Lady Isabel Townsend stood in the shabby receiving room of the only home she had ever known, and willed the roaring in her ears to subside. She narrowed her gaze on the pale, reedy man standing before her. “My father sent you.” “Precisely.” “And would you mind repeating that last bit?” Surely she had misunderstood the words that had tripped from the tongue of this most unwelcome visitor. He smiled, the expression empty and unattractive. Isabel’s stomach flipped. “Indeed,” he drawled, the word coiling between them in the suddenly too-small room. “We are betrothed.” “And by we … I take it that you mean …” “You. And I. Are to be married.” Isabel shook her head. “I am sorry, you are … ?” He paused, clearly unhappy with the idea that she had not been paying attention. “Asperton.
Lionel Asperton.” Isabel made a mental note to savor the unfortunate name at a later time. For now, she must deal with the man. Who did not appear to be very clever. Of course, she had learned long ago that the men of her father’s acquaintance were rarely men of intellect. “And how is it that we became betrothed, Mr. Asperton?” “I won you.” Isabel closed her eyes, willing herself to remain steady. To hide the anger and hurt that surged at the words. That always surged at the words.
She met his pale gaze once more. “You won me.” He did not even have the grace to feign embarrassment. “Yes. Your father wagered you.” “Of course he did.” Isabel exhaled her frustration on a little puff of breath. “Against? ” “One hundred pounds.” “Well. That’s more than usual.
” Asperton waved off the cryptic words, taking a step closer to her. His smile was cocksure. “I won the round. You are mine. By rights.” He reached out a hand, tracing one finger down her cheek. He lowered his voice to a whisper. “I think we shall both enjoy it.” She remained still, sheer will keeping the shudder that threatened at bay. “I am not so sure.
” He leaned in, and Isabel became transfixed by the man’s lips—red and waxy. She edged away, desperate to maintain a distance, as he said, “Then I shall have to convince you otherwise.” She twisted from beneath his touch and their uncomfortable proximity, placing an old, fraying chair between them. A gleam flashed in the man’s eyes as he followed her, moving closer. He liked the chase. Isabel was going to have to end this. Now. “I am afraid you have traveled a very long way for nothing, Mr. Asperton. You see, I am well past the age of majority.
My father”—she paused, the word foul-tasting—“should have known better than to wager me. It has never worked before. It certainly will not work now.” He stopped his stalking, eyes widening. “He has done this before?” Too many times. “I see that gambling away one’s only daughter once is fair play, but to do it multiple times, that somehow offends your sensibilities? ” Asperton gaped. “Of course!” Isabel narrowed her gaze on her would-be betrothed. “Why?” “Because he knew he would ultimately renege on the wager!” The man was most definitely an acquaintance of her father. “Yes. That is obviously the reason for this situation’s untenable offense,” Isabel said wryly, turning abruptly and opening the door to the room wide.
“I am afraid, Mr. Asperton, that you are the seventh man who has come to claim me as his bride.” She could not help a smile at his surprise. “And, as it is, you shall also be the seventh man who shall leave Townsend Park unmarried.” Asperton’s mouth opened and closed in quick succession—his fleshy lips reminding Isabel of a codfish. She counted to five. They always exploded before she could reach five. “This will not stand! I was promised a wife! The daughter of an earl!” His voice had gone high and nasal—the tone that Isabel had always associated with the idle unpleasants who fraternized with her father. Not that she had seen her father in half a dozen years. She crossed her arms, bestowing the man with her best sympathetic look.
“I imagine he hinted at a substantial dowry, as well? ” His eyes lit as though he was finally understood. “Precisely.” She almost felt sorry for him. Almost. “Well, I am afraid that there isn’t one of those, either.” His brow furrowed. “Would you care for tea? ” Isabel watched as the slow-moving wheel of Asperton’s brain completed its rotation and he announced, “No! I do not care for tea! I came for a wife and by God I shall leave with one! With you!” Attempting to retain an air of calm, she sighed and said, “I had very much hoped that it would not come to this.” His chest puffed out at the words, misunderstanding her meaning. “I am sure that you did. But I will not be leaving this house without the wife I was promised! You belong to me! By rights!” He lunged for her then.
They always did. She stepped to the side, and he plunged through the open doorway and into the entryway beyond. Where the women were waiting. Isabel followed him into the foyer, watching as he straightened, as he took in the three women standing there like well-trained soldiers, a wall of defense between him and the door to the house. Certainly he’d never seen any women like this before. Of course, he would never realize that he was looking at three women. Isabel had always found that men tended to see only what they wanted to see. She watched as his gaze shifted from the cook, to the stable master, to the butler. He turned on Isabel. “What’s this, then?” The stable master slapped her coiled horsewhip against one thigh, the thwack of the leather causing Asperton to flinch.
