Only Mine

Only Mine

CHERYL HOLT continues to dazzle readers with another sexy, dramatic tale of love, intrigue, and romance…

Benjamin Grey, was a young man when a mysterious scandal erupted in London that would change his life forever. There was no answer to the riddle that ruined him, and to escape gossip, he joined the army where he’s spent ten years fighting for the Crown. But he’s the contested heir to an earldom, so duty and family have called him home. With the legal proceedings finished, it’s time for him to assume his elevated role, but it’s a position he never wanted, and he’s wary about embracing his future.

Annabel Fenwick is the daughter of a gambler and confidence artist. She grew up in an unconventional way, surrounded by her father’s dissolute companions. At a young age, she learned to scheme and finagle and win any game she played. When she stumbles on the answer to Benjamin’s riddle, she can’t help but wonder if she should tell him the truth. Some secrets are too hazardous to be spoken of aloud, and in light of Annabel’s dubious reputation, who would believe her?

When Annabel bursts into Benjamin’s world, he recognizes that nothing will ever be thesame. He’s never met anyone like her, and he’s instantly smitten. But danger follows her like a cloud, and with lives on the line and fortunes at stake, dare he trust her? Dare he love her? Only time will tell if she is worth the risk.

Buy Links

buy-amazonbuy-kindlebuy-bnbuy-nookbuy-ibooksbuy-kobo
“I liked this story.  I’m glad that Caleb is alive and boy is he a pistol.   I loved Annabel and what we got to see was that underneath it all she was really a sof- hearted woman who just wanted to be loved and respected.  Her brother Michael was something else but for all of his dissolute ways he really did love his sister and he wanted her to be happy.  Lydia, I don’t think she’s as crazy as they think she is.  Oh I think the death of her baby probably unhinged her a bit but I think underneath it all is a cold calculating woman.  Benjamin’s mother, I wanted to knock her one because she didn’t care if that little boy was really Caleb Grey, she just wanted him gone so that Benjamin would inherit the earldom. I can’t wait to see where you take us next.” ~ Susan

CHAPTER ONE

“This will be a piece of cake.”

“You always say that, but it’s never true.”

Annabel Fenwick glared at her brother, Michael, wishing she could cow or shame him.  But he was the worst scoundrel in the world, and it was impossible to make him feel guilty about anything.

He was also the most confident person she’d ever met, except for her poor, deceased father.  He’d constantly been certain he was right, that the odds would fall in his favor.  Generally, he’d been correct, so it had been difficult to persuade him to behave sensibly or proceed with caution.

Michael was possessed of all their father’s dishonest traits.  He blustered through life, gambling, cheating, lying, and winning, and because he was so handsome and charming, he was never called to account for any of his schemes or scams.

Women in particular were susceptible to his dubious allure.  He’d broken hearts across the kingdom, and no matter how egregiously he comported himself, he always landed on his feet.

She wished she was strong enough or prudent enough to detest him for his wicked ways, but she was as enchanted by him as everybody else.  She was actually quite jealous of him too.

Since he was a male, he could engage in any depraved adventure, and no one cared if he was stupidly reckless.  It was almost expected that a young man of twenty-two would sow some wild oats.

The same tendencies flowed in her own veins.  She relished having the chance to flaunt herself, to be rash and outrageous, but because she was a female—and a very old twenty-four at that—she had to continually tamp down her worst urges.

“Why must I pretend to be your mistress?” she complained.

He grinned.  “It seems awfully incestuous, doesn’t it?”

“For goodness sake, I’m your sister.”

“Half-sister, Annabel.”

“Fine, your half-sister.  Why can’t we just admit it?”

“Because all the other men are bringing trollops.  If I’m here with my sister—when others have a paramour—how will that look?”

“It will look as if we’re siblings.”

“No, it will look as if I can’t get a girl of my own.”

“You can’t.  Not one you could support anyway.”

He usually had money, but never in an amount sufficient to pay for any extravagant expenses.

“It’s for your benefit too,” he claimed.  “The ruse will protect you.”

“How?”

“If I announce you’re not my mistress, you’ll be viewed as being free and loose with your favors.  It’s a bachelor party—where men will drink and revel and forget they’re decent, upstanding citizens.  Any depravity will be encouraged and allowed.”

She scowled.  “How horrid will it be?  Will they be stripping off their clothes and strutting about naked?”

He shrugged.  “I have no idea, but you should be prepared to witness many foul deeds.”

“Wonderful,” she sarcastically muttered.  “Does this mean we’re sharing this bedchamber?”

“Yes.”

“Must I stay the entire two weeks?”

“We’ll see how much progress I make with Wesley.  I’ll let you know in a few days.”

Wesley Grey was Michael’s new and naïve friend who was too immature to recognize the danger of fraternizing with a rascal like Michael.  Wesley was from a very wealthy and top-lofty family, and his brother, Benjamin Grey, was about to be an earl.  They and their acquaintances were exactly the type of wealthy snobs Michael loved to fleece.

Benjamin Grey—along with his becoming an earl—was about to wed, and Wesley had arranged the extended bacchanal to celebrate the event.

Michael was the first guest Wesley had invited, then Michael had asked Annabel to accompany him.

She should have refused, but she’d have been bored in London without Michael there, so she’d agreed.  And she wasn’t upset by Michael’s description of how unruly the festivities might be.  Considering how she’d been reared, she was hardly a shrinking violet.

Her father, Cecil, had been a libertine and amoral rogue.  Her childhood had been a lengthy slog of disasters:  fleeing creditors, evading angry fathers, hiding from jilted fiancées.

There had even been stints where they’d been locked in debtor’s prison with him, but what there had never been was a single moment of calm or respectable living.  So there was no incident her brother could devise that would shock or offend her.

