Prince of Persuasion – Scarlett Scott

HE NOTİCED THE fellow’s arse first. The fall of the gent’s navy coat—an odd cut, too bulky by half, and did nothing to disguise the firm, high roundness. Nor the wide swell of the hips. Duncan sipped his illicit whisky—smuggled, forbidden, and perfectly delicious—and allowed his gaze to trail down the mysterious fellow’s buff breeches. These, unlike the ill-fitting coat, proudly displayed two knees and well-turned calves like a second, wicked skin. Slim ankles stole his attention next. So fine and…dainty beneath the stockings. His prick twitched to life. Bloody hell. As the owner and proprietor of The Duke’s Bastard, the most fashionable and notorious gambling hell in London, Duncan catered to all manner of vices for his loyal patrons. But though he had engaged in a varied array of libidinous delights and depravities, he had yet to derive a cockstand from another man. He swallowed another healthy gulp of whisky, relishing the burn. Damn fine swizzle, the latest batch he had been able to procure. Not strong enough to temper his lust, unfortunately, which only increased when the woman seated on his lap moved her bottom in a teasing motion over his growing problem. “Mr.

Kirkwood,” she whispered throatily, her arms locked around his neck. Her mouth was so near, her lips grazed his ear as she spoke. “We could make use of one of your special chambers. Only tell me what you prefer, and I shall do anything you wish.” Her offer ought to stir him, but the stranger hovering by the hazard tables transfixed him. He had not removed his hat, perhaps because he was so newly arrived. But he held himself at a stiff angle, as though prepared for flight. Who was this interloper with the unusually feminine form, and why the devil did Duncan find himself so strangely drawn to him? “Would that please you, Mr. Kirkwood?” Tabitha’s hand swept over his burgeoning cock when he failed to answer. Apparently, the fine art of subtlety eluded her.

Either his patrons were boors who did not notice such a thing, or she required some stern advice from one of his more seasoned ladies. Tabitha was new to The Duke’s Bastard, and she had yet to realize no matter how much time she spent teasing him, sidling about, casting him longing glances, and flaunting her lovely body, he would not tup her. He did not bed any of the ladies in his employ, as it muddied the waters. Duncan preferred his waters clear and calm. He wanted the waters to line his pockets with gold more than he wanted them to satisfy his baser urges. There was a time, a place, and a woman for slaking his needs. But not here. Never within The Duke’s Bastard. And not her. “Tabitha,” he cautioned, passing his hand along her thigh.

Her dress was deuced thin and damp, designed to entice. “You are tasked with entertaining my patrons. Scamper along and perform your duty.” Her tongue, which had been engaged in licking his throat above his cravat, left his skin. She shifted in his lap, her face blocking his view of the trespasser he found so damned intriguing. Wide, honey-brown eyes met his. There was no denying Tabitha’s loveliness. He had hired her for it. “I thought you might…you are ready, sir, and I only wished to please you,” she said. You are not the one responsible for this cursed state.

Good Lord . He could not admit to her the true reason for the evidence of his desire she had skillfully detected. He could not even admit it to himself. Though he had to acknowledge a life of excess and sin that only heightened as the years passed, growing increasingly dissolute. He took pity on her. “I cannot allow myself time for too much idle distraction. Thank you, however, for the offer.” “Mr. Kirkwood,” she protested, pouting prettily. He remained unmoved.

Irritation cut through him, for she had not removed herself from his lap, and he was the master and commander of The Duke’s Bastard. The hell was his ship, and everyone aboard it followed his orders or risked being tossed, headlong, to the waters below. “You are dismissed,” he snapped, his hands clamping on her waist and lifting her from him. There was nowhere for the persistent Tabitha to go save elsewhere, and he suspected he had at last pierced the veil of obliviousness shrouding her. Shaking out her skirts, she offered him a tight smile. “As you prefer, Mr. Kirkwood. Enjoy your evening, sir.” He did not bother to watch her take her leave of him. His gaze had already returned to the gentleman at the hazard table, who had extracted a small ivory tablet and pencil from his voluminous coat while Tabitha had distracted Duncan.

