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wicked games

By Chad Spencer,2014-06-21 10:23
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wicked games

Chapter One

LONDON

    1815

    Lord Drake Boscastle had less than two hours to suffer through the party before his

    assignation with one of the most sensual women in all of Europe. If the evening went as well

    as he expected, he would make the celebrated English courtesan, Maribella St. Ives, his next

    mistress. He certainly hoped she would prove to be worth the rigmarole required for their

    rendezvous, or he would feel like a hell of a fool. He had spent a month corresponding with

    her and had presented her with a small fortune in gifts to prove his sincerity. Maribella‟s

    private agents had conducted an investigation to research his character. The last Drake had

    heard, even his cook had been questioned on what his master ate for dinner.

    His indigo blue eyes darkened with irony at the thought. Any thorough check into his past

    would have yielded a treasure trove of scandals and indiscretions. It seemed, however, that

    Miss St. Ives was not put off by his reputation. Apparently he had met whatever qualifications

    she desired in a protector. He had been summoned to meet her tonight in a private suite at

    Audrey Watson‟s salon on Bruton Street. Salon, of course, being a euphemism for the

    exclusive bordello that its half-world hostess, Audrey, maintained.

    His valet had efficiently packed a few personal necessities and a fresh change of clothes, not

    bothering to ask whether his master would be home before morning. Drake was rather hopeful

    he wouldn‟t return for a week. His life had been curiously devoid of pleasure lately, sex

    included. His capacity for enjoyment seemed to be diminishing by the day. He couldn‟t put

    his finger on the precise reason for his sense of dissatisfaction, but he was half-decided that if

    this affair with Maribella did not improve his outlook, he would return to soldiering.

    “Counting the minutes?” his younger brother Lord Devon Boscastle asked from behind him.

    Drake glanced around, grinning in reply. A small flock of debutantes stood gazing in

    breathless anticipation at Devon, whose openly playful charm made him appear far less of a

    threat than his more intense older brother. “I‟m down to seconds at this point,” he said dryly.

    Devon lowered his voice. “Do let me know if Miss St. Ives has any sisters in the market for a protector. That is, if you can talk coherently at the end of the evening.”

    Drake shook his head and cast a sardonic glance across the room. “I‟m going to be talking all

    night. Haven‟t you heard that she‟s famous for her wit?” “And that‟s why you‟re interested in her? For conversation?” He punched his brother on the shoulder. “Go dance with the debutantes, Devon. They‟re

    dying for you to ask.”

    “I can‟t dance with all of them at once. Why don‟t you help me out?” He shook his head in amusement. “I‟ll leave the innocents to you. Anyway, I think I ought to

    conserve my strength.”

    One of their mutual male friends sauntered past them. “I suppose we won‟t see you at the

    auction tomorrow, Boscastle,” he said to Drake in an envious voice. “Damn lucky devil.”

    Drake‟s answering laugh was suddenly drowned out by the blood-rousing strains of a country dance. He cast a halfhearted glance about for a partner. He‟d prefer the sister or wife of a

    friend rather than a timid debutante who would gaze at him in hopeful trepidation or chatter

    her empty head off after the set.

    His restless gaze lit on a young, nicely built brunette in a plain lilac dress who was staring

    across the dance floor. She looked lost and…maybe a little frantic. She had an interesting sense of panic about her and an even more interesting silhouette. Good enough for what he

    had in mind. He only wanted to squander a few pleasant minutes with the woman, not marry

    her.

    He strolled up behind her, clearing his throat at the cursory glance she granted him before

    turning away. Ignore him, would she? That was a challenge his devilish impulses could not

    turn down. “Lost a sheep?” he asked quietly, his chin brushing her ear. Her soft white shoulders stiffened. He knew perfectly well she was aware of him, even if she

    refused to turn to meet his regard. “Yes, in a manner of speaking,” she answered distractedly.

    At that point another man might have taken the hint and melted away. Instead, he studied her

    profile, the imperfect patrician nose, her stubborn chin, a lushly shaped mouth. His gaze

    drifted in lazy appraisal down her shoulders to the ivory curves of her full breasts above her

    neckline. “Shall we look together?” he inquired, masking his thoughts behind a polite smile.