During the party, she would fill the role for her brother that she’d often filled for her father.  She would distract the men at cards so Michael could cheat more successfully.  She would also flirt and chat to learn personal information Michael could use later to his benefit.

It was a dreadful way to carry on, but she’d never proceeded in a different fashion.  As her father had always counseled, rich sods could afford to lose a few pounds.  Was it her fault if they were gullible and didn’t pay attention to their money?

“I might need one extra thing from you,” Michael said.

“What is it?”

“It would really help if…ah…you’d seduce Wesley for me.”

“No.”

“Please?”

“No, Michael.”

“But if he grew smitten, it would bring us many boons.  I’m sure of it.”

“I will not disgrace myself with some bumbling oaf.  You’re aware of my feelings in the matter.”

“It doesn’t hurt to ask.  You might change your mind someday.  You’re much too flamboyant to be a spinster.”

“I will never succumb to a man’s advances.  Not even with you begging me.  You know my opinion.  They’re all fools.”

“I’m not.” he huffed.

“Yes, you are.  You’re the biggest fool of all.”  To take the sting out of her words, she kissed him on the cheek.  “I love you though.  Flaws and all.  Your problem is that you’re too much like Father.  Every time I look at you, I think of him.  It makes me happy.”

She went over to the door, and he scowled.  “Where are you off to?”

“I’m eager to raid Mr. Grey’s liquor cabinet.”

They were at Grey Manor, Benjamin Grey’s country house where Wesley was hosting his brother’s party.

It was late in the evening and apparently they were the first to arrive.  The mansion was quiet, and there was as yet no merrymaking.  The butler had escorted them to their bedroom suite, and from the quick glimpses she’d gotten as she’d walked down the endless halls, the place was a virtual palace, which delighted her very much.

She enjoyed fancy houses and fancy parties.  High living was in her blood, with her mother having been an earl’s daughter.  Of course, when she’d run off with Annabel’s disreputable father, she’d been promptly disowned and disinherited.  Nevertheless, Annabel felt a huge kinship with the long-deceased woman.

She liked finery.  She liked beautiful clothes and delicious food and perfect manners and all the other aspects of the world that would have been her own if her father hadn’t been quite so charming and her mother quite so silly.

Wesley Grey was providing two luscious weeks in the grand residence.  Perhaps she would bite the bullet and force herself to stay for the entire celebration.

“Are you going down dressed like that?” Michael asked.

“Yes, I’m going just like this.”

She had a trunk full of exotic, stunning gowns that would make her appear rich and glamorous, but at the moment she was conservatively attired in a grey dress with white collar and cuffs, buttoned up from chin to toe.

“But I need you to play your part every second,” Michael protested.

“I’ll start playing tomorrow.  Right now, I simply want a whiskey.”

“What if someone sees you?  You could be a nanny or a schoolteacher.  They’ll never believe you’re a doxy.”

“I’m not a doxy, so stop wishing I was.  And there’s no one downstairs.”

“You can’t predict who might be lurking.”

“I’ll show plenty of cleavage in the morning, Michael.  Don’t nag.”

She exited into the hall and closed the door behind her.  She stood for a minute, listening for footsteps or voices, but it was silent as a tomb.  She tiptoed down to the main floor, snooping in a parlor that offered a promising array of liquor choices.

She grabbed a decanter and a glass, then strolled out to the verandah.  She leaned against the balustrade and stared across the park.  The moon was up, and she studied the groomed gardens, the trails winding through the grass.  There was a lake some distance away, and she wondered if there would be a gazebo on the shore.

She thought about traipsing out to check, but decided she shouldn’t wander in the dark.  It would be just her luck to get lost.  Instead, she sat down at a patio table and pulled the cork from the decanter.  She filled her glass to the rim, sighing with pleasure as she took a hefty gulp.

It was in the quietest hours of the night that she missed her father the most.  He’d been an unreliable scoundrel and an awful parent.  But he’d also been smart and kind, funny and loyal, and she’d cherished every wicked day she’d passed in his company.

How was she to cope without him?  It had been six months since he’d been shot dead in a pointless duel.  Would her grief ever begin to fade?

Because he’d been so decadent and corrupt, he’d never demanded she exhibit decent feminine behavior.  Her mother had died birthing her, so any female influence had been supplied by his trollops, and they’d had the same debauched view of life as Cecil.

She’d also been surrounded by the gamblers and wastrels he’d called his friends.  She’d watched them cheat on their wives, sire bastard children, wager away their family’s homes and fortunes.  She didn’t like or trust most people, and with her father gone, she had no idea how to set herself on a different path.

The notion of adopting a placid, ordinary existence was completely beyond her ability to imagine.  She was Cecil Fenwick’s gorgeous, ostentatious daughter, and there was very little about her that rendered her suitable for any normal enterprise Polite Society would deem acceptable.

She refilled her whiskey and toasted the heavens.  “I’ll never forgive you for being such an idiot.”

It was what she told him every night.  Fighting over a woman!  Dueling to the death!  The men who’d been present insisted it had been an accidental killing, that his nemesis hadn’t meant to murder him, but intentional or not, he was still just as dead.  And she was still just as alone.

She chugged down the contents of her glass, then placed it on the table with a determined thud.

“You can throw it if you want,” a man said from behind her.  “You look like it would make you feel better.”

She glanced over her shoulder, but he was in the shadows so she couldn’t discern any relevant details.

“I don’t need to throw it,” she replied, though she’d definitely like to.

“If you’re worried about breaking it, I’m certain it will land on the grass in one piece.  The gardener will pick it up in the morning.”

He pushed away from the wall and walked over.  He reached for the glass as if he might toss it for her, but she yanked it away.

