SHE’S VOWED NEVER TO FALL IN LOVE AGAIN
Alexandra Rockford has sworn off men, her heart still broken from the false promises of a childhood sweetheart who left her to marry an heiress. When she stumbles into Ambrose outside of a country ball, she knows the rake his trouble. His smile, his touch, his forbidden kiss are all too tempting but being with him would ruin her. Determined to enjoy herself without falling in love, Alex can’t help but let her defenses down with the too charming rake. But when she discovers Ambrose is seducing her to win a bet, it will take everything Ambrose has to prove to her that he is worthy to love her.
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The notion was laughable. He, a glorified rakehell with a distaste for country life, was currently entrapped in a bloody assembly room that could pass for a barn on better days. In fact, as he glanced around the room, he decided it most certainly resembled a farmyard at the moment, with the gaggle of society mamas squawking like geese, their turbans festooned with tall ostrich plumes.
He groaned when he saw them scrutinizing him, whispering behind their fans, their eyes dancing over his form as they assessed his marital suitability. From the clever smiles he glimpsed, he knew they were ready to throw their innocent daughters at his feet.
Like bloody hell. He was not about to find himself accidentally “compromising” any of the young ladies here tonight. He’d come here tonight to find one particular young woman to seduce her, to win a bet he’d made in London the previous week, and hopefully save her. He was not about to let the gathering of society mamas intimidate him into dancing with their daughters, even if they rivaled the great ancient Mongolian Golden Horde led by Genghis Khan. Many a rake had fallen under their wiles, surfacing months later to find themselves stuck with a shy chit of a girl as a wife and an obnoxious mother-in-law.
At twenty-nine years old, he’d managed to weather many attempts by his friends and relatives to see him settled. If those who loved him could not bring him to the altar, no silly chits from the country would have any success either. He was a permanent bachelor, and he liked it. Marriage was not made for men like him. To be tied down with one woman for the rest of his life and suffer the trappings of home and hearth when he could be exploring the world and living? Heavens no, he would not give up his freedom for anything.
A few daring matchmaking mamas separated from the crowd and walked in his direction. Damnation, even the need for a master of ceremonies to perform introductions wouldn’t stop these women.
Ambrose spun on his heel, desperate to avoid conversation. If he had to listen to one more story about how well their daughters played the pianofortes or how accomplished they were at needlepoint, he’d run from the assembly hall screaming.
He had met almost everyone present at the dance and had no desire to continue any of the acquaintances. He was only here because of the wager placed in a betting book at White’s. A damned fool named Gerald Langley had put down in the books that anyone who plucked the fruit of this girl’s vine would receive five thousand pounds from him. Langley was a brute with little in the way of good sense and far too much coin. Ambrose had no idea why Langley had it in for the Earl of Rockford’s daughter, but he did. After reading the bet, Ambrose had penned his name to the challenge and notified Langley he had accepted the wager.
For once in his life he was trying to do the right thing by a woman. It was a bit ironic, though, that saving the woman required compromising her. But the Earl of Rockford and his father had been friends, and Ambrose felt he owed it to Rockford to win the wager and keep the lady safe from true scoundrels. No other man would take the care with her that he would and see to it that her first time with a man was a pleasurable experience.
He had one month to seduce Rockford’s daughter and provide proof of this seduction in London. As the lady in question had never been to London, there was much speculation among the men at his club whether she was a diamond of the first water or a dowdy creature. The betting book listed her age as twenty-two, young enough not to be an ape leader, a nasty term for women nearing spinsterhood.
Apparently Rockford wasn’t one for traditions. Any father wishing to ensure his daughter’s future would have brought her to London at seventeen or eighteen, had her presented to the queen, and then made the round of balls to hunt for a husband.
Yet Rockford had not done any of that. He’d kept his daughter in the country, living a quiet life. An unplucked fruit to tempt the worst sort of men in White’s to bet upon the taking of her maidenhead for their own amusement.
Normally Ambrose had little desire to compete in wagers, especially ones which involved the corruption of innocents. It was not out of some moral principle, but rather a dislike of virgins. They tended to fall in love and cling to the man who took their innocence. But after witnessing the sort of men discussing whether to take the bet that night, Ambrose decided he would do this innocent lady a favor. He’d penned his name in the books, taking up the wager, and sent a letter to Rockford, renewing their acquaintance.
A letter from Rockford arrived only a few days later, inviting Ambrose to this ball and to spend a few weeks at Rockford’s home as a guest. It was the perfect opportunity for Ambrose to cozy up to the man’s daughter and see what sort of creature he would soon be bedding.
If only he knew what the lady looked like. In the chaotic din full of dancing and music, he could not find a single young lady among the crush that he was willing to bed. It wasn’t that the young ladies weren’t attractive. They were, but none were to his taste. Innocent young ladies had never appealed to him. If his friend Gareth Fairfax had been there, Gareth would have been laughing at him. Gareth was stuck in his own hell—the poor fool was happily married. Married! Ambrose couldn’t think of anything more terrifying than being stuck with one woman for the rest of his life. Helen was a darling creature and perfectly suited to Gareth, and Ambrose supposed it would be not too terrible to share a bed with a woman like her. But still, to be leg-shackled? I would rather die in a thousand unspeakable ways than stand in a bloody church and tie myself to one woman for the rest of my days.
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