About the book

A little naughty never hurt anyone...

Sick and tired of being a wallflower all her life, Miss Harriet Bradford is determined to be the naughtiest she has ever been this Christmas. However, she has a big problem: she knows nothing about seduction.

It takes great effort to convince Daniel Raster, the Earl of Barkley, to attend any kind of celebration. Broken beyond repair ever since his betrothed left him at the altar, he has spent his days wasting away in the most notorious dens of London. Until the discovery of a very tantalizing letter sets his whole being on fire.

Torn between his honor and his own desire for her, they strike up a deal: he will save her from ruination by being the one to teach her with no strings attached. Trapped in a web of budding love and old lies, Harriet and Daniel’s happiness turns to ashes in their mouths when Daniel disappears on their wedding day. For secrets hide in the hand that writes.

Prologue


Dearest Lily,

Only a few days in the city and I have found my soulmate. The only issue is, he does not know it yet. And to be fair, he does not know me that much either. Surely you know of Lord Dawson, Marquess of Sutherland? Of course, you do, your Mama knows all the eligible bachelors of the season. Please, do not listen to the rumors about him. We’ve met once, and though the meeting was short, I am decided there is not another more virtuous man in the parish.

My dear brother-in-law, Lord Carrington, had him over one evening to discuss business and whatnot, so we met for supper. He is divine, with—

The sounds of coach wheels had Harriet Bradford launching from the seat at her writing table and bounding to the window that looked over the front drive. Eagerly, she looked out for the carriage carrying her sister and her husband, Lord Carrington, a Baron, as they came from a social outing in the town.

The line of five coaches, carrying all her brother-in-law’s guests, came down the snow-dusted drive to the main gate where uniformed footmen opened their doors.

Lord Carrington’s coach gleamed ebony and dark redwood under the weak winter sunlight, and as he came out, covered in a slate-gray coat, he helped her sister, Martha out.

Her sister, the newest Baroness of Carrington, fixed her dove-gray coat before taking her husband's arm. As they moved off, another coach took its place.

They’ll say that I must have lost my wits to seduce a man.

From the balcony of her room, Harriet waited for one man to come by, and when he did appear—her heart did a silly little hiccup.

Lord Dawson stood a head above the rest in his gleaming blue-black coat and sharp trousers. Though snow was drifting down, he reached up to pluck the hat off his head and gave his pristine blond hair a calculated ruffle.

The clean structure of his high, sharp cheekbones, square jaw, and mystic-gray eyes that had mystery and wonder were the source of women’s affection around the ton. They also were the subject of nasty gossip and cruel rumors of him being a rake. As far as Harriet was concerned, they were all lies from women he had graciously let down. No one who looked so much like an angel could ever be a devil—Harriet was sure.

She watched as a lady that she didn’t know, took his arm, as they began walking toward the house and to the tea party prepared for them. Sadly, Harriet could not attend as it was for couples only.

“Not to worry,” she consoled herself while retreating to her room. “I’ll see him again at the balls. Twelve nights is enough time for us to connect.”

Picking up the pen, she continued the letter to her dearest friend, but felt her mind temporarily blank.

Pure, irrevocable stupefaction, is the effect drawn on by handsome men with golden hair and angelic eyes…I think I shall call it the Dawson Malady. But that does not sound fitting—

While tapping her pen to her lips, someone knocked, and before she could give permission to enter, Antony Worter, Baron Carrington, bearing a box and a warm smile, entered. Her sister’s husband was a true blue blood, with a sculpted face, piercing-blue eyes, and dark hair that seemed never to be out of place.

“My Lord—”

“Miss Harriet,” his censure was a soft drawl, “how have I asked you to address me?”

Her cheeks warmed. “I still do not feel right calling you by your Christian name, My Lord, and to use your surname feels cold.”

He sighed audibly. “Well, one day, you’ll get a hold of it—we are family, after all. Here, this just came for you. It was delivered just as we came by. But the servants took it from the delivery door in the back. It’s from your friend, Miss Matthews, I believe.”

“Oh, thank you,” Harriet’s eyes dipped to the box. “But you didn’t have to bring it yourself. I know your party must be missing you.”

The Baron’s grin was wry. “They can wait. We’ll see you at supper, Dear. Martha picked up another trinket for you to go with the latest dress she acquired for you. Do try to look surprised; you know how fretful she gets at times.”

Laughing, Harriet nodded, “I will, thank you.”

The Baron bowed lavishly, “Good evening, Dear.”

