Who Wants a Brawling Baron – Tammy Andresen

RAİTHE, 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 Rainsville. 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 whom 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 LADY CHARLOTTE SUMMERSET lounged in a velvet settee as conversation swirled about her. She drew in a deep breath, filling her lungs with the sea air that wafted in from the open French doors all along the music room. They opened onto a series of balconies that overlooked the water and allowed guests to filter in and out of the room. Normally she’d be at the center of the vortex, at her best in a social situation, but the past few weeks had been anything but normal. First, her brother had hauled her from London and the Season to the country, for lord knew what purpose. It was supposed to be a quick trip. But then, her cousin, the Duke of Rathmore, had announced his engagement.

And just like that, they’d been travelling the opposite direction of London, heading to the sea and the home of the Moorish family in the quaint little village of Seabridge Gate. Then, in the strangest turn of events yet, her very serious brother had fallen in love and married all within a week. Not that she objected to her brother’s choice of bride. Juliet Moorish was wonderful, kind, and had literally saved Charlie’s life a few days before. Juliet would make a lovely sister-in-law. But now, her brother had left on a honeymoon, leaving her in the care of the Moorish family, only a few weeks left before London emptied and the Season ended for good. And she’d missed the entire affair. Every sparkling, jewel-like moment. Gone. She’d have to wait an entire year for the next one.

Not to mention that she and her brother had been inseparable these past several years. Now, in a blink, he was gone. Off to begin his life with his new bride while she was stuck here…alone. She took a sip of the light and bubbly beverage someone had handed her as she continued to lounge. The Moorishes were lovely, of course. Kind, sweet, effervescent ladies who’d welcomed her into their home, but Charlie missed the glitter of London. Truth be told, she missed the array of suitors who’d showered favor upon her. Dane had told her that she ought to marry one of them. And she would eventually. After a few more seasons.

But she wasn’t ready to settle down yet. She liked to be adored. Was that so wrong? She ignored the little voice that told her she was selfish. That she was using her admirers’ affections to fill the hole in her heart. Instead, she rose from the settee and smiled at her cousin. “I’m going to step outside for a moment. I’m rather warm.” He nodded, not breaking from his conversation with his fiancée. Charlie was certain that he thought she meant the balcony. Perfectly safe, completely chaperoned.

But instead she slipped through the door into the hall and headed for the main stairs. Being in this quiet village had allowed her far too much time to think. To remember. She started down the hall, glass still in hand, and she took a generous swallow. No amount of exercise had quieted her swirling thoughts. How had her brother managed to move past the loss and open up his heart to Juliet? He’d been older, she supposed, when their life had been forever altered. One day they’d been a happy family and the next…both her parents gone forever. She’d only been thirteen. Already so insecure. Six years had passed, but she still missed them every day.

A fresh tear dotted her eye, but she refused to let it out. What she needed was a distraction. The sound of carriage wheels grinding along the gravel path made her head snap up. Who would be arriving at this time of night? It had to be past nine o’clock. Rather than continue going down the stairs, she ducked into a shadow wanting to know who had arrived. On schedule, the butler appeared below, making his way to the door as the bell rang throughout the grand entry. Charlie’s breath caught, excitement making her chest a bit tighter. Somehow, the arrival of another guest seemed almost an answer to the prayer she’d sent up. She’d wished for a distraction. Who might this be? Another handsome lord? Then she shook her head.

So foolish. Whoever had arrived was likely nothing more than a merchant. Or a farmer from the village. But as the door swung open, a massive man entered the foyer. Charlie started, gazing at the tall, black hessians that were polished to a shine and encased massive calves. She continued looking higher, noting the tightness of his breeches over his muscular thighs. Charlie trailed her gaze up to his broad chest, broad strong shoulders, and thick neck until finally settling on his jet-black hair, glinting in the candlelight. His stern features were set in serious lines that she’d recognize anywhere. In front of her stood the Baron of Balstead. She barely managed to hold in her gasp.

She knew the man. She’d even danced with him once. He’d held her waist with a possessive power that had left her breathless. Where other men showered attention on her, he’d captured all hers with a single glance. But their dance had never been repeated. And he’d never so much as looked at her again. “Good evening,” the butler said, giving a stiff bow. “Good evening,” the Baron replied, handing the man a card. “I apologize for the lateness of my arrival but I need you to deliver this to the man of the house.” With a curt nod, the butler turned and headed back up the stairs.

Charlie ducked deeper into the shadows until he’d passed and then she hurried into the light, stopping at the top of the stairs. Looking down, her gaze clashed with Balstead’s. “It’s you,” she uttered quite without meaning to. His eyes were dark and unreadable, and his lips turned down into a marked frown. “It’s me.” Her insides skittered with nerves as his gaze held hers. He had that same power as their first meeting. Effortlessly, he captured her attention and held her breath in the palm of his hand. DAMN İT ALL to bloody hell, Raithe muttered under his breath as he looked at none other than Lady Charlotte Summerset. The little brunette minx had played a starring role in more than one of his dreams of late, not that he was happy to see her tonight.

There was no place in his life for such a woman. Not anymore. “What are you doing here?” she asked, standing on the last step of the grand stair, a glass of bubbling champagne resting delicately in her tapered fingers. He took in the silky mass of hair piled on top of her head, her grey-green hazel eyes, large and fringed with long, dark lashes. Her pert little nose accentuated by a flush of pink cheeks and those lips… So lush and full they made a man ache. His dreams hadn’t done her justice. Charlie, as her brother called her, was the sort of woman who shined wherever she went. Droves of people followed her about just to bask in her glow. He wasn’t one of them. Sure, his body throbbed in the most inappropriate places, but he knew better than to give in to a woman like Charlie.

“I came,” he drawled, “because I was hosting a party and the majority of my guest list failed to attend.” Her brows arched as she cocked her head to the side, stepping off the final step. Which brought his gaze sliding down her body. Petite, certainly, but still lush. Her hips swayed as she walked, practically hypnotizing him. “A party? And I wasn’t invited?” She stuck out her bottom lip even as a teasing smile played about her lips. She slid closer and he straightened, preparing for the onslaught of her nearness. He’d been this close to her once before as he’d held her tiny waist in his hand. She’d made him feel…well, the sort of feelings he’d thought long dead. “It’s not a party for the likes of you.

” She stopped, one of her shoulders rising. “Not a party for me? I like all sorts of parties.” Raithe narrowed his gaze. He should have known that Charlie might be here. He’d attempted to lure several lords out to his country estate with the promise of delightful debauchery.

.

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