When to Dare an Dishonorable Duke – Tammy Andresen

Raithe, the Baron of Balstead, watched as his last two victims walked through the door. Good. They were all here. He’d carefully chosen this cast of characters, his soon-to-be house guests. He needed them for a very particular purpose, though he had no intention of telling them what that purpose was. This was a situation where it was best to lie. He found many situations were that way. Not all of them, of course. But here, at his gentlemen’s club, where drinking and gambling were the primary activities, it was all about the bluff. Just to his right sat three friends. Lord Dashlane, Lord Crestwood, and Lord Craven. They were his first three potential…guests. Craven was one of the few men in England who actually frightened him a bit. Quiet and sullen, he was also tall and well-muscled. He looked quick as a snake and equally as deadly.

Then there was Dashlane, blond with a flashing smile, he was a charmer, for sure. Crestwood was dark-haired and handsome. All three liked their fair share of women and liquor, but he’d seen them defend a group of harlots that another band of ruffians had attempted to rob and that put these gents on his list. “Are you going to tell us what this is about?” Dashlane asked, bringing his whisky to his lips. “In a minute,” he answered, holding up a finger. A wide range of guests crowded the club tonight, seats limited, which worked for him. His last two players had entered the club but hadn’t picked him out of the crowd yet. The Duke of Rathmore made his way through the mash of people and stopped directly in front of Raithe. Rathmore turned to his cousin and best friend, Lord Hartwell. “Don’t you love the smell of leather, cigars, and good whisky?” Hartwell rolled his eyes.

“I prefer brandy, and thank goodness we missed the speaker,” he quietly announced as he brushed back his rich brown hair. “I’ve no appetite for politics today.” Rathmore raised his brow. “What’s gotten into you?” “Charlie.” Hartwell grimaced, his mouth hardening into a thin line. Raithe’s insides tightened. Charlie was short for Charlotte, Lady Charlotte Summerset. She was Rathmore’s cousin and Hartwell’s sister. As vivacious as she was beautiful, she’d come out the season before. Fearless and outspoken, many had said she should have been born a man.

Not that her strong personality stopped her from garnering male attention. In fact, Charlie had been the premiere debutante last season with droves of men following her about, but she’d yet to choose a husband. Raithe had not been one of those men. He stayed away from respectable girls as a general rule and Charlie in particular. Something about her beauty made her difficult to even look at. A man might lose his head, and he couldn’t afford to do that now. “Are you worried for the upcoming season? I know you were beating men off with sticks and clubs,” Rathmore chuckled. Hartwell’s grimace turned into a full-on spasm. “Worried doesn’t begin to cover how I feel. And sticks and clubs were the least of the needed weapons.

I had two incidents that involved a sword and one that required a pistol.” Chase clapped his cousin on the back. “I’ll help you.” Hartwell gave him a light shove. “You said that last year too. But we both know you’re too busy to help me keep Charlie out of trouble.” “Busy doing what?” Raithe asked, a light grin playing at his lips. He knew full well what sorts of illicit pastimes the duke engaged in that kept him occupied. Both men turned to look at him. Hartwell appeared leery while Rathmore crossed his arms over his chest.

“Don’t sneak up on me like that.” “I didn’t sneak.” His grin broadened. “I’ve been sitting here the entire time. Isn’t that right, Dashlane?” “Are they who we’re waiting for? Can we get on with it then?” Dashlane cracked his knuckles. “I’ve got a lovely brunette waiting for my attention.” Rathmore frowned at the other fellow. “Must you be so indiscrete about your indiscretions?” Crestwood quirked a brow. “How else should a man be? We are young, single, titled. Seems perfect to me.

” “It’s tawdry. It’s one thing to participate in such behavior but another to speak so openly about it.” Rathmore frowned and Raithe realized he should get this conversation moving before the men squabbled. That could come later. “Gentlemen,” he started, clearing his throat. “I’m having a party at the end of next week. You are the premier guests on the list.” Crestwood slapped the table, his attitude completely changing. “Now we’re getting somewhere.” Craven continued to grimace, his face a complete mask.

“What sort of party?” “The sort men of your kind would like.” He winked. Raithe had a particular sort of reputation for having parties filled with women and liquor. That wasn’t what this was going to be and so he wouldn’t outwardly promise such delights. It would give him plausible deniability later. Rathmore dropped his arms to his sides. “Next week? I couldn’t possibly.” Raithe tried not to frown. The duke, once a notorious rake, had hardly been seen at the gaming hells or at parties of ill repute. Coupled with his comments to Crestwood, that made him the most important candidate of them all.

