Scoundrel of My Heart – Lorraine Heath

“I say, this is a marvelous opportunity for one of us to snag herself a duke.” The raspy voice—like fine sandpaper massaged over velvet, a bit of roughness against tantalizing softness—forced Lord Griffith Stanwick to come awake with a jolt of pure physical want that nearly made him groan as his cock responded with a need that would go unsatisfied that morning. Not that he had a particular interest in bedding this particular woman. On the best of days, he found Lady Kathryn Lambert’s optimistic presence deuced irritating, but at this precise minute her wretched cheerfulness was particularly annoying because tiny hammers were bombarding his skull, his stomach was roiling, and he was striving to remember how he had come to be lying facedown in the dirt behind the hedgerows near the terrace where his sister was no doubt enjoying a morning repast with her dear friend, who had been residing with them for a fortnight now, while her parents toured Italy. Obviously too much scotch the night before was partially responsible for his unwelcomed state, but he was no stranger to inebriation and had never before ended up where he didn’t want to be. What else had he gotten up to that had led him to a garden bed rather than a more enticing one with sheets? “But surely the duke is in want of a debutante,” a sterner voice suggested. Lady Jocelyn, another friend to his sister, was equally irritating. Apparently, she had decided to join them at this ungodly hour, whatever it was. When the trio was together, gossip flowed, and silence was not to be found. Right now, he dearly craved silence. “Closing in on four and twenty, we’re nearly on the shelf. We’d be lucky to attract a spare.” “Not a spare. Never a spare,” Lady Kathryn insisted. “That would not work for me at all.

” It wasn’t the first time he’d overheard her make such a claim in a tone that implied to find herself shackled with a spare would be the equivalent of encasing herself in horse manure. In spite of his foggy mind, the words stung. Capturing the heart of a second son was not the worst circumstance that could befall a woman. He knew dukes whose breath could knock a man over at twenty paces, marquesses whose laugh resembled a mule’s bray, earls with hands as soft as porridge, and viscounts with boils. Although considering his present state, he had to acknowledge that he might not be the best one to cast stones. Besides, he was well aware that Lady Kathryn was not alone in her distaste for those never destined to inherit. It was one of the reasons that at seven and twenty, he had yet to do any serious wooing. Another reason was that as the spare, he was not required to provide an heir. And he enjoyed bachelorhood. No responsibilities.

A modest allowance. An abundance of spirits, wagering, and women of questionable moral character at his disposal. Every night was bursting with escapades, although the mornings were beginning to become quite tedious. It wasn’t bad when he awoke next to a warm, willing adventuress, but of late, if he was honest, he was growing a bit bored with them as well. Not so bored, however, that he preferred awakening among the hedgerows. How the bloody hell had he ended his night here? “As Cupid’s arrow has struck true in my case,” Althea announced with calm determination and a bit of glee at her recent good fortune, “I cannot help but believe, dearest friends, that you both will join me in betrothal bliss before this Season’s end.” “Chadbourne is one fortunate fellow,” Lady Kathryn said. “All of London knows you’ve completely won him over, and he will make a marvelous husband. He is besotted with you. Absolutely besotted.

” He imagined his sister, blushing and smiling at the mention of the earl. Althea was equally besotted with the gentleman she was to marry in January. “As I said, like me, you will soon receive offers. I’m positively certain of it. And here is the perfect opportunity to put my prediction to the test.” “But is this the best way to go about it?” Lady Jocelyn asked. “To write a letter to the duke outlining why he should choose me over all others? It seems rather forward.” “The Duke of Kingsland is an extremely busy man, overseeing his vast estates and increasing his fortune, by all accounts,” Lady Kathryn said. “He doesn’t have time to court one woman after another until he finds one who might be suitable. I think he’s brilliant to come up with this strategy.