“If you pitch it,” she scolded, “I’ll have to drink directly from the decanter, which might lead you to assume I have no manners.”

“You’ve already downed two servings.  Can you handle a third?”

“Were you spying on me?”

“Absolutely.  Are you a secret drinker?” he asked as he pulled out the chair across and eased down.

“No, I’m not a secret drinker.  I’m very, very open about it.”

“Really?  How shocking.”

“Isn’t it though?”

“What if people judge you to be a brazen hussy because of it?”

“They’ve always judged me to be brazen, so I stopped fretting over others’ opinions long ago.”

“Long ago?  How old are you?  Eighty?  Ninety?”

“Ninety-one.”

He snorted with what might have been amusement.

“Who was the idiot?” he inquired.

“What?”

“I heard you talking to yourself.”

“How rude of you to listen.”

“You said you’d never forgive someone for being such an idiot.  Who was the idiot?”

“My father.”

“What did he do that was so awful?”

“He died.”

“Oh.  You blame him?”

“Yes.”

“Why?  Was he complicit?”

“Sort of.”

“So that’s why he’s an idiot?”

“There were many reasons.  It’s hard to pick just one.”

He took the decanter and filled the glass again, but he slipped it from her hand into his own, and he savored his own drink.

She blatantly studied him.  He was a large man, broad-shouldered and muscular.  He was very handsome in a way she enjoyed, with a classical face:  high forehead, straight nose, stark cheekbones.  He had black hair, and she thought his eyes were blue, but it was difficult to tell in the dark.  His skin seemed to be tanned from outdoor endeavor, and she wondered what type of life he led.

According to her brother, the male guests were to be a group of lazy, spoiled aristocrats, the very kind Michael relished but she couldn’t abide, but this fellow didn’t fit the mold Michael had described.

He was reveling in her heightened scrutiny, as if he liked being the center of attention.  He kicked back the whiskey in a quick gulp, then wrinkled his nose and shivered dramatically.

“That was horrid,” he said.

“I’ve had worse, but I’ve had better.”

“I’ll have to demand that the servants be flogged over it.”

“Why?  Because you don’t like the liquor?”

“No, because they were instructed to serve only the best for Wesley’s party.  I specifically heard him fussing about it.”

“I haven’t met Mr. Grey,” she said.  “Would he flog the servants?”

“No.  He’s a nervous, jumpy child, but he’s considerate too, particularly to underlings.  He would never resort to violence, no matter how vile the transgression.”

“Will I like him?”

“Probably not.”

“Why won’t I?”

“I’m guessing you like a manly man.”

“You’d guess wrong.”

“Why is that?”

“I’ve had a life packed with manly men.  They exhaust me.”

He barked out a laugh, his voice sounding rusty, as if it had been ages since he’d found humor in any topic.

“You like immature boys instead?” he asked.

“No, I don’t like anyone.”

“I’m betting you’ll like me.  I’ve always been told I’m marvelous.  It’s made me impossibly vain.”

It was her turn to laugh.  “You’re confident, I’ll say that for you.”

“Confident and vain, that’s me.”  He poured himself another libation and swallowed it down.  “Are you a guest?”

“Why inquire?  Are you afraid I’m a housemaid who’s pilfering the liquor?”

“No offense, Miss, but Wesley assured me I would find trollops to fulfill my every desire.  I’d hate to learn my every desire won’t be fulfilled.”

“I’m positive there will be plenty of trollops to tickle your fancy.  You won’t have to rely on me for your entertainment.”

“I hope you’re not typical of the females Wesley invited.  You don’t exactly look like a strumpet.”

“I’ll take that as a compliment, and for your information, I’m not a housemaid either and I’m not pilfering the liquor.  We traveled all day, and I was too lazy to change my clothes after we arrived.”

“And too eager to sample the whiskey?”

“Yes.”

“When you eventually don a more becoming outfit, will I be impressed?”

“I’m certain you will be.”

“I like to see lots of bare flesh on a woman.”

“Don’t all men?”

He chuckled at that.  “Don’t come downstairs again dressed like a frumpy governess.”

“I wouldn’t dream of it.  I will select my most glamorous gown so I can entice you over the breakfast table.”

“You’d better.”

He clasped her hand in his, his thumb stroking the center of her palm.  To her surprise, a thrilling frisson of sensation swept up her arm, so she’d have to be careful around him.

She tried to draw away, and for just a moment he refused to release his grip, but she won their brief tug of war.  He grinned, likely viewing the encounter as their first tentative steps in a flirtation.

She didn’t mind flirting, and she definitely knew how, but her world was awash with scapegraces, and she could spot one a mile away.  Early on, she’d learned to be cautious.  She had a curvaceous figure, coupled with big blue eyes and a glorious head of auburn hair.  Men looked at her and instantly wanted her.

“What’s your name, darling?” he asked.

“I won’t admit to being your darling, but I will admit to being Miss Fenwick.”

“Miss Fenwick, is it?  We don’t have to be formal.  Wesley promised me this entire affair will be raucously amusing, but how will it be if I have to be overly polite when addressing you?”

“You’ve spent an awful lot of time discussing the party with Mr. Grey.  Are the two of you close?”

“Are we…close?”  He debated, then scoffed.  “We’re not close, but we are brothers.”

She frowned.  “You’re brothers?  But that would mean you’re…you’re…”

“Yes, I’m Benjamin Grey.  Welcome to my home.”

Annabel gaped at him.  Michael had never met Benjamin Grey, so he’d only heard stories from Wesley who’d described his older brother as an ogre and a fiend.  She’d been expecting an aged, pompous blowhard.

