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BOOK: Cheryl Holt
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“A reparation that would be more likely to”—he paused, winked—“tickle my fancy.”

Over in the corner, he could see Ian stir, uneasy with the sudden tenor of the conversation, but he knew his brother. If Ian had any qualms about what John was doing, he’d voice his misgivings when they were alone.

Unfortunately for Miss Fitzgerald, she wasn’t familiar with John’s penchant for mischief, nor did she realize how adept he was at impudence. Her face was an open book, and he could effortlessly read what was written there: It was gradually occurring to her that he was making an inappropriate advance.

Impertinent as any princess, she inquired, “What—precisely—are you suggesting?”

“You have only one asset that might be of any value to a man such as myself.”

Shamefully, he let his prurient regard travel over her torso, lingering on every delightful spot, then he meandered back up till their stormy gazes locked.

“Lord Wakefield, you’re making a . . . a . . . lewd proposition to me.”

“Naturally. What else do you have to offer?”

As he’d anticipated, she gasped. “You would steal my virtue, in order to . . . to . . . erase the debts of my neighbors?”

“You’re quite fetching,” he said bluntly, as if he seduced chaste women as a hobby, “and it’s been a long while since I’ve had a country lass. I imagine I’ll be enormously entertained.”

Horridly affronted, she scowled. “I do believe that’s the most offensive comment anyone has ever uttered in my presence.”

“I’m sure it is.” He shrugged, laughed facilely. “I’m
renowned for my reprehensible conduct. I have a base character, I’m afraid.”

“You are an unmitigated lecher.”

“Without a doubt.”

He’d presumed that she’d be unnerved, outraged, or aghast, but she wasn’t eliciting anywhere near the indignation he might have predicted. His Miss Fitzgerald was made of stern stuff. Time to raise the stakes. To have her running from the room in a cloud of repugnance and loathing.

“I don’t know how well versed you are at dalliance, but I’m infamous for my abilities as a lover. I can guarantee that you’ll be satisfied.”

He imbued the word
satisfied
with as much inflection as he could, drawing it out so that even the most sheltered virgin couldn’t help but get the general drift of his intent.

“Are you planning for us to lie down together as man and wife?”

“Yes. But not just once. I’d have to require numerous assignations before I’d be fully compensated.” Furrowing his brow, he pretended to mull a commensurate recompense. “How about one tryst for each person on your list? That ought to make us come out about even.”

“You’re actually saying . . . you deem me to be the sort of woman who would . . . you assume that I might acquiesce in . . .”

He smiled. She was so unschooled that she had no vocabulary to describe his sordid overture. This was going much better than he’d conjectured. A few more deftly delivered insults, and he’d be shed of her forever.

“And don’t forget, if you please me, there’ll be a little extra in it for you. Any of my mistresses can tell you that I’m generous when contented. I especially like to give gifts of jewelry.”

The last statement was a bit much, but he wanted to send her into a frenzy of moral wrath. He braced for a furious slap, or a shriek of disgust, or a sob of despair, but to his out-and-out consternation, she did nothing of what he’d foreseen.

Instead, she initiated an intimate survey of her own, and it was much more torrid, and much more thorough than the visual tour he’d just taken of her anatomy. She journeyed down to his chest, to his stomach. Lower, to his groin, where his unruly phallus had the audacity to swell under her examination, enough so to bulge and make his trousers unaccountably tight.

Boldly, she tarried there, evaluating length and girth, then her ardent appraisal rolled back up, fixating on his mouth, giving it such an avid inspection that he flushed.

Roaming those final few inches, her eyes linked with his, once again, and she smiled, too, a sly, shrewd feminine smile that had him frantically questioning what he’d set in motion.

“Why not?” she consented, out of the blue. “How vile could it be? And if you’re half as good as you claim, it might even be fun.”

C
HAPTER
T
HREE

E
MMA
maintained a straight face, delighted that she could exude calm under such blazing scrutiny. As her acquiescence was not what he’d expected, Wakefield was confounded and flabbergasted, and nervously fidgeting—as though wondering if she was about to ravish him.