    She angled her head slightly to regard him. Her oval face bore an expression of practiced

    disdain that slipped as her eyes slowly met his. She blinked. He stared at her, enjoying his

    own rush of pleasant surprise. She was really quite lovely. He saw her bite the edge of her full

    bottom lip a little nervously before she retreated in a half step. She wouldn‟t ignore him now.

    She recognized a threat to female virtue when she saw it.

    “Come on,” he said, gently taking her arm. “We‟ll hunt for your sheep on the dance floor. It

    just so happens that I‟m good at hunting.”

    She stared down guardedly at his hand before returning her shrewd gaze to his face. The

    shadow of a smile lifted those lushly curved lips. “Wolves usually are.” He laughed, pleased but surprised at her response, and drew her forward. She gave a strong

    twist of resistance, although there was no room for her to escape. Guests had already filled the

    void where they‟d been standing. The ballroom was thronged elbow-to-elbow with elegantly dressed lords and ladies. Loud ones, too. Drake was reminded of a barnyard filled with

    clucking hens and braying asses, which didn‟t exactly speak well of his opinion of Society as

    a whole.

He could barely hear what his reluctant partner was attempting to say above all the chatter and

    music of the orchestra. “Tell me about him later,” he said in answer to her distressed look.

    He didn‟t particularly want to talk, or dance for that matter. He simply wanted to pass time

    with this pretty stranger before a night of bliss-inducing sex with a courtesan he‟d met only

    once; and even during that meeting he and Maribella had not exchanged more than a few

    provocative words. This whole affair hinged on rumor and innuendo, which was what

    probably made it so intriguing.

    “It‟s not a him,” his partner said rather forcefully as he drew her resisting figure into the steps

    of the dance. An unexpected surge of arousal stirred his senses at the pliant warmth of her

    body. There was a pleasant sturdiness about her that appealed to him. She was an

    accomplished enough dancer to follow the pattern without seeming to pay attention. She

    seemed to be more concerned with looking for whomever it was she‟d lost than with his

    efforts to disarm her.

    His hooded gaze studied her as she faced the stage. She wore her hair back from her face, a

    heavy cluster of chestnut brown waves that enhanced her creamy skin. No jewelry except for

    a pair of pearl earrings. Her lilac muslin dress hadn‟t been designed to impress anyone, either.

    In fact, she looked like a governess, or a lady‟s companion. Which would explain why she was looking for lost sheep. He‟d probably get her dismissed for dancing with him.

    A middle-aged gentleman bumped into her as the set reconfigured. Drake gave the man a look

    and reached out his arm without thinking to steady her. Her full breasts pressed through his

    white linen shirtfront, another flagrant shock to his senses. He allowed his hand to fall to the

    rise of her well-rounded backside. Oh, yes. She felt very nice, very promising. He preferred a

    substantial woman in his bed.

    “I beg your pardon,” she said, reaching back to pluck his hand away. “Someone‟s fingers are

    straying where they don‟t belong.” Her pretty oval face reflected a frowning disapproval that

    made him smile. She had hazel eyes, he realized. Dark brown and green dappled light at the

    same time. Intelligent and not entirely innocent.

    “You don‟t need to beg me for anything.” All of a sudden his thoughts went a little wild.

    “Why don‟t you enjoy yourself for a moment?”

    She looked as if she‟d swallowed a boiled onion whole. “Enjoy myself?”

    He caught her wrist. “Aren‟t you allowed any pleasure at all?” “I‟ve lost my client,” she said in vexation before the dance parted them again. “And I‟m not

    here to enjoy myself.”

    “Do you want to go outside and look for her?” he asked quietly, the epitome of chivalrous concern. It was as hot as an inferno in the ballroom, and he wouldn‟t mind leading her astray

    in the dark for a minute or two.

    “Outside,” she muttered, her arched eyebrows drawing into a deep scowl. “I‟ll throttle the

    wits out of her if that‟s where she‟s gone.”

He started to laugh. He really wasn‟t making much of an impression on her. He trusted he‟d

    have better luck later in the evening. “Do you always have this much trouble keeping your

    missing lamb in line?”

