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Rhonda Woodward

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Moonlight and Mischief

Rhonda Woodward

 

 

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Penguin Books Ltd., Registered Offices: 80 Strand, London WC2R 0RL, England

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental. The publisher does not have control over and does not have any responsibility for author or third-party websites or their content.

MOONLIGHT AND MISCHIEF

An InterMix Book / published by arrangement with the author

PUBLISHING HISTORY

Signet Books edition / December 2004

InterMix eBook edition / January 2013

Copyright © 2004 by Rhonda Woodward.

Excerpt from
Lady Emma’s Dilemma
copyright © 2005 by Rhonda Woodward.

All rights reserved.

No part of this book may be reproduced, scanned, or distributed in any printed or electronic form without permission. Please do not participate in or encourage piracy of copyrighted materials in violation of the author’s rights. Purchase only authorized editions.

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ISBN: 978-1-101-56808-8

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T
O
H
EIDI
O
WENS

for believing

Chapter One

1816

“By damn. Queens, you say,” Lord Haverstone drawled, tossing down three jacks with a flick of his wrist.

Across the table, Lord Brampton stared down at the playing cards with a dumbstruck expression. Swallowing several times, he slumped back in his chair with his mouth open.

“I won?” Even with the evidence before him, Lord Brampton could not quite believe that he had finally come out the victor in this intense game of chance.

Leaning casually back in his chair, Lord Haverstone looked past Lord Brampton to the awed expressions of the keenly attentive gentlemen standing around the table. They, like Brampton, continued to stare in surprise at the haphazardly splayed cards.

Picking up a heavy crystal goblet, Lord Haverstone drank the last of a very fine brandy. Soon, a murmur grew among the small crowd of bucks crammed into this corner of White’s. No one could recall Stone, as he was familiarly known, ever losing a significant amount of money at cards.

And it is a rather significant sum,
he thought, disliking the unfamiliar feeling of self-disgust. His luck and wits had rarely failed him, but he had to own that he had been reckless in the last few hands.
Well, good fortune cannot run forever,
he mused, philosophically dismissing his disappointment over the loss.

“I really won?” Brampton asked again. His bushy gray eyebrows came together in surprise.

An ironic smile came to Stone’s lips as he pushed his chair back and rose from the table. “It would appear so, Brampton. May I call upon you in the morning to settle the matter?”

Not surprisingly, Stone did not have the prodigious sum of seventeen thousand pounds on his person.

Brampton dragged his gaze from the cards still resting on the highly polished table to look at the earl with shock-glazed eyes.

“Pardon? Oh! Yes, at your convenience, Stone,” Brampton said, turning his dazed attention back to the table.

Some of the blades who had witnessed this unprecedented event laughed a little in understanding of Brampton’s reaction.

Giving a jaunty salute, Stone moved through the parting crowd, noting wryly that it looked as if the entire membership of the club had witnessed the last few hands.

The ever-alert majordomo met him near the door with his hat, walking stick, and gloves.

Taking his time, Stone pulled on his gloves and made sure his hat rested upon his head at his preferred angle before leaving the club and stepping into the misty night.

He was several strides down the narrow, dimly lit street when his senses alerted him of footsteps approaching from behind.

After a few more yards, he whipped around to confront whoever had the nerve to sneak up on him on the darkened street.

Beneath the yellowish glow of a streetlamp stood a startled young man. Although Stone found the younger man’s face familiar, he could not quite recall his name.

“My apologies, my lord, I-I was about to announce my presence,” the young man said in a quick, nervous voice.

Stone perused the young man’s features for another moment. Now he recalled him standing among the bucks who had watched the tensely charged battle of skill and luck several moments ago.

If memory served, this nervous-looking buck was the son of a wealthy tradesman. Town seemed to be full of such creatures this Season. However, this young man had not seemed such an encroaching mushroom as some of the others.

“You wanted to speak to me?” Stone did not bother to keep the edge from his tone. He was in no humor to give consequence to overly familiar pups.

“Y-yes, my lord. I wanted to say that I am sorry that you lost.”

Stone allowed his frown to deepen. “Your name, sir?” He watched as the younger man swallowed hard.

“I am Steven Thorncroft, my lord,” he said as he performed a passable bow.

Stone shifted to casually lean on his ivory-tipped walking stick, and his cold gaze held Thorncroft’s for a silent moment. “Permit me to give you a bit of advice, Mr. Thorncroft. Never console a gambler on his losses.”

Even in the poorly lit street, he could see the flush come to Thorncroft’s cheeks. Although Stone was satisfied with the wince that crossed the younger man’s features, annoyance flashed through him when Thorn-croft made no move to depart.

“Thank you. I will remember.”

Despite the exceedingly late hour, a few other pinks of the
ton,
on horseback or in carriages, passed them. Stone turned to take his leave when the young man quickly spoke up.

“There was one other matter that I would speak to you about, my lord, if you would be so kind as to give me another moment.”

Stone’s innate politeness halted his progress. “Yes?”

“The Season is almost at an end, and although I have no doubt that you will be occupied in the coming months, I would like to extend an invitation for you to come to a house party at my parents’ estate in Chippenham.”

At Mr. Thorncroft’s rushed speech, a dark, finely arched brow rose over one of Stone’s light blue eyes. Examining the younger man more closely, Stone had a strong suspicion that he was holding his breath.

“Egad, are you foxed?” Stone drawled, mentally recanting his earlier assessment that Thorncroft was not an encroaching mushroom.

The younger man gave a choked, nervous laugh. “I am a bit, or I would never have the nerve to ask you. You see, my lord, when I saw you lose such a vast sum, I immediately thought of my sister.”

At this odd comment Stone almost guffawed. “Why? Does she go about losing fortunes as well?”

“No. She hates gambling,” Mr. Thorncroft said quickly. “I thought of her because not only is she quite pretty, but my father has settled an enormous sum upon her. More than enough to recoup a fortune lost in gambling.”

At this singularly unique explanation, Stone so forgot himself that his usually unreadable mask slipped. He found himself staring at Mr. Thorncroft in complete astonishment.

“Damn me, are you offering your sister as a way to save me from ruin?”

“Not until the two of you have a look at each other,” Thorncroft said, taking the question seriously. “Under the circumstances, I did not think it would hurt to ask. But I beg your pardon if you feel I am overstepping myself.”

The sheer unabashed, yet somehow self-effacing, cheek of the invitation disarmed Stone completely. Suddenly his chest began to rumble with laughter. At the baffled look that came to Thorncroft’s features, Stone tried to restrain his amusement, but he failed. He could not recall finding anything so droll in recent memory.

Deep, genuine laughter shook his shoulders for some moments before his mirth subsided enough to respond to the young man.

“Thorncroft, our encounter has been an unexpected pleasure. Unfortunately, I have plans for the next few months, but I will be hosting a house party of my own at Heaton in the fall. It would be my greatest pleasure if you would bring your sister and stay for the whole six weeks.” He suspected that Mr. Thorncroft would prove quite an antidote. No doubt his friends would find the pup as amusing as he did.

The look of shock and joy that came over Thorncroft’s face softened Stone’s amusement. He thought the younger man looked the way old Brampton had some minutes ago.

“We—we would be truly honored, my lord. This is most kind of you,” Thorncroft stated in a rush.

“Excellent. I shall take my leave of you, Thorncroft. I look forward to seeing you at Heaton the first of October.”

With his look of surprised pleasure increasing, Thorncroft made a flourishing bow. “Thank you, my lord. Until October.”

Lord Haverstone turned and strode up the street before Mr. Thorncroft had the time to complete his bow.

BOOK: Rhonda Woodward
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