“We do not like you raising your voice to a lady, sir.” Isabel watched as the angled notch at his thin throat quivered. “I—I am …” “Well, one thing you are not is a gentleman, if the way you came lunging out of that room is any indication.” The cook indicated the receiving room with her large, heavy rolling pin. He looked to Isabel again, and she gave a little feminine shrug. “Surely you were not lunging after Lady Isabel in such a manner.” This from the butler, who, perfectly pressed and cravatted, lazily investigated the edge of the sabre she held. Isabel did her best not to look at the empty spot on the wall from which the ancient—and likely very dull, indeed—sword had come. They really did have a flair for the dramatic. “I—no!” There was a long moment of silence as Isabel waited for a sheen of perspiration to take up residence on Mr.
Asperton’s brow. She watched as the rise and fall of his chest quickened, and only then decided to intervene. “Mr. Asperton was just leaving,” she said, her tone infused with helpfulness. “Were you not, sir?” He nodded nervously, mesmerized by Kate’s horsewhip, moving in slow, threatening circles. “I—I was.” “I don’t think he’ll be returning. Will you, sir?” He did not reply for a long moment. Kate dropped the soft leather of the whip to the ground, and the sudden movement shook him from his trance. He snapped to attention and shook his head firmly.
“No. I shouldn’t think so.” The tip of Jane’s sabre hit the marble floor, sending a powerful clang through the large, empty space. Isabel’s eyes widened, her voice lowering to a whisper. “I should think you would want to know such a thing, sir.” He cleared his throat quickly, “Yes. Of course. I mean—no. I shan’t be back.” Isabel smiled then, wide and friendly.
“Excellent. I shall bid you adieu, then. I feel confident that you are able to find your own way out?” She indicated the door, now flanked by the three women. “Farewell.” She returned to the receiving room then, closing the door firmly behind her and moving to the window just in time to see the maypole of a man hurry down the steps of the Park and clamber onto his horse, riding away as though the hounds of hell were upon him. She released a long breath. Only then did she allow the tears to come. Her father had wagered her away. Again. The first time had hurt the most.
One would think she would be used to such treatment by now, but the truth of it surprised her, nonetheless. As though, someday, it all might be different. As though, someday, he might be other than the Wastrearl. As though, someday, he might care for her. As though, someday, anyone might care for her. For a moment, she allowed herself to consider her father. The Wastrearl. A man who had left his children and his wife tucked away in the country and returned to London to live a profligate, scandalous life. A man who had never cared: not when his wife had died; not when his servants, unwilling to go another day without pay, had left their positions en masse; not when his daughter had sent letter after letter asking for him to return to Townsend Park and restore the country house to some semblance of its former glory—if not for her, then for his heir. The one time he had returned… No.
She would not think on it. Her father. The man who stole her mother’s sprit. Who had robbed her brother, an infant, of a father. Had he not deserted them, Isabel would never have taken responsibility for the estate. She had risen to the challenge, doing her best to keep the house standing and food on the table. While not fruitful, the estate had been able to just barely sustain its inhabitants and tenants while her father had spent every last penny of the income from its lands on his scandalous activities. There had been enough to eat, and the Wastrearl’s black reputation had kept curious visitors from arriving on the steps of Townsend Park, allowing Isabel to populate the house and its servants’ quarters however she wished, away from the prying eyes of the ton. But it did not stop her from wishing that it had all been different. Wishing that she had had the chance to be everything daughters of earls were born to be.
Wishing that she’d been raised without a care in the world. Without a doubt in her head that it would someday be her day to sparkle; that she would one day be courted properly—by a man who wanted her for her, not as a spoil from a game of chance. Wishing that she were not so very alone. Not that wishing had ever helped. The door to the room opened and shut quietly, and Isabel gave a little self-deprecating laugh, wiping the tears from her cheeks. Finally, she turned, meeting Jane’s knowing, serious gaze. “You should not have threatened him.” “He deserved it,” the butler said. Isabel nodded. Asperton had taken the place of her father in those final minutes.
Tears pricked once more; she kept them at bay. “I hate him,” she whispered. “I know,” the butler said, not moving from her place in the doorway. “If he were here, I would happily kill him.” Jane nodded once. “Well, it seems that such a thing will not be necessary.” She lifted one hand, revealing a square of parchment. “Isabel. The earl … he is dead.” One And what would these lessons be, Dear Reader, without a prospective lord to land? The gentleman for whom you have so diligently studied? The answer, of course, is that they would be nigh on useless.