    “An army of Hussars couldn‟t keep that girl in line,” she said in exasperation. “Not that she

    wouldn‟t enjoy challenging them, mind you.”

    “Is that what you do?” He followed her to the French doors that led to the garden, welcoming

    the excuse to leave the stuffy room. “Keep unruly persons in line?” “That describes my present position.” She stopped abruptly, reaching behind her for the door. A proper gentleman would have stepped back to allow a respectable distance between them.

    Drake did not bother with the pretense. “Perhaps you could keep me in line?” he said,

    provoked by some inner demon to tease her. “Quite a few people have called me unruly.” “I‟m sure they have. However—”

    He slipped his hand around her waist to open the door for her. For a moment he thought she

    would finally react.

    “—you‟re about two decades older than my most unruly clients,” she finished instead in a

    dismissive voice.

    “I‟m afraid you‟re on your own. Self-discipline, and all that.”

    He laughed in feigned offense. “Two decades? Suddenly I feel like Methuselah.” The doors swung open. The damp night air counteracted the heat that rose between them.

    “Actually,” she murmured, glancing out into the shrubbery with a faint smile, “I think

    Mephistopheles is more what I had in mind.”

    “Mephistopheles?” he asked, guiding her outside.

    “Yes.” She stepped out onto the terrace where several couples lingered in conversation. “The

    devil.”

    “I know who you mean,” Drake replied. He led her casually toward an unoccupied corner of

    misty moonlight. “I don‟t think it‟s fair to label me thus on such short acquaintance, though.”

    If she got to know him better, she would undoubtedly have ample justification to call him any

    number of names.

    “First impressions are quite reliable in my experience.” She peered over his shoulder as a cluster of guests drifted past them.

    “I don‟t seem to be making much of an impression at all,” he said with a good-humored grin. He touched her flushed cheek with his gloved knuckles. He demandedand suddenly received—her full attention. “Couldn‟t your duty be delayed for a few moments?”

She looked up into his face, her hazel eyes hinting that she might not be as immune to him as

    she wanted him to believe. “Do you have any idea how much trouble a woman might find in a

    few moments?” She shook her head, a note of reluctant amusement in her voice. “That was

    not an invitation. I was referring to my client.”

    He bent his head to the curve of her chin. “May I at least kiss you before you go?” he asked,

    determined to satisfy his curiosity if nothing else. That soft mouth of hers could not taste as

    delicious as it looked.

    He did not wait for her permission. Capturing her strong chin in his fingers, he slanted his

    mouth over hers and took possession of her tempting lips. She drew in a breath and stood

    immobilized, silent, and oh-so-enticing. He felt a quick flair of answering fire in his blood.

    She gave a faint sigh, the merest exhalation of breath, as he shifted his weight, molding her to

    the hard contours of his body. How long had it been since he had felt even the slightest tug of

    temptation?

    “That,” she whispered in an uneven voice, angling her head to the side, “will be quite enough,

    thank you.”

    “You‟re more than welcome.” He lifted his hand to her soft rounded shoulder. “But it wasn‟t

    quite enough.” “Yes, it was.” “No, it wasn‟t.” “It—”

    “—wasn‟t,” he said in a coaxing undertone. “Look, I‟ll prove it to you.”

    She turned her face slowly back to his. This time when he kissed her, she parted her lips,

    allowing his tongue to penetrate her mouth. She buckled unexpectedly. He caught her without

    a second‟s hesitation, aware that he was in peril of forgetting where they were.

    “I told you,” he said thickly.

    She shivered lightly, looking dazed and desirable.

    “Told me what?” He closed his eyes and summoned his control, crushing her to him for one final second of

    self-torture. When he let her go, her eyes shimmered with a bewildered passion, and her

    breasts rose enticingly with the quickened measure of her breath.

    “If you don‟t mind,” she whispered, putting her hand to her heart, “I‟m going to leave you

    now. Thank you ever so much for the dance, but it so happens that I‟m occupied for the rest of

    the evening.”

