. . .five golden rings. . .
. . .five golden rings. . .
Kathy L Wheeler
Bartholomew Dixon, Viscount Weston, future Earl of Hartley, leaned a shoulder against the wall, one ankle crossing the other. Hand in his pocket, he fingered the four golden rings he’d already garnered by way of seduction. All he required was the fifth to win the bloody asinine wager one of the leaping lords of Boodles had challenged him to. Victory was but a hairsbreadth away.
He glanced about the elaborately decorated hall with its myriad candles and greenery that covered every post, archway, and tabletop, searching out his final quarry. Lady Evelyn Powell. It shouldn’t be difficult. Her flaxen hair would be piled high, and those cool blue eyes would flash their mocking humor. But cared naught, all he required was the ring.
Evelyn was a lovely enough widow. Though he knew she was uninterested, he was in need of a mistress and she was the perfect solution. The perfect solution in keeping his wayward thoughts from a certain Swann God seemed fit to punish him with since he'd set eyes on her at her come-out last season.
He preferred experience, not innocence. Evelyn was not so young as to speak only about the weather and current fashions. Lord Powell was rumored to have been somewhat less than skillful in the bedchamber, and Bartholomew could offer her satisfaction in that area.
Unfortunately, it was Philipa Swann's enticing purity that kept him awake at night. Had him tempted to throw aside all caution to make her his. The noose about his neck tightened when he thought of wedding and bedding that bewitching chit. Because a wedding is what it would take to bed her. He was not ready to make that leap.
Evelyn's ice cold demeanor, she wore a coat of armor, was but a small hurdle. One little kiss as he took possession of the fifth golden ring might change her mind in taking him for a lover. The ring would satisfy the terms of that blasted wager. He scowled. One he’d had no business making in that inebriated state two weeks past. By acquiring five golden rings and escaping the confines of marriage he would become two hundred pounds richer by midnight this Christmas night.
Not surprisingly, it had taken less than ten days to collect the first four rings. He’d called on each of the previous four birds separately, spent an hour or thereabouts charming her. A few caresses later—sometimes more—brought him one ring closer to his goal. But it was that fifth ring that remained so elusive, trumping up the idea in dashing off a missive to Lady Powell flat out requesting it.
Her response returned quickly enough.
My dearest Bartie, Whatever have you gotten yourself into now? But of course you are welcome to my golden ring. I have no use for it. But as I am leaving for Pemberton Manor, in moments, actually, I shall just bring it along. Their annual Christmas Ball, you know. Surely, you’ve been invited. Not to worry, my friend.
I remain forever, your devoted friend,
“I say, Weston, what are you about? Practically hiding behind the potted trees, are you?” Lord Griffith was more bumbling than the rogue he’d been since their days at Cambridge, his large frame having already morphed into a rounded middle. A bushy mustache compensated for the receding hairline. Lady Griffith’s early demise left Griffith without an heir and his friend in dire need of a new wife.
Bartholomew covered his shudder with a smirk. “I’m just awaiting my prey. Sooner or later all the ladies must make their way to the retiring room.”
“Ah, you expect Lady Powell will just hand over the fifth golden ring?”
“That’s exactly what he expects,” Nathaniel Huntington, Duke of Hastings said, walking up. “Have you spotted the merry widow yet, Weston? You’ve only another two hours to fulfill the terms of your bet, you know.”
“I caught a glimpse of her with the dowager Rowland, the old crow.” He scowled. “Her silver gown is quite fetching.”
“Egads,” Griffith said. “There is Cockswood. Bah, I knew him before he was titled and just John Henry Edward Swann, now he struts as though he owns the place with his seven ducklings in tow.”
Bartholomew chuckled even as something in his chest squeezed constricting the air to his lungs. The procession of light pastels meandering by was a fascinating sight. All seven chits were dressed in a veritable rainbow of soft shades except for Lady Theodosia. She was pushing the unseemly age of thirty, and permitted to wear a more becoming shade of forest green. As the eldest, she led the pack beside her father, the Earl of Cockswood.
The twins, dressed identically in pale rose, were the Ladies Georgette and Edwina. It was impossible to tell one from the other even close up. Each flanked another sister, whose name escaped him. And yet another trio of Swanns followed just behind. One looked as if trouble were her middle name and still belonged in the schoolroom. Catherine, he thought. The girl was known as a hoyden, though she’d dressed up to snuff this eve in a modest lavender. Charlotte looked a gentle soul. Too sweet for the likes of him, however, with that expression that appeared so awed by her surroundings. But for his cynical nature he thought he detected a hidden depth of pluck.
