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Happy New Year!
Here’s hoping you have a rake or two in your life in 2013. To make sure that happens, all you have to do is look for my newest release—Waking Up with a Rake! I’m so excited to share this series with you. Book One in The Royal Rakes series hits the bookstore shelves today. Find it at your local booksellers or at all the online etailers. Here on my website, you have the exclusive chance to try not one, but two chapters!
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For the first time in his life, Lord Rhys Warrington wondered if he was too foxed to properly bed a woman.
“Nothing ventured,” he murmured as he latched the door behind him and stared at the courtesan lounging on the bed. Light from a dozen candles kissed the curve of her bare shoulder. The boudoir was awash in scent, expensive jasmine, and attar of roses, with a sensual undertone of muskiness.
She smiled, letting the satiny sheet drop enough to reveal the swell of her breasts. The lady knew how to tease. Miranda Doublefield had been Lord Tottenham’s mistress for the better part of last Season and had lasted through the turn of the New Year. She might have been petite, but there was nothing the least small about her allure. Her eyelids half closed, she gave him a sultry look.
Despite having consumed enough spirits to drop a horse, Rhys roused to her silent invitation. He was relieved by his body’s dependability. A woman like Miranda would trumpet a man’s bedroom failures if she thought the tale would amuse and titillate others. Rhys wasn’t her protector and wasn’t likely ever to be. She’d have no need to guard his dignity.
Rhys wasn’t interested in acquiring a mistress. Or in any encounter that lasted beyond the moment, for that matter.
With good reason.
Even among the demi-monde crowd, he was alone.
Besides, there was much to commend a bedding that was purely carnal with no bothersome emotions to cloud matters. He’d made a concerted effort to feel nothing since he returned from the Continent, and the result was a hollowness in his chest. He considered it a fair trade for continuing to breathe.
His heart might be dead, but that didn’t stop another part of his anatomy from demonstrating with regularity that it was fully alive. He ached to wallow in Miranda and feel the only dregs of emotion he’d allow himself.
“I fear you may think yourself ill-used,” Rhys said, his words slurring only slightly as he weaved toward her. There’d been entirely too much rum in his evening’s activities, but at least he was still upright. “Just because your protector was foolish enough to wager a night with you, do not feel yourself bound to honor his gambling debt.”
“Ill-used?” She giggled musically. “Nonsense. My fingers were crossed that Totty wouldn’t take that final trick. I look forward to being used by you, my lord. Just don’t be surprised if I use you right back.”
Miranda raised herself to her knees and let the sheet fall completely. As she settled between the plump pillows, she teased him with a glimpse at the shadowy heaven between her legs.
The house party at the St. James love nest where Lord Tottenham kept Miranda had degenerated into a bacchanalia within hours of its beginning. Then it stretched into a sennight of drinking, gambling, and indecent games. Rhys’s bedding of Tottenham’s mistress under his own roof was probably the least scandalous coupling that would transpire this night.
Rhys wondered absently if Tottenham had bored peepholes into the room to keep an eye on Miranda. If the earl was watching now, Rhys couldn’t be bothered to care. Serve the fool right to be cuckolded before his very eyes.
Rhys plopped down on the side of the bed, hoping the room would stop spinning, and tried to tug off his Hessians. He really ought to have passed on that last round of Jamaican rum. He’d probably been drunk enough already not to have to worry about troubling dreams later.
Tottenham’s mistress wrapped her arms around him, pressing herself against his back. She lavished kisses on his neck and then latched onto his earlobe, sucking hard.
Sinking into Miranda Doublefield’s lush softness would be oblivion that trumped an alcoholic haze all to pieces. In the heat and friction of mindless rutting, Rhys could forget.
Or at least pretend he had forgotten, if only for a little while.
He turned and pinned Miranda to the mattress.
“Boots be damned,” he declared. If Tottenham didn’t mind Rhys despoiling his mistress, he wasn’t likely to fuss over ruined sheets. Rhys would take his time with the lady later, but since she seemed more than ready, the first time would be hard and fast.
He lost himself in her mouth, in the abandon of suckling tongues and shared breath. Her hands rippled over his body, teasing and stroking. She moaned into his mouth.
