“How delicious!” Philippa Coakley whispered in her sister’s ear, but she wasn’t referring to the sweetmeat that rested daintily between her long fingers. Her hungry blue eyes were focused on the broad shoulders, narrow hips, and muscular thighs of a handsome young man leaning against a Celtic stone ruin.
Leanne followed her sister’s predatory gaze and smiled appreciatively.
“Mmmmm, yummy. Too bad your husband Gordon will be joining us on the morrow,” she said with a ruthless smirk as she gathered her skirts to rise.
“Don’t remind me!” Philippa groaned.
Leanne shook out her gown and smoothed one hand over her bodice, “When Gordon arrives, you will be forced to concentrate on your wifely duties, and I will be left to languish alone in this Godforsaken wasteland. I see no reason why at least one of us shouldn’t enjoy a pleasant diversion.” She took a step toward the stranger.
“I saw him first,” Philippa hissed, grabbing Leanne’s arm and jerking her back onto the blanket. “And would you please stop bringing up my husband? I abhor his very name.”
“But not his money, I’ll warrant,” Leanne said archly.
Philippa shot her a nasty look. “I wonder if it’s not too late to invite one more guest to our house party this weekend?” She narrowed her eyes and attempted to calculate the man’s age, height, and physical stamina. Under thirty, over six, and endless.
“A late addition to Gordon’s hunting excursion? That sounds like a marvelous idea!” Leanne grinned. “While the men are out shooting grouse, why don’t we see if one of us can bag a buck?”
“If that’s a challenge, I accept. And let the best woman win!” Philippa’s eyes took on a wolfish gleam as she assessed her quarry. With a look of determination, she pulled on her kidskin gloves and swayed across the heath. Behind her the tour guide resumed his lecture on Cornish history from the Late Stone Age through the Roman occupation. Philippa hid a delicate yawn behind her hand.
“History is so boring.”
Will arrived at Lady Philippa Coakley’s home at four o’clock, the precise time specified on her hand written invitation. Until the butler presented it to him on a silver tray, he had not realized Lady Philippa’s husband was Gordon Coakley, Marquis of Clarendon, whose vast estate comprised a sizable portion of northwestern Cornwall.
Because Will had spent many of his childhood summers nearby, he knew of the Marquis. He hadn’t realized, however, that the old man had remarried. Philippa had to be no less than 30 years younger than her wealthy spouse. Will’s lips twisted with newborn cynicism as he dwelled on women and avarice. Philippa obviously found her husband lacking in at least one respect, but she apparently had married him with the intention of sating her carnal appetites in the arms of other men.
Just like Julia.
He realized the irony of his situation and, for the first time since witnessing the liaison at Vauxhall Gardens, he allowed himself to experience relief. Had he married Julia, he might have found himself in the same situation as Gordon Coakley.
Will had carefully considered the wisdom of accepting Philippa’s invitation. Without a doubt, she was looking for more from him than a fourth at whist, judging from the rapacious gleam that had lit her eyes at Boscawen-Un. He smiled roguishly. Why not? It might be the perfect balm for his wounded pride.
Two days later he rode down a crushed shell drive between carefully trimmed hedgerows just as a large hunting party disappeared over the rise of a distant field. Lady Philippa had described the weekend gathering as a “small party” at her “little country house”. The “little house” turned out to be a sprawling mansion of Cornish granite surrounded by lavish gardens and flawlessly manicured grounds. Will knew dozens of gardeners were required to maintain the park-like setting. The “small party” was comprised of three-dozen men rigged out for a day of hunting and twice as many hounds.
He could see tile roofed stables clustered behind stone walls on the western side of the house. He dismounted and handed his reins to a young groom in crisp black and red livery. The boy led him past a stone-flagged central court that contained a large marble drinking fountain for the horses. Archways led to the harness area, stalls, and a carriage room that smelled potently of brass polish, leather, and saddle wax. Everywhere the walls were hung with bridles, halters, breastplates, and well-worn leathers. Wooden crates filled with grooming implements were lined up neatly on shelves.