“So am I.” He smiled down ruefully into her moonlit face. The moist fullness of her mouth

    invited another kiss. “Although unplanned pleasures are the most gratifying, in my

    experience,” he said, aching to pull her back into his arms.

    Her answering laugh surprised him. “I‟m sure you‟ve experienced plenty of them.”

    He grinned as she gathered her skirt in hand to edge around him. He was glad that they would

    part as friends. “I won‟t deny it.”

    “I doubt you deny yourself anything,” she retorted. He grasped the delicate lace of her sleeve, gently tugging her back toward him. “Then why

    deny myself now?” he asked, gratified at the shiver she gave as their bodies touched. She stared back at him as if she saw straight through his invitation to the hollow core of his

    heart. “Sometimes denial is good for the soul.” “Wait—at least tell me who you are. My name is Drake.”

    She hesitated. He lowered his hand and lounged back against the stone wall, realizing that he

    was going to lose her. It seemed that he should at least know her name. He liked that she had

    a mind of her own as well a sensuality that begged a man to bed her, and that she was neither

    painfully insecure nor full of herself, like the other ladies who were brave enough to flirt with

    him. It made him wonder whether she‟d ever taken a lover. Devil that he was, he wouldn‟t

    have minded being her first.

    “I don‟t have time for the sort of games that wicked gentlemen like to play,” she said, her

    smile dismissive. “I work too hard to give in to temptation.”

    At least he thought that was what she said. He watched her as she slipped back into the

    ballroom, vanishing into the crush of guests. For a moment he considered going after her. But

    he didn‟t want to get her in trouble. If he hadn‟t had such grand plans for the night, he might

    have pursued her. God knew he was tired of whores and vapid young girls who giggled or

    blushed at every word he uttered.

    God knew he was tired of life, actually.

Chapter Two

Eloise Goodwin paused inside the ballroom, taking a second to recover her wits. She felt

    warm and pleasantly discomforted from the inside out. The dancers moving in the shifting

    gold shadows of candlelight only made her head whirl in another dizzying wave. Well, that

    charming diversion had not helped the situation at all. Her client could have sneaked off

    anywhere, with anyone, during the few illicit moments that her overtaxed chaperone had been

    waylaid by that rogue.

    Breathtakingly handsome beast, she thought grudgingly. Her heart fluttered against her ribs. She‟d known the minute she looked into his beguiling dark blue eyes and strongly sculpted

    face that his smile invited capricious pleasures. Hadn‟t he cared he‟d been dancing with a mere companion? An impoverished gentlewoman who was at her wits‟ end and had no time for seduction? Or maybe that was why he had singled her out in the first place. She was a plump pigeon ripe for the plucking in a sea of graceful swans.

    She released a rueful sigh. At least he was accomplished at the art. Eloise could not remember a single instance during her career when she had been anywhere near as tempted to submit. Of course none of the country gentlemen who‟d pinched her bottom or followed her into the pantry to steal a kiss had possessed a fraction of this man‟s finesse. His kiss had absolutely

    devastated her.

    She glanced back unwillingly at the doors leading to the garden, wondering if he had returned to the ballroom. She‟d glimpsed a moody disposition behind his handsome mien. It beckoned, as darkness often did, but it also put her on guard. One must have no sympathy for the devil. Nor would one have sympathy for a woman galloping around the dance floor when she had been employed to act as a chaperone and companion. Heaven forbid that a future client should observe such unseemly behavior. Fortunately for Eloise, it seemed unlikely that anyone would remember her in this crush.

    A woman in her position wanted to be anonymous. She had spent years purposefully hiding in the shadows and had no desire to draw any undue attention to herself. She did, however, have a raging desire to strangle Miss Thalia Thornton with her bare hands for sneaking out of the ballroom. Eloise had merely bent down to retrieve a fan that a stout baroness had dropped upon the floor. When she looked up again, Thalia had disappeared from sight. She bit her lip. Now that she thought about it, her young client had seemed rather overanxious to attend this ball tonight, which meant there was a man involved. In Eloise‟s experience, there usually was when trouble visited, and troubles seemed to define Thalia Thornton‟s life.

