Authors: Samantha James
The Sins of Viscount Sutherland
he terms were set.
Rutgers Field at dawn.
The young cub chose pistols.
The viscount chose seven paces.
There would be one exchange of fire.
The weather was abysmal. Fog snaked in and out between the trees that surrounded the field, shifting as if it were a living, breathing thing. A driving rain pelted the viscount’s cheek as he removed his coat and handed it to his second, the Duke of Braddock.
The duke swore. “By God, man, you were in your cups last night and you’re in your cups now. Do you think I don’t smell the brandy on your breath? This is the last time I’ll take my place as your second, do you hear?”
“As you wish then, Your Grace.” The viscount gave a mocking bow.
The duke’s expression was grim. “Good as you are, I think you should know—the boy’s a crack shot.”
All the better.
The viscount shrugged. “I did not provoke this duel. It was he who challenged me. If you hadn’t been—how shall I say this—lustily engaged upstairs with your ladybird, you’d have heard him. He accused me of cheating at cards. When I accused him of cheating, he demanded satisfaction. There was no changing the whelp’s mind. He made no bones about telling me he preferred a gentleman’s way of settling a dispute.”
The duke scowled. “The barkeep last night told me that only a fortnight ago he nearly took the arm off a seaman from the docks.”
The viscount gave a thin smile. “Well, he can’t be much of a crack shot then, can he, if the seaman still lives. Perhaps he should try his hand at boxing instead.”
“Do not jest. He has the devil’s own temper—much like you, I might add.”
The viscount wasn’t surprised. The cub was no more than five-and-twenty. Hotheaded, hell-born, and reckless. He, too, he supposed, was hotheaded, hell-born, and reckless. But the cub certainly didn’t deserve to die.
The viscount lived each day as if it were his last . . . as if he prayed each day was his last.
Nothing gave him pleasure. Not anymore. He cared for nothing, save his mother. He thought of Brightwood, his family estate. Two years had passed since he left for London. His jaw tightened. He’d vowed to himself that the only way he would ever return was in his coffin.
Perhaps, he decided cynically, it wouldn’t be so long now after all.
The viscount handed his hat to the duke. A downpour began.
“Gentleman, take your places.” A man named Cavendish cleared his throat. Beside him stood a physician. “Begin the count.”
The viscount was already drenched. Rain dripped from the dark hair on his forehead.
The viscount recalled his friend’s words.
This is the last time I’ll take my place as your second.
With luck, there would be no further need.
The cub could hardly miss at seven paces.
Oh, to be free.
No more guilt. No more pain.
Please, God. Please.
A sharp report filled the air. The viscount felt the bullet pierce cloth and flesh.
The impact sent him to his knees.
He gritted his teeth and managed to half turn, still gripping the pistol. Fire scalded his right shoulder. He could barely keep hold of the weapon. One shot, he reminded himself. For himself, he cared nothing about the so-called field of honor. He didn’t care that the cub had fired early. But if the cub shot and he didn’t . . . All he needed was to get off one round. Why he was concerned with salvaging the cub’s honor, he had no idea. But if he didn’t, the cub would lose all respect from his peers. He would be shunned.
The viscount gritted his teeth. Blast! He struggled to see through the mist. The fog was so strange, still winding and twisting. At least there was no need to aim.
His hand shaking, he pulled the trigger, firing away from the assemblage that had gathered.
The pistol fell from his hand. He felt himself slipping forward, depleted of all strength.
Footsteps shook the ground. Someone shouted. The viscount couldn’t be sure. The buzz in his ears grew steadily louder.
Rain seeped through his clothing. The grass against his cheek was cold. Fire scalded his shoulder.
He knew the wound wasn’t mortal.
He wanted to scream in outrage. In blind, tormented fury.
He had prayed this day would see him sent straight to the devil.
Instead he must spend yet more of his days in hell.
t was time to let the night play out.
To one who might look on, Claire Ashcroft was the very essence of aplomb. Of composure. Indeed, one never would have guessed the churning need for vengeance that seared her soul. Knowing her nemesis was near tied her stomach in knots.
