WICKED WAGER (EBOOK)
WICKED WAGER (EBOOK)
GEORGIAN ROMANCE WITH MYSTERY
A dissolute rake who'll do anything to win the favour of his unscrupulous ladylove faces a conundrum when he falls in love with the woman he's promised to ruin.
A virtuous young woman who inadvertently finds herself in the arms of a notorious libertine, hatches a plan to evade a blackmailer.
As each questions the bonds of loyalty, they must decide who is friend or foe.
For taking a chance on love could come at the cost of a life.
A rewrite of Les Liaisons Dangereuses, set in 18C London with lots of twists but a happy ending.
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Lord Peregrine liked a wager. The cards, the horses, occasionally a pair of spiders, could whip up his blood and tip him out of the lethargy and ennui which characterised his usual state of being.
This wager, though, was different. He could feel it in the sudden stillness into which he’d been plunged; the colour, vibrancy and chatter that had washed about him from the moment he and Xenia had stepped into their box at the theatre, sucked into the void.
Xenia’s seductive purr as she put her head close to his was as sweet as a feather skimming his heated, naked flesh.
And as dangerous as a black widow’s bite.
‘Come, Perry, it’s not like you to have scruples.’
He blinked to clear his mind and as his gaze raked the breathtaking contours of London’s most beautiful widow—and probably its most immoral—he wasn’t sure if the thrumming of blood to his extremities was due to outrage or titillation.
Slowly he exhaled, acknowledging almost sadly that it was the latter, which would of course confirm society’s opinion of him as a bored and dissolute libertine who’d done nothing but wallow in his father’s wealth, living a life of scandal. A man totally without redemption. Indeed he would deserve every uncomplimentary epithet hurled at him if he accepted darling Xenia’s outrageous wager.
He surprised himself with his hesitation. A sudden flowering of moral fibre? Or fear? Clearly Xenia was surprised by his lack of enthusiasm, for she glanced at him askance, before her lips curved into that devastating smile that never failed to render him no better than her unruly, slavering hounds of whom she was so fond, who rutted with anything that crossed their paths.
And there was the rub. Yes, he was immoral, he was dissolute, but at thirty-three he couldn’t believe he was totally beyond redemption.
Lord Peregrine sighed, abandoning the daydream he was better than he was—for that’s all it was—and met Xenia’s ice blue gaze while he schooled his features to betray no emotion. A lifetime’s practice under the brutal tutelage of his uncle had made this easy. He could appear unmoved when it was true to say that he still was capable of some feeling. Whether that was a good thing or not was a matter he’d not yet decided.
And then he took another sip of his champagne. Around him the theatre once again pulsed with the energy he’d been conscious of before Xenia’s carefully calculated whisper.
Oh, she was good. She knew exactly how to stir his blood.
Xenia gave a soft, throaty laugh. ‘She’s over there, if you want to look.’
He followed the direction indicated by her elegant finger, towards the stalls where two society beauties, with painted faces and elaborate pomaded coiffures two-feet high, were making eyes at the gentlemen over the top of ivory pointed fans.
‘No, not there!’
Peregrine smiled. He enjoyed teasing her.
Xenia was quick to irritation. Quick to anger, and quick to passion, too.
The high-pitched inducements of the girls selling oranges in the pits almost drowned out the wavering top notes, which concluded the opera singer’s aria; and as Peregrine searched for the object under discussion, his thoughts revolved around the usual litany of: ‘Diversion, diversion; anything for diversion’.
No, certainly these were not the thoughts of a gentleman; more like a wolf wearing the trappings of one.
‘She’s a beauty, isn’t she?’
He was aware that Xenia was watching him carefully, but again Peregrine schooled his features into a mask of indifference, even before he’d assimilated the scene before him.
And then the blurred images coalesced into one and as he regarded the handsome couple seated across the gallery, something in the graceful movements of the young woman stirred his senses, triggering an emotion not dissimilar to the energy that surged through him as he followed the hunt, charging with the rest of them after the wily fox.
By God, it was good to feel something that wasn’t boredom.
