o other writer delivers romance as sensual and compelling as Cheryl Holt, the Queen of Erotic Romance. Now, in her most seductive novel to date, she presents an unforgettable story of mismatched lovers--and a breathtaking passion that defies every rule...
CAN THE ROGUE WHO WON HER VIRTUE...Helen Mansfield's reckless brother has done the unthinkable, gambling away his sister's chastity to save his family's estate. When Helen visits the lodgings of the gentleman who has won her, hoping to make him see reason, she interrupts a carnal scene as outrageous as it is erotic. Luke Westmoreland, the illegitimate son of a duke, is clearly a rogue...and he's also the most wildly attractive man she has ever met. He offers Helen a new bargain that will give her one more year in her home. But their daily meetings quickly become sizzling lessons in wanton desire...
TEACH HER THE MEANING OF DESIRE?Once branded a smuggler and thief, Luke Westmoreland is now hailed a hero, thanks to an act of bravery at sea. Although he has taken full advantage of the women his fame has enticed, none of the strumpets lining up to share his bed has intrigued Luke as much as beautiful, spirited Helen. Their trysts are abandoned, sensual adventures that deepen into a love neither dares to admit--until another man's twisted obsession places Helen in danger...
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St. Martin's Paperbacks
July 31, 2006
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Excerpt from Too Wicked to Wed by Cheryl Holt
London, England, 1814 . . .
The front door to the house was wide open.
Helen Mansfield looked up and down the busy street. No one was paying any attention to her, and without pausing to reconsider her plan, she slipped inside.
Due to the delicacy of her mission, she'd come alone, without benefit of maid or footman, and her heart pounded with dread. The clandestine visit was the first really bold, exotic thing she'd ever done, and she yearned to conclude her business quickly and quietly, and without making a fool of herself.
After she had been out in the bright July sunshine, the vestibule seemed very dark. She tarried, her eyes adjusting to the shadows, while hoping that the butler would step forward to welcome and announce her, but it was eerily silent.
She studied her surroundings, finding the lodging to be well built and appropriately fashionable, but it had an air of abandonment. The entryway was empty, with a lone table positioned down the hall, and it was covered with a sheet as though the current occupant hadn't yet had occasion to tug it off so the space would be more habitable.
Of course, that occupant being a notorious, barbaric pirate, perhaps he didn't realize that civilized people lived any differently.
She tamped down the uncharitable thought, refusing to proceed on a sour note. Her feelings were sufficiently conflicted, her temper adequately ignited, and she was determined to remain calm and courteous, regardless of how humiliating her appointment proved to be.
Noise erupted on the stairs, and she leapt away as a barefoot, scantily clad woman came racing down. Her clothes--if one could call the garment an outfit--consisted of only a summery shift, the hem of which fell to mid-thigh. It was constructed from a slinky red material that hugged her torso like a glove, revealing each of her curves and hiding nothing that ought to be concealed.
Her breasts were enormous, and they bounced gleefully as she passed, the mounds swaying in tandem, her nipples jutting against the bodice.
The woman was obviously a strumpet, and Helen couldn't stop gawking.
What sort of bawdy abode had she entered? What mischief was occurring that a gentlewoman--such as herself--could stumble into it? Who was in charge?
As the woman reached the foyer, she gazed up the stairs and shouted, "Catch me if you can, you surly lout." Laughing, she vanished down the corridor.
A man scurried after her, his arms stretched out to grab her, but she was too fast and easily evaded him. He was a grubby fellow, with a scraggly beard, a gold earring, a knife in his belt, and numerous teeth missing, and he embodied every low trait Helen had expected to observe among the residents.
With how her luck was running, he would likely turn out to be Mr. William Lucas Westmoreland, the man she was seeking. What if he was? How would they have a rational conversation?
He had hesitated, struggling to detect how his prey had escaped, when he espied Helen cowering in the corner. With unrepressed lechery, he scrutinized her, and the odor of alcohol around him was so strong that she was amazed he could walk. She gagged and lurched away.
"You'll be next, my pretty little thing," he promised. "Don't go anywhere."
"Your next what?" she mumbled as he tottered off.
She checked to be certain she'd brought the kitchen knife she'd sewn into the seam of her skirt. After all, she wasn't stupid. She was in the lair of treacherous, violent bandits for whom no deed was purported to be too evil. If she was threatened, she hadn't the temerity to use the weapon, but still, she felt better knowing she could yank it out and wield it with great relish.
Her fury with her younger brother, Archibald, surged anew. How typical that he would immerse her in such a wretched jam! His dominant attribute was his total ability to wreak havoc. He was immoderate in his appetites, passionate about his pleasures, and never fretted over anyone but himself. As a twenty-five-year-old spinster, she'd eschewed marriage to stay at her beloved home of Mansfield Abbey, where she diligently worked to curb his worst excesses.
