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Excerpt: To Challenge the Earl of Cravenswood

Book 3: Wicked Wagers

Henry was completely sloshed. Drunk to be precise. An inebriated state he sought far too often of late. He should have gone directly home after Lady Skye’s ball, but watching his best friend Marcus leave with his beautiful wife on his arm made him long for company. He did not wish to go home to an empty house and a lonely bed.

He blinked, trying to focus on the activities going on around him. The room at Mrs. Whites was stifling. He bloody well shouldn’t have let George Ashford talk him into accompanying him to the high-class brothel, and he definitely shouldn’t have drunk half a bottle of brandy on top of the alcohol he’d already consumed this evening.

He gripped the arms of his chair, rested his head on the back, and closed his eyes, fighting the rising nausea. He didn’t miss the irony that bile was the only thing rising. Not even the brief sight of voluptuous beauties cavorting naked on the stage in front of him could make his flaccid member twitch.

He didn’t understand this sexual lethargy. Up until eighteen months ago, just before Millicent left, he’d had a ferocious appetite. Yet it seemed losing Millicent had destroyed his enjoyment for sins of the flesh as surely as she’d bruised his heart and his ego. His father had warned him that men should never fall in love with their mistresses. It never ended well.

His arrangement with Millie ended very well. For her. She simply left him a note telling him she’d found someone else.

Henry St. Giles clenched his stomach to hold off the rollicking nausea. He should be over her by now. He was an earl, for goodness sake, and Millie a mere courtesan. If anyone did the leaving, it should have been him.

Anger at himself burned bright, making him struggle to sit up. He should leave the establishment now. He had to admire Mrs. White’s cleverness, for her pleasure house was a mockery of the oldest gentlemen’s club in England. Now men didn’t have to lie to their wives when they left for a night of sin; they simply said they were going to White’s.

Therein lay the problem. He didn’t have a wife, or family, or a proper home. If he did, he’d certainly not leave them for this establishment.

True, he owned houses, but an empty house was not a home. He’d not had a home growing up. He’d had a house full of people he was related to, yet even with siblings and parents and servants, he’d still felt alone.

Bloody hell, he was in a sorry state. His chest clenched in what he knew was dark-green and vicious envy. Harlow and Marcus. He wondered if he’d ever find the joy, happiness, and love they had found with their soul mates.

If he were honest with himself, Millie was not his soul mate. She had left him for another and it had hurt at first, but looking back it was merely his pride that had been wounded. It was not Millie he craved, but rather the thought of love, the idea of finding his soul mate drove him.

What he felt for Millie was gratitude. She’d been there for him when his brother died, and he was thrown into the role as head of the Cravenswood family. A role he had never expected or wanted.

He was grateful for her support. He’d needed someone and she had stayed long enough to help ease him into the earldom.

Now he had no one. No close family, siblings or wife. Loneliness seeped into his bones like a smothering cold fog. Loneliness which would not be appeased by marrying his brother’s fiancé. Hilda was most definitely not his soul mate.

Tonight he’d hoped the ball, and then the brothel would banish his troubles with mindless, meaningless pleasure. But even that had been denied him. So he’d drunk himself into oblivion. Again.

A body, warm, soft, and virtually naked, slid onto his lap. A feminine hand trailed down his chest, caressing its way to his groin, while the other lifted his hand and placed it on her naked breast.

“Perhaps a private show of our own would keep you awake, my lord?”

Her hand found his member and with expert fingers she coaxed a response. Finally, a twitch of life.

She slid off him to her knees and he felt her unbutton the placket of his trousers. Henry closed his mind to everything but what the woman was doing to him. He let his lids close and in the darkness he pictured Millicent, her dark curls cascading over her creamy bare shoulders, her hands caressing up his thighs, her tongue running up the length of him before her hot, talented mouth enveloped his straining member…

His body tensed as forgotten, yet glorious sensations grew within him, then he made the mistake of opening his eyes and he glimpsed the blonde head bobbing between his thighs.

His erection withered and died. The blonde’s head rose. He looked into her face and she met his eyes, confusion scored her pretty features.