Warily, he kept peeking over at his brother, wishing the other Clayton in the room would rescue him from his folly, but the man judiciously chose to stay out of the debacle.

She wasn’t sure when she’d deduced that Wakefield wasn’t serious about his solicitation, but no one could be that despicable! Somewhere in the middle of his asinine performance, she’d realized that he was trying to ferment a surge of maidenly umbrage that would chase her away. Unfortunately for him, she was no shrinking violet and refused to go peacefully.

For some reason, she understood much more about him than she ought, and her excess of insight had nothing to do with the fact that she’d already seen him mostly naked and participating in a sexual rendezvous.

He was magnificent, extraordinary, unlike any person she’d ever met before. His charisma and elegance were sweeping over her like a tidal wave, making her eager to linger in his presence as long as he would allow.

Surprisingly, he wasn’t the devil that she and others had painted him to be, but an outrageously handsome,
sophisticated, and fascinating man. Deplorably, the animosity she’d intended to harbor toward him had vanished, only to be replaced by curiosity. She was intrigued and enthralled, their pithy discussion the sole bright repartee in which she’d engaged in ages.

There was an odd connection between them. She’d sensed it the moment she’d stepped into the room, and he’d focused his amazing blue eyes upon her. When she’d been spying on him from outside the house, she’d noticed those eyes, but she hadn’t been prepared for how mesmerizing they were up close. She felt as if she could stare into their azure depths and see all the way to his soul.

Regrettably, what she’d discovered wasn’t very encouraging.

He thrived on acting the part of a knave. He liked people to think he was a cad, an amoral villain, which he clearly could be, but he’d flaunted his dissolution until he’d displayed it so frequently that others assumed he really was a perpetual scapegrace.

Though he rigorously strove to hide any stellar attributes, deep down, he was a principled gentleman. His ethics—if one could call them that—had a bizarre twist that might take some acclimation. She had to comprehend what drove him so that she could ascertain how to finesse him. By appealing to his more honorable nature, she could get him to do what needed to be done.

All sorts of cordial relationships developed between the most diverse types of people, and she was optimistic enough to suppose that there was some purpose to her meeting the wanton scoundrel. Both for him and for her. Her peculiar cognizance as to his character quirks would be a boon, and being that he was a typical male, he’d never suspect that she was using him to accomplish her own objectives.

Though he’d tried to hide his response, he’d been shocked and dismayed when she’d mentioned Mr. Gladstone’s plight, a glaring indication that he had a conscience. He could provide tremendous support to the community, if he was cleverly lured in the right direction—but she couldn’t pressure him if she didn’t spend any time with him.

He was short-tempered and intelligent, but easily distracted by vice and debauchery, and he didn’t tolerate insubordination. No one talked back to him, contradicted him, or repudiated his absurd opinions. He was extremely impressed with himself and his exalted position, and he was smarting from her astute remarks and observations, so he wouldn’t condescend to suffer her company again, unless she took exceptional measures to protract their acquaintance.

She’d quickly assessed her situation: If she wanted extended opportunities to fraternize, he had to be persuaded that she could occupy his hours as enticingly as any doxy. Unless he could be convinced that their association would be amusing, he’d bar her from the manor, and thus, she wouldn’t be able to work her wiles.

She was an expert at getting men to do what they should, at prevailing upon them to embrace their responsibilities. Why, just the previous week, she’d induced a village boy to marry a girl who’d needed a husband. She was adept at the utilization of manipulation and ruse in order to effect her ends for the greater good. She’d learned her tricks from her father, who’d been proficient at subtle coercion.

Wakefield was no different from any other man. He could be led, he could be pushed, he could be downright shoved, and she was more than willing to be the one doing the shoving. So long as, at the conclusion, she got
him to revoke the evictions, and it hadn’t occurred to her that she wouldn’t prevail.

She couldn’t have been a vicar’s daughter for nearly three decades without absorbing some of her father’s teachings: On every occasion,
right
was destined to triumph over
wrong
.

