SHE is playing a dangerous game…
When Lady Josephine accepts a wager to lure a kiss from the most scandalous and depraved rake in England, she thought it an easy enough task. But one glimpse at the man in question and she foresees her reputation going up in glorious flames. It will not stop her from winning the wager, however, not even the vexing Marquis of St. Aldwyn, who is determined to stay firmly planted in her path to victory.
HE is not playing any more games…
The Fifth Marquis of St. Aldwyn, Damien Grenville, has come to the conclusion that he has lost his mind. Why else would he be drawn to the reckless Lady Josephine? And when he begins to realize she is up to no good, will he do everything in his power to ensure her reputation remains intact or will he decide to seduce her himself? But danger lurks in the shadows and when Lady Josephine is taken, Damien will stop at nothing to get her back.
“I’ve never been kissed.”
“What!” Lady Belle said, smothering a laugh of horror at Lady Josephine’s confession.
“Oh my,” said Lady Evelyn, “I can’t imagine not being kissed before.”
Jo glanced down at her pretty silk taffeta gown as a flood of despair swept over her. She was going to die a virgin.
“All I want is one kiss from a man who would make it spectacular. A kiss to rule over all kisses.”
Belle smiled, her eyes sparkling. “You mean a kiss from a rake.”
“St. Aldwyn seems to enjoy your company,” Evelyn said thoughtfully.
“St. Aldwyn enjoys bating me,” Jo replied.
A loud bubble of laughter escaped Evelyn, drawing the attention of a group of ladies near them. “That is the most absurd thing I have ever heard!”
“Well he does, and besides, St. Aldwyn doesn’t count.”READ MORE
“Oh Jo, stop being such a ninny! I wager you can seduce a kiss from any man in this crowd of gentlemen,” Belle said gleefully.
“She is right,” Evelyn chimed in, “any man would be lucky to have your attention.”
Belle clapped her hands together. “I have a fabulous idea! We pick a gentleman, who you then have to seduce a kiss from. Oh, don’t look at me like that. We will make it worth your while. A wager, if you will.”
“I believe I have just the right gentleman for the wager,” reported Evelyn. “My husband told me that the Earl of Craven arrived in London today and will be in attendance tonight.”
A mischievous glint entered Belle’s eye. “He will be perfect as he is rumored to be quite handsome and wicked.”
Jo stared at them in horror. Lord Craven was a rake, and not just any rake, a notorious one at that. Whispers that one glance from him could ruin you circled his name. No way would she be able to seduce a kiss from him.
“What shall we wager?” Evelyn asked just before Belle excused herself, slipping into the crowd.
Jo wrinkled her nose. “There is nothing that can move me to accept your wager.” Movement to her right caught her attention and she groaned. “What’s he doing here?” He being the insufferable—delectable—Marquis of St. Aldwyn.
“I do not understand why you dislike him so,” Evelyn said, glancing his way. “He’s very entertaining.”
Jo snorted. “No, he is not.”
Evelyn laughed. “Well he’s obscenely wealthy.”
“Yes, it is rumored to be so,” Jo said tartly, eyeing the devil in question before glancing away.
“Oh stop, what has St. Aldwyn done to deserve such scorn? Oh bother, now he’s looking at us. What might he think now?” She gave Jo a teasing nudge.
“He best look passed us if he knows what is best for him,” Jo muttered under her breath, but her gaze shifted to him again, only to note that he indeed stared their way. Her attention refocused on the crowded ballroom in search of the notorious rake, Craven. Not that she would recognize him if she saw him, she had only ever heard rumors about him, never having the unfortunate pleasure of meeting the scoundrel.
“I wonder if he has arrived yet.”
“If who has arrived yet?”
Evelyn and Jo swirled as St. Aldwyn came up from behind them. Sneaky little rat.
“Beatrice,” Jo answered with the first name that came to mind. “I haven’t seen her around yet.” She frowned down at Evelyn’s foot that nudged her.
“He as in Lady Beatrice?” St. Aldwyn asked in a mocking tone.