Hartwell stepped forward. “We’re headed to the coast to check in on some of our properties.” Excellent. He tightened his grip around his glass. “Then you’ll be close to my home. Surely, you can spend a few days with us.” Hartwell shook his head. “My sister will be travelling with me. I seriously doubt she is suited to one of your parties.” Raithe didn’t respond.

This gathering would be perfectly appropriate for such a lady, but he wasn’t about to tell them all of that. Besides, Charlie was the last woman he wanted in his house, under his roof, near his bed. “That doesn’t mean Rathmore can’t attend. For a few days at least.” He leaned forward. “Tell me you’re not craving something different.” He saw the flicker of indecision in the other man’s eyes. Victory roared in his blood. “Count me in,” Crestwood crowed. “What about you, Dashlane?” Dashlane took a sip of his drink.

“Why not? I could use a change of pace. Craven?” The third man frowned. “I suppose.” Raithe didn’t care if Craven attended or not. In fact, he’d prefer he didn’t but the three were often together making Craven a necessary evil. “Rathmore?” “I’ll think on it.” Rathmore shrugged, staring at the far wall. “I’ll attend,” another voice called from the corner. Raithe turned, his jaw clenching when he’d seen who spoke. His Grace, the Duke of Danesbury, sat partially obscured by shadow.

The man was rarely seen out, his face having been scarred on one side from some accident or another. Raithe’s eyes widened to see the man here on such a busy night. “Your Grace?” he asked. Strictly speaking the man was not invited, but as a duke, he’d be difficult to refuse. “I’ve heard of your parties, Balstead. I’ll come if you’ll have me.” Raithe swore softly under his breath. This was not one of the carefully chosen men. He didn’t know what sort of man Danesbury was and didn’t wish to find out. “Of course, Your Grace.

” Raithe sat back in his chair. He had five men after all. Not the five he’d originally set out to invite but still…that ought to give Cassandra some choices… Chapter One Mrs. Cassandra Winterset sat in an overstuffed leather chair near the fire, assessing the flames as they danced in the grate. Outside the clouds rolled overhead, splattering the windows with rain. The perfect backdrop for her mood. It was summer, and the sun had been shining for nearly a week straight, mocking her inner turmoil with its bright, warm cheeriness. But finally a cold front had rolled in, bathing the house in frigid rain and allowing her to sit in front of a fire and…brood. She smiled at the word, normally better suited for a man but it fit her today as she reflected on the past four years of her life. Her smile slipped as she rested her chin on one of her palms.

Two and twenty and already a widow. And a penniless one at that. The flames crackled, spraying a shower of sparks along the grate. She’d married her childhood friend, the Honorable John Williams Winterset, at the tender age of eighteen because he’d needed her, because she cared deeply for him, and because she’d had some romantic notion that this grand gesture made her a better person. However, she’d failed to consider that marrying an already-ill man would rob her of much of her energy, youth, and vitality. And when John finally succumbed to the illness, she’d be left poor, exhausted, hurt, and devoid of a future for herself. She shook her head, waving her thoughts away but they returned anyway. Most men of worth did not marry a woman who had no dowry, no inheritance, no proof that she’d provide a child. She’d been married for three years, after all. Most wouldn’t understand that John had been too ill for most of their marriage to participate in such amorous activities.

Or perhaps they would, if they listened to her long enough for her to explain it. But many would simply pass her by as they looked at fresh-faced debutantes. She sighed, settling back into her chair. She shouldn’t dwell so, she was far luckier than many. She’d grown up in the shadow of the house she now lived. She, John, and Raithe having been fast friends since childhood. They’d done everything together as children. Raithe had eventually inherited the title of Baron of Balstead and when John had died, he’d taken her in as his best friend’s widow. He’d even offered to marry her himself. A generous offer to be certain and one she likely should have accepted.

Except…she’d married a childhood friend once and it had nearly broken her. She simply couldn’t do it again. Raithe was like her brother, it didn’t feel right. So he’d offered to help her in another way. He’d collected a group of lords, all excellent prospects for marriage, to arrive at this very house. They thought they were coming for a party. Instead, they were prospective grooms. Raithe assured her he’d picked men who operated on the fringe of society. Rakes, gamblers, drinkers, they were not the most upstanding gentleman, and, therefore, they’d be more inclined for the unconventional match she presented. Yet each was wealthy and stable in his own way making him a suitable enough husband.

