A lady of persuasion, p.1
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       A Lady of Persuasion, p.1

         Part #3 of The Wanton Dairymaid Trilogy series by Tessa Dare
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A Lady of Persuasion
Page 1

  CHAPTER ONE

  Sir Tobias Aldridge was contemplating an act of cold-blooded murder. Failing that, an act of barbarous incivility.

  By nature, Toby wasn’t one to hold a grudge. As a gentleman of rank, wealth, and unarguable good looks, he’d never received a slight he couldn’t simply laugh off. He called every man friend, and no man enemy.

  Until now.

  “So that’s him. ” Toby glared at the man twirling a fair-haired beauty across the gleaming parquet—Benedict “Gray” Grayson. The scoundrel who’d stolen Toby’s bride, his future, and his very respectability, then returned to a bloody hero’s welcome.

  “That’s him. Here, have a brandy. ” His host, Jeremy Trescott, the Earl of Kendall, extended a glass.

  Toby accepted the drink and downed a quick, blistering swallow. “I could call him out,” he murmured behind the glass. “I could call him out and shoot him dead tonight, in your garden. ”

  Jeremy shook his head. “You’re not going to do that. ”

  “Why not? You don’t think I have it in me?” Toby gave a bitter laugh. “Don’t you read the papers, Jem? That affable Sir Toby is a phantom of the past, and good riddance to him. Where did honor and decency get me, I ask you? Jilted, and replaced by a thieving, unprincipled bastard. ”

  “Gray’s not a bastard. He’s the legitimate nephew of a duchess. ”

  “Oh, yes. And now a knight, as well. What isn’t he? If you listen to the talk, Sir Benedict’s a shipping financier, a West Indian planter, a feared privateer, a paragon of valor …” Toby shook his head. “I know the truth. He’s the thieving bastard who seduced my intended bride. It’s within my rights to call him out. ”

  “Even if you could do it,” his friend said tersely, “you’re not going to do it. This is Lucy’s first ball. She’s been planning it for months. If you turn it into scandal-sheet fodder, I’ll take you into the garden and gut you myself. ”

  “Well, if you didn’t want scandal, you shouldn’t have invited me. So long as I have the devil’s own reputation, I might as well live up to it. ”

  “You ought to rise above it. ” Jeremy lowered his voice. “Listen, you’re bound to meet with them at some point. Gray’s bringing out his younger sister this year, and they’ll be at every major social event. Best to make your public reconciliation now and quell the gossip. Why do you think Lucy and I planned a ball so early in the Season?”

  “Because if you waited a few months she’d be too round?” Eager to change the subject, Toby clapped his friend on the shoulder. He had no intention of reconciling with Grayson, publicly or otherwise. Ever. “Congratulations, by the way. ”

  “How did you know Lucy’s with child?”

  Toby made eye contact with his friend’s wife across the ballroom, as she weaved through the crush of guests. For years, Lucy Waltham Trescott had dogged their annual hunting excursions at Henry Waltham’s estate. She’d harbored a girlish infatuation for Toby but had forgotten him quickly enough when Jeremy captured her heart last autumn.

  He said, “I’ve three older sisters, and ten nieces and nephews to date. I can tell. A woman’s face gets a bit rounder, her hair shines. And her bosom, it…” Jeremy shot him a glare, and Toby sipped his brandy. “Right, well. I can just tell. ”

  Lucy reached them, and Toby fortified his smile. He’d be damned if he’d let this assembly catch him wearing any expression other than his usual rakish grin.

  “Toby!” Lucy exclaimed, taking his hands. “I’m so glad to see you. ”

  “Look at you, Luce. ” He gave her a sweeping gaze and an appreciative wink. The oncehoydenish twig of a girl had blossomed into the lovely, confident Countess of Kendall.

  “Stunning. Most beautiful lady in the room. ”

  Lucy made a dismissive wave of her hand, but behind the gesture she blushed to the ears. Just as he’d known she would. Toby leaned in to kiss her cheek, ignoring Jeremy’s forbidding glare.

  “I know you say that to all the ladies,” Lucy said. She gave him a cautious look. “Sophia looks well, doesn’t she?”

  “Oh, she’s radiant. ” Toby forced his grin wider as the Graysons waltzed by, Sophia’s flaxen hair and porcelain complexion an elegant ivory blur. “Incandescent, even. She has the look of a woman in love. ”

  Sophia had never looked incandescent with him.

  Lucy seemed to read his thoughts. She laid a hand on his sleeve. “Toby. You weren’t in love with her, either. ”

  He shrugged. Lucy spoke the truth, but the truth didn’t help.

  “What’s done is done. You’ve got to move on. ” Jeremy nodded toward the crush of guests.

  “It’s a new Season, man. There’s a fresh crop of debutantes just waiting to experience the renowned Sir Toby charm. Surely one of them has caught your eye. ”

  Toby considered. True, a fresh conquest might provide a welcome diversion from murderous rage. He’d always been a favorite with the debutantes. But lately, there was scarcely any challenge to it. His scandal-sheet notoriety as the “Rake Reborn” had the mamas on alert and the young ladies in a flutter. All he had to do was appear.

  “Now that you mention it, there was one … just one. ” Toby scanned the ballroom for a glimpse of vibrant emerald silk. There was only one lady who’d caught his eye even briefly since he’d made his entrance. He knew he’d never seen her before—he certainly wouldn’t have forgotten her if he had.