Real passion or feigned? It was hard to tell with an accomplished courtesan like Miranda. Perhaps it didn’t matter, Rhys decided.
Perhaps nothing did.
Laughter and shouting from the rest of the party floated up to his ear, a faint summons from another world. He shoved it aside to focus on Miranda’s silky skin.
Steps pounded down the hallway outside the door, but Rhys figured they had nothing to do with him. His only problem was how to unfasten the stubborn flap of his trousers. The confounded button seemed too large to fit through the hole, despite the fact that he was almost certain it had slipped through there with ease when he put the blasted trousers on.
Where was his valet when he needed him?
“Here, let me.” Miranda bent to take the button between her white teeth. He ached at the nearness of her lips, but the thread wouldn’t give.
“Damned French tailor,” Rhys muttered. “Too much thread.” Damn the French altogether.
A familiar red haze descended on his vision and, for an instant, he was back on the plain near Maubeuge again.
Too much blood. Too many arms and legs. Too many cannonballs. Where’s that relief column? I sent an urgent summons over an hour ago. His horse was dying, screaming its agony as only a dumb creature can. Or a man who knows his immortal soul is about to flee his all-too-mortal body. Have to put him down. Only one shot left…
“Damn the French,” Rhys growled aloud this time, closing the invisible portal in his mind that led back to that cursed battlefield.
Then Miranda’s real door shattered behind him and the pounding footsteps grew louder, tramping inside his head. The courtesan shrieked and pulled up the sheets to cover herself as the footsteps surrounded the bed.
Rhys turned, but too slowly. Something solid and unyielding caught him on the temple. A black curtain descended on his mind, and he went dark as a Drury Lane stage after the last ovation.
Smells penetrated the blackness first. Mellow pipe tobacco tickled his nose, making him inhale sharply. Too late, he realized the pleasing scent was mixed with the pungent odor of large dog. A hissing and popping blaze in a nearby fireplace blended in an odd note of sweetness.
Apple wood fire, Rhys thought disjointedly.
Male voices pricked his ear. He couldn’t make out any of the words. A china teacup clinked on a saucer. Leather creaked as someone settled into a chair close by. Something wet touched his hand.
Rhys forced open his eyes to find a boarhound nudging its broad muzzle under his palm. He patted the huge head and was rewarded with a slurping lick on his thumb.
“Good lad, then,” he muttered, hoping the dog wasn’t tasting him to see if a further sampling was warranted. He gave the dog a scratch behind its ear. Since the beast seemed disposed to be friendly, it was best to keep it that way.
“Ah, Lord Rhys, how good of you to join us.”
Careful not to move his head lest it tumble off his shoulders, Rhys slid his gaze toward the source of the smarmy voice. “Did you give me a choice, Alcock?”
“Not really, no.” Mr. Fortescue Alcock chuckled. It was not a pleasant sound, a rude cross between a snort and a belch. Alcock was a powerful Member of Parliament and the political enemy of King George III’s current Prime minister, Lord Liverpool. His adversaries in Parliament could have told Rhys that Alcock’s laughter never boded the hearer any good. Alcock signaled for his footman to shoo the boarhound away. Then the servant pressed a cup of something hot and dark into Rhys’s hands.
He sipped tentatively. The tea was laced with several lumps of sugar. While it didn’t completely expunge the alcoholic fog in his head, it sweetened his palate considerably.
“If it’s any consolation to you, Warrington, we were given the same rough invitation.”
Rhys hadn’t heard that voice in three years, but he recognized the cultured tone of cynical boredom in an instant. He turned his head slowly toward the voice that belonged to his oldest friend in the world, Nathaniel Colton. Lord Nate was seated on a divan, his weight balanced forward so he could rise in a blink, ready for action. In a ballroom or on a battlefield, Nathaniel had few equals for grace in motion. The only sign that he’d been on the losing end of a scuffle was the ripped seam at the shoulder of his elegantly tailored jacket.
Rhys’s second oldest friend, Sir Jonah Sharp, occupied the other wing chair flanking the fireplace. A purpling bruise on his left eye declared that Jonah had fared somewhat worse than Nathaniel had with the thugs who delivered his invitation to join Alcock’s party.