“Well no—” Evelyn began but was interrupted as Belle rushed toward them, bubbling in excitement.
“He is here! You should see—oh, good evening my lord. I did not see you there.” Belle’s excitement faded to a calm and collected smile.
“Well if you will excuse us?” she said as she dragged Evelyn and Jo in another direction. “Mother wishes to have a word.” The last words were said over her shoulder, knowing very well that her mother passed away when she was but a fledgling.
“How rude you are, Belle,” Jo chastised her friend as they stopped in front of a potted plant, leaving St. Aldwyn to stare at them with narrowed eyes across the ballroom.
“Oh posh, he was never going to leave. Anyhow, Lord Craven arrived only moments ago,” she whispered in a hushed tone.
Jo swallowed her panic as she listened to her friends conspire her ruination. She couldn’t do this, she told herself. If Craven was as handsome as the man who had just materialized out of the crowd like an avenging angel, she would call for an urgent discussion with her friends. Jo gaped at the image of the man. “Goodness.”
She was aware of her friends jerking their heads toward her. Upon seeing her expression, they turned to what had discomposed her so. Jo only barely noticed their mouths drop open as well.
“Oh my.” She heard Evelyn whisper and then Belle’s, “That’s him, that’s Lord Craven.”
The man was sin incarnate with his dark hair combed back from of his face and dressed entirely in black. She was pretty certain his eyes were black as well, but was too far away to tell. He reminded her of the angel of death.
“He is the one I’m supposed to kiss?” Jo asked stunned.
“Amazing, is he not?” Belle said with excitement.
It should have been an ordinary day for Lady Josephine Tremont, but fate, it seemed, had made other arrangements. Oh, the day had begun normally enough—except for two little things: the wager Jo had somehow managed to get muddled in (that alone seemed to hang over her head like a thunderous cloud) and the fact that her friends Lady Belle and Lady Evelyn stood before her, schooling her on how to go about luring a kiss from the most notorious rake in England.
The Earl of Craven.
All in all, Jo had lacked the foresight to say no, and now she was reaping the consequences in one of the most opulent rooms in her home: the parlour. Needless to say, it seemed reasonable to believe that her friends were not only schooling her on how to entice a kiss, but ultimately, how to ruin her sterling reputation. Not that her reputation could be considered sterling, she was a self-proclaimed spinster after all. In the eyes of society that placed her in the category of being crippled in some way.
The dramatic motion of Belle’s arms interrupted her musings.
“First,” Belle put in, “you will need to draw Craven into a web of mystery and intrigue.”
Evelyn chortled at the sarcasm in Jo’s voice.
Belle ignored them and continued, “Then you must send a smoldering stare in his direction, one that promises untold pleasure. After which you will ignore him for the remainder of the evening.”
Jo shook her head in disbelief. “You are insane.” A smoldering stare that promises untold pleasure? Why, it must be the most ridiculous thing Jo had ever heard.
Belle continued, ignoring Jo and tucking a wayward curl behind her ear, “Lastly, you will accept a dance from him, and while you are twirling about, your body shall make love to his to the rhythm of the music. He will never be able to resist you after that.”
Jo stared at Belle, mouth agape. “I take that back, you are not insane, you’re beyond demented. How am I to accomplish all your instructions in one evening? And make love to him with my body while we dance? How is that even possible?”
“Oh, you do not have to do all that in one evening,” Evelyn said with a crease in her brow. “It will take at least three or four evenings.”
Jo lifted an incredulous brow. “You agree with this insanity?”
Her friend choked back a laugh. “I don’t see why not. I’ve seen Belle wrap gentlemen around her finger. If there is a method that will work, it will be hers.”
Jo regarded them with a skeptical look. A few months ago, Evelyn had married the renowned recluse, the Earl of Grey, and never once had to seduce her husband. On the contrary, she had done everything in her power to resist the Earl’s relentless pursuit, but love had won out in the end. Belle on the other hand, was as unattached and inexperienced as Jo.
