As you may know, Embracing Romance authors have put together a wonderful anthology of romance stories. At 99cents, SEVEN NIGHTS OF SIN is a great buy, offering seven scintillating romances. My contribution is a Victorian romance.
Here’s a sneak peek.
ONE SCANDALOUS NIGHT
Can one night with a rake be enough for a lifetime?
Miss Bella Lacey desires to accomplish two things before settling into an unfulfilling marriage to the man her father has chosen. First, she intends to inveigle a goodly amount of money for her orphans from a man of means and, second, to have one night of passion to help her endure the dreary years ahead.
When Derrick, Lord Eaglestone, a wealthy viscount with a scandalous reputation, agrees to donate to Miss Lacey’s charity, he has only seduction in mind. Little does he suspect that Miss Lacey has already chosen him to debauch her before she weds another. The lady has virtually fallen into his lap, but much to his annoyance, he finds himself reluctant to oblige her.
Enjoy the first chapter:
Heads turned when a tall man entered Lord Maudling’s drawing room. Bella studied him with interest. Lord Eaglestone had a rather harsh, intelligent face, observant amber eyes, a blade of a nose, and an angled jawline. His dark hair was longer than was fashionable and curled over his collar, a sign of a rebellious streak perhaps. He was known to snub his nose at society.
“Why, in the name of Queen Victoria, did you invite that man?” her father muttered to his host.
“Barely sociably acceptable, I admit, Sir Randolph, but a good man to consult about investments,” Lord Maudling said. “I’ve heard an attempt has been made on his life. I want to seek his advice while I can.”
Bella shivered at the cold, humorless statement. The viscount was the man she’d particularly wished to see. Imposing in a black tailcoat and trousers, a crimson waistcoat, and white necktie, he weaved his way across the ruby-toned rug through the crowded reception room. One or two men hailed him but most stepped aside for him.
Eaglestone reached Lord Maudling, where he stood drinking champagne with her parents. It wasn’t merely his six-foot-plus height or the impressive breadth of his shoulders but also his manner that made him intimidating. His very carriage made one aware how little he cared for opinion. Perhaps it was because his Lincolnshire family seat of Eaglestone appeared in the Doomsday Book. Perhaps it was because he’d had to fight so hard to keep it.
At breakfast that morning, Bella’s father had thrown down The Times newspaper and complained to her mother about Eaglestone’s influence on the ’Change. Father’s stocks had apparently plummeted. Her attention caught, Bella put down her teacup. Anything concerning his lordship fascinated her, ever since he’d held her in his strong arms and waltzed her over Lady Byrne’s ballroom floor six weeks ago.
The viscount kissed her mother’s hand, and a flush rose up her throat. Bella doubted any woman would be impervious to Lord Eaglestone. Men, on the other hand, may not admire him quite so much. Her father positively glowered at him.
She should thank Lord Eaglestone for distracting Father from his favorite topic. Her.
Her father, for reasons of his own, quickly recovered his manners. “My lord, I believe you’ve met my daughter, Miss Lacey?”
“Indeed. At Lady Byrne’s ball.” Lord Eaglestone took her hand in his large one. His unusual tawny eyes looked into hers. The smile that lifted his well-shaped mouth seemed to suggest something far more intimate than a mere waltz had taken place between them.
His eyes made her think of sunshine on stone, a glimmer within of something hard and unbending while, at the same time, compelling. She wouldn’t care to oppose him. He could scatter her thoughts with one determined glance. But his mouth… That was another matter entirely. Those sculptured lips spoke of a tempestuous, passionate nature. It made her warm all over to think of his mouth. On her.
“My lord.” Bella rose from a curtsey wondering what it would be like to kiss him and whether she’d get the opportunity.
Eaglestone’s smile broadened. Might he have read her thoughts? He would be well able to assess his business rivals. Her expressive face often gave her away. She resisted employing her fan to cool her cheeks and took a sip of chilled champagne, relieved that the gentlemen had turned the conversation to financial matters. When Eaglestone spoke, a hush settled around them. Men listened. Where most aristocrats had inherited their fortunes, and many were busy spending them, his lordship had amassed his through sheer business acumen.
It had taken one dance with him weeks ago to decide that he was the one. Since then, she’d made a detailed, if surreptitious, study of him whenever the opportunity arose. She admired a man with strong opinions, although it could make her plan more difficult. He might not be so easily persuaded to her view. Few gentlemen were as attractive as Lord Eaglestone was, however. And even fewer as wealthy. He must be the one. If he agreed, he would serve her well in both her endeavors. Convinced she was equal to the challenge; she did her best to ignore the warning prickle up her spine when his assessing gaze met hers.