  Ah, there she was. An intriguing dark-haired beauty unlike any other lady in the room. Unlike any lady he’d ever seen. Until now, he’d caught only glimpses of her through the churning sea of dancers—a flash of emerald, a cascade of raven hair, a swatch of honey-gold skin. Now she lined up with the ladies in preparation for a reel, and he had his first opportunity to study her in full view.

  She was tall. Not nearly so tall as he, but taller than the ladies she stood amongst, and possessed of a lushly proportioned figure. The cut of her gown was modest, but she was the kind of woman who managed to look indecent, even fully clothed. Hers was a body plucked straight from some harem fantasy—full breasts, flared hips, long legs. Toby watched as she favored her dance partner with the hint of a smile. That subtle curve of her lips was somehow more sensuous than any other curve of her body. Desire sparked through him, surprising him with its intensity. His whole body thrummed with that base, ineloquent instinct in which every seduction, no matter how suave, took its root: I want that.

  Who was she? She was in her first Season, most certainly. With her beauty, she could not last more than a few months on the marriage mart—even if her dowry were made up of cockleshells.

  Toby shifted to view the row of gentlemen lined up opposite, to discern the identity of her partner. “Bloody hell. ”

  It couldn’t be. She was partnered with Grayson, the thieving bastard. It wasn’t enough he’d already stolen the woman Toby had planned to marry—now he had to strut and impress the debutantes, too? Damn it, they were Toby’s territory. Now what had begun as vague, lustful inclination firmed into a plan:

  I want that.

  And I’m going to take it.

  “Fancy a reel, Luce?”

  “Why, I had not—”

  Without waiting for her answer, Toby took Lucy by the hand and tugged her onto the dance floor, wedging their way into the queued-up dancers just instants before the music began. He’d positioned himself at Grayson’s shoulder, and though he bowed to Lucy as the first chords were struck, he kept his gaze slanted toward the beauty in green silk beside her. The dance was one patterned in groups of three couples, requiring much interchange between adjacent partners, just as Toby had hoped. At regular intervals, he would have occasion to take his emerald
-clad vision by the hand, exchange a few words, twirl her dizzy, and—if all that failed to render her breathless—flash his most winning smile.

  But all in good time.

  Winning over a lady was a matter of strategy, of patience. The first contact must not be skin-toskin, nor even glove-to-glove, but solely eye-to-eye. Toby moved forward to bow to her, his gaze riveted to hers. Her eyes were remarkable. Wide-set, almond-shaped, and fringed with sable lashes. So large and serious, they seemed to swallow up the rest of her face. For a moment, he let himself sink into those dark, placid pools.

  He had a devil of a struggle fishing himself back out.

  A few bars later, he was still recovering when the pattern compelled him to take her hand. He seized her gloved fingers firmly. The soft fabric heated between them as they circled, becoming warm and pliant as skin. Her bare flesh would feel like this, he thought. Satin-smooth. Supple. Hot to the touch as his hands glided under that cool silk to explore her every enticing curve. It would have the texture of cream against his tongue.

  Lord. Toby hauled on his mental reins before those thoughts carried him away. Never before had he felt such a thrill simply taking a lady’s hand. But then, never before had he seduced a woman straight from the arms of his enemy.

  “Toby. ” Lucy beckoned him with a twitch of her fingers, and Toby realized they’d fallen behind in the pattern.

  “Right. Beg pardon. ” He leapt forward to claim Lucy’s hands and sweep her down the dance.

  “And I apologize in advance, for what is about to occur. ”

  Her eyes flared. “Toby, no. You can’t make a scene. ”

  “Oh, but I could. I could denounce Grayson and Sophia in front of the entire ballroom. Everyone thinks they’re the golden couple, the freshly knighted hero and his beautiful, innocent bride? I could expose the truth. ”

  “And I could expose your innards. ” Lucy’s fingernails dug into his arm, proving a fierce huntress still prowled within that elegant exterior. “You wouldn’t dare. I’ve been planning this evening for months, Toby. ”

  The dance parted them before Toby could respond. Then the lady in green silk smiled, and something in his chest pulled tight. He couldn’t have spoken if he’d tried. It was perfect, that smile, composed of full, sensuous lips the color of fine Madeira. Lips designed for sin, framing an innocent row of pearly teeth. And about the corners of her mouth, the slightest hint of melancholy—just enough to intrigue the mind, stir the heart. Those lips defied mere admiration; they wanted a kiss.

  There was only one thing wrong with that smile.

  It wasn’t directed at him. That bastard Grayson was its lucky recipient, and it was all Toby could do not to thrust out his boot and trip the man as he moved forward to take the beauty’s hands.

  Tempting, that idea—but inconceivable. Toby might scuff his boot.

  No, he would exact his revenge more subtly, more justly. No messy duel, no public denouncement. Did not the Bible advise an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth … or, in this case, a lady for a lady?

  When the pattern brought them together again, he pulled his dark-haired temptress close—so close the green silk of her gown tangled with his legs. Her scent teased him: a crisp, freshsmelling blend of verbena and citrus. Tightening his grip on her arm, he whispered just as they parted: “I must tell you a secret. ”

  He squeezed her fingers before releasing them, allowing his thumb to brush the sensitive center of her palm. He fancied he heard her gasp.

  Grayson cast him a wary look. Toby’s arrogance made a feast of it.

  He turned back to the lady in green. “You will be shocked,” he murmured as they brushed by one another again, “but it cannot be helped. ”

  He did not imagine her gasp that time, nor the flush that bloomed from her hairline to her bosom. Lord, she had the most magnificent bosom, and now it was lifting slightly with her every breath, straining the seams of her bodice. Tearing his eyes from the sight was quite possibly the most difficult thing he’d ever done.

 
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