Read Sin With a Scoundrel: The Husband Hunters Club Online
Authors: Sara Bennett
Tags: #Romance, #Fantasy, #Fiction
Sin With a Scoundrel
The Husband Hunters Club
There were times when this book looked like it would never get written. And the fact that it is finished and, hopefully by the time you read this, in bookstores and on e-readers everywhere, is in large part due to the help given to me by my friend and fellow writer Christine Gardner. Thank you, Chris. I owe you!
Miss Debenham’s Finishing School
Graduating Ball of 1837
he fuss over Eugenie and her duke had died down. Miss Clementina Smythe—Tina to her friends—found her heart beating a little more quickly than it usually did. Which was odd because she was not the sort of girl to indulge in palpitations.
Practical, that was how Tina saw herself. Not coldhearted, not at all. She was warm and generous, but there was always that little part of her that sat back and considered the situation before it rushed in. And it was rarely she changed her mind once she’d made it up to do a thing.
“I don’t think my choice of husband will come as a surprise to any of you,” she said, with a smile at the flushed, excited faces of her friends. “I have spoken of him a great deal to all of you.”
“Lord Horace Gilfoyle!” they cried in unison, and then fell about in laughter.
Tina laughed, too, and if it was slightly strained, then no one noticed.
“He doesn’t sound terribly exciting,” Olivia ventured, when they had recovered themselves.
“Or dashing,” Marissa added.
“Nonsense, he’s both,” Tina retorted. “And he has quite a rakish reputation, I’ll have you know!”
Eugenie widened her eyes. “Goodness, I can’t imagine you with a rake, Tina. Do you plan to rehabilitate him?”
Tina raised an eyebrow. “Of course. Once I have him. The thing is . . .” She pulled a face. “He is an old family friend, and he looks upon me more as a little sister than a woman he might fall in love with and marry. I have to change his mind.”
Averil was thoughtful. “It may be difficult, Tina. You may need a seduction plan, a way to jolt him into the realization that you are a beautiful young woman in your own right.”
After that ideas came thick and fast.
“Speak in a breathless voice and lean on his arm as if you’re about to faint! There’s nothing like a fainting woman to bring out the protectiveness in a man.”
“Flirt with him. He will be astonished and then intrigued.”
“No, no. Why prevaricate? Invite him into your boudoir.”
This last had them all in stitches again.
“But why do you want to marry Lord Horace Gilfoyle?” Olivia said. “Are you so madly in love with him, Tina?”
Yes, of course I am! I’ve known Horace all my life, and he’s the only man I’ve ever wanted to marry. The only man I can
But as she opened her mouth to speak the words, she found herself hesitating. The truth wasn’t as simple as a yes or a no. Despite the fact that Horace was almost like another son to her mother and father, another brother to Charles, and Tina knew they wanted her to marry him just as much as she wanted to marry him herself. Despite all that there were far colder and more pragmatic reasons for such an alliance.
Horace was a very wealthy man.
Tina’s father had lost most of their fortune in a disastrous speculation.
Put the two facts together, and that was why she needed to marry Horace. No one had put pressure on her to do so—not yet—but in her heart Tina knew it was the right thing to do. The only thing to do. She must marry Horace—which she told herself she wanted to do anyway—and save her family from disaster and ruin.
It was the logical choice. The
But she felt an aversion to telling her friends the truth. She didn’t want their pitying smiles and reassuring hugs. Tina had too much pride for that. Besides, they might try to talk her out of it.
“I am madly in love with Horace,” she said firmly. “He is the only possible man for me.”
The glasses were filled and raised once more.
“To Tina and Horace! May they be very happy! Good husband hunting!”
Oh, Tina knew she would need to be very good to win over Horace. Horace who never gave her a second glance except to tease her—if she’d had pigtails she was certain he would have pulled them. But somehow she must make him fall deeply in love with her. Enough to propose. Because surely, if he loved her and she loved him, then the marriage would succeed?
