Three nights with a scou.., p.1
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       Three Nights with a Scoundrel, p.1

         Part #3 of Stud Club series by Tessa Dare
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Three Nights with a Scoundrel
Page 1

  Chapter One

  London, October 1817

  Lily awoke to a rough shake on her arm. A searing ball of light hovered before her face.

  She winced, and the light quickly receded. With caution, she opened her eyes. Blinking furiously, Lily strained to make out the lamp-bearer’s identity. It was Holling, the housekeeper.

  Good Lord. She bolted upright in bed. Something dreadful had occurred. The servants would never shake her awake unless it was a matter of extreme urgency.

  She pressed a hand to her throat. “What is it?”

  Yellow lamplight illuminated an apologetic face. “Downstairs, my lady. You’re needed downstairs at once. Begging your pardon. ”

  With a nod of assent, Lily rose from bed. She shoved her toes into night-chilled slippers and accepted assistance in donning a violet silk wrap.

  Her sense of dread only mounted as she descended the stairs. And the feeling was all too familiar.

  Nearly five months had passed since the last time she’d been summoned downstairs in the dark. No one had needed to wake her then; she’d been unable to sleep for an insistent sense of foreboding. Her fears were confirmed when she opened the door to find gentlemen crowding her doorstep—three men with nothing in common save their membership in the Stud Club, an exclusive horse-breeding society her brother Leo had founded. They were the reclusive Duke of Morland, scarred war hero Rhys St. Maur, and Julian Bellamy—the London ton’s favorite hell-raiser and Leo’s closest friend.

  One look at their grave faces that night, and there’d been no need for words. Lily had known instantly what they’d come to tell her.

  Leo was dead.

  At the age of eight-and-twenty, her twin brother was dead. Leo Chatwick, the Marquess of Harcliffe. Young, handsome, wealthy, universally admired—beaten to death in a Whitechapel alleyway, the victim of footpads.

  The last time she’d been summoned down these stairs at night, her existence had been torn in half.

  Lily’s knees buckled as she reached the foot of the staircase. She clutched the banister for support, then drew a shaky breath as a footman waved her toward the door.

  Holling thrust her lamp over the threshold. Gathering all her available bravery, Lily moved toward the door and peeked out.

  As there was no one on the doorstep, her view went straight to the square. The first gray insinuation of daylight hovered over the manicured hedges and paths. The streets were still largely empty, but here and there she saw servants on their way to market.

  At the housekeeper’s insistent gesturing, she looked down. There, on the pavement at the bottom of the steps, lodged a costermonger’s wheelbarrow. The wooden cart was heaped with carrots, turnips, vegetable marrows … and the body of an unconscious man.

  She clutched the doorjamb. Oh, no.

  It was Julian Bellamy.

  Lily recognized the red cuff of his coat before she even saw his face. She clapped a palm to her mouth, smothering a cry of alarm.

  There’d been one consolation in mourning Leo: the knowledge that she could never endure such a devastating loss again. He was her twin, her best friend from birth and, since their parents’ deaths, her only remaining close kin. She would never love anyone so dearly as she’d loved him. Once Leo had left this world … pain could not touch her now.

  Or so she’d thought.

  Staring down at Julian’s senseless form, it was hard to believe she’d ever felt this frantic. She sensed her throat emitting sounds—ugly, croaking sounds, she feared. But she couldn’t make herself stop. Even when Leo had died, Julian had been there to stand by her. Devilish rake he might be, he was her brother’s steadfast friend, and hers as well. Over the years, they’d come to think of him as family. If Julian left her …

  She would truly be alone.

  For the second time that morning, Holling gave her arm a shake. Lily looked to the housekeeper.

  “He’s alive,” the older woman said. “Still breathing. ”

  Tears of relief rushed past Lily’s defenses. “Bring him in. ”

  The footmen scrambled to obey, lifting his sprawled body from the wheelbarrow and hefting it up the steps.

  “To the kitchen. ”

  They all filed down the narrow corridor, heading for the rear of the house. Holling first with her lamp, then the footmen bearing Julian. Lily brought up the rear as they descended the short flight of steps to the kitchen.

  Even at this early hour, the kitchen staff was hard at work. A toasty fire warmed the room, and a yeasty aroma filled the air. A scullery maid lifted floury hands from the breadboard and stepped back in alarm, making room for the footmen to pass.

  They placed Julian by the hearth, propping his head on a sack of meal.

  “Send for the doctor,” she said. When no one sprang into action, she repeated herself at the top of her lungs. “Doctor. Now. ”

  With a hasty bow, one of the footmen hurried from the room.

  Lily knelt at Julian’s side. Heavens, he was filthy. Dirt streaked his face, and the smell of the gutter clung to his clothes. She put a hand to his forehead, finding it clammy and cool to the touch. Perhaps he needed air. Her fingers flew to his cravat, and she tugged at it, unwinding the starched linen from his throat. A day’s growth of whiskers scraped her fingertips. She turned her cheek to his face, rejoicing at the warm puff of breath against her skin.

  He suddenly convulsed, as if coughing.

  She ceased her tussle with his cravat and pulled back to stare at him, not wanting to miss any word he might speak.

  His eyes went in and out of focus as his gaze meandered over her form. “Hullo, Lily. ”

  Relief washed through her. “Julian. Are you well?”

  He blinked several times, in rapid succession. Then again, slowly. Finally he said, “Violet always was your color. ”

  He slumped back, eyes closed.

  Was he drunk? She leaned forward, sniffing cautiously at his exposed throat. No liquor. No gutter smells here, either. Just hints of starch and soap, mingled with the metallic, pungent odor of …

  Oh, God.

