Surrey, England, 1811
The shade of the weeping willows protected her from the heat of the afternoon sun, but nothing could cool Evangeline’s blood. She fondled the note Stowe had given her half an hour ago. She’d never regretted saving the young stable boy from his brute of a father two years ago. Stowe worshiped her and was the key to keeping her relationship with Hadley a secret from her mother.
She reread the missive. Hadley wanted to see her—urgently—so she’d saddled Rosten, her dapple-gray gelding, and galloped straight to their usual meeting place.
“Urgently” could mean only one thing: he had news on their planned elopement.
Her nerves on edge, her body strung as taut as a bow, she had to use all her mental strength to sit patiently waiting for her love in their favorite spot under the willow tree in the paddock behind his stable.
Lord Hadley Fullerton, the second son of the Duke of Claymore, was prepared to defy Evangeline’s mother, and his own family if need be, to make her his wife. Her heart burst with joy.
How had she got so lucky?
She’d met Hadley three years ago, when she was a young girl of sixteen. He’d been staying at his hunting lodge, which bordered her family’s crumbling estate. She hadn’t understood at the time, but the morning she stumbled upon him he’d been out drinking in the local tavern, as any young man of twenty-two would have been, and he’d ridden straight into a low-hanging branch, knocking himself off his horse. He’d fallen into a drunken sleep right where he’d landed on the path.
Evangeline had almost ridden over him. However, when she rolled him over, she’d thought him the most handsome man she’d ever clapped eyes upon, and when he’d woken up to find her cradling his head in her lap, he’d asked if she was an angel. That was the exact moment she’d fallen in love.
They had stayed in contact, writing to each other and seeing each other whenever he visited his hunting lodge, which was every month once she’d turned nineteen, a little over eight months ago. A neighbor, Sir Clifford, had held a small ball on her birthday, which her mother had allowed her to attend, and when Hadley danced with her, she’d known he was the one. Over the past eight months their relationship had strengthened and developed into something more grown-up.
Very grown-up. Sensual awareness flickered over her body. When Hadley kissed her she wanted to melt. Melt into him. She wanted to be claimed by him so badly, but like the gentleman he was, he refused to compromise her and was content to wait until they wed.
Finally she heard footsteps approaching, and she ran her hand over her hair, pinched her cheeks, and tugged the bodice of her gown lower. More than determined that she would not wait any longer to be made love to, she needed to look like a temptress. If the elopement was organized, then she wanted the first time Hadley made love to her to be here, beneath their tree, on the estate that would be their home, rather than in some coaching inn at Gretna Green.
The branches were swept aside and Hadley walked toward her. Her heart thrilled at the sight of him, while her thighs clenched in heightened anticipation. What would he feel like on top of her, in her . . . She waved her hand in front of her face, trying to quell her lustful hunger.
Upon seeing her, he lengthened his stride. He moved with a combination of polished elegance and raw virility that saw her body respond as if it had a mind of its own. Heat and moisture gathered at her womanly core, while his handsomeness stole her breath.
His smile turned sensual, as if he could read her thoughts and had already agreed they no longer needed to wait.
He stopped before her, and she had to crane her neck to look up the long, muscled length of him. His light brown hair appeared darker in the shade, as did his blue eyes, which were an even deeper blue than normal, almost black-blue, full of heat and desire. He was endowed with a masculine beauty that startled at first glance. It was likely women would deny him nothing; God knew she couldn’t.
But it wasn’t his striking looks or his family’s status that drew her to him. She could probably have married a title if she’d wanted to, and certainly a peer with more money. It was the man that had won her heart. He quite simply was the sweetest, most honorable, kindest, and cleverest man she’d ever met. He’d cared not a fig about her lack of dowry or her family’s dire financial straits. He loved her exactly as she was: a little bit wild, mostly unconventional, and quite outspoken.
Despite her mother doing her utmost to keep her locked away, parading her only when rich gentlemen came to call, she had found love on her terms, in the arms of a handsome man who would cherish her—even though she was the penniless daughter of an almost bankrupt deceased earl.
She finally looked into his eyes. His gaze was fixed intently on her, the flare of heat turning his eyes the deepest of blues. She wished he’d say something, anything, but most of all she wished he’d tell her that the plan they had devised would work.
Finally he gave a slow smile that made her flush deepen. “I have my brother’s blessing. He’ll stand by our elopement and welcome you into our family.”
Her mouth dried as she felt the tears of joy well. The Duke of Claymore accepted her. “I knew I’d love your brother.”
“He even agreed to loan me the money for my vines. He recognizes that he owes me for all the times I took the beatings from Father when it should have been him.”
She winced recalling the stories Hadley had told her about his father’s brutality. Why were men so cruel? Both Stowe’s father and Hadley’s father had seemed to take pleasure in hurting their children. She would never understand how any person could hurt a child, not to mention their own.
