white breasts against his waistcoat.
“Do not keep me waiting,” she almost pleaded, tapping his chest with her fan before drifting off to converse with her other guests.
He watched her swaying hips. She wouldn’t have to wait.
Lady Cassie’s beauty had driven Anthony to the point of madness over the past week. He felt like a Thoroughbred racehorse that hadn’t been run in over a month. Now he’d been given his head, he wanted Lady Cassie—rumored to be the most beautiful woman in all England—with a need verging on desperation.
She had jet-black tresses, almost a midnight blue in the candlelight, framing creamy milk skin that made you want to lick from toe to breast and back again. He almost lost himself in her exotically framed feline eyes, their color such a vibrant green they appeared to be made of emeralds. Lady Cassandra Sudbury came packaged in a body so curvaceous, so soft, it would drive a saint to sin.
And Lord knew Anthony was no saint.
Finally Cassandra had let him know she was ripe for plucking, and here he stood, a starving man, his eagerness to appease his appetite almost making him grovel.
He shook his head. Anthony James Craven did not grovel. He did not prostrate himself at women’s feet, quite the opposite in fact. Women were usually fighting over him, the Earl of Wickham. Referred to as the Lord of Wicked by ladies who counted themselves among the ranks of those he’d seduced, and there were many. His “Wicked Club,” as the ladies penned it, was most likely the largest female-members-only club in all of England, if not the continent.
Women were his biggest vice. Not his worst vice, but pretty close. He loved women. All women, but in particular women whose beauty could start a war, or those he would have to fight tooth and nail for. His childhood had been starved of beauty, and as an adult he could not help but gravitate toward it.
“What have we here? The mighty Earl of Wickham hiding behind a potted palm?”
Anthony’s shoulders automatically tightened, and he turned to scowl at his twin brother. “A man of my standing—a wealthy, titled bachelor—has an excuse to hide.” He paused and raised an eyebrow, “Who are you hiding from?”
Richard John Craven, younger by only thirty minutes, had the grace to blush. “Mother, of course.” Richard shrugged. “If you would hurry up and do what the head of the family is required to do, marry and produce an heir, Mother would not be bothering me.”
Anthony cursed. “What a difference half an hour makes.”
Richard slapped him on the shoulder. “Duty, Anthony. With the title comes responsibilities. It is time you did yours and saved me from Mother’s constant attentions. There should be no pressure for the second son to bear fruit. I should be free to enjoy all the world has to offer. Seeing Lady Cassandra across the room, I am reminded that there is a lot to enjoy.”
Anthony growled low in his throat. “Can’t you find a woman of your own for a change?”
“Tut tut, can’t handle the competition, eh? She is obviously immune to your charms. I have already given you three nights’ head start, only because you spotted her first. You have not bedded her, or made her your mistress, so I feel free to step in and claim what you have been unable to procure.”
Anthony looked at his twin with a cynical smirk. Richard was correct about one thing—Cassie had made him work harder than any other woman.
Richard looked at him with all the innocence of a man who had just strangled his wife and issued a challenge. “Care to make a game of it, brother?”
Anthony feigned boredom as his gaze swept the dancing guests. “Game?” His blood raced with the challenge. “What do I get if I win, besides Lady Cassie’s delights, of course?” He flicked a spot of lint from the arm of his jacket.
Richard thought on it for a few moments. “I shall agree to allow you the first choice of any woman we meet over the course of the next year, and I promise not to seduce them first.”
Anthony laughed. “That’s not even worth considering. The female sex prefers the bad boy—and you, dear brother, are too angelic looking by far.”
“Isn’t that what we are about to put to the test? What are you scared of? Losing?”
“You’ll lose. I have it on good authority that Lady Cassie will invite me to her bedchamber tonight.” Anthony leaned back on the ballroom wall. “In fact, you just missed her issuing me a personal invitation.”
Richard’s handsome features, so different from his own, crinkled into a grin. “Well, that still leaves me a few hours. I don’t need a bed. If I win, if It up her before you bed her, I get Dark Knight.”
Dark Knight was Anthony’s prized stallion, and he would hate to lose him. He shook his head. Lose? Richard might be his twin brother, but they were nothing alike. Anthony always won their wagers because, when it came down to it, Richard simply was not ruthless enough.
Richard was the family cherub, full of goodness and light. Fair haired and blue eyed, he took after their mother in terms of facial features. He stood a few inches shorter than Anthony with a much leaner build, but well muscled. Anthony was the complete opposite, large, dark haired, with dark eyes and looked like his late father—brutish.
He was the dark-brooding twin, the wicked devil.
Anthony tipped his glass to his mouth and drank with relish; he had earned his reputation.
For the past ten years, the Craven twins had been inseparable. At thirty-three, their lives were spent fighting over women, brawling together, drinking themselves into stupors, and they were rumored to have seduced more women than all the rest of the nobility combined. Alarmed mothers of Society warned their daughters of the dangers of the notorious Craven twins.
A cunning plan formed in Anthony’s head. He smiled at Richard. “If I win, you will marry within a month and sire a son. The son who will become the next Earl of Wickham.”