” The Duke of Kingsland, the most eligible and sought-after bachelor among the ton. The man avoided the social scene, stayed in London only long enough to see to his duties in the House of Lords, and never lost at games of chance. As far as Griffith knew, the duke had few close friends. He wielded wealth, power, and influence in equal measure thanks to a title that had carried weight for generations. Which might explain the advert he’d placed in the Times encouraging the daughters of peers to write him explaining why he should consider them as a potential duchess. Audition for him through the post. He would announce his selection at a ball he was hosting the last evening in June, would court her the remainder of the Season, and if he found her to be as appealing as her letter indicated, he would marry her before the end of the next Season. Neat and tidy and so deuced boring. Griffith preferred to experience that first unexpected hint of allure, of interest, and then to explore the potential in a slow, seductive unraveling that revealed commonalities, differences, and secrets. He liked discovering how everything came together to make a woman intriguing.

Some things he discovered before he bedded her, some things during, some things after. But always he enjoyed uncovering the various parts that created the whole. Even if, when the whole took shape, he lost interest, he still relished the journey. For him, it was always about savoring the discoveries, appreciating each nuance as though it was a fine wine he’d never before tasted. “I’m not certain it’s brilliant,” Lady Jocelyn said. It wasn’t. It was damned lazy. It was an injustice to the woman, reduced her to a list of attributes, as though she was no more important than cattle. Besides, could a woman even know herself well enough to understand what any particular man might fancy about her? “But I suppose there is no harm in writing him. It’s not as though I have suitors falling at my feet.

” “Jolly good! I’ve always found competition encourages us to call to our better selves,” Lady Kathryn exclaimed heartily, causing insidious pain to travel through Griffith’s ears and brain. He couldn’t hold back his groan of discomfort. “What the deuce was that?” his sister asked, and he wished he could curl into a minuscule ball or scooch his way around to the side of the house, but any movement at all was bound to elicit an objection from his aching head and increase the severity of the pounding in his skull. Best to merely lie still and hope the ladies simply went on about their business. He heard the rustle of leaves and the snap of a twig. Apparently hope was not the best of strategies. “Griff? What the devil are you doing sprawled out over the ground back there?” Squinting—was the morning sun always this bright?—he peered up at Althea. “To be honest, I’m not quite sure, but it does appear I got turned about returning home last night.” For some inexplicable reason he’d not used the front door. Perhaps he’d been unable, with clumsy fingers, to grasp the key nestled in his waistcoat pocket.

Although, patting said pocket now, he found it empty. Had he misplaced the bit of brass? “You were well in your cups again, weren’t you?” “I do seem to recall some celebrating going on.” For a while the games had favored him . until they hadn’t. What was a man supposed to do when fortune slipped away except seek solace in drink? “Well, stir yourself and come out of there,” she ordered briskly, as though she wasn’t three years his junior but was instead his elder. With a great deal of effort, he shoved himself to his feet, pressed his back to the brick, and crept out through the narrow space between wall and foliage, trying to avoid getting snagged by the sharpedged leaves of the hedges. When he reached his sister, she scrunched up her entire face. “You smell like a distillery.” “How do you know how a distillery smells?” Looking past her to the two ladies sitting at the white linen-covered round table, he forced his most charming grin to form, a smile he didn’t feel like granting, not only because of the increased ache in his head but because of what he’d overheard. “Ladies, how are you this fine morning?” “I daresay better than you,” Lady Kathryn retorted, using the tone she seemed to reserve only for him.

“Here,” Althea said, reaching quickly for the teapot. “Have a spot of tea. You look as though you could use it.” Tea was nowhere on the list of things he could use. A hot bath—he did indeed smell like a distillery, along with a cheroot factory—a shave, and the blackest coffee would serve him better. If the other ladies hadn’t been staring at him with twin expressions of disgust, he might have made his excuses and headed straight to his most urgent need: a soft bed. But knowing he’d take some perverse delight in irritating them by delaying his escape and joining them, he dragged back a chair, dropped into it, and took the offered cup and saucer. “You are indeed kind, dear sister.” It was so like her, looking out for others. He really didn’t deserve to have a sister so generous of spirit.