“Too much drink, my love. Perhaps another night.” He buttoned his trousers.

This wasn’t Millie.

Millie was now under the protection of Jeremy Montague, Viscount Chesterton. Nausea threatened once more. He’d had a slight victory tonight. He’d annoyed Chesterton. He’d interrupted his pursuit of Amy Shipton.

The memory of soft curves under his hand. Of eager eyes as warm as honey. They spoke of sweetness. Yet deep within burned sparks of passion as yet unrealized. Amy had tried to flirt with him.

Amy Shipton—she’d grown up.

He frowned and tried to remember the feel of her in his arms. She felt…comfortable in his embrace. He shook his head. He was drunker than he’d imagined. She was his neighbor, that’s why she felt comfortable. He’d known her since she could leave the nursery. He should not be having salacious thoughts about a debutante. Not unless marriage was involved. Now that was a thought…

She reminded him of Millie. That was it. She had dark hair and a creamy complexion that begged for a man’s lips to taste, just like Millicent.

Hell, she was nothing like Millicent. She wasn’t a courtesan for one thing. She was a young debutante whose father was a duke. Best he remember that.

His body sharpened with anger. Millie belonged to another. God damn the devil to hell, he’d heard rumors about how Chesterton treated his women. He’d tried to see Millie, to ascertain that she was well, but she refused to see him.

He briefly closed his eyes and made himself a promise. Tomorrow he would make a decision about Hilda, and his cousin Charles. Perhaps Hilda would be happier with Charles? Or was he clutching at straws, trying to find any excuse not to do the honorable thing.

Only once the situation with Hilda was settled would he start looking for a suitable wife. He was a man in his prime, an earl, and extremely rich. How hard could it be to find his soul mate? If both Harlow and Marcus, two of England’s most prolific rakes, could find their better halves, surely he could too.

He gave himself a proverbial kick in the arse.

Definitely time to leave.

He rose on unsteady legs and staggered out into the humid night. He refused the doorman’s suggestion of a hackney. It was too hot. Besides, he wanted to clear his head on the walk home.

The moon was out, lighting the pavement, the stars above sparkling like dancing lights. Around him London lay sleeping. As he passed each house on his way through Mayfair, he pictured the types of families that lived behind the closed doors. Were they happy? Or was their marriage a cold, calculating business arrangement, as his parents’ marriage had been? At thirty-two he should already be married. He’d known for the past twenty years that he would not let his children, or himself, endure such a marriage. He would only marry for love. A possibility for a second son.

Grinning to himself he laughed out loud thinking of Harlow and Marcus’s foolish battle against love. Why did men of his ilk fear it so? Yet, ironically, they’d found love before him.

No doubt Harlow and Marcus were right now enjoying themselves at their homes, soaking up the benefits accruing to happily married men. Six months ago Caitlin had gifted Harlow his heir. A healthy baby boy they’d named Cameron. He’d never seen his friend so happy and content. The way Sabine had been glowing recently, he was sure Marcus too would soon make an announcement.

He reached Hanover Square and stood looking up at his Townhouse. The dark, empty house did not entice him. Besides, it was too hot to sleep.

Instead, he turned and made his way through the gate opposite, and into the square’s private garden. He would often sit in the garden staring at the stars. He felt closer to Richard. They had played in this garden as children.

Lately he’d taken to visiting the garden. He would sit and tell Richard all about the estate and his plans. It helped him make decisions, and he felt less alone.

Henry found the bench near the Aphrodite fountain and took out his hip flask. Not that he really needed any more brandy.

He sat looking at Cravenswood Court across the road. The imposing building held no appeal. It offered him no happy memories. He shrugged. He had no unpleasant memories either. Just weary indifference.

Tonight Henry felt the weight of duty. It was his role to protect and raise the Cravenswood name to prominence. His duty to marry and produce his heirs—with Hilda. Life didn’t always allow you the opportunity to live your dreams.

