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Candice Hern

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LADY BE BAD

 

By Candice Hern

 

 

 

A Merry Widows Novel

 

Lady Be Bad

 

Copyright 2012 by Candice Hern

All rights reserved. No part of this text may be used or reproduced, downloaded, transmitted, or decompiled in any manner whatsoever, whether electronic or mechanical, without written permission of the author, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles and reviews. The scanning, uploading, and distribution of this book via the internet or any other means without the permission of the author is illegal. Please purchase only authorized electronic editions, and do not participate in or encourage electronic piracy of copyrighted materials. Your support of the author's rights is appreciated.

 

* * *

 

This is a work of fiction. With the exception of real historical figures and events that may be mentioned, all names, characters, places, and incidents are products of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, organizations or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

 

 

For further information, email

[email protected]

PROLOGUE

 

 

London, May 1813

 

"There is not a woman in London whose bed I could not seduce my way into with very little effort."

John Grayston, seventh Viscount Rochdale, was a bit the worse for drink, having spent the last hour and a half in the card room at Oscott House, where obliging footmen kept his glass filled. But his statement was no idle boast fueled by too much claret. It was a fact, pure and simple.

His companion, Lord Sheane, had commented that some women would never allow themselves to be enticed into a love affair, and Rochdale could not allow the remark to stand unchallenged. Women, all women, were hungry for seduction — some openly, others unwittingly. It was no great accomplishment to get any one of them between the sheets. All it took was a quick assessment of the game, to determine whether she wanted the Great Lover or the Notorious Libertine. In his considerable experience, he'd found that most women of the
ton
were intrigued by the wicked nature of his reputation, by the unsavory tales associated with him, most of which were true. Even the highest-ranking ladies of the aristocracy enjoyed the notion of flirting with danger.

There were a few, though, who simply wanted him for his lovemaking skills. Their indifferent or bungling husbands sent them in search of sexual satisfaction elsewhere, and Rochdale was pleased to accommodate them.

Then there were the ones who didn't know they desired him, who generally believed they wanted nothing to do with him. The ones who loathed his love affairs and his scandals and did their best to avoid him. Those were the real challenges. But he'd never failed to successfully seduce one of those supposedly virtuous women once he'd set out to do so.

No, it had been no idle boast. He knew precisely how to make any woman desire him.

Lord Sheane narrowed his eyes at Rochdale over the rim of his wineglass. "Is that so?" He had to raise his voice to be heard over the music in the adjacent ballroom and the general hubbub of voices and laughter in the card room. "No woman in London can resist you?"

Rochdale shrugged his shoulders. It was not a subject that required debate. Of course, a man like Sheane, who'd gone a bit soft in the belly and jowly around the mouth, would label Rochdale arrogant rather than admit to his own envy.

"Shall we put it to the test, old boy?"

Rochdale arched an eyebrow. "I beg your pardon?"

"You said you could seduce any woman in London." Lord Sheane's mouth twisted into a sneer. "Are you willing to prove it?"

A familiar prickle of anticipation settled in the base of Rochdale's spine. He braced himself for the irresistible siren call of a wager. Donning an air of supreme indifference, he said, "What did you have in mind?"

"I'll stake Albion that I can name a woman you cannot seduce."

Albion? Damnation. Sheane, the blackguard, knew Rochdale had coveted that particular horse ever since he'd won the second class at Oatlands last year. He'd twice offered to buy the bay gelding, but Sheane had refused. Albion was a winner and the star of Sheane's stables. And yet here he was now, offering the horse as stakes in a wager he was bound to lose. It was almost too good to be true. Was the fellow so drunk he did not realize what he was doing?

"Has Albion suffered an injury?" Rochdale asked. "You seem anxious to be rid of him."

Sheane threw back his head and laughed. "Damn me, but you are an arrogant bastard. So much so that I am sure you would have no qualms in offering Serenity as your stakes in our little wager."

"You think to win Serenity off me?" Rochdale chuckled. "I don't think so." Serenity was his best horse, his favorite horse. The little chestnut mare had won more races than any other horse in Rochdale's stables, including the king's plate at Nottingham and two cups at Newmarket. He would as soon cut off his arm as give Serenity to Lord Sheane.

But, of course, if he accepted the wager, he would have to do no such thing, for he could not lose.

"If you are so confident," Sheane said, "then you will have no qualms about offering her as stakes. My Albion against your Serenity that you cannot seduce a woman of my choosing. What do you say?"

It was too easy. Rochdale studied the man closely, wondering what trick he must have up his sleeve. He had lost a fair amount of money to Rochdale that evening, but for an inveterate gambler like Sheane, it meant nothing. And he would no doubt win it all back, and more, tomorrow night, or the night after that. Such was the life of a gambler.

But a gambler never bet against a sure thing. What was Sheane up to?

Rochdale held out his glass while a footman refilled it, then took a swallow of claret. "You have a particular woman in mind, I suppose."

"One or two, actually."

Rochdale gave a crack of laughter, and several heads turned in his direction. He lowered his voice and said, "One or two? You believe there is more than one woman immune to my charms?"

"Your arrogance will be your undoing, Rochdale. I am certain there are several women at this very ball whom even you could not seduce."

"Then let us be more specific in the wager. You must name a woman in attendance here tonight." Not that he had any doubts about the matter, but at least that would limit the field to women of his own class. Rochdale could not imagine a single woman among those in the ballroom whom he could not coax into bed. It might prove to be unpleasant if the chosen woman was a gnarled and wizened antique, or had a face that would curdle cream. Or was, God forbid, the wife of a friend. But he could do it. For the chance to add Albion to his stables, he could do it.