But a man like Horace . . . if only she knew how to begin. If only there was someone who could give her instructions in what to do and say.
iss Clementina Smythe inspected the brass plate. Number Five. Mr. Eversham lived at Number Five Jasmine Square. She looked up at the narrow building, its long windows blindly gazing across the square, and wondered which of those windows belonged to Mr. Eversham.
Perhaps they all did, perhaps he was wealthy enough to own the entire building, but she didn’t think so. The word was Mr. Eversham had wasted his fortune on the gambling tables and betting on the races, not to mention ladies of loose morals, and now he was obliged to work for a living. How his blue-blooded ancestors must shudder at that—and the gossip was that he was very well connected indeed although society tended to shun him these days. To make matters worse the work he was currently engaged in was advising gentlemen on winning the ladies of their dreams.
In other words, Tina decided cynically, he was a seducer who taught other men the art of seduction.
His reputation was rumored to be very bad and in other circumstances, Tina would have taken care not to recognize him in the street, let alone visit his address without a chaperone. But she had no choice. She was here for his help. She needed him to teach her how to win the tricky heart of Lord Horace Gilfoyle.
“You’re a dear girl, Tina, but really, you are such an innocent. And innocents are a dead bore.”
The words were emblazoned into her mind.
She’d thought everything was going along so very well, that Horace was finally beginning to see that she was the one and only woman for him, and then he’d spoken those shattering words. Her plans were thrown into chaos, and for a time, a very dark time, she’d contemplated abandoning them altogether.
But what alternative did she have? There were holes in her petticoats for goodness’ sake! They’d had pigs’ trotters for last night’s supper, and all the while pretending to their friends and the world that nothing was wrong. Her family was living on the edge of a precipice. Constantly teetering on the verge of financial disaster. It was only a matter of time until they slid into the abyss. Truly, it was unbearable, and the only way Tina could see to save them was for her to make a wealthy marriage.
And Horace was the wealthiest man she knew, the only man with whom she could imagine spending the rest of her life.
Her practical mind worked on the problem, and came up with a solution. She must contrive to no longer be a bore.
That was where Mr. Eversham came in. Presumably, if he was as good at teaching men to seduce women as she had heard, then he would be equally as good at teaching women to seduce men. The socially unacceptable Mr. Eversham was just what she needed.
Tina lifted her hand to the door knocker.
There was a moment, a brief moment, when doubt threatened to turn her about and send her home. But Tina was not a woman to be thwarted by such a thing as a little doubt. No, she had already made up her mind, and this was her only way forward.
She knocked loudly, several times, stood back, and waited.
And pretended her heart was not beating just a little bit faster.
ichard Eversham rustled his newspaper and read down the column in the engagement section. There were several names he recognized. Pupils of his who had benefited—clearly—from his tuition. His gray eyes narrowed as he read the final name, and then he gave a chuckle.
Well, who would have thought it! Barrington finally got his girl! This was a time for celebration. Where was that bottle of ’11 he’d been saving?
“Archie!” he shouted for his butler, valet, and manservant combined. “Archie, where the devil are you?”
Archie popped his curly head around the door frame. “You bellowed, sir?”
“Don’t be lippy,” his master retorted, setting the newspaper aside. “I have come into funds. I think we should celebrate.”
Archie’s face lit up, and he was about to answer when the door knocker sounded from the street door below.
“Who the devil is that?” Richard Eversham barked, and rose to go to the window, which gave a view directly down onto the square. “I haven’t any appointments today, have I?”
“Not to my knowledge, sir. Should I go and see who it is, or will we pretend not to be at home?”
“Wait a moment . . . Good heavens, it’s a woman. A lady, I should say. She looks like a lady, at any rate. Bonnet, pelisse, walking dress, gloves. Yes, definitely a lady. And . . . oh yes.” The lady had glanced up at the window. The bonnet framed a very pretty face although at the moment she was frowning.
Suddenly he realized she was about to walk away.
“What the devil are you waiting for, Archie?” he said. “Go and let her in!”
Archie scurried down the stairs.
Richard returned to his chair and sat down, arms resting on the leather armrests, fingers steepled beneath his chin. He assumed his approachable and trustworthy gentleman expression; he’d found it invaluable when it came to persuading his clients to believe every word he spoke.
And why shouldn’t they believe him, he mockingly reminded himself, with a reputation like his? He was Richard Eversham, grand seducer of women and rake extraordinaire. No one could bring a woman to heel like he could.
And while no gentleman would recognize him in a social situation, in private they were desperate to pick his brains. So desperate that Richard’s business was doing very well indeed.
Archie was returning up the stairs, and with him came the swish of silk skirts and petticoats and the tap-tap of a lady’s shoes. As much as he’d been looking forward to that bottle of ’11, he was curious as to what someone who looked very much like a gentlewoman wanted with him this fine summer morning.
ina turned left at the landing, following the curly-haired servant, and waited as he tapped discreetly on a half-open door.
“Enter!” called a deep, masculine voice.
The room was flooded with sunlight from the long windows on the other side, and for a moment Tina was quite dazzled. She blinked and took another step, and the glare was reduced somewhat. Enough for her to see that she was in a large and untidy sitting room, and a gentleman was just now rising from his leather chair.
“Mr. Eversham?” she said, before he could speak, although she was already certain that that was who was facing her now. Who else could this be but the most disreputable gentleman in London, Mr. Richard Eversham?
“I am indeed,” he said in an amiable sort of voice. “And who are you, madam, if I may be so bold?”
Before she answered Tina took a moment to consider him. His broad shoulders were framed by a brown jacket, which he wore over a rather rumpled white shirt. His necktie was undone, and the V of skin disclosed was tanned and dappled with dark hairs. Tina wondered if the rest of him was just as fascinating, as her gaze slid down over his trim waist and long legs encased in riding breeches, finishing on boots that needed a polish.
Perhaps he had been out riding? That would explain the untidy, windblown air to him. He appeared to be the sort of man who enjoyed a good gallop on the heath, thighs clamped to his horse’s sides—in fact that was possibly how he obtained those muscles she could see beneath the tight cloth.
Mr. Eversham cleared his throat.
Tina’s gaze returned to his amused one. She smiled up at him; she couldn’t help it. He had the sort of eyes that were so warm they made her want to smile. It was as if at any moment he might burst into laughter, just from the sheer joy of being alive.
“Do you have a name, madam? Perhaps you are a spy, sent by the government, to beg me to hunt down a dangerous criminal?” Something about that odd comment made him chuckle to himself.
Tina cocked her head to one side to consider him. His gray eyes were still smiling at her. She drew herself up and held out her hand toward him. “I am Miss Clementina Smythe, Mr. Eversham.”
He took her hand carefully in his. Indeed, his was so much bigger it swallowed her white-gloved fingers entirely although his grip was very gentle. “How do you do, Miss Smythe?” he said automatically. “What can I do for you?”
“I am come to engage your services,” she told him. No point in beating around the bush.
A line appeared between his slashing dark brows. “You have a gentleman who needs my assistance in matters of the, uhm, heart, Miss Smythe? A brother or cousin perhaps?”
“I have heard you are very accomplished in your chosen work, Mr. Eversham.”
He released her hand, and she felt the loss of the warmth. With a gesture toward the sofa opposite his chair, he waited until she had seated herself before he made himself comfortable.
“I have never been known to fail,” he said mildly.
“Then I have come to the right place,” Tina murmured. She looked down at her purse, twisting the plaited loop handles in her gloved fingers. It was proving to be extraordinarily difficult to explain to him what she wanted. Normally she was perfectly lucid when it came to outlining her requirements, but for some reason Mr. Eversham had her tongue-tied.
Tina looked up. Perhaps it was his warm gray gaze that was making her dumb? Or his large, engaging presence. He was very manly, very good-looking, very . . . very . . .
“Miss Smythe, you need not be afraid our conversation will go any farther than this room. I am a master of discretion.”
“As well as of seduction,” she said, and then wished she hadn’t as surprised laughter lit his eyes. Hurriedly, she moved on.
