Miss Darling's Indecent Offer [The Stanhope Challenge]
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by Cerise Deland
Category: Erotica/Erotic Romance/Historical Fiction
Description: Emma Darling needs a protector and when she appeals to Jack Stanhope, she knows that the noted rake has never wished for a wife. That's fine by Emma, who wants a husband--and not just in name--but only for little while. Jack is keen to avoid the bad luck that plagues Stanhope marriages, but this gamin beauty rouses his protective instincts and his satyr's hunger. Can he escape their temporary marriage and a few, blissful weeks of carnal delight with his heart intact? Or will taking her to his bed ruin each of them for any other lover?
eBook Publisher: Resplendence Publishing, LLC, 2010 November
eBookwise Release Date: January 2011
13 Reader Ratings:
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [148 KB]
Reading time: 91-128 min.
March, 1810. London, England
* * * *
Emma Darling had no delusions about the precarious nature of her indecent offer to Jack Stanhope. He had an inglorious reputation as a rake and would be no coy boy falling over himself to accept her proposal. In fact, the damn man was likely to throw her out of his carriage and into the rain like so much rubbish.
She sniffed, pulled herself up to her own imperious reputation as a blue stocking and put some iron in her spine. "You will smile. You will not simper. You will entice the man, Emma. With logic."
"Miss Darling?" Her coachman rapped on the bottom of his seat and she jumped.
"The gentleman you wanted?"
"Arrogant Jack?" Yes, he definitely was the only man Emma wanted. But she answered her servant here in the dark alley across from the entrance to White's. She peered through her window and wiped fog from its expanse. "You think that man is he?"
"Aye, Miss, blue covered brougham with the Stanhope crest. Must be 'im."
"Thank you, Harris." She lifted her hood and draped it over her hastily set mop of hair. Rain or no, now is the time, Emma. She waited a heartbeat as her servant climbed down from his box and opened the door for her, then let down the steps for her to alight. She gave him her hand and a smile. Watery thing that it was, the expression was one he did not return, for he feared for his position should her stepfather learn of her escape tonight. "Please do not worry, Harris. I promise I will speak on your behalf."
"I know, Miss. But I fret for your safety. The Viscount Durham is a bad sort." He handed her out into the pouring rain.
"Not completely so," she called to him and scampered across the cobbles. Deuced bad luck that the heavens opened at that hideous moment. She squealed and picked up her pace through the torrent of rain. But she managed, blast it! Catching her balance time and again, she fought for clear vision as she slipped on one stone and then slid across another. She heard Jack Stanhope shouting to his own coachman as she lifted her arm to beckon him.
"My lord!" Don't leave, Jack! "My lord!"
The coachman slammed the conveyance door. She scurried along. Then sensed the driver climbed up into his box. Knew he would be picking up the reins and panicked that if she did not do something rash, all her plans would be lost!
She swerved, stepped in front of the coach, and summarily fell into a puddle.
"Ohhhhh, damn!" she beat the cobbles with one fist, wild at her clumsiness.
The coachman yelled. The horses neighed. She pushed herself up, hands wrist deep in pools of rain, her pelisse soaked. Hands hoisted her from the cobbles, right under her arm pits. "Get her up, Rawley."
"Good God, milord! She's a fright!"
"Up, up, here you go," a booming bass voice encompassed her and she was snatched up in strong arms like a sack of potatoes and shoved, like so much dross, into a coach. To the floor, in fact, of a coach. Jack's? Please, God.
She pushed upwards, glanced about. Those iron-like hands grabbed her once more under the arms and unceremoniously dragged her up and over the squabs. Fingers picked at her hood, undid her ties and threw back the wool to lift her chin.
"Christ, you are soaked! What in hell are you doing out on a night like this?"
She stared at him.
Jack Stanhope, no other. Eyes like lightning. Hair like midnight. Jaw like iron.
Collect yourself. "I had to come out." Of course you did, you ninny. He's not so handsome he can rattle you.
He frowned at her, pushed her curls back from her cheeks, and hauled her up higher. By the light of the interior lamp, she saw him better now. Close as a lover. And the power of her first hard look at the Pride of the Stanhopes made her admire the family traits all the more.