Xenia, or rather Lady Busselton, as she’d become, lowered her opera glasses, her arched eyebrows and pursed lips showing how much she was enjoying Peregrine’s reaction to her suggestion.
Her wicked wager.
He hooked one elegantly shod foot over his black satin pantaloons, regarding her over steepled fingers as he considered his response. The heat and smell from hundreds of bodies pressed close to enjoy tonight’s production was making his head pound.
Or was it excitement? Revenge wasn’t usually a game he played. Well, not with a woman as the spoils.
‘You, of all people, Perry, know that the incomparable Miss Celeste Rosington is as far removed as is possible from the celestial virgin she is painted.’
Xenia raised her shoulder slightly in the direction of the couple across from them who, heads bent together, hands almost touching, represented the epitome of lovebirds on the eve of their nuptials.
‘Your poor sister knows it, to her eternal cost.’ She gave a husky laugh; the same laugh that for ten years had never failed to make Peregrine harden with instant desire. ‘Come, my dearest Perry, it’s not like you to allow your scruples to get in the way. After all, she has none.’
She was prodding, and would continue, until she got her reaction. Xenia, the tearaway cosseted only daughter of a ruthless and successful sea captain who had gone to extraordinary lengths to ensure she got her heart’s desire—including two husbands with fortune and title—had changed little since Perry had become acquainted with her in her first season out. Back then she’d put financial and social considerations above their mutual attraction, accepting an earl that trumped a lowly viscount. He suspected—hoped—she’d rued the day.
‘Scruples? I hope I have some at least, Xenia. And no, it’s not scruples that give me pause. It’s whether I have the stomach to further an acquaintance with a jezebel like Miss Rosington, even if I have every reason to see her revealed for what she is.’ There. He’d just proved himself a gentleman before any unflattering epithet could be added. ‘For a start, what do you suppose my sister would say if she heard I was sniffing after the woman who … well, destroyed her life, to use Charlotte’s own words?’
Xenia pursed her mouth and raised one thin, charcoaled eyebrow. Though no longer in her first flush of youth, she continued to exude the most potent sexual allure of any woman Peregrine had met. With or without powder and rouge she was still a beauty, with the delicate bone structure of her long-dead mother, an impoverished aristocrat who’d married the coarse, bluff ship’s captain after he’d amassed a fortune with his growing fleet plying a lucrative trade with the Far East in spices, slaves and silks.
Not that her heritage was something Xenia discussed. Though she eschewed her links with trade, she was quick to utilise the benefits of a seemingly endless supply of funds, even when husbands were not so forthcoming; and to prod the captain’s more ruthless streak when it might be of any benefit.
She continued to fix Peregrine with her calculating blue stare. ‘Your sister is no fool. Why, Charlotte would understand perfectly well that the only reason you could possibly show an interest in Miss Rosington was because you were avenging her; doing what any loyal brother would for his unjustly treated dear sister.’
For some reason Xenia’s little wager seemed to have fired her blood. She patted Perry’s shoulder, her expression a mask of false sympathy.
‘Poor Charlotte has been made to look a fool. Surely you, Perry, wish to know why Miss Rosington was discovered, half undressed, by your sister in Mr Carstair’s saloon before the two of them rushed guiltily into the night? Surely, you, Perry, know that the only way you’re going to help Charlotte is to get close to that designing Miss Rosington—’ she jabbed a finger at the unaware couple, ‘who’s looking moon-eyes at her betrothed—and find out for yourself. Why did she do it? Boredom? A wager? The fact is, your sister is heartbroken, her reputation tarnished … while Miss Celeste remains society’s darling, soon to wed her cousin in the match of the season.’
She breathed deeply, a provocative motion since it brought into greater evidence her full, lush breasts, revealed to ample advantage in her low-cut confection of gold embroidered silk and lace.