Belle nodded. “Exactly—besides it’s not so hard. When you dance, the rhythm of your body should inspire the suggestions. Trust me, he will pick up on it, no matter how subtle.”
“Yes, but you do not want to come on too strong. Remember, your goal is one kiss, not to be seduced,” Evelyn commented in a thoughtful manner.
“A kiss could still ruin me.”
“Well then, you will just have to make it worth your while,” Belle murmured with a sly smile, reaching for a lemon cake.
“I’m not as fearless as you are,” Jo argued.
Two snorts were her only answer.
“Very well, I am not as fearless at flirtation. Draw him into a web of mystery and intrigue? I do not even know what that means.”
“Oh, that’s the easy part,” Belle said brightly. “Evelyn and I will whisper some intriguing tidbits in the right ears and the rest, as they say, will be history. All you need to do is work on your smolder, woven with a hint of surprise, to cast his way.”
“Woven with a hint of surprise?” Jo asked, skeptical.
Evelyn nodded. “When you draw his attention, he will recall the intriguing whispers about you. So when you note his regard, a hint of surprise should be displayed in your gaze, as though you haven’t even noticed him before that moment.”
“Then you drop your gaze to admire his well-built form, a hint of a smile playing across your features, only then do you glance away,” Belle explained.
“Uh, where does the smolder come in?” Jo asked, surprised she could even speak after hearing that.
“I suggest she imparts the smolder when she admires his body,” Evelyn said, excitement lighting her eyes. “Then when she locks gazes with him, there should be a hint of a smile on her lips. It will give him the impression that whatever thought had crossed her mind during her perusal was her little secret.”
“Brilliant Evelyn!” Belle said with a clap of her hands. “She can turn away without even acknowledging him, as though she had played her mind fun and now she’s moving on.”
“Mind fun?” Jo recognized the terror in her own voice.
“He will be curious enough to ask for a dance,” Evelyn agreed on a nod.
“No,” Belle said tapping her chin in thought, “he will not ask out of curiosity, I wager it will irk him to no end that she dismissed him from her mind after what he would assume to be a thorough examination of his body.”
“I do believe you are right.”
“And I believe,” Jo put in, exasperated, “you have forgotten I am still here!”
“Oh, Jo we are sorry,” Evelyn said with a shake of her head. “It’s just so exciting!”
“Yes, but am I not supposed to be the excited one?” Jo muttered beneath her breath, then on a louder note, “I daresay I may not be able to pull it off.”
“Oh posh!” Belle said waving her hand in the air. “Of course you will, but you must want to pull it off, otherwise it won’t work and you will come off looking strange.”
“And we would not want that,” Jo muttered.
“Besides it’s a wager,” Evelyn reminded her. “If it was easy, it wouldn’t be this fun.”
“What of my brother? The great and powerful Marquis of Warton. He’s been hounding my every step, watching me like a hawk. He even warned me away from the Marquis of St. Aldwyn, a man I have never shown any interest in. What do you imagine he will do once he takes note of my apparent interest in Craven?”
Her brother would send her to Green Rose Cottage without listening to reason. This would be fine, except that Jo was part of a group of individuals who saved women and children that were abused by their families or spouses. She could never abandon these projects any more than she could abandon her friends.
Unfortunately, for all their planning and conspiring, things had gone terribly awry with their last project, hence the reason her brother was acting as her shadow lately. At least some good had come from that disaster. Evelyn had realized how much she loved her now husband and even their good friend Lord Weatherly had found love with Lady Madeleine, who happened to be the subject of their project at the time. This wager had seemed just the thing to take her mind off the humdrum of monotony nipping at her heals these past weeks.
“Do not worry about your brother, he will be too preoccupied to note your flirtations,” Belle murmured, a spark entering her gaze.
Jo only lifted a brow. At least once in her life she yearned to be kissed by a man who possessed great passion, which happened to be why she hadn’t protested much against the wager in the first place. If they had a plan to keep her brother occupied, she would not meddle.
A mock sigh heaved from her chest. “I suppose I shall have to work on my smolder then.”