He was a luscious specimen of manhood, dark and imposing. The broadest of shoulders. The squarest of chins. The dimple there, dead center. She'd glimpsed him twice before at his racing box in Harton. She'd been drawn to his brash demeanor, his open laugh and booming voice. She'd felt his magnetism. A daring rake of tall, devilishly strong proportions, Jack Stanhope was not so much handsome as overwhelming. Not so much refined as damned perfect. For her. Her needs.
"What in God's good name is a lady doing out at this hour of the night? And falling in front of my carriage, no less?" His striking eyes were wide, though she could smell the liquor on his breath. His fingers dug into her upper arms. "Answer me!"
"I need to talk to you."
"The devil, you say. Who are you?" He lifted her higher, nearer, his silver-blue eyes searing her face as he scanned her features with a furious hunger.
"Darling...." He caught her torso against him in reflex. Her breasts crushed to his broad chest as he sank his fingers into her newly cropped cap of Grecian curls and pulled her head back to see her by the carriage lamp. "What the hell? Joan Darling's girl?"
"Yes, Frank's and Joan's." Did he know her mother?
"You're shivering. Wet as a cat. Sit over here." He pushed her back into the squabs, both hands to her shoulders in a move that was mostly a shove. "Take off that cloak." He worked at a fastening to her wrap. "You'll die of cold. Your mother will have me for breakfast."
"No!" Emma wrapped her hand around his arm and noted that he was so large she could only succeed at plucking at the thick wool of his overcoat. "No, she won't. Can't."
"What?" He shook his head, loosening the fog from the spirits he'd imbibed, she supposed. Then he tried to undo the fastening of her wrap. "This damn thing is too wet. Can't get it open." His hands fumbled. "Why can't she help you?"
"She's ill. In the country." Dying from her husband's cruelty and neglect.
He scowled now. "That's why I have not seen her about town."
"Listen to me, Jack."
If her hands on his hadn't brought him up short, the use of his given name by a stranger did. He paused. "You have my attention. What is it you want, Miss Darling?"
"I need your help."
"At three in the morning? A very inclement morning?" His black brows wiggled in mirth and surprise.
In the lamplight, his features mellowed with amusement. His brows were long and arched, his eyes, larger than she had heard, his mouth, a wide slash but full and supple. Generous. Oh, God. Please let him be as generous as his lips.
"This was the best time to find you. You would never have seen me at home."
"You did not invite me," he told her, his words a bit slurred, an impish grin gracing his mouth. "I accept all invitations from beautiful women."
"So I understand, but--" I am not beautiful. "You would not have come."
"You're certain, eh? Why not?"
"You do not really know me."
His starry eyes narrowed, running from her lips to her eyes to her hair tumbling now into her eyes and about her cheeks. "I daresay I should."
"Yes, you should." She leaned forward now, comforted by his humor and the warmth of him to take her in his carriage and have such care of her. But she knew she must look a fright, coming out as she did so quickly, taking the chance she could find him. "You will. If you accept my offer."
"An offer? Pardon me, Miss Darling. It's late and my manners are as short as my penchant for games." Bursting into a hearty chuckle, he fell back to the plush leather upholstery. Sobering, he ran a hand over his face. He knit his brows and surveyed her state of cold, wet dishabille. "I must take you home. Isn't it Park Lane? Opposite the street from my Aunt Amaryllis Stanhope?"
She folded her arms, the rain seeping through her cloak to her thin cotton gown and making her shiver. "I will not return there."
"Why ever not?"
"He is there."
Jack scowled. "Who?"
"Daniel." She murmured the name of the man who meant to ruin her life, keep her in rags and deny her her due.
"Precisely." Her teeth began to clatter. She clenched her jaw. Wrapped her arms more tightly about her. "He is a tyrant. I have come to you to escape him."
Jack scowled, then picked up the plaid woolen blanket on the seat next to her and tucked it around her body and under her chin, frowning at her words and searching her face. "Christ, you're cold as ice. How long have you been out in this?"
"Since ten or so," she told him truthfully.