Obviously, Wesley was blind.  Or maybe he was simply jealous over Benjamin being such a remarkable male specimen.  He was virile and masculine in ways that might have left her breathless if she’d been more naïve and unsophisticated.  What would it be like to constantly bump up against all that charm and magnetic appeal?  She grew weary just from thinking about how difficult it would be to deflect all that allure.

“Thank you for inviting me,” she wanly replied.

“Wesley went to all this trouble on my behalf.  Will I wind up being glad he did?”

“I have no idea.  Do you like to gamble and gambol and chase after loose doxies?”

“I’m not crazy about the gambling or gamboling, but I enjoy a pretty girl—especially a loose one.”

“Then I’m sure you’ll be wildly happy with what he’s planned.”

“Will you be included on the menu?”

“Sorry, but no.”

“Why not?”

“I’m taken,” she claimed, abruptly delighted that her brother had insisted she pretend to be his mistress.

Since the fete was put together to celebrate the end of Benjamin Grey’s bachelorhood, every woman present would be required to obey his every command.

Suddenly, she was wondering if she should stay for the party.  She would hate to get into a dicey situation with him where he might demand she provide more entertainment than she was comfortable providing.

She and Michael had a widowed sister, Lydia Boswell, who was living nearby with her ten-year-old son, Harry.  Annabel hadn’t seen her nephew in months, and he was her favorite person in the world—after her brother and father.  Perhaps she should chuck the whole notion of helping Michael and visit Lydia and Harry instead.

But as she considered the prospect, she realized it wasn’t tempting in the least.  Harry would be away at school, so there was no reason to call on Lydia.

She, Michael, and Annabel had the same father, Cecil, who’d been a rutting dog, but they all had different mothers.  She and Michael were very much alike, but Lydia was their complete opposite.

She was grumpy and nervous and cranky, and Annabel and Michael couldn’t abide her.  Nor would she welcome Annabel as a guest.  She survived on her father-in-law’s dubious charity, and he’d declared that Annabel not be allowed on the premises.

Annabel’s only other option was to head to London to the small house she and Michael were renting there, but with Michael in the country it would be too depressing.  So she’d remain at Grey Manor, but she’d be wary around Benjamin Grey.  He’d been in the army for a decade, so hopefully he’d acquired some manners.

“Who has taken you?” he asked.

“My dear friend, Michael Boswell.”  Michael was using the fake surname, having temporarily stolen it from Lydia and deeming it a huge jest that would thoroughly incense her if she ever discovered it.

“Would this be the gambler I’ve heard Wesley mention recently?”

“Michael gambles, yes.”

The admission had him caustically staring in a way that was extremely disconcerting.

“Why are you looking at me like that?” she asked.

“Once a few legal proceedings are concluded, I will be very rich, and my brother will coast along on my wealthy coattails.  Pardon me if I’m cautious about new acquaintances appearing in my circle.  My brother isn’t the best judge of character.”

“And Michael is a scoundrel.”

“Is he?”

“Oh, yes.”

“I’ll have to keep an eye on him.”

“There’s no need,” she breezily said.  “He wagers too much, but other than that vice, I’ve found him to be harmless.”

“Have you?”

“Yes.”

“Have you much experience with rogues?”

“Vast experience.”

He refilled the glass with liquor and shoved it toward her.

“I’ve been hogging your whiskey,” he said.

“I’ve probably had enough.”

“You’re quitting after two drinks?”

“It’s occurred to me that I should have a clear head while I’m here.”

“You should have a clear head wherever you go.”

“Too true.”

She stood, eager to be away from him and his meticulous assessment.

“It was lovely chatting, Mr. Grey.”

“It’s Captain Grey.”

“Captain Grey,” she repeated.  “I thought you’d resigned from the army.”

“Not yet.”

“Well, goodnight, Captain.”

“Goodnight, Miss Fenwick.”

He was rudely slouched in his chair, his lazy gaze meandering down her torso and insolently lingering at several risqué spots he had no business scrutinizing.

His focus was so intimate and so acute that she wanted to cross her arms over her bosom, but she sensed that he was hoping to rattle her.  But he never could.  She was Cecil Fenwick’s daughter, and Captain Grey could never imagine what her twenty-four years had been like.

It would make any sane person despair over what sort of father Cecil had been.  Not much of a one, but at the same time, the greatest father ever.

Finally, he pushed himself up, and it took him forever to reach his full height.  He was very tall, six feet at least, and with her being only five-foot-five in her stockings, it was a chore to observe all of him.

There was a magnetic connection flaring, and it flustered her, which she hated.  She was never anxious or intimidated, but he seemed to be quite a bit more of a man than she’d ever previously encountered.

He stepped around the table so he was right next to her, and he leaned in so she could feel his leg pressed to her own.

“Are you trying to scare me, Captain?”

“Yes.  Have I?”

“You couldn’t possibly.”

“I’m delighted to hear it.  I can’t abide a trembling, delicate miss.  What’s your Christian name?” he asked.  “You never said.”

“No, I didn’t.”

He laid his palm on her waist, drawing her even nearer so the front of her body was touching his, her breasts brushing his chest in a shocking way.  Their magnetic connection grew even hotter, almost as if sparks were shooting between them.

“Tell me,” he murmured, “or I won’t let you leave.”

“Annabel.”

“Annabel Fenwick,” he mused.  “A pretty name for a very pretty girl.”

He pronounced it as if he was tasting it, as if he was savoring it.  A tickle swarmed through her belly.

“I’m not a girl.”

“No, you’re definitely not.”

“I haven’t been for a very long time.  Maybe I never was.”

“I’d say you’re all woman, Annabel.”

“You’ve bullied me into revealing my identity.  Are you happy now?”

“I’m never happy,” he strangely confided.

“May I go?”

“Must you?”