By God. The man had begun scribbling. A competitor. Duncan stood from his chair. All inconvenient leanings toward lust died a hasty death. His strides ate up the floor. His senses registered the familiar sounds of the evening: raucous laughter, epithets, and clinking dice. But inside, he was fuming. With nothing but persistence, intelligence, and hard work, he had built The Duke’s Bastard into a club even royalty begged to enter. Unlike any other club London had to offer, the Bastard was a unique blend of opulence and debauchery.

It boasted the finest French chef at two-thousand pounds per annum, and while it possessed the requisite amount of diversions, the ladies he employed were not lowly street wenches. His physician performed regular examinations to make certain they did not contract or spread the pox. And for the truly depraved, there were special, private chambers catering to a broad array of proclivities. He had seen the need for such a haven, and he had created it. He alone. There would be no imitators or usurpers. Others had infiltrated his ranks before, and he had reacted no less harshly than he would now. When one man reaped great rewards, a hundred others sought to follow in his footsteps by any means, fair or foul. He reached the spy, who was too caught up in his attempts to record everything he saw to notice Duncan until he stopped alongside the miscreant. Wide, green eyes fringed with impossibly long black lashes blinked at him from behind a pair of spectacles.

Shock hit him in the chest, and he could not speak for a moment as his scrambled thoughts struggled to piece themselves back into a semblance of order. The mustache affixed to the man’s upper lip was false. The spy was a female. Thank sweet Christ for that. But whilst relief pulsed through him, it did nothing to abate his rage. Who was she? Whose employ was she in? How had she gained entrance? Why did she have to possess the most delectable bottom he had ever seen? He gritted his teeth, dispelling that last, errant thought. “You, sir. Come with me, if you please.” * FREDERİCA WOULD NOT have been more alarmed had the devil himself appeared before her. As it was, given his grim flair for dress—all black, from his cravat and breeches to his shirt and waistcoat, as if he were in a state of perpetual mourning—he resembled him well enough.

The only lightness on this man was his golden hair and his bright blue eyes that roamed over her face now in a manner she could not like. Indeed, he left her feeling…restless. Unsettled. Curious. Who was this tall, angry, beautiful stranger? She forced herself to speak in as gruff a tone as she could manage. “I beg your pardon, sir?” When she had first settled upon her madcap plan, she had not imagined she would be seen. She had foolishly thought she would go as unnoticed as the wall coverings or the carpet. After all, these wicked men had so much distraction, all manner of vices. Dice. Drink.

Scandalous females in dampened skirts. She shuddered. Papa would lock her in her chamber if he learned of her disgraceful endeavors. She would be ruined. Unutterably. Ineligible for a proper marriage. She would be scorned and given the cut direct. However, since her mother and father wished for her to marry the odious Earl of Willingham, such a fate may not prove as repulsive as one might think. “You,” the man repeated, his tone dark enough to rival his attire as he dredged her from her whirling thoughts. “Come with me.

” She blinked, eyeing him over her spectacles, for she could not see through the dreadful things, and they were merely another effort to distort her appearance. “No.” He raised a lone, golden brow, observing her as a king might his lowly vassal. “You are trespassing, sir. You are not a member of my club. Indeed, you are fortunate I have not yet brought the law down upon you.” Not a member of his club? Her mouth went dry. Could it be that the man before her was the infamous Duncan Kirkwood himself? But how? He did not resemble the dark-haired, long-nosed, effeminate Earl of Willingham—his rumored half brother—in the slightest. If it was indeed Mr. Kirkwood scowling at her, none of the caricatures she had seen had done him justice.

Often, he was depicted as a brute, occasionally as Beelzebub. This man was neither of those. He commanded attention, exuding an air of danger and elegance she had never before seen in another gentleman. “I am afraid I cannot accompany you,” she said past lips that had gone numb. “And I am afraid you must.” He caught her elbow then, and began hauling her through the sea of his patrons as though she were a criminal about to be cast into Newgate. “See here, sir,” she protested in as gruff and commanding a voice as she could muster, resisting his superior strength by dragging her heels and making herself a dead weight. “I am ill. I must return home at once.” Dreadful excuse, Frederica.