"Good God. Must be a damned good reason to chill yourself to the quick."
She shot forward and grabbed the lapels of his coat. "Jack, please help me. I have waited for you because I need you. Only you can help me."
"I am honored, Miss Darling, but--"
"Emma, my dear young woman, I have no idea what you wish. I barely know who you are! Let alone what I might do to assist--"
He stilled. "Did you say...?"
Emotions floated across his features. Hilarity. Disbelief. Curiosity. Incredulity. Compassion.
"You think I am a mad woman, I know. I know." She tightened her grip on his lapels. "Hear me out. I am twenty-four. Unwed. On the shelf. But once I was lovely and wanted. My stepfather saw to it that any suitor was deterred. One was chased away, another bought off. The first one loved me, I believe." She pushed back all tendencies to tears. "Now Daniel has arranged a new marriage to a man I loathe. I refused. Daniel locked me away. Only tonight have I had the opportunity to escape him. My maid helped. My coachman, too. They helped me because I told them I would come to you. They said if anyone could save me, it was you. Please, my lord, you must help me."
Her voice drifted away on a wave of her own despair. Jack flinched. Women in full cry of emotion were creatures he knew not how to handle. Women in mourning. Women in terror. Women in love. All tried his soul. Only women in bed appealed to his sense and his senses. This Emma Darling appealed to something else in him. Sympathy. A unique emotion for a man of the ton. A man of means and family, never caught by a passing whim or caring concern, save for his siblings. How could he possibly care for this red-haired siren in threadbare cotton and wool? Only because Pinrose abuses her? Perhaps. Whatever the source of his compassion, her story filled him with alarm.
"What is the problem only I might solve at this hour of the morning?"
"Marry me. Quickly. I must have your protection."
"Mine? Is that so?" Why mine? Did Pinrose send you? The blackguard would stoop to anything! Four years ago, he'd robbed Jack's best friend of a fortune cheating at cards. Months later, the poor man had subsequently hung himself in his rooms by the docks. Jack knew Pinrose would do anything to put his hands on money which never seemed to be his own. And Jack had said so often. For the accusation, Pinrose had blustered that he'd call Jack out, but had never had the guts to bare a sword against one so expert. The man had the spine of a jellyfish, picking on others less cunning than he. Would Pinrose use his stepdaughter to try to cast a scandal upon his name? Of course, he would.
"No one else will do. Your accusations that he caused the death of William DeForest make you my stepfather's enemy, bar none. And you are right. My stepfather is a cad of the first order. No one else has declared it as loudly or as often as you. "
Intriguing. Yet hardly a reason to marry. "Well, Miss Darling, let me point out a few facts to you. Even if I were so charmed as to consider wedded bliss to an utter stranger a possibility, I could not find a man of the cloth to join us at this hour in a driving rainstorm. Nor could I proceed without a license."
"We'll go to Gretna Green."
"The border? For a quick march around an anvil?"
"Anyone, most likely the village smithy, says a few words to the couple over his anvil!"
"Not a vicar?"
He looked pained. "Never. A quick wedding in Gretna requires more trust than reverence for God."
"Well, I'd like a minister," she affirmed, then quick as a sprite, dug into her coat pocket and hoisted a small golden money pouch. She jingled it before him. "Silver. For you. Enough to pay our way to a vicar and back to your home in Durham."
He let loose with a laugh. "My dear, the silver coins are a fine entreaty but money cannot buy you a husband."
"I wager you it can." She opened his palm and dropped her bag into it. "If you help me, there's more, much more than that for you."
He weighed it. Heavy. Impressive. But he did not need this. Or want it. And certainly he did not want her trouble. He always had enough of his own. Sometimes more than others. Like now. "No. I do not intend to marry. For silver or gold."
"Never?" She fluttered those damn long, red lashes of hers, totally flummoxed by his answer.
He used his stock answer for her. It always worked with dewy--eyed maidens. "The family curse precludes any happiness in a union. I see my two brothers have so far skirted it, but tomorrow comes and brings untold miseries."
"A curse! What import is that when people have real problems?"
