By Cara Elliott
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The Earl of Killingworth uses his rakehell reputation to hide the fact that poverty has forced him to work for a living. As the owner of a gambling den and brothel, Connor has no time for glittering ballrooms or innocent young ladies. But after a reckless wager leaves him with a new business partner, he is forced to take a risky gamble . . . Will the cards fall in their favor? Alexa and Connor begin to play a dangerous game of intrigue and deception as they seek to outwit a cunning adversary who wants to put them permanently out of business. But if they are not careful, it is the flames of their own fiery attraction that may destroy them.
So this is what a brothel looks like. It is not at all what I expected."
"Good Lord in Heaven," muttered Captain Harley Stiles as he blotted the sheen of sweat from his brow. "I would hope that you haven't given the matter a great deal of thought."
"Not a great deal," replied Lady Alexa Hendrie. She turned for a closer look at the colored etching hung above the curio cabinet. "But one can't help being mildly curious, seeing as you gentlemen take great delight in discussing such places among yourselves."
Her brother's friend quickly edged himself between her and the offending print. "How the devil do you know that?" he demanded.
Despite the gravity of their mission, Alexa felt her mouth twitch in momentary amusement. "I take it you don't have any sisters, Captain Stiles. Otherwise you would not be asking such a naive question."
"No, by the grace of God, I do not." Though a decorated veteran of the Peninsular Wars, he was still looking a little shell-shocked over the fact that she had outmaneuvered his objections to her accompanying him into the stews of Southwark. "Otherwise, I might have known better than to offer my help to Sebastian, no matter how dire the threat to his family."
Alexa bit her lip…
"I, too, am curious." A deep growl, dark and smoky as the dimly lit corridor, broke the awkward silence. "Just what did you expect?"
She spun around. Within an instant of entering The Wolf's Lair, she and Stiles had been sequestered in a small side parlor to await an answer to the captain's whispered message. The door had now reopened, and though shadows obscured the figure who was leaning against its molding, the flickering wall sconce illuminated the highlights in his carelessly curling hair.
Steel on steel.
Alexa froze as a prickling, sharp as daggerpoints, danced down her spine. "Oh, something a bit less…subtle," she replied, somehow mustering a show of outward composure. She would not—could not—allow herself to be intimidated. After taking a moment to study the muted colors and rather tasteful furnishings of the room, she returned her gaze to the lewd etching on the wall. "By the by, is this a Frangelli?"
"Yes." Straightening from his slouch, the man slowly sauntered into the room. "Do you find his style to your liking?"
She leaned in closer. "His technique is flawless." After regarding the graphic twining of naked bodies and oversized erections for another few heartbeats, she lifted her chin. "But as for the subject matter, it's a trifle repetitive, don't you think?"
A low bark of laughter sounded, and then tightened to a gruff snarl as the man turned to her companion. "Are your brains in your bum, Stiles? What the devil do you mean by bringing a respectable young lady here? Your message mentioned Becton, not—"
"It's not the captain's fault. I gave him no choice," she interrupted. "I am Alexa Hendrie, Lord Becton's sister. And you are?"
"This isn't a damn dowager's drawing room, Lady Alexa Hendrie. We don't observe the formalities of polite introductions here." The sardonic sneer grew more pronounced. "Most of our patrons would rather remain anonymous. But if you wish a name, I am called the Irish Wolfhound."
"Ah." Alexa refused to be cowed by his deliberate rudeness. "And this is your Lair?"
"You could say that."
"Excellent. Then I imagine you can tell me straight off whether Sebastian is here. It is very important that I find him."
"I can." His lip curled up to bare a flash of teeth. "But whether I will is quite another matter. The place would not remain in business very long were I to freely dispense such information to every outraged wife or sister who happens to barge through the door."
"Is it profitable?" she asked after a fraction of a pause.
"The business?" The question seemed to take him aback, but only for an instant. "I manage to…make ends meet. So to speak."
"Now see here, Wolf—" sputtered Stiles.
"How very clever of you," went on Alexa, ignoring her companion's effort to cut off any more risqué innuendoes. Smiling sweetly, she shot a long, lingering glance at the Wolfhound's gray-flecked hair. "I do hope the effort isn't too taxing on your stamina."
"I assure you," he replied softly, "I am quite up to the task."
"Bloody hell." Stiles added another oath through his gritted teeth. "Need I remind you that the lady is a gently bred female?"
The quicksilver eyes swung around and fixed him with an unblinking stare. "Need I remind you that I am not the arse who brought her here?"