Are we not, then, the very luckiest of ladies, that our fair city boasts the best and the brightest, the charmed and the charming, a veritable treasure trove of bachelors—wealthy, willing, and wandering lonely through our streets, wanting only for a wife! Finding these paragons of gentlemanliness is a daunting task, but never fear, Dear Reader! We have assumed the job for you—scoured the city for the lords most worthy of your invaluable, unbridled attention. Consider, if you will, the first on our list of eminently landable lords … Pearls and Pelisses June 1823 When the blonde by the door winked at him, it was the very last straw. Lord Nicholas St. John sank further into his seat, cursing under his breath. Who would have imagined that a superlative doled out by an inane ladies’ magazine was enough to transform London’s female population into clamoring fools? At first, he’d found it amusing—a welcome entertainment. Then the invitations had begun to arrive. And when the clock in his St. James town house had barely struck two, Lady Ponsonby had joined them, claiming to have business to discuss—something to do with a statue she had recently acquired from Southern Italy. Nick knew better. There was only one reason for a viper like Lady Ponsonby to come calling at a bachelor’s home—a reason Nick was certain Lord Ponsonby would not find at all reasonable.
So he had escaped, first to the Royal Society of Antiquities, where he had sequestered himself in the library, far from anyone who had ever heard of ladies’ magazines, let alone read one. Unfortunately, the journalist—Nick flinched at the liberal use of the term—had done his research, and within the hour, the head footman had announced the arrival of four separate women, ranging in age and station, all in dire need of a consultation regarding their marbles—all of whom insisted that none but Lord Nicholas would do. Nick snorted into his drink at the memory. Marbles, indeed. He had paid the footman handsomely for his discretion and fled once more, this time with little dignity, through the rear entrance to the Society and into a narrow, sordid alleyway that did little to enliven his disposition. Tilting the brim of his hat down to shield his identity, he’d made his way to sanctuary—to the Dog and Dove, where he had been ensconced in a dark corner for the last several hours. Well and truly trapped. Ordinarily, when a voluptuous barmaid made eyes at him, he was more than willing to consider her ample charms. But this particular woman was the fourteenth of her sex to have overtly considered his charms that day, and he had had quite enough. He scowled, first at the girl, then into his ale, feeling darker and more irritated by the minute.
“I’ve got to get out of this damned city.” The deep, rumbling laugh from across the table did not improve his mood. “Do not doubt for one moment that I could have you shipped back to Turkey,” Nick said, his voice a low growl. “I do hope you will not. I should hate to miss the conclusion of this entertaining theatre.” His companion, Durukhan, turned and looked over his shoulder, dark eyes passing lazily over the comely young woman. “Pity. She will not even consider me.” “Clever girl.” “More likely, she simply believes everything she reads in her magazines.
” Rock laughed as Nick’s scowl deepened. “Come, Nick, how awful can it be? So the women of London have been publicly apprised of your—eligibility.” Nick recalled the stack of invitations that awaited his return—every one from a family with an unmarried daughter—and took a long drink of ale. Setting the pewter mug down, he muttered, “How awful, indeed.” “I should take advantage of it if I were you. Now you may have any woman you want.” Nick leveled his friend with cool blue gaze. “I did perfectly well without the damned magazine, thank you.” Rock’s response was a noncommittal grunt as he turned to wave the young barmaid over. An arrow shot from a bow, she arrived at their table with speed and purpose.
Leaning low over Nick to best display her voluptuous curves, she spoke in a low whisper. “My lord? Do you have … needs?” “Do we, indeed,” Rock said. The brazen female seated herself in Nick’s lap, leaning close. “I’ll be anythin’ you want, luv,” she said, low and sultry, as she pressed her breasts against his chest. “Any-thin’ you want.” He extracted her arm from its place around his neck and fished a crown from his pocket. “A tempting offer, to be sure,” he said, pressing the coin into her hand and lifting her to her feet. “But I am afraid that I want only for more ale. You had best look elsewhere for companionship this evening.” Her face fell for a split second before she redirected her attention to Rock, considering his wide chest, brown skin, and thick arms with an appreciative gaze.
“Care for a go? Some girls don’t like ‘em dark, but I think you’ll do just fine.” Rock did not move, but Nick noticed the tensing of his friend’s shoulders at the blatant reference to his heritage. “Farther elsewhere,” the Turk said, flatly turning away from the barmaid. She turned up her nose at their combined rebuff and left—to fetch more ale, Nick hoped. As he watched her make her way across the room, he felt the keen attention of the other women in the tavern. “They are predators. Every last one of them.” “It seems only right that the bulan finally know what it is to be hunted.” Nick grimaced at the Turkish name and the long history that came with it. It had been years since anyone had called him the bulan—the hunter.