Her eyes slid over Perry’s elegantly turned-out form and settled on his face, her lips pursed in a suggestive moué. ‘If you wish to sample what you’ve always wanted, Perry darling,’ the unexpected insinuation of her body as reward made him harden even more, ‘and discover for yourself what has enthralled my long list of lovers, then call it amusement, but also atonement, that I attach this condition.’ She sat back, fanning herself languidly while her bosom strained against her bodice. Another glance at her face revealed her suppressed excitement: eyes bright, her neat, curvaceous body quivering. ‘Reveal to the world the truth of what Miss Celeste really is. Let the public understand it so that they might revile her for the woman who stole your sister’s happiness. And at the same time, you can find out where Harry Carstairs is. After that, I will make you very happy.’ The candlelight reflected off her pretty, pearl- like teeth, her look a mixture of lustful intent and daring. As she leaned back, eyes brimming with promise over the tips of her fan, her final words sealed the deal. ‘After so many years’ friendship, Perry darling, I think it’s time to raise the stakes
* * *
The shrill enticements from the orange sellers to buy their wares faded as Celeste put her head close to her cousin’s to murmur in his ear, a dull sense of dread permeating her soul. Never had she known anyone as determined as her cousin, Raphael, but now he was custodian of her happiness and she didn’t fancy her chances that he would relent. Since they’d been children Raphael had to prove himself the best, the one in charge, and his honeyed tongue and sharp wits always won the day.
‘Please, Raphael, it’s not fair to hold me to this marriage if you cannot love me as a wife would wish to be … at least revered,’ she whispered, the familiar grief clawing its way up her gullet.
Since Celeste could remember, they’d been destined to marry. As a child, this knowledge sat comfortably with her. Raphael was handsome and accomplished. She knew she had to marry someone with the wealth and lineage to satisfy her parents, so it might as well be the cousin who was generous and handsome in a careless sort of way. He’d always taken a general interest in her wellbeing and defended her on occasion during their childhood games. The marriage made sense for so many reasons, not just dynastic, and Celeste had had no objections.
That is, until Raphael’s tinderbox revelation three weeks ago.
With a glance over her shoulder to reassure herself that her elderly chaperone was still gently snoring away in her seat in Raphael’s opera box, Celeste returned to the topic that had been at the forefront of her mind every waking moment since Raphael had told her that his heart belonged to another.
‘For the hundredth time, I’m begging you to release me. Let me find someone who will place me first in his heart.’ As the words spilled out, she realised how pathetic she must sound. Her arguments had no basis in the decision agreed upon by Raphael and Celeste’s uncle, her guardian since her father’s death five years before. But she had to try; to say what was in her heart. ‘Don’t tell me I seek a fairytale that doesn’t exist. I know I’m surrounded by men and women bound together in marriages that are hateful to them, but I would want to begin mine with hope.’
He was restless as usual, his dark, moody eyes scouring her face as if searching for her chink, her weakness; confident, ultimately, that the force of his will would mean her ultimate acquiescence, in words at least.
His thin lips pursed and his glance made no secret of his contempt. ‘How many women would dream to be in your position,’ he muttered. ‘I am offering you the chance to take any lover you choose. All you have to do is what our parents, custodians—and I—wish. Marry me. Once you have done your duty, you can follow your heart, indulge your passions, explore a world of sensuality you have no idea even exists. ’
‘As you have?’
‘I know what I want, I’ve explored it and I like it. Do you not see, marriage to each other is more than just expedient, it offers us everything we want: companionship and respect for each other, and ultimately the freedom to pursue our every desire beyond the domestic arena.’
‘My desire is to be loved by my husband.’ She spoke woodenly, despite knowing it would inflame him. Fortunately, he was more on show here. He had to temper his responses.
Still, it was clear he was irritated. Only the fall of lace at his sleeve softened the severity of his expression as he raked his fingers through his hair, though he was careful not to disturb his well-groomed queue. ‘Celeste, it is all very well to ask me to release you, but do you suppose your uncle and your Aunt Branwell would countenance your absurdities? Why can you not simply go through with what’s expected of us, provide the necessary heir, and then you’re free to do whatever you wish—within reason?’
Tears stung her eyes and her throat thickened, making it hard not to choke on the sob she must hold at bay. In a low voice she muttered, ‘Three weeks ago, I proved my love, Raphael—’
She was not expecting the vituperative response. Raphael’s eyes blazed with a different intensity now, though his voice was a controlled hiss. ‘Yes, but where is Harry Carstairs now, my love?’