“Mr. Eversham, I have a confession to make.”
He leaned forward. “I am all ears, Miss Smythe.”
“I am here for myself, not for any gentleman who might require your services. I wish to marry, and the man I wish to marry does not value propriety and innocence in a woman. He finds it tedious. Boring. Therefore I must become the sort of woman he finds interesting.”
She had surprised him. For a moment he said nothing, considering her as if he were turning over a particularly delicious fruit, deciding whether or not to take a bite, and then, reluctantly, it seemed, he put it aside and shook his head.
“I fear I must decline, Miss Smythe. My business is only with gentlemen. Ladies are rather more complicated.”
“But surely, Mr. Eversham, to understand how a gentleman must behave to win the lady of his dreams, you must also understand the lady? Or am I misinformed, Mr. Eversham? I was told you were a master of the art of seduction. Is that not so?”
A painful expression crossed his face. “That is so, Miss Smythe.”
help me. I can pay, if that is what troubles you. I-I am a wealthy young woman.” She lifted her chin at the lie. “I am able to have anything I desire.”
“And you desire me?” he broke into her words, his eyes quizzical and his smile teasing.
Tina felt a little breathless. How odd, she thought. Her practical soul did not normally respond to flirtatious word games.
“I desire Lord H—that is, the gentleman I wish to marry, and I desire you to make me into the sort of woman he wishes to marry,” she corrected him primly.
He bowed his head, his fingers steepled once more under his chin. He seemed to be considering her proposal from all angles. After a time he lifted his head and again met her gaze. For the first time since she’d met him, the smile had gone from Mr. Eversham’s gray eyes.
“Before I agree you must be very certain of what you’re asking me, Miss Smythe,” he said quietly. “You wish me to teach you to be a woman of the world. You do not want to appear as an innocent. In short, you require that I teach you the art of seduction by, eh, seducing you, at least verbally if not physically? Is that correct? Is that what you want? Are you entirely certain?”
From his lips it sounded improper. Risqué.
But Tina had made up her mind this was what she must do if she ever wanted to marry her childhood sweetheart, so she said firmly, “Yes, that is what I want, Mr. Eversham.”
“May I inquire as to the name of your intended husband? It would help me if I understood his preferences.”
Tina thought a moment, but she knew the name must be spoken eventually. Better do it now. “Lord Horace Gilfoyle.”
There did not appear to be any change in his expression, and yet Tina had the odd sense that he tensed—like a dog on a scent. He nodded again, watching her. “You are a surprising young woman, Miss Smythe. I am inclined to take you up on your offer. I charge a set fee for my consultations and a bonus if you achieve the desired result. But because your case is rather unusual, I will only ask for payment if we succeed.”
He named the fee, and Tina managed not to flinch.
“Is it agreed?” he added softly.
“Of course,” she said briskly, as if she had that sum of money about her person right now, and stood up, holding out her hand to shake on the deal. Horace would pay him, she told herself. He would be glad to do so.
He took her hand, his smile back. “We will start on Friday morning at eleven o’clock. Tea and seduction, Miss Smythe.”
“Friday at eleven, Mr. Eversham. I shall be here.”
ichard watched her leave from his sitting-room window. He didn’t glance around when he heard Archie enter the room. In fact he watched Miss Smythe until she was no longer in sight, and that was a very rare thing for a man who found most respectable ladies dull indeed.
He resembled Miss Smythe’s intended in that regard. He preferred women who knew what they were about and didn’t pretend they must love a man before they could countenance him kissing and caressing them. But respectable as she undoubtedly was, this lady was different. She certainly knew her mind.
But even so Richard admitted he never would have taken on the job if she hadn’t named her intended as Lord Horace Gilfoyle.
And there lay another problem. How could he justify being party to marrying Miss Smythe, with her vivid green eyes, to a man like Gilfoyle?
“I know what you’re thinking, Archie.”
“Added mind reading to your skills now, sir?”
“There was a message for you while Miss Smythe was here. You’re to go to headquarters as soon as possible.”