But then Jonah had always been one to try to talk his way out of trouble first. Once he drew his blade, his considerable talent as a swordsman meant an uneven fight, and Jonah was a stickler for good form above all else. Alcock’s men evidently hadn’t been of a mind to parley and weren’t fair-minded enough to give Sir Jonah time to arm himself. Jonah’s eye was nearly swollen shut.
Rhys fingered the goose egg at his own temple. He hadn’t acquitted himself with much distinction this night either.
He’d first met Colton and Sharp at school, long before any of their voices had dropped or they’d sprouted the first hairs on their balls. As second sons, they shared the common fate of being wellborn with no expectation of future elevation. Once they graduated from university, their respective fathers bought commissions for them and they gallivanted off to war together with the same esprit de corps with which they’d plotted school-boyish mayhem. The last place Rhys had seen either of them was on the smoky battlefield at Maubeuge, France.
Now Nathaniel and Jonah eyed him with distrust.
Rhys returned the favor.
“I must apologize for the zeal of my agents,” their host said, slicking back his thinning hair with a bony hand. “My men were ordered to invite you gentlemen here, not to abduct you. However, once you’ve heard what I offer, I trust you’ll be disposed to forgive their…exuberance.”
Rhys met his friends’ unblinking gazes for a moment. There’d been a time when they could finish each other’s sentences and guess each other’s thoughts. Now, Nathaniel and Jonah were blank slates, or worse, covered with some sort of scribbling in a language in which he was not fluent. Their suspicious glares were undecipherable, but potent with dark meaning.
“Very well, I’ll ask,” Rhys said to Alcock. “To what do we owe this dubious honor?”
Rhys’s gut clenched.
“Each of you were there at that horrendous defeat. Each of you survived when most of the men under your respective commands died,” Alcock said, his tone as dry and dispassionate as if he were debating a new system of drains for a poor London neighborhood whose streets still doubled as sewers. “Only the fact that your fathers are all well-respected peers kept you from courts-martial and total ruin. Even so, it should come as no surprise that the whiff of scandal is still attached to your names.”
“If this is going to be a recitation of what we already know, you can save your breath,” Rhys said, rising to his feet. “I have someplace to be.”
“But no place to go. At every turn, your life is hemmed about by your questionable past. It’s the same for each of you,” Alcock said. “I could catalogue the wasteland of your existence since that day in May, the way you hover just this side of ‘beyond the pale,’ but since you insist upon brevity, I will jump to the meat of our conversation. You see, I do know something you don’t know, Lord Rhys. The outcome of that battle might as well have been etched in stone ahead of time. Gentlemen, your regiments were betrayed before a single cannon shot was fired.”
“Betrayed by whom? If you know the traitor, name the dog,” Nathaniel demanded, his low tone laced with menace.
“Oh, I know who it was and I can prove it, never fear,” Alcock said, “but I’ll keep that little secret for the time being. You see, I had to ask myself just what this sort of information might be worth to the three of you.”
Jonah bared his teeth in an expression the unwary might interpret as a smile. Rhys recognized it as more akin to a wolf displaying its fangs.
“Well, you’ve just proved my long-held suspicion that politicians and prostitutes are alike,” Jonah said. “But the main difference between them is that politicians charge more for their services and deliver less.”
“Careful, Sir Jonah,” Alcock said with a ferocious scowl. “You don’t know yet whether my information further implicates one of you three sitting in this room.”
“Does it?” Rhys said, voicing the thought he was sure his former friends shared. Any one of them might be the turncoat so far as the others knew.
“The guilty party remains to be seen. However, if you are innocent, your honor might be restored. Consider for a moment what full exoneration would do for you.” Alcock drew deeply on his pipe and then loosed a perfect smoke ring into the center of the room. “And for your families.”
Rhys hadn’t thought anything could restore his honor, so he’d spent the last three years living down to his reputation. And while he’d drunk deeply of every hedonistic pleasure known to man, he’d missed out on some of the more homey ones.
