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Authors: Jackie Barbosa

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Taking Liberties

BOOK: Taking Liberties
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Taking Liberties
Jackie Barbosa
 

London, 1795

Lady Leticia Blake has wealth, beauty and, most important of all, numerous marriage proposals. Tish knows precisely what she wants in a husband: a man who can fulfill her deepest, darkest and most unladylike fantasies. But as a respectable debutante, she has no means to test her admirers’ arts in the bedchamber. Not unless she turns the tables and takes liberties with
them
—starting with tempting Viscount Nash Langston….

Chapter One

London, 1795

Lady Leticia Blake was accounted by her peers to be the most fortunate of debutantes, the possessor of an embarrassment of riches in the form of wealth, wardrobe, winsomeness and, most important of all, wedding proposals. Rumor held that in her first Season she had received—and declined—no less the five offers of marriage, and a similar number in her second. Now, as her third Season prepared to draw to a close, what everyone, including her parents, wanted to know was when she would decide to piss or get off the pot.

Or so her father said as he paced the fine Turkish rug that graced the floor of his library.

“Now see here, lass,” the Marquess of Avingdon huffed, wagging an accusatory finger at Tish, who sat with her hands folded in her lap in one of the oversize armchairs, “I won’t mince words. Your mother and I have seen fit to give you free rein for three Seasons, but even my pockets aren’t deep enough to bankroll a fourth, especially since you’re no closer to choosing a husband now than you were on the day you curtsied for the bloody queen.”

His whiskered face had turned a rather unhealthy shade of red, and Tish experienced a pang of anxiety at the possibility he’d experience an apoplexy if he didn’t calm himself.

“That’s not true, Papa,” she said, hoping to appease him with a dose of reason and hard data. “I’m much closer now than I was when I debuted. After all, I know I don’t want to marry any of the men I’ve turned down.”

Unfortunately this observation seemed to have the opposite of the desired effect. “And a fine lot you’ve refused, too. Three earls, a duke’s brother and half a dozen other perfectly respectable gentlemen. Tell me, lass, of the ten or so you’ve still got trailing after your skirts, are there
any
you’d consider marrying?”

Tish looked down at the floor and chewed her upper lip. “Well, yes, but…”

Her father grabbed her chin and tilted her head so she was forced to look up into his angry blue eyes. “No buts. Choose one of them by the end of next week.”

“Next week?” The words came out on a squeak.

“Aye, lass.” His expression softened at her shock, however, and he gave her chin a gentle caress. “You’ve had plenty of time to decide what you want in a husband. If you don’t know by now, there’ll be naught for me to do but decide for you.”

Tish stared at her father in horror and confusion. “But you promised you’d let me choose my own husband.”

“And so I will, lass, provided you do so in the time I’ve allotted you.” He dropped a fond kiss on her nose and straightened. “And now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m expected in the Lords in half an hour.” He turned and marched out of the room without so much as a backward glance at his supposedly beloved daughter.

Tish wanted to argue that she knew
precisely
what she wanted in a husband, and that was exactly the problem. She wanted the kind of husband whose kiss would make her toes curl and her knees buckle, whose touch would cause her skin to tingle and her stomach to bottom out. One who could fulfill her deepest, darkest, most unladylike fantasies.

And oh, she had so many of those.

The trouble was that as a young lady of gentle breeding and good reputation, she faced the same dilemma as her sister: she had no means of testing the fitness of her candidates
but
talk. True, she could easily rule out those gentlemen who turned her stomach in entirely the wrong
way, but it was quite impossible to discern whether any of the handsomer gentlemen who paid her court might be “the one” when she spent her entire life under the watchful eye of one chaperone after another. Not to mention that all of her suitors seemed regrettably determined to behave like gentlemen, which meant they made no attempt to spirit her off to some private alcove or darkened garden path for the purpose of taking liberties with her person.

What she needed, she thought irritably, was to take liberties with
them
.