"Would that I could forget this whole cursed nightmare of an evening." The captain grimaced. "Trust me, neither of us would be trespassing on your hospitality if it were not a matter of the utmost urgency to find Becton—"
"Our younger brother is in grave danger," interrupted Alexa. "I must find Sebastian."
"We have reason to think he might be coming to see you," continued Stiles. "Is he here?"
The Wolfhound merely shrugged.
Alexa refused to accept the beastly man's silence. Not with her younger brother's life hanging in the balance. "You heard what the Wolfhound said, Captain Stiles. He is running a business and doesn't give away his precious information for free."
Sensing that neither tears nor appeals to his better nature—if he had one—would have any effect, she took pains to match his sarcasm. "So, how much will the information cost me?" she went on. "And be forewarned that I don't have much blunt, so don't bother trying to claw an exorbitant sum out of me."
"I am willing to negotiate the price." Despite the drawl, a tiny tic of his jaw marred his mask of jaded cynicism. "Kindly step outside, Stiles, so that the lady and I may have some privacy in which to strike a deal."
"I'm not sure, er, that is…"
"What do you think? That I intend to toss up her skirts and feast on her virginity?" The Wolfhound looked back at her with a sardonic smile. "You are, I presume, a virgin?"
"Presume whatever you wish," she replied evenly. "I don't give a damn what some flea-bitten cur chooses to think, as long as I get the information I need."
"Ye gods, Lady Alexa, bite your tongue," warned Stiles in a low whisper. "You are not dealing with some lapdog. It's dangerous to goad the Irish Wolfhound into baring his fangs."
Dangerous. Another touch of ice-cold steel tickled against her flesh. Or was it fire? Something about the lean, lithe Wolfhound had her feeling both hot and cold.
Stiles tried to take her arm, but she slipped out of reach.
"I really must insist—" began the captain.
"Out, Stiles," ordered the Wolfhound as he moved a step closer to her.
Alexa stood firm in the face of his approach. Oh, yes, beneath the finely tailored evening clothes was a dangerous predator, all sleek muscle and coiled power. And ready to pounce. But she was not afraid.
"You may do as he says, Captain. I am quite capable of fending for myself."
Stiles hesitated, and then reluctantly turned for the hallway. "Very well. But I will be right outside, in case you need me," he muttered. "You have five minutes. Then, come hell or high water, we are leaving."
"Do you always ignore sensible advice, Lady Alexa?" asked the Wolfhound, once the latch had clicked shut.
"I often ignore what men consider to be sensible advice." The gray-flecked hair was deceiving, she decided. Up close, it was plain that the Wolfhound was a man not much above thirty. "There is a difference between the two, though someone as arrogant as you would undoubtedly fail to recognize it."
"I may be arrogant but I'm not a naive little fool," he retorted with a menacing snarl. "At the risk of further offending your maidenly sensibilities, allow me to point out that when trying to strike a bargain with someone, it is not overly wise to begin by hurling insults at his head."
Alexa felt a flush of heat creep across her cheekbones. "Actually, I am well aware of that. Just as I am well aware that any attempt at negotiations with you is probably a waste of breath. It is quite clear you have a low opinion of females and aren't going to consider my request seriously."
Beneath his obvious irritation, Alexa detected a glimmer of curiosity. "Then why did you agree to see me alone?" he asked.
"To show you not everyone turns tail and runs whenever you flash your fangs." She squared her shoulders. "By the by, why is everyone so afraid of your bark?"
"Because I am accorded to be a vicious, unpredictable beast," he replied. "You see, I tend to bite when I get annoyed. And my teeth are sharper than most."
Lamplight played over the erotic etching, its flickering gleam mirroring the devilish spark in his quicksilver eyes. It seemed to tease her. Taunt her.
Alexa wasn't about to back away from the challenge. "Do you chew up the unfortunate young women who work here, then spit them out when they are no longer of any use to you?"
For an instant, it appeared she had gone a step too far in baiting him. His jaw tightened and as the Wolfhound leaned forward, anger bristled from every pore of his long, lean face.
But just as quickly, he seemed to get a leash on his emotions and replied with a cynical sneer. "You know nothing of real life, so do not presume to think you understand what goes on under my roof," he snapped.
"Perhaps you would care to explain it to me."
The Wolfhound gave a harsh laugh. "Nosy little kitten, aren't you? Seb ought to lock you in your room, before you stray into real trouble."
Alexa fisted her hands and set them on her hips. "Ha! Let him try."
"You have spirit, I'll grant you that." He paused for a moment. "Still interested in making a deal?"
"What is your price?"