When a lull came in the conversation, Bella seized her opportunity. Eaglestone had turned from the assembled group to remove a flute of champagne from a footman’s tray. “I’d like a moment of your time after supper, if you would be so good, Lord Eaglestone. I wish to discuss my charity with you,” she said, with an eye on her father who was discussing politics with Lord Maudling.
“Of course, Miss Lacey. You shall have my undivided attention.” His warm glance embraced her, roaming from her face to her waist and back to her mouth. Was there an implied message in his response, or had her imagination galloped ahead to the intimacy she planned to share with him?
She lowered her lashes at the delicious quiver rushing through her. Her one night of sin. Breathing deeply, Bella discreetly engaged the lady at her elbow in conversation. While they spoke of the beautiful gowns on display, she studied Eaglestone’s effect on the assembled gathering. Most of the ladies turned to follow his progress through the room. Men who sought his advice were met with a perfectly cordial, yet cool, response. No one openly cut him, despite the scandalous rumors attached to him. Perhaps they, like Lord Maudling, hoped a little of his luck and undeniable talent would rub off on them.
London had been abuzz with rumors about Eaglestone for years: that he’d indulged in a very public and scandalous affair with the wife of another peer and that he had shot the husband in a duel. She’d overheard one of her father’s associates express doubts that all of Eaglestone’s business dealings were aboveboard. That had given her pause, but as nothing had been proven, Bella put the remark down to envy.
The gentlemen who sought him out weren’t averse to believing the worst, but tonight they were like hungry sparrow hawks, hoping for any crumb of wisdom that Eaglestone might throw them. Such hypocrisy.
She gained her knowledge of the viscount from reading her father’s broadsheets and her mother’s scandal sheets and tidbits when she pressed an ear to the door while the men drank port after dinner. Bella had also taken the bold step of writing to Eaglestone’s private secretary, inquiring as to the viscount’s philanthropic interests. It had taken some digging to discover he supported several worthy causes, which was another surprising thing about him. As she’d expected, the secretary had politely fobbed her off, but the hope remained that her letter had piqued Eaglestone’s interest.
Amid the nonsense the gossip mongers spread, one fact remained unchallenged. The man was a rake. A rake was precisely what she required, a decidedly wealthy one. Bella intended to do two things before her marriage to the man her father had chosen for her: to persuade a man of means to support her charity and to make love with a rake, in no particular order, but it seemed practical to obtain both from the same man. Before she married Maudling.
The ghastly thought of what marriage to the earl would be like cast her into deep gloom.
“That’s an unhappy face on one so comely.”
Bella rearranged her features into a smile. “Merely a brief thought.”
“Is there something I might do to improve your thoughts?”
He’d already helped, just by standing there. Why had she thought his eyes stony? Right at this moment, they seemed lit by an inner fire and kindled a corresponding warmth in her. The man’s essence should be bottled and sold to lonely women. Bella took control of her rampaging thoughts. “How very kind of you, sir, and not at all necessary I assure you. I have the matter in hand.”
Bella’s gaze dropped to his hands, large and long fingered. What he might accomplish with them on her body caused her to inhale sharply. She must get a grip on herself. She firmed her mouth when his gaze settled there.
“Then I’m glad.” He nodded and moved away.
He was being polite; she’d failed to capture his interest. She fingered her fan and sighed, wishing she were more practiced at flirting. She would have to learn the art very smartly indeed.
After supper, the men remained at the table with their port while the ladies drank coffee in the drawing room. The conversation soon settled on household matters: where to find the best staff and how to deal with a difficult governess. As there were no other young women present tonight, Bella quickly grew bored. She wished she could join the men who were guffawing at some joke in the dining room, where cigar smoke wafted out.
She tapped her fingers on the arm of the chair. How could she manage to get Lord Eaglestone alone?
Her mother eyed her. “You are fidgeting, Bella.”
“It’s hot and stuffy in here, Mama.”
“I don’t find it so. I hope you’re not sickening for something.”
Bella was most definitely. “It’s the cigar smoke. I’ll feel better if I get some fresh air.”
“I’ll come with you.”
