Authors: Lorraine Heath
Pleasures of a Notorious Gentleman
For Patti, Lynn, Pattie, Kathee, Carol, Connie, Linda, Nancy A., Nancy D., and Merrilee
To sleepless slumber parties; walks after midnight with no fears; cruising the quiet streets of Angleton; going dateless to high school dances; pep squad; long afternoons at the beach; football games in the rain; Girls State basketball tournament our senior year; talking on the phone at all hours
hours; powder puff football; Bobby Sherman; the Monkees; sharing the thrill of first kisses, first crushes, and first loves; the heartache of breakups; the wonder of truly falling in love; and all our dreams of what would be . . .
To the way we were.
tephen Lyons loved women. Tall, short, plump, slender. Young and not so young. He loved them all.
He loved most whichever woman was presently keeping him company.
He teasingly referred to her as Fancy, because she was a fancy bit of work. The illegitimate daughter of a duke, she intended to follow in her mother’s footsteps and seek out a protector. While she was well aware he would not accommodate her in that regard, she knew his notorious reputation well enough to be assured he would provide her with an education in pleasure that would see her in good stead. The numerous weeks of secret trysts had not been in vain. She now possessed talented hands and a wicked mouth that had kept him pleasantly occupied until dawn.
“I’m going to miss you so frightfully much,” she said, fanning her ebony hair out over the pillow, stretching languorously across the rumpled bed in a spartan room of the tavern where she’d joined him the evening before.
“You’ll be warming another gent’s bed before nightfall,” he said distractedly, standing at the window, buttoning his scarlet jacket.
He thought it should have bothered him that her silence acknowledged the truth: They meant little more to each other than an evening’s delightful entertainment. He never promised a woman more than he could deliver, never took one to his bed without her clear understanding that she would never have him beyond the sheets.
He was grateful Fancy wasn’t making a fuss, that she was already acknowledging he would no longer be in her life. Change was on the wind and he welcomed its arrival.
Exhilaration thrummed through his veins at the prospect of the escapades awaiting him once he departed this room. From his vantage point two flights up, he could see the crowds lining the street, could hear their raised voices as they sang “The Girl I Left Behind Me” while the regimental band pounded out the tune. With an excitement vibrating on the air as the sun peered over the horizon, the soldiers marched through in an undisciplined style that would be overlooked by their superiors. Who could blame them for their heady anticipation as they made their way to the railway station and the first leg of a journey that would deliver them to the Crimea? Adventure awaited. Honor. And Russian women. Stephen could delay no longer. It was long past time he joined them.
He crossed over to the bed and planted a lingering kiss on Fancy’s luscious mouth: plump lips that excelled at bringing a man unbridled pleasure. When he drew back, he gave her a devilish grin. “Thanks, darling, for the lovely farewell.”
“Take care of yourself. When you return—”
He touched her lips, silencing a promise that neither of them would be destined to keep. “Your allegiance will be to your protector. With my leaving, our time together is past. But I shall never forget you, Fancy, or the jolly good fun we had.”
“I’ve no doubt you say that to all the ladies.”
He didn’t deny her accusation. It was the most precious gift he gave each of his paramours: the belief that she was the one he would reminisce about when the devil came to collect him for his sins.
Reaching up, she flattened her hand against his chest. “In my dreams you will continue to do wicked things to me.”
He gave her his most dashing grin. “In mine as well.”
Then he kissed her again for good measure, before rushing out the door, down the stairs, and into the mass of people who were celebrating as though Great Britain had just claimed victory over the Russians rather than having only recently declared war on the blighters. The regiment had been preparing for their departure for some time now. Far too many new recruits, still fresh-faced and eager, confident that success in this campaign would come swiftly.
“Captain!” a young man shouted at him, grabbing his attention.
“Mathers.” With long, confident strides, Stephen fell into step beside him. The onlookers had taken up the tune of another ditty, somehow managing to cheer, clap, and wave at the same time, all with an enthusiasm that instilled confidence and belief in their cause. Boys ran alongside them, dreaming of the day when they could join them. Men clapped their shoulders, reached out to shake their hands. Women blew kisses at them.
Ah, when they returned victorious, doors to many a bedchamber would open for those who arrived to a hero’s welcome. Stephen had never had any troubles in that regard, but surely coming back with tales of heroics would add a touch of spice to any flirtation, would open the arms of the shyest of maidens.
“Was afraid you wouldn’t make it, Captain,” Mathers shouted over the din.
“What? And leave you to give the Russians a sound beating all by yourself? Don’t be daft, man.”
Mathers’s rumbling laughter would match the boom of any cannon fire. He was a big, brawny brute, who had toiled in the fields before setting aside his plow for a rifle. Stephen was grateful that Mathers and others like him would be at his side in the coming months while they faced whatever lay in store for them in the Crimea.
The echo of the familiar feminine voice sent desire rippling through him. Leaving Mathers, he worked his way through the cheering crowd to a brown-haired, green-eyed beauty waving her handkerchief at him. Taking her in his arms, he blanketed her delectable mouth with his before pulling her into the shadows between two buildings.
“Lady Gwendolyn, I didn’t expect to see you here today.”
She was breathing rapidly, as she had many times in his bed. Her flushed cheeks brought forth vivid images of the nights of pleasure they’d shared. “I wanted to give you this. It carries my perfume.”
He brought the silk she’d pressed against his palm to his nose, inhaled, and closed his eyes as though in rapture. “I shall always have heaven near.”
With a light laugh, she lifted herself onto her toes and kissed him quickly. His time was short. They both knew it. “Please do be careful,” she pleaded.
“When I have one such as you awaiting my return, how can I not be?” Kissing her once more, he left her there with tears in her eyes while he shoved his way through the throng to rejoin the marching troops.
