Authors: Ruth Ann Nordin
Tags: #Literature & Fiction, #Romance, #Regency, #Historical Romance
Ruth Ann Nordin
Wedded Bliss Romances, LLC
This is a work of fiction. The events and characters described herein are imaginary and are not intended to refer to specific places or living persons. The opinions expressed in this manuscript are solely the opinions of the author and also represent the opinions or thoughts of the publisher.
The Earl’s Secret Bargain
All Rights Reserved.
Copyright 2014 Ruth Ann Nordin
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Cover created by Stephannie Beman. www.stephanniebeman.com
This book may not be reproduced, transmitted, or stored in whole or in part by any means including graphic, electronic, or mechanical without expressed written consent of the publisher/author except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles and reviews.
Wedded Bliss Romances, LLC
To Tina Phelps Grace who’s been very sweet to me. Thank you!
“I can get any lady I want.”
Toby York, the Earl of Davenport, told himself not to oblige the boasting gentleman by giving him the attention he was obviously calling for. Nothing good would come of it. Let someone else fall in to whatever trap he’d snare them into. And yet… He found himself looking up from his cards in time to see Lord Pennella sit in a chair near a large window. With a smirk, Pennella placed his hands behind his head and carefully examined the other gentlemen who were at White’s—a silent challenge in his eyes.
glanced at Orlando Emmett, the Earl of Reddington, who sat across from him. Orlando made a show of rolling his eyes, and Toby grinned at his friend’s silent joke.
“Is something amusing in my statement, Davenport?” Pennella called out.
Surprised that Pennella should single him out in a room full of ten gentlemen, Toby reluctantly looked in his direction. “No, nothing’s amusing about you.” When the gentlemen chuckled, he realized his blunder and cleared his throat. His face warm, he quickly added, “I meant, there was nothing amusing about what you said.”
Pennella shifted in his chair and leaned forward, his voice loud enough to catch everyone’s attention. “I assure you that I make no idle boast. I am one of the handsomest and wealthiest bachelors in London. I can get any lady I want, and I can get her with the snap of my fingers.” As if he felt he needed to emphasize his point, he snapped his fingers.
Toby resisted the urge to roll his eyes. Braggart. Pennella was nothing but a braggart. And the problem was, everyone at White’s was too afraid to stand up to him. Even Orlando gave a slight shake of his head to warn Toby not to engage the gentleman further. His friend was right. Toby would be wise to heed his advice.
“I have no doubt that you
can get any lady you desire,” Toby finally told Pennella.
Turning his attention back to the cards, he hoped that would be the end of it, but Pennella rose to his feet and walked over to him in slow, purposeful steps. Though Toby didn’t look up from his cards immediately, he could feel the weight of everyone’s stares in the room. He clenched his jaw in irritation. Pennella wanted a confrontation. He was looking for a fight, and it didn’t matter who it was. This wasn’t the first time Toby had seen it, but it was the first time he was the target.
Releasing his breath, he looked up from his cards at Pennella who stood over him. “What do you want with me? I already conceded to your claim.”
“You don’t believe me. You merely say you believe me to save
your reputation in front of the others.”
“Save my reputation
“Certainly. You suspected I was going to present an interesting wager and knew you’d lose. I understand you wish to be spared the humiliation of losing but—”
“Wait a minute.” Toby straightened in his chair and set the cards down. “You never said—or implied—anything about a wager.”
His eyebrows rose. “I didn’t?”
Toby blinked. What was he up to?
“I can’t say I’m surprised. How many hands have you lost at the gambling tables?”
“I’m not playing for money,” he argued and gestured to Orlando. “This is a friendly game and nothing more.”
“That hasn’t always been true, has it? You ha
ve played for money in the past. I believe Edon has taken a good amount from you.”
“Edon wins every game
he plays. No one has ever beaten him.”
“And that’s no
t from lack of trying to lose,” Lord Edon muttered, causing a round of laughter from everyone but Toby and Pennella.
After a tense moment passed between the two gentlemen, Toby decided he’d had enough. Everyone bowed to Pennella and gave him whatever he wanted. It was time someone stood up to him. Toby
rose to his feet, pulling himself to his full height, which was just a half-inch shorter than Pennella. But he was able to see him eye to eye and that’s what mattered.
“Why don’t you just come out and tell me what you want?” Toby finally demanded.
“So you do wish for a challenge after all? I suppose it’s only fitting if you want to save your pride.”
With a roll of his eyes, he said, “Get on with it. You obviously came to White’s planning to snare someone into a trap. So get on with it already.”
Toby found minor satisfaction in catching him off guard. No doubt, he hadn’t expected Toby to call him out on trying to wiggle someone into a wager they didn’t want. He had wanted to word things in a way so that Toby
seemed like the instigator. Since Toby hadn’t played along, he remained silent for a long moment, probably trying to figure out the safest reply he could make.
“Fine,” he finally replied, glancing at the other gentlemen before turning his gaze back to him. “I suggest a wager.”
When he didn’t say anything else, Toby shrugged. “I gathered that much. Is this wager going to involve money?”
The corner of his mouth twitched. “Would it be an interesting wager if there wasn’t money involved?”
“Fine, then state your terms.”
It took Toby a moment to make sure he understood him right, and the only reason he realized he did was because Orlando’s jaw practically dropped all the way to the floor. “You can’t be serious.”
“So you are afraid you’ll lose.”
“An estate is absurd. No gentleman in his right mind would bet something so outrageous.”
“The higher the stakes, the more interesting the bet. But that’s not the best part.”
“Oh? You have plans to wager our mothers, too?”
The retort rewarded Toby with
a few chuckles, but the tension in the room was still thick.