And that was when it came to her. The greatest idea in all history.

 

Viscount Nash Langston was already in a foul mood when he walked into White’s that afternoon. He’d received news yesterday that more than half the corn crop at his Lancashire estate was underwater due to flooding, and this morning he’d learned that a shipment of sugar cane in which he had invested had failed to arrive on schedule and was likely languishing at the bottom of the ocean floor. Neither loss would crush him financially, of course, but together they would place a substantial burden on his resources for the next year or so.

Not what a man in hot pursuit of the ton’s most sought-after debutante needed to improve his standing, either in her eyes or those of her parents.

Nash had come to the club with the intention of retiring to the back room and drowning his sorrows in imitation of his fortunes, but was swiftly diverted from his goal by the boisterous goings-on surrounding White’s notorious betting book. Under normal circumstances, he would have paid them no heed, for he found the subjects upon which his peers placed their wagers frivolous or dangerous or, as often as not, both. But today was different, because as he attempted to walk past the crush of bodies crowding around the book, he heard three words that stopped him dead in his tracks.

“…Lady Leticia Blake,” boomed Lord Gastonbury, who was unofficially in charge of collecting members’ markers when the wagers exceeded five hundred pounds. “Place your bets.”

What the bloody hell were they betting on that had to do with Tish Blake? Nash eyed the group of so-called gentlemen pressing Gastonbury and had a sick feeling he already knew the answer.

He sidled up to the only man in the room who seemed to have no interest in participating in the proceedings. Lord Colin Fitzgerald was a bit of an enigma, having only gained entrance to White’s upon his recent marriage to the former Lady Grace Hannington. The fact that he shared his wife with his close childhood friend was no secret, but since the influential dowager Countess Aberdeen had seen fit to shower the union with her blessings, no one felt it safe to give either of the Fitzgeralds the cut direct.

Nash for his part couldn’t care less whom Fitzgerald shared his wife with, provided he shared the information Nash wanted to know.

“What is the wager?” he asked his peer, attempting to appear mildly amused rather than genuinely interested.

Fitzgerald took a sip of the tawny liquid in the glass he held and sent Nash a bored look. “The Duke of Hapsborough has just put one thousand pounds on marrying Lady Leticia Blake before the end of the Season.”

Nash blinked slowly, once then twice. The answer came as no surprise, yet fury blurred his vision.

Hapsborough no more deserved Leticia Blake’s hand—or body—in marriage than he deserved to be named Chancellor of the Exchequer. Not only was the man a notorious
spendthrift, but he’d acquired a reputation among the demimondaine as a one-stroke wonder. “His grace comes as quickly as he goes,” they tittered when he wasn’t about to overhear. But if the typically cash-strapped duke was willing to place a wager of a thousand pounds on the prospects for their union, he must be damned sure of them. That meant Nash’s prospects had been correspondingly weakened.

Damn it, he’d been so sure he was making headway with her. That she felt the same current of desire between them as he did. Aware of her penchant for refusing marriage proposals, he’d moved slowly and deliberately to reassure her that he wasn’t like the others. That he wanted her not for her dowry or her bloodlines, but for herself. Perhaps that had been a tactical error. Maybe instead he should have dragged her into a darkened alcove, pressed her up against the wall and demonstrated his interest in the most unmistakable way possible.

What if Hapsborough had already signed a betrothal contract? Nash clenched and unclenched his fists. Leticia deserved better.

And better meant Nash.

Just as he was on the verge of acting on his instinct to fight through the crowd and plant the duke a facer, the unmistakable figure of the Earl of Randley—unmistakable because he was second only to Brummel in fashion and elegance, from the height of his collar to the intricate folds of his cravat to the length of his tails—pushed through the throng, a fistful of notes in his hand. “I’ll see Hapsborough’s thousand and raise him a thousand that I will be the one to marry the lady in question by the end of Season.”