  She grabbed his arm, shook it hard. “Julian. Julian, wake up. ”

  When he failed to respond, she withdrew her trembling hand and looked down at it. Just as she’d feared. Her fingers came away wet with blood.

  Julian Bellamy had died sometime during the night.

  That could be the only explanation. He’d perished, and there’d been some sort of divine mistake. Because this morning, he’d woken up in heaven. The sheer purity of it blanked his senses.

  All was light. Fragrant. Lush. Clean.

  The qualities of Paradise, as his boyhood self would have imagined it. The antithesis of everything he’d known from birth to the age of nine years: squalor, dirt, darkness, hunger.

  Come to mention it, he still felt a faint pang of hunger.

  Odd.

  His bare arms glided between layers of crisp linen and quilted silk as he stretched, idly wondering if the dead felt hunger. And if so, what mead-and-manna banquet awaited him here?

  “At last. There you are. ” A feminine voice. Husky and warm, like honey. A familiar voice.

  His pulse stuttered.

  His pulse? Bloody hell. To the devil with hunger. Dead men definitely did not have pulses.

  Julian shot up on one elbow and forced his bleary gaze to sharpen. “Lily? Surely that’s not you. ”

  The elegant oval of her face came into focus. Dark eyes, anchored by a straight, slim nose. The rosy curve of her mouth. “Of course it’s me. ”

  Holy God. He was not in heaven; he was damned. He was in a b
ed—presumably a bed somewhere in Harcliffe House. And Lady Lily Chatwick sat on the edge of the bed, entirely too close. Within arm’s length. And he knew this couldn’t be a dream, because he never dreamed of Lily. He’d tried to dream of her, on a few occasions when he was feeling especially maudlin. It had never worked. Even in sleep, he couldn’t fool himself. Every part of him, conscious and unconscious, knew he didn’t deserve this woman.

  Damn. He scrambled to remember the events of the night previous. What the devil had he done? What had he caused her to do?

  “Lily. ” His tongue felt thick, felted. He swallowed with difficulty. “Tell me this isn’t your room. ”

  Her lips quirked in a half-smile. “This isn’t my room. ”

  He released the breath he’d been holding. Now that he flashed a quick glance about him, he could see that the bedchamber was decorated in masculine shades. Rich greens, dark blues.

  A worse thought struck him. He sat up further. “Lily. Tell me this isn’t his room. ”

  Her smile faded, and sadness melted the laugh lines at the corners of her eyes. “No. This isn’t Leo’s room. ”

  With a muttered curse of thanksgiving, he fell back against the pillows. It was one thing to disgrace his dead friend’s memory. Another thing entirely to do it in his dead friend’s own bed.

  “It’s just a spare bedchamber. How is your arm?” she asked.

  In answer, the limb gave a fierce throb. The wave of pain pushed memories to the fore. The dusty storehouse. The panicked crowd. The escaped bull, smashing him against the rail.

  With his right hand, he touched the bandage tightly wound about his biceps.

  “The doctor’s come and gone,” she said. “He seemed to think you’ll survive. ”

  “Blast. ” He threw his wrist over his eyes. “How on earth did I get here?”

  She clucked her tongue. “So dramatic. I should think this is a common occurrence for you, waking up naked in a strange bed. ”

  Naked? Had she truly just said …?

  Julian lifted the sheet and glanced downward. Thank God. Though he was undressed to the waist, the pewter buttons of his trouser fall winked up at him. And they were lying flat and obedient in a tame row. At the moment. If she kept hovering over him, they wouldn’t stay that way for long.

  “Minx. ” When she only laughed harder at her own joke, he lowered the sheet and chided her, “You are an unforgivable tease. ”

  “And you are an unmitigated ass. ”

  When he shifted onto his side, she laid a hand to his bare shoulder. Her touch was a brand against his skin.

  “Lily …”

  “No, I mean it. You know I don’t normally use such words. ”

  She never used such words at all. Oh, she often thought them, he knew. But she never said them. And the scoundrel in Julian was perversely delighted that he’d provoked her into speaking her mind. Lily had a lot of thoughts worth sharing, and all too often she kept them to herself.

  She handed him a glass of barley water, and he accepted it gratefully.

  “You are making an ass of yourself, Julian, and I don’t mean just this morning. ” Her eyes narrowed to angry slits. “But while we’re on the subject, let’s start with this morning. ”

  “Must we?” Tucking the sheets close to his chest—to guard her modesty, not his—Julian sat up in bed. He drank as she continued, downing the barley water in greedy gulps.

  “Yes. Do you have any idea what a fright you gave me? A costermonger found you in the street before dawn. Lying in the gutter, bleeding. ”

  Ah, yes. The blood. That was what had done him in. Jagged shards of memory began to piece themselves together.

  “Fortunately, Cook recognized you when the costermonger brought you by in his barrow, tumbled in amongst the turnips and celery root. ” Her voice rose. “Really, Julian. Can you imagine?”

  Yes, he could. He had a vague recollection of celery root. The night came back to him now, in a hot, sweaty rush. Setting aside the glass, he massaged away a sharp pain in his temple. “I can explain. ”

  “Please do. ”

  “There was a boxing match in Southwark. ”

  She shook her head. “Not another boxing match. That’s all you care about these past few months. ”

  “I don’t attend for love of the sport. ”

  Julian had never shared the popular fascination with pugilism. He’d tasted too much of real danger in his life to take amusement from contrived imitations. But he wished to God he did enjoy blood sport. If so, a good man would still be alive. Months ago, Julian had agreed to attend a boxing match at Leo’s suggestion. At the last minute, he’d begged off, preferring to pass the evening in a woman’s embrace instead.

 
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