“I’m thinking I should.”

“What if I asked you not to?”

“I wouldn’t listen.”

She jerked away, having to yank herself free from his alluring pull.  She felt as if he’d bewitched her, as if there was magic at play that she didn’t understand.

She hurried over to the door, and he called, “Annabel?”

She glanced back.  “Yes.”

“I’ll see you in the morning.”

It sounded like a threat—and a promise of delectable things to come.

“I’ll be here,” she said.

“Do you ride?”

“Probably better than you,” she saucily retorted, and she could have kicked herself.

Flirting?  With Benjamin Grey?  Was she mad?

Yes, very likely.

She raced inside and fled up the stairs.

+ Watch the Video
+ Reviews
“I liked this story.  I’m glad that Caleb is alive and boy is he a pistol.   I loved Annabel and what we got to see was that underneath it all she was really a sof- hearted woman who just wanted to be loved and respected.  Her brother Michael was something else but for all of his dissolute ways he really did love his sister and he wanted her to be happy.  Lydia, I don’t think she’s as crazy as they think she is.  Oh I think the death of her baby probably unhinged her a bit but I think underneath it all is a cold calculating woman.  Benjamin’s mother, I wanted to knock her one because she didn’t care if that little boy was really Caleb Grey, she just wanted him gone so that Benjamin would inherit the earldom. I can’t wait to see where you take us next.” ~ Susan
+ Sample Chapter

CHAPTER ONE

“This will be a piece of cake.”

“You always say that, but it’s never true.”

Annabel Fenwick glared at her brother, Michael, wishing she could cow or shame him.  But he was the worst scoundrel in the world, and it was impossible to make him feel guilty about anything.

He was also the most confident person she’d ever met, except for her poor, deceased father.  He’d constantly been certain he was right, that the odds would fall in his favor.  Generally, he’d been correct, so it had been difficult to persuade him to behave sensibly or proceed with caution.

Michael was possessed of all their father’s dishonest traits.  He blustered through life, gambling, cheating, lying, and winning, and because he was so handsome and charming, he was never called to account for any of his schemes or scams.

Women in particular were susceptible to his dubious allure.  He’d broken hearts across the kingdom, and no matter how egregiously he comported himself, he always landed on his feet.

She wished she was strong enough or prudent enough to detest him for his wicked ways, but she was as enchanted by him as everybody else.  She was actually quite jealous of him too.

Since he was a male, he could engage in any depraved adventure, and no one cared if he was stupidly reckless.  It was almost expected that a young man of twenty-two would sow some wild oats.

The same tendencies flowed in her own veins.  She relished having the chance to flaunt herself, to be rash and outrageous, but because she was a female—and a very old twenty-four at that—she had to continually tamp down her worst urges.

“Why must I pretend to be your mistress?” she complained.

He grinned.  “It seems awfully incestuous, doesn’t it?”

“For goodness sake, I’m your sister.”

“Half-sister, Annabel.”

“Fine, your half-sister.  Why can’t we just admit it?”

“Because all the other men are bringing trollops.  If I’m here with my sister—when others have a paramour—how will that look?”

“It will look as if we’re siblings.”

“No, it will look as if I can’t get a girl of my own.”

“You can’t.  Not one you could support anyway.”

He usually had money, but never in an amount sufficient to pay for any extravagant expenses.

“It’s for your benefit too,” he claimed.  “The ruse will protect you.”

“How?”

“If I announce you’re not my mistress, you’ll be viewed as being free and loose with your favors.  It’s a bachelor party—where men will drink and revel and forget they’re decent, upstanding citizens.  Any depravity will be encouraged and allowed.”

She scowled.  “How horrid will it be?  Will they be stripping off their clothes and strutting about naked?”

He shrugged.  “I have no idea, but you should be prepared to witness many foul deeds.”

“Wonderful,” she sarcastically muttered.  “Does this mean we’re sharing this bedchamber?”

“Yes.”

“Must I stay the entire two weeks?”

“We’ll see how much progress I make with Wesley.  I’ll let you know in a few days.”

Wesley Grey was Michael’s new and naïve friend who was too immature to recognize the danger of fraternizing with a rascal like Michael.  Wesley was from a very wealthy and top-lofty family, and his brother, Benjamin Grey, was about to be an earl.  They and their acquaintances were exactly the type of wealthy snobs Michael loved to fleece.

Benjamin Grey—along with his becoming an earl—was about to wed, and Wesley had arranged the extended bacchanal to celebrate the event.

Michael was the first guest Wesley had invited, then Michael had asked Annabel to accompany him.

She should have refused, but she’d have been bored in London without Michael there, so she’d agreed.  And she wasn’t upset by Michael’s description of how unruly the festivities might be.  Considering how she’d been reared, she was hardly a shrinking violet.

Her father, Cecil, had been a libertine and amoral rogue.  Her childhood had been a lengthy slog of disasters:  fleeing creditors, evading angry fathers, hiding from jilted fiancées.

There had even been stints where they’d been locked in debtor’s prison with him, but what there had never been was a single moment of calm or respectable living.  So there was no incident her brother could devise that would shock or offend her.

During the party, she would fill the role for her brother that she’d often filled for her father.  She would distract the men at cards so Michael could cheat more successfully.  She would also flirt and chat to learn personal information Michael could use later to his benefit.

It was a dreadful way to carry on, but she’d never proceeded in a different fashion.  As her father had always counseled, rich sods could afford to lose a few pounds.  Was it her fault if they were gullible and didn’t pay attention to their money?

“I might need one extra thing from you,” Michael said.

“What is it?”

“It would really help if…ah…you’d seduce Wesley for me.”

“No.”

“Please?”

“No, Michael.”