Her face must have betrayed her surprise, for he flashed a rakish smile. "Haven't you ever been kissed before?"
She sucked in a sharp breath. "O-of course I have."
"Oh, I think not," drawled the Wolfhound. "I'd be willing to wager a fortune that no man has ever slid his tongue deep into your mouth and made you moan with pleasure."
"Why, you impudent whelp—"
Her words were cut off by the ruthless press of his mouth. He tasted of smoke and spirits—and a raw, randy need that singed her to her very core. She swayed and suddenly the Wolfhound swept her into his arms. With several swift strides, he crossed the carpet and pinned her up against the wall, setting off a wicked whisper of crushed silk and flame-kissed flesh.
Alexa meant to cry out, but as he urged her lips apart and delved inside her, outrage gave way to a strange, shivering heat. Her protest melted, turning to naught but a whispered sigh. As did her body. Against all reason, it yielded to his touch, molding to every contour of his muscled frame. Broad shoulders, lean waist, corded thighs—Alexa was acutely aware of his overpowering masculinity. The scent of brandy and bay rum filled her lungs, and the rasp of his stubbled jaw was like a lick of fire against her cheek.
She knew that she should push him away. Bite, scratch, scream for help.
And yet. And yet…
And yet, as his hands moved boldly over her bodice and cupped her breasts, she could not resist threading her fingers through his silky gray-threaded hair. Like the rest of him, the sensation was sinfully sensuous.
A moment later—or was it far, far longer?—the Wolfhound finally ceased his shameless embrace and leaned back.
"A man could do far worse on the Marriage Mart than to choose you," he said softly. "For at least he will likely not be bored in bed. Indeed, I might even be tempted to swive you myself, if innocence was at all to my taste."
The crude comment finally roused Alexa from the seductive spell that had held her in thrall. Gasping through kiss-swollen lips, she jerked free of his hold and all of her wordless, nameless, girlish longings took force in a lashing slap.
It connected with a resounding crack.
His head snapped back, the angry red imprint of her palm quickly darkening his cheek.
"That was for such an unspeakably rude insult." She raised her hand again. "And this, you arrogant hellhound, is for—"
He caught her wrist. "Is for what? The fact that for the first—and likely only—time in your life, you have tasted a bit of real passion?"
She went very still. "Do you really take pleasure in causing pain?"
The Wolfhound allowed her hand to fall away, then turned from the light, his austere profile unreadable in the flicker of the oil lamps. "Most people think so," he said evenly as he moved noiselessly to the sideboard.
"I—I don't understand," she began.
"Don't bother trying," he snapped. "All that should matter to you is the fact that I am a man of my word. You paid your forfeit, so in answer to your other question, your brother is not at present in The Wolf's Lair. And if he were, it would not be for the usual reasons that gentlemen come here." Glass clinked against glass. "Like you, he is seeking information and I've heard word that he thinks I may be able to help him. Should he come by tonight, I will inform him of your quest, and how desperate you are to find him."
Alexa turned for the door, yet hesitated, awkward, unsure.
Taking up one of the bottles, the Wolfhound poured himself some brandy and tossed it back in one gulp. "Now get out of here, before one of my patrons recognizes you. Trust me, the tabbies of this Town are quick to pounce on any transgression. And their claws are far sharper than mine."
"Th-thank you," she said, hoping to show that her pride, if not her dignity, was still intact. "For showing a shred of decency in honoring our bargain."
"Don't wager on it happening again."
Alexa stiffened her spine. "I am not afraid to take a gamble when the stakes are high." She could not resist a parting shot. "And I'll have you know, I am very good at cards."
"Here at The Wolf's Lair, we play a far different game than drawing room whist. You have tempted the odds once—I would advise you not to do it again."
"How very kind of you to offer more counsel."
The Wolfhound's laugh was a brandy-roughened growl. "You mistake my sentiments, Lady Alexa. I am not being kind. I am simply trying to stack the deck in my favor. If I am lucky, the cards will fall in a way to ensure that our paths never cross again."
Four months later
The low oath, though blurred by the shuffling of cards, drew a flash of teeth from the gentleman seated at the far end of the table. "So, the Irish Wolfhound feels the dogs of defeat nipping at his flanks?" he drawled.
The barb drew several sniggers from the small group of cronies gathered around his chair.
"What say you to a last hand?" continued the gentleman. After caressing the pile of blunt he had just raked to his side of the table, he shoved it back to the center. "At, say, double the stakes?"