She’d heard it before. Unable to bear his reproach, she squeezed shut her eyes and clenched her fists. ‘All right,’ she whispered, ‘if it matters neither way to you, and it’s my uncle whose absolution is required, would you agree if I found a match that would exceed even a match with you?’ Somehow she had to hear him give ground. Ignoring his barb, his reproach that she’d failed in the mission he’d sent her on three weeks earlier, she continued to plead her case. ‘What if a contender suddenly emerged with title and estates that eclipsed yours, and I loved him and wished to marry him, what then, Raphael? Would you release me?’
Her cousin made a noise somewhere between a laugh and a snort as he tossed his handsome head and fixed her with his compelling gaze; the gaze she’d once thought indicated his unconditional affirmation for her and her best interests. Now it was hard, though she knew it wasn’t anger at her, but at the situation that had suddenly ensnared them so recently. ‘That’s not very likely within a month, is it, my dear?’
She shook her head, sadly, and her shoulders slumped. ‘No,’ she replied, defeated. ‘It isn’t.’
* * *
The last of the applause drifted away and for a few seconds the shrill cries of the orange sellers held sway. Rising from his ironic bow for the benefit of his companion, Lord Peregrine held back the red velvet curtain that had afforded them privacy so that Xenia could pass through and join the throng of theatregoers descending the sweeping staircase.
He saw that she had fallen into conversation with a club-footed general whose more than interested eye swept appraisingly over Xenia’s abundant assets, and once again Perry felt the familiar heating of his loins that only Xenia could inspire with a mere incendiary glance. The contours of her sack-back gown, adorned with a row of bows the length of her stomacher, recalled the more lascivious of those thoughts he’d entertained for the past decade: what it would be like to undress her, layer by layer by layer. He could only imagine how many layers there might be, but the prize would be worth the exquisite torture of restraint. He’d not revealed quite how much her proposition tonight had taken him by surprise, and the fact he’d agreed fuelled him with an odd combination of conflicting sensations: raging lust tempered by the knowledge that he’d just sunk to depths of moral depravity that might make even his uncle squirm in his grave: seduce an innocent on the eve of her nuptials. Except that Xenia maintained the young woman’s ingenuousness was a ploy. Still, Miss Rosington retained her standing in society as a paragon of virtue. What right had he to assume otherwise, just because it was convenient?
He was diverted by a squeal to his left. Xenia was moving ahead, caught up by the crowd, her head bent to absorb the admiration of her club- footed general. Peregrine meanwhile found himself unable to continue, due to the fact the young woman in front of him had snagged her skirts on what appeared to be a nail or splinter protruding from one of the supporting beams. No one could move until she’d freed herself, and as Peregrine was directly behind her it was incumbent upon him to act the gentlemen and so enable the rest of the pulsing crowd to forge ahead.
‘Please be careful, sir, it’ll tear and it’s the first time I’ve worn it,’ the young woman warned as he took a handful of stiff silk in one hand. ‘It’s my finest.’ She twisted her head round to address him.
As her lips parted, revealing a set of near perfect small white teeth, and her worried blue eyes bored into his, Peregrine felt a jolt of something unidentifiable plummet like a stone to the pit of his stomach. No, further than that, for without a doubt his groin was reacting with something akin to roiling hunger. And, surprisingly, with an intensity that exceeded the dull throb of ten years of wanting Xenia like a frustrated schoolboy.
Close to, Miss Rosington was exquisite, her pale white and rose-blushed skin far more lustrous than when seen from a distance through opera glasses. Her powdered coiffure, dressed to fashionable heights, accentuated high, rounded cheekbones; and with growing excitement he followed the sweep of her graceful neck to a bosom that was rising and falling with surely greater rapidity than fear of what peril her gown might face. He liked to think that was so, as her candid look met his and the connection between them seemed like the sharp tug of some inner cord, forcing him forward, his hand brushing hers, nestled beneath a froth of silken furbelows, as they both reached for the undamaged silk petticoat, now released.
‘No harm done,’ he murmured as she drew herself up, her companion, the black-eyed viscount to whom she was affianced, returning to claim her, drawing her away with the barest of thanks.