He tipped the flask to his mouth, but it was empty. “Perfect. Bloody perfect.” He closed his eyes and breathed deeply. “Suck it up, man. Most men would sell their souls to become the Earl of Cravenswood”-

The squeak of the gate behind him stopped his tirade. Someone was entering his garden. He stood up to see who had invaded his private space at this hour of the morning, but in his drunken condition he tripped over the leg of the bench, and pitched headfirst against the base of the statue. His last thought before the blackness struck was that Aphrodite had an exquisite bottom.

The squeak from the closing gate didn’t muffle the sound of flesh hitting something solid and unforgiving. The silence that followed the distinct sound of a body falling to the ground saw Amy hurrying towards her favorite fountain. Her heart leapt into her throat. She knew the only other person likely to be here this late, or early in the morning as the case may be, was Henry.

During her own unhappy wonderings late at night when sleep eluded her, she’d ascertained that Henry often came to converse with his dead brother, hence her detour into his garden after Lady Skye’s ball, rather than going to her own bed.

The only pleasure in her life at present seemed to be offering silent, distant, unknown and unwanted comfort to a man who didn’t know she existed.

Amy dropped to her knees next to Henry’s prone body. The sounds of his groans of pain were sweet music; it meant he was at least alive.

She smelled the brandy fumes and noted his hip flask lying discarded nearby. Henry had often seemed worse for drink on his late night ramblings, but when she lift his head to cradle it on her knees she saw the ugly gash on his head. He must have hit the side of the fountain.

She dipped her handkerchief in the water and bathed the gash, wiping the small specks of gravel out of the wound. “Henry,” she scolded softly, tenderly wiping a stray golden lock away from his wound. “What am I to do with you? You can’t let your brother’s death destroy you with sorrow and guilt. Richard would have wanted better for you.”

She gazed spellbound at the beauty of the man she tended. His long lashes were dark crescents smudged over his pale cheeks. His brows, the planes of his face, looked oddly relaxed; his lips, full and beckoning, were gently curved in a child like smile. Her heart expended under an emotion she didn’t wish to face.

She pressed the cloth to his head until the wound stopped bleeding, all the while gently singing to him.

Amy didn’t know how long they’d sat there, but now that the blood no longer flowed, she decided to move and find help. She tried to lever him off of her but Henry groaned deeply and snuggled deeper into her lap, wrapping his arms around her hips, anchoring her to him.

Despite her precarious situation, Amy’s lips lifted at the corner. He was so atrociously handsome, the silky locks of his gold-kissed hair feathered his chiselled cheeks, his long-fingered hands gripped her hips as if he didn’t ever wish to let her go, his long body lay boneless across her lap. She resisted the urge to kiss his wound-just.

What now? Amy looked toward Cravenswood Court. She’d have to summon help to move him. She couldn’t leave him out here with a head injury. She bit her lip and considered the trouble she was in. How would she explain being alone with Henry in his garden—Henry had no idea she often kept him company. All right, she growled under her breath, he had no idea she spied on him. Besides, her reputation would be tarnished and her father might insist on Henry doing the honorable thing. A shudder of delight raced along her nerve endings. That didn’t sound too terrible a fate.

Her smile died as a very large hand suddenly molded her breast and a thumb and finger tweaked her nipple through her clothing. She gasped. Fire danced low in her belly. She should stop him. She closed her eyes and let his hand roam her breasts. His touch was like fire—hot and dangerous. Better than she’d dreamed.

No, it would not be terrible to become his wife.

She heard him mumble and she bent lower to hear his words. His face lifted from her lap and his lips brushed her mouth. He moaned again, the sound was not of a man in pain, more in pleasure. His hand cupped the back of her neck and pulled her closer. His lips teased hers and encouraged her to allow him access. She didn’t even hesitate, but opened for him. He swept into her mouth as if he’d been there before. He tasted of brandy and cheroots, a masculine combination that saw her surrender to the passion his clever tongue provoked.

So caught up in the magic of the kiss, she did not notice his hand expertly freeing one breast from the bodice of her gown until the cooling morning air brushed across her heated skin. She broke from his kiss and sat back on a gasp. He levered himself up and on a deep groan, crawled up her body, gently pushing her down onto the path.