His dear sisters had married while he was in self-imposed exile. He hadn’t been barred from the ceremonies, but he detected a collective sigh of relief when he sent his regrets. Now he had nearly half a dozen nieces and nephews whom he’d never seen.
Could never see, lest his proximity taint them in the eyes of Polite Society.
Rhys had avoided his father, the Marquis of Warrington, even when they were both in Town, because he couldn’t bear the censure on the old man’s granite-jawed face. Last winter at the marquisate’s countryseat, his father had taken to his bed with a lingering fever. Odds at White’s pegged him for the Grim Reaper before Christmas.
No one sent word asking Rhys to come home.
But the marquis was tougher than the wags at White’s had credited him. By spring, his father was on the mend and well enough to terrorize the House of Lords once again.
However, the cut to Rhys’s spirit went deep. Even languishing on what was rumored to be his deathbed, Lord Warrington hadn’t asked for his second son.
Rhys was almost certain his mother would have written. The only explanation was that she had been forbidden to do so. The rebuke couldn’t be stronger. Nothing would restore him in his father’s estimation.
Unless Mr. Alcock really could clear him of the scandal.
“Suppose we are interested in your information,” Rhys said, settling back into the wing chair. “What do you expect from us in return?”
Mr. Alcock stopped puffing on his pipe and smiled. Drawing his skin tight across his face, it was not a pleasant expression.
“In the years since your disastrous defeat at Maubeuge, the three of you have developed a talent of singular note. As it turns out, I have need of such men for missions of vital importance.”
“What is it you need us to do?” A frown cut a deep cleft between Nathaniel’s sandy brows.
Espionage or fighting, whatever it was, it would be better than the wastrel life Rhys had been living.
“In due time, my lord. First, you must appreciate the situation which drove me to my…unorthodox plan. You see, the people are weary of our mad king and his unlikeable son. We hoped for better things from Prinny’s daughter and the child she carried.” Mr. Alcock’s mouth turned down in a grim line. “Surely even dedicated rakes such as yourselves noted that the princess passed away after the birth of her stillborn son in late autumn.”
“It was hard to miss.” Rhys drained the rest of his tea. Even the coffeehouses and clubs had closed down for two weeks last November after Princess Charlotte died. “The whole country donned crepe.”
“All except Princess Charlotte’s uncles, the royal dukes,” Jonah said.
The unmarried sons of King George saw a chance to put themselves, or at least their progeny, on the throne if they could produce a legitimate heir. Unfortunately, His Majesty’s sons were more inclined to mistresses than marriage. Only the Prince Regent had presented King George with a grandchild who didn’t bear the stain of bastardy.
And now Princess Charlotte was dead.
“The ‘Hymen Race Terrific’ is engaged in earnest. The sons of ‘Farmer George’ are hot to wed, bed, and breed,” Alcock said. “Three of the royal dukes have gone a-courting with the Crown as the ultimate prize, but I intend to see that their plans are thwarted.”
“Are you suggesting that not everyone wants to see the House of Hanover continue on the throne?” Rhys guessed.
“Did I say so? Certainly not,” Mr. Alcock said. The mere thought bordered on treason. “But for the sake of argument, suppose someone did want to see the Crown devolve to another ruling line. If one could confound these marriage-minded dukes, the task would be half accomplished.”
Nathaniel laughed mirthlessly. “You’ll need more luck than you deserve. What woman wouldn’t jump at the chance to wed a royal duke and perhaps wear a tiara of her own if she manages to pop out a royal heir?”
“No doubt, the dazzle of a possible crown does tend to outweigh the general distastefulness of the sons of King George,” Alcock said, his lip curling. “But since it would be impolitic to publicly point out their many deficiencies, I intend to marshal my forces in another direction.”
“How so?” Rhys asked.
“Only the young, fertile, and chaste need apply for the position of royal duchess, you understand. I merely need to make sure the ladies in question are disqualified from consideration on account of impurity,” Alcock explained. “I ask you, who better to make sure the dukes’ intended brides don’t remain virgins than three determined rakes?” He skewered them each with a pointed look.
“You mistake me, Alcock.” Rhys rose and strode toward the door. The last wisp of rum-soaked fog lifted and his mind was suddenly clearer than it had been in weeks. “Thus far the depth of my depravity does not stoop to debauching virgins. Pray, do not include me in your machinations.”