    In fact, Eloise would never have chosen to work for her client. She had more or less inherited the position.

    Two years previously she had been quite contented serving as a companion to Thalia‟s great-

    aunt, Udella Thornton. When Udella peacefully passed away at a Christmas party last year, Eloise had been prepared to pack her bags and seek employment elsewhere.

    But Udella‟s nephew, Lord Horace Thornton, had interceded and begged Eloise to serve as a chaperone to his unmarried sister, Thalia. He had promised that the position would last only until he married off Thalia. Eloise should have heeded the initial instinct that warned her to refuse.

    Thalia, with no parents to guide her into womanhood and a brother who had already gambled his inheritance into the ground, waswell, there were no kind words to describe hera

    petulant brat.

    “Did you find her?” a concerned female voice asked from behind her.

Eloise drew her gaze from the garden doors with a pang of guilty pleasure. It was time to

    forget her rogue and his stolen kisses. Reality stood before her in the dowdy form of Miss

    Mary Weston, a fellow companion in her thirties employed by the stout baroness who, by

    dropping her fan, had set into motion the evening‟s chain of events. “No,” Eloise said, fresh

    panic flooding her. “She wasn‟t in the cloak room?”

    Mary shook her head, whispering, “No one has seen her. Do you think you ought to try the

    conservatory? Or one of the rooms upstairs?”

    “I wouldn‟t know where to begin,” Eloise said, turning white at the mere suggestion of barging into private bedrooms. And what would she say if she caught Thalia in the act?

    “She wouldn‟t be that foolish, would she?” Mary asked in a worried undertone. “Of course she would,” Eloise said with grim certainty.

    “But she‟s engaged to be married—”

    “To a man she claims she cannot love.” And it was this poor besotted baronet who had

    offered a generous bonus to Eloise to keep an eye on his “spirited fiancée” until he returned

    from Amsterdam. The rather unattractive man was undoubtedly aware that he didn‟t cut a dashing figure in comparison to the young bucks of the ton who were attracted to Thalia.

    Eloise wouldn‟t have been at all surprised if Thalia weren‟t deliberately trying to sabotage her

    own engagement.

    “What about her brother?” Mary glanced around them. “Lord Thornton escorted both of you

    here, didn‟t he?”

    “I doubt his lordship even remembers he has a sister, let alone cares that she has vanished.”

    Eloise broke off in agitation. A young man and woman had just made a discreet return from

    the garden into the ballroom, their faces aglow with intimate secrets as they separated. She

    knew immediately that the lady reentering the room was not Thalia. Nor was the tall

    gentleman at her side the blue-eyed rake who had distracted Eloise from her duties. For some

    irrational reason this soothed her agitated mood. It was nice to think he was a little

    discriminating in whom he chose to lure astray.

    Mary gave her a nudge. “You‟ll have to catch her before anyone else does.” The thought galvanized Eloise back into action, reminding her that a companion had no

    business spinning fantasies about scoundrels. “Believe me, I intend to.”

    Drake sauntered through the upstairs gaming room in search of his younger brother. Perhaps the boy had enjoyed better luck with one of his smitten flock of sparrows than he‟d had with his lovely if elusive lady of dutiful self-denial. He commended her control, amused that she had excited him at a time when precious little did.

    He smiled at the pleasurable memory of their too-brief meeting. The warm temptation of her body against his lingered in his blood like smoke. Given more time he would have found a way to penetrate her defenses. Well, she was better off having escaped him. As talk went in the ton, by the time a young lady was seen in Drake‟s company, her reputation was already ruined.

    “Evening, Boscastle,” a man murmured from the depths of a wing chair. “Is this the last any of us will see of you alive?”

    “If I‟m lucky,” Drake replied, not stopping to indulge idle curiosity. Maribella St. Ives rarely took on a lover without fanfare, and her temperamental behavior was often reported in the newspapers. He preferred keeping his affairs on the private side himself.

    He took stock of his surroundings. An intense game of ecarte was in progress at a window table. He recognized two of the players in the candlelight. One was an upstart cousin of his, Sir Gabriel Boscastle, a dark, hard-seasoned soldier who had been wounded in Spain; the man opposite him was Lord Horace Thornton, the ne‟er-do-well younger brother of one of Drake‟s

    late friends.