He stood near the edge of the ballroom, a figure clad in black—a fitting color for the man. His jacket was stretched taut over wide, muscled shoulders; nary a wrinkle was visible. He stood tall and powerful, like a pillar from ancient Greece. His height was such that he seemed to stretch clear to the ceiling. He embodied power. Confidence.
Her eyes slid over his profile. She couldn’t deny he was arrestingly handsome to the eye. His hair was black as coal, cropped short. High cheekbones slanted above a square jawline. He was clean-shaven, but his jaw was faintly shadowed. It spun through her mind that he must doubtless shave twice each day.
His was a pose most formidable, yet his pose was indolently careless. His expression was impenetrable.
Claire sucked in a breath. The sight of him made her shiver.
His gaze roamed the room, an almost lazy perusal. She sensed boredom. She sensed cynicism. A distance that was almost icy set him apart. And then he turned—
Their eyes locked, for one long, nerve-shattering moment.
So this was Viscount Grayson Sutherland.
The blackguard who had killed her brother. The man who had changed her life forever.
A strange sensation slid up her spine. His examination of her had turned no less than fierce. A hundred feelings went through her in that instant. It was as if everything else in the world stood still.
The sheer physicality of the man was . . . Claire struggled for the proper word. Formidable. Almost frightening. She wasn’t prepared for it. It was as if his eyes—were they a pale blue or a silvery gray?—sliced into her. A tremor shook her, a shiver that was almost violent.
A hand touched her elbow. “Claire?”
It was Penelope. Dear, sweet Penelope who had paved the way for her reception into Society. Her dearest friend in all the world, Penelope Grove—her name had changed from Robertson when she wed Theodore Grove.
The two of them had attended finishing school together. Penelope was a year older. They were an odd-looking pair, the two of them. Penelope was as delicate as fine china, her demeanor tiny, her features angelic. Claire was half a head taller than Penelope, her limbs long and spare. To Claire, her proportions always seemed out of kilter.
She and Penelope had become acquainted in a rather unusual way. Claire had always felt odd duck out. She was taller than most girls and, indeed, many boys. Little wonder that she’d start finishing school feeling the outsider. She was aware she was the brunt of amusement for several older girls. She had been a bit awkward, the subject of many a joke. She pretended it didn’t hurt, but it did. Outside one day in the schoolyard, she saw an older girl named Ramona deliberately push Penelope into a puddle. The front of Penelope’s gown and face was spattered with mud. Claire saw tears in her eyes—and saw red. She helped Penelope to her feet and turned to Ramona.
A moment later Ramona was seated on her bum in the middle of the puddle. She burst into tears.
Oh, what satisfaction there had been!
Ramona teased neither of them from that day onward.
And, well, Claire hadn’t been dismissed, though only because of her parents’ intervention.
She and Penelope had become the best of friends. To be sure, it was Penelope who had taught her there was more to being a lady than anything she’d learned in school.
And Claire was no longer graceless. No longer sensitive to her height. She’d grown into a tall, striking woman who earned many an admiring glance. Her carriage was one of pride and grace, her limbs were long and elegant. But on the verge of a come-out, her mother’s unexpected illness took the family back to Wildewood, back to the country—all but Oliver. Claire remained at home to nurse her mother through her illness, a lung infection that had been long and difficult. There was neither the time nor the inclination to return to the current of Society. It all seemed so shallow and insipid after those months at her mother’s side.
Then came the stunning blow of Oliver’s death.
No, she thought. Not his death—
“Are you ready?” Penelope’s gaze held hers. One hand rested on the small rise of her belly. Covered by lace and pleats and ribbons, her condition was hardly apparent.
Claire frowned. “Are you all right? The baby—”
“Is merely reminding me of his presence. He moves often now, particularly when I wish to sleep.”
Penelope was convinced she carried a boy.
“And as for you, Claire”—Penelope raised her brows—“I would feel better if you told me. Are you ready?”
Claire took a deep breath. She nodded.
“I . . . am ready.” Did she sound convincing?
