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The Lady Gambles

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«The Lady Gambles» - Кэрол Мортимер

GENTLEMEN, SINGING FOR YOUR PLEASURE TONIGHT – MISS CARO MORTON!Her heart pounding beneath the bright lights of London’s most fashionable gambling club, Lady Caroline Copeland nervously steps out from behind the curtain… Eyes scanning the crowd, she’s drawn to a devilish-looking gentleman glowering at her from the back of the room.The intensity of his gaze burns through her disguise, making her throat dry, her cheeks pink. Caro’s gambled her reputation to be here, and can’t risk letting anyone close enough to expose her secret – no matter how much her body craves to give in…The Copeland Sisters Flouting convention, flirting with danger…
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He introduced himself. ‘I am Dominic Vaughn, Earl of Blackstone.’

Caro felt a tightness in her chest as she realised this man was a member of the ton—a man no doubt as arrogant as her recently acquired guardian. ‘If that is meant to impress me, my lord, then I am afraid it has failed utterly.’

He raised dark brows. ‘I believe it is the usual custom at this point for the introduction to be reciprocated.’

Her cheeks burned at the intended rebuke. ‘If you have spoken to Mr Butler, then you must already know that my name is Caro Morton.’

He looked at her shrewdly. ‘Is it?’

Her gaze sharpened. ‘I have just said as much, my lord.’

‘Ah, if only the saying of something made it true,’ he mused.

The tightness in Caro’s chest increased. ‘Do you doubt my word, sir?’

‘I am afraid I am of an age and experience, my dear Caro, when I doubt everything I am told until it is proven otherwise.’

AUTHOR NOTE

Welcome to the first in a trilogy featuring The Copeland Sisters! Caroline, Diana, and Elizabeth Copeland, eager to escape their new guardian’s unacceptable marriage plans, decide to leave the comfort and safety of their home in Hampshire for the first time, and embark on exciting and separate adventures in London.

They certainly find adventure—and danger—and, most importantly of all, the men destined for each of them. And by doing so they begin the biggest adventure of their lives—love. The sisters are totally different in temperament, of course, but all are feisty and brave. And I do believe I fell in love with each and every one of my heroes during the writing of this trilogy. I hope you do too.

Enjoy!

About the Author

CAROLE MORTIMER was born in England, the youngest of three children. She began writing in 1978, and has now written over one hundred and fifty books for Harlequin Mills & Boon®. Carole has six sons: Matthew, Joshua, Timothy, Michael, David and Peter. She says, ‘I’m happily married to Peter senior; we’re best friends as well as lovers, which is probably the best recipe for a successful relationship. We live in a lovely part of England.’

Previous novels by the same author:

In Mills & Boon® Historical Romance

THE DUKE’S CINDERELLA BRIDE*

THE RAKE’S INDECENT PROPOSAL*

THE ROGUE’S DISGRACED LADY*

LADY ARABELLA’S SCANDALOUS MARRIAGE*

*The Notorious St Claires mini-series

You’ve read about The Notorious St Claires in Regency times. Now you can read about the new generation in Mills & Boon® Modern Romance:

The Scandalous St Claires

Three arrogant aristocrats—ready to be tamed!

JORDAN ST CLAIRE: DARK AND DANGEROUS

THE RELUCTANT DUKE

TAMING THE LAST ST CLAIRE

Also available in Modern Romance:

SURRENDER TO THE PAST

And in Mills & Boon® Historical Undone! eBooks:

AT THE DUKE’S SERVICE

CONVENIENT WIFE, PLEASURED LADY

Did you know that these novels are also available as eBooks? Visit www.millsandboon.co.uk

The Lady Gambles

Carole Mortimer



www.millsandboon.co.uk

Prologue



April 1817—Palazzo Brizzi, Venice, Italy

‘Have I mentioned to either of you gentlemen that I had thought of offering for one of Westbourne’s daughters?’

Lord Dominic Vaughn, Earl of Blackstone, and one of the two gentlemen referred to by their host, Lord Gabriel Faulkner, found himself gaping inelegantly across the breakfast table at the other man in stunned disbelief. A glance at their friend Nathaniel Thorne, Earl of Osbourne, showed him to be no less surprised at the announcement as he sat with his tea cup arrested halfway between saucer and mouth.