But then his eyes settled on Lady Philipa, along with the familiar rush of longing. He savored the sight as she stood between her two younger sisters. His glance slid over her lithe form. Bartholomew straightened from the wall and pulled his hand from his pocket. Silvery blond locks arranged in an elaborately high coif framed a pert nose and slightly pointed chin. She had a stubborn air about her that did not spell ladylike compliance. She would keep a man on his toes or he would pay a hefty price. A challenge he planned on taking up once he'd taken care of this blasted wager business.
Her gown, though still considered pastel in its soft blue, shimmered like spun silk. Hell, it probably was spun silk. With each step she took the color seemed to shift from blue to gray, almost silver, in the glow of candlelight. He frowned at the daringly low cut that showed a creamy bosom that beckoned him.
A wave of disgust went through him at the onslaught of lust firing his blood, and he said somewhat harshly, “Mind you don’t get caught alone with one. It’s no secret Cockswood is set to rid himself of that flock. Every one of those seven Swanns is a potential trap.”
Hastings shook his head in mock sympathy. “And, not a single male in the bunch.”
A sudden need for air attacked Bartholomew. “Excuse me gentlemen, whilst I locate Lady Powell. She has the one thing I require this eve,” he muttered.
“Quit gawking, Lottie. You act as if you’d never set foot in a ballroom before.” Lady Philipa Swann was sandwiched between her sisters, Catherine and Charlotte, the two closest to her in age. She brushed fingers over another boring blue-hued gown. She abhorred the light colors. Marriage was tempting if only to allow one to don more flattering colors.
“For heaven’s sake, Pippa,” Cat said. “You’re just angry because you’re sick of blue. Don’t take it out on poor Lottie. Besides you look lovely. The light on that silk makes it almost appear pewter.”
“That, of course, is so much better,” she returned. “What kind of name is pewter, besides?”
Eleanor, their next eldest sister, disengaged her arms from the twins, turned, and whispered from behind her fan, “Good heavens, was Papa aware of all the scoundrels invited to Pemberton’s this year?”
“Scoundrels?” Lottie squeaked. “Where?” Her breathless fascination was another worry entirely. Though Pippa had trouble believing in the wide-eyed innocence Lottie always managed to convey.
“Lower your voice, Lottie,” Pippa snapped.
“What on earth do you suppose the Pembertons were thinking?” Nora said. “Mind what Pippa says, Lottie.” A light shudder touched her shoulders.
“Perhaps Papa was in on the planning,” Pippa said to Nora. “He has seven daughters to mete out after all. I suppose he and Mama are quite worn out with the lot of us.”
“Don’t look now, but I do believe the Duke of Hastings has shifted his attention our way,” Cat whispered.
“The man is nearing forty if he’s a day,” Pippa said crossly. “I have no desire to marry an old man.”
“Forty!” Lottie exclaimed.
Cat had the nerve to giggle. “He’s thirty-six, you silly goose. Very attractive too,” she murmured.
Pippa rolled her eyes, though it was the one thing that peeved Papa beyond endurance. That, and tapping one’s slipper with any show of impatience.
“Philipa,” he barked.
“Sorry, Papa,” she said with the appropriate contriteness. Sometimes she thought he had eyes in the back of his head.
Unable to resist, Pippa glanced over her shoulder at the Duke of Hastings. She did not find the duke so attractive as the man beside him, whose firm lips held a trace of mockery.
She turned back to Nora.“Who is the duke’s friend?” Ha! She knew exactly who he was. Viscount Weston. It wouldn't do in letting her sisters know, however. She'd danced with him before. Once. Her lower back still burned with the imprint of his hand from her one allotted waltz. Or perhaps she was just a romanticizing, idealistic fool. His dark hair was pulled back at the nape, his eyes a stormy gray. They bore right through her. A shiver of stark awareness skittered down her spine.
“That’s Lord Griffith,” Nora said.
Before she could stop herself, Pippa’s eyes rose upward again. “Not him.” She looked quickly at Lottie. “Do not get trapped by Lord Griffith, Lottie. The man’s on the prowl for a new wife. And he cares little of her age, beauty, or health. Well, perhaps, health is taking it a step far. He needs an heir.”
Lottie nodded, wide-eyed.
Stifling the urge to roll her eyes again, Pippa turned back to Nora. “Well?”
“That’s Viscount Weston. He’s regularly banned from polite society.” It was Cat who answered softly. “He’s a rake of the worst sort. It’s said he seduced four golden rings from four different women in the past ten days. The wager supposedly requires five.”
Pippa gaped at her younger sister. “Good heavens, Cat, how came you to know such things? It’s most unladylike.” Pippa tapped her foot, thinking.
Her foot stilled. “Sorry, Papa.” She glanced back over her shoulder. The viscount was gone.
A solid hour of dancing, and not a single step with the notorious Weston, to Pippa's profound dismay. Her slippered feet were killing her to the point where she was forced to escape the watchful eyes of her six siblings and over protective sire. She snuck away to the retiring room located atop the stairs.