His attention snapped back to her, his expression cut in stone. That unnaturally blue gaze swept over her. “You seem perfectly hale to me.” She cleared her throat. “I misspoke. My mother is dreadfully ill, not I. I must return home to attend her. She is suffering from the Melancholius Ague, and it will not be long until she succumbs, God have mercy upon her soul. She has no one but a gouty old manservant named Arthur for accompaniment, as our means have been substantially reduced by my love of vice.” He stared at her, and while the large chamber with its gleaming wood, sumptuous furniture, and breathtaking oil murals was laden with lords, it seemed for a moment as if they were the only two people who existed.

“What manner of ague?” Oh dear, what had she invented? This sort of thing ever landed her in trouble in her novels. On page three, the villain would be Sir Carstairs, and by page thirty, he would be Sir Carmichael. “The Melancoholius Ague,” she guessed, her mind working to save her hide by fashioning an endless fount of distraction. “The manservant also has but one leg, and he is blind. So, you see, I really ought not to have left them at all. He can scarcely look after dearest Mama, but I cannot control my need for wagering and…sin.” A muscle ticked in his jaw. “Blind, you say?” “And deaf as well,” she added. “Not entirely, mind you. He can hear high-pitched noises.

Kitchen mice, for instance. The squeaking, you understand. My mother’s voice is quite unnaturally low for a female. The manservant cannot make out a word she says, I am afraid. You must see how dire the situation is, and if you please, I must take my leave at once.” “Indeed.” His gaze roamed over her once more, seeming to settle far too long upon her bosom, which she had painstakingly and painfully bound before donning her brother’s stolen attire. “This… unfortunate creature. What is his name?” “Who?” She blinked, her cheeks going warm at his scrutiny. He was still staring, the cad, and it made her belly quiver in a strange and unwanted fashion.

“The manservant tending your poor, dear mother, of course.” He flashed her a grin that was neither pleasant nor menacing but somehow predatory instead. “What is the fellow’s name? I feel certain I may know him. He sounds so familiar. There cannot be many in London who share such a tendency toward ill fortune.” “Oh, no, sir.” She gulped, shaking her head. “You cannot possibly know him. His name is Arnold, but given his delicate health, he does not venture far from my mother’s side.” Mr.

Kirkwood’s lips twitched. They were truly fine lips, she noted in spite of herself, fuller than a man’s ought to be, sculpted as if by a master. Lord Willingham’s lips, in contrast, were thin and wet and cold. The kiss he had pressed upon her during a ride in his phaeton had been as pleasant as she imagined setting her lips to a slimy fish would be. As had been his hard, almost punishing grip. Surely, two men more disparate in appearance and manner did not exist. Where one was ice, the other was scorching flame. “There is no invalid mother,” Mr. Kirkwood insisted then. Correctly, drat him.

“Nor is there an Arthur or an Arnold, and you will accompany me to my office. Now.” Bother. Had she confused names again? It was her curse, ever plaguing her. He did not wait for her response. He simply turned and began hauling her once more. No. No. No. She had to do something to halt this madness.

Dressing as her brother—after pilfering the trunkbound wardrobe he had outgrown—and sneaking away from her chamber garbed as a gentleman was scandalous enough. As was blustering her way into The Duke’s Bastard, London’s most infamous and exclusive club, by posing as a lord. But cloistering herself inside a chamber with the wicked establishment’s equally wicked proprietor would be a social death knell. Something inside her reminded her that perhaps a social death knell would be preferable to becoming the Countess of Willingham. But then she banished such unworthy thoughts. After all, Duncan Kirkwood shared blood with the earl. Surely they were cut from the same cloth in more ways than not. Moreover, he was a sinner and a blackguard. A rakehell and a cad. He had built his immense fortune upon the misfortune and misguided greed of others.