Peering through the steam rising from the brew, he took a long, slow swallow. She’d laced it with an abundance of sugar, and his body reacted with gratitude, the ache behind his eyes dissipating a fraction so the day seemed at least survivable. Lady Kathryn looked on disapprovingly, a tightness to her mouth, and he wouldn’t have been surprised if she’d announced, “You’re better than this.” Only he wasn’t. Precisely because of what she had voiced earlier. No one wanted the spare. Not the ladies of the ton. Not his father. Not his mother. Even the heir, two years older than he was, had little time for him.

But scotch, cards, and actresses seldom turned him away. “Perhaps your brother’s presence here is fortuitous,” Lady Jocelyn said. “You no doubt overheard what we were discussing.” “I apologize, ladies, as it was not my intention to eavesdrop, but you did manage to garner my undivided attention with your dulcet tones.” While Lady Kathryn fairly glowered, signaling she’d caught the sarcasm in his tone, Lady Jocelyn smiled as though he’d handed her one of the Crown Jewels. She’d never struck him as being particularly cognizant of subtleties. “Then perhaps you would be good enough to share with us how we might impress upon the duke that we are worth considering for courtship.” “How would he know what a duke wants?” Lady Kathryn asked. He allowed a corner of his mouth to ease up provocatively, sensually. “A duke wants what any man wants.

A woman who is a saint in society and a wild wanton in the bedchamber.” Her hazel eyes narrowed until they resembled the finely honed blade of a dagger. She riled so easily, and for some inexplicable reason, he’d always taken great delight in pricking her temper. “That is hardly helpful,” she snapped. “But ’tis true.” “We are genteel ladies of good breeding, and as such, we’ve hardly been bedded so can offer no insight into our capabilities beneath the sheets, as it were.” He imagined her beneath the sheets, with him stirring her until she fully comprehended her capacity for pleasure. As his body began to respond to the images, he shoved them back. Whatever was wrong with him to even contemplate an intimacy with her? “Besides, it is for our husband to tell us what he wants regarding that particular aspect of our marriage.” “Why?” he asked, truly befuddled.

“Why should he be the only one to have a say? Surely, Freckles, you’ve given some thought to what you might enjoy.” “I have not,” she countered testily. “‘The lady doth protest too much, methinks.’” “Don’t be absurd. Ladies do not sully their minds by thinking carnal thoughts.” “If you’ve never thought them, how do you know they’d sully your mind?” “You’re being preposterously difficult.” “No, I’m actually curious as to what you envision happens between a man and a woman that would be so lurid as to tarnish an otherwise pristine brain if pondered or mulled over.” She looked as though she’d like to toss her tea on him. “You know well enough.” Her voice had gone lower, more gravelly, causing his belly to tighten.

“Caresses along bare skin, the nip of a collarbone, a squeeze here, a rub there? Kisses along curves, hollows, and dips? How is any of that sordid?” Her lips had slowly parted, and her cheeks had deepened from an enticing rose into a lovely crimson. He wondered if, like him, she was now imagining his bare hand, fingers splayed, on her bare thigh, slipping up toward that heavenly apex where paradise waited, previously untouched and unexplored. Christ. What the devil was wrong with him? She was the very last woman he had any interest in bedding. It didn’t matter that her coppery hair turned the shade of fire when lit by the sun, and that he had, on occasion and much to his chagrin, wondered if it would be as hot to the touch, if it would spark pleasure. It didn’t matter that her fragrance was more spicy than sweet, and he’d always enjoyed foods with a great deal of seasoning. It didn’t matter that her lips were more pink than red, and on the rare occasion he painted, he preferred the subtle allure of pastels. “Griff, I’m not quite certain this is an appropriate topic of discussion considering the company,” Althea remarked hesitantly. “But that is my point.” He did hope they’d attribute the croak of his voice to his having recently been pulled from slumber and not the fact that his mouth had suddenly gone as arid as a desert.

