A proposition from a virgin – and a nobleman becomes a hermit.
The Lords of Disgrace quartet Book Four
(This is part of the Lords of Disgrace quartet but may be read as a stand-alone novel. For more about the Lords of Disgrace please see the Books Series page)
Gabriel Stone, Earl of Edenbridge, might have a rakish reputation, but he’s also a gentleman—of sorts. So when respectable Lady Caroline Holt offers her maidenhood in exchange for an estate her father gambled away, his curiosity is roused.
Gabriel is touched when he learns Caroline is helping her brother—he’s protected his brothers all his life…and has the scars to prove it. He’s willing to help her, but is shocked when his mission takes him somewhere he never thought he’d end up—down the aisle!
June 1st 1820, London
‘There is a young lady to see you, my lord.’
Gabriel Stone, Earl of Edenbridge, swung his feet down from the fender and sat up in his saggingly comfortable armchair to fix his butler with a quizzical look.
‘Losing your touch, Hampshire? Young ladies do not come calling on me, not even with a bodyguard of chaperones.’
‘Quite so, my lord. However, this is indubitably an unaccompanied lady and a young one at that.’
‘Does this mythical creature have a name?’
‘Lady Caroline Holm, my lord.’
‘Holm?’ That rang a bell. A very faint and slightly muzzy chime, given that Gabriel had been playing cards and drinking brandy into the small hours at a cosy hell in St Christopher’s Place. He glanced at the clock and found it was now eleven o’clock in the morning. He really must summon up the energy to go to bed.
It had been a profitable night and the crackle of promissory notes in his pocket told him so as he lounged to his feet and stretched all six foot two inches of weary body. Profitable to the tune of several hundred pounds, a very nice signet ring and the deeds to a small estate in Hertfordshire.
The estate… ‘Ah, I have it, Hampshire. I presume Lady Caroline is the daughter of Lord Knighton.’
‘The eccentric earl, my lord?’
‘A euphemistic description, Hampshire, but it will serve. The man appears to suffer from occasional bouts of gambling fever and is notoriously obsessional about improving his estate in the intervals between his binges. Of his other peculiarities I have no personal experience, I am thankful to say.’
Gabriel turned to look in the over-mantle mirror and was confronted by a vision of unshaven, rumpled dissipation, guaranteed to send any gently-born lady fleeing screaming from the house into Mount Street. That would be an excellent outcome, although possibly without the screaming. He had some consideration for his neighbours. ‘Where have you put her?’
‘The drawing room, my lord. Should I bring refreshments?’
‘I doubt she’ll stay long enough. Have my bathwater sent up, will you?’
Gabriel sauntered out of his study towards the drawing room, the details of the night before gradually becoming clearer. Knighton was the man who had lost the Hertfordshire deeds to him as a result of one ill-judged hand after another. He hadn’t appeared particularly concerned at the time, certainly not to the extent of sending his innocent and respectable daughter to the home of one of London’s most notorious rakes and gamesters to buy back the stake.
The innocent lady in question was standing before the unlit grate and turned at the sound of the door opening. Gabriel had time to admire a slim, unfashionably tall figure in a blue walking dress before she threw back her veil. Revealed were a chip-straw bonnet over neatly-dressed blonde hair, a pair of admirable blue eyes a shade darker than her gown, a severely straight nose and, to balance it, a mouth erring on the side of lush.
Not a beauty, not with that determined set to the chin, but striking. Tempting. ‘Lady Caroline? I am Edenbridge. To what do I owe the pleasure of this visit?’
She dropped a hint of a curtsey, nicely judged to reflect both his rank and his dishevelled state. ‘You played cards with my father last night.’ Her voice was normally warm and mellow, Gabriel suspected. She sounded anything but, just at the moment.
‘I did. To save time, yes, I won the deeds to an estate in Hertfordshire from him in the process.’
‘I know. I overheard Papa telling my elder brother about it this morning.’
‘You are not come to tell me that it is your dowry, I hope?’