“But if he grew smitten, it would bring us many boons.  I’m sure of it.”

“I will not disgrace myself with some bumbling oaf.  You’re aware of my feelings in the matter.”

“It doesn’t hurt to ask.  You might change your mind someday.  You’re much too flamboyant to be a spinster.”

“I will never succumb to a man’s advances.  Not even with you begging me.  You know my opinion.  They’re all fools.”

“I’m not.” he huffed.

“Yes, you are.  You’re the biggest fool of all.”  To take the sting out of her words, she kissed him on the cheek.  “I love you though.  Flaws and all.  Your problem is that you’re too much like Father.  Every time I look at you, I think of him.  It makes me happy.”

She went over to the door, and he scowled.  “Where are you off to?”

“I’m eager to raid Mr. Grey’s liquor cabinet.”

They were at Grey Manor, Benjamin Grey’s country house where Wesley was hosting his brother’s party.

It was late in the evening and apparently they were the first to arrive.  The mansion was quiet, and there was as yet no merrymaking.  The butler had escorted them to their bedroom suite, and from the quick glimpses she’d gotten as she’d walked down the endless halls, the place was a virtual palace, which delighted her very much.

She enjoyed fancy houses and fancy parties.  High living was in her blood, with her mother having been an earl’s daughter.  Of course, when she’d run off with Annabel’s disreputable father, she’d been promptly disowned and disinherited.  Nevertheless, Annabel felt a huge kinship with the long-deceased woman.

She liked finery.  She liked beautiful clothes and delicious food and perfect manners and all the other aspects of the world that would have been her own if her father hadn’t been quite so charming and her mother quite so silly.

Wesley Grey was providing two luscious weeks in the grand residence.  Perhaps she would bite the bullet and force herself to stay for the entire celebration.

“Are you going down dressed like that?” Michael asked.

“Yes, I’m going just like this.”

She had a trunk full of exotic, stunning gowns that would make her appear rich and glamorous, but at the moment she was conservatively attired in a grey dress with white collar and cuffs, buttoned up from chin to toe.

“But I need you to play your part every second,” Michael protested.

“I’ll start playing tomorrow.  Right now, I simply want a whiskey.”

“What if someone sees you?  You could be a nanny or a schoolteacher.  They’ll never believe you’re a doxy.”

“I’m not a doxy, so stop wishing I was.  And there’s no one downstairs.”

“You can’t predict who might be lurking.”

“I’ll show plenty of cleavage in the morning, Michael.  Don’t nag.”

She exited into the hall and closed the door behind her.  She stood for a minute, listening for footsteps or voices, but it was silent as a tomb.  She tiptoed down to the main floor, snooping in a parlor that offered a promising array of liquor choices.

She grabbed a decanter and a glass, then strolled out to the verandah.  She leaned against the balustrade and stared across the park.  The moon was up, and she studied the groomed gardens, the trails winding through the grass.  There was a lake some distance away, and she wondered if there would be a gazebo on the shore.

She thought about traipsing out to check, but decided she shouldn’t wander in the dark.  It would be just her luck to get lost.  Instead, she sat down at a patio table and pulled the cork from the decanter.  She filled her glass to the rim, sighing with pleasure as she took a hefty gulp.

It was in the quietest hours of the night that she missed her father the most.  He’d been an unreliable scoundrel and an awful parent.  But he’d also been smart and kind, funny and loyal, and she’d cherished every wicked day she’d passed in his company.

How was she to cope without him?  It had been six months since he’d been shot dead in a pointless duel.  Would her grief ever begin to fade?

Because he’d been so decadent and corrupt, he’d never demanded she exhibit decent feminine behavior.  Her mother had died birthing her, so any female influence had been supplied by his trollops, and they’d had the same debauched view of life as Cecil.

She’d also been surrounded by the gamblers and wastrels he’d called his friends.  She’d watched them cheat on their wives, sire bastard children, wager away their family’s homes and fortunes.  She didn’t like or trust most people, and with her father gone, she had no idea how to set herself on a different path.

The notion of adopting a placid, ordinary existence was completely beyond her ability to imagine.  She was Cecil Fenwick’s gorgeous, ostentatious daughter, and there was very little about her that rendered her suitable for any normal enterprise Polite Society would deem acceptable.

She refilled her whiskey and toasted the heavens.  “I’ll never forgive you for being such an idiot.”

It was what she told him every night.  Fighting over a woman!  Dueling to the death!  The men who’d been present insisted it had been an accidental killing, that his nemesis hadn’t meant to murder him, but intentional or not, he was still just as dead.  And she was still just as alone.

She chugged down the contents of her glass, then placed it on the table with a determined thud.

“You can throw it if you want,” a man said from behind her.  “You look like it would make you feel better.”

She glanced over her shoulder, but he was in the shadows so she couldn’t discern any relevant details.

“I don’t need to throw it,” she replied, though she’d definitely like to.

“If you’re worried about breaking it, I’m certain it will land on the grass in one piece.  The gardener will pick it up in the morning.”

He pushed away from the wall and walked over.  He reached for the glass as if he might toss it for her, but she yanked it away.

“If you pitch it,” she scolded, “I’ll have to drink directly from the decanter, which might lead you to assume I have no manners.”

“You’ve already downed two servings.  Can you handle a third?”

“Were you spying on me?”

“Absolutely.  Are you a secret drinker?” he asked as he pulled out the chair across and eased down.

“No, I’m not a secret drinker.  I’m very, very open about it.”

“Really?  How shocking.”

“Isn’t it though?”

“What if people judge you to be a brazen hussy because of it?”

“They’ve always judged me to be brazen, so I stopped fretting over others’ opinions long ago.”

“Long ago?  How old are you?  Eighty?  Ninety?”