With him gone, Harriet opened the box and saw a box of chocolate disks, marzipan candies, and caramels. Tucked into a corner was a novel, and after plucking it out, Harriet saw the name. Anon Ashworth, and delight shot up into her heart.

No one knew who Anon Ashworth was, but the person's novels were filled with heart-palpitating romance and erotic acts between a man and a woman, detailed enough to make one’s hair stand on end.

They were Harriet’s and Lily’s hidden secrets. Harriet did not know how Lily got her hands on them, but she would not ask as she didn’t want to put her friend in a hard spot. Nestled under the cover of the book was a letter that had Harriet’s shoulder slumping after reading.

“She’s off to Manchester for a few days and won’t be back until tomorrow night at the ball,” she grumbled, looking bleakly at the unfinished letter on the desk, destined to be unsent, but could be given.

Still, though, she went back to the desk and picked up the pen again and went on to write how she planned on experiencing true passion, and thanks to years of devouring Ashworth’s books—she knew exactly how to phrase her inner desires.

***

Bloody hell, am I truly going to celebrate Christmas Eve in a brothel?

The words sliced through the haze of wine in Daniel Raster’s mind, the Earl of Barkley, as the woman, clad in a caricature of late sixteenth-century French clothing—ruffled neckpiece, and mockery of a ribbed hoop skirt over diaphanous underthings—gyrated on the podium before him.

Sweet, drugging smoke made the air hazy; the rich scent of roses and jasmine inundated the room just as the glow of deliberately placed candles had their glow flickering over the woman’s body. It was all an attempt to heighten arousal—but all Daniel could feel was—emptiness and a little repulsion at himself.

The Atrium wasn’t the typical brothel; the women were sourced from exotic parts of the world and trained in eroticism. It took a sizable sum, proof of nobility, and endorsement from another peer to enter and partake in the hedonistic revelries the brothel offered.

All efforts, Daniel thought, were for naught.

The muted moans and groans of an orgy in the room beyond his room—where he knew his friend Linus was—briefly caught his attention, and he bleakly thought that mayhap he should have joined them instead.

For months he had felt his sense of attraction waning. A woman would catch his eye—but then, there was no urge to go after her. When he did feel the desire, the paid courtesans brought nothing out in him.

Alarmed, Daniel had pushed himself to go out of his way to feel something; to couple with pairs of women, three sometimes, but as he tried, he thought that even if he possessed Solomon’s harem, he would not be interested.

He looked uninterestedly at the woman, and without much thought, stood up and left the room. Dimly, he began to meander from the rooms and down to the dungeon where cubicles were open for public viewing.

Shameless men and women lost in the pleasure of each other's bodies; some were alone, some men had two women, and at the far end—another orgy. He stared at the mix of bodies, writhing and undulating with pure apathy.

He tried to find where one body ended, and the other began but to no avail. It was a ten-headed hydra, all head and hands but one solid body, all flexing buttocks and arching backs.

Turning, he left the corridor but paused when a woman, with dark hair and moonlit skin, approached him.

“I cannot help but notice you have not partaken of any of our…favors tonight,” she said a few feet away with her face shadowed. “Is there a specific offering you would like tonight?”

“Who the Devil are you?”

She came forward, and one look to her sea-green eyes had him almost desperate to run from her. “Never mind,” Daniel said. “There is nothing—no one—for me here.”

“Monsieur—”

But Daniel was gone, rushing out in clipped strides away from the woman who reminded him too much of…her. The woman who had once held his fragile heart in her hand and, with a callous smirk, had dropped in on the ground before stomping on it—shattering it like brittle glass.

The night was ending for him—and he knew it. Hurrying out into the cold, bitter night, Daniel grabbed his horse with the dire thought that a benevolent Christmas spirit had gone around sprinkling the gift of ardor to everyone…but had missed him somehow—perhaps by calculation—darkened his mind.

If a half-naked woman and a room of naked bodies had not stirred any desire in him, was all carnal desire dead for him?

With a grimly locked jaw, Daniel accepted that he might just have to nominate himself for a hermit life. No woman would strike that fire again—his desire was dead.


Chapter One


The ripping of the drapes had sunlight stabbing into Daniel’s tender eyes and liquified brain, tempting him to reach into his bedside drawer, take out his pistol and shooting whoever had done the atrocious act.

“Come on,” the too-joyful voice of his friend Benjamin Bradford, a barrister, taunted him from the foot of his bed. “Get up.”

Grabbing a pillow to press it to his eyes, Daniel swore, “Why in God’s name did I ever think that giving you carte blanche access to my house was a sensible idea?”

