by Beverley Eikli
A dissolute rake, a virtuous lady, a ruthless society beauty, and a missing plantation owner with secrets – just another day in Georgian England…
Wealthy Jamaican plantation owner, Harry Carstairs has disappeared – and everyone wants to know where he is…
Celeste Rosington knows her place in society, and while she may not be overjoyed at her upcoming wedding to her detached cousin, Raphael, she nonetheless hopes the marriage will be successful. When Raphael asks her for her help to save Harry, she agrees. But her decision costs her more than she knows…
Celeste’s clandestine visit to Harry’s home is witnessed, and her connection to Harry misconstrued. Harry’s secrets put Celeste into more danger than even Raphael understands, and throws her into the path of the ruthless, cunning, beautiful Lady Busselton and the dissolute, dangerous Lord Peregrine.
Raphael is invested in keeping Harry alive. Lady Busselton is invested in keeping him quiet. Lord Peregrine is invested in anything that staves off boredom. And Celeste is becoming increasingly invested in Lord Peregrine. After all, what resistance does an innocent young woman have against something so deliciously wicked?
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Publish Date: October 8, 2015
Publisher: Harlequin Enterprises – Escape Publishing
Heat Rating: Sweet but full of intrigue
Read an Excerpt
Lord Peregrine liked a wager. The cards, the horses, occasionally a pair of spiders, could whip up his blood and tip him out of the lethargy and ennui which characterised his usual state of being.
This wager, though, was different. He could feel it in the sudden stillness into which he’d been plunged; the colour, vibrancy and chatter that had washed about him from the moment he and Xenia had stepped into their box at the theatre, sucked into the void.
Xenia’s seductive purr as she put her head close to his was as sweet as a feather skimming his heated, naked flesh.
And as dangerous as a black widow’s bite.
‘Come, Perry, it’s not like you to have scruples.’
He blinked to clear his mind and as his gaze raked the breathtaking contours of London’s most beautiful widow—and probably its most immoral—he wasn’t sure if the thrumming of blood to his extremities was due to outrage or titillation.
Slowly he exhaled, acknowledging almost sadly that it was the latter, which would of course confirm society’s opinion of him as a bored and dissolute libertine who’d done nothing but wallow in his father’s wealth, living a life of scandal. A man totally without redemption. Indeed he would deserve every uncomplimentary epithet hurled at him if he accepted darling Xenia’s outrageous wager.
He surprised himself with his hesitation. A sudden flowering of moral fibre? Or fear? Clearly Xenia was surprised by his lack of enthusiasm, for she glanced at him askance, before her lips curved into that devastating smile that never failed to render him no better than her unruly, slavering hounds of whom she was so fond, who rutted with anything that crossed their paths.
And there was the rub. Yes, he was immoral, he was dissolute, but at thirty-three he couldn’t believe he was totally beyond redemption.
Lord Peregrine sighed, abandoning the daydream he was better than he was—for that’s all it was—and met Xenia’s ice blue gaze while he schooled his features to betray no emotion. A lifetime’s practice under the brutal tutelage of his uncle had made this easy. He could appear unmoved when it was true to say that he still was capable of some feeling. Whether that was a good thing or not was a matter he’d not yet decided.
And then he took another sip of his champagne. Around him the theatre once again pulsed with the energy he’d been conscious of before Xenia’s carefully calculated whisper.
Oh, she was good. She knew exactly how to stir his blood.
Xenia gave a soft, throaty laugh. ‘She’s over there, if you want to look.’
He followed the direction indicated by her elegant finger, towards the stalls where two society beauties, with painted faces and elaborate pomaded coiffures two-feet high, were making eyes at the gentlemen over the top of ivory pointed fans.
‘No, not there!’
Peregrine smiled. He enjoyed teasing her. Xenia was quick to irritation. Quick to anger, and quick to passion, too.
The high-pitched inducements of the girls selling oranges in the pits almost drowned out the wavering top notes, which concluded the opera singer’s aria; and as Peregrine searched for the object under discussion, his thoughts revolved around the usual litany of: ‘Diversion, diversion; anything for diversion’.
No, certainly these were not the thoughts of a gentleman; more like a wolf wearing the trappings of one.
‘She’s a beauty, isn’t she?’
He was aware that Xenia was watching him carefully, but again Peregrine schooled his features into a mask of indifference, even before he’d assimilated the scene before him.
And then the blurred images coalesced into one and as he regarded the handsome couple seated across the gallery, something in the graceful movements of the young woman stirred his senses, triggering an emotion not dissimilar to the energy that surged through him as he followed the hunt, charging with the rest of them after the wily fox.
By God, it was good to feel something that wasn’t boredom.