He was her sole kin, so she'd always been too protective of him, had rescued him from too many scrapes, and he was positive that she would rescue him from this latest one, too. The notion had her so angry that if he'd been standing there with her, she'd have clasped him by the throat and strangled the life out of him.
From down the hall, commotion drifted toward her. People were talking, and there seemed to be a party in progress--in the middle of the day!--but the social event sounded different from any to which she'd ever been invited.
Their voices were odd and furtive, as if the participants had been naughty--or were about to be. Women were cooing and sighing, oozing with a bliss Helen didn't comprehend.
She yearned to investigate, but she was staunchly convinced that, whatever was transpiring, she couldn't bear to learn the details. Without a doubt, she should simply stomp out and let Archie handle the mess for once--it would serve him right--but she wouldn't.
He was incredibly spoiled, so she shouldn't have been surprised when he'd informed her that he'd lost Mansfield Abbey in a card game. But even for him, the behavior was extreme. He'd frittered away every last chattel, every candle and fork, every horse and hoe.
There was nothing left.
The villain Mr. Westmoreland had won it all, and if she couldn't persuade him to give it back, she couldn't predict her and Archie's fate. She had to reason with Westmoreland. She had to! The estate was a small place, a pittance, a veritable hovel compared to the other grand properties in their neighborhood. Why couldn't he have coveted somebody else's home?
Despite his savage reputation, he was alleged to possess a shred of integrity. During a terrible sea storm, he'd risked life and limb on a ship of drowning British sailors. Using daring sailing skills, he'd maneuvered through the gale, plucking those he could from the turbulent waters. Then he'd personally pursued the floundering stragglers, braving thirty-foot waves in a dinghy and finally even diving into the raging tempest to prevent what would have been instant death for some of the Navy's finest.
Every man had been saved.
As a result, Westmoreland was the darling of the kingdom, his courage bandied over in every tavern in the land, and as a reward, he'd been pardoned for his previous crimes by the Prince Regent.
Surely, such a dashing hero could find it in his heart to heed an anxious woman's plea for mercy.
Ready for anything, she squared her shoulders and marched down the corridor to the closed door at the end. It was ajar, and she peeked through the crack into a cavernous room that had probably been the prior owner's library. The walls were lined with bookcases, but they were empty of books, and there were dilapidated pieces of furniture that didn't match. It appeared as if the individual who'd purchased the items had no clue as to what was needed to fill a fancy house. Boxes were stacked, waiting to be unpacked, but there were no servants who might be set to the task.
A dozen gorgeous women were present, and they sprawled like lazy mermaids on pillows and daybeds, sipping wine and purring to one another. They were scandalously garbed in only their undergarments, fancy corsets and colored pantaloons that were festooned with ribbons. Their slender calves were concealed by lacy stockings, their tiny feet balanced on spiky heels.
They were attractive and alluring, and in contrast, she felt dowdy and provincial. With her brunette hair tucked into a tidy chignon, her hazel eyes that were too wide and saw too much, her drab brown traveling dress and shabby cloak, she was a boring, unsophisticated country girl. She was too skinny, too old, too plain, and so far out of her element that she might have laughed had she not been so desperate.
In their midst, a man lounged on a lavish sofa. While he was strikingly handsome, with golden-blond hair and piercing blue eyes, he exuded a tough and dangerous air that made her pause. He reminded her of a wolf on the prowl, alert and prepared to attack with the slightest provocation. He was muscular and fit, tall and robust, and his features were arresting, but in a rough fashion that added to his aura of menace and peril.
She imagined he'd had a hard life. Years of toil were etched in his face, yet he was so imposing and unusual that she was fascinated.
He was naked to the waist, attired in a peculiar pair of trousers stitched from a light, flowing fabric that was likely intended for hot weather. The material hinted at burly thighs and long legs, and was the style a sultan in Arabia might wear while entertaining his harem.
His shoulders were brawny, his stomach flat as a board. To her astonishment, he had a matting of hair across his chest. She'd never seen a man's chest before, so she hadn't known hair would grow there, and she suffered from an outlandish urge to tromp over and riffle her fingers through it.
A covey of the blond sirens hovered around him, with one snuggled on his lap. They were caressing him all over, and they took turns leaning down and . . . and . . . kissing him on the lips!
She tried to remember if she'd ever viewed two people kissing, but she couldn't recollect a single occasion where it might have happened. Her world was so staid, couples so restrained, that a display of affection was beyond anyone of her acquaintance.
She was spellbound.
The man would dally with one woman, then another, and while Helen wasn't positive, it seemed as if they were putting their tongues in each other's mouths. The discovery did something to her insides. Butterflies swarmed through her tummy; her womb shifted and stirred; the mysterious feminine spot between her legs was relaxed and moist.