“Because I am your friend, and the only one who will dare come at you when you’ve come home at the witching hour, and spent a few hours with little sleep, Raster,” Benjamin said. And even though Daniel hadn’t opened his eyes, he knew that mischief rested in his friend's eye.

“Damnation. What in the blazes do you want, Ben?” Daniel grated.

“To see your bright smile, hear you call me your best friend when I feed you coffee blacker than the Earl of Hell’s waistcoat, and to, later on, trump you in the fencing match you promised me weeks ago,” Ben said. “And I am not letting you get out of it.”

Carefully, Daniel peeled the pillow from his face, “Think this through. You’re going to force a man into a fencing match, a man, who, mind you, has just drunk half of the Irish Sea worth of Spanish wine, who will be good for nothing on his feet after five minutes sitting upright, will be suffering from the worst headache humanity had ever seen. And while his stomach will be betraying him, he will be making deals with God to spare his life—are you mad?”

“Possibly,” Ben said, and Daniel felt the edge of his bed dip—most likely, his friend was sitting on it. “How bad is it?”

“If more sunlight gets into my eyes, I am sure what’s between them will be dribbling out of them soon,” Daniel replied. “Shut the drapes.”

He waited until he heard the rustling of the drapes and felt the dimness of the room, before Daniel dared open his eyes. Ben was standing at the window, his light-brown hair wind tossed, his gray waistcoat immaculate, and his posture erect enough for Daniel to feel jealous.

Managing to sit up without his head swimming, Daniel asked, “I’ll have to beg off the fencing.”

“No, you will not,” Ben said, “I’m sympathetic to your plight—”

Daniel snorted, “No, you aren’t.”

“No, I really am not,” Ben shrugged. “But that is your fault. What happened last night?”

Feeling his stomach roll, Daniel swung his feet out from under the blankets and to the carpet and managed to stand. “Last night was a desperate attempt to rekindle any sort of carnal pleasure—it didn’t work.”

Ben did look sympathetic then, “In other words, none of the doxies at the brothel drew any arousal out of you.”

Moving behind a partition where a basin and a jug of water rested, Daniel washed his face. “Essentially.”

“You need a different sort of entertainment, My Friend,” Ben said. “You do know that there are things outside of bawdy houses and rouged doxies.”

Daniel shot him a look, “I have no desire for stuffy assembly rooms, or the opera, or God forbid—”

“A ball,” Benjamin interrupted, ignoring the glare Daniel aimed at him. “I know what’s best for you. I’m taking you to a ball.”

“The hell you are,” Daniel grumbled. “I’d prefer to fence with you and lose the contents of my stomach on your shoes, before I ever step foot into a ballroom. You know I despise balls. There is a reason I prefer dark brothels and gaming halls—it’s called anonymity. No one gives a damn who I am, so no rumors follow; all I need to do is pay up.”

Ben wrinkled his nose, “Since my shoes are new, I’ll put off the fencing match, if you come to my sister’s ball tonight. You have to show your face somewhere outside of a brothel or a gaming hall, you know.”

“Why?” Daniel asked darkly. “So, more people can gossip about me?”

Ben’s face fell in questioning contemplation, “Did something happen last night? Did you see her?”

“No, God no,” Daniel snapped, then his tone dipped to tired. “She is probably halfway across the world by now, but I did see someone like her. Had me running out of there as if my boots were on fire.”

 Ben rested a hand on his shoulder, “I’m sorry. But, please come with me to the ball. I have another invitation, and though I know it’s not what you would prefer, I don’t want you to stay and moor yourself in a sea of regrets.”

Taking a seat, Daniel rubbed his face with his hands. It did feel paltry to sit at home and celebrate the cheerful holiday—which was an alien concept for him, as his family had rarely had happy moments—but even so, was a public ball the best way to go?

His eyes lifted to the room, and he could see himself sitting in a chair near the window, gazing at the moon with a bottle of wine in his hand while wallowing in self sorrow.

Do I truly want self-pity? To sink in sorrow as I have been in the past two years? To wake up and repeat the cycle ad infinitum?

“Would it be so appalling, to attend a ball or dinner party every now and then?” Benjamin pressed lightly. “You’re not a monk, My Friend.”

After unclenching his jaw, Daniel said, “Fine, fine, I’ll go.”

“Excellent,” Ben said, “you won’t regret it, I promise. Now, let me get you that coffee.”

With Ben gone, Daniel slumped in the seat and stared at the crown molding on the ceiling with a lot of apathy. Was this truly how he wanted to live—alone, with bricks of sorrow, regret, and shame pressing down on his heart?

Is there any hope for me to live a normal life?