All over in a matter of seconds, and at what cost? For while silk skirts and dignity had escaped with minimal damage, Peregrine was the first to concede, as he watched her graceful back with pounding heart and aching groin, that a great deal of harm had indeed been done.
* * *
‘Any damage?’ Raphael enquired over his shoulder as he drew Celeste level with him. Ridiculously, she felt as if she’d run half a mile, for she was finding it difficult to breathe, constricted as she was by her stays. Not that they were tightly laced for she had the right shape naturally, for the fashions of the day. But Raphael’s creased brow sent fear coursing through her as she was reminded of the night three weeks ago when he’d sent her after Harry Carstairs. She stopped and ran clammy hands over her wide skirts. Skirts supported by so many petticoats and layers, tied around her middle; dressing seemed sometimes to take forever. As did undressing, she thought with sinking heart, another image of that fateful night intruding: a room strewn with petticoats, Harry fumbling with the ties, before Miss Charlotte Paige’s shrill cry had sent them fleeing in fright. Harry had snatched Celeste’s hand, dragging her with him as they passed his horrified betrothed on his way to the front door; then down the passage and through the front door.
Celeste wondered if the young woman still had those discarded petticoats or whether she’d burned them. At the time she’d wanted to say something. To apologise. Explain. She’d thought it might come to that; a full accounting of her actions, but when Miss Paige failed to name her, Raphael had applauded Celeste for a mission accomplished in part.
His satisfaction was short-lived. Weeks later, no word had come from Harry, and Raphael’s growing agitation and bursts of anger were increasingly directed at his cousin and future wife, Celeste.
‘I asked you if you were unscathed, darling,’
Raphael repeated, an edge of impatience to his voice as Celeste recovered her wits and returned to the here and now.
Unscathed? ‘My skirts, you mean?’ she asked, hooking her hand into the crook of Raphael’s elbow and patting a curl into place as she affected the unruffled demeanour of the lady of fashion.
‘I think that is all I could be referring to, my dear Celeste, for you did not take a tumble, though you certainly look as dazed as if you’d hit your head.’ He flicked her an impatient smile. ‘You didn’t, did you?’
She felt as if she had. The brief glance she’d exchanged with that unknown gentlemen had affected her like no other encounter. His dark penetrating gaze had been more than just unsettling. He’d felt the connection, too. She was sure he had.
Celeste glanced at her skirts and shook her head.
‘Good, then I daresay it’s time to call it a night. I shall see first you and then Lady Drummond home.’ He was brisk and businesslike, as usual, ascertaining her movements for the morrow. ‘At noon you’ll have the fittings for your wedding finery and I shall see you at nine in the evening at Vauxhall with the rest of our party.’ He withdrew a snowy linen handkerchief from his coat pocket to flick across the seat of his carriage, before offering his hand to Lady Drummond and then Celeste to help them into the carriage. Such fastidiousness might appear as solicitous care to some, but Celeste found it irritating beyond extreme, sometimes. Now being one of those occasions. Raphael said he cared deeply about her— and she believed him—but not so deeply that he’d put her feelings above his own, much less on the same level.
She glanced at Lady Drummond, whose wizened face was etched with lines of weariness and whose shoulders sagged, and took a chance. The old woman was all but deaf, she knew.
‘Raphael, I want you to release me from this marriage,’ she whispered, pretending interest in her ivory fan. ‘I am trapped. I cannot cry off. Uncle will never allow it, and the whole world believes you are mad for me. I once thought it, but I cannot marry you, knowing what I know now. Please, release me from this marriage so that I might find a husband who will love me as I would wish to be loved.’
The tautness around Raphael’s lips indicated far more than his tone, that he was mightily displeased. ‘I don’t believe this is a conversation for our short journey home in present company, my dear. Perhaps tomorrow evening we might discuss in greater detail the joys we can look forward to during our long and fruitful union.’
Celeste slid her eyes away from his thunderous expression. ‘Of course, you’re right as always, Raphael,’ she said softly.
And wondered how many times she was condemned to say those exact words in the decades that stretched ahead of her.