The female on his lap moaned and arched up and, mesmerizing Helen even further, the man nibbled down her neck, where he proceeded to bare her breast and suck on her nipple.
"Oh, my Lord!" Helen murmured, as a man spoke from directly behind her.
"May I help you?"
Cheeks burning, she jumped and whipped around to confront a fellow who was a clerk or secretary. He was younger than herself--probably twenty or so. Dressed impeccably in a conservative suit, a portfolio tucked under his arm, he was the only normal person she'd encountered since entering.
His dark hair was neatly clipped, his demeanor proper and polite, his speech educated and refined, but his disdainful blue eyes made it clear that he knew how avidly she'd been spying. There was no way to pretend she'd been doing anything else. She was mortified, but determined to forge on with some amount of aplomb.
"Yes, you may help me. I'm looking for Mr. Westmoreland."
"You found him." He pointed to the man in the library with the bevy of admirers fawning over him. "Shall we go in?"
She gulped with dismay. She'd been anticipating a grimy, disgusting criminal. Not some Greek god.
"He is Mr. Westmoreland?"
"Yes, but it's Captain Westmoreland. And you are . . . ?"
Obviously, she had to reassess her plan. Westmoreland was unlike any other man she'd ever met, and in dealing with him she would be completely out of her league. How could they casually chat when she'd seen his lips wrapped around that . . . that . . .
She blushed bright red.
"I'm no one of any importance, and he's rather busy. I'll stop by tomorrow when he's not so . . ." She hadn't the vocabulary to describe Westmoreland's conduct, so she vaguely waved toward him, then spun to depart.
"I can guarantee that he won't be behaving any better later on." The man gripped her elbow and halted any retreat. "He has a definite way with the ladies, if you catch my drift. Whatever your purpose, you might as well get it over with. Then, you won't have to come back."
"No. I believe I'll be off."
He clutched her arm even tighter. "Stay. I insist."
A guard stepped in and expertly blocked any exit. The clerk pushed at the door, and to her horror, everyone in the room froze and gaped at her.
Westmoreland ceased his love play and glared--but not at her. In her dreary costume, and with his being surrounded by dazzling beauties, she was invisible. He focused on the clerk, a scowl marring his flawless brow.
"What is it this time, Mr. Smith?" Westmoreland demanded. "Can't you see I'm involved? I asked you not to interrupt again."
"You have a visitor, Captain."
"Who is it?"
"She hasn't said."
Westmoreland still hadn't noticed her, and out of the corner of her mouth she whispered, "Mr. Smith, if you have any sense of decency, you'll let me slip away."
"Sorry, but I have no decency remaining. I lost every ounce of it when the Captain purchased me in a slave market."
"He . . . he . . . what?" she stammered.
"Go on," Smith coaxed. "Go on. He looks as if he bites, but he doesn't really."
Smith urged her in, the guard hurrying her along by giving her a firm shove. She stumbled, furious when several of the hussies snickered. She pulled herself up to her full height of five feet five, and she stared them down, quickly cowing them to silence.
Westmoreland's attention locked on her, and he rose. He'd forgotten the trollop on his lap, and she plummeted down, but he failed to note that he'd practically tossed her on the floor. He was imperious and rude as a king, and Helen was surprised. She wasn't certain what she'd expected from the infamous brigand, but it wasn't such an ample quantity of arrogance and conceit.
Like a large, predatory cat, he approached, his gaze not wavering, and her pulse thudded like a small bird's. While she'd figured he'd be tall, he was much bigger than she'd calculated. He loomed over her, and though she'd never pictured herself as petite, in his towering company she felt absolutely tiny.
She stood her ground, deciding that she couldn't have him detect how terrified she was. In the tales being spread around the country, he'd been credited with every foul felony from kidnapping to cannibalism. He was reputed to have killed thousands of men, to have eaten babies for his supper.
While she discounted the more incredible yarns, all stories originated with a sprig of truth, and until she knew him better, she couldn't predict of what he might be capable.
"Well, well, Mr. Smith," he mused to the clerk. "Guess who we have here."
"I haven't a clue, Captain."
"Can't you tell? It's Miss Mansfield."
Her name rippled through the crowd like a wildfire, the coven of slatterns abuzz with speculation. From how they were evaluating her, it was clear that they were all aware of Archie's folly. Was the entire city cognizant of his gambling debacle? Was the general populace tittering over his stupidity?
How humiliating! How galling! When she got home--if she got home--she'd murder him. She'd have no despicable sibling; she'd be an only child.
"How do you know who I am?" she snapped.
