Desire by Design (Distinguished Rogues series #14)
Desire by Design (Distinguished Rogues series #14)
Spinster Sylvia Hillcrest will never marry. The Marquess of Wharton looks after his own. When the pair secretly join forces, it’s the triumph of the new season…or the biggest challenge they’ve ever faced.
- Alpha Hero
- Matchmaking Spinster
- Secret Fling
Spinster Sylvia Hillcrest will never marry, but that does not mean she has to ignore the occasional flirtation aimed her way, or the chance to indulge her secret vice in societies best card rooms. When she’s suddenly given a fortune to wager, but asked to lose it to one particular family, it’s an intriguing challenge too irresistible to pass up. So too is the devilish marquess carelessly flirting with her every chance he gets.
Faced with a situation he cannot solve alone, the Marquess of Wharton designs a masterful scheme to use Miss Hillcrest to pass a small fortune to a desperate friend. His plan, of course, was destined to succeed, and he spends one scandalous night celebrating with the spinster in his bed. They agreed it was just a fling, but what’s a marquess to do when he craves so much more? Is it possible he’s finally met his match…or will her secretive ways tear them apart?
Intro to Chapter One
Intro to Chapter One
“The problem with not having a mistress is that everyone believes I have time on my hands and must be entertained,” Alexander, Marquess of Wharton, confided to his good friend, Lord Carmichael, in a whisper as they strolled into the latter’s dining room. “I have been besieged by invitations from those who feel I need to be amused.”
“Did you believe you could not refuse us tonight?”
“I did not say I didn’t agree with them,” he promised with a laugh. Alexander found great enjoyment from his friends. This particular one was now no longer a bachelor, unfortunately, and had to be shared.
He glanced at the four chairs and the place settings. “Is your wife joining us tonight or is it to be a gathering of men?”
“My wife and her good friend, Miss Sylvia Hillcrest, will join us directly, I’m sure. Do forgive them for not being present when you arrived.”
“Of course,” he murmured. He did not feel at all slighted, but was satisfied to have a moment to talk alone and uncensored with his friend before he had to watch his words. He always had fun with Carmichael. Often at his own expense. “Do I know Miss Hillcrest?”
Carmichael rolled his eyes. “She attended my wedding, you’ve sat down to several dinners with her sitting near you, and I think you even shared your sled at Christmas.”
Alexander hid a smile as he shook his head, denying everything. “Can’t place her.”
Carmichael growled in exasperation. “These little games of yours work best on people who don’t know you as I do. You don’t forget anyone. Ever.”
He grinned then. Carmichael used to fall for it once upon a time. “How is the little woman treating you these days? Has she forgiven you for falling down drunk New Year’s Eve yet?”
“She acts like she has forgotten, but I’d rather you didn’t mention that night again for a while,” Carmichael said in a low warning tone.
“Exceptional night, that. We should do it again soon.”
“Not if you expect another invitation to dine with us.”
Alexander grinned. “Ah, she’s coming into her own. Asserting herself. Excellent. She was much too retiring when you first married. I’m quite looking forward to seeing her take on the ton this season.”
“I’m not,” Carmichael said with a shake of his head.
“Carmichael, you always worry too much.” Especially about how society would treat his wife because she lacked connections and a distinguished pedigree. “She’ll do fine. Didn’t she win over those attending Exeter’s Christmas party?”
“I suppose,” Carmichael grudgingly agreed.
Alexander had heard enough gossip about the new Lady Carmichael to believe his friend’s fears were unfounded. “The ladies took her under their wings, and I’m sure she soaked up their teachings, or at least pretended to be like them while they were around.”
“As long as she doesn’t become them.”
Alexander shrugged. “They adore you, so they’ll help her. Lenore is a sensible woman and will see through any false friends very quickly.”
“Hush,” Carmichael warned, and then quickly turned toward the door as his wife joined them. “Ah, there you are, my love.”
Lady Carmichael glided into the room, followed by her good friend, Miss Hillcrest. The former practically glowed when she met her husband and kissed him. The latter wisely looked the other way.
Carmichael hooked his arm through his wife’s. “Darling, you remember my friend, Lord Wharton.”
“Hmm, I’m not certain I do,” Lady Carmichael said, squinting at him. “Have we met before, my lord?” And then she laughed, teasing him. Using his own tactics against him, no less. The change in her was quite marked, and he utterly approved.
He put his hand over his heart and played along. “I am wounded.”