“Ninety-one.”

He snorted with what might have been amusement.

“Who was the idiot?” he inquired.

“What?”

“I heard you talking to yourself.”

“How rude of you to listen.”

“You said you’d never forgive someone for being such an idiot.  Who was the idiot?”

“My father.”

“What did he do that was so awful?”

“He died.”

“Oh.  You blame him?”

“Yes.”

“Why?  Was he complicit?”

“Sort of.”

“So that’s why he’s an idiot?”

“There were many reasons.  It’s hard to pick just one.”

He took the decanter and filled the glass again, but he slipped it from her hand into his own, and he savored his own drink.

She blatantly studied him.  He was a large man, broad-shouldered and muscular.  He was very handsome in a way she enjoyed, with a classical face:  high forehead, straight nose, stark cheekbones.  He had black hair, and she thought his eyes were blue, but it was difficult to tell in the dark.  His skin seemed to be tanned from outdoor endeavor, and she wondered what type of life he led.

According to her brother, the male guests were to be a group of lazy, spoiled aristocrats, the very kind Michael relished but she couldn’t abide, but this fellow didn’t fit the mold Michael had described.

He was reveling in her heightened scrutiny, as if he liked being the center of attention.  He kicked back the whiskey in a quick gulp, then wrinkled his nose and shivered dramatically.

“That was horrid,” he said.

“I’ve had worse, but I’ve had better.”

“I’ll have to demand that the servants be flogged over it.”

“Why?  Because you don’t like the liquor?”

“No, because they were instructed to serve only the best for Wesley’s party.  I specifically heard him fussing about it.”

“I haven’t met Mr. Grey,” she said.  “Would he flog the servants?”

“No.  He’s a nervous, jumpy child, but he’s considerate too, particularly to underlings.  He would never resort to violence, no matter how vile the transgression.”

“Will I like him?”

“Probably not.”

“Why won’t I?”

“I’m guessing you like a manly man.”

“You’d guess wrong.”

“Why is that?”

“I’ve had a life packed with manly men.  They exhaust me.”

He barked out a laugh, his voice sounding rusty, as if it had been ages since he’d found humor in any topic.

“You like immature boys instead?” he asked.

“No, I don’t like anyone.”

“I’m betting you’ll like me.  I’ve always been told I’m marvelous.  It’s made me impossibly vain.”

It was her turn to laugh.  “You’re confident, I’ll say that for you.”

“Confident and vain, that’s me.”  He poured himself another libation and swallowed it down.  “Are you a guest?”

“Why inquire?  Are you afraid I’m a housemaid who’s pilfering the liquor?”

“No offense, Miss, but Wesley assured me I would find trollops to fulfill my every desire.  I’d hate to learn my every desire won’t be fulfilled.”

“I’m positive there will be plenty of trollops to tickle your fancy.  You won’t have to rely on me for your entertainment.”

“I hope you’re not typical of the females Wesley invited.  You don’t exactly look like a strumpet.”

“I’ll take that as a compliment, and for your information, I’m not a housemaid either and I’m not pilfering the liquor.  We traveled all day, and I was too lazy to change my clothes after we arrived.”

“And too eager to sample the whiskey?”

“Yes.”

“When you eventually don a more becoming outfit, will I be impressed?”

“I’m certain you will be.”

“I like to see lots of bare flesh on a woman.”

“Don’t all men?”

He chuckled at that.  “Don’t come downstairs again dressed like a frumpy governess.”

“I wouldn’t dream of it.  I will select my most glamorous gown so I can entice you over the breakfast table.”

“You’d better.”

He clasped her hand in his, his thumb stroking the center of her palm.  To her surprise, a thrilling frisson of sensation swept up her arm, so she’d have to be careful around him.

She tried to draw away, and for just a moment he refused to release his grip, but she won their brief tug of war.  He grinned, likely viewing the encounter as their first tentative steps in a flirtation.

She didn’t mind flirting, and she definitely knew how, but her world was awash with scapegraces, and she could spot one a mile away.  Early on, she’d learned to be cautious.  She had a curvaceous figure, coupled with big blue eyes and a glorious head of auburn hair.  Men looked at her and instantly wanted her.

“What’s your name, darling?” he asked.

“I won’t admit to being your darling, but I will admit to being Miss Fenwick.”

“Miss Fenwick, is it?  We don’t have to be formal.  Wesley promised me this entire affair will be raucously amusing, but how will it be if I have to be overly polite when addressing you?”

“You’ve spent an awful lot of time discussing the party with Mr. Grey.  Are the two of you close?”

“Are we…close?”  He debated, then scoffed.  “We’re not close, but we are brothers.”

She frowned.  “You’re brothers?  But that would mean you’re…you’re…”

“Yes, I’m Benjamin Grey.  Welcome to my home.”

Annabel gaped at him.  Michael had never met Benjamin Grey, so he’d only heard stories from Wesley who’d described his older brother as an ogre and a fiend.  She’d been expecting an aged, pompous blowhard.

Obviously, Wesley was blind.  Or maybe he was simply jealous over Benjamin being such a remarkable male specimen.  He was virile and masculine in ways that might have left her breathless if she’d been more naïve and unsophisticated.  What would it be like to constantly bump up against all that charm and magnetic appeal?  She grew weary just from thinking about how difficult it would be to deflect all that allure.

“Thank you for inviting me,” she wanly replied.

“Wesley went to all this trouble on my behalf.  Will I wind up being glad he did?”

“I have no idea.  Do you like to gamble and gambol and chase after loose doxies?”

“I’m not crazy about the gambling or gamboling, but I enjoy a pretty girl—especially a loose one.”

“Then I’m sure you’ll be wildly happy with what he’s planned.”