It would seem not. Penelope looked at her closely. “There’s still time to change your mind, Claire.”
Claire’s chin came up. It had taken great care and planning to get to this point. She couldn’t have done it without Penelope. Dear, sweet Penelope, whose husband Theo was in the Peninsula fighting that upstart Corsican. It was Penelope’s most ardent hope that Theo would be home in time for the birth of their baby.
She suspected that if Theo were here, he might not have approved. But Penelope’s help had been immeasurable. Invaluable. Penelope had helped her find lodging, a small, comfortable house—oh, and so many things!
At first Penelope shook her head. “I’ve seen him at parties, Claire, and he is not a man you should associate with. He is more often foxed than not. He gambles to excess. And where women are concerned—”
“I’m aware of his reputation,” Claire had said quietly. “Indeed, I am counting on it.”
“Why? How can you gain satisfaction?”
“You won’t approve, Pen.”
“I won’t help you unless I know.”
At times Penelope could be stubborn.
“Very well, then. Given the viscount’s predilection for the ladies, it’s my hope I can use it to my advantage.”
Penelope’s apprehension was clear. “How?”
Despite her married state, Penelope could also be decidedly innocent. Claire remained silent, while dawning awareness spread over Penelope’s face.
“Claire, no! You cannot—”
“Make him fall in love with me?”
Pen’s mouth still formed an “O” of astonishment.
Claire sought to explain. “It’s all I can think to do.” She was silent for a moment. “Perhaps I am a fool,” she said softly. “But I will never rest easy until I make him hurt. I must have some measure of satisfaction. I must at least
Claire had reached out and squeezed Penelope’s hand. “I beg of you, help me, my dearest friend. I’ve been away from Society for a long time.” Penelope was the daughter of a viscount. “You can take me places where I could not otherwise go. Places where he will be present. You can show me to Society once more.”
“Claire, the man is the worst kind of scoundrel.”
Penelope’s expression was pained. She took a long breath, torn, it seemed. Yet she knew there would be no changing Claire’s mind. “Very well, then,” she conceded. “You are my friend and I will help you.”
Claire reached out to hug her. “I know I could count on you, dear. I knew it.”
And with Penelope’s introduction, the doors to Society had opened. There was Lady Belfield, at whose home Claire had attended tea the other afternoon. And there was Lady Sumpter, whose fete she had attended only last night. And now she was here, at Lady Blakely’s ball—her first—in the hope that the viscount would be here.
“No.” Claire was adamant. “I won’t change my mind, so please do not try to sway me.”
“I worry for you,” Penelope confided. “I do not want you hurt again.”
“He can hurt me no more than he already has.” Bitterness seeped through her soul, like slow poison. “He robbed me of my brother. He robbed me of the last of my family.” She took a long, steadying breath. “It’s time, Pen. Time to make myself known to Grayson Sutherland as your widowed cousin, Claire Westfield, visiting from the country.”
Her gaze softened as she beheld Penelope’s worry. “Thank you, Pen. No matter what happens, I thank you.”
“I would never abandon my greatest friend in all the world.” Penelope squeezed Claire’s fingers.
Claire smiled slightly. This was it, she thought. The time had come. Was it a fool’s errand she undertook? Panic flared, leaving her breathless for an instant. What if the viscount discovered her intention? Her plan to lure him under her spell—to make him fall in love with her—then cruelly dismiss him as if he were nothing.
As Oliver had been nothing to him, she reminded herself.
No, she thought.
He couldn’t possibly. She wouldn’t fail. It was just as she’d told Penelope. She wanted this too much. And she and Penelope had been scrupulously careful, painstakingly anticipating every detail.
In those days following Oliver’s death, nearly every thought was of Sutherland, and every thought of him consumed her. If she could take a pistol and shoot the blackguard the way he’d shot Oliver, she would. But she was a woman. She hated the helplessness lent her by her sex.
At night she paced, unable to sleep. Thoughts twisted every which way in her mind. There had to be a way to make him pay. There
And perhaps there was. Claire could not say precisely when it occurred to her. Perhaps she was not as powerless as she thought. After all, his reputation was scandalous. It was said no man dared cross him. No woman could resist him. Her own reputation was of no consequence. By God, perhaps she could use the cur’s hedonism to her advantage.
