Taking Liberties

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Lady Leticia Blake has wealth, beauty and, most important of all, numerous marriage proposals. Tish knows precisely what she wants in a husband: a man who can fulfill her deepest, darkest and most unladylike fantasies. But as a respectable debutante, she has no means to test her admirers’ arts in the bedchamber. Not unless she turns the tables and takes liberties with them—starting with tempting Viscount Nash Langston….


Chapter One
 London, 1795

Lady Leticia Blake was accounted by her peers to be the most fortunate of debutantes, the possessor of an embarrassment of riches in the form of wealth, wardrobe, winsomeness, and, most important of all, wedding proposals. Rumor held that in her first Season she had received—and declined—no less the five offers of marriage, and a similar number in her second. Now, as her third Season prepared to draw to a close, what everyone, including her parents, wanted to know was when she would decide to piss or get off the pot.

Or so her father said as he paced the fine Turkish rug that graced the floor of his library.

“Now see here, lass,” the Marquess of Avingdon huffed, wagging an accusatory finger at Tish, who sat with her hands folded in her lap in one of the oversized armchairs, “I won’t mince words. Your mother and I have seen fit to give you free rein for three Seasons, but even my pockets aren’t deep enough to bankroll a fourth, especially since you’re no closer to choosing a husband now than you were on the day you curtsied for the bloody Queen.”

His whiskered face had turned a rather unhealthy shade of red, and Tish experienced a pang of anxiety at the possibility he’d experience an apoplexy if he didn’t calm himself.

“That’s not true, Papa,” she said, hoping to appease him with a dose of reason and hard data. “I’m much closer now than I was when I debuted. After all, I know I don’t want to marry any of the men I’ve turned down.”

Unfortunately, this observation seemed to have the opposite of the desired effect. “And a fine lot you’ve refused, too. Three earls, a duke’s brother, and half a dozen other perfectly respectable gentlemen. Tell me, lass, of the ten or so you’ve still got trailing after your skirts, are there any you’d consider marrying?”

Tish looked down at the floor and chewed her upper lip. “Well, yes, but…”

Her father grabbed her chin and tilted her head so she was forced to look up into his angry blue eyes. “No buts. Choose one of them by the end of next week.”

“Next week?” The words came out on a squeak.

“Aye, lass.” His expression softened at her shock, however, and he gave her chin a gentle caress. “You’ve had plenty of time to decide what you want in a husband. If you don’t know by now, there’ll be naught for me to do but decide for you.”

Tish stared at her father in horror and confusion. “But you promised you’d let me choose my own husband.”

“And so I will, lass, provided you do so in the time I’ve allotted you.” He dropped a fond kiss on her nose and straightened. “And now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m expected in the Lords in half an hour.” He turned and marched out of the room without so much as a backwards glance at his supposedly beloved daughter.

Tish wanted to argue that she knew precisely what she wanted in a husband, and that was exactly the problem. She wanted the kind of husband whose kiss would make her toes curl and her knees buckle, whose touch would cause her skin to tingle and her stomach to bottom out. One who could fulfill her deepest, darkest, most unladylike fantasies.

And oh, she had so many of those.

The trouble was that as a young lady of gentle breeding and good reputation, she faced the same dilemma as her sister: she had no means of testing the fitness of her candidates but talk. True, she could easily rule out those gentleman who turned her stomach in entirely the wrong way, but it was quite impossible to discern whether any of the handsomer gentleman who paid her court might be “the one” when she spent her entire life under the watchful eye of one chaperone after another. Not to mention that all of her suitors seemed regrettably determined to behave like gentlemen, which meant they made no attempt to spirit her off to some private alcove or darkened garden path for the purpose of taking liberties with her person.

What she needed, she thought irritably, was to take liberties with them.

And that was when it came to her. The greatest idea in all history.

* * *
Viscount Nash Langston was already in a foul mood when he walked into White’s that afternoon. He’d received news yesterday that more than half the corn crop at his Lancashire estate was underwater due to flooding, and this morning he’d learned that a shipment of sugar cane in which he had invested had failed to arrive on schedule and was likely languishing at the bottom of the ocean floor. Neither loss would crush him financially, of course, but together they would place a substantial burden on his resources for the next year or so.

Not what a man in hot pursuit of the ton’s most sought-after debutante needed to improve his standing, either in her eyes or those of her parents.

