Authors: Katharine Ashe
Tags: #Earl, #historical romance, #novel, #England, #Bluestocking, #Rake, #Paranormal, #fiction, #Romance, #Fantasy, #Rogue, #london, #sexy, #sensual, #Regency
Lady Corinna Mowbray has three passions: excellent books, intelligent conversation, and disdaining the libertine Earl of Chance.
Lord Ian Chance has three pleasures: beautiful women, fast horses, and tormenting high-and-mighty Corinna Mowbray.
Neighbors for years, they’ve been at each other’s throats since they can remember. But when a twist of fate forces them to trade lives, how long will it be before they discover they cannot live without each other?
To my husband, my son & my Idaho.
Thank you, beloveds. I am grateful for you beyond words.
“I think if desire were attacking me I’d feel it.
Surely he’s crept in and skillfully hurt me with secret art.
That’s it: a slender arrow sticks fast in my heart,
And cruel Love lives there, in my conquered breast.
Shall I give in? To go down fighting might bank the fires.”
, book I, elegy II
~ ~ ~
“Such civil war is in my love and hate.”
William Shakespeare, sonnet 35
London, October, 1822
MAN’S CONSTANT COMPANION.
As comfortable as a well-worn saddle. And yet, if uncontrolled, his torment.
Here in the London club where Ian Chance reclined, desire permeated the air. Palpable, hot, and thick, it dripped off crystal chandeliers like wax, curling around wisps of cheroot smoke in dusky clouds. The scents of musty tobacco, costly perfume, and brandy smoldered in the haze.
Some of the denizens of this gaming hell craved wealth. For some men, the thirst for guineas never diminished, no matter how plump the pockets. Others played only for the win, the intoxicating victory over other men. Yet others played for power and influence
the sort that came with a place in Parliament, a title, a ministry of state, the sort that fettered as it freed, trapped as it enticed.
But not all men sought triumph at the tables or advancement among their peers from this night’s prowl. For some, desire cut deeper—deeper than pride, than vanity, than the need for influence, gnawing into a man’s nexus, his groin. These men craved sex, lusting like spring rams over the demi-reps arrayed throughout the opulent house in fragrant silks and satins. Sophisticated women, some titled in their own rights. Still, demi-reps. A few of these tarnished gems would accompany the hungry hunters home tonight. A lucky handful of the gamblers seeking to dip their wicks in noble pots would find satisfaction before sunrise. And upon that dawn, wrapped in a fragrant feminine embrace, they would discover themselves caught.
Entirely free from all such constricting passions, yet as sublimely at ease in this den of vice as though he were in his own Mayfair house, the eighth Earl of Chance leaned back into a velvet-brocaded chair. Holding a glass of Otard in a hand trained from birth to rein and whip, he took it all in.
His chums enjoyed the thick of it: Stoopie, Stewart Holstein, Marquess Drake, someday to be Duke Holstein when the old duke finally gasped his last breath; and Jag, John Anthony Grace, baron of the same name. Stoopie threw his rubbery arm over the shoulders of one of the sweetest treats of the demimonde Ian had the pleasure to know both outside and in, but his attention seemed all for the faro table. Jag appeared focused on the play as well. But Ian had watched his friend an hour now, noting how his gaze strayed toward the merry, married Mrs. Rebecca Clark. A pretty bundle she was, all black curls and tempting curves. But just as Ian did not relish giving another man horns, his friend Jag shared the same sole inhibition.
Ian could not resist a pitying grin. Jag was besotted. Lost.
Idiot. Lusting after a married woman was a waste of time when so many willing widows peopled London’s drawing rooms, even the less-than-respectable drawing rooms such as this one. Lavishly appointed, though. Ian glanced at the ormolu clock on the broad Italian marble mantel. The hour was late already. The lovely, recently widowed Baroness of Weston would be waiting.
His attention slid across the murky room. His brother leaned against the back of a chair at the hazard table. Eight years Ian’s junior, Gregory had their mother’s looks, not the typical Chance black hair and clear blue eyes, but lighter locks and a darker gaze.
Gregory shifted his lean frame from the game and sauntered over, much too at ease in this setting, more than a downy lad of four-and-twenty should be. But Ian couldn’t complain. At least Greg hadn’t yet lost the family fortune at the tables. Of course, Ian would never allow that.
“Win anything tonight, little brother?” he drawled.
Gregory propped his buckled shoe on the footstool by Ian’s boots. “You know I have. You’ve been watching me as closely as you watched your colt win at Newmarket last week.” Gregory’s mouth twitched up. “Don’t think I can go it on my own yet, do you?”
“I haven’t an idea of what you can mean.” Ian cast an indolent eye at his brother’s fashionable footwear. “Been dancing, I see?”
