Never Romance a Rake
Pocket Star Books, July 2008
|Excerpt from the novel Never Romance a Rake|
The comte returned to the card table, an expression of amused chagrin upon his face. “Alas, messieurs, Madame Fortune has forsaken me tonight, n’est-ce pas?”
“And Sir Ralph cannot bloody count.” Rothewell began to push away from the table. “Gentlemen, let’s retract our wagers and call it a night.”
“Non!” Something which might have been fear sketched across Valigny’s face. He motioned Rothewell back into his chair, his smile returning. “I feel Madame Fortune returning to me, perhaps. May I not have a gentleman’s chance to win back what I have lost?”
“With what stakes?” challenged Lord Enders. “Look here, Valigny, I cannot take another note from you. Even if you win this bollixed-up hand, it is but a pittance to me.”
The tension in the room was palpable now. The comte licked his lips. “But I have saved the best wager for last,” he said rapidly. “Something which might be of interest to you—and a benefit, perhaps, to me.”
Mr. Calvert lifted both hands. “I am but a spectator.”
“Indeed,” said the comte. “I speak to Enders—and to Rothewell, perhaps.”
“Then speak,” said Rothewell quietly. “The game grows cold.”
Valigny braced both hands on the table and leaned into them. “I propose we replay this last hand,” he said, glancing back and forth between them. “The winner shall take everything on the table tonight. Calvert will take the pack as a neutral dealer. We play only one another.”
“Dashed odd way of doing things,” Calvert muttered.
“What are you staking?” Enders demanded again.
The comte held up one finger, and cut a swift glance at the footmen. “Tufton,” he barked, “is Mademoiselle Marchand still in her sitting room?”
The servant looked startled. “I’m sure I couldn’t say, sir.”
“Mon dieu, just go find her!” Valigny ordered.
“Are . . . are you sure, my lord?”
“Yes, damn you,” snapped the comte. “What business is it of yours? Dépêchez-vous!”
The footman yanked open the door and vanished.
“Insolent bastard,” muttered the comte. He ordered the remaining servant to refresh everyone’s drink, then began to pace the parlor’s carpet. Calvert, too, was looking ill-at-ease. The hand still lay untouched.
“I don’t know what sort of stunt this is meant to be, Valigny,” Enders complained as his glass was filled. “Rothewell and I are winning, so we actually have something left to lose. Your next wager had best prove undeniably tempting.”
The comte glanced back over his shoulder. “Oh, it will, my lord,” he said silkily. “It will. Do I not understand your tastes and your—shall we say appetites?”
“Just who the devil is this Marchand person?” asked Rothewell impatiently.
“Ah, who is she indeed!” The comte returned to the table, and lifted his glass as if to propose a toast. “Why, she is my lovely daughter, Lord Rothewell. My half-English bastard child. Surely the old gossip is not yet forgotten?”
“Your daughter!” Enders interjected. “Good God, man. At a card game?”
“Indeed, you go too far, Valigny,” said Rothewell, studying the depths of his brandy. “A gently bred girl has no business in here.”
Their host lifted one shoulder again. “Oh, not so gently, mon ami,” he replied dispassionately. “The girl has spent the whole of her existence in France—with that bitch of a mother who bore her. She has seen enough of life.”
Enders’s eyes flared wide. “Do you mean to say this is the child of Lady Calburne?” he demanded. “Are you quite mad?”
“No, but you may become so when you see her.” Valigny’s face broke into that all too familiar grin. “Vraiment, mes amis, this one is her mother’s child. Her face, her teeth, her breasts—oui, everything is perfection, you will see. All she needs is a man to put her in her place—and keep her there.”
“A beauty, eh?” Enders’s expression had shifted, and when he spoke, his voice was thicker. “How young is she?”
“A bit older than you might prefer,” admitted Valigny. “But she could prove amusing nonetheless.”
“Then perhaps,” said Enders softly, “you had best explain precisely what you are offering us here, Valigny.”
Just then, the parlor door burst open. “An excellent suggestion,” said the girl who stalked toward the comte. In the gloom beyond the table, she made a sweeping gesture toward the guests. “Just what are you trying to accomplish, Valigny? Tell me. Tell them.”
The comte replied in rapid, staccato French. Rothewell could not make out the words, but Valigny’s expression had suddenly soured. Her back half-turned to them, the girl let fly another torrent of words, shaking her finger in the comte’s face. Her voice was deep and faintly dusky—a sultry bedroom voice that made a man’s skin heat.
“Sacrebleu!” the girl finally spat. “Do as you wish. What do I care?” Then she made an angry gesture with her hand, spun round on one heel, and swished toward the table. At once, Enders sucked a sharp breath between his teeth.
It was understandable. Once again, Valigny did not lie. A strange mix of lust and longing stabbed through Rothewell, an almost visceral desire. The girl—the woman—was exquisite beyond words. Her dark eyes flashed with fire, and her chin was up a notch.