"You and your brother could be twins," he explained. "I must admit that I'd about given up on you. Does your appearance mean you're finally ready to begin? Shall we do it right here and let everyone watch? That way, there'll be a ton of witnesses, and we won't have any question as to the terms of the wager being appropriately commenced."
He stepped in, and she stepped back. She had no idea to what he referred, and she frowned as Mr. Smith scolded, "Captain, if I may say--"
"No, you may not, Mr. Smith. Butt out. It's none of your affair."
"But she's a respected gentlewoman, and you can't--"
"Mr. Smith!" he hissed, his temper barely controlled. "Have you gone deaf?"
"Then, I suggest you be quiet."
Smith's cheeks reddened, but he braved a retort. "But you can't debauch her. It's simply not done."
"It's done all the time," Westmoreland asserted, his concentration not leaving Helen. "If you don't believe me, ask her brother. Ask her dear, departed father."
She ignored their barbs and honed in on the mention of debauchery. Though she had no inkling what it might entail, it boded ill for an acceptable outcome.
"What's this nonsense about debauching me? I wish to confer with you about my brother's debt, about having it forgiven--as is the fair and honorable conclusion. You can't walk away with our estate after a measly turn of the cards. You know it's wrong."
"I know nothing of the sort."
"You can't do it!"
"I can, and I will. It was your brother's idiocy that led you here. Not mine. Besides, it's totally within your power to have the property restored to him, which I presume is why you've come." He grinned like the Devil himself. "I'm eager to start whenever you are. In fact, I can hardly wait. Just say the word, although I'm not much for talking."
"Well, that's my plan, so resign yourself to a boring parlay of the details."
"I'm afraid a meager discussion won't get you anywhere. I'm resolved to your fate."
"My . . . my fate? You make it sound as if I'm about to be hanged."
"Oh, it won't be that bad. Any lady present will verify that I'll make it quite good for you."
"Make what good for me?"
Her rejoinder elicited out-and-out guffaws from the throng, and she flashed a menacing scowl to quell the merriment. He was unaffected, though, and he reached out and toyed with a lock of hair that had fallen loose from her chignon. For some absurd reason, her heart fluttered when he touched her, and she didn't care for the experience, at all. She batted him away.
"Stop babbling in riddles," she commanded.
"In riddles? What is it you don't understand?"
"What power have I regarding the return of the estate? I haven't the vaguest notion to what you allude."
He chuckled, his voice a rich, deep baritone that tickled her innards and rattled her bones. "I take it your brother wasn't completely frank with you as to the conditions of our wager."
"I know my home is in your hands, which is sufficient information."
"No, your home is in your hands."
It seemed as if he were speaking in a foreign language she didn't comprehend. "My hands?"
"Yes. After your brother squandered Mansfield Abbey, he tried to win it back by betting you."
She had so few possessions, no cash or other valuables. What could Archie possibly have staked? "By betting my . . . what?"
"You're a female." His potent gaze wandered down her torso. "You have only one thing that would interest a man like me."
As his implication dawned, she huffed with outrage. "You contemptible cad!"
"Aah, I see you grasp my intent."
"You and my brother actually gambled over my . . . my . . ."
"Yes. And you lost."
"I'm to surrender my . . ."
She couldn't utter the word virtue in front of him, and she'd always been so sheltered that she didn't know what such a submission would require. It involved a husband and wife and their actions in the marital bed, but other than that indistinct point, she hadn't the slightest hint of what had been promised.
"It's a tad more than a mere surrender," he advised.
"For thirty days, you're to please me in any fashion I desire. If you do, and I'm satisfied with your performance, he can have his paltry farm. I'll have no need of it."
"Yes. I'm to enjoy a month of dissipation, although now that I've met you, I have to confess that you're too skinny for my tastes. And I'd prefer a blonde. But I suppose once we're snuggled under the covers, I can shut my eyes and pretend you're someone else."
He'd hurled so many insults that she couldn't tabulate them all, and she was too stunned to respond. His claim was too awful to be genuine, too horrid to be implemented.
"I don't believe you," she finally said. "Archie would never . . ."
"Wouldn't he?" He nodded at Mr. Smith. "Show her the contract her brother signed."
She was aghast. "You wrote it down?"
"Of course. Do you take me for a fool?"
She studied him more carefully, weighing character, assessing temperament, and she was sickened to realize how thoroughly she'd misjudged him as an opponent. He was more intelligent, more shrewd and driven, than she ever could have fathomed.
"No," she murmured, "you're definitely not a fool."
"Your brother swore I'd be getting a virgin, and you should both hope he's telling me the truth. I hate to be lied to, and I'll kill him if you're not." He gestured round the room. "I'll let it be your choice. Shall we amuse ourselves here in the library? Or would you like to go upstairs to my bedchamber?"