“Came from a ball earlier. You recommended the cobbler shop where I bought these, if you recall. Never have occasion to wear your own sparklers, though, do you?”
“Revolutions may come, emperors, kings, regents, and statesmen too, but some reforms simply are never to be.”
“It doesn’t make a difference anyway,” Jag commented, moving beside Gregory. “The ladies don’t care whether you wear top boots to a ball or breeches to tea, Chance. You go calling so infrequently, they’ll do anything to entice you.”
Setting down his drink, Ian rose. “The only ladies I bother with, my friend, are those rather more interested in what lies beneath a man’s garments.”
Jag laughed, but his shoulders seemed stiff. Ian considered him beneath lowered lids. Too much elusive Mrs. Clark for one evening.
“Leaving so soon?” Stoopie stumbled toward them, his voice at thrice the volume of everyone else’s. By the flush on his round cheeks it seemed that he also enjoyed good fortune tonight. “Widow Weston awaits?” He leered lecherously.
The voluptuous blonde that Stoopie had momentarily abandoned at the faro table caught Ian’s gaze. She licked her red lips and winked. But Ian never grazed in the same field twice. More significantly, now she was under Drake’s protection.
“Will you depart with me, Greg,” he said, “or go along with these fellows later?”
“I’ll ride with you.”
“I’ll come too. Better to quit while I’ve still got a pony in my pocket.” With a final, swift glance at Mrs. Clark, Jag followed them to the door.
“Thursday at Jackson’s, Chance. Fight starts at four o’clock,” Drake slurred as he returned to the blonde and the game. Ian took his greatcoat from a footman and went onto the street. London lay heavy beneath the pall of late autumn fog, gaslights glowing, haunted orbs in the black.
“Putting your blunt on Left-Hand Luke, Chance?” Jag asked casually.
Ian climbed into his carriage upon which the Chance family crest glittered silver, black, and blue. “Seems wise. He bested the Gentleman’s protégé two months ago, if I recall.”
“Of course you recall.” Jag grinned. “Though wise isn’t a word I’d think you’d use in polite company.”
“Show me polite company and I vow to temper my speech.” He rapped on the roof. The carriage pulled smoothly from the curb into the empty street.
“Mother’s in town.” Gregory offered another modest smile.
“Polite company, indeed,” Jag murmured.
“The both of you be hanged. She’s putting up with Aunt Mirabel, I daresay, rather than lodging with me. What is her project this time?” Ian asked his brother. “Orphans on the wharfs or prostitutes in the City?”
“Neither. This time she’s patron of an exhibition opening at the museum annex tomorrow.”
Ian’s lip curled. “Art?”
“Greek statuary,” Gregory said, his mouth tight. But his throat wobbled.
“Laugh all you wish, little brother. Your teasing fails to rouse me.”
“You have the fair Lady Weston for that,” Jag noted.
“Mother expects you to attend.”
Ian’s brow dipped. “An art exhibition? Surely you jest, my boy.”
Gregory shook his head, eyes dancing from within the shadows.
“Perhaps she hopes you’ll finally get a bit of culture, Chance.” Jag folded his arms across his chest with supreme confidence. He oughtn’t to look so smug. Ian and his friend were of a height and weight, both a head taller than Stoopie, though rather heavier in muscle compared to the marquess’s excess padding. And they’d sparred together enough times to prove they were well matched. If Grace piqued him sufficiently, he could take him.
But little ever piqued Ian. He smiled. “She has hoped the same for two and thirty years, my friend. Tomorrow’s foray into marble busts of dead generals and senators won’t accomplish the feat, I fear.”
“I believe the statues are mostly of gods,” Gregory interjected. “Female gods.”
“Oh?” Ian lifted his brows. “Well, then, I am indebted to my dear mother for endeavoring to educate me beyond my university toils.”
“Toils that included climbing the exterior of Christ Church in the middle of the night, relieving the dean’s daughter of her petticoat, and racing your thoroughbreds along the Cherwell on a dare.”
“Had to do something to lessen the tedium.”
“Don’t know how you managed to make marks, Chance,” Jag said.
“No doubt through my winning looks and boyish charm.” And countless nights without sleep, hidden in a corner of the library crammed with so many books no one would have ever thought to look there for the careless, hedonistic heir to the Chance earldom. Hellish nights that Ian did not care to remember.
Gregory fidgeted with the window sash. “Did you see Sparks there tonight?”
“He invited me to play piquet.”
Jag shook his head. “Don’t get into it with Sparks, Greg. He’s a sharper.”
“He can’t be a sharper, Grace, if he’s inviting me to play with Ian sitting right in the room. And it was only piquet, for pity’s sake.”