Hadley continued. “It will take a few years before the grapes produce enough high-quality wine to earn well, but when they do, we will never have to worry about money again. We won’t be wealthy, but you won’t want for most things.” He looked at her as if she were his whole world. “I can’t believe you’ve given up the chance to take the ton by storm. You could marry a man who could clothe you in silks, house you in a castle, and give you the biggest sapphires to match your eyes.”
“I don’t want a big house, loads of jewels, or the most fashionable gowns—well, maybe a bit of fashion,” she said jokingly. He smiled at her honesty. She reached out her hand and entwined her fingers with his. She pulled him down to sit next to her. “All I have dreamed of for the past three years is being your wife, your lover, and the mother of your children—our children.”
“You will be.”
She nodded, excitement building. “My mother would never openly object to our marriage if the Duke of Claymore gave us his blessing.”
“I’ll do everything I can to try to help your younger brother keep the estate afloat until he’s old enough to sort out your family’s financial woes. Your mother will have to live very frugally, but she won’t be thrown out on the street.”
She flung her arms around his neck and kissed him with all her heart. “Thank you. I feel a weight is lifted knowing I’m not abandoning my brother to the poorhouse. I almost felt obliged to marry one of Mother’s men. Since it was Mother’s gambling that saw us ruined, I will ensure that you hold the purse strings, so that there is an estate for Edward to run.”
“In three days we will elope to Gretna Green. I’ve organized to borrow Augustus’s coach, and once we are married, my friend Lord Arend Aubury has loaned us his hunting lodge near York for a short honeymoon.”
She steeled herself against the hollowness in her chest. This was not how she envisaged her wedding, but if she ended up married to the man sitting next to her, she didn’t really care how that occurred. She was the daughter of an earl, yet she had to sneak away as if in disgrace to wed the second son of a duke, all because of her mother’s greed. If her mother had her way, she’d be sold off to the highest bidder.
At her quietness, he said, “You are not having second thoughts? You do love me?”
She cupped his face in her hands. She loved Hadley so much it was an ache inside her. Yet she could not help but think of Edward and the lean years ahead for him. “I hope Edward can forgive me.”
“When he’s old enough he’ll understand. He loves you. He wouldn’t want you to be unhappy.”
She lay down in the cool moss, pulling Hadley with her. “Nothing would make me happier than being your wife. Well, maybe one thing . . . make love to me, here, now.”
How was a man to deny such a sensual offer? His body burned to be buried deep within Evangeline. All his life he’d strived to be a better man than his brutal, scandal-ridden, and probably pox-riddled father; unlike his departed father, Hadley held his honor in high regard.
He’d sworn he’d claim her only when they married. He’d spent three years getting to know Evangeline, but the last eight months had been torture. She’d matured into a beautiful, sensual woman, but damn it all, he was nothing like his father, and he could wait a few days more and do this properly—when she was his wife.
“I can’t wait to make you my wife, but then and only then will I make love to you. I don’t want anyone to accuse me of being dishonorable. We will be the subjects of gossip as it is for eloping.”
His heart swelled with pride. This beautiful young woman had put her life, her heart, into his hands. He’d cherish her for the rest of his life.
An eager Evangeline pressed her soft curves against him. “Why must we wait?”
He inwardly smiled, his erection lengthening as she rubbed against him. “I want to do this right. I want your first time to be special—in a bed, with your husband.” Since he was twenty-five, it was up to him to be the sensible one.
“I don’t need a bed, only you. I have plans to marry only you.”
Her gaiety was infectious. Her laughter soothed his soul and sent tingles down his spine. He drew in a sharp breath as her fingers found his erection. She molded her palm to his length and rubbed. Over the last few months he had taught her too well.
He’d loved introducing her to passion. She gave herself freely and unreservedly. Her desire matched his own, and it was only through his determination and will of iron that he had not taken her maidenhood already. They had done everything but.
“Please,” she whispered in his ear. “I want to end this magical day with you inside me. To be claimed and loved by you. It won’t be long until we escape to freedom, and then we will marry. I can’t wait even that long.”
Her hand had worked its way through the placket of his trousers, and he gasped as her clever fingers wrapped round him. He drew back and looked into her eyes. They were brimming with love—and desire.
“You tempt me so much,” he declared, and meant every word. How many nights had he twisted and turned in a fever, dreaming of lying above her, sliding deep within her, and claiming her forever more. “I’ve waited over three years—I can wait another few days. Let me do the honorable thing.”
“Honor be damned. I want the first time I lie with you to be here, in our special place, in your garden—our garden. I suspect that once we elope we will have to consummate the marriage at Gretna Green. I want to have the memory of you deep inside me, here, where we intend to live happily ever after. Please don’t deny me that.”
Evangeline looked at him earnestly, and he understood her point. Every time they walked in their grounds, when their children and their grandchildren played here, they would remember this special spot and how they had marked their house, this land, with love.
With no further doubts he took her lips in a kiss meant to convey his desire to please her, to love her—always.