A collective
whoosh
of surprise escaped the crowd, and Nash’s hands went lax. If Hapsborough’s wager was remarkable due to his customary insolvency, Randley’s was extraordinary for precisely the opposite reason—the earl was as fastidious about money as he was about his wardrobe, and he never spent a farthing unless he knew exactly what he was getting. If Randley was willing to gamble the outrageous sum of two thousand pounds, he must be supremely confident in the outcome.

But why? How could they both be so certain of marrying the same woman? Especially when she’d rejected proposals from so many gentlemen before them. Each must have received some indication that the lady favored his suit, yet both could not be right.

Which, he realized with a glimmer of triumph, could only mean that both might well be wrong.

Despite this rather obvious conclusion, the gentlemen surrounding the book clamored to place their own wagers, some on the duke, others on the earl, and a few on both. A wry smile tugged the edges of Nash’s lips as it occurred to him that every one of them would lose their shirts if
he
was the one who succeeded in marrying her.

And why the hell not? Randley’s wager had just leveled the playing field.

“You have a horse in this race?” Fitzgerald asked mildly as he set his now-empty glass on the table behind him.

Nash gave the man next to him an appraising glance and decided, for reasons he couldn’t entirely explain, to like him. “Yes, I do,” he admitted.

Viscount Fitzgerald raised an eyebrow. “Really? Who?”

Nash grinned. “Me.”

Chapter Two

When Nash returned to his town house in Marylebone several hours later, fortified by several tumblers of whiskey and the unexpectedly engaging company of Lord Fitzgerald, he was bearded at the door by the family’s ancient butler. Toole, despite being well-versed in the etiquette of assisting one’s master in the disposition of his hat and coat upon his arrival, instead handed Nash a folded slip of parchment, addressed in a bold yet feminine script, and said without preamble, “An immediate response is required, my lord.”

“Required?” That seemed rather impolitic.

“Yes, my lord. The footman who delivered it refused to leave until he received your response.” Toole’s sharp gray eyes rolled in the direction of the kitchen, and his ever-present frown deepened.

Nash chuckled. “Eating us out of house and home, is he?” Mrs. Hargreaves, the cook, considered it her sworn duty to fatten up anyone who crossed her threshold. Toole thought she was rather too diligent in the application of her mission, to the point of shortchanging the rest of the household. It was pointless to remind the butler that the Langston coffers could bear up under the assault of a few extra pasties, pies and puddings.

Toole drew himself up to his full though not particularly imposing height and sniffed. “The fellow has the appetite of a regiment. One wonders if the Avingdons bother feeding their staff or simply send them off—”

“The Avingdons?” Nash nearly crumpled the note in his haste to unfold it. The scent of roses tinged with cinnamon wafted from the parchment.

Her
scent. His reaction was swift and frank; his cock jerked, his balls grew heavy and he pictured Tish Blake laid out on a red silk coverlet, her copious saffron-tinged curls fanned out around her, her moonlight pale skin bare and velvet to the touch.
His
touch.

Toole droned on about the footman, apparently unconcerned that his master was neither interested in nor attending to what he was saying. Nash ignored him and scanned the missive in his hand.

 

Lady Leticia Blake cordially invites Viscount Langston to a private picnic luncheon at Albemarle House in Ealing this coming Wednesday afternoon at two o’clock. The courtesy of an immediate response is requested.

 

In an instant, everything fell into place.
This
must be why Hapsborough and Randley were so confident of their prospects. Each of them had received a similar invitation and mistakenly believed himself to have been singled out for the honor. Little did they know, the ever-resourceful and notoriously skittish Lady Leticia was still shopping. But just how many oranges did she intend to squeeze before she picked one?

That was a question to which Nash required an immediate answer.

He cut Toole off midsentence. “Fetch the footman to me.”

The butler didn’t quite manage to conceal his offence at having been interrupted in the heart of a perfectly good rant. “Yes, my lord.” He pivoted on his heel for the kitchen, leaving Nash in the entry hall.