He had destroyed gentlemen, ruined families, and beggared lords. He was not to be trusted. She had to fight him. Stop him. Frederica was no delicate miss. Indeed, she oft bemoaned her full hips, waist, and bosom. She would never be referred to as willowy. She was not slim. But even she was no match for the superior height and brawn of Mr. Kirkwood.

She could not wrest her arm from his grasp. Nor could she stay their forward motion. There was no means of escape, short of screaming and announcing to the assemblage of rakes and rogues that she was in fact Lady Frederica Isling, daughter to the Duke of Westlake. And as tempting as facilitating her own ruination was, it would also put an end to her aspirations of finishing her novel. For she could not finish The Silent Baron if she was not able to properly conduct her research. Veracity required firsthand knowledge. But as Mr. Kirkwood propelled her over the threshold and into his private domain, she could not help but shiver. He released her, slanting a searching look in her direction, and closed the door, muffling the sounds of the den of vice he ruled. She blinked, wishing she had not chosen to wear the dratted spectacles, for they forced her to peer over them if she wanted to see anything.

The writer within her instantly flared with excitement. The chamber was paneled in dark wood, lit by mirrored gilt sconces crowned with lions and acanthus. Tapers flickered, half spent. A sturdy, elaborately carved desk dominated one end of the chamber. The chair behind it was as large as a throne, depicting Hades and Persephone. The carpets were red, thick, and plush beneath her feet. The entire chamber possessed an unexpected aura of refinement. Until… A glance at the ceiling made her gasp. Lewd and lascivious murals abounded. Nymphs cavorting.

Females kissing each other. Naked breasts and bottoms. A man’s long, erect… Oh, dear Lord in heaven. She lowered her gaze, cheeks hot, to find Mr. Kirkwood standing disturbingly near, watching her once more. She wet her lips. His office was the personification of sin. Her heart thudded. When she had dreamt up this mad scheme with Leonora, she had never imagined she would even be noticed at The Duke’s Bastard. She had never imagined she would find herself alone in a chamber rife with licentious illustrations, the club’s notorious, disturbingly handsome owner bearing down on her.

“Have a second look,” Mr. Kirkwood invited, grinning. “The first was far too cursory.” Her face flamed hotter. He had taken note of her perusal, and her shock entertained him. The man was depraved. She cleared her throat, forcing her voice to unnaturally low octaves once more, for it was essential she maintain her disguise. “I do not think I shall, sir. Please, what is it you wish of me? I have already tarried here far too long as it is. My ailing mother requires me.

” He had seen through her fictions. But that did not mean she was ready to surrender or admit to subterfuge. If she did not have her deceptions to cling to, she had nothing at all. For then, she was just a disgraced lady standing before the most libidinous gaming hell owner in town, with no defenses, no more excuses, and no hope of escaping this scrape with her reputation intact. If you wish it to be intact, taunted that awful, unwanted voice. The truth was murky. And conflicted. Ruination remained a tempting sin she had not yet entirely ruled out. “For shame, my lord.” Mr.

Kirkwood cocked his head and raised his brow. “You cannot still be clinging to your lies, can you?” “I told you no lies, sir,” she denied, for she did not like to think of her fictions as lies. Rather, they were embellishments. No different than the worlds she created with her quill, ink, and paper, except they had been spoken aloud. They had been spoken to him, and with an aim to save herself from his unwanted scrutiny. It would seem she had failed abysmally on that score. “Truly, my lord?” Mr. Kirkwood flashed her a grin that transformed his features from strikingly handsome to breathtaking. It was an odd thing for a man to be so beautiful, but there was no other way to describe him. Gazing upon the full effect of him now, she could not seem to find her voice.

Especially since his hot gaze had once more dipped to her breasts, as though he could see the fullness of them carefully hidden beneath the trappings of civility. Frederica blinked. Oh dear. What had he asked of her? One gaze into the brilliant depths of his eyes—one perusal of his full, sensual lips—and her mind was as muddled as the pages of an unbound book that had been thrown aloft. Slowly drifting to earth, but no longer in the order it had once been. No longer the same. Thoroughly jumbled. She had to leave. That was the answer to this madness, this impossible conundrum facing her. She spun on her heel, desperate to flee the chamber and run from Duncan Kirkwood, his club, and the improper sensations he elicited in her all at once.