They lay together under the willow tree at the end of the rose garden. No servants were about because he’d informed them to stay away. He didn’t want anyone to see Evangeline visit. They had been sneaking visits, and while he knew his staff were loyal, he had to be careful. especially as her mother would try to stop them eloping.
She wanted Evangeline to marry into wealth in order to save the estate for her younger brother, Edward. Hadley swallowed down his jealousy. She had the beauty, wit, and pedigree to do just that, yet she loved him.
She’d chosen him.
He had no idea what sums of money Evangeline’s family required. Money, or more specifically lack of it, was the bane of his existence. If he had more money, he’d give her a dream wedding with the whole of the ton at her feet.
What scared him was that, even without a dowry, she was beautiful enough to interest any man. She could have any man she wanted, even a duke. He still couldn’t believe she wanted him. His conscience nagged him because she was still quite young. She hadn’t had a season, either, so she had not had a chance to meet other men. Her mother couldn’t afford a season, so instead she got invited to as many house parties as possible, so that she could shop her daughter through the pool of moneyed sharks. The urgency to elope vibrated through every bone in his body because he knew sharks didn’t waste time before biting.
He couldn’t help wondering if, in the future, she would think she’d made a mistake settling for him.
Her lips pressing at his throat made him refocus on the pleasure at hand. If he took her now, she’d have no choice but to wed him. He cursed his selfishness and rebuked the idea. It would have to be her choice.
“If I make love to you, you will have no option but to marry me.”
Her frown was instant. “Whom else would I marry?”
He sighed and pulled her against him. “You’ve not even had a season. If your family could afford it, you would take the ton by storm and you could have your pick of suitors. You could become a duchess or countess or—”
“I’d rather become Lady Hadley Fullerton.”
“How do you know, if you haven’t met anyone else?”
He felt her shudder. “My mother has introduced me to many men.” She snuggled against his chest, her hand pressing over his heart. “I just know I’ll never love anyone as much as I love you. You’re in my soul.”
They lay under their tree, hugging each other tightly, as his body argued with his mind. They should wait, he knew. But when she murmured against his chest, “I love you,” over and over, his will deserted him.
She gave a cry of protest as he pulled back, but her smile returned when he began removing his jacket. He made quick work of discarding the garment. Evangeline quickly sat up and presented her back to him, urging him to help with her dress.
His hands shook as he slipped each hook undone. Today he would claim his heart’s desire. He’d never been so happy, and he wanted to remember this feeling forever.
The heat meant she had not worn a corset. He had seen her naked before, many times, but as she lay spread out before him, a tempting treat, covered only by her thin shift, his throat choked with emotion.
This moment was sacred.
He could barely move, so overcome was he with love for her.
She shyly smiled at him before pulling her shift up and over her head. She wore no undergarments except stockings, and Hadley could barely control his hungry response to the goddess before him.
Her auburn hair fell in waves around creamy shoulders, hiding her long slender neck. Already a few twigs and leaves had become tangled in it; he’d have to remember to pick them out later. But his eyes were drawn to her pert breasts with hard, darkened nipples begging to be suckled. She had a narrow waist, flaring out at her bonny hips. He couldn’t wait to grip them as he slid deep within her. Her stomach was slightly rounded, and the thatch of copper-colored hair between her milky thighs sent his blood thundering round his body, racing to his throbbing cock.
“You’re a vision. Beautiful beyond words.”
She crooked her little finger at him and he rolled toward her, moving between her spread thighs, totally enthralled. He could no longer deny that he didn’t want to wait for their marriage either. He needed her.
“I want you naked too,” she whispered as her hands tugged his shirt out of his breeches. Before he could suck in a much-needed breath, she had his shirt off. When her fingers fumbled with his breeches he had to halt her questing hands. He’d never last if she kept touching him. His body was ready to explode; the reality of finally making love to her sent his desire spiraling toward the point of no return. He needed to ensure she found her pleasure first so that the loss of her maidenhead would not hurt.
He pulled her hand to his lips and kissed it. “Don’t be in such a hurry. I want you to remember this day, as I know I will, forever.”
“I will. I’ll never forget this moment. It’s engraved on my memory.” She looked into his eyes and said, “I love you so much.”
He stood and looked down upon a vision soon to be seared in his brain. Creamy skin rested on the mossy ground, with enticing stockings cloaking her legs. He divested himself of his breeches and with trembling limbs crouched at her feet soaking in her naked beauty.
He ran his hands up and over her stockings until he reached the silken skin of her thighs. His fingers stroked softly until on a small sigh her legs parted, allowing him a view of heaven.
He crawled further between her legs to position himself directly in front of where his mouth longed to taste. He’d feasted on her before and loved her taste, like the sweetest nectar. Her thighs parted further and her hips lifted slightly as if begging for his kiss.
He closed his eyes and breathed deep before lowering his head to touch her with his eager tongue.