Indeed, it was one of those momentous occasions when it seemed that time itself should cease. All movement. All sound. Indeed, when the very world itself should simply have stopped turning.

It had not, of course; the gondoliers could still be heard singing upon their crafts in the busy Grand Canal, the pedlars continued to call out as they moved along the canal selling their wares, and the birds still sang a merry tune. That frozen stillness, that ceasing of time, existed only between the three men seated upon the balcony of the Palazzo Brizzi, where they had been enjoying a late breakfast together prior to Blackstone and Osbourne’s departure for England later today.

‘Gentlemen?’ their host prompted in that dry and amused drawl that was so typical of him, one dark brow raised mockingly over eyes of midnight blue as he placed the letter he had been reading down upon the table top.

Dominic Vaughn was the first to recover his senses. ‘Surely you are not serious, Gabe?’

That mocking dark brow was joined by its twin. ‘Am I not?’

‘Well, of course not.’ Osbourne finally rallied to the occasion. ‘You are Westbourne!’

‘For the past six months, yes.’ The new Earl of Westbourne acknowledged drily. ‘It is one of the previous Earl’s daughters for whom I have offered.

‘Copeland?’

Westbourne gave a haughty inclination of his dark head. ‘Just so.’

‘I—but why would you do such a thing?’ Dominic made no effort to hide his disgust at the idea of one of their number willingly sacrificing himself to the parson’s mousetrap.

The three men were all aged eight and twenty, and had been to school together before serving in Wellington’s army for five years. They had fought together, drunk together, eaten together, wenched together, shared the same accommodations on many occasions—and one thing they had all agreed on long ago was the lack of a need to settle on one piece of succulent fruit when the whole of the basket was available for the tasting. Gabriel’s announcement smacked of a betrayal of that tacit pact.

Westbourne shrugged his wide shoulders beneath the elegance of his dark-blue superfine. ‘It seemed like the correct thing to do.’

The correct thing to do! When had Gabriel ever bothered himself with acting correctly? Banished to the Continent in disgrace by his own family and society eight years ago, Lord Gabriel Faulkner had lived his life since that time by his own rules, and to hell with what was correct!

Having inherited the extremely respected title of the Earl of Westbourne put a slightly different slant on things, of course, and meant that London society—the marriage-minded mamas especially—would no doubt welcome the scandalous Gabriel back into the ton with open arms. But even so …

‘You are jesting, of course, Gabriel.’ Osbourne felt no hesitation in voicing his own scepticism concerning their friend’s announcement.

‘I am afraid I am not,’ Westbourne stated firmly. ‘My unexpected inheritance of the title and estates has left the future of Copeland’s three daughters to my own tender mercies.’ His top lip curled back in self-derision. ‘No doubt Copeland expected to see his three daughters safely married off before he met his Maker. Unfortunately, this was not the case, and as such, the three young women have become my wards.’

‘Are you saying that you have been guardian to the three Copeland chits for the past six months and not said a word?’ Osborne sounded as if he could barely believe it.

Westbourne gave a cool inclination of his arrogant head. ‘A little like leaving the door open for the fox to enter the henhouse, is it not?’

It was indeed, Dominic mused wryly; Gabriel’s reputation with the ladies was legendary. As was his ruthlessness when it came to bringing an end to those relationships when they became in the least irksome to him. ‘Why have you never mentioned this before, Gabriel?’

The other man shrugged. ‘I am mentioning it now.’

‘Incredible!’ Osborne was still at a loss for words.

Gabriel gave a hard, humourless grin. ‘Almost as incredible as my having inherited the title at all, really.’

It was certainly the case that it would not have occurred if the years of battle against Napoleon’s armies had not killed off Copeland’s two nephews, the only other possible inheritors of the title. As it was, because Copeland only had daughters and no sons, the disgraced Lord Gabriel Faulkner had inherited the title of Earl of Westbourne from a man who was merely a second cousin or some such flimsy connection.

‘Obviously, the fact that I am now the young ladies’ guardian rendered the situation slightly unusual, and so I had my lawyer put forward an offer of marriage on my behalf,’ Westbourne explained.