Broad smiles met her statement.
“Just don’t tell your husband,” she told Evelyn. “No need to attract unwanted attention.” And by unwanted attention she meant the Marquis of St. Aldwyn.
“Of course not!” Evelyn said offended. “I would never do that. Besides, we ladies need our secrets.”
Belle snorted. “Tell that to your husband as soon as he learns you have included yourself in Jo’s next project.”
“I will tell him.” When Belle and Jo lifted their brows she finished with a smile, “Eventually.”
“You promised Grey you would inform him of any projects you wish to be included in,” Jo pointed out even though she had no intention of involving her friend in the next project. Not that she wished to exclude Evelyn, but her husband could be an overprotective beast.
“Dangerous projects, and since it won’t be dangerous, I do not see the need to inform him of anything.”
“There’s no faulting that logic,” Belle said with a smile.
Jo rolled her eyes. “Of course you would gather that.”
If Grey suspected anything untoward transpired under his nose, he would march straight to her brother with his suspicions. That would be disastrous.
“How exactly do you plan to keep my brother distracted, Belle?” Jo finally asked when curiosity got the better of her. “It will not be easy to engage his interest or distract him once he’s set on a course of action.”
Her friend’s eyes lit with excitement as she said, “I do not have to distract him because my cousins are en route to visit for an entire month. Your brother will be the recipient of all their attention.”
An involuntary shudder rippled through Jo. She had met Belle’s cousins only once before and only for a moment. They proved exhausting. No doubt shadowed her mind that Poppy, Holly and Willow would take London by storm, never mind Brahm. If Belle had enlisted their assistance to keep Brahm occupied, no known force in London would manage to stop them. She almost felt sorry for her brother. Almost.
“That’s good, since I’ve been informed of a potential project, but will receive all the details once more definite information is obtained.”
And it could not come soon enough. To sit idly by, attending dull balls, tedious soirees and dreadful bland tea gatherings drove her to the brink of boredom.
“About that,” Evelyn said, her expression suddenly grave. “Matthew has been asking many questions about all of the projects you have participated in.”
“What?” Jo and Belle said simultaneously.
“I meant to tell you sooner but it slipped my mind,” Evelyn said, her voice apologetic.
“Let him ask,” Jo murmured after a moment of internal debate. “You cannot tell him what you do not know. He will tire of it in due time.”
Evelyn blushed. “I will admit I rather enjoy his methods of seduction and hope he does not tire of it soon.”
“Evelyn!” Jo exclaimed, shocked.
Belle laughed. “Who would have thought you were a wallflower only a few short months ago?”
“Things have changed, yes.”
“I am happy for you, Evelyn,” Jo said on a soft smile. “However, I do not see how I will be able to seduce a kiss from Craven, what with your husband asking questions and my brother keeping watch.”
The disappointment in Jo’s chest at the notion of not getting her kiss surprised her.
Belle shook her head in denial. “You do not remember Poppy, Holly and Willow well. They will keep your brother occupied and I’m certain Evelyn will manage to keep her husband distracted. You remain focused on your smolder.”
“Smolder, right. I shall practice it to perfection.”
A light clear of a throat drew their gazes to the door, where Jo’s footman appeared with a neatly folded note on a silver tray. “My lady, a note has arrived for Lady Grey.”
“Oh dear,” Evelyn said as she jumped from the divan to retrieve the note from the footman. With one smooth action she unfolded the note and examined the contents with a smile.
Belle sent a droll stare Evelyn’s way. “How rude of Grey to summon you whenever he feels you have been away for too long.”
Evelyn’s smile widened. “I do not mind.”
“Why would you?” Jo muttered. “If I had a husband like that at home I would never leave.”
“What does it say?” Belle asked before she snatched the note from Evelyn’s fingers.
“Belle! Give that back, it’s private,” Evelyn admonished while Belle sputtered as she read the missive.
“Well I never! Do you know what he said, Jo?” Belle asked incredulous.
“Get your derriere home now, or I will come fetch you.”