“Boy has a point.”
“Ian.” Jag scowled, eyes shadowed beneath a thatch of dark gold hair.
“John,” Ian replied evenly.
Jag’s brow creased, but he leaned back onto the squabs, arms tight across his chest.
“I won’t play with him if you don’t think it’s a good idea, Ian,” Gregory said.
“Do as you wish, little brother. You’ve got twice the brain I have and five times the morality. Those ought to count for something at the tables.”
Gregory looked away uncomfortably, and Ian turned his attention again to the baron. Jag didn’t meet his gaze. Better that way. If the cub needed to mix with cardsharps and cutpurses a time or two to learn how to go along, Ian would allow it. He wouldn’t have his friends warning Gregory away. Those sorts of early clashes—and losses—had made him what he was today, thoroughly comfortable among the dirtiest players the
and anyone else London could dish up, and an inveterate winner.
And if for some reason Greg did not make it through such encounters, Ian would be there for him. At least one of the seventh Earl of Chance’s sons would not have to go it alone.
The carriage halted before his brother’s flat and Gregory descended. “See you tomorrow at Mother’s opening?”
Ian inclined his head. “I would not miss it for the world.”
“I’ll get off here too,” Jag said. “The walk will do me good, and I’ve no wish to stand in the way of your plans with the lovely Widow Weston.”
“You are all graciousness, sir.”
Jaw relaxing, Jag tipped his hat and shut the door. Sprung on clouds, with a pair of four-year-old goers even Ian couldn’t find fault with, the carriage shrugged into movement again. Within minutes he was stepping onto the street before an elegant house and giving his coachman orders to return in three hours.
The moment the Baroness of Weston met him in her parlor, he estimated three hours would be two-and-a-half too many.
“Good evening, Amabel.”
“Oh, Chance.” She pressed her rouge-reddened lips to his cheek and clutched at his arms. “Where have you been? You’re wretchedly late, and I have missed you.” Her lips sought his mouth. She tasted of whiskey and desperation. An unpromising combination, to be sure.
“You’ve cut your hair,” he said, setting his hands lightly on her waist. She never needed any encouragement, and plastered his jaw and neck with kisses. Ian’s groin stirred. Even with her golden locks shorn into little curls all about her head, Amabel Weston was a stunning woman. Ian preferred long hair, the kind that curled around a man’s waist and caressed his belly at precisely the opportune moment. But this eager beauty served the purpose well for the time being.
“Don’t you like it?” She pulled at his cravat. “Mirina Newhart had hers cut off last week and said everyone would be doing it soon enough. I couldn’t very well wait for that awful Harriet Davison to cut hers first, or I would be the laughingstock of town.”
“Never.” Ian drew the cravat from his neck and draped it over a chair. She unbuttoned his collar.
“But if you don’t like it, I will positively cut Mirina the next time I see her, which will be tomorrow, as she promised to take me to the park in her new carriage. It’s so sparkling new that the paint is practically still wet. And yellow. You know how I adore yellow.”
“How nice for Lady Newhart. I will remember to congratulate her on it when next we meet. And I do like your hair. It’s fetching.” The style accentuated the point of her chin and the pouting cast to her mouth. But she was still a diamond, and she cared for little but flattery and fashion.
Her face brightened, her hands pausing on his shirt button.
“Chance, would you buy me a yellow carriage if I asked? Or perhaps a phaeton? Just the other day Sally Jersey said that she must have a high perch phaeton.”
“Would you?” She wiggled up against him, her pendulous breasts teasing his chest through her gown’s thin fabric. Amabel never wore a corset or other undergarments when he met her after midnight. It left little to the imagination. But imagination was highly overrated.
“Would you buy a high perch phaeton for me?” she purred. “In yellow?”
“Yellow, puce, or Indian red, my dear, it is immaterial to me, although certainly I hope you will have what you wish.” He looked down at her. “But I believe the late Lord Weston left you with ample funds to purchase your own conveyance.”
A frown formed on her lovely face, her brow turning stormy.
“You won’t buy me a little gift? You are a beast.” Her chastisement lacked conviction.
He grasped her hand and placed it on his cock, then curled her fingers around it over the wool of his trousers. “Yes, I have been told that before.”
Her hand tightened, and she stroked. “You aren’t ever going to ask me to marry you, are you?” A whine lurked in her throat.
“I am not.” He released several fasteners at her back and peeled her bodice down. Her lips parted on a pretty groan as her hand moved up and down, fluid, practiced.
“You said you wouldn’t when we began this two months ago.” Her fingers worked on his trouser buttons, all the while her other hand working him. “I didn’t believe you then.” She freed his cock from his clothing. “I still don’t.”