“Will you be included on the menu?”

“Sorry, but no.”

“Why not?”

“I’m taken,” she claimed, abruptly delighted that her brother had insisted she pretend to be his mistress.

Since the fete was put together to celebrate the end of Benjamin Grey’s bachelorhood, every woman present would be required to obey his every command.

Suddenly, she was wondering if she should stay for the party.  She would hate to get into a dicey situation with him where he might demand she provide more entertainment than she was comfortable providing.

She and Michael had a widowed sister, Lydia Boswell, who was living nearby with her ten-year-old son, Harry.  Annabel hadn’t seen her nephew in months, and he was her favorite person in the world—after her brother and father.  Perhaps she should chuck the whole notion of helping Michael and visit Lydia and Harry instead.

But as she considered the prospect, she realized it wasn’t tempting in the least.  Harry would be away at school, so there was no reason to call on Lydia.

She, Michael, and Annabel had the same father, Cecil, who’d been a rutting dog, but they all had different mothers.  She and Michael were very much alike, but Lydia was their complete opposite.

She was grumpy and nervous and cranky, and Annabel and Michael couldn’t abide her.  Nor would she welcome Annabel as a guest.  She survived on her father-in-law’s dubious charity, and he’d declared that Annabel not be allowed on the premises.

Annabel’s only other option was to head to London to the small house she and Michael were renting there, but with Michael in the country it would be too depressing.  So she’d remain at Grey Manor, but she’d be wary around Benjamin Grey.  He’d been in the army for a decade, so hopefully he’d acquired some manners.

“Who has taken you?” he asked.

“My dear friend, Michael Boswell.”  Michael was using the fake surname, having temporarily stolen it from Lydia and deeming it a huge jest that would thoroughly incense her if she ever discovered it.

“Would this be the gambler I’ve heard Wesley mention recently?”

“Michael gambles, yes.”

The admission had him caustically staring in a way that was extremely disconcerting.

“Why are you looking at me like that?” she asked.

“Once a few legal proceedings are concluded, I will be very rich, and my brother will coast along on my wealthy coattails.  Pardon me if I’m cautious about new acquaintances appearing in my circle.  My brother isn’t the best judge of character.”

“And Michael is a scoundrel.”

“Is he?”

“Oh, yes.”

“I’ll have to keep an eye on him.”

“There’s no need,” she breezily said.  “He wagers too much, but other than that vice, I’ve found him to be harmless.”

“Have you?”

“Yes.”

“Have you much experience with rogues?”

“Vast experience.”

He refilled the glass with liquor and shoved it toward her.

“I’ve been hogging your whiskey,” he said.

“I’ve probably had enough.”

“You’re quitting after two drinks?”

“It’s occurred to me that I should have a clear head while I’m here.”

“You should have a clear head wherever you go.”

“Too true.”

She stood, eager to be away from him and his meticulous assessment.

“It was lovely chatting, Mr. Grey.”

“It’s Captain Grey.”

“Captain Grey,” she repeated.  “I thought you’d resigned from the army.”

“Not yet.”

“Well, goodnight, Captain.”

“Goodnight, Miss Fenwick.”

He was rudely slouched in his chair, his lazy gaze meandering down her torso and insolently lingering at several risqué spots he had no business scrutinizing.

His focus was so intimate and so acute that she wanted to cross her arms over her bosom, but she sensed that he was hoping to rattle her.  But he never could.  She was Cecil Fenwick’s daughter, and Captain Grey could never imagine what her twenty-four years had been like.

It would make any sane person despair over what sort of father Cecil had been.  Not much of a one, but at the same time, the greatest father ever.

Finally, he pushed himself up, and it took him forever to reach his full height.  He was very tall, six feet at least, and with her being only five-foot-five in her stockings, it was a chore to observe all of him.

There was a magnetic connection flaring, and it flustered her, which she hated.  She was never anxious or intimidated, but he seemed to be quite a bit more of a man than she’d ever previously encountered.

He stepped around the table so he was right next to her, and he leaned in so she could feel his leg pressed to her own.

“Are you trying to scare me, Captain?”

“Yes.  Have I?”

“You couldn’t possibly.”

“I’m delighted to hear it.  I can’t abide a trembling, delicate miss.  What’s your Christian name?” he asked.  “You never said.”

“No, I didn’t.”

He laid his palm on her waist, drawing her even nearer so the front of her body was touching his, her breasts brushing his chest in a shocking way.  Their magnetic connection grew even hotter, almost as if sparks were shooting between them.

“Tell me,” he murmured, “or I won’t let you leave.”

“Annabel.”

“Annabel Fenwick,” he mused.  “A pretty name for a very pretty girl.”

He pronounced it as if he was tasting it, as if he was savoring it.  A tickle swarmed through her belly.

“I’m not a girl.”

“No, you’re definitely not.”

“I haven’t been for a very long time.  Maybe I never was.”

“I’d say you’re all woman, Annabel.”

“You’ve bullied me into revealing my identity.  Are you happy now?”

“I’m never happy,” he strangely confided.

“May I go?”

“Must you?”

“I’m thinking I should.”

“What if I asked you not to?”

“I wouldn’t listen.”

She jerked away, having to yank herself free from his alluring pull.  She felt as if he’d bewitched her, as if there was magic at play that she didn’t understand.

She hurried over to the door, and he called, “Annabel?”

She glanced back.  “Yes.”

“I’ll see you in the morning.”

It sounded like a threat—and a promise of delectable things to come.

“I’ll be here,” she said.

“Do you ride?”

“Probably better than you,” she saucily retorted, and she could have kicked herself.

Flirting?  With Benjamin Grey?  Was she mad?

Yes, very likely.

She raced inside and fled up the stairs.