They were supposed to be disciplined, fierce; but they smiled as though they were on their way to a party. Not so fearsome at the moment, but it would come. They would prevail, and swiftly.
He heard another feminine voice calling his name. He spotted Katherine—Kat—waving enthusiastically on the far side. He darted in and out between the soldiers, keeping an eye on her as she dashed between the people lining the streets, until he and Kat finally met. Winding his arm around her, he held her steady, protected her from the crush of bodies while he kissed her passionately, knowing that if her father were in the vicinity, he wouldn’t approve. She was fun because of her rebellious spirit and her love of adventure. He suspected that, if it were allowed, she’d be marching off with them.
“A lock of my hair is in the locket,” she said.
He closed his fingers around her offering, the heart-shaped locket with a gold chain threaded through it. “Then I’ll hold you near every night.”
“Please return home soon.”
“With you waiting, I shall not delay my return a single minute longer than necessary.”
He gifted her with a final kiss of farewell before stepping back into the stream of soldiers. He was washed along as though caught in a powerful flood. There was no stopping where it would go, what havoc it would wreak, what misery would remain in its wake. But no one thought of the work ahead. They concentrated only on the rewards they’d receive when it was all over. Accolades for a job well done. Service to a country and a queen they all loved.
Mayhem followed on their heels into the railway station.
“Keep yer pecker up!” someone shouted.
Laughter followed and another man yelled, “Give ’em what fer!”
The support and enthusiasm was incredible. From the beginning, when Victoria ascended to the throne, she’d had her soldiers engaged in small skirmishes somewhere. But this one was different. From the moment war was declared, on March 27, the nation seemed to come together as it hadn’t since it had faced down Napoleon. Victory was not questioned. The jubilation had begun. All that remained was for the men being sent off to deliver a sound beating before returning home to warm fires and warmer women.
He spun around at the commanding male voice he recognized as belonging to his younger half-brother, the Duke of Ainsley. How was it that at only two and twenty Ainsley could exude such power and authority, so much more than did Stephen? Perhaps because Stephen had always preferred play to responsibility, while Ainsley had determinedly taken up the reins his father had dropped upon his death. He’d always held them with a steady hand and a confidence lacking in most men twice his age.
Stephen had not expected his family to see him off, but there they were. His mother—the present Duchess of Ainsley, not yet a dower as her youngest still had not taken a wife. Ainsley. His older brother, the Earl of Westcliffe, and his wife, the lovely Claire. Other than his mother, she was the only woman Stephen had ever loved. He’d do anything to assure her happiness. It had taken him a while to accept that the honor belonged to his brother—which was how it should be, when all was said and done—and his feelings had untangled themselves. She was more sister than lover to Stephen. But a corner of his heart would always be reserved for her.
“Surely, you all have something better to do at this ungodly hour of the morning than deal with this maddening crowd,” Stephen said flippantly. He’d given them enough worry during his life. He didn’t want them to view his departure as anything other than a fun adventure. Even he refused to acknowledge that it could be more difficult than anticipated.
His mother’s arms were around him before the last of his words were spoken. “You’re going to give me more gray hairs,” she chastised lovingly.
She credited him with every one that now peppered her black hair. But at forty-five, she still cut a fine figure. She was sixteen when she’d married her first husband, the seventh Earl of Westcliffe. She’d given him two sons before he died: Morgan, the present earl, and then Stephen. The brothers, however, looked nothing alike. Westcliffe was dark and sinister in appearance, while Stephen was fair and playful, seeming not to give a care about anything. Life was to be embraced, enjoyed, and explored. It was what his family had always expected of him, and if he believed in nothing else, he believed in living up to expectations.
Leaning back, she studied him, her brown eyes searching his of blue. “There’s no reason for you to go. I have influence in very high places.”
He had no doubt. Her second husband, the eighth Duke of Ainsley, had been a very powerful man. She’d made certain his authority rubbed off on her. Who could blame her? Her first had left her nearly destitute. She’d done everything necessary to ensure she never again found herself in a situation that left her with no control.
“I’ve been accused of lacking character,” he drawled. He didn’t blame his family, or anyone else for that matter, for not looking below his surface. It was such an enticing surface, after all. Besides, he took nothing seriously. “What better way to build it than by defeating a few Russians?”
“But Westcliffe has forgiven you for your little prank.” She glanced back at her eldest son. “Haven’t you?”
The little prank, as his mother referred to it, had involved being caught in bed with Westcliffe’s wife. With Claire. His brother gave a brusque nod. Stephen couldn’t help but smile.
“I do hope St. Peter offers me forgiveness with a bit more enthusiasm, otherwise I’ll never get through those pearly gates.”
Westcliffe laughed at that. He saw the humor in things much more often now that he and Claire had reconciled. “You’re not getting into heaven any more than I am.”
Claire scowled at him and teasingly slapped his arm. It was good to see her so comfortable with her husband now. She’d once been terrified of him. She moved past Westcliffe and embraced Stephen. “Of course he’s forgiven you. And you will get into heaven.”
He doubted it. He might be on a mission to build character, but he had no plans to stop sinning while doing it. Still, he hugged her tightly. When she finally relinquished her hold on him, he held out his hand to Westcliffe. “No hard feelings.”
Westcliffe grabbed his hand and tugged him near, wrapping his other arm around him, clapping him on the back. “Don’t get yourself killed.”
“Wouldn’t dare dream of it.”
Then only Ainsley remained. The baby brother who had never accepted his role as the youngest. There were times when he appeared to be even older than Westcliffe. Not in looks, but in behavior. He was far too responsible for his own good. “Take care of yourself, Puppy,” Ainsley said.