So it was that her plan was set in motion. Her intent? To make Viscount Grayson Sutherland pant after her while holding the cur at bay, only to ultimately turn him away. Only a year ago she would have been horrified at herself. Spitefulness was not her way. Malice was not her way. But if she could wound him in some way—strip him of his pride perhaps—it would give her at least some measure of satisfaction. The cost to herself was of no consequence, none at all.
All she had to do was play her part.
Perhaps Penelope sensed her sudden self-doubt. “You’re beautiful, Claire. Every man here has eyes for you.”
It was only one man Claire was concerned with.
Beside her, Penelope sucked in a breath. “He’s here, Claire. Near the dance floor. Next to the man in gray pinstripes, the Duke of Braddock. Sutherland wears black—”
“I see him.” An odd sensation seized hold of Claire. Her voice was faint. She sounded so strange as she heard herself speak.
Pen’s eyes searched her face. “Are you certain you want to do this?”
Claire’s eyes darkened. “I must,” she said fervently. “I must.” Determination swept away all fear.
“You must be careful,” warned Penelope. “Watch yourself. And watch him.”
Adamant as she was, in truth Claire was terrified. But she disguised whatever fears she had. This was too important. Indeed, it consumed her entire being.
Her gaze returned to the man who stood across the polished parquet floor. Hatred spilled through her. Lodged in her breast was dark resolve.
This man had robbed Oliver of his life’s blood. Robbed him of all that life’s journey should have held.
Oh, yes, Viscount Grayson Sutherland would pay, she vowed. He would pay for Oliver Ashcroft’s murder.
She would see to it.
It was time to begin in earnest. Time to put her plan in motion.
By heaven, the game was on.
Two men stood next to each other on the fringes of the ballroom. One possessed hair as dark as blackened ink, the other but a shade lighter. When standing, they were evenly matched in height and build. The pair had been friends since attending Eton together. And now here they were, two of the so-called four Lords of Sheffield Square.
They were womanizers, all, but the duke was indeed a particularly coveted prize. Despite his horrid reputation, matchmaking mamas steered their daughters toward Clive Fielding, Duke of Braddock, eager to gain the prize of marrying a rich, handsome duke. It seemed they would overlook his reputation.
Which quite suited Viscount Grayson Sutherland. Many a miss thrilled to a glance from the viscount, but their matchmaking mamas were quite horrified. They shooed their daughters far distant. Gray cared not that his manner was called beastly. It didn’t matter to him in the slightest that he was not considered a “suitable” match. Once . . . once he had been a coveted prize indeed—
So much had changed since then, for now with the women he sought out—and the women who sought him out—there existed a mutual understanding. Each sought the carnal pleasures of the flesh, no more, no less.
All sought amusement in the arms of each other.
And now two male gazes had fastened appreciable eyes on the woman who stood near the edge of the dance floor. A beauty he’d never seen before.
Gray couldn’t take his eyes from the lovely lady in pale green silk. Her hair was a rich chestnut, gathered in a chignon that set off the slim length of her neck. The sweep of her shoulders rose bare and creamy and silky above her neckline. He watched as the woman raised a hand to tuck back a stray hair that had escaped from her chignon. He caught the flash of gold. A ring.
On her right hand.
One corner of his mouth curled up. His eyes flickered in satisfaction.
Clive followed the direction of Gray’s regard.
“The lady has captured your attention, I see.”
A smile creased Gray’s lips. She had indeed.
“I don’t believe I’ve ever seen her,” said Clive.
“Nor have I,” Gray murmured. He hadn’t yet taken his eyes off the lady. “I believe she warrants closer examination.”
“Well, then, if you do not take the first step,” Clive said softly, “then I shall.”
“I think not, my friend. You have a weakness for blondes. And I should hate to see us quarrel over a woman.”
“Ah, never that,” Clive said with an arch of one black brow. He paused. “Well, man, what are you waiting for?”