“Coffee,” Ben announced from the doorway, “blacker and bitterer than tar. I relieved your valet as I didn’t think you’d want to be seen this way.”

Taking the cup, Daniel sipped it, grimacing at the taste but glad that it was banishing the discomfort in his stomach. “They’ve seen me in worse stages, you nodcock. So, is this sister of yours the one who married Carrington?”

“The very same,” Benjamin replied. “Surprised me too that a elegant man like him married my sister. Martha is a homemaker with a nervous disposition, and she is a bit fragile. But they’ve vowed to love each other so” he shrugged.

“I’d say she made the worst decision for her constitution,” Daniel replied. “He is known as a rake.”

“I think he is a reformed one,” Ben said, only to have Daniel snort derisively.

“Rakes are never reformed, Ben,” Daniel said. “Your clergyman father’s idealistic beliefs are just a tad too unrealistic.”

“And you are a tad too cynical,” Ben copied Daniel’s words. “Father is not blind to the wrongs of this world; he just chooses to think that they can all be rectified.”

A dour thought ran through Daniel’s mind, but he didn’t voice it. Instead, he shrugged, “À chacun son gout.”

“To each his own, is right,” Ben reiterated. “Which is why I want you to come and get out of your shell. You can find happiness again, I promise you. Who knows, you might even find your match tonight.”

“This is not a fairy tale, Ben,” Daniel said dryly. “If you can find such lady by midnight, I’ll give you a thousand pounds.”

Ben snorted, “Keep your money; just tell me thanks when you’re happy.”

Lifting his cup, Daniel dryly said, “To a Merry Christmas.”

***

Later that evening, as his coach pulled up to Carrington Manor, he briefly considered ordering his driver to turn back. Through the elegant mullioned windows, a happy scene of gaily dressed women and men met Daniel’s eyes, and he felt his stomach twist. Inside, he knew that he would see people staring at him, whispering behind his back about his disgrace—but he had made Ben a promise, and he could not turn away now.

At least their gossip gullets won't lack for meat on the morrow.

Daniel knew he was overly cynical, but he did not doubt that whispers would be following him all night. All he could do was not to give anyone the satisfaction of believing it bothered him.

The coach came to the front walk, and he descended, handed his card and invitation to the footman, and entered the Manor. Gilded columns and large arches made the large ballroom look almost twice its size. Light from beeswax candles lit the room from three chandeliers dripping with teardrop crystals.

The orchestra's tunes were almost hypnotic, blending with the muted sounds of cheerfulness, and the tinkling of glasses overflowing with red wine and golden champagne. There were no more than thirty-five people, and Daniel wished it had been a crush.

Strategic mirrored walls reflected the finery of the guests twirling over the dance floor. Daniel skirted the room until he glimpsed Ben speaking with a woman. His eyes skittered over her but then snapped back to the golden shimmer that shone off her auburn hair.

When she turned, he was struck by her bright-blue eyes, an oval face, and plump lips. Her beauty alarmed him, and for a moment, he felt affixed to his place on the floor. Her gown was low-cut chiffon cobalt satin that left her shoulders bare. The bodice fitted her torso so tightly that he wondered if she could breathe.

The lady hugged Ben tight, intimately—and a flash of unfounded jealousy blazed through Daniel. She moved off, and the cascade of her full skirts created the image of a waterfall.

Ben looked up, saw him, and gestured him over with a smile. On the way there, Daniel snagged a flute of champagne and downed half of it before he got to his friend.

“Seeking liquid courage?” Ben asked, with a wry twist of his lips.

“I’m afraid what I’ll do if I don’t,” Daniel replied, then carefully extricated any tone of jealousy from his voice—or so he thought. “That lady, who was she?”

A dark brow shot up, “Why do you ask?”

Daniel tried to reply, but found no words. He opted to shrug before finishing off his champagne. Ben laughed, “She is my last sister, Harriet, Raster, so don’t get any unfounded ideas. At only nineteen, Martha brought her here to find a better life than the one she could find in the countryside at Bradford Cottage.”

“Oh,” Daniel muttered, swiftly taking another flute from a passing waiter.

Ben’s head tilted, “What’s wrong?”

“Nothing,” Daniel said, as the set broke, and the dancers came off the floor, chattering among themselves. “Let’s play a game, Ben. How long will it take for the whispers to start?”

“Egad,” Ben huffed, “you’re an insufferable creature.”

To prove his point, Daniel took out his pocket watch, “Time is ten-fifteen. I guarantee you by ten-thirty, this room will be filled with whispers of the cuckold.”

“Will you give up on that,” Ben griped, “who carries gossip for over two years?”