Their color flickering from silver to slate in the guttering light of the candles, the Wolfhound's hooded gray eyes appeared to focus on the lewd etching on the wall rather than the glittering challenge on the green felt. "Why not?" he replied, the words slurring together, though in truth, Connor Linsley, the Earl of Killingworth, was completely sober, and engaged in a careful calculation of the odds.
As he made a show of fumbling over the last of his banknotes, Connor angled his gaze to the rapidfire cutting of the deck.
All night long he had been watching—watching for how the cursed Captain Sharpe, who called himself DeWinter, was managing to cheat. But though the earl was familiar with most every trick of the trade, he had yet to spot any sleight of hand.
Bloody hell—I had better catch it soon, thought Connor grimly. He had lost an obscenely large sum of money so far. Not so much as to completely beggar his purse, but enough to make the coming few months a squeeze, what with the payroll and the routine expenses that must be met in order to keep his doors open.
After a final flick, the cards began to flutter softly through the shadows. The earl—better known in the less glittering environs of London as the Irish Wolfhound—shifted slightly in his chair, angling for a better view of his opponent's hands. Still, no matter how carefully he studied the moves of the other man's fingers and every little shrug of his cuffs and sleeves, he couldn't detect just how he was being fleeced.
But the wool was being pulled over his eyes, as if he were a helpless little lamb.
That was a certainty. As proprietor of The Wolf's Lair, one of the more notorious gaming hells and brothels in Town, the earl was far too conversant with games of chance not to know when the odds were being manipulated. He was also far too canny a player to be suffering such a prolonged string of losses. His ownership of the business enterprise might be a closely guarded secret, but his gambling skills were not, as proven by the profits entered into his ledgers each week.
Tonight, however, he had been keeping careful count and nothing was adding up right.
"Any additional cards?" inquired DeWinter, slapping down two discards.
The earl allowed a small smile. "Just one."
All he needed was a nine or less, in any suit, to play out a winning sequence. Surely it was time for fortune to smile his way. Lady Luck had never deserted him for this long a stretch. And though everyone knew that ladies were notoriously fickle…
The new card flipped in his fingers.
The Queen of Hearts.
Son of a bitch. Why was it that of late, females—especially highborn ones—had been naught but a harbinger of trouble?
As the coach lumbered through yet another tollgate on the London road, Alexa could not help wondering what price she would pay for this spur-of-the-moment decision.
Until several months ago, she had lived a very ordered life. A quiet country existence, defined by the unchanging rhythm of her daily duties on the ancestral estate.
All of a sudden, two wild, impetuous moves, one tripping on the heels of the other.
The first had been understandable. Her younger brother, a young man whose bohemian spirit had drawn him into the sinister web of the London underworld, might well have ended up with his throat slit if she had not raced hell-for-leather from Yorkshire to alert her older brother of the danger.
Alexa bit her lip, recalling her first real taste of intrigue and danger. As well as her first real kiss. From no less than one of London's most notorious rakes.
For years she had been secretly longing for just such a wild adventure.
So why was she feeling so blue-deviled?
Catching the blurred reflection of her face, dark and brooding in the rain-pelted glass, she expelled a sigh. "I know I ought to be happy," she whispered. "But I am not."
Would that she could explain it.
"I'm lucky—exceedingly lucky—that Papa allowed me the freedom to pursue my unconventional interests," said Alexa to her scowling self. "Just think of all the hours I was free to study mathematics and agriculture instead of needlework and music."
Yes, just think of it. The drumming of the drops couldn't quite drown out the answering voice inside her head. No wonder that you find much more pleasure in putting your practical knowledge to work on the estate than in attending the local assemblies.
True. Fashion and flirting seemed so utterly…boring. As did all the gentlemen she knew.
Bland as boiled oats. At times, her life within the confines of Becton Manor took on the same consistency, stirring a longing to experience something out of the ordinary…
Well, she had. In spades.
A loving family, a settled existence, a degree of independence. And, to fill the void between darkness and dawn, a headful of memories of what it was like to be kissed by a notorious rake. What more could a young lady of two and twenty wish for in life?
Indeed, Sebastian had been shocked when she had abruptly announced that she had decided to accept her aunt's longstanding invitation to visit London for the Season. Surprise turning to skepticism, he had expressed his doubts that she would find any enjoyment in spinning through the glittering swirl of Polite Society.
The question, while well meaning, only rubbed raw at a sensitive spot. With an inward wince, Alexa admitted that her behavior—especially of late—was hardly a pattern card of propriety. She was too headstrong, too opinionated. Too unladylike. Sparks seemed to fly wherever she went.