Nash had come to the club with the intention of retiring to the back room and drowning his sorrows in imitation of his fortunes, but was swiftly diverted from his goal by the boisterous goings-on surrounding White’s notorious betting book. Under normal circumstances, he would have paid them no heed, for he found the subjects upon which his peers placed their wagers frivolous or dangerous or, as often as not, both. But today was different, because as he attempted to walk past the crush of bodies crowding around the book, he heard three words that stopped him dead in his tracks.

“…Lady Leticia Blake,” boomed Lord Gastonbury, who was unofficially in charge of collecting members’ markers when the wagers exceeded five hundred pounds. “Place your bets.”

What the bloody hell were they betting on that had to do with Tish Blake? Nash eyed the group of so-called gentlemen pressing Gastonbury and had a sick feeling he already knew the answer.

He sidled up to the only man in the room who seemed to have no interest in participating in the proceedings. Lord Colin Fitzgerald was a bit of an enigma, having only gained entrance to White’s upon his recent marriage to the former Lady Grace Hannington. The fact that he shared his wife with his close childhood friend was no secret, but since the influential dowager Countess Aberdeen had seen fit to shower the union with her blessings, no one felt it safe to give either of the Fitzgeralds the cut direct.

Nash for his part could care less whom Fitzgerald shared his wife with, provided he shared the information Nash wanted to know.

“What is the wager?” he asked his peer, attempting to appear mildly amused rather than genuinely interested.

Fitzgerald took a sip of the tawny liquid in the glass he held and sent Nash a bored look. “The Duke of Hapsborough has just put one thousand pounds on marrying Lady Leticia Blake before the end of the Season.”

Nash blinked slowly, once then twice. The answer came as no surprise, yet fury blurred his vision.
Hapsborough no more deserved Leticia Blake’s hand—or body—in marriage than he deserved to be named Chancellor of the Exchequer. Not only was the man a notorious spendthrift, he’d acquired a reputation among the demimondaine as a one-stroke wonder. “His Grace comes as quickly as he goes,” they tittered when he wasn’t about to overhear. But if the typically cash-strapped duke was willing to place a wager of a thousand pounds on the prospects for their union, he must be damned sure of them. That meant Nash’s prospects had been correspondingly weakened.

Damn it, he’d been so sure he was making headway with her. That she felt the same current of desire between them as he did. Aware of her penchant for refusing marriage proposals, he’d moved slowly and deliberately to reassure her that he wasn’t like the others. That he wanted her not for her dowry or her bloodlines, but for herself. Perhaps that had been a tactical error. Maybe instead he should have dragged her into a darkened alcove, pressed her up against the wall, and demonstrated his interest in the most unmistakable way possible.

What if Hapsborough had already signed a betrothal contract? Nash clenched and unclenched his fists. Leticia deserved better.

And better meant Nash.

Just as he was on the verge of acting on his instinct to fight through the crowd and plant the duke a facer, the unmistakable figure of the Earl of Randley—unmistakable because he was second only to Brummel in fashion and elegance, from the height of his collar to the intricate folds of his cravat to the length of his tails—pushed through the throng, a fistful of notes in his hand. “I’ll see Hapsborough’s thousand and raise him a thousand that I will be the one to marry the lady in question by the end of Season.”

A collective whoosh of surprise escaped the crowd, and Nash’s hands went lax. If Hapsborough’s wager was remarkable due to his customary insolvency, Randley’s was extraordinary for precisely the opposite reason—the earl was as fastidious about money as he was about his wardrobe, and he never spent a farthing unless he knew exactly what he was getting. If Randley was willing to gamble the outrageous sum of two thousand pounds, he must be supremely confident in the outcome.

But why? How could they both be so certain of marrying the same woman? Especially when she’d rejected proposals from so many gentlemen before them. Each must have received some indication that the lady favored his suit, yet both could not be right.

Which, he realized with a glimmer of triumph, could only mean that both might well be wrong.
Despite this rather obvious conclusion, the gentlemen surrounding the book clamored to place their own wagers, some on the duke, others on the earl, and a few on both. A wry smile tugged the edges of Nash’s lips as it occurred to him that every one of them would lose their shirts if he was the one who succeeded in marrying her.

And why the hell not? Randley’s wager had just leveled the playing field.

“You have a horse in this race?” Fitzgerald asked mildly as he set his now-empty glass on the table behind him.

Nash gave the man next to him an appraising glance and decided, for reasons he couldn’t entirely explain, to like him. “Yes, I do,” he admitted.

Viscount Fitzgerald raised an eyebrow. “Really? Who?”

Nash grinned. “Me.”

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