“Quite a crush, isn't it?” He gave Mrs. Wilde his winning smile, the easy, friendly one that soothed anxious nerves and made women of every age and rank like him.
She turned at his voice behind her. Something like mirth glimmered in her eyes. “Indeed.”
“I hardly know a soul here tonight.” He lowered his voice but without leaning toward her. Leaning put women on guard. A low voice made them lean toward him, which he much preferred. “It’s rather intimidating, to tell the truth.”
“You?” She arched one golden brow. “You don’t seem the sort to be easily intimidated.”
Douglas grinned. He knew he was a big fellow. Women tended to like it once they got to know him. “Rubbish. I’m petrified just looking at the elegance of this assembly.”
Her lovely lips curved. Her head tipped toward him, just a little. Her dark eyes gleamed. “I don’t believe you.”
“It’s true,” he protested. “My heart is racing, my knees are unsteady. Look—see how my hand trembles.” He caught her hand in his, tensing his muscle to produce the tiniest tremor in his hand, and then relaxing it. “Ah. Your touch has healing power, I see.”
She left her hand in his, but that slight smile tugging at her mouth grew a bit wider. “It’s not flattering to a woman, to say her touch calms a man’s heart and body. Usually she wishes it were the other way around.”
His heart did skip a beat at that. She was a flirt; excellent. He adored flirts. Douglas stroked his thumb over the back of her hand. “It only stilled the terror, my dear. I suspect you could elicit an entirely different sort of tremor.” He lifted her hand and brushed the faintest kiss over her knuckles. “We must be introduced.”
“I fear there’s no one here in this quiet corner who will do it.” Her eyes seemed to grow darker as he drew one finger across her palm.
“Then I will risk being appallingly rude and present myself.” He bowed over her hand, his eyes never leaving her face. “Douglas Bennet, at your service.”
“Yes, I know.”
“You do?” He smiled in delight. “Then we should become acquainted…”
“Mr. Douglas Bennet,” she repeated, her voice changing just enough to freeze him in place. “Son and heir of Sir George Bennet, baronet. A very handsome title, an even handsomer fortune. An unrepentant rake, gambler, brawler, and sometime rogue. Your mother wants you to marry; you couldn't be less interested. Your taste runs to tavern maids and opera dancers, preferably French. Your sister wed your bosom friend Lord Burke, much to your disgust, although no one quite knows if you pity your sister or your one-time friend more.” She tilted her head and smiled as he stared at her, blank-faced with shock that was rapidly turning to indignation. “What have I forgotten? Oh, yes—you love a good wager. What was the one that sent you over here: a wager to get me into your bed?” She slipped her fingers from his slackened grip. “If it was…you've already lost. I hope you didn't stake a large amount.”
“It was merely for the pleasure of a dance,” he said, hiding his temper behind a flat tone.
She laughed. By God, she had a beautiful laugh, throaty and soft, the sort that made a man want to amuse her so he could hear it again. “I doubt it. But then, you’re also accustomed to losing, aren’t you?” She sank into a graceful curtsey, giving him one last view of her matchless bosom. “Good evening, sir.” She turned and walked away, unhurried, unaffected.
He was still standing there, pulsing with unexpected desire and insulted pride, when Spence slung an arm around his neck. “Rough luck,” he said, his voice brimming with amusement. “She’s a cold one.” He grinned and slapped Douglas’s shoulder. “Five quid, gone in a blink.”
Douglas turned a black look on the man. “You didn't say when.”
Spence raised his eyebrows, still grinning like a cardsharp. Come to think of it, he usually looked like that, right before he took someone’s money. Douglas had won and lost to Spence with equanimity—for the most part—but tonight he wanted to punch his friend. Spence had deliberately dared him to an impossible task, sending him over to be humiliated and rejected. And now he wanted five pounds. “What do you mean?”
“You didn't say when.” Douglas bit off each word. “She rejected me tonight, but there’s always tomorrow night, and the next, and the next after that.”
A scowl darkened Spence’s face for a split second before he threw up his hand. “You’re right! I didn't. Let’s say…within a fortnight. That ought to be enough time to work up some charm and get between the fair widow’s legs.”
“You wagered for a dance, not a tupping.”
“Well.” Spence’s eyes glittered. “I thought I wagered for tonight. Allowances must be made.” When Douglas said nothing, Spence leaned closer. “You’re not afraid, are you? Not going soft in the head like Burke? The woman gutted you and denied you in front of all society, man. Look around.” He swept one arm toward the rest of the room. “Don’t you think half the people here guessed why you sought her out? And now they see her leaving alone, and you looking like she took your ballocks with her.”
Against his will, Douglas’s eyes caught on Madeline Wilde as she made her way toward the doors. Damn, she was beautiful. He had wanted to dance with her, and probably get her into bed as well, even though she was not, as she had so baldly pointed out, his usual type of woman. She was…something more.