Evelyn snatched the note back. “He believes me up to no good if I am gone too long, especially if I am in the company of my friends.”
Jo gave Evelyn a pointed stare that said: If you assume you can keep any activities secret from your husband, you are delusional. When it came to his wife, Grey’s protectiveness was amplified. The end. He did not tolerate her absence for long before he would go in search of her, almost as though the thought of being parted from his wife was unbearable.
A stab of envy pierced Jo. She had once thought to marry and start her own family, but had seen too much abuse and horridness to desire such fanciful notions. She would prefer not to subject her heart to that sort of pain—and there would be pain. It always followed, whether from sickness or betrayal, death or lies. Gah! Better to pour all her attention into her somewhat dangerous but immensely satisfying projects.
“He cares, and in the grand scheme of things that is all that matters.”
“There is a difference between possession and obsession,” Belle muttered with a dark tone. “Grey borders on obsession.”
“I like his obsession,” Evelyn said, a blush stealing across her face.
“Of course you do. We, on the other hand, are highly skeptical and very suspicious.”
Evelyn chuckled as she gathered her pelisse, clearly intending to obey her husband’s wishes. With a kiss on each of their cheeks, she murmured her goodbyes. The dreamy-eyed expression on her face causing Jo and Belle to glance heavenward.
“I’ll see you ladies later!”
As soon as Evelyn cleared the room Belle stood, her hands on her hips, tapping her right foot in agitation.
“Is something amiss?”
“You cannot be considering including Evelyn in any further projects?”
Jo stretched out with languid arms on the chase. “Do you presume I would risk such a thing when Grey’s never far from her side?”
“She’s now aware there may be a project soon,” Belle pointed out.
Jo waved her friend’s concern aside. “She is so occupied with her husband and newfound happiness she will not be mindful of us when we proceed without her. Have you noted their distraction?”
Belle nodded. “Of course.”
“Have you observed how at every event they disappear for hours on end?”
“Oh, I’ve noticed,” Belle said, her eyes dancing. “They return all doe eyed and walking on air.”
“They are causing quite the scandal,” Jo confirmed. “It is my hope all eyes are on them when I’m off winning our wager.”
Belle chuckled. “I have no doubt you will try. Be that as it may, it is my hope the entertainment you will provide us may occupy her mind.”
“No doubt Craven will reckon me a simpering fool.”
Not to mention her brother would skin Craven’s hide and display it on their front door as fair warning for any man if he learned of this wager. It would not matter whether Craven had been aware or not. He would be a dead man. Jo may not be simpering, but perhaps she was a fool.
“I daresay he would never consider a lady of your stature to be interested in him. That is why your chances of winning are slim.”
Jo snorted. “Yet you gave me lessons.” She was stealing a kiss, not the crown jewels. How hard could it be? It would simply be a matter of perfecting her smolder and keeping everyone occupied as to not suspect her intentions.
Craven may not be the man she would have picked if she had any choice in the matter, but he would do. Jo tried not to dwell on the one man she would have picked or at least considered picking had it been up to her.
“Well, we had to give you some lessons or else you would have failed horribly. At least now you have a chance.”
“I do not know why I ever agreed to be part of such an outrageous wager,” Jo muttered, snatching up a lemon cake.
“The why of it is quite clear. You long for a grand adventure.”
“I have plenty of adventure in my life,” Jo protested, recalling her projects and how they helped the lives of others. Often they were even a bit dangerous, which added more appeal to them.
“That is different. You long to be swept off your feet.”
“This adventure won’t sweep me of my feet. It’s going to sweep the tattered remains of my reputation to a remote village in the country.”
Belle’s laughter filled the room, though it sounded more like an evil cackle than an expression of amusement. “They say the country men are more masculine and hard from all the labor. You may just be lucky to be sent off to the countryside.”
Jo snorted contemptuously. But perhaps Belle had a point. She would receive the information of their new project in a day or so, so she had until then to win the wager and hope some adventure came of it. At the very least it would prove the distraction she wished to get her mind off her brother’s pestering ways and the other pestering males in her life…