“Dame Delilah Rattigan,” Daniel said, immediately while angling his chin to the lady seated on the sidelines, swathed in mounds of silk and fanning herself with a matching fan. “She is behind all the scandal pages.”

Now, Ben looked exasperated, “For Christ’s sake, let go of the conspiracy theories and try to enjoy yourself.”

A beautiful blonde wearing powder-blue silk drifted past them, flashing Daniel a perfect smile.

“See,” Ben gestured, “you have nothing to worry about, so, please, enjoy yourself.”

Holding his misgivings, Daniel meandered through the crowd, greeting some lords he knew and meeting others, but as the moments passed by, the hairs on the back of his head, kept lifting.

As he moved, Daniel politely ignored the surreptitious glances, the whispers behind fans, and how mamas discreetly shifted their daughters out of his way. Disgusted, Daniel was about to find the hosts, give them his respects, and then make a discreet exit, when the flash of auburn hair caught his eyes.

Ben’s sister looked frustrated, and when Daniel followed her gaze, his eyes landed on a tall blond man, Lord Dawson. A man Daniel had seen in multiple brothels with women, and who was known to have illegitimate children with women who were all paid off to keep their silence.

 Looking back at her, he wondered why her lips were pinched and her complexion a little sallow. Looking back at Dawson, Daniel tilted his head when a lady rested her hand on his arm, stroking up his forearm so subtlety.

Her head was canted just so that the subtle arch of her neck was presented to him, her eyelids were lowered, and her lips sported a coy smile. Daniel knew enough to know that the seduction game was on—and it was not only the lady.

Lord Dawson rested his hand on hers, stepping close to whisper something in her ear. Daniel turned back to see the tails of Miss Bradford’s gown as she slipped away to the balcony. It took him a moment to know what fueled her escape.

Abandoning his plan to leave, Daniel followed the lady and found her on the balcony, staring out onto the snow-covered lawns. 

“Pardon me, for saying this,” he said, “you’re better off without him.”

Harriet turned, and their eyes met—for a long, pronounced breathless moment. She turned away, and quietly said, “I do not know what you mean, My Lord.”

Taking the chance, Daniel approached her, “Your life in the ton is about to begin—you do not need to drag the ghosts of his scandals with you.”

She turned those evocative blue eyes on him, “He has no scandals.”

“Yes, he does,” Daniel said. “Believe me, Miss Bradford, I know.”

Miss Bradford uttered something he would not have believed she had noticed. “I don’t see anyone whispering about him…unlike you, Lord—?”

“Daniel Raster,” he replied, “Earl of Barkley.”

Her eyes flickered over his shoulder, “Is there a reason people have your name on their lips?”

“There is,” Daniel said as took another step forward, entranced by her directness. “But that is not the matter here. Take my advice, Miss, you do not need to get entangled with a man of that sort.”

Her bosom rose with defiance under the simple dress that had clung to her curves with an undeniable sensuality. “I do not believe you.”

Daniel’s brows lowered, “Miss Bradford, I am not the paragon of innocence, but believe me when I tell you, that this man is not someone a country Miss like you needs in their life.”

“Do you have proof of his indiscretions, My Lord?”

Even as Daniel recognized the disturbing attraction between them, he felt even more disturbed by her stubbornness. The way she tilted her head up, and the flash of boldness in her eyes, mixed what he saw as unfounded love for a man who did not know what love was, or who valued women less than a sexual object, had his skin itching. 

Her mulishness was oddly sensual, and Daniel felt his blood stirring. Knowing that there was nothing he could do, Daniel stepped away and lifted his hands. “I hope you’ll find out who he is before anything dire happens.”

Miss Bradford reached into her reticule for a fan, “Excuse me, My Lord.”

As she moved off, something fluttered to the ground after her. As he bent to pick it up, Daniel found a folded letter. Before he could call to her, Miss Bradford was gone.

Though he knew it was wrong to read correspondence that was not his, Daniel unfolded the letter and a few sentences in, wondered if Miss Bradford had written such scandalous words.

The penmanship was impeccable, but the subject matter…utterly sinful. The detailed description of how the lady wanted to be touched and kissed there—how she wanted to use chocolate, champagne, and red silk on her body had to have come from a novel.

The description of how she longed for unending nights of passion bound to a headboard while be taken by Lord Dawson had Daniel utterly scandalized…and wickedly aroused. The image her words gave him, had his blood heating and thrumming through his veins more than any visit to a brothel could have ever brought him.

Looking up, at the room beyond him, Daniel knew one thing was for certain; she was not going to give up on Dawson—and he had to stop her, even if he had to resort to drastic measures.