To his surprise, his hostess was standing beside a row of stanchions wearing an elegant blue chiffon dress with a plunging neckline. He felt the first stirrings of desire as he looked down into the flawless oval of her face. Beautiful, blond, and dressed in an expensive gown and pearls, she was completely out of place in the stable yard. The heady scent of gardenias mingled with the earthiness of horseflesh in an unexpectedly erotic way. As he dismounted, her blue eyes lingered on his snug-fitting breeches with a distinctly predatory mien. Having recently suffered a painful blow to his ego, the naked lust on her face soothed his wounded pride. Philippa was an alluring woman and she had taken an avid interest in him. He intended to make the most of it.
She stepped forward, smiling prettily. “I can’t tell you how delighted I am that you could come on such short notice, Darbyshire!”
She held her gloves in her left hand and offered her right to him. Will raised it to his lips, keeping his eyes on her. He kissed her knuckles, darting his tongue into the vee between her first and second finger. She sucked in a sharp breath. The game was on.
“Good afternoon, my lady. You were kind to invite me,” he boldly scanned her body. “You look good enough to eat.”
“Oh, my,” she said softly, twisting a strand of pearls around her finger. The movement drew his eye to the fluttering pulse of her neck. She seemed a bit nervous as she bit her lush lower lip and a blush crept into her cheeks. He knew her color was caused by wanton anticipation, not maidenly shyness. The thought stoked a fire low in his belly.
He looked toward the field where the shooting party had disappeared minutes earlier. “It appears I won’t be joining the men on their hunt,” he said smoothly, his voice low and intimate. She moved toward him with the feral grace of a lioness.
“Unfortunately you missed them. If only you had come just a tiny bit earlier,” she pouted. “I do hope you aren’t too disappointed to be forced to spend the afternoon all alone with me.” She slipped a finger under his lapel and ran it down his chest.
“I suppose we shall have to find some other way to occupy ourselves.” His eyes sparkled with erotic intent, hers widened in response. This was just the sort of interlude he needed to reaffirm his sexual appeal. Perhaps Julia had not found him appealing, but the beautiful woman standing before him did.
“Will,” she let her tongue linger on the roof of her mouth, then paused for effect. “You don’t mind if I call you Will, do you?” Her voice was low and husky.
“By all means. I was just about to suggest it. And how might I address you, my lady?” he asked as she threaded her arm through his, pressing her bosom to his side.
“Philly,” she looked up at him from beneath sooty lashes. “The name ’tis fitting,” she confided. “I do so love a long, hard ride.”
Will choked on a cough.
Philippa laughed and patted his back. “Are you all right, my lord?”
He brought himself under control. “Never better.”
“Good. I am so pleased you are here.”
“As am I.”
“What shall we do until the men return?” She tapped a finger on her chin. “Would you care for a tour of the stables?”
Will glanced around the impressive courtyard. He did some quick mental math and decided there had to be at least eighty stalls divided among four buildings. Such a facility should have been filled with the vigorous labor of stall cleaners, farriers, trainers and braiders, but instead silence prevailed. The stables were deserted.
“Your husband has fine taste in horseflesh,” he said as they passed a magnificent German warmblood.
“He has very refined tastes. My Gordon surrounds himself with the most exceptional art, horses… and women.” She pushed open a cross-braced door as if she were welcoming him into a ballroom.
A skittish long-legged gray pranced and snorted in its stall and Will stopped to admire the animal.
“This one is spirited,” he observed.
“A gift from my husband. His name is Thor, my personal mount,” Philippa stroked the animal’s nose slowly.
“Yours?” Will was surprised. “He seems rather a handful.”
“I know how to manage large, headstrong beasts.” She took his hand and pulled him further down the straw-covered aisle. “Allow me to show you the tack room.”
