Caitlin arrived in plenty of time for her first Faro lesson. She was early on purpose, hoping for time alone with Henry and the opportunity to play on his chivalrous nature and learn all of Dangerfield’s secrets.
She’d slept little during what had remained of the previous night. Tossing. Turning. Worrying.
What on earth could the Duke of Dangerfield gain by forcing her into his bed? He certainly was not short of bed partners. Why would he want the likes of her for his bed sports? Was it his ultimate revenge against her father, to see his daughter ruined?
If only she could learn why the pair hated each other so. Perhaps she could put an end to the bitter quarrel and appeal for time to reimburse her father’s debt. If she could delay the settlement until after the race at Newmarket, then she might be able to afford to buy the Manor back.
Henry would likely know the answer. And that was another thing. This wager didn’t sit easy with Henry St. Giles, Earl of Cravenswood. How strange. He appeared genuinely appalled at Harlow’s behavior, yet he too was a renowned rake. Perhaps some rakes were more honorable than others. Well, she would soon find out.
She halted her gig outside Ashley House, the Earl’s grey stone, impressive hunting lodge. It was a large house—much larger than she remembered.
A stable lad arrived to help her down and take care of her horse and equipage. She’d come dressed as the very proper Lady Caitlin this afternoon, hoping to remind Dangerfield of her status—a virginal, well-bred lady, and not some fallen woman he could seduce.
She’d barely had time to straighten her dress when she heard the sound of thundering hooves. She turned in time to watch Dangerfield gallop up the drive on Champers, streaking past the trees lining the driveway. They seemed to bend in his wake.
She tried not to, but she couldn’t help but drink in the sight of his board shoulders braced against the wind, his muscular thighs hugging the horse’s barrel. The daredevil billow and furl of his greatcoat as it fluttered behind him completed the picture of perfect masculinity.
He reined in and skidded to a halt not far from where she stood, mesmerized. The large stallion pranced in place, as magnificent as its rider. The duke gave her a ridiculously arousing smile before dismounting in a graceful slide.
So much for getting time alone with St. Giles.
He swept off his hat and bowed. “How lovely you look this afternoon, Lady Caitlin. I thought I’d catch you arriving early for our lesson. No doubt ready to prey on Henry’s good nature.”
Their gazes clashed, and annoyance coursed through her veins—mixed with something that edged the annoyance higher. Excitement. His dark-lashed, grey eyes twinkled. The man knew precisely the impact his arrival was having on her.
Caitlin’s lips parted. Her heart pounded against her corset, which was obviously tied far too tightly. She had to remind herself to breathe. In. Out. Ignore him.
Harlow’s smile widened, and he brought her limp hand to his lips for a butterfly-light brush of a kiss. Heavens, but his eyes seemed to be burning right through her, reading her thoughts as a blind man reads the darkness. He was all male, preening before a female.
Her lungs burned. But still she kept looking… looking… powerless before him… powerless to wrench her hand, or her gaze, away.
“I still prefer you in trousers.”
His husky declaration broke the spell that held her captive. “Then I shall ensure never to wear trousers again,” she said, warmth flaring in her cheeks.
He straightened. “Quite right. My apologies.” His little bow mocked her. “I don’t prefer you in trousers. I’d prefer you in nothing at all.”
She should have been angry, but the notion of being naked before this man’s gaze made her pulse quicken. What was the matter with her? “That will never happen.”
“When I win this wager it will. I’m looking forward to it. In fact, it is all I could think about last night. You—naked—in my bed.”
She suppressed a shiver. He made it sound as though it were a foregone conclusion. “If you win, don’t you mean?”
He smirked. “Not even getting Henry on your side will change the outcome. I will win. I always win.”
Before she could think of a retort, he offered her his arm—and, in that instant, the rake disappeared and a focused, determined competitor took his place.
“Now, Lady Caitlin,” he said, with a flash of white teeth that reminded her of predators and danger. “Shall we step inside and begin your Faro lessons?”
Her tiny hand fluttered uncertainly on his arm, and he could sense her reluctance to touch him.
He wanted to touch her… everywhere
She looked beautiful this afternoon. His groin reacted to the vision before him when he drew up beside her on Champers. When Henry saw her dressed like this, dressed like an angel, he’d try to call the wager off. Her innocence shone like a beacon, enough to lighten any dark soul.
For a brief moment he wondered what he was about.