    Gabriel looked as detached and unreadable as only a Boscastle could; Horace was chalk-faced and drinking heavily, losing, too, to judge by the desperation in his eyes. Competitive by nature, Gabriel would probably take him for every last halfpenny. Drake turned away, embarrassed for Thornton. He didn‟t feel like witnessing the downfall of a man he didn‟t particularly respect.

    He didn‟t feel much like anything, which seemed to be at the heart of his dilemma. In the past

    several months he‟d begun to realize that his malcontent was growing more acute. He wasn‟t sure why, although he traced it back vaguely to the anniversary of his younger brother Brandon‟s brutal death. Drake and his last mistress had parted company that same month. He thought that his moodiness had probably contributed to the death of their affair. She‟d accused him of being an uncaring bastard. He didn‟t deny it.

    He was drawn suddenly from his thoughts by the deep pulsing silence that swept through the room. Before he‟d turned around to investigate, the clash of angry male voices resounded from the gaming table at the window.

    His cousin had risen from his chair to grab Horace by his silk cravat. Gabriel‟s thin-lipped

    expression revealed only an unforgiving fury. Horace shook visibly as if he were fighting back tears. Drake assessed the situation in a world-weary glance. There had to be more to life than this.

    “He was cheating,” Gabriel said at Drake‟s questioning scowl. “Look at the edges of his cards. I demand satisfaction.”

Horace eased himself free, knocking a glass of port across the table. “You will serve as my

    second, Drake? I know that my brother defended you once on the field.”

    For an instant Drake was too astonished by Horace‟s presumption to react. Not to mention his

    sheer stupidity for getting into this situation in the first place. What sort of idiot thought he

    could cheat a Boscastle and not get caught? And why in God‟s name would Drake wish to become involved in a duel of dishonor against his own cousin? True, he did not particularly

    like Gabriel, and he had every reason to assume that the feeling was mutual.

    A year or so ago he would have thrashed Horace on the spot for embroiling him in a public

    display. After all, Gabriel was a blood relation, albeit a ruthless one who seemed to take

    pleasure in rubbing Drake the wrong way. Cheating was unacceptable by any standard. Yet

    there was something so pathetic about Horace, and his brother had been a good friend, a man to count on until he‟d lost his life in the cavalry. Gabriel looked up darkly at Drake. “It‟s good to see you again, cousin. I‟m sorry I missed

    Heath‟s wedding. By the way, I will not be offended if you accept this fool‟s request.”

    Drake could not help laughing. “Why not?”

    “Join me for breakfast if we both survive?” Gabriel asked, motioning for a footman to bring

    him his coat. “I‟m not in London often.”

    Drake hesitated; he wasn‟t entirely sure of his plans for the following day. He assumed it would be a continuation of spine-tingling sex and stimulating conversation with Maribella.

    Besides, he wasn‟t sure he wanted to spend time with Gabriel. He suspected they were too

    much alike to trust each other. “We‟ll see.”

    Gabriel‟s mouth curved into a hard smile. He‟d inherited the same Boscastle blue eyes as

    Drake, but with a darker cast. “Enjoy yourself tonight.” Drake nodded wryly. He wondered if there was a single male in his set of friends who had not

    heard that Drake Boscastle had been selected for the enviable position of Maribella‟s new

    protector. He could only hope that she deserved her reputation, and that he could live up to his.

    Gabriel turned aside as Horace made his way to the door. The younger man looked so pathetic

    in his self-induced shame that Drake almost pitied him. “Go home and get some sleep, for

    God‟s sake. You‟ll need it for the morning.”

    Horace swallowed. “With any luck I‟ll be dead before dawn.” Gabriel laughed. Drake shook his head in disgust. “Your older brother would probably kill you as a point of pride. It‟s only out of respect for him that I am even talking to you.”

    “I know,” Horace said in a voice laden with self-remorse. “I don‟t suppose I could ask one more favor of you?”

    “Don‟t do it,” Gabriel warned Drake in scornful amusement.

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