The world around him disappeared as he lost himself in her, loving her with his mouth until she was writhing on the ground in need, her hips lifting to press her center closer, demanding more from him. He used his fingers in conjunction with his tongue, and soon he sensed her climax nearing. Her body tightened, her thighs pressed tightly against his head, and as he gave one final suck on her hard little nub, she screamed his name.
With arms that could barely hold him because he was trembling with need, he moved to cover her body, pushing his hips between her thighs, and while she was still shuddering from her release he began to ease inside her.
Dreams are for those who reach for the sky, and as her tight sheath clamped around him, he felt like he was in heaven.
London, England, 1816
The door slammed shut behind him, the sound echoing in the quiet street. Standing on the top step, Hadley loosened his cravat to make it easier to swallow over the lump in his throat. He gazed along the row of fashionable but smallish townhouses. They all looked the same, but he wondered if the people who lived inside were as empty of life as the house behind him.
A sighed escaped as he looked down his body. All dressed up and nowhere to go. No one was waiting for him. Missing him. Wanting him . . .
Philomena had wanted him.
The first woman he’d let close since Evangeline had decided a title and money were more important than love.
It was never easy sounding the death knell on an arrangement with another mistress. He liked Philomena. She was easy. Easy to talk to, very easy to look at, and very easy to desire. Not a friend per se, but neither was she simply a mistress. Was there an in-between?
He kicked at a loose cobblestone.
As Hadley sauntered down the steps to the street, he tried to summon hurt or disappointment, but he’d only be fooling himself. All he felt was hollowness.
He had hoped Philomena might be a tad upset that their arrangement had to end, but she knew she could find another protector at the snap of her little fingers. She was beautiful, if not a little vapid, but her innate sensuality drew men like moth seeking a flame. He’d often wondered why she had lowered herself to becoming the mistress of a mere second son, albeit the second son of a duke. It certainly wasn’t for the money. She could have earned more elsewhere.
Perhaps that was why she’d been special to him. She had wanted to be his mistress. She had chosen to be his mistress.
She’d chosen him.
It hadn’t solely been about the coin he could provide.
To her credit, she hadn’t cried, screamed, or carried on when he informed her their time was at an end. Not after he’d explained why. At month’s end his brother, the Duke of Claymore, would announce Hadley’s engagement to Lady Claire Hampton. Hadley had promised his brother that he would start his new life as honorably as was possible with an arranged marriage.
Goddamn his brother.
Two years ago it had seemed so easy to agree with his brother’s request that he marry Claire. Now that the time was drawing near, however, he wished he could take his promise back, but he’d given his word. If a man went back on his word, how could he be trusted? A cold sweat made his shirt stick to his skin. His time was running out.
Hadley had more to worry about than an unwanted arranged marriage. A villainess as evil as any man, De Palma, had to be stopped before she hurt any more of his friends or even himself. She had started a war with the Libertine Scholars in revenge for something their fathers had done to her many years ago.
He could not marry Claire and expose her to De Palma’s evil either. The Libertine Scholars had three weeks to unmask their foe, or Claire might become a target as well.
After what had happened to Marisa, Maitland Spencer’s wife . . . he wouldn’t wish her fate on any woman, not even Claire.
At the corner of the street he looked back at the quaint townhouse with deep regret. He’d been fond of Philomena and their time together.
Christ, he needed a drink. He pulled out his pocket watch.
Shortly he was expected for dinner at the townhouse of his fellow Libertine Scholar, the Earl of Markham, Christian Trent, but he couldn’t face all the happily married couples without fortifying himself first.
A drink at White’s was required. He could hail a hack, but it was a fine afternoon, if a tad cool, and perhaps a walk would help him release his frustrations.
It took him more than half an hour to walk to White’s. Upon arrival, he spied a fellow Libertine Scholar, Arend Aubury, Baron de Labourd, sitting at their favorite table. Arend was the only other unmarried Libertine Scholar and the two tended to spend more time together these days.
Arend saw him and waved one of the servants over, asking for another glass. There was a bottle of France’s finest brandy on the table.
As he took his seat, Arend commented, “You look as if you could do with a drink.”
Hadley grimaced and took the proffered glass from his friend. “It’s been one of those days when I wished I’d simply stayed in bed.”
“But not the bed of your now ex-mistress, it would seem,” Arend replied with a raised eyebrow.
Hadley turned in his chair and looked round the room. Men were staring and joking, and it was obvious they were talking about him. “It would appear news travels quicker than a man can walk.”
“Care to share why you brought your arrangement with the lovely Philomena to an end so suddenly?”
“Why? Are you interested in employing her?”
Arend shook his head. “I have to make Lady Isobel fall in love with me, and it’s not a good idea to have a mistress on the side. Besides, I would never encroach on one of my fellow Libertine Scholars’ women—paid or otherwise.”
Hadley nodded once. “You seem so sure that Isobel is involved with De Palma. It’s yet to be proved.”
Arend lowered his voice. “You and I both know De Palma is her stepmother, Countess Victoria Northumberland. We just have to prove it.”