As her mother began to rise, Mrs. Burdon asked her if she had a good recipe for cockle sauce, as her efforts were always disappointing. “The addition of tarragon vinegar makes all the difference,” her mother said, sinking back into her chair.
Blissfully alone, Bella slipped through the French doors onto the deserted terrace. She leaned against the cool stone balustrade and took grateful breaths of humid, fragrant air. Louring clouds in the early evening sky heralded rain. Applying her fan, she discovered the source of the scent to be fat pink roses climbing a trellis.
The cosseted Belgrade garden faded into the twilight. A widowed peer, Lord Maudling was positioned at the top of her father’s list of future husbands for her. Alarmingly, it had now become a list of one, as other possible candidates faded away or had fallen into disfavor with the vagaries of life, the ’Change, death, taxes, and the like. Maudling was wealthy, his country estate known to be one of the finest in Surrey. There was the added attraction of their more modest property adjoining his on the eastern boundary. And due to her mother’s illness, of which she had now blessedly recovered, Bella had missed several seasons and had scant opportunity to meet possible suitors.
Her father was determined to marry her into the aristocracy. He’d rejected the few men who’d showed an interest in her. Twenty years her elder, at forty-two, Maudling greyed at the temples and was known for a cold fish. A nasty story had it that his wife died to escape the boredom.
Bella shook her head. Was it fair to hold a man such as Lord Maudling in high esteem just because he purported to be a stalwart supporter of the church and a sober stickler for convention, when he merely lacked the vigor to be otherwise? And there was Lord Eaglestone, a bon vi’vant with a great passion for life, who had purportedly left dozens of women in a swoon. One should applaud the energy of such a man.
Bella reached over the balustrade to pick a vibrant rose but couldn’t quite reach it.
A waft of citrus cologne drifted in the air as a hand, attached to a crisp, white cuff and dark, superfine sleeve, plucked the rose.
Lord Eaglestone handed the bloom to her with a small bow. “I have a moment to learn more about your charity, Miss Lacey. If you will be so good,” he said in his husky voice, a voice that had graced many bedrooms, Bella thought with another delightful shiver.
“Thank you, my lord. I am most eager to do so.” She held the rose to her nose, resting her back against the stone balustrade and launched into the description she’d used with bank managers and possible creditors—producing more amusement than interest in her orphaned children and the orphanage’s desperate need of capital. Hartnoll House wasn’t exactly an orphanage, more a small group of homeless children she’d rescued off the streets and sheltered in a house her grandfather had bequeathed her. He’d planned to help her but had passed away before much could be accomplished. He’d left her enough money to employ a housekeeper and a maid and keep the children well fed. There was so much more to be done. If unable to find each of them a loving home, she did want to teach them skills to keep them out of the workhouse.
Eaglestone listened without interruption. His expression, for all his ready charm, seemed guarded, with no softness in that chin, which might have been chiseled for a marble statue. His eyes held a glimmer of alert intelligence as she described the inadequate bedding, the rats in the cellar that resisted all efforts to remove them, and the money needed to repair the leaking roof. She paused and waited for a response, a positive one she hoped.
“Most certainly a worthy cause,” he observed without actually committing himself.
“A very worthy cause, my lord,” she repeated emphatically. She spoke fulsomely of the children. She knew each child so well it required little effort and allowed her to retain her focus on the job at hand: to convince this man to invest in something that offered no return other than one of goodwill. In her mind, she ran over the details she’d been able to gather about him that she might employ to better persuade him. Some chink in his armor. He’d been orphaned at an early age, and his estate had been left in the hands of an uncle who stripped his inheritance to the bone before the young lord gained his majority. Once Lord Eaglestone had control of his fortune, however, he’d quadrupled his wealth in a stunningly short time.
A random thought struck her. Eaglestone’s lack of maternal love in those tender years might account for his rakishness and why, at thirty-three, he hadn’t married.
“Where is this orphanage of yours, Miss Lacey?”
“Cheapside, my lord.” She’d almost missed his question. She’d been picturing him as a small boy without anyone to love him, much like one of her lonely orphans.
Bella twirled the rose in her fingers. She must proceed with caution. Keep everything on a business footing. This was not the moment to show her hand. She sensed he would prefer to chase his prey. And she felt very much like prey as his sharp gaze took in every inch of her while he leaned with casual grace against the rail beside her.
There’s a copy of SEVEN NIGHTS OF SIN on offer for the first to answer the question: “Who is known as a cold fish?