Only after he left did Nash realize he was still in possession of his hat and overcoat. Fine, he wasn’t helpless. He stashed them himself in the interval, returning to the entry hall to find the aggrieved Toole in the company of a tall, young footman outfitted in the Avingdon’s white and
royal blue livery. The faint red stains at the corners of his mouth suggested he had been rather deeply into one of Hargreaves’s famous berry pies when interrupted. He snapped his heels together and executed a deep bow upon seeing Nash.

“My lord,” he murmured politely when Nash nodded to indicate he should speak. “Have you a response for my mistress?”

“I do, but before I give it I must know whether you delivered any other notes for Lady Leticia today.”

The footman’s eyes widened. “Why, yes. Two of them, as a matter of fact.”

“Are there more yet to be delivered?”

“No, my lord,” the footman replied with a shake of his bewigged head. “Yours was the last.”

The pressure in Nash’s chest eased. So it was just him, Hapsborough and Randley. At least he didn’t have to eliminate the entire male population of London from the competition. Moreover, if she was down to three choices, she must be close to making her decision.

And he would do whatever it took to ensure she made the right one. Even if it meant changing the rules of the game.

 

“You want me to do
what
?”

Tish covered her ears to protect them from Beatrice’s shriek of protest. Perhaps she ought to have informed her sister of her plans
before
executing them, but she had always operated on the premise that forgiveness was more forthcoming than permission and had yet to be proved wrong. Thus far, she had been pardoned for every transgression she had ever committed, up to and including the time when she had painted mustaches on all of the family portraits hanging in the main hall. Papa had pretended to be angry, of course, but in the end had been forced to admit that the appearance of a great many of their ancestors—particularly the women—had been improved by the addition.

But painting had never been her talent, anyway. Wheedling, on the other hand…

Tish sat down next to her elder sibling on the plush, peach velvet sofa and took her sister’s gloved hand. “Please, Bea. You know Papa won’t budge, not when he’s given an ultimatum. How else will I know if my future husband and I are suited? Not a one of them has even kissed me yet, but I am somehow expected to choose one of them to share my body with for the rest of my life. It is quite mad. You of all people should understand—”

Beatrice snatched her hand away, her once sympathetic blue eyes turning to shards of ice. Tish winced. Perhaps reminding her sister of her own unhappy, loveless marriage hadn’t been an entirely shrewd maneuver, but really, would Bea be any happier if Tish were also to marry unwisely and unwell?

She grabbed her sister’s hand again and squeezed, refusing to permit its extrication from her grasp. “Bea, it wasn’t your fault. You couldn’t have known because you followed all the rules. But I
can
know, if only you will help me
break
them—just a little.”

“And what good will that do me?” Beatrice’s jaw jutted out, slightly belligerent. “I will still be married to Albemarle, and he will still be a sodding arse who would rather pass his time with whores than with his wife.”

Tish stared at her sister, wide-eyed with shock. And envy. What she wouldn’t give to be able to rattle off a rant like that. “Why, Bea! Wherever did you learn to speak like that?”

Beatrice flushed. She worried her lower lip with her teeth and sent a furtive glance
toward the open sitting room door. “From John,” she said in a low voice.

“John?”

“Albemarle’s land steward. He can be quite…colorful.” Beatrice’s fond tone—not to mention her use of the man’s Christian name—suggested she did not find this objectionable. Good heavens, was Bea…
involved
with this servant?

But no, there were some things Tish didn’t want—or need—to know. At least not at this precise moment. Instead she said, “So you’ll help me? Play chaperone for me?”

Beatrice chewed her lip for several more seconds before finally nodding her head.

Tish released her hand and threw her arms around her sister. “Thank you!”

Bea pried herself free. “Don’t thank me yet. I want to know—” She broke off at the sound of a polite knock on the open door.