Chapter Two


Partially discomfited by the warnings of the handsome Earl, Harriet went back to the ballroom, intent on seeking Lord Dawson. Lily had not arrived, and Harriet was content to wait for her friend while seeking the object of her affection.

While perusing the room, the Earl’s eyes—blue, or brown—she had not deciphered, sprang up in her mind. He was unquestionably handsome, but of a dark, brooding sort. Tall, broad-shouldered with dark hair that merged with the night around him, his hooded eyes and dark stare. But what sent shivers down her spine was his deep, raspy seductive, voice.

He was handsome, a bit brazen in warning her off from Lord Dawson—whom, after two passes through the people gathered around her, she still could not find. Disheartened, she retreated to the ladies’ room to compose herself.

Perhaps he stepped out to get some air.

Despite that, the ball was hardly a crush, and no one was stifled for air; the reasoning made sense to Harriet as she went back—and immediately got swept up in Lord Barkley’s arms.

 “Alors!” she gasped, as he swept her to the floor.

“You need to listen to me,” the Earl said boldly as the strains of the waltz were in the air. “Lord Dawson is not good for you.”

Now, Harriet got annoyed, “And I told you, provide me with proof.”

“After this dance, I’ll show you,” the Earl said, his brown eyes dark in the light, while he bowed. “Benjamin is my best friend and ally. I cannot, in good conscience, allow you to ruin yourself with him; to seduce him, he is the worst scoundrel possible.”

An icy chill settled into Harriet’s stomach as she curtsied, “How do you know that?”

“When you left, you dropped something,” the Earl said, taking her hands. “A letter to Miss Matthews.”

“You…” she faltered for words, as outrage sparked in her chest, “how dare you! That was not for your eyes!” After a spin, Harriet held unto him and glared. “Give it over, now.”

“I will not,” he said, “as I am going to dissuade you from this. You will make the worst mistake of your life if you are entangled with him.”

Why is this man so adamant in stopping me? It is not even his business.

“This is none of your—”

“On the contrary,” Lord Barkley interrupted smoothly. “It is. No true gentleman would let you ruin yourself when you can have a respectable life with a good lord.”

“But what if I don’t want a respectable lord?” Harriet snapped.

“You want to be wicked,” he said, rhetorically.

“I want to be wicked,” Harriet replied.

His brows lowered, “Any particular reason for such a desire?”

Harriet kept quiet as she was not sure how he would react to telling her that her tendencies to speak her mind and act on impulse had landed her firmly in the company of the permanent wallflowers of the season. Only the gracious patronage of her brother-in-law had been given her more seasons.

“From what I’ve seen, wicked women have the most fun and pay little for it,” Harriet said as she was dipped.

With him hovering over her for the eternal seconds it took for him to pull her up, Harriet felt overwhelmed at the fierce look in his eyes and how his hair flopped over his crown.

Back on her feet, she let out a breath, “The other lords are all staid stuff-shirts anyway with no inkling of eroticism, excitement, or spontaneity. What if I want to have some passion, real desire before I’m saddled with a boring man who only cares about horses or his friends or—dash it all—cards.”

“Is that what you think respectable Lords are?” Brown eyes dug into hers, “A bore?”

“I have no references to think otherwise,” Harriet said staunchly. “Even my brother-in-law, Lord Carrington, is holed up in his study, and when he does go out, it is to see his steward or to a gentlemen’s club.”

Lord Barkley laughed. “Oh, you poor, naïve ingénue. You have no inkling how easy it is for men to make women look the other way when they need to be indiscreet.”

Just as she was going to ask him how he knew all this, Harriet remembered him saying that he was far from innocent.

“For curiosity sake,” Harriet murmured. “What are the ways men deceive women?”

His lips flattened, “They are more than we have time to discuss here.”

The music dwindled to a stop, and Harriet found herself looking into eyes that held repressed pain and somber wisdom. Harriet found herself wondering if she could trust him about Lord Dawson—but it was hard to accept.

As he led her off the floor to the refreshment table, Harriet quietly asked, “Why are you so adamant about keeping me away from Lord Dawson?”

“Because he is a rakehell with few morals and a line of shattered women behind him,” Lord Barkley said dourly. “As far as I know, he had two illegitimate children who, with their mamas, were shipped off to the Colonies.”

Taken aback, Harriet gasped, “What? Say it isn’t so!”

“I wish I could,” Lord Barkley replied, while looking at his pocket watch. “Haven’t seen him before the last dance?”

“No,” Harriet replied, before sipping the cool drink, “why do you ask?”