"How true!" He chuckled. What the hell was he doing talking about the Stanhope challenge to a strange young creature with shabby clothes and the most angelic face he'd ever seen? Device, perhaps it was, to escape the real reasons for not marrying, but the family's affliction had worked its magic to delay conjugal horrors in his life. "You'd know the thing was real if you had been told the tales I've heard. No lasting union comes to any in the Stanhope clan. Especially if they care for each other."
She scooted forward, her incomparable large, grey eyes caressing his in fevered glee. "Then have no fear, my lord. On those two counts, you can certainly marry me."
"How so?" Jack had enjoyed proposals from two other ladies during his youth and their reasons always did fascinate him, especially when they informed him that they would enthrall him. "Are you a fortune teller?" With all those horrible clothes, wild, bright hair and innocent doe's eyes?
"You see, you and I will never care for each other."
That struck him to the quick. He crossed one knee over the other in a nonchalance he feigned. "I see. And the second reason?"
"I do not want you forever and ever."
Her decision that she would never care for him was a small prick to his pride. He'd never had a woman discount him. His station as a peer of the realm and his wealth meant too many fluttered about him in a marital heat. But this woman's rejection felt like a slap. He sought to cover his dejection with wry savoir faire. "Now that's a new wrinkle! Do tell me why."
"I want you to marry me and take me away to your home in Durham. For only three months."
"Months. Enough time to satisfy my father's will to gain my inheritance. Enough to convince my stepfather that we are committed."
"To Bedlam, I daresay," he murmured.
"Don't say that or think it! To be imprisoned this way since my birthday last in December has been hideous enough. But if you married me and claimed me for your wife for three months, this would do to satisfy my father's will. Then, his solicitor, Jared Draycomb would free me of Daniel's power. Three months with you would prove I am healthy of body and mind."
Jack grumbled. "Are you saying Pinrose accuses you of--?"
"Infirmities of mind. Yes. But three months with you and the ton would conclude you would never harbor a crazy woman in your midst. Then I would be able to go to Mr. Draycomb to proceed with the distribution of the Darling estate. Draycomb and Sons would have to give me my inheritance, even though I am wed to you and not Benjamin Trayne."
Like a damn snake, that man's name brought a portent of evil slithering up Jack's back. To have Daniel Pinrose acting against this sylph-like creature was one awful thing. But for Trayne to be pitted against her, too, was infinitely worse. A cheat at cards and a cad who had ruined more than one good woman by his roguish seduction. "Pinrose keeps your inheritance from you and wants you to marry Trayne as well?"
"He does." She bit her lower lip and looked into her lap. "For my refusal, he locked me in my rooms on my last birthday."
Jack muttered about vengeance on the cur. "Why then?" he asked, though he could guess the cause.
"Since I turned twenty-four and therefore, came of age to inherit."
Jack lifted her chin with two fingers. Her skin was sallow, her eyes rimmed red from crying. Her perfect skin--save for the sprinkle of freckles on her upturned nose--needed the glory of the sun to enliven it. Her large eyes--almond-shaped and dulcet grey as a porcelain doll's--needed to clear and smile again. Her lush lips needed once more to curve upwards in a smile. Jack felt the urge to help her feel joy once more. "And Daniel insists you marry?"
"He and Trayne have an agreement to split the proceeds of the estate. I overheard them talk of it in our own parlor. When I confronted Daniel, he locked me away. I must have what is due me, Jack. I need it."
He had just enough glow left from his liberal consumption of brandy tonight that he could smile at her intensity. "What would a lovely young lady do with the thousands reputed to be left to you, my dear Miss Darling?"
Her mouth lifted with some rapturous thought and he nearly lost all his teeth gaping at the serenity which overcame her. He tipped his head to catch the ethereal glow she exuded. "I want to build an orphanage in Dover, and I need the money for beds and linens and books and food. Two staff, I think would do for a start. If at first I take in only the neediest children in Dover, I would have ten, maybe eleven orphans--"
"Whoa! Whoa!" Jack put up a hand. "You want your money to open an orphanage?"
She captured his gaze with raw intention of her desire. "It is a useful thing. A helpful thing to educate and clothe those for whom no one cares. Don't you think?"