‘To which daughter?’ Dominic tried to recall whether or not he had ever seen or met any of the Copeland sisters during his occasional forays into society this past two Seasons, but drew a complete blank. He did not consider it a good omen that none of the young women appeared to be attractive enough to spark even a flicker of memory.

Westbourne’s sculptured mouth twisted wryly. ‘Never having met any of the young ladies, I did not feel it necessary to state a preference.’

‘You did not!’ Dominic stared at the other man in horror. ‘Gabriel, you cannot mean to say that you have offered marriage to any one of the Copeland chits?’

Westbourne gave a cool smile. ‘That is exactly what I have done.’

‘I say, Gabe!’ Osbourne looked as horrified as Dominic felt. ‘Taking a bit of a risk, don’t you think? What if they decide to give you the fat and ugly one? The one that no other man would want?’

‘I do not see that as being a problem when Harriet Copeland was their mother.’ Westbourne waved that objection aside.

All three men had been but nineteen when Lady Harriet Copeland, the Countess of Westbourne, having left her husband and daughters, had tragically met her death at the hands of her jealous lover only months later. The woman’s beauty was legendary.

Dominic grimaced. ‘They may decide to give you the one that takes after her father.’ Copeland had been a short and rotund man in his sixties when he died, and with little charm to recommend him, either—was it any wonder that a woman as beautiful as Harriet Copeland had left him for a younger man?

‘What if they do?’ Westbourne relaxed back in his chair, his dark hair curling fashionably upon his nape and brow. ‘In order to provide the necessary heir, the Earl of Westbourne must needs take a wife. Any wife. Any one of the Copeland sisters is capable of providing that heir regardless of her appearance, surely?’ He shrugged those elegantly wide shoulders.

‘But what about—I mean, if she is fat and ugly, surely you will never be able to rise to the occasion in order to provide this necessary heir?’ Osbourne visibly winced at the unpleasantness of the image he had just portrayed.

‘What do you say to that, Gabe?’ Dominic chuckled.

‘I say that it no longer matters whether or not I would be able to perform in my marriage bed.’ Westbourne picked up the letter he had set aside earlier to peruse its contents once again with an apparent air of calm.

‘It would appear that my reputation has preceded me, gentlemen.’ His voice had become steely.

Dominic frowned. ‘Explain, Gabriel.’

That sculptured mouth tightened. ‘The letter I received from my lawyer this morning states that all three of the Copeland sisters—yes, even the fat and ugly one, Nate …’ he gave a mocking little bow in Osbourne’s direction ‘… have rejected any idea of marriage to the disreputable Lord Gabriel Faulkner.’

Dominic had known Gabriel long enough to realise that his calm attitude was a sham, and that the cold glitter in those midnight-blue eyes and the harsh set of his jaw were a clearer indication of his friend’s current mood. Beneath that veneer of casual uninterest he was coldly, dangerously angry.

A fact born out by his next statement. ‘In the circumstances, gentlemen, I have decided that I will shortly be following the two of you to England.’

‘The ladies of Venice will all fall into a decline at your going,’ Osbourne predicted drily.

‘Perhaps,’ Gabriel allowed dispassionately, ‘but I have decided that it is time the new Earl of Westbourne took his place in London society.’

‘Capital!’ Osbourne felt no hesitation in voicing his approval of the plan.

Dominic was equally enthusiastic at the thought of having Gabriel back in London with them. ‘Westbourne House in London has not been lived in for years, and must resemble a mausoleum, so perhaps you would care to stay with me at Blackstone House when you return, Gabriel? I would welcome your opinion, too, on the changes I instructed be made at Nick’s during my absence.’ He referred to the gambling club he had won a month ago in a game of cards with the previous owner, Nicholas Brown.

‘I should have a care in any further dealings you might have with Brown, Dom.’ Gabriel frowned.

An unnecessary warning as it happened; Dominic was well aware that Nicholas Brown, far from being a gentleman, was the bastard son of a peer and a prostitute, and that his connections in the seedy underworld of England’s capital were numerous. ‘Duly noted, Gabe.’

The other man nodded. ‘In that case, I thank you for your invitation to stay at Blackstone House, but it is not my intention to remain in town. Instead, I will make my way immediately to Shoreley Park.’

An occurrence, Dominic felt sure, that did not bode well for the three Copeland sisters …

.

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