She’d never experienced the weight of a man on top of her. It was thrilling and scary all at the same time. Before she could decide what to do, his mouth found her bare, taut nipple and the hot moistness of his mouth stifled any protest. This time the moan came from her.

She heard a rustle and felt his hand glide seductively under her dress and up her trembling thigh. He stroked her leg while devouring her breast with his mouth and wicked tongue. She let the magic of his love-making consume her. She knew she should protest. She knew Henry would be mortified at what he was doing. He wasn’t in his right mind.

His fingers danced up the inside of her thigh and she tried to close her legs. His lips found hers once more and he let his tongue seduce her. Her clenched thighs relaxed under his soft touch and his fingers swept upwards to find the damp core of her. He groaned deep into her mouth as his fingers slid through her wetness.

His breath was ragged, and she could not miss the hard length of him against her stomach. He slipped a finger inside her, and she only just stifled a cry before arching beneath him. Her mind screamed at her to stop him. This was getting beyond the point of no return–it was scandalous. But her body wouldn’t acquiesce, craving his attentions.

His mouth left hers and trailed a molten path toward her ear. His hand sunk deep into her hair, holding her head at an angle while he nipped at her ear lobe, all the while his finger stroked deep within her. She could feel her body tightening. She struggled for air, panting, urgently seeking some kind of release from the slow building torture of pleasure.

“How I love your responsiveness to my touch, Millicent. Come for me, I’ve missed you so much…”

Amy froze. Pain lanced her chest. How stupid could she have been? Of course he thought she was someone else. Henry never noticed her—not in this way. Why, only last year he’d been more than instrumental in arranging her ‘almost’ engagement to his friend, Marcus Danvers, the Marquis of Wolverstone.

“What’s wrong my love?” He noticed her lack of response because he stilled, his hand leaving her.

Amy was thankful it was dark, but with such a starry night he might not be so drunk that he couldn’t recognise her. Panic took hold. She put her hands on his chest and pushed him sideways with all her might. He rolled off her with a grunt of surprise. Too mortified for words, she pushed clear and jumped to her feet. As she righted her clothing, covering her naked breasts, she barely glanced over her shoulder to ensure Henry would be all right before she raced for the safety of the darkness and her home.

“What the hell…” Henry shook his head and rose to his knees. His groin throbbed, something he’d not experienced in a while, and his head thumped like a blacksmith’s hammer was pounding inside it. He’d awoken from a very pleasant dream to the blazing nightmare of a terrible reality.

There had been a woman in his arms. A stranger.

He spied something bright and dazzling on the path next to him. He picked up the object and brought it closer to his face so he could examine it. An earring.

“Christ, it wasn’t a drunken dream.” The earring was exquisite. A cluster of emeralds surrounded by brilliantly cut diamonds. It was heavy in his hand. Expensive. This, along with her silk clothing, led him to the conclusion that the woman was no light-skirt. He’d dallied with a woman of prominence.

Whoever she was, she was every hot-blooded man’s fantasy. Warm, silky skin, her scent like freshly cut flowers. She was so responsive to his touch. He could still smell her arousal on his hand and he hungered for more.

He staggered to his feet and groaned, holding his head in his hands while he swayed. He touched the gash on his head and grimaced.

When the dizziness and nausea waned he looked around the square. It had to be someone local. No woman of quality would stray far from home this late. But hadn’t there been a musical soiree at Lady Answell’s townhouse on the corner tonight? Blast, that didn’t help. It could have been a guest taking the air.

He closed his eyes and remembered her response. She was young, he was sure of it. Her responses were untutored, hesitant, innocent…. Christ.

Someone young, local, someone who had been out that evening.

Innocent. What if he’d nearly debauched a virgin in his garden? A smile broke over his lips. But he didn’t feel shame or guilt. He stood up straighter, invigorated for the first time in months.

He weighed the earring in his hand before slowly closing his fist over it. He would find the owner of this earring. Her response told him very clearly that she was not immune to him.

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