“Of course I remember you.” She dipped a curtsy. “How are you this evening?”
Alexander bowed deeply. “Not in as good a mood as you appear to be.”
She retreated to her husband’s side and clung to him. “Well, you’re not married to a wonderful man.”
“And likely will never be,” he joked. He turned to Miss Hillcrest and inclined his head. “A pleasure to see you again,” he murmured.
“Likewise,” she murmured before taking a step back.
Since most women, especially the unmarried ones, tended to throw themselves into his path, he found her apparent disinterest in him unusual.
It made him want to make her look his way again.
They sat down to a companionable dinner. Carmichael had been home to his country estate recently and had much to tell. His wife nodded a great deal, and Miss Hillcrest smiled at her plate.
Oblivious that he had monopolized the conversation thus far, Carmichael continued. “So we’ll be returning before the season ends to see the result.”
“I see. Are you going to tell us all what you had for breakfast this morning, too?” Alexander teased, keeping a straight face.
Carmichael looked around the table. “I beg your pardon?”
“I asked what you had for breakfast. That’s really the only facet of your life since we last met that you’ve failed to share with us tonight.”
Miss Hillcrest muffled a laugh into a napkin. Her eyes flickered up to his and sparkled with amusement. She returned her eyes to her plate as she spoke. “I’m sure it was a very interesting breakfast.”
Carmichael scowled. “You only had to say I was talking too much.”
“I was hoping you’d stop on your own,” he confessed. “I’ve always been utterly fascinated by your innermost thoughts. I assume we all are.”
“Excuse me,” Miss Hillcrest spluttered, and then quickly fled the room.
Alexander hid a smile over her fast retreat. He pasted a concerned expression on his face and turned back to Carmichael. “I do hope nothing is wrong with her.”
“I’m sure there isn’t,” Lady Carmichael reassured him, but she too was on the verge of losing her composure.
Lord Carmichael really only talked incessantly when he was very nervous or worried.
Alexander flicked his eyes over his friend, and then his wife, looking for similar signs of distress in her. But all he saw was a wife who practically glowed with good health and happiness.
He sat up a little straighter as an idea struck him hard. The Carmichaels had been married for a while now. Was the woman increasing already?
Carmichael, who was terrible at keeping good news to himself at any other time, would certainly be nervous about impending fatherhood.
Miss Hillcrest returned, calmer but with her eyes downcast as she sat. She glanced only toward Carmichael, as if she didn’t dare look at Alexander again. “Did you ask him yet?”
Carmichael glanced Alexander’s way then. “I didn’t have a chance. My friend was too busy making fun of me.”
“Well, you make it so easy.” Alexander wiped his mouth with a napkin, prepared to say yes to becoming a godfather or guardian to the Earl of Carmichael’s first offspring. He’d been expecting it for some time. There was no one better qualified to bear the responsibility. Carmichael certainly couldn’t ask their friend Scarsdale to do the job. “Ask me to what?”
“You don’t have to, if you don’t want to.” Carmichael cleared his throat. “We wondered if you might consent to play cards.”
That wasn’t the question Alexander had expected. “We play cards all the time. Why the special request?”
He gestured toward the door. “Lead the way.”
“Ah,” Carmichael said, drawing out the sound too long, “you’ll be paying against Miss Hillcrest. Not me.”
Alexander wanted to groan. Playing against a novice, unused to high-stakes games, was a bore. He didn’t want to insult their friend, but it wouldn’t be a pleasure to trounce her in the first game. “No offense intended but wouldn’t it be wiser to pick someone of equal skill to play against her?”
Carmichael grinned. “That is the point.”
The woman in question regarded him evenly, not offended, and not excusing him either from the challenge. He saw no gracious way to spare her the humiliation of the loss, since she seemed quite willing to go along with their host’s idea of entertainment.
He nodded reluctantly, foreseeing future awkwardness when they met again another time. He followed the ladies to the morning room where a table and cards, money too, had already been set up. Determined to get it over with, he dealt the first hand quickly.
And then lost.
And lost again.
Alexander put his fourth losing hand down slowly, utterly perplexed. He usually won against seasoned players. This tiny fiend sitting opposite had hidden depths he hadn’t expected. “That is,” he said, searching for the right word, “extraordinary?”
Carmichael laughed. “Surprising, isn’t she?”