Yet beneath her innocent cloak of respectability a vibrant, lush, and sensual woman curled and stretched, wakening to life. He could almost see it happening. The delicious flush that bloomed across her cheeks. The pale green of her eyes as they darkened and flashed almost as deep as emeralds. Emeralds. He wanted to see her lying naked on his bed with only emeralds draped at her neck and wrists.
He had not lied when he told her he’d dreamed of her. He’d dreamed of nothing but her.
Nonetheless, in the early hours of that morning he’d decided his seduction of Lady Caitlin Southall would serve several purposes.
First, it would unsettle her and make it easy to win the wager. Second, he hoped it would make the idea of marriage to him less repugnant to her. And third, the most primal reason of all, he wanted her.
Henry’s arrival—and his expression of utter consternation at the demur and virginal looking Caitlin on his friend’s arm—confirmed every one of Dangerfield’s fears. Henry’s lips formed into a straight line and he turned his disapproving gaze Harlow’s way.
Oh, yes. The man wanted to put a stop to the wager—would probably do his best to do so.
But Dangerfield could not allow gentlemanly scruples to ruin his plans. In order to keep Mansfield Manor for Jeremy, yet still protect Caitlin from the poorhouse or worse, he had to marry her. She was beautiful enough to garner many an offer even without a dowry, but he refused to consider the notion that he could arrange an acceptable match, and see her married off elsewhere.
He also denied it was guilt that drove him. Guilt at seeing her lose something that by rights should be hers. Given her stubborn pride—which he admired—and her dislike of him—which he didn’t admire at all—Harlow doubted she’d accept a straight marriage proposal. A wager, even a scandalous wager, was far more acceptable to her.
Panic gripped as he realized what lay behind his reluctance. Possessiveness. She was his. No other man could have her. He would not allow it.
“Lady Caitlin,” Henry said into what had become a difficult silence, “how lovely you look today.”
She inclined her head in a regal nod and Henry reddened like a schoolboy before clearing his throat and continuing. “My lady, I must ask you again; are you quite certain you wish to continue this wager? As a gentleman, His Grace would not hold you to it. I’m sure he will allow you to withdraw.”
No, he bloody won’t! He wanted to shout it at Henry—at them both—but he remained silent, wondering what her response would be.
She took a deep breath. “I do not wish to withdraw.” She removed her hand from Dangerfield’s sleeve and placed it instead on Henry’s arm. It took all his composure not to snatch it back. “Thank you, for your concern. But”—she flashed a defiant look his way—“I’m more than positive I can beat His Grace. If I do not then at least I know I have tried.”
Not until that moment did he realize he’d been holding his breath.
A few hours later, Harlow had to admit to himself that she was rather good—for a woman. She’d already known Faro to be a game of chance where the odds were enhanced with mathematical skill. She’d also known the players had to keep track of the cards that had been played in order to ascertain the odds of what was still to be played.
She’d also picked up the nuances of the game very quickly and, unfortunately for him, had a good head for numbers.
Most men had to use a case-keeper to keep track of the cards that had been played, but Harlow could keep them in his head. It would appear Caitlin, to a certain extent, could too. It was most annoying. He’d hoped to have that advantage at least.
However, while she had won the last few turns, she had yet to understand that one needed a strategy when playing faro.
“This is not as difficult as I imagined.” Her beaming smile took his breath away, and for once he remained silent.
Henry, however, did not. “I would be remiss if I didn’t suggest that, for this wager, it is not how many turns you win, Lady Caitlin, but how much money you earn off each turn. It is the total money won over the course of the game that counts. Whoever wins the most money in this game of faro will be the victor in this challenge.”
Her frown squelched that cute nose of hers up, and Henry demonstrated.
“Let’s think about this turn. Given you’re near the end of the fifty-one cards, and you know the cards that have been played, you can place higher bets knowing the odds are more in your favor.”
She fiddled with the bracelet at her wrist and studied the layout. “I see. I know there are still a king and two queens left, and there are more low value cards left than higher. Therefore, as we get closer to the end of the deck I should place more money on the lower cards. Is that right?”
“Yes, this is what Harlow has been doing. He increases the amount of money he bets as he calculates the odds of the cards that are left falling due.”
“But it’s still a gamble,” she insisted. “You could lose more.”
Harlow let his gaze wander over her. “That is why it’s a hazardous game. There is always an element of luck. Are you feeling lucky? Luckier than your father?”Return to To Dare the Duke of Dangerfield