“It shouldn’t be taboo. Men are allowed to think about it, discuss it, experience it—without benefit of marriage. Why shouldn’t women?” A series of gasps met that pronouncement. He shook his head. “Even if a woman is not to experience it without marriage”—although he didn’t agree with that belief—“she should at least be able to think about it and discuss it without shame, without fearing she has mired her mind.” He gave his attention back to Lady Kathryn. “You never think about it?” “I do not.” “Then, how can you know what you want, what you might enjoy?” “As I stated earlier, it is for my husband to show me.” “You have never struck me as a woman without an opinion on any matter.” He leaned forward.

“I would wager a month’s allowance that you have thought about it, and quite thoroughly.” That her nostrils flared and her breaths seemed to slow only served to tighten his belly more. What images did she conjure in that mind of hers? “Griff, I do believe you have just called our guest a liar,” Althea said, her upset evident in her tone. Because she was. Not that he was going to call her on it again, but damned if he didn’t want to uncover her fantasies. “My apologies. It seems I am not yet fit for company as my indulgences from last night are still having their way with me.” He shoved back his chair and stood. Then he turned his attention to Lady Jocelyn, who had first posed the question, because studying Lady Kathryn was beginning to make him feel light-headed as blood wanted to rush where it shouldn’t. “Write to the duke of your comely features, mastery of etiquette, interests, and accomplishments.

” “Thank you, my lord.” He offered her a small smile. “And may the best lady win.” With that, he left them and strode into the residence, knowing the hot bath he’d craved earlier would have to wait. Lady Kathryn might not allow thoughts to sully her mind, but now his was filled with a sordid display of her body writhing against his that required he plunge into a bitingly cold tub of water first. Sitting in the front parlor, the escritoire on her lap, almost forgotten, Kathryn cursed Lord Griffith Stanwick for the hundredth time. His words had put salacious thoughts in her head that she could not seem to be rid of. Hands gliding over her bared shoulders and lower, to places they ought not. Blast him! Then, to insinuate that she’d been lying when she’d claimed not to have ever had improper musings —the cur. Of course, she had, but it had been bad form on his part to insist she confess it.

A lady of genteel breeding should not harbor lurid reflections and most certainly should not admit to it, especially when they often involved her dearest friend’s obnoxious brother doing terribly wicked things to her, running a finger over her décolletage where silk met flesh or kissing the inside of her wrist where she always put a dab of perfume just in case. She cursed him again. To make matters worse, he’d used that awful moniker he’d bestowed upon her when she’d met him at the age of twelve, Freckles. Ghastly name, that. The brown spots had always been the bane of her existence. Wearing bonnets that she loathed and rubbing all sorts of magical creams on her face had caused the spots to fade, but the barest of shadows remained, which gave her a rather blotchy appearance when she blushed. Which for some reason Lord Griffith Stanwick caused to happen with regular frequency whenever he was near. Since she was presently staying with her dearest friend, Lady Althea, crossing paths with Griff—as his sister called him and Kathryn secretly did as well—had become a regular part of her day . and sometimes her night. She fought not to give in to guilt because she was the one responsible for his having awakened near the hedgerows.

Having difficulty sleeping the evening before, she’d been on her way to the library to fetch a book and had just reached the foyer, when she spotted the front door opening. Then he had stumbled in, only a fraction, enough to press himself against the jamb without releasing his hold on the latch. His disheveled state had been appalling. His neckcloth was unknotted and his hat missing. His hair stood at odd angles as though a dozen women had run their fingers through it, which they no doubt had. When his gaze landed on her, one corner of his mouth had hitched up. “Hello, Freckles.” She’d hated seeing him in such disarray, behaving like her Uncle George—her father’s brother. The man drank too much, played rather than worked, and constantly came to her father because he was in need of funds to support his gambling habits. He argued that he was owed because her father had inherited the titles and estates while he’d been left with nothing.

Although, eventually he would inherit because her father had no son with whom to leave everything. It hadn’t helped her opinion regarding Uncle George when his own mother was so disappointed in him. “Never marry a second son,” her grandmother had advised her numerous times when he’d shown up at a family function three sheets to the wind. He cared about only himself, no one else. Not his wife or his own son, who had taken after him in every regard, even going so far as to hold out his hand to her father. “It’ll all be mine eventually. Might as well give me a bit now.”

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