As if she could hear his thoughts, she paused at the top of the short flight of stairs leading out of the ballroom. She glanced back over her shoulder, and her eyes met his. For a moment he felt again a bolt of lust—unwanted this time—and her lips curved, as if she knew. She lowered her chin and smiled in a coy, entrancing way, as if they shared secrets—or as if she dared him to uncover hers. With breathtaking nerve, she pursed up her lips as if in a kiss, and touched one finger to them.
He took a harsh breath as she turned and continued on her way, her emerald skirts swaying bewitchingly. “Why her?”
“Why not her?”
Douglas set his jaw. “You had her marked from the moment we stepped into this room. I saw you watching her, Spence. A former lover? Was I supposed to exact some revenge or retribution by asking the lady to dance?”
“The courtesan’s daughter?” The other man’s lip curled. “Hardly a former lover of mine. I have higher standards than that.”
Not really, in Douglas’s opinion. Spence liked married women who couldn't impose on his freedom, and who often wished to keep their liaisons secret. That was hardly what one could call a refined requirement. Still, Douglas hadn't known she was a courtesan’s daughter. He made a mental note to find out more about that.
“She appeared respectable enough to me,” he said.
“To you,” repeated Spence with an edge of condescension. “Compared to a tavern wench with rounded heels, she might be. To the rest of us…” He snapped his fingers at a passing footman and took a glass of wine from the man’s tray. “You really ought to improve your taste, Bennet.”
Douglas let that go. He did like tavern wenches. They were friendly and earthy, nothing delicate or prim about them. They were more willing to be adventurous in bed, and they demanded so much less of him—financially and emotionally—than any other woman would.
“But why her?” he asked again, circling back to his main question. “Just for the sport of it? Or did you simply want the pleasure of seeing me turned down flat?”
Spence didn't reply for a moment. His eyes were sharp and calculating. “How plump are your pockets at the moment?” he finally asked.
“Reasonably,” said Douglas. He’d been gone from town for a month overseeing repairs at one of his father’s estates, to the great benefit of his purse. Still, it was a few weeks to quarter day, when his father paid out his allowance. He could always find a use for more money.
Spence lowered his voice. “I suspect our lovely Mrs. Wilde of being more than she appears. And if I’m right, there’s two thousand quid to be had.”
Douglas’s eyebrows shot up. “What is she, a spy?”
“Of some sort,” muttered Spence. “You aren't acquainted with a little piece of rubbish called 50 Ways to Sin, are you?”
“Get a copy. It’s a pamphlet of a most…intriguing nature.” A cunning smile split his face. “I suspect you’ll enjoy it.”
That smile put him on guard. Douglas might not be the most discerning fellow, but he wasn't stupid, and he knew Spence too well. “If you insist—not that it answers my question about why you wanted me to charm my way into Mrs. Wilde’s good graces.”
“The authoress is unknown. I daresay even you’ll guess why when you read it. But she’s piqued more than one man’s pride with her scandalous pen, and there’s a bounty out for her name. Mrs. Wilde seems a very likely candidate.” He shrugged. “If you can unmask her, I’ll split the bounty with you.”
Douglas folded his arms and looked at Spence through narrowed eyes. “I should seduce the woman, gain her confidence, presumably enough to be admitted to her boudoir, where I would have to search for some proof that she writes this pamphlet. And for that, you’ll take half the money? Not so, Spence, not so.”
His friend’s hooded eyes flashed. “Very well. Forget I said anything.”
Douglas shrugged. “Hard to do that. Who staked the bounty?”
“If the bloke’s serious about finding the author, he can’t be too secretive about it.”
“Lord Chesterton,” said Spence with obvious reluctance. “He felt she identified him too clearly in one story and he’s livid.”
“Identified? She didn't use his name?”
Spence looked impatient. “No, she uses obviously false names.”
“Then how did he recognize himself?”
His friend smirked again. “Find a copy and see if you can deduce that yourself.”
Douglas wondered what on earth this story was, that would drive Lord Chesterton to such an action. The man was as correct and polite as anyone could be, distantly connected to the King and as stiff as a piece of kindling. Now he’d placed a public bounty on a woman’s head? What could Mrs. Wilde—if she was in fact the author—have written about him? Two thousand pounds was a small fortune, and certain to attract a fair amount of attention.
Of course, that also made it a much more interesting contest.
“Three to one,” he said after a moment’s thought.
“Three to one split, if we take the bounty.” He glanced at Spence. “You’re the one, obviously.”
“Two to three,” countered the other man.
“Do it yourself, then.”
Spence muttered a few curses under his breath, but stuck out his hand. “Done.”
Douglas shook on it, already anticipating his next meeting with the wily widow. “Done.”