Hadley looked around the room and sighed, not wishing to discuss their enemy further until they were with the rest of the Libertine Scholars. They were joining them for dinner to discuss what they had found out about De Palma. “My engagement will be announced in three weeks.”
Arend looked surprised, something that didn’t often occur. “Oh,” he said with a nod. “There is no other way?”
“I don’t see me finding a pot of gold at the bottom of a rainbow. Augustus needs the money he lent me for the winery repaid. He’s been waiting five years. Besides, one woman is as good as any other for a wife.” Hadley tried to ignore the stares and the men heading to the White’s wager book. “I say, is everyone betting on the reason Philomena and I have parted ways?”
“What reason has the best odds?”
Arend laughed. “Unfortunately, the one I wagered on.”
“And that is?”
“The return of Lady Evangeline Stuart, nee Althrope, to London.”
Hadley felt the floor shake beneath his feet, and it was not an earthquake. He downed his brandy in one large gulp, the burn in his throat stinging his eyes. “Bloody hell,” he choked out. “Her husband has brought her to London.” For just on five years he’d been dreading this news.
Evangeline Althrope, now Evangeline Stuart, had been the love of his life.
Everything about her suddenly assaulted his memory. The mere mention of her name undid him.
Forbidden memories rushed into his head. He recalled her sleek limbs wrapped round him. Her uninhibited cries of passion as her exquisite body arched against his. He could almost feel her luxurious hair, auburn silk flowing like flames over flawless creamy skin. Her taste as he’d sampled all she had to give. Her laughter and her smile could bring him to his knees. But it had always been her eyes, filled with intelligence, that drew him. Their light blue color would darken with incredible sensuality. . . .
She was branded on his soul, her memory sharp with a clarity that still seared.
Arend’s glass halted halfway to his mouth, which now hung open. “You haven’t heard?”
He looked blankly back at Arend.
“She’s widowed and just out of mourning. Plus, she has been asking after you, setting tongues wagging and sending men to the betting books.”
The ground rushed toward him, and if he hadn’t been sitting down, he’d have folded in a heap on the floor. Evangeline was here, in London, and a widow. Anger burned in his gut, raw and powerful. He felt his fists clench. “I hope you didn’t wager on her and I forming an attachment.”
“Silly me, I should have known better.” Arend ran a hand through his hair. “I thought I had inside knowledge. Sebastian is positive you are still in love with her.”
Breath fled Hadley, and a wave of dizziness almost saw him drop his glass. Those words, “still in love,” echoed in his head over and over, like an unforgotten song. He had loved her. “Had” being the operative word.
She’d married another.
But she was now free.
Then, as if Thor’s hammer came hurtling from the gods straight to his chest, the blow invisibly knocking him to hell, he remembered.
She’d chosen money, a title, and a safe life over him.
Over their love.
Just over five years ago, he’d received Evangeline’s note. A note written in her own hand, telling him she was marrying Viscount Stuart. It had been painfully obvious that he’d been the only one in love.
She’d used him, taken what she wanted, and then married a man with enough money to save her brother’s estate and then some. She had a title and lived in a castle, a real-life fairy tale.
He looked at Arend. “You made a foolish bet. I would not change anything in my life for that woman. In fact, I’m more determined than ever now to marry Claire.”
Yet given the savage pain lancing through him, he’d be foolish to imagine that he’d recovered from her shattering betrayal. Did a man ever recover from his first love?
Especially a love that was betrayed.
Arend must have picked up the hate in his voice, because he leaned back in his seat and held up his hands in a defensive stance. “Well, the lady doesn’t seem to understand that notion. She’s been asking after you, trying to ascertain if you are engaged or married. That definitely appears to be a woman on a mission.” He laughed. “It would appear the beautiful Lady Evangeline is not aware of how you feel.”
Nor aware he was expected to marry another.
Arend looked at him closely. “Even if you are not interested in Lady Evangeline, are you sure about marriage to Lady Claire? There is still time to change your mind. Claire is oblivious to the plan your brother and her brother concocted. No one needs to get hurt.”
He shrugged. “When Augustus suggested aligning our family with the Marquis of Corby, I saw no reason not to. I do not care whom I marry. It’s simpler and easier if feelings are not involved. Besides, I felt sorry for the young lady. She’s almost a spinster.”
He’d never marry for love. Having had his heart destroyed once before, he wasn’t about to put himself through that again. However, his brother had agreed to wait until his thirtieth year before he should propose to Claire. Being unaware of her brother’s plan, Hadley had hoped that in this time she might find someone else to marry. He could feel himself being boxed into a corner, and even though he’d promised never to love again, his pending marriage seemed somewhat callous in comparison to the love matches his fellow Libertine Scholars had made.
“I admire your practicality. If it was anyone other than you spouting those words, I’d believe you. But you, my friend, are a romantic at heart. That’s why you’re still torn up over a woman who left you five years ago. I also see the way you look at the other Libertine Scholars and their marital bliss.”