The footman whom Tish had dispatched this morning with her invitations executed a swift bow and held out several notes.
The responses.
Tish all but leaped to her feet, nearly tripping over her skirts in her haste to retrieve them. She pulled the slips of parchment from Garvey’s outstretched hand and eagerly opened them, registering polite acceptances from Randley and then Hapsborough. But where was the third?

She shot the footman a reproachful look. Had she not told him he was not to return until he had responses from all three gentlemen? “Where is Viscount Langston’s?”

“I am sorry, my lady, but he refused to send a written response.”

“Refused?” Tish frowned in puzzlement. Had she misjudged the viscount’s interest in her? Of the three gentlemen, he was the only one who had never expressly indicated a wish to marry her, but she had thought him cautious and considerate rather than indifferent. She closed her eyes as disappointment welled inside her, threatening to crush her heart.

“Yes, ma’am. He wanted to deliver his answer in person.”

Her eyes flew open. “What?”

At her stunned exclamation, the viscount himself stepped into the room. “In the flesh.”

And oh my, what flesh! Even fully clothed, the man exuded pure, masculine charisma. Broad of shoulder, narrow of hip, and well-turned out of thigh and calf, Nash Langston was carnality personified. It was impossible to look at the man and not at least
attempt
to picture him in the nude.

Tish tended to do more than attempt.

She had never been the swooning sort, but she felt in danger of making a closer inspection of his highly polished black boots, for all her blood seemed to have deserted her brain in favor of regions further south. In fact, she rather fancied her heart might have migrated down and settled between her legs as well, for that was where her pulse was now lodged.

His effect on her was most disconcerting and not altogether agreeable. He seemed to exert his own gravitational force, rearranging her internal organs and thoroughly disorganizing her normally rational thought processes. It was alarming…and perhaps just a little bit exhilarating.

From some well of composure, Tish managed a deep and graceful curtsy despite her wobbly knees. “Did you misplace your fountain pen when my message arrived, my lord? Or perhaps your tongue?” she asked, surprised to discover she could formulate a response at all, let alone a saucy one.

A low chuckle rumbled in his throat and his tawny brown eyes—such an exotic color, really, like autumn leaves—glittered with amusement. “I assure you I have full command of both my tongue and my pen, and am more than willing to employ them whenever you desire.” He
arched an eyebrow meaningfully.

Tish suppressed a half-gasp, half-giggle. Oh, he was wicked! He did not mean
pen
at all. Nor, it dawned on her, did he mean he would use his tongue to speak. The muscles in her thighs and lower abdomen clenched in an involuntary effort to quell the intensifying ache at the thought of pens and tongues in the way he intended.

He probably intended that, too.

She wished she were clever enough and worldly enough to respond to his flirtation in kind. Instead she settled for tucking the responses from Hapsborough and Randley into a pocket in her skirt and dismissing the footman.

Having got herself into a more brisk and businesslike mood, she returned her attention to the viscount. “You remember my sister, the Countess of Albemarle?”

He nodded. “It is a pleasure to see you again, Lady Albemarle,” he said, executing a gentlemanly bow in Beatrice’s direction. “I trust you are well.”

“I am, thank you,” Beatrice responded, coming to her feet. “I have, however, just recalled a pressing matter I must see to back at Albemarle House. I do hope you will both excuse me.”

Tish stared at her sister in shock. Surely Beatrice didn’t mean to leave
now
? This wasn’t the plan at all. She wasn’t
ready
for this yet.

“Yes, of course,” Langston said smoothly. “Do give Albemarle my regards.”

Beatrice’s lips quirked into a wry smile. “You would do better to give them yourself. You are likely to see him sooner than I.” As she walked by Tish, she leaned close and whispered, “You wanted to be alone with him. Enjoy yourself. I would if I were you.”

And then, in a swish of skirts, Beatrice was gone, pulling the door quietly shut behind her.

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