The name meant nothing now; it was a leftover of his days in the East, deep in the Ottoman Empire, when he’d been someone else— someone without a name—with only a skill that would ultimately be his downfall. The irony was not lost on him. His time in Turkey had ended harshly when a woman had set her sights upon him and he had made the mistake of allowing himself to be caught, quite literally. He had spent twenty-two days in a Turkish prison before he had been rescued by Rock and ferreted to Greece—where he had vowed to put the bulan to rest. Most of the time, he was happy to have done so … appeased by the world of London, the business of his estate, and his antiquities. But there were days when he missed the life. He much preferred being hunter to hunted. “Women are always like this around you,” Rock pointed out, returning Nick to the present. “You are merely better attuned to it today. Not that I have ever understood their interest.
You are something of an ugly bas—” “Angling for a pounding, are you?” The Turk’s face split in a wide grin. “Sparring with me in a public house would not be the appropriate behavior for such a paragon of gentlemanliness.” Nick’s gaze narrowed on his friend. “I shall risk it for the pleasure of wiping that smile from your face.” Rock laughed again. “All this feminine interest has addled your brain if you think you could take me down.” He leaned forward, resting his arms on the table between them, underscoring his bulk. “What has happened to your sense of humor? You would have found this vastly amusing if it had happened to me. Or to your brother.” “Nevertheless, it has happened to me.
” Nick surveyed the rest of the room and groaned as the door to the pub opened and a tall, dark-haired man entered. The newcomer paused just inside the room, scanning the heavy crowd, his blue eyes finally settling on Nick. One lone brow rose in amusement and he began to weave his way through the throngs of people toward them. Nick turned an accusing gaze on Rock. “You are asking to be returned to Turkey. Begging for it.” Rock looked over his shoulder at the newcomer and grinned. “It would have been rather unfriendly of me not to invite him to join in the amusement.” “What an immense stroke of good luck. I confess, I had not thought I would be able to get near London’s Lord to Land,” a low, amused voice drawled, and Nick looked up to find his twin brother, Gabriel St.
John, the Marquess of Ralston, towering above them. Rock stood and clapped Gabriel on the back, motioning that he should join them. Once seated, Ralston continued, “Though I should have expected to find you here …” He paused. “In hiding. Coward.” Nick’s brows knit together as Rock laughed. “I was just pointing out that had you been named one of London’s Lords to Land, Nick would have taken immense pleasure in your pain.” Gabriel sat back in his chair, grinning foolishly. “Indeed, he would have. And yet your mood seems less than cheery, brother.
Whatever for? ” “I suppose you are here to revel in my discomfort,” Nick said, “But surely you have better things to do. You do still have a new wife to entertain, do you not?” “Indeed, I do,” Gabriel said, his smile softening. “Though, to be honest, she nearly pushed me out the door in her eagerness to find you. She is hosting a dinner on Thursday evening and is reserving a seat for you both. She does not want Lord Nicholas wandering wistfully through the streets that evening, wanting for a wife.” Rock smirked. “It is entirely possible that he would have been doing just that without the invitation.” Nick ignored his friend. “Callie reads the damned thing? “ He had hoped his sister-in-law was above such things. If she had read it, there was no escape.
Gabriel leaned forward. “This week? We have all read it. You’ve brought respectability to the St. John name, Nick. Finally. Well done.” The barmaid returned then, setting another round of drinks on the table; surprise flashed in her eyes, followed quickly by pleasure as she looked to Nick, then Gabriel, then back again. Twins were rare enough that strangers tended to stare when the St. John brothers ventured into public together; Nick found he had no patience for her curiosity. He looked away as Gabriel paid the girl handsomely, saying, “Of course, those women who coveted me must be thrilled to have a second chance of sorts—title or no, you at least share my good looks.
If a younger, lesser version of them.” Nick’s blue gaze narrowed on his brother and friend, now guffawing like idiots. Lifting his ale, he toasted the duo. “May you both go straight to hell.” His brother lifted his own tankard. “I do believe it would be worth it to see you so put out. You know, it is not the worst of things to be labeled an eligible bachelor, Nick. I can attest to the fact that marriage is not the prison I once believed it to be. It is quite enjoyable, I find.” Nick leaned back in his chair.
“Callie’s turned you soft, Gabriel. Do you not recall the pain caused by clamoring mamas and cloying daughters, all hoping to secure your attention? ” “Not remotely.” “That is because Callie was the only woman willing to have you with your history of wickedness and vice,” Nick pointed out. “My reputation is rather less tarnished than yours was —I am a far more valuable catch, Lord help me.” “Marriage might do you well, you know.” Nick considered his ale long enough for his companions to think that he might not reply. “I think we all know that marriage is not for me.” Gabriel offered a small, noncommittal grunt. “I might remind you that the same was true for me. Not all women are like the cold bitch who saw you nearly killed, Nick,” Gabriel said firmly