If she had to consent to an affair, she would, but that didn’t mean she had to follow through. Her goals were lofty and just, and she would promise him anything—even wild, deviant sex acts—if it would garner her the appointments she would need to dissuade him. She would tease and flirt, and constantly lead him to believe that he was about to seduce her, but he would never succeed, though he didn’t need to know that.

While normally, she was an honest, candid individual, who wouldn’t dream of lying or enmiring herself in falsehoods, she was looking him in the eye and prevaricating with nary a ripple in her rectitude. As he shouldn’t have raised the repugnant proposal in the first place, she didn’t have any reservations about deceiving him.

If she later recanted, so what? No one would cry foul. He didn’t dare tell anyone what he’d done, and assuredly, she would never confess. If by some stroke of bad luck, their accord became public knowledge, there wasn’t a person alive who would reprimand her for declining to yield to the craven aristocrat, although she had to admit that she wouldn’t complain too loudly should a small amount of
yielding
actually happen.

She wouldn’t consider their arrangement a total failure if she managed to steal a few kisses before their transaction ended. What female would lament being kissed by such an insolent rogue?

Not herself, certainly.

She’d been kissed before—passionately and many
times—and she’d liked it. Too much. So much so that she’d frightened herself and had not attempted such frivolity again.

The autumn of lusting
, she’d invariably referred to it.

She’d been seventeen when a crew of traveling thrashers had journeyed through to help bring in the harvest, and she’d been smitten by one of the field laborers. Charlie had been a totally inappropriate sort, a burly, strapping lad, who’d oozed charm and virility, and she hadn’t had the strength to resist his allure.

For an entire week, she’d sneaked out in the night to be with him. He’d been a randy boy, and his enthusiastic kisses had stirred such unremitting corporeal torment that she still wasn’t sure she’d recovered from them.

After that brief capriciousness, she’d shunned male company, devoting herself to aiding her father in his ministry. In the process, she’d deprived herself of the likelihood of further bodily transgression. Her self-imposed, eternal chastity was a penance for the sins she’d committed.

But in the night, when she lay in her lonely bed, she’d recall that superb episode, and how it had felt to be a woman. Even after all these years, she could graphically recollect the splendor that ardor engendered and, as she’d once proven herself to have such a weak moral constitution, she’d always suspected that she might impetuously seize the opportunity again should any dapper-looking fellow be bold enough to indicate any interest.

A fellow such as Wakefield, for instance. She’d never encountered anyone like him before, and probably never would again, so she couldn’t regret an ardent kiss or two.

And if he tried to turn them into something more,
she wasn’t worried about her ability to handle him. She wasn’t an adolescent girl who was out of control with physical yearning. She knew how to adamantly say no, and though he struggled mightily to pretend otherwise, she perceived the integrity lurking under his bitter outer shell. He would heed any restraints she imposed on his behavior.

He was standing so near, trying to intimidate her, that she could smell the starch in his shirt, the soap with which he’d bathed. There was an earthy odor about him, a mixture of fresh air, leather, and other manly aromas like tobacco and horses.

It called to the lusty, bawdy side of her secret self, the side she religiously strove to stifle and had only revealed to a potent itinerant field hand.

The sensations made her feel unencumbered and wicked, naughty and mischievous, a female who was disposed to revel in any debauchery.

In other words, a woman completely opposite from herself.

Shifting forward an inch or two, she narrowed the distance between them. Wakefield’s perplexity spiraled. He was so easy to read! He couldn’t figure her out, what she intended, or where his indecent approach was conveying him.

This was going to be so gratifying! And profitable for so many indigent folks.

“Now then,” she said, all business, “I’m sure you won’t blame me if I insist we put our pact into writing.”

She couldn’t say where the brilliant impulse had come from, but if she had his signature on an agreement, she was positive she could use the written record to coerce all manner of compliance from him.

“Into writing,” he stupidly repeated.

“No offense, milord, but you can see my point. I’d
be a fool to surrender my virtue on no more than a private conversation. If I succumbed to your copious charms, but you defaulted on your end of our bargain, what recourse would I have to compel your performance?”

BOOK: Cheryl Holt
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