She wasn’t looking for love or even desire. She wasn’t even really interested in another union, but it was a necessary evil. If she were going to enter into another marriage, her husband may as well provide for her financially, even if his wealth didn’t make her happy or fulfilled or… She closed her eyes. She was casting judgment before she’d even met any of the men. She curled into the chair, clearly a man’s seat, oversized and overstuffed but perfect for drawing up one’s knees and sulking. At least this match would be about her future comfort and care. Her insides twisted into knots. Was it wrong that the very idea of another marriage filled her with dread rather than excitement? “Mrs. Winterset,” the butler called from the door. “The first of Lord Balstead’s guests has arrived.

” She unfurled from the chair, standing and turning toward the butler. Raithe had extended invitations to six men, five of whom had accepted. They each thought they were arriving for a week of debauchery. But the party was supposed to have started days ago and none of them had arrived. In complete frustration, Raithe had left to find them, sure something had happened en route to delay their arrival. Raithe had assured her there was no possible way they’d learned of the deception. He must have been right because one guest had finally come. “Who is it?” “The Duke of Danesbury,” the man said with a frown. She covered her midriff with her hands. Had he met Raithe on the journey here? Did he know the other guests were delayed? He surely didn’t understand that there were no other women, no gambling, no drinking….

Just Cassandra. “Show him in,” she murmured, her stomach turning over once again. She wished Raithe were here now. He nodded and pivoted back out the door, disappearing down the hall. She turned back to the fire, leaning against the mantle and once again watched the flames. Her hands began to tremble and she drew in a long slow breath to steady her nerves. Then, she schooled her features into a blank mask, placing a hand at her stomach to keep the butterflies at bay. Would this Duke of Danesbury be angry to discover the party that should be in full swing wasn’t happening, was never even a real possibility? She drew in a long breath, wishing again Raithe were here now. This was his idea. Lying had never been her strong suit.

Perhaps if it had been, John would have been happier with his choice to marry his childhood friend. A rustle at the door told her the butler had returned and she pushed off the mantle, closing her eyes for just a moment before she swiveled to greet her guest. “May I present the Duke of Danesbury,” the butler announced. She dipped into a deep curtsy, before she straightened, meeting the gaze of the man who Raithe had tricked into attending this gathering. “Your Grace.” But her voice caught on the end of the second word. Before her stood the most frighteningly intriguing man she’d ever seen. Tall, well over six feet, broad and muscular, his dark hair and penetrating grey eyes stabbed into her. His nose was a bit crooked, his jaw hard. She barely held in a gasp as he turned his head slightly to the left, revealing a large jagged scar slicing from his eye to his mouth, dividing his cheek into two mangled sections of flesh.

He frowned, rubbing the scar. “I expected more people to be in attendance.” Well, that was direct. She pressed her lips together, drawing in a deep breath. How did she explain? “So was I, Your Grace.” His brows drew up as his gaze travelled down her frame. “I’ll take a whiskey. Neat.” Her eyes widened for just a moment before she pressed her lips together straightening her shoulders. “Mr.

Harris, would you please tell the kitchen to prepare a tray for our guest? He must be hungry after his journey.” Then she crossed the room to prepare the drink. “I didn’t say I was hungry.” Danesbury crossed to the fire, holding out his hands to the flame. She poured the whisky, her hand trembling a bit as she attempted to hold the crystal decanter steady. “I won’t force feed you, then.” She returned to the fire, drink in hand while the other one coiled into a fist. He notched his chin to the side as he assessed her, his scar on full display as he raised a brow. “I think I might like to see you try,” he said with a bit of a grin, as he watched her moving toward the fireplace. That made her relax, her shoulders lowering and her breath coming out in a long, slow exhale.

They were jesting. Good. “I would never dare.” He laughed then, a little chuckle that sounded far more melodious than his speaking voice. She unfurled her fingers from the fist at her side, glad this meeting had taken on a light mood. She’d reached the fire and she held out the drink to him, her fingers steadier as they reached toward his very large outstretched hand. But he didn’t take the whisky. Instead, he reached for her wrist, his long, tapered fingers wrapping about the bare skin exposed between her sleeve and her glove. His hand was hot, firm, commanding, making her breath catch as he slowly drew her closer. “I’m glad we understand each other already,” he said in a voice that was deceptively soft.

Despite its low tone, it still carried a command that she felt powerless to disobey as he drew her closer. “I think you’ll do fine.” Her brows drew together even as her lips parted. Understand each other? She didn’t understand anything as she tilted her chin up to look in his face for answers. What she saw was raw, dark power. The kind of power that stole her breath from a bit of fear and, if she were being honest, excitement. “I’m afraid I don’t—” But her words were cut short as he lowered his mouth to hers.

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