“I ask because a leopard cannot change his spots,” Lord Barkley replied, “If he is absent, it means he had found a woman, and as he is a man of habits, by the rumors about his chosen places for liaisons, he is either christening your library, or is somewhere in your gardens with her.”

Harriet looked toward the doors that would take them to the house's main rooms, and looked back at the Earl. “Are you aiming to find them?”

“I’m aiming to show you what you would experience with a man like him,” Lord Barkley said. “Where do you choose; the library, or the garden?”

Nibbling her lip, Harriet said, “He might be mad to choose the garden as it is snow-covered, so the library?”

“I must warn you; I don’t know what he is doing but something is afoot. Are you prepared for that?”

Harriet took the somber warning with a conflicted heart. “Yes.”

Gesturing, Lord Barkley said, “Please, lead the way.”

Looking around first, Harriet nodded, and turned to the doorway. If the lord had any prudence, he would wait a while before following her. She made it to the main stairs before he came into the main hall and followed her up the stairs.

Harriet was not sure why she was going along the Earl’s madcap idea—as moments before she was ready to slap him—but she felt it was her chance to prove him wrong. Lord Dawson was not doing anything indecent; she was sure.

Her brother-in-law’s library was a show of the Baron’s masculinity; outfitted in all dark woods and leather seats, the high-ceilinged library had extended bookshelves and window reading nooks covered by thick-velvet cloth. The fireplace was unlit, but the place was warm, and a coy giggle and a male laugh came from one of the nooks.

Lord Barkley grabbed her and tugged them into the other nook, the two parted by a thin wall of wood. It was a small nook, so they stood close, and pressed on his chest, she inhaled the exotic male spice of his cologne.

“The object of your campaign is with a lady,” he whispered in her ear.
“If you want more proof of his philandering ways, listen on.”

Harriet stiffened as a shiver ran from the point his warm breath landed on her neck to dip to the tips of her toes.

The lady laughed through the wall. “What shall I do with the bludgeon in your pants, My Lord?”

Dawson laughed, “Is it not going to help itself, is it? On your knees, Love.”

Harriet's eyes were as wide as dinner plates as she tried to conjure what was happening in the nook beyond theirs. Surely—surely—the woman was not pleasuring him with her mouth? She had read of such salacious acts, but to witness them was another thing altogether.

Undecided if she should stay and hear some of her deepest fantasies, or leave to before all her sensibilities were torn from her, Harriet felt affixed to her place.

If I run now, he’ll know I was putting on a front.

“Had enough of me, Pet?” Dawson said as the slaps of flesh continued. “I’m not done with you yet. A friend of mine is going to join us in a few.”

A ménage à trois, something Harriet had read about but had shunted the idea of ever witnessing into a drawer of fantasy. Still unable to move, Harriet felt everything within her tighten with the lady’s hoarse cry of completion, and Dawson’s strangled grunt had her heart racing.

Harriet pressed a hand to her chest, where her breath felt stuck in her lungs, and her vision shifted in and out of focus. The reality of what she had just heard still felt unbelievable, but then someone joined the two.

“Am I too late?” the man said, in a silky cold, aristocratic drawl.

“No,” Dawson replied, “you’re just in time.”

Harriet grabbed Lord Barkley’s hand tight, and when she was sure the three were engaged, tugged him out of the nook; they hurried out of the library and were down the stairs in record time. She felt her that her face was mirroring a bonfire with how her cheeks were burning. The Earl was quiet behind her until they made it back to the ballroom.

“Now, you see what I mean?” Lord Barkley said. “He is a despoiler of women. Will you please let go of that ridiculous notion of yours?”

Harriet thought swiftly, and flicked out her fan. The encounter upstairs had been shocking, but the pricking of heat it had sent under her skin was just what she was aiming to feel with a lord like Dawson.

“I don’t know what you mean by despoiler,” Harriet said calmly. “Seems to me the lady was having the time of her life.”

Lord Barkley looked dumbstruck. “Are you telling me you’re…you’re still willing to embark on that campaign?”

“Without hesitation,” Harriet said, while extending her hand. “My letter, if you please.”

“No,” Lord Barkley said, “I will not give it over, not until you see sense.”

Harriet was ready to snap at him when Ben appeared at her side, “Harriet…” he looked at Daniel, then back at her, “Aunt Barbara and Martha were looking for you.”

“I was—”

“Dancing,” Lord Barkley said calmly. “Miss Bradford and I were dancing. She became flushed, and we stepped out on the balcony for air.”