Anthony stared at his brother without blinking, before raising an eyebrow, “What? Is the wager too rich for your blood, brother dear?”
“You are really determined to thwart Father. Not that I blame you,” Richard added hurriedly. “But you are the right and proper heir, and as such it should be your son who inherits, not mine.”
“A half hour is all that separates us. It was chance I was born first. Society thinks I am lucky for it, but we both know differently. You know damn well I will never father a legitimate child, nor will I ever marry. I’ll ensure Father’s plans for me come to nothing. I won’t ever let Father win.”
Richard thumped the wall. “The only man who will lose is you. Think of your life. If you insist on this plan of self-exile, Father wins. And for what? Father is dead. Let it go. Get on with your life.”
Anthony raised his hand and traced the scar that ran down his left cheek. “That man, long may he rot in hell, should never have been born …”
“I know he was tough on you … but you cannot let our sire continue to dictate your life from the grave.”
Anthony turned away from Richard’s prying eyes. Tough? His father had regularly beaten him until he was almost unconscious. His father had starved him into submission—all in the name of creating a strong heir-apparent, someone ruthless enough to carry on the Wickham empire. He would never let his father’s legacy live on through him.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean that, Anthony. I know my childhood was a bed of roses compared to yours. I just don’t want to see you isolate yourself from all life has to offer.”
Anthony gave a harsh laugh. “I would hardly call pursuing my next mistress as isolating myself. My father wanted me cold, devoid of human feelings, and totally focused on nothing but making money.” He gave a wicked grin. “Tonight, money is furthest from my mind.”
Richard took another sip of wine. “You’re nothing like Father. So give up this pretense that you are. You’ve done more to improve the lot of your tenants than Father ever did in his lifetime.”
Anthony looked at his brother, suppressing the shudder that racked his body. He was exactly like his father. Richard had no idea the lengths his twin went to in order to ensure his dark inner demons never surfaced. Anthony couldn’t let down his guard for one moment. The memory of his father’s evil and the part he had played in it had almost destroyed him.
His past was tarnished with evil. They were too much alike, father and son. Dark, deadly, and dangerous.
When Anthony was young, it had taken weeks to submerge the malevolence back into his soul. It still screamed to get out. Another slip and he might never recover; the wickedness buried deep within would rise up and take him over.
“If I did not know you better, Richard, I would think you were trying to distract me from our wager.” Anthony turned to scan the crowded ballroom for Lady Cassie. There she was, just to his right, at the edge of the dance floor. He started to take a step forward, but his eyes narrowed; that wasn’t her—not unless she’d changed dresses.
Richard pointed. “I see you’ve spotted Miss Melissa Goodly, Lady Cassandra’s cousin. Almost a doppelganger for her, is she not? The two women look more alike than you and I.”
Miss Goodly had black hair, too, but not as glowing. Her eyes were a pretty shade of hazel, maybe green in a certain light, but not as dazzling. Her skin was alabaster, but not as alluring, and she curved in all the right places, just not as temptingly.
She was definitely not mistress material. She was too much like wife material—absolutely not what he was looking for.
“Although,” Richard added, “if I were you, I would stay away from Miss Goodly. Lady Cassandra does not like the comparison. I’ve heard the two women cannot abide each other.”
As Miss Goodly placed an empty glass of champagne on a tray proffered by a servant, and helped herself to another full one, Anthony could see why. The younger woman was still an arresting sight, and those men not fortunate enough to have gained Lady Cassandra’s attentions stood with gazes riveted on Miss Goodly.
She wore a gown of sea green, trimmed in gold, worn off her shoulders in the current style. Her hair was artfully twisted, held in place by a pearl-encrusted comb. A pair of small pearls dressed her lobes, and a single pearl on a gold pendant rested above the swell of her pert bosom.
Miss Goodly was rather pretty but lacked the depth of beauty radiating from Lady Cassie. The young cousin reminded him of a copy of a Rembrandt, not quite as aesthetically pleasing as the original but still a magnificent work of art. The fact she was young and unmarried likely clouded his judgment.
Then Miss Goodly smiled, and the air rushed from his lungs. Her smile was breathtaking, and she suddenly appeared to be illuminated.
No. Miss Goodly was forbidden territory. Why risk the parson’s noose when Lady Cassie was equally, if not more beautiful—and experienced?
He raised an eyebrow in his brother’s direction. “Perhaps there is a way we would both be satisfied. As the eldest I get Lady Cassandra, but I won’t stop you from taking the cousin.”
Richard choked on his wine. “Miss Goodly? Do you think me stupid? She is one and twenty, an unmarried sister of a Baron. If I dally with her I’d be married before I could yell ‘save me,’ and that would be too convenient for you.” Richard shook his head. “No, my original wager stands. If you do not bed Lady Cassandra before me, I get Dark Knight. I have plenty of time.” He grinned at Anthony. “I’ll wager you don’t even know where Lady Cassandra’s bedchamber is? You wouldn’t want to stumble into the wrong room. Think of the scandal.”