“Or me,” Nathaniel said, falling into step behind him.
“Too bloody right.” Jonah brought up the rear.
For a moment, Rhys’s chest swelled with an unfamiliar sensation. Satisfaction. His old friends had backed him. Not that refusing to deflower a green girl was all that praiseworthy. In good conscience, what gentleman wouldn’t? But at least Rhys and his friends had found common ground at the bottom of the pit into which they’d sunk. It felt good to have Nate and Jonah on his side again.
“So you care nothing for your honor?” Alcock said.
“Honor bought at such a price can hardly be worth the name,” Rhys said, stopping with his hand on the parlor door.
In all his sexual adventures, Rhys had never seduced a virgin. A green girl was sacrosanct. Rhys had always been fond beyond the common of his younger sisters. If some rake had preyed on them, used them, and tossed them aside, nothing would have stayed him from demanding satisfaction and killing the bastard.
Now Fortescue Alcock wanted him and his friends to do the same despicable thing to someone else’s sisters. Rhys balled his fingers into fists. The urge to throttle Alcock to within an inch of his miserable life was almost more temptation than he could resist.
“I wouldn’t be so hasty to be noble were I you,” Alcock warned. “You see, aside from information about the true traitor of Maubeuge, I can amass enough evidence to damn each of you as well.”
“You lie.” Rhys narrowed his eyes at Alcock.
“Perhaps,” the man said with a deceptively affable smile. “It may well be that my informant is untrustworthy. But people are ever willing to believe the worst, whether it’s true or not. Should I choose to launch an investigation—and rest assured, if you fail to comply with my wishes, I will do so—you will each be brought before Parliament to answer for your crimes. And this time, no amount of influence from your families will save you from the full weight of the law.”
Rhys’s throat constricted. If convicted, they’d be fortunate to escape with transportation. More likely, they’d be made examples of in a public execution. But worse than that, Rhys dreaded further shame to his family.
Alcock seemed to sense his dread.
“Sir Jonah, your brother’s grasp has exceeded his reach in courting the daughter of an earl, and according to my information, the lady seems willing. But what do you think a public trial will do to his hope of wedding Lady Penelope?” Alcock asked.
Jonah’s shoulders slumped a fraction of an inch. Rhys knew his friend was caught.
“And you, Lord Nathaniel,” Alcock went on, hooking his thumbs under his lapels as if preparing to launch a filibuster. “I believe your younger sister is coming out next Season, isn’t she? How would a convicted traitor in the family affect her chance of making a good match?”
A muscle in Nathaniel’s cheek ticked, but he said nothing. Like Rhys, Nathaniel was devoted to his sisters.
“And you, Lord Rhys, of all people, should wish to avoid further disgrace. Your father may try to hide it, but word about town is that the marquis is not as hale and hearty as he tries to appear,” Alcock droned on. “Imagine what it would do to Lord Warrington to see his son in the well of the House of Lords. In shackles.”
The familiar red haze that was a precursor to visions from his past threatened to descend again, but Rhys shook it off. He had to keep his wits about him. Sometimes when the dark spells overtook him, he lost track of where he was. Wandering in the past, he sometimes feared he’d never find his way back. He couldn’t afford flashes of Maubeuge intruding into his present reality. So he forced one foot in front of the other and returned to the chair by the fire.
One at a time, his friends followed suit.
“Very wise, gentlemen,” Mr. Alcock said. “Why be my enemies when you can be my friends?”
Moving with speed that surprised even him, Rhys leaped up, grasped Alcock by the collar and lifted him off his shiny-booted feet. The man’s eyes bulged as his hands clawed at Rhys’s grip, but he couldn’t wiggle free.
“You will never be our friend, Alcock,” Rhys said, giving him a quick shake, like a terrier would a rat. “Answer one question and you won’t see us again until we come to collect what you owe us.”
“What’s that?” he croaked.
Rhys glanced at his friends. When they both nodded grimly, he lowered Alcock until his toes brushed the ground.
“Who are we to seduce?”
End of Excerpt
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