"Oh, I do. But why you?"
"Why not me?"
He pursed his lips. "You have me there." Suddenly, he had to know the other side of this offer. "Have you made this proposition to other men?"
"No!" Her grey eyes locked on his in dismay. "You are the only man who can help me."
Jack could have been complimented. But his reputation had never been one which invited damsels in distress to run to him. In fact, the other direction was their wont. "And the reason for that is?"
"It is said by gossips that no man bests you. At cards or dice. Or women."
"And your mother?" He chose to react to Emma's train with logic rather than any pride in a back--handed compliment. He had met Joan Darling years ago. She was a vain woman, frail of body and flighty of mind. Intent on social engagements and fripperies, she was a social magpie whose discourse he had always avoided. Still, he knew not what sort of mother she was and offending her daughter as she shivered here before him was not a kind venture. "What does she say?"
"She cannot say anything. She is ill. At home in the country. Since Christmas, her health has declined. I fear she will not survive till this summer." Emma cupped her hand to her mouth. She fought back tears. "Marry me, Jack. You are my finest hope. And when I have my inheritance settled on me, for your help I will give you half."
"Half!" Half of forty thousand pounds and two estates fit for a king. "Tempting."
She beamed at him.
"Temptation to help you, my dear, comes not from this offer of money." That he did not need. The lure came from the way she looked and the way she beseeched him. Dire. Sad. Desperate. Yes, her state roiled him. For he knew Pinrose from his financial schemes and from his losses at the gaming tables. A conniving little frog. And Jack knew Trayne from Eton. A pompous peacock. Forever in debt.
"Name your price, then."
Jack narrowed his gaze on her. The temptation to take her offer rose up from that same well spring of emotion, so rare in Jack's thinking, that he had to look at her once more and imagine what she had been before Pinrose had sequestered her and abused her. She had been lively, fun-loving, a woman well--spoken with an education and a wit to form a plan to save herself. Jack bit back outrage she had been so poorly treated. Flooded with empathy that she had been deprived of what was rightly hers, he felt a fierce protection of her, tall and elegant and lovely as she most certainly was. For before Pinrose had imprisoned her, this delicate creature had been a jewel of femininity. Ivory skin. Sun-kissed hair. Peony pink cheeks. Cherry lips.
Jack Stanhope sat, stunned at himself. For a man who had never thought twice about a woman's birthrights, he craved a restitution of this woman's. "I will help you."
"Wonderful!" She leaned over and hugged the stuffing out of him. "And you will do it tonight?"
"Tonight it is."
She swayed with joy. Then she caught herself up to sneeze.
Jack fished a handkerchief from his pocket and handed it over.
She blew her nose. "And you will promise me one more thing, please?"
Murder seemed to not be on her menu, but a man never knew what a woman would want. "Let me hear it."
"That after we are wed, you will have me."
"Yes, you know..." She gestured about with the handkerchief.
He searched her face, bright now with growing embarrassment. "Do I?"
"You must take me to bed."
"Why must I?"
"Debauch me. Teach me! Everything!"
Never in his thirty--five years had he ever heard a lady say the word "debauch". He told himself not to laugh and instead cleared his throat. She would be lovely and a sensuous temptation, he knew, once she recovered her health and vigor. His usual desire for a woman, once sparked, held for months. Would he be ready to let this one go from his bed after one encounter? "You wish to know the ways of the bedchamber?" When she nodded, he had to ask, "Why is that?"
She tore her gaze away, then straightened her spine as she faced him. "I want to know if what my mother says is true that love between a man and woman can be enchanting. But more than that, I want to be ruined for any other man."
The force of her declaration set him back to the plush comfort of the squabs. He stared at her.
"The ton has it that to be taken to bed by Viscount Durham ruins any woman for another man."
His rake's reputation suddenly took on a new perspective. A sinister aspect became a monster that would have him help this charming young woman only to ruin her. Was he such a man to do such a task? He was appalled that this is what he had become.
"And there is the other fact," she intruded on his reverie, "that if you take me to bed, Trayne will never want your castoffs."