Hadley downed his drink in one, determined to ignore Arend’s perceptive comments.
His friend leaned across the table and whispered. “You agreed to this stupid match while your heart was broken. There is no shame in changing your mind; nothing has been formally agreed or announced.” He sat back. “Even if it had, blast it to Hades, you don’t have to fall on your sword.”
It was while my heart was shredded, actually, he wanted to yell at Arend.
Arend kept bloody talking. “Don’t marry a woman because you’re hurt. Get even and move on. You need love. Find a woman who can love you for who you are, and never let her go. That would be the best revenge. You won’t be happy with anything less.”
“What’s to say I won’t grow to love Claire?”
Arend choked on his drink. “Really? I’m not shallow enough to decry her lack of looks, but she’s as dull as dishwater, and not overly bright. The long winter days and nights will be torture. I suspect you’re the type of man who’d honor his marriage vows too, no mistresses for you. Sometimes I wonder how we are such good friends, as you are far too nice for me.” He eyed Hadley shrewdly. “You do realize you’ll have to sleep with her. Children and all that.” At Hadley’s angry look, he added, “I can just imagine her lying there and thinking of England.”
Suddenly the prospect of wedding Claire felt like a noose was being tightened around his neck. The he remembered how he’d given his heart to Evangeline and she’d simply stomped on it. He could not go through that pain ever again.
His illusions were few. He knew women flocked to him because he was the son of a duke and wealthy enough in his own right. He hated how mercenary women were, Evangeline being the worst of all. So for the past five years, after his heart turned to stone, he had indulged in all manner of pleasures, sampling women as he sampled his wines.
“Claire may not have beauty or brains, but that suits me just fine. She’s unlikely to take other lovers, so I shall know any children are mine, and she’ll be even less demanding of my time or emotions.”
“Unlike Lady Evangeline, who I hear is a renowned beauty, and quite brilliant. I suspect she won’t be a widow for long.”
Hurt burned deep and fast at the idea of her marrying again. He painfully remembered that she could blind any man with her beauty and wit. These men didn’t know what he knew—that she was a deceptive, cunning vixen, interested only in money and title.
Beautiful? Yes, he expected she was probably more beautiful than she’d been at nineteen. As soon as he’d laid eyes on the auburn beauty, he’d known his desire for her would get him into all sorts of trouble. The need to have her, to make her his, meant only one thing, marriage, but that had not stopped his pursuit.
He’d wanted to possess her, to give her his heart, his body, and his name. No other woman before or since had touched his heart—or crushed it—as Evangeline had.
Unbeknownst to him at the time, she’d lied as easily as she’d breathed.
“Well, if you see Lady Evangeline, perhaps you can inform her I have no interest in pursuing any type of relationship with her.” He raised his glass. “In fact, you can tell her I’m soon to wed.”
“That could be a mistake. The beautiful young widow is now very wealthy. Her husband left her a large portion of his wealth.” Arend’s words stung. “Money and beauty, a combination to lust after. Marry her for her money. That would teach her a lesson. Rather Evangeline than Claire—long lonely winter nights, remember?” Arend shrugged as he said the words.
“You obviously don’t know the lady,” was Hadley’s sarcastic reply. He wasn’t petty enough to want to see Evangeline on a miserly widow’s stipend, but it appeared her marriage had exceeded her expectations, for she’d got the money and title she craved. “She must be extremely happy, for that is why she married her viscount.”
“I see.” Arend refilled his glass, pouring the brandy all the way to the top. “It’s as I have always suspected. A woman is madly in love as long as a purse is full. Love is only tested when the coffers run dry. Her viscount had a fatter purse.”
Hadley thought of the other four fellow Libertine Scholars, all happily married. “Tell that to Christian, Sebastian, Grayson, and now bloody Maitland. I tell you, it’s as if the French have put something in the brandy. Men are succumbing to the shackles of matrimony far too often of late.”
Arend gave a mock shudder and raised his glass. “Here’s to bachelorhood, brief as yours may now be.”
Marriage to Claire. For a brief moment, Hadley wondered if Evangeline regretted her choice. He shook his head. She had her money and title; that was all she had wanted. What was there for her to regret?
If she thought she could have her title and now also have him, she was very wrong. He’d rather marry a leprous whore—or marry Claire—than succumb to her allure again.
Once he’d drunk the contents of his glass he slammed it on the table. “Come, we should be on our way. We have—”he looked around the room before lowering his voice “—lists to compare, away from prying eyes and eager ears.”
The two men took their leave of White’s and made their way to Christian’s townhouse. On the carriage ride, the discussion turned to the fight at Gentleman Jack’s next week and whom to wager on. An unknown Spaniard had recently arrived, and Arend favored the man. Hadley would be unwise to wager against anyone Arend took an interest in. Arend had the uncanny knack of spotting a fighter’s ability, and he’d been to see the Spaniard practice.
Besides, it might be a way to make money quickly, something he could use right now.