Xenia, or rather Lady Busselton, as she’d become, lowered her opera glasses, her arched eyebrows and pursed lips showing how much she was enjoying Peregrine’s reaction to her suggestion.
Her wicked wager.
He hooked one elegantly shod foot over his black satin pantaloons, regarding her over steepled fingers as he considered his response. The heat and smell from hundreds of bodies pressed close to enjoy tonight’s production was making his head pound.
Or was it excitement? Revenge wasn’t usually a game he played. Well, not with a woman as the spoils.
‘You, of all people, Perry, know that the incomparable Miss Celeste Rosington is as far removed as is possible from the celestial virgin she is painted.’
Xenia raised her shoulder slightly in the direction of the couple across from them who, heads bent together, hands almost touching, represented the epitome of lovebirds on the eve of their nuptials.
‘Your poor sister knows it, to her eternal cost.’ She gave a husky laugh; the same laugh that for ten years had never failed to make Peregrine harden with instant desire. ‘Come, my dearest Perry, it’s not like you to allow your scruples to get in the way. After all, she has none.’
She was prodding, and would continue, until she got her reaction. Xenia, the tearaway cosseted only daughter of a ruthless and successful sea captain who had gone to extraordinary lengths to ensure she got her heart’s desire—including two husbands with fortune and title—had changed little since Perry had become acquainted with her in her first season out. Back then she’d put financial and social considerations above their mutual attraction, accepting an earl that trumped a lowly viscount. He suspected—hoped—she’d rued the day.
‘Scruples? I hope I have some at least, Xenia. And no, it’s not scruples that give me pause. It’s whether I have the stomach to further an acquaintance with a jezebel like Miss Rosington, even if I have every reason to see her revealed for what she is.’ There. He’d just proved himself a gentleman before any unflattering epithet could be added. ‘For a start, what do you suppose my sister would say if she heard I was sniffing after the woman who … well, destroyed her life, to use Charlotte’s own words?’
Xenia pursed her mouth and raised one thin, charcoaled eyebrow. Though no longer in her first flush of youth, she continued to exude the most potent sexual allure of any woman Peregrine had met. With or without powder and rouge she was still a beauty, with the delicate bone structure of her long-dead mother, an impoverished aristocrat who’d married the coarse, bluff ship’s captain after he’d amassed a fortune with his growing fleet plying a lucrative trade with the Far East in spices, slaves and silks.
Not that her heritage was something Xenia discussed. Though she eschewed her links with trade, she was quick to utilise the benefits of a seemingly endless supply of funds, even when husbands were not so forthcoming; and to prod the captain’s more ruthless streak when it might be of any benefit.
She continued to fix Peregrine with her calculating blue stare. ‘Your sister is no fool. Why, Charlotte would understand perfectly well that the only reason you could possibly show an interest in Miss Rosington was because you were avenging her; doing what any loyal brother would for his unjustly treated dear sister.’
For some reason Xenia’s little wager seemed to have fired her blood. She patted Perry’s shoulder, her expression a mask of false sympathy. ‘Poor Charlotte has been made to look a fool. Surely you, Perry, wish to know why Miss Rosington was discovered, half undressed, by your sister in Mr Carstair’s saloon before the two of them rushed guiltily into the night? Surely, you, Perry, know that the only way you’re going to help Charlotte is to get close to that designing Miss Rosington—’ she jabbed a finger at the unaware couple, ‘who’s looking moon-eyes at her betrothed—and find out for yourself. Why did she do it? Boredom? A wager? The fact is, your sister is heartbroken, her reputation tarnished … while Miss Celeste remains society’s darling, soon to wed her cousin in the match of the season.’
She breathed deeply, a provocative motion since it brought into greater evidence her full, lush breasts, revealed to ample advantage in her low-cut confection of gold embroidered silk and lace.
Her eyes slid over Perry’s elegantly turned-out form and settled on his face, her lips pursed in a suggestive moué. ‘If you wish to sample what you’ve always wanted, Perry darling,’ the unexpected insinuation of her body as reward made him harden even more, ‘and discover for yourself what has enthralled my long list of lovers, then call it amusement, but also atonement, that I attach this condition.’ She sat back, fanning herself languidly while her bosom strained against her bodice. Another glance at her face revealed her suppressed excitement: eyes bright, her neat, curvaceous body quivering. ‘Reveal to the world the truth of what Miss Celeste really is. Let the public understand it so that they might revile her for the woman who stole your sister’s happiness. And at the same time, you can find out where Harry Carstairs is. After that, I will make you very happy.’ The candlelight reflected off her pretty, pearl-like teeth, her look a mixture of lustful intent and daring. As she leaned back, eyes brimming with promise over the tips of her fan, her final words sealed the deal. ‘After so many years’ friendship, Perry darling, I think it’s time to raise the stakes—don’t you?’