However, encouraged by his new bride, Sebastian had surrendered his misgivings with good grace. The letter to Aunt Adelaide had been sent, the trunks had been packed, the coach made ready…
Closing her eyes, Alexa leaned back against the squabs and listened to the sounds of the coach moving ever closer to London. A world of gaiety and glamour. Of polish and propriety. Yet it was the thud of her own heart that overrode the jingling harness and pounding hooves.
Had she made a terrible mistake?
In the angled lamplight, DeWinter's eyes took on a knife-edged gleam as he raked banknotes to his side of the table. "Why, it looks as if the dog has not so much as a bone left to gnaw on."
Laughter sounded from the four tough-looking men who had come in with him.
Connor ignored the attempt to goad him into losing his temper. He had survived several brutal Peninsular campaigns and his time in the stews by listening to his instincts. And his gut feeling told him that DeWinter's followers were hardened professionals—most likely mercenaries for hire—who looked primed for a fight.
A smile quirked at the corners of his mouth. The blatant provocation might have been amusing—save for the fact that it had just cost him a great deal of blunt.
Most people went well out of their way to avoid a snap of the Irish Wolfhound's jaws, but DeWinter seemed intent on goading him to go for the throat. Connor wondered why.
"Brandy for me and my friends," called DeWinter loudly. "Perhaps I'll give His Lordship a swallow before he crawls off with his tail between his legs."
Connor gave a tiny nod to the two hulking attendants by the door—the Scotsman and the mulatto had been hired for their muscle, though they were rarely called upon to use it.
That the earl actually owned the establishment was a closely guarded secret. His nightly presence had been easy enough to explain by spreading word that he had a special arrangement with the proprietor—a rumor that, unlike most of the ones concerning his affairs, was true enough. Most people accepted that the Wolfhound ran tame in the Lair in return for ensuring that the patrons and play in the gaming rooms were the most interesting in Town. The presence of a notorious rake and gambler was always good for business.
Noting Connor's subtle signal, the mulatto slipped out to the hallway, returning a moment later with a comely barmaid bearing glasses and brandy.
"I'll have a taste of this, too." DeWinter's taunting was now moving beyond mere words. He grabbed roughly at the girl's bodice and exposed a breast.
"Sorry, sir, but ye're te keep yer hands te yerself in here. It's house rules." Experienced in fending off such advances, the barmaid managed to set down the tray without spilling a drop. "If ye wish that sort of pleasure, ye'll have te take yerself upstairs and pay fer it."
"Insolent bitch." Ripping the ruched silk down to her waist, DeWinter struck her hard across the cheek. "I take my pleasure where I please."
Connor decided that things had gone far enough. He was out of his chair in a flash, breaking the other man's hold on the girl with what looked to be no more than a casual flick of his wrist. "You may diddle with me, DeWinter, but no foul play is allowed with the girls. You heard her—the management does not like it."
DeWinter's eyes narrowed. "Are you accusing me of something, you hellhound?"
Rave for To Tempt A Rake:
"From the first page of this sequel to To Sin with a Scoundrel and To Surrender to a Rogue, Elliott sweeps her readers up in a scintillating and sexy romance between Katharine...and Comte Giovanni .... Heated passions come to a boil."—Publishers Weekly
For To Tempt a Rake:
"4 STARS - HOT:... An engaging cast of characters for her series. Readers who thrive on empowered women, sexy and dangerous men and their wild adventures will savor Elliott's latest."—RT Book Reviews
- On To Tempt a Rake: "Elliott expertly sifts a generous measure of dangerous intrigue into the plot of her latest impeccably crafted Regency historical, which should prove all too tempting to readers with a craving for deliciously clever, wickedly sexy romances."—Booklist
For To Tempt A Rake:
"INTRIGUES OF THE HEART: "The political context and historical detail add depth to this spicy romance of two independent lovers learning to become a couple."—Bookpage
For To Tempt A Rake:
"This story has intrigue, murder, mystery and plenty of heat. It is a worthy Regency romance read!"—freshfiction.com
On To Tempt a Rake:
"3 STARS!....This author remains one of my favorite romance writers about the Regency era."
—Detra Fitch, --www.huntressreviews.com
- "Elliott's ability to merge adventure, romance and an intriguing historical backdrop will captivate her readers and earn their accolades."—Kathe Robin, Historical Romance Reviews, www.rtbookreviews.com
Rave for To Sin With A Scoundrel:
"In this nicely steamy debut, ...the romance is well drawn and intriguing."—Publishers Weekly
- On Sale
- Nov 1, 2011
- Page Count
- 384 pages