Table of Contents
Praise for Emma Wildes
“Of all the authors I’ve read, I believe Emma Wildes to be my hands-down favorite. . . . Ms. Wildes has once again shown her ability to present new variations of romance in all of its infinite forms. Be prepared to feel your passions grow as you read the beautifully written love scenes.”
—Just Erotic Romance Reviews
“Emma Wildes has an amazing flair for taking what could be considered controversial subject matter and turning it into a beautiful love story that has the reader cheering for the characters . . . it is a truly rare and remarkable talent.”
“Unique, masterfully written, and engaging story lines coupled with fascinating characters are what every reader can expect from Emma Wildes. For fans of historical and Regency romance, look no further. Ms. Wildes possesses a beautiful, flowing writing style that transports her readers to another time as the sights and sounds come to life around them. My expectations are exceeded every time I read one of her books!”—TwoLips Reviews
“Chock-full of mysteries, torrid romances, unforgettable characters . . . delightfully fun and wicked.”
“ ‘Sexy and enchanting’ aptly describes Wildes’s latest . . . this is delightful reading from beginning to end.”
“Erotic romance at its finest. Emma Wildes skillfully combines an intriguing plot, vibrant characters, and toe-curling sex. . . . Perfection.”—Fallen Angel Reviews
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Copyright © Katherine Smith, 2009
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eISBN : 978-1-101-02885-8
For Chris, for all the times you have taken the trouble to not disturb me at my desk. Flowers are romantic, a bottle of wine is nice, but
is the definition of thoughtful. So, you see, I did notice.
I’d like to extend my heartfelt thanks to Barbara Poelle. You are fantastic in every way possible. Thanks also to Becky Vinter for being such a gracious and talented editor. You two fabulous ladies made this process a joy.
Ascot Racecourse, 1812
The horses thundered down the stretch amid the roars of The crowd and moments later Nicholas Manning, the sixth Duke of Rothay, won again with his spectacular black. His stable of racers, in fact, had swept the day so far.
Not much of a surprise.
There was no doubt about it; the man had a magic touch when it came to horses, and, rumors were, even more skill when it came to women.
It was easy to believe. Caroline Wynn watched him head through the stands toward his private box, his legendary smile flashing at the well wishes from friends. The duke had a particular brand of flagrant handsomeness that coupled stark masculinity with splendid classical bone structure and dramatic dark coloring. He was also tall and athletically built, and moved with natural ease as he went up the stairs, no doubt looking forward to celebrating his victories. He was dressed with casual elegance in a navy tailored coat, buff breeches, and polished boots, the ebony silk of his hair contrasting with the dazzling white of his perfectly tied cravat.
“Rothay certainly looks pleased with himself,” Melinda Cassat murmured, fanning herself vigorously against the late-afternoon heat. Small dark brown curls moved around her face with each flick of her wrist. Where they sat was shaded by a small striped awning, but there wasn’t so much as a breeze. The cloudless sky was a clear, deep cobalt blue.
“He won, so why shouldn’t he be pleased?” Caroline watched his tall form disappear into the box with a faint quiver in the pit of her stomach.
What am I doing?
“It isn’t like he needs the money. The man is rich as Croesus.” Melinda pushed a tendril of wayward hair off her neck and pursed her mouth. “Of course, betting on a horse race is far less scandalous than the latest rumor of his escapades. Have you heard about it?”
Glad the warmth of the sun could account for the flush in her cheeks, Caroline lied outright. “No. Whatever are you talking about?”
An avid gossip, Melinda looked delighted at the question. She leaned forward, her brown eyes narrowed conspiratorially. Her plump bosom heaved as she took a quick breath. “Well, it seems . . . or so they say, you know . . . that the bonny duke and his close friend Lord Manderville, who, as you’ve heard, is heir to his father’s reputation as a rake of the first order, have made some outrageous bet on which one of them is the best lover.”
“Really?” Caroline wore what she hoped was a very bland expression.
Her friend’s face was alight with excitement and intrigue. “Can you believe it?”
“Are you certain it is true? I mean, my dear, this is London, and this is the
. Not every rumor is gospel. You know as well as I that most of them are patent falsehoods or at least exaggerations.”
“Yes, but I understand they aren’t denying it. The wager is duly recorded in the books at White’s and the bets on who will win are now piling up in record quantity. They’re ever treading the edge of scandal, but the two of them have truly outdone themselves this time.”
Caroline watched the jockeys mount up for the last race. “How on earth could anyone prove such an absurd thing? At the very least the outcome must be subjective. After all, if they are placing a bet on which one of them is the best lover, who is the judge in all this?”
“Well, my dear, that’s the truly scandalous part. They need an impartial critic. All of fashionable society is speculating on who she will be.”
“That’s a bit barbaric, isn’t it? She would have to agree to be intimate with . . . well, both of them, I suppose. Good heavens.”
Melinda looked at her in open amusement. “I would expect you to say that, since you are so prudish. I don’t know if it is barbaric precisely, but it is certainly beyond the pale, even for such celebrated rogues. However, even more bets are being made over how quickly they can find someone suitable to consent to sample what each one has to offer. It’s madly wicked, but two of the most handsome men in England would do their utmost to pleasure the chosen party. Imagine what’s in store for the lady who agrees.”
Well, she was quite aware of her cool and standoffish reputation, but still, being called prudish made Caroline feel defensive. “I am not exactly some withered-up old matron. I can understand why a woman would succumb to a handsome, charming man capable of effortless seduction. Certainly those two would qualify, as they have reputedly practiced enough.”
“Indeed they have, and I have never implied you are old or withered—quite the opposite.” Her friend sighed with dramatic emphasis. “But you are not very approachable, Caroline. I know you have put up shields since your marriage and Edward’s death, but quite honestly, you need to let yourself live again. If you wanted, half of London would be prostrate at your feet, darling. You are young and beautiful.”
“It’s true. Men would be lining up with flowers and sonnets. There’s no reason for you to languish in unwedded solitude.”
to marry again.” It was completely true. Once had been quite enough. Once had been more than enough.
“Not every man is like Edward.”
Abstractly Caroline watched the horses line up and heard the pistol retort before they lunged forward. She certainly hoped not every man was like her late husband, she thought as the magnificent animals instinctively shot forward, for soon the rakish duke would be reading her note.
his is interesting.” Nicholas muttered the words and reached for the brandy decanter, dashing a large measure in the crystal snifter at his elbow. He plunked down the bottle and scanned the piece of vellum in his hand again. A return to London after an exacting but triumphant day of the sport of kings had him in a fine mood, mellowed by both victory and the resulting celebration. A retreat to his study seemed to be in order. It was in many ways his sanctuary, even if he did spend an inordinate amount of time working there.
It reminded him of his father, and perhaps it was because of a maudlin side of him he wouldn’t admit to anyone, but he hadn’t changed a thing. The same rug covered the polished floor, faded on one side from the sun slanting through the mullioned window, and the desk was just as cluttered. Books in the oak cases set next to the fireplace produced the familiar musty odor of gently decaying leather and yellowing paper.