“Quite.” Alexander wasn’t angry to have lost to a woman. There were undoubtedly skilled card players of either sex in the world, and he had played against the very best and lost before. However, Alexander had seriously misjudged his opponent. He shifted in his chair and studied the deceptively benign figure more closely.
Sylvia Hillcrest looked like the dullest wallflower in existence, but when she picked up the deck, her fingers were nimble as she shuffled the cards to and fro, preparing for the next game to start. The best card players tended to have a bit of flare about them, but this woman had none.
And then she met his gaze…and allowed him to see through her little disguise for a brief moment.
She was amused by his confusion. She had expected to beat him.
Alexander sat back, noting his hosts were grinning. They obviously had expected this outcome, too. Only Alexander had underestimated his opponent.
He adjusted his opinion. The woman was intelligent and cunning and acted the part of a wallflower very well.
He’d overlooked the spinster, assuming to know her worth and skill, because she’d wanted him to do so. And the rest of society, too, had unwisely looked the other way.
“I hope you’re not angry with us for not warning you,” Carmichael said, breaking the silence.
Miss Hillcrest’s eyes dipped, as if she was expecting him to berate her at any moment—which wasn’t his intention.
He smiled slowly. “Not at all. Everyone has good nights where luck lays down like a lover or flees into the night. I’m sure another round will prove I’m right.”
“It’s not luck,” she protested, eyes flashing with outrage.
He picked up the cards and reshuffled them slowly, studying Miss Hillcrest as she hurried to lower her gaze again. Now there had been a true glimpse of her nature. It made her more interesting to him, too. “Are you suggesting you would beat me every time we play?”
“Oh, she has against us,” Lord Carmichael promised, cutting in. “We played many a hand on our journey back from the Duke of Exeter’s estate. I lost five and thirty hands in a row before she had emptied my pocketbook, and I had to concede defeat.”
Alexander set the cards back down quickly. Carmichael was a skilled player, and he’d never known the earl to have so long a streak of bad luck.
“Nearly every time,” Sylvia Hillcrest assured him as she piled up the winnings in neat stacks around her.
Everything about the woman was neat and unexceptional, from the top of her mousy brown hair, to her sensible and dull blue evening gown. Her appearance screamed for a man to look somewhere else. No wonder she’d bested him tonight. He hadn’t heard a whisper of Miss Hillcrest’s talent, and she hadn’t presented much of a threat on first glance.
So he lingered in studying her now.
She fluttered her hands, obviously discomposed by his scrutiny. “I can choose not to win, too. That’s why I hardly ever play in public. Unless my opponent can afford the loss of funds, it soon becomes a sore point between friends. I always intended to give Lord Carmichael his money back, but he wouldn’t hear of it.”
Alexander shook his head. “I was hardly expecting a challenge in you. Well done.”
A cheeky smile played over her lips momentarily, and then she sighed. “Lord Carmichael wanted me to play against a worthy opponent. You play very well.”
“Not well enough to beat you.”
“By rights, I should give my winnings back to you, too.” Then she started to pick up her winnings—or rather, his losses—prepared to hand them back. Miss Hillcrest had made a tidy sum off of him tonight. The amount was nothing he would miss in the long run. But he could understand how others in society might not be so forgiving when they lost to a wallflower. “Keep the money. It was fairly won, but I promise you the next time we engage in such a battle, I shall not underestimate you again.”
That made her smile grow and, sensing he’d said the right thing to reassure her, he slapped his hands on the table and looked around at everyone. “It has been a delightful evening. Thank you.”
“I’m so glad you could join us tonight,” Lady Carmichael murmured, rising.
“I am too.” He stood when Carmichael did, and bid the ladies a good night.
Before they could leave, Carmichael rounded the table and kissed his wife soundly, “I’ll see you soon.”
Lady Carmichael agreed and led her friend back toward the drawing room. But Miss Hillcrest glanced over her shoulder at the door—and winked at him before disappearing.
Alexander felt as if she’d just knocked him off his feet. Cheeky wench!
Tonight was the first time he’d truly paid attention to her, and it seemed he’d missed a lot.
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Praise for Desire by Design ...
★ ★ ★ ★ ★ Loved, loved, loved this. The characters were hilarious, entertaining and delightful. ~ Emma D.
★ ★ ★ ★ ★ A great story by a wonderful storyteller. ~ Angela D.
★ ★ ★ ★ ★ The characters in this story are all strong willed and outspoken individuals, especially the women, which makes for a great story. ~ Jill G.