Ben’s eyes narrowed a little, but then he shook his head, “I don’t believe you, but if it was anyone but you, Daniel, I would be livid. I know nothing untoward happened” his brows inched up in an unspoken question.

“I give you my word,” Daniel replied.

The curt nod was Ben’s reply, “Now, Harriet, let’s go find Martha and Aunt Barbara before both have apoplexies. Raster, I’ll see you before you leave.”

Harriet shot a look over her shoulder to Lord Barkley before she hurried away with her brother. His eyes stayed with her, and she felt his gaze on the back of her neck as Ben took her to Martha’s rooms, where her sister laid on a fainting couch, looking a bit pale and fanning herself.

Aunt Barbara, their late-mother’s sister, was there with a fretful look on her face, and a bottle of smelling salts in her hand.

“Martha!” Harriet rushed to her sister’s side, “What happened?”

“Her nerves, dear,” Aunt Barbara said while patting Martha’s hand, “All the pressure of planning tonight got to her. She’ll be all right.”

Martha gave her a faint smile, her blue eyes paler than Harriet had ever seen them. “Aunt Barbara is right. I’ll be fine, soon. I need some special calming tea that dear Antony bought me.”

Sitting on the edge of the couch, Harriet held Martha’s hand. “I know your disposition is delicate, Martha. Don’t you think it best to let the housekeeper do most of the work here so that you won’t get so frazzled?”

“I try,” Martha said before she sighed. “But it was not how I was raised. After Mother passed and before Aunt Barbara came to us, Emma and I took on all the home's responsibility to make sure you didn’t have to sacrifice your education to take care of a home. Benjamin was already at Cambridge, and we could not bother him. It’s my nature to take charge.”

Martha’s paleness did not sit well with Harriet. “I understand, but please, see if you can let go of the reins, starting with just a little. Then, maybe you can see it right to let go of more.”

A weak smile was Harriet’s reply, “I’ll try, Dear. How are you finding the ball? I’m sorry I wasn’t there to introduce you to a few people.”

“You have nothing to be sorry about,” Harriet insisted. “And I can take care of myself. Ben’s friend, Lord Barkley, has been very kind to me.”

Footsteps at the doorway had them turning to find Antony there; his expression rife with concern. “Dearest, my God. What happened?”

Martha sat up at her husband's voice, “I forgot to eat this morning, but kept trying to oversee everything for the ball. I nearly collapsed in the kitchen from the heat and weakness.”

“The housekeeper found her and alerted me,” Aunt Barbara said, while fixing her paisley, fringed turban with beige-gloved hands. “Thank goodness I carry my salts everywhere I go.”

“I’ll have some tea and then join our guests for dinner,” Martha said.

“No, you certainly are not,” Antony said strictly. “I won’t have you collapsing in your turtle soup. You’ll go to our rooms and rest. I’ll have your dinner brought up to you.”

Martha still looked worried, “I don’t want to disappoint you, now—”

“Hush,” Antony said, kindly. “You did not disappoint me or anyone. I need you happy and well, Dearest. I’ll make your excuses for you.”

Relieved, Martha fell back on the chaise, “Thank you, Antony.”

Nodding, the Baron turned to Harriet, “Miss Harriet, sadly, Miss Matthews has sent an apology, she cannot make it as the trip to Manchester has fatigued her.”

Harriet nodded as she stood, “Thank you for telling me, My Lord, and, Martha, please rest, and don’t worry about me.”

“I think I’ll take my leave as well,” Aunt Barbara said as she got to her feet and reached for her cane. The beige and purple of her lame gown fit her aunt beautifully; its high collar, amethyst brooch, and waist-length ropes of seed pearls around her neck showed her aunt’s adherence to an era before them.

“Dinner is ready,” the Baron said, “please, go to the dining room.”

As Harriet gingerly walked with her aunt down to the dining room, Aunt Barbara asked, “So, has any gentleman caught your eye?”

Thinking of Lord Barkley, Harriet said, “I wouldn’t say that.”

“Oh, perhaps I should rephrase,” Aunt Barbara said. “Has any Lord found you?”

Entering the dining room, Harriet’s eyes caught and held onto Lord Barkley. Even halfway across the room, his eyes seemed to burn, and she swallowed over a suddenly dry throat. Remembering the event of just a few hours before, she knew nothing would be normal between them.

Dear Lord, what have I gotten myself into with him?

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  • I loved it.can feel the sizzle between the h and h .makes me want to read more and what will happen next.yes waiting to read this book eagerly

  • I Love the way that this book is focused on a female’s wrong way thinking. If she keeps going the way that she started out in this book she’s going to be a hand full.

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