Even the sporting talk could not completely banish Evangeline from his mind. Under his breath he cursed her anew. Right now it would be ideal to chase away the memory of her touch and taste in an excess of sensual indulgence. However, in three weeks he was about to propose to Lady Claire. Claire had no idea the proposal was coming; he had talked her brother into letting him make an offer directly to her, so that she would have no idea it had been arranged by his brother and her brother. If she heard he still had a mistress, she might not believe him sincere. He wanted her to believe he had chosen her of his own free will. At least one of them should be happy about this marriage. Her life would be irrevocably changed too. He did not want to hurt her.
As the two men had expected, when they were ushered into the Earl of Markham’s drawing room, the family setting hummed with loving couples and children. For one fleeting moment a pang of regret consumed him, until he remembered why he was going to marry Claire: to ensure that his heart remained protected.
Hadley hid a smile at the quick flash of horror that passed over Arend’s face as little Henry, Sebastian’s ward, grabbed Arend’s trouser leg with jam-covered fingers. But to Hadley’s amazement, Arend swung the little boy up into his arms and pretended to drop him, swiftly catching him before he could fall far. Henry’s squeals had the women giggling and the men putting their fingers in their ears.
Lady Portia, Grayson Devlin’s obviously pregnant wife, relieved Arend of Henry, while the boy’s nurse collected Christian’s son and ushered all the children from the room. Once the door had closed on the departing servants and children, they could talk openly.
The women present—Lady Portia; Lady Beatrice, who was the wife of Sebastian Hawkestone, Marquess of Coldhurst; Lady Marisa, who was the new Duchess of Lyttleton, and her younger sister, Lady Helen; and finally Lady Serena, Christian’s wife and their hostess, were sitting grinning like Cheshire cats with bellies full of milk. The hairs on Hadley’s neck prickled. They appeared to be looking at him, which was not a good thing.
“Good evening, ladies. It’s always delightful to be in the company of such beauties.” With that Hadley bowed to each and pressed a kiss to his hostess’s knuckles.
These women were more than simply stunning beauties. They were intelligent, brave, and loyal to a fault. He doubted any of them would break her husband’s heart. They would put their men first.
“And might I say you are looking very handsome tonight too, my lord.”
“Oh, God, Serena, leave the man alone. He’s only just got here.”
Hadley looked across at Christian, who was still scowling at his wife, and the hairs at the back of his neck were now standing to attention. The ladies were definitely up to something.
He chose a seat as far from the ladies as he could, and found himself sitting next to Grayson on a chair that was definitely not made for a man. He felt as if it would break beneath him if he made one wrong move. He must look like a ninny.
Serena’s smile indicated she knew he was retreating. It also seemed to scream, You cannot thwart us. Thwart them at what? He longed to know, or did he? These women were a force to reckon with. He’d seen them win the hearts of men who were confirmed rakes and then bravely take on their enemy, all with style and wit and determination.
Arend, who’d also greeted the ladies in his fancy French way, had taken a seat next to Serena on the settee. He stretched his arms along the top of the furniture and said, “As we have a guest coming to dinner, I suggest we discuss our investigations before Lady Isobel arrives.”
Serena sent Hadley a cheeky smile, “Guests, Arend. Isobel is bringing a friend.”
The way she looked at Hadley, he wished he could squirm in his chair, but he was too afraid to move in case it collapsed.
Why did his cravat suddenly feel too tight?
Arend sent her a quizzing look but merely continued, “I have only two names left on my list: the Earl of Northumberland and the Earl of Wentworth.”
Last month the Libertine Scholars had learned that the woman who was set upon destroying them had worked as a high-priced courtesan in Paris. Apparently she had caught the fancy of an English earl, left the life of prostitution in France, hidden her tracks well, and with her earl returned to England as a woman of quality he’d met on the continent. They had no idea if she was still with the earl or if he had married her, but they thought she’d hardly leave the successful business she’d built up in Paris for anything less than marriage, and they had no other leads.
They had drawn up a list of more than a hundred English earls and then had whittled it down to sixty who had wives in their mid-twenties, the age they thought their enemy now was. Over the past month, the men had been investigating all the names on the list and had cleared all but seventeen.
The discussion was loud and emotional. The other five Libertine Scholars shared the names on their lists. The women chimed in with comments, and with their help a further five earls were struck off the list when Beatrice commented that their wives had been at finishing school with her.
“That still leaves twelve names,” Maitland said. “I was hoping it would be smaller.”
Arend leaned sideways and helped himself to the decanter of brandy on the side table. “My money is still on the Earl of Northumberland’s widow, Lady Isobel’s stepmother.”
“You simply want it to be her because Lady Isobel vexes you so,” uttered Sebastian. “You want her to be in league with the villain so you can walk away with a clear conscience.”
All five ladies present swung their gaze to Arend. Hadley inwardly laughed. If they smelled the start of a romance, God help Arend. Hadley was pleased not to be the center of their attention for once.