“My mother is no longer alive
, so consider yours safe,” Pennella replied.
So was Toby’s, but he kept silent.
“The focus of our little wager will be the hand of a lady. Whichever one of us gets a certain lady to accept our marriage proposal gets the other’s estate.”
“You can’t bet
on a lady,” Lord Roderick intervened.
“Why not?” Pennella asked.
“Because it’s immoral to bet on a human being. Estates are one thing, but a person—”
“You are ever so dull, Roderick, but I don’t believe this has anything to do with you.” Pennella turned his attention back to Toby. “We will pick one lady.
The one she chooses wins.”
Toby gritted his teeth and thought over the ramifications of the bet. If he refused, he’d never live it down. As much as he hated to admit it, his pride was
one of the few things he had left. And besides, it wasn’t like he had much left to his estate after his father gambled so much money away, but only Orlando—his most trusted friend—knew his shame. So what did he have to lose?
Pennella wouldn’t really win anything, and that would serve hi
m right. All Toby had to do was pick a lady who’d never pick Pennella. Then when she chose him, he wouldn’t hold her to a marriage with him. That way, the lady wouldn’t be a pawn in this whole thing. At least not in the end. Considering he was backed into a corner, it was the best he could do.
“I’ll agree to your terms,” Toby began, “on one condition.”
Pennella’s lips twitched. “And what would that be?”
“I get to select the lady
“Now, that’s hardly fair, is it? For all I know, you could pick someone you already know.”
“I won’t, but you’ll have to take my word for it.” When Pennella frowned, he shrugged. “Unless you’re that worried you’ll lose. In that case, I’ll let you gracefully bow out of the wager before you embarrass yourself.”
“No,” he snapped then cleared his throat and adjusted his cravat.
“I made no idle boast. I can have any lady.”
“Fine. Then you have nothing to
worry about if I choose her.”
After a long moment, he sighed. “Very well, but she’ll be someone at tonight’s ball.”
A flicker of apprehension came over Toby. That soon? With a bravado he didn’t feel, he laughed. “Tonight? Why the rush?”
“To make sure you don’t have time to warn her.”
Unfortunately, his answer made too much sense to argue, and he’d come too far into this to back out now. “Fine. Tonight. I’ll pick the lady and the wager will be set.”
offered a curt nod. “Very well. And if you fail to show up, you forfeit and your estate will be mine.”
“I’ll be there.”
Toby wasn’t able to relax until Pennella left White’s. As he settled back into his seat, the gentlemen in the room turned their attention back to what they’d been doing before Pennella disrupted everything.
Orlando tapped the cards in his hands and gave him a look that indicated he wanted to say something but wasn’t sure if he should.
Toby reluctantly picked up his cards and answered, “You don’t have to say it. I should have kept my mouth shut instead of goading Pennella along.”
“He was determined to make a wager with someone in the room.”
“Yes, I gathered that much, but I didn’t have to take the bait.”
“He didn’t give you a choice. Anyone listening could see what was going on.”
Running his fingers along the edges of the cards, Toby thought over how he could have done things differently. “Well, I’m stuck now. The best I can do is minimize the damage from here.”
“Do you have a lady in mind for the wager?”
“No. I’m just going to pick someone who isn’t likely to choose Pennella.”
“That’s not going to be easy. He can be charming when he wants to be.”
“So I hear.” Though he heard the gentleman couldn’t keep a mistress for longer than a few months, so he couldn’t be that charming. He placed his cards on the table. “I don’t feel like playing.”
“I don’t blame you. I wouldn’t either if I were in your shoes. Do you want to get out of here?”
Toby nodded, and they put everything away before heading out. He ignored the way the other gentlemen watched him, no doubt wondering what he’d do now that he’d made such an outrageous wager with Pennella. They probably thought he was going to lose. No one wagered anything with Pennella and won. And except for Edon who never lost a single game, they would be right.
Once they were a block away from White’s, Toby released his breath. “I need your help finding a lady tonight.”
His friend shook his head. “I don’t know what good I can do.”
“I don’t have to pick a lady as soon as I enter the ballroom. I’ll have some time
to dance with a few of them. Then I’ll find out if there’s one who doesn’t seem easy to impress.”
“Don’t you want someone who is easy to impress?”
“Not to the point where she’ll fall at Pennella’s feet.”
“Ah, then you want a lady who’s intelligent.”
Toby’s lips curled up at his friend’s joke. If nothing else could be said for Orlando, he could make him laugh no matter how dire the situation. “Yes, a lady who is smart enough to see through Pennella’s flattery. If we both dance with the ladies in their first Season, we should be able to find one who has a good chance of not picking him.”
“If that’s the case, then
you should select one you’d like to marry.”
“No, that’s of no consequence. After I win the bet, I won’t hold her
to the proposal.”
“Aren’t you interested in Pennella’s estate?”
“The only thing I want is for Pennella to leave me alone.”
“Even though you could use the money?” When Toby shook his head, he added, “What if we pick a lady who’s wealthy? You could marry her and get the money you need.”
“It wouldn’t feel right.”
“Why? Gentlemen marry for money all the time. Also, you have a title, something ladies seek. This could be something both of you could win if you tell her upfront what’s going on. Tell her as a secret, of course. That way no one is the wiser.”
“You know I can’t tell her about the wager. Pennella’s not allowed to reveal the truth to her anymore than I can.”
“I suppose, though
it’s a shame you can’t work out some kind of bargain.”
Yes, it was a shame. But there was still a chance that things could work out, and he would do his part to tip the scale in his favor. “So, will you help me find an intelligent lady?”
“Yes, I’ll do what I can.”
With Orlando’s help, he had a good chance of finding the perfect lady.