In the dim light her complexion appeared surprisingly rich, her hair almost black. She was tall, too. As tall as Valigny, whom she seemed in that moment to tower over. But it was an illusion. She was simply furious.
Rothewell pushed away his brandy. He did not like his reaction to the woman. “Kindly explain yourself, Valigny.”
The comte gave a theatrical bow. “I meet your wagers, mes amis,” he announced, “with one very beautiful, very rich bride. I trust I need not sit her upon the table?”
“You must be mad,” Rothewell snapped. “Get her out of here. We are none of us fit company for a lady, drunk and disreputable as we are—even I know that much.”
The comte opened his hands. “But my dear Lord Rothewell, I have a plan.”
“Oui, a plan of great brilliance!” the girl interjected, lifting her skirts just a fraction so that she might execute a deep, mocking curtsey. “Allow me to begin anew. Bonsoir, messieurs. Welcome to the home of my most gracious and devoted papa. I comprehend that I am now to go—how do you say it?—upon the auction block, oui? Alas, I am une mégère—a frightful shrew, you would say—and my English is thick with the French. But I am very rich,”—she pronounced it reesh—“and passable to look at, no? Alors, who will make my loving papa the first bid? I am but a horse on the hoof, messieurs, awaiting your pleasure.”
“Come now, mon chou!” her father chided. “That is too brown, even for you!”
“Jen e pense pas!” snapped the girl.
Rothewell scrubbed his hand around the black stubble of his beard, which was ample given the lateness of the hour. He was not accustomed to being the only sane person in a room. Valigny was still looking remarkably pleased with himself. The woman had gone to the sideboard and was pouring herself a dram of brandy as if it were nothing out of the ordinary, but her hand, Rothewell saw, was shaking when she replaced the stopper in the crystal decanter.
Rothewell turned to glance at Enders, but he was ogling the girl, his thick lips still slack. A lecher without shame. But was he any better? No, for he’d scarce taken his eyes off the woman from the moment she’d entered the room. Her mouth could easily obsess him, and that raspy voice of hers sent heat into places it had no business.
Why, then, did Enders trouble him so? Why did he wish to reach over and shove that lolling tongue back in his mouth? Rothewell cut a swift glance down, and realized beneath the table, Enders’s hand was already easing up and down the fall of his trousers.
Good God. This was a travesty.
“Look here, Valigny,” said Rothewell gruffly, “I came to get drunk and play cards, not to—”
“What’s she worth?” Enders abruptly interjected. “And I’ll brook none of her insolence, Valigny, so she can put that shrew business aside right now. Just tell me how much this leg-shackle will bring me if I win her.”
Win her. The words sounded ugly, even to Rothewell’s ear.
“As I say, the girl is well-dowered,” the comte reassured him. “Her worth will more than meet anything we’ve put upon that table tonight.”
“Do you think us complete fools?” said Enders. “Calburne divorced his wife. She didn’t have a pot to piss in by the time he was finished.”
Valigny opened his hands expressively. “Oui, ’tis true,” he acknowledged. “But one must ask, my dear Lord Enders—why did Calburne marry her in the first place, hein? It was because she was an heiress! Cotton mills! Coal mines! Mon dieu, none knows this better than I.”
“I’m not sure we care, Valigny,” said Rothewell.
“You might soon come to care, mon ami,” the comte suggested lightly. “Because, you see, a bit of it has been left to the girl. She is the last blood of her mother’s family. But first she must find a husband—an English husband, and a man of the—how do you say it?— le sang bleu?”
“A blueblood,” muttered Rothewell. “Christ Jesus, Valigny. She is your child.”
“Oui, and do not the English always barter away their daughters to be bred like mares?” The comte laughed, drew out his chair, and sat. “I am just doing it openly.”
“You are a pig, Valigny,” said his daughter matter-of-factly from the sideboard. “Skinny, oui, but still the pig.”
“And that would make you what, mon chou?” he snapped. “A piglet, n’est-ce pas?”
Calvert, who had until now remained silent, cleared his throat harshly. “Now see here, Valigny,” he said. “If I am to be banker, I cannot proceed without Mademoiselle Marchand’s agreement.”
Again, the comte laughed. “Oh, she will agree—won’t you, mon chou?”
At that, the girl hastened from the sideboard, and leaned across the table, eyes blazing. “Ma foi, I will agree!” she said, pounding her fist upon the table so hard the glasses jumped. “One of you haggard old roués marry me—immédiatement!—before I kill him. Neither of you could be worse.”
Enders began to laugh, a nasal, braying sound, like an ass with a head cold. “A saucy piece, isn’t she, Valigny? Yes, amusing indeed.”
The girl moved as if to rise, but suddenly, she caught Rothewell’s gaze, and their eyes locked. He waited for her to pull away, but she stared boldly. Her eyes were wide, limpid pools of black-brown rage, and some other inscrutable emotion. Just what was it that lurked hidden there? A challenge? Pure hatred? Whatever it was, it at least served one purpose. It kept Rothewell from looking directly down at the creamy swell of cleavage which seemed destined to spill from her bodice.