‘It is not.’ She took a few steps away from him, turned and marched back, chin up, apparently using the few seconds to marshal her words. ‘It belongs to my younger brother, Anthony.’
‘I regret to disagree, but it now belongs to me. It is an unentailed estate, I gather, one that may be legally disposed of.’
‘Legally yes, morally, no.’
‘Lady Caroline, I have very little time for morals.’
‘So I understand, my lord.’ A sensitive man would have flinched at her tone. ‘My father is…’
She seemed to weigh the word for a moment. ‘Yes. And obsessed with both his title and Knighton Park, our home. That is entailed of course and my brother Lucas, Viscount Whiston, will inherit it. Anthony is only sixteen. Papa has decided that he will become a clergyman, installed in one of the livings at his disposal and therefore he has no need of lands of his own. He doesn’t understand Anthony like I do. I virtually brought him up and – ’ She must have realised she was losing his attention and her tone became brisk again. ‘Springbourne is ten miles from Knighton Park, too far for it ever to be integrated into the main estate, so Papa thinks little of it.’
‘The church is a common career for a younger son,’ Gabriel observed. His own brothers seemed happy enough with their respective roles, but they hadn’t been born first and saddled with the responsibility of title, tenants and lands. Let alone brothers. Promise me, Gabriel…
With the ruthlessness of long practice he pushed away memories of childhood and thought of his brothers now. Ben, the elder, a blood and thunder cavalry major; George, newly-ordained as a vicar, a mild soul who tended to flinch when he encountered Gabriel, and Louis, painfully studious and conscientious and both sensitive and pugnacious, a difficult combination to handle. He was a student in his final year at Cambridge where he was reading law before taking over the family’s business affairs, an outcome Gabriel was looking forward to immensely.
Now they were adults Gabriel gave them money when they asked for it, had introduced each to a good clean brothel when he judged them mature enough, warned them about predatory young ladies and their even more predatory mothers and beyond that managed to avoid them for months at a time. It was better for all of them that way.
‘It may be usual,’ Lady Caroline said in a voice that made him think of lemons inadequately sprinkled with sugar, ‘but it is quite unsuitable for Anthony.’ She glanced at him, then looked away hastily. It might have been the morning light shining directly into her eyes, it might have been the sight of him. The blue gaze flickered back, she bit that full lower lip and the hunting cat in him stirred, twitched its tail, began to purr. ‘Anthony loves Springbourne. He isn’t studious or intellectual. He is a natural farmer and countryman and it will break his heart to discover it has gone.’
‘And you expect me to hand it back to you, just like that? Sit down, Lady Caroline. I have had a long, hard night and I cannot sit until you do.’ Besides anything else, he wanted to watch her move.
With a small sound he assumed was exasperation, she sat on the nearest chair and studied her clasped hands as he subsided into the seat opposite. ‘No, I do not expect you to do anything so altruistic as to save my little brother’s dreams and future for no return.’
‘Perceptive of you,’ he drawled and was rewarded by a hiss of anger before she was back to being the prefect lady again. ‘Do you intend to buy it back then?’ He pulled the mass of vowels out of his pocket and sorted through the IOUs until he found the one scrawled in Knighton’s hand. He held it up for her to see. ‘That is the value your father put on it.’
Lady Caroline winced. ‘No, of course I cannot buy it back. You must know that as an unmarried woman I have no control over my own money.’
‘Then what do you propose?’
‘You have a certain reputation, Lord Edenbridge.’ Those gloves must be fascinating to require such close scrutiny.
‘As a gambler?’
She closed her eyes, took a deep breath then opened them and sent him a defiant stare before her gaze skidded away to settle on the fire irons. ‘As a man of amorous inclinations.’
Gabriel tried not to laugh, but it escaped in a snort of amusement. ‘That is one way of putting it.’
‘I am a virgin.’
And one who blushed delightfully. ‘So I should hope,’ he said piously. The lush mouth compressed into a hard line and he had a sudden urge to capture it beneath his, tease it into softness and acceptance. Into pleasure.
‘I propose an exchange, my lord.’ She addressed the fire irons. ‘My virginity for those deeds.’