Will stepped into the dimly-lit expanse and a wicked grin crept across his face. Beneath rough wood walls hung with saddles, bridles, and blankets, was a large bottle of wine and two glasses. Spread out in the middle of the floor was a thick stack of plush blankets on a raised pallet. He turned slowly toward her.
“Lady Philippa…” he said with a pirate’s smile, his white teeth flashing in the shadows of the darkened room. “It appears you are uncommonly hospitable.”
“I endeavor to be. At finishing school I learned a good hostess is warm, caring, gracious, and always provides her guest with a pleasurable experience. I would not have it said you left my company unsatisfied in any way.”
She spread her fingers over his chest, luxuriating in the feel of his hard muscles, and pushed him toward the blankets.
Leanne paced back and forth in the library, skirts snapping as she stalked from hearth to oak paneled door and back again.
How dare she?
Philippa had slipped away to him in private, stripping from Leanne any possibility of attracting the luscious young earl’s attention. That voided the wager, damn it! She would not concede defeat when she hadn’t even had a chance to play the game! With gritted teeth, she told herself she shouldn’t be surprised; her sister never fought fair.
Leanne looked around the room, taking in the expensive furnishings, velvet curtains, exquisite hand-tied silk carpets. It should have been hers… all of it. She had met the marquis first, had flirted with him at society dinners and balls, done all she could to secure his interest. He had pursued her with enthusiasm, eventually visiting her father to express his interest.
Then Gordon, her last, best hope to marry well, met Philippa. Pretty, perfect, perfidious, Philippa. She had stolen Leanne’s wealthy suitor right out from under her nose, with no consideration for the fact that she had been out for three years while Philippa had yet to make her debut.
Leanne knew where Philippa and the earl were at that precise moment. It wasn’t the first time her sister had taken a strapping young man to the stables for a riding lesson. She wanted to scream in frustration. How was it that her sly younger sister always managed to outfox her? It was galling. Maddening. Infuriating.
Leanne tried to take comfort in the cold nature of her sister’s marriage. Gordon was neither affectionate nor kind. Philippa confided that she found his amorous attentions revolting and dreaded his regular visits to her bed. Leanne was secretly pleased. If Gordon had turned out to be the lover of Philippa’s dreams, she would have thrown herself off London Bridge in despair.
In the corner of the room, a lavishly tooled Colt musket gleamed against the wall. After dinner the night before, the marquis had proudly shown his guests the newest addition to his gun collection. He had bragged at length about how he had imported it from America at great expense. He had then bored them all with a lengthy dissertation on the relationship between barrel length and velocity.
Running her finger along a row of leather spines, she selected a volume of poetry and dropped into a chair by the fire. She tried to read, but was too annoyed to concentrate on the words.
The front door banged open and the marquis’ booming voice rose from the entry hall. Feeling a slight panic, Leanne jumped up and followed the sound until she found her brother-in-law and several servants scurrying about. They seemed to be searching for something.
The marquis looked at her dismissively. His lack of regard incensed her. The pompous bastard had nearly been her husband. Now he treated her like a poor relation.
“I forgot my new rifle. Wanted to break the cursed thing in today. Have you seen it?” he barked.
“Is it the one you were showing off to your friends last night?” Leanne asked with a sly look. She knew the turn of phrase would irritate him.
“Showing off? I did no such thing, girl, but yes, that’s the one. Have you seen it?” he asked gruffly.
“I think perhaps I did, my lord.” She pinched her chin between her thumb and forefinger as if weighing a decision.
“Well, out with it!” he spat. “I don’t have all day.”
“I believe I saw it in the stables,” she closed her eyes as if trying to picture where she had seen it last. “Yes, that’s where it is. In the tack room, to be more specific.” As soon as the words left her lips, Leanne regretted it, but it was too late to call them back. Like it or not, revenge was now hers, and there was nothing she could do about it.
The marquis spun on his heel and stalked from the house.