“Clear conscience? I don’t have a conscience,” was Arend’s dry reply. “You tell me, then, why Isobel was kidnapped along with Marisa. It doesn’t make sense. There has to be a connection.”
Last month Marisa had been drugged and kidnapped by their villainess. They had managed to rescue her only when the carriage they were abducting her in crashed. Unfortunately, Marisa had been very badly wounded, and Maitland had almost lost her. Isobel too had been in the carriage, but she had been kidnapped from a different location.
“Perhaps the villain had other plans for Isobel. Perhaps she was taken to extract revenge on another individual.”
Arend scoffed. “Her father is dead, so who would that be?”
“She is his only child. Perhaps it was to wipe his lineage from this earth. Something she has savored doing to my husband.” Marisa’s quiet but venom-filled words hung in the air. The injuries Marisa had sustained meant she could never have children. Maitland, sitting beside her, took Marisa’s hand and pressed it to his lips. “But I still have you,” he declared softly.
Hadley turned away from the private moment so filled with love and devotion. Once he’d thought he shared this with Evangeline, but he’d been a fool. Love was not to be for him. Sometimes that thought made him envy what these men had found with their wives.
Portia played with a string of pearls round her neck. “I think it’s time we women took the lead. Now that we have a smaller list, we should be investigating the wives, not our husbands.”
Hadley returned his gaze to the ladies as Beatrice spoke.
“I agree, Portia. This needs a woman’s touch. If the supposedly happily married Libertine Scholars start asking questions about other men’s wives who knows what gossip will ensue.” Beatrice continued smoothly, “And we don’t wish our villainess to understand just how close we may be.”
The men all started talking at once. The husbands proclaiming how dangerous it was to let the women become so involved, while Arend argued that it made perfect sense.
Hadley understood both sides. After everything that had happened, these men would lay down their lives to protect their women. It was inborn instinct to guard them from harm, much more than simple male pride. He had always felt a need to protect those weaker than himself. He hated bullying of any form, as he himself had once been its victim, and he had the scars on his buttocks to prove it. He’d been his father’s whipping boy, always taking the punishment for his older brother, who was both weaker and smaller in size.
However, Arend’s argument that catching the villain quickly would thereby protect everyone was valid.
He remained silent, waiting for a chance to offer his opinion, or to be asked for it.
His chance came after a heated barb from Sebastian. Hadley cleared his throat and spoke rather loudly. “I understand you wish to protect your wives, but there are others who need protection too.” He glanced across the room. “Helen, for one. And what about the children?” The men quieted and looked at him. “We are spread too thin to be sure everyone is safe all the time. We have no idea what she plans to do next. I for one don’t want to wait to find out.” He nodded at Arend. “I believe Arend is correct when he says we are running out of time and that we need to unmask her sooner rather than later. We may find that it is more expedient to let the women—” He held up his hand at the growls already sounding in the men’s throats. “To let the well-guarded women do a little investigating of their own.”
Portia clapped her hands. “Exactly, Hadley, well said. You know how skilled each of us can be at uncovering secrets. We uncovered all of yours.” The twinkle in her eye was all for her husband, Viscount Blackwood.
“And it will be safe if we conduct the inquisitions, so to speak, in one place, with all of the men around us,” Marisa added.
Hadley let a smile of appreciation escape. “You have a plan, Duchess?”
“As it happens, I believe I do. We have twelve earls on our list. I propose that we hold four different house parties, one at a time, at each of our country estates and invite three of the earls on the list, along with other guests, to each one. Then we can observe and question the wives, with the men round us.”
Beatrice nodded. “If you look at the list, we can form groups of guests that would not raise any eyebrows when we extend an invitation.”
Before anyone could reply, there was a knock on the door and the additional guests were announced.
“Excuse me, my lord,” said the butler. “Lady Isobel Thompson, and Lady Evangeline Stuart.”
Hadley’s head whipped round in the direction of the door as if an invisible rope was tugging it. He barely noticed Isobel’s entrance, for his gaze was riveted on the tumble of auburn curls piled in an elegant array on top of a head he had thought he would never want to see again. His mouth dried and his heart pounded in his chest.
If he were not under a spell, he would have looked away, but his eyes traveled down, soaking in the beauty of features so fine, so perfect, they made a man think of angels. Eyes the color of a clear summer sky searched the room until they found him. A stranger’s smile hovered over her succulent lips, and a look of such longing entered those traitorous eyes that he almost believed the message they tried to convey: I’m here for you, my love.
However, he could not bring himself to believe anything those eyes or lips said. He’d believed once before, and it had left a hole where his heart once rested in his chest.
Summoning the anger that was churning deep in his innards, he broke the spell and turned away, but as he did so, his grip on the edge of the little chair must have been too tight for in the next second the chair splintered to pieces under him, and he fell with a thud to the floor, landing on his arse.
A Taste of Seduction is a work of fiction. Names, places, and incidents either are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.Return to A Taste of Seduction