A hand gripped her elbow. Superior strength stayed her and twirled her about. The quick, forceful motions took her by surprise. Frederica lost her balance and toppled forward. Into Mr. Kirkwood’s chest. Her splayed palms connected with his midnight superfine coat, absorbing the firm strength hidden beneath the layers of wool and linen. Her heart thudded. A queer sensation settled between her thighs. Frederica had never touched a gentleman so intimately before, and Mr.

Kirkwood—well, he was surely not a gentleman. But he was of the male persuasion. And he was delightfully broad, large, and firm. Beneath her tentative hands, he was warm. He was… “Are you feverish, my lord?” Mr. Kirkwood’s deep voice, sinfully amused, interrupted her wild musings. “Perhaps I may have a touch of my mother’s ague.” She swallowed, the precise name she’d given for the illness disappearing from her mind, along with most other coherent thought. Her hands, meanwhile, required no independent guidance. She was intrigued, and she could not help herself from indulging.

She could not deny herself the details she sought. This, too, was the reason why she had taken the great risk of infiltrating his club—for research purposes. How could she write The Silent Baron with any degree of accuracy if she possessed no knowledge well from which to draw? She could have guessed a man’s form was firmer than her own, for instance. But she could not have known how defined and hard his muscled torso felt beneath her questing fingers. She could not have experienced the steady beat of his heart, or inhaled his delicious masculine scent of lemon, musk, and amber. She could not have noticed the tiny flecks of green in his blue eyes, or the faint brackets alongside his full lips that suggested an inclination to smile and laugh often. She would not have noted the glint of candlelight in his golden locks, which were longer than fashion and tousled. Her liberties were unprecedented and egregious, as was being alone with him in his office, nary a chaperon to be found. In his inner sanctum at the midst of a den of iniquity. Her hands, however, had a mind of their own, traveling beneath his cutaway to his waistcoat.

What was she thinking, mauling Duncan Kirkwood’s chest? How shocking. The trouble of it was, now she had begun, she could not seem to stop. Surely it was her curiosity propelling her. Surely it was not that she…enjoyed the illicit pleasure of stroking a strange gentleman’s chest. Specifically, of stroking the chest belonging to one of London’s most notorious men. Nay. He touched her forehead. Pressed the backs of his fingers to her skin for a brief moment, and the contact resonated in her core. “You do not feel feverish to me,” Mr. Kirkwood said then, interrupting the heavy silence that had fallen between them.

“Do you, my lord, perchance possess a fondness for testing the quality of a man’s waistcoat with your hands?” She swallowed again. Caught. How had she forgotten she was masquerading as a gentleman? She snatched her hands away from him at last, flushing. The sensation of his lean abdomen seemed imprinted upon her palms. “No.” She blinked. “Er, yes.” His lips quirked into a smile she could only describe as swoon-inducing. “Which is it, my lord? Yes or no?” Neither. Frederica calculated the odds of successfully fleeing the chamber once more.

Perhaps if she distracted him first, or if she was somehow able to douse the flames of the wall sconces, she could detain him long enough to make good her retreat. Or better yet, perhaps she could convince him she was ill. “Forgive me my familiarity,” she said, taking care to keep her voice as gruff as possible. “I seem to have lost my balance. No doubt I have contracted the ague as well. For my dear mother, it began with her falling into things—just the furniture at first, mind you. Chairs. A Louis Quatorze table. Then one day, she fell atop the Duchess of Blackwater during an at home, and it was the beginning of the end. The duchess gave my mother the cut direct after that occasion.

Indeed, I fear it will not be long now before death claims me as well. I ought not to be near you, sir, lest the ague be catching.” If Mr. Kirkwood did not allow her to leave after this embellishment, she knew not what would sway him. His gaze seemed to burn into her. “This duchess…was she a friend of your mother’s?”

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