"All right," Sheane said. "One of the guests at this ball. Excellent. So, here is the wager: I shall name a woman and charge you with seducing her. If you fail, I get Serenity. If you succeed, you get Albion."

"How long do I have? These things can take time, you know. It is to be a seduction, after all, not a ravishment."

"Until the end of the Season?"

"Hmm. That is less than two months. It may not be enough time."

Sheane scowled. "Good God, you astonish me. I thought you were a master at wooing women into your bed. And yet, two months is not enough time?"

"A master knows that a true seduction can take two minutes or two years, depending on the woman. Certain delicate creatures require more seducing than others. Since I do not yet know the identity of the woman, how can I say how long it will take?"

Lord Sheane snorted. "There must be a time frame. Where is the sport in an open-ended wager?"

"Indeed. Then let us name a date."

"It cannot be years, Rochdale. The horses will not be worth winning if we drag this thing out too long. Suppose we use the Goodwood Races as a deadline? You are planning to run Serenity for the Cup, are you not? If it takes longer than three months to bed a woman, then you are not the man you claim to be."

"All right, then. Goodwood it is. I will seduce the woman you name by then or forfeit Serenity. But if I succeed before Goodwood, I win Albion. Agreed?"

"Agreed."

Rochdale offered his hand and Sheane shook it with a level of enthusiasm that boded ill. Rochdale did not trust him. What harpy was the man going to inflict upon him?

"Let us survey the ballroom," Sheane said, "shall we?"

Lord Sheane placed his empty glass on a side table and made his way through the maze of card tables. Rochdale up-ended his own glass and finished the last of his claret. He followed Sheane and saw that he spoke to several gentlemen on his way, each of them laughing and turning to gaze at Rochdale.

Damnation. He was making their wager known. Rochdale had had enough public scandal in his life. He had no desire to play out another seduction under the eyes of every gambler and club man in London. They would all be laying in bets for or against him. How was he to seduce a woman if it was public knowledge that a wager was involved? No woman in her right mind would succumb to him under such circumstances.

He caught up with Sheane as he was laughing with Sir Giles Clitheroe. "A word with you, Sheane." He caught the man by the sleeve and led him out of the room.

When they were in the main corridor, Rochdale turned to him and said, "I will not have this wager made public, Sheane."

"Since when have you developed such fine sensibilities?"

"Since I wagered my best horse. I will not have you jeopardize my chances by trumpeting the wager to the world." He lowered his voice as a couple in conversation walked past. "If the woman got wind of it, you cannot imagine she would welcome my advances."

"Ah, but you said
any
woman in London. Correction: You amended your boast to encompass only those women in attendance tonight. But you said nothing about what they may or may not know of the wager."

Rochdale put his face so close to Sheane's that their noses almost touched. "Let us say that I would not consider it sporting if you were to make the wager public. Do you take my meaning, sir?"

Sheane raised his eyes to the ceiling and stepped back. "Dammit, Rochdale, there is no need to threaten me. All right, then. I promise to keep the wager in confidence."

"How many men in the card room already know?"

Sheane heaved a sigh. "Clitheroe, Dewesbury, and Haltwhistle."

"Confound it. Do they know which woman you will name?"

"No."

"Good. Let's keep it that way. Do we understand each other?"

"Yes, yes. What a fusspot of an old woman you've become, Rochdale. But I suppose that business last year with Serena Underwood took a bit of the wind out of your sails, eh?"

Rochdale would not be baited by reminders of his most notorious indiscretion. "Name your woman, Sheane. Let me see how easy this is going to be."

"All right, then."

He made a show of surveying the room, which was filled with pretty young girls in white dresses smiling at the men who partnered them in the country dance. Sheane would not choose one of them. There were just as many older women, mothers and chaperones of the pretty dancing girls. Some of them handsome. Some of them gone to seed. Would he choose one of them? There were the dowagers, too, the grandmotherly types in plumed turbans, gathered in gossipy groups along the walls. God help him if Sheane chose one of those. And there were the wallflowers — spinsters growing a bit long in the tooth after too many Seasons, or younger women too unattractive to entice a dance partner.

Rochdale eyed every one of them, judging how he might woo her into his bed, regardless of how distasteful an exercise it would be.

"Her," Sheane announced. "I name her."

Rochdale followed the man's gaze and groaned aloud. "Mrs. Marlowe? The bishop's widow?"

"The very one. There's your challenge, Rochdale. And what a challenge she will be." He cackled in glee as they watched Mrs. Grace Marlowe walk past, chatting with Lady Gosforth. She glanced in his direction and caught him staring at her, pursed her lips in disapproval, and turned away.

Rochdale shook his head in disgust. He ought to have known Sheane would pick the most prim and proper woman in the room. As straitlaced a prude as ever lived. The widow of that old windbag Bishop Marlowe, for God's sake.

Grace Marlowe was young and attractive, to be sure. If he did not know who she was, Rochdale would no doubt find her desirable, with all that honey blond hair, those smoky gray eyes, and that perfectly sculpted profile. But he did know her, and no amount of beauty could change the fact that she was the Widow Marlowe, hailed by one and all as a Good Woman. A God-fearing woman. A do-gooder. The sort of woman who despised men like him.

But in his long career he had broken down the defenses of more than one so-called virtuous woman. He knew how to get around their fine scruples and tenacious morality. Mrs. Marlowe might be a more difficult case, but he had no doubts about his success.

BOOK: Candice Hern
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