Blessed quiet met her as there was only one other occupant. Pippa recognized her as one of the French hens (known for their lovely fashion, not pastels). She was beautiful in her lovely silver gown and blond hair, similar in shade to Pippa’s own. She stood before the mirror staring intently at something in her hand.
“It’s quite stifling, is it not?” Pippa said, dropping down onto a luxurious settee. She slipped off her shoes and let out a rush of breath.
So lovely she was, Pippa noted from beneath her lashes. Her arranged hair resembled Pippa’s too, the difference only being the twinkling of articulately placed jewels.
She turned to Pippa. “It is indeed,” she said. “You are one of Lord Cockswood’s duck—daughters?”
Pippa narrowed her gaze at the near slip. “Yes, I’m Philipa.”
“I am Lady Powell. I am thrilled to make your acquaintance.”
“Likewise.” Pippa’s eyes were drawn to Lady Powell’s fingers that moved to and fro over on some small object she held.
A slight smiled hovered on Lady Powell’s lips. She looked from her hand back to Pippa.
Warmth infused Pippa’s cheeks to be caught staring so. “I’m sorry, Lady Powell,” she stammered.
A strange light came into her cool blue eyes that raised the hair at Pippa’s nape. “That’s quite all right, my dear.” She opened her hand, displaying a golden band.
Pippa swallowed and looked up at Lady Powell confused. “Your wedding band?” The fifth golden ring?
She lifted one shoulder. “At one time.” Lady Powell stared at her hand. “Do you wish to marry, Lady Philipa?”
“Well, yes, of course,” she answered slowly. A vision of Weston filled her muddled brain.
“I do believe this ring shall bring you wondrous luck.” She reached for Pippa’s hand and dropped the small gold band. She then closed Pippa’s fingers over it with her own. It was hot to the touch.
“I couldn’t possibly accept such a gift.” Pippa said, shocked.
“Of course, you can, my dear. As I said, I no longer need, nor want it.” And before Pippa could blink Lady Powell swept through the door and out of sight.
The crisp, chilled night air was just what Bartholomew required. He breathed in deep; reveled in the biting sting that helped settle the rush of lust that had blindsided him when he set eyes on Lady Philipa. She was a child! But, oh how he wanted her.
Beastly it was that Griffith happened to know each and every one of those seven Swanns by name, age, and prospect. Griffith's soul was as black as his own, and Bartholomew had to clench his fist to keep from planting it in his friend’s bulbous nose.
With renewed resolve, he vowed to get Evelyn’s gold ring, present all five to the ten leaping lords—as annoying a group of men as he’d ever known—collect his winnings and disappear before need overpowered common sense.
He took one last piercing breath and propelled his way back into the stuffy ballroom, carefully adhering to the shadows.
He scrutinized the crush of couples crowding the dance floor. He spotted several of the Swann siblings, not Philipa, before shifting his gaze to the French hens. Evelyn was absent, damn it. He’d missed her.
The retiring room was atop the staircase, and he edged his way that direction. The lighting was sparse, but then he saw her descending slowly. Grinning, he decided her inattentiveness would serve him nicely, indeed. He caught the glint of gold in her slender hand and heightened desire gripped him. The silver gown she wore shimmered like molten moonlight against a snow covered ground.
Something deep within tightened. He’d always thought her lovely, but enchanted? Yet, that was exactly his sentiment. He reached the foot of the stairs just as she did, and before she touched the last step, he wrapped her by the waist and had her ensconced within the nearest alcove.
Her quick gasp was muffled by his lips covering hers. He groaned. Evelyn was very tasty, the ideal anecdote for quenching his lust for Lady Philipa. Hot, damp heat enveloped him with sweetness a man could only dream. Though she’d been married for long on seven years, if memory served, her mouth felt untried. Her resistance was short-lived, and to his greatest relief, her arms twined about his neck, her body pressing into his.
Bartholomew traced plum-plumped lips with his tongue, and when she gasped in shock, he seized the advantage. His pulse raced with the unexpected vulnerability he sensed in her. Mayhap it was time he considered marriage and his own future lineage. In concerted effort, because that was what it took, he finally tore his mouth from hers.
Her forehead fell against his chest, her body heaving with rapid breaths. Soft scented lilacs assaulted his senses. She seemed more slight in build than he remembered, but he'd never held her this close. A sudden desperation for her surged through his blood. He was ready, he realized, for more than a quick tumble in the bedchamber. An unsettling predilection. “I wish to marry you,” he whispered.
She stilled. The heated air he’d felt against his chest stalled.
“Darling, you brought the ring?”
After a long harrowing pause, she nodded hesitantly. Her arms fell from his neck, and a sharp coolness replaced the warmth. Head down, she distanced herself from his embrace. