An Award Winning Book
Lord Rochdale stakes his most prized possession in wagering that he can seduce the very prim and proper Grace Marlowe. Her stalwart virtue is put to the test when the infamous rake shows an unexpected interest in her. But when hearts and lives become tangled in the gamble, the truth of his seduction could ruin everything.
Previous Cover: 2012
Previous Cover: 2007
When Candice named the hero of this book Lord Rochdale, it was not a random name choice. It was something of an homage to a real Regency bad boy. Learn who he was and why Candice chose the name.
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Follow the links in brackets to learn more about these real Regency references in Candice's book.
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From Chapter 2:
He lifted her hand and his lips grazed ever so softly against the knuckles, then brushed butterfly kisses on each fingertip. Dear God. Every nerve in her body thrummed. This was the last straw. She jerked her hand away.
He gave a deep-throated chuckle, and Grace chided herself for allowing him to believe he had flustered her. She was not flustered. She was simply unaccustomed to having a man touch her like that, kiss her like that. She might be forgiven for the involuntary tingling deep in her belly, and lower, brought on by the sensation of his unexpectedly soft lips. This was something altogether new and she’d been unprepared, that was all. But it was surely wicked, so she made a greater effort to regain composure, for she’d be damned before allowing him to know what she felt. She would no doubt be damned in any case, for having such wayward feelings.
No one had a more powerful resolve, however, than Grace Marlowe, and this horrid man would never get past it.
“You promised me your hand,” he said in that velvety voice.
“I promised no such thing.”
“But you did not refuse it to me when I gave you the chance, so I take that as sufficient approval.” He reached over and took her hand again, easily accomplished since she had not tucked it out of sight, as she ought to have done. “There, you see? Nothing to be so anxious about. It is merely a hand, not your virtue. And I promise not to bite it off. I may take leave to kiss it now and then, however.” And he did so.
Grace bit down on her back teeth so hard she felt the muscles of her neck grow rigid. At least she wasn’t trembling. “I wish you would not,” she murmured.
He lifted his head and arched an eyebrow, a decided twinkle in his scoundrel eyes. “Why? You like it. I can tell.”
“I do not like it.”
“Yes, you do. Oh, please do not give me that face, Mrs. Marlowe. All that frowning mars your perfect brow. And do not deny that you like to have your hand kissed. Of course you do. And why shouldn’t you? It is not sinful, after all.”
Yes, it was. It made her feel sinful — all that tingling, her skin prickling into goose flesh — and he knew it. It was not at all proper. But what could one expect from such a man?
Grace hated being so aware of him. She certainly did not wish for the physical response he so expertly drew from her with the practiced skill of a seducer. She disliked him. Loathed him, even.
She must do something to divert his attention. Bore him. Disgust him. Anything to distract him from her hand, where he was once again drawing little circles on her palm. She ripped her attention from his wicked touch and concentrated on the sounds around her, allowing the ordinary chorus of travel to soothe her nearly shattered nerves. The steady rhythmic hoof beats of the team of horses. The jangle and clank of the harnesses. Bits of dirt and gravel thrown up from the wheels and pinging against the window glass. The outside lamps swinging back and forth with a continual two-note screech. The rattle of the raised shades against the side windows. The occasional shout of Jenkins, who rode postillion on the lead horse. The constant creak and grind as the carriage swayed and bounced along the road.
Carriage travel was a noisy business, but it somehow quieted her busy brain and allowed her to think more clearly. And all at once, she was truck by an idea that was bound to send Lord Rochdale scooting as far away from her as possible.
“I have another project that occupies a great deal of my time,” she said.
“Oh? And what is that?”
“I am editing the bishop’s sermons.”
That did it. Or almost. He did not scoot away, but ceased drawing circles, those strangely intimate caresses, and stared at her.
“The bishop’s sermons?”
“Yes. Not his parliamentary addresses, which are well documented, but his church sermons. They are most instructive.”
Grace’s husband, Bishop Ignatius Marlowe, had been an important man and a great orator. As Bishop of London, he’d sat in the House of Lords as one of the Lords Spiritual where he had famously addressed the issue of Catholic emancipation, and from his pulpit at St Paul’s he’d given spectacular and stirring sermons on the plight of the poor and the need for social reform. In fact, he’d often been called upon to speak at less official gatherings, where the general populace could benefit from his views. Grace had been so proud of him. But he’d also preached from the pulpits at several of the Royal Chapels, and those sermons were more personal. He had written them out before delivering them, and it was from those notes that Grace was putting together a collection of his work for publication.
It had so far been a project of immense personal satisfaction for Grace, something of value she could do for the bishop, in appreciation of all he’d done for her. The only negative aspect had been the reaction of his daughter, Margaret, who’d never liked Grace and made it clear she did not approve of her rummaging through the bishop’s papers. Margaret was very protective of her father’s memory, and Grace did her best to convince her step-daughter of her good intentions. She feared, however, that she would never win the woman over, but did not allow that to deter her efforts in editing the sermons.
“I am sure they are full to bursting with useful instruction,” Rochdale said in a sarcastic tone, and Grace could swear his gaze rolled to the ceiling briefly.
She smiled. “They are truly wonderful sermons that teach how to live one’s life in the best possible way through selfless acts and the avoidance of sin. But I don’t suppose such instruction would be of interest to you, my lord.”
He uttered a disdainful snort. “You suppose correctly. Besides, the last thing any of us needs is another book of sermons from some old … I beg your pardon, Mrs. Marlowe, but it should come as no surprise to you that I found your late husband to be a pompous old windbag.”
“Lord Rochdale! I will not have you speak of the bishop in such terms to me.”
He waved away her objection … with the hand that was no longer holding hers. She had won that battle, at least.
“I am certain he was a good man and a saintly husband,” he said, “but his views on reform were naïve and impractical and altogether too self-righteous.”
“What do you m—”
“He loved to talk about helping the poor, but he had a very narrow definition of the deserving poor. His implication was always that most of them were lazy and stupid.”
“If I had to hear one more harangue on how gin was the cause of all misery in London and the manufacture of it should be outlawed, I swear I would have to run screaming through the streets.”
“But you have to admit that —”
“If only he’d put more of his persuasive powers into relieving some of the miserable conditions that drive those poor souls to gin, then I’d have had more respect for him. As it was … Oh, confound it all. I beg your pardon. He was your husband, and I should keep my opinions to myself.”
“Yes, perhaps you should,” Grace said sharply. She had never heard anyone speak of the bishop with anything other than admiration and respect. It shocked her to hear Lord Rochdale, of all people, take him to task. And she was quite certain it had not been said to deliberately upset her, as all his other actions had been. He’d really meant it. To think that anyone could have such an opinion of Bishop Marlowe shook her totally off balance.
“I do apologize.” He took her hand again and his voice returned to the more usual deep timbre, spilling over her thick as honey. “That was rude of me. And quite spoiled my mood. Let us have no more talk of the bishop and his reforms.” He began to softly caress her fingers again.
“But I never mentioned his ideas of reform,” Grace said, determined to hang onto the one subject that seemed to take his mind off seduction. “I am working on his church sermons, which are quite different. He liked to take a verse from Proverbs, for example, and build a whole sermon around its lesson. Why, just yesterday I found his notes for a sermon based on the Proverb: Pride goeth before a fall. It is most enlightening.”
“And wrong, if that’s how he quoted it.”
Grace furrowed her brow. “What do you mean, wrong? Proverbs 16:18. ‘Pride goeth before a fall.'”
Rochdale smiled as he realized he’d found the opening he needed. “I say you are wrong.”
She gave a little chortle of laughter. That unexpectedly dark, husky laugh again that made him want to lay her down on the bench and make mad love to her. He would have to be careful of that laugh. It was a sound that could get under a man’s skin and melt it right off. Pure seduction, and she did not even know it.
“As if a man like you,” she said, “would have even a passing acquaintance with the Bible.”
“I am willing to wager that you have the verse wrong.”
“And I am willing to wager that it is correct.”
He smiled. “Excellent. We shall have a proper wager, then.”
She eyed him warily. “I have heard about men like you, chronic gamblers who will wager on anything and everything.”
He shrugged. “I will not deny that I enjoy a good game. And a wager will always make a horse race or a cock fight or a mill all the more enjoyable. A bit of risk now and then adds a hint of piquancy to the everyday humdrum of life. You should do it more often. Tasking risks. Stepping outside the strict boundaries of what you think is expected of you. This will be a good start for you. A small wager over a Bible verse.”
“But there is little risk when I know I am right.”
Better and better. This would be as easy as the turn of a card. “Since you are so confident, then you will have no objection if I set the stakes.”
“This is one wager you will not win, sir. I am a church woman. A vicar’s daughter and a bishop’s widow. I know my Bible. In fact, set the stakes high, for when I win I shall use the money to help build my new wing at Marlowe House.”
“You agree that I may set the stakes?”
“So I have just said. Name any amount.”
“All right, then. But I wasn’t thinking of money. I was thinking of … a kiss.”
Her smoky eyes widened and her cheeks flushed a deep shade of pink. Lord, she was trying so hard to pretend not to be affected by him, and had no idea how delightfully she failed.
She bristled into speech. “You have already kissed my hand, Lord Rochdale. That was quite enough.”
“Was it? Not for me, I assure you.” He brought her hand to his lips again and slowly drew them across her knuckles. He inhaled a deep breath through his nose, taking in the incredible fragrance she must have dabbed at her wrist. It was not the sort of soft, flowery scent he would have expected from her, but something slightly heavier and more intoxicating — jasmine, perhaps? — and as incongruous as her laugh. Rochdale added a quick flick of the tongue across her knuckles before lifting his head.
She sucked in a sharp breath and drew her hand away. “You have not won the wager yet, my lord.”
“Ah, but that was not a true kiss. Certainly not worthy of a wager. But I can tell you liked it.”
“No, I d—”
“In fact, I am quite sure you would like to be kissed. By me.”
“That’s not tr—”
“You are simply dying to know what it would be like to be kissed by the oh-so-wicked man with the oh-so-dangerous reputation.” He moved closer to her, pressing his hip firmly against hers, until she had no recourse but to flatten herself into the corner, with no place left to go.
“You, sir, are impertinent. And remarkably arrogant. I have no wish to be kissed by you.”
“Of course you do. The need is radiating off your body like heat waves. I can almost taste it. But you are all tied up in your Bishop’s Widow’s propriety and afraid to let yourself be simply a woman. A woman with a woman’s needs and desires. It is nothing to be ashamed of. In fact, it is infinitely more shameful to keep yourself all tied up in self-imposed knots.”
He leaned in close, and her whole body strained to put some distance between them. Her spine must be fused to the side wall panel. But he had not lied. He could feel her desire in the touch of her hand, which he still clasped. When he let go, she gave a shuddery breath, then held it again when he began to loosen the ribbons of her bonnet.
“All tied up,” he said, “just like this bonnet. It is unhealthy to be so tight-laced all the time, you know. One has to breathe.” The satin ribbon slipped loose and he gently lifted the straw bonnet off her head and placed in on the small shelf beneath the front window, beside the high-crowned beaver hat he’d discarded earlier. Her blond hair was coiled in a plaited crown high on her head, more silvery than gold in the moonlight streaming in the front window. She had not cut and teased short curls at her cheeks and temples like so many ladies of fashion did. All was sleek and simple, giving attention to her elegant cheeks and long white neck. Her beauty was cruelly serene.
As he studied her again — gray eyes huge with anxiety, full lips slightly pursed, skin so finely textured it might have been unglazed porcelain — Grace did not struggle. She did not try to throw him off or strike him. She might not have believed it, but he would have stopped if she had done any of those things. But she did none of them. It was as though she had so thoroughly trained herself to keep all emotion under control that she became rigid as a statue, unable to speak or move.
Rochdale wondered if she’d always been such an ice princess, or if it was the bishop’s doing. And what would happen to her once he’d chipped away that cool, polished marble façade and let out the warm-blooded woman beneath? Would she loosen her tight laces forever and open herself up to life?
Perhaps she would thank him as he rode off on Sheane’s Albion.
“I spoke before of taking risks. Isn’t it time you took a small risk, my dear Mrs. Marlowe?”
Her breathing became slightly ragged, a nervous agitation. She was out of her depth, even a little frightened. Yet she did not drop her unbending composure. Was it courage? Or simply pure mule-headedness?
“I am taking a risk,” she said, “merely by being in this carriage with you, am I not? Is that not enough?”
“But what are you risking? Your virtue is safe with me, as I have already assured you. And sharing my carriage was no risk for you since you had no choice in the matter. No, I think you require more of a risk than that.”
“Of course you do. You are a gambler. Taking risks is your way of life. It is not mine.”
“Not yet.” He brushed a knuckle down the edge of her cheek and along her jaw. She blinked rapidly a few times, but did not flinch. “But as you say, I live to take risks. And do you know what? I find I am all agog to win this wager with you.”
“You won’t win.”
“And yet I have every intention of doing so. But I think it only fair that we both appreciate what the stakes are. Let us see exactly what we are playing for.”
He slid an arm around her shoulder, pulled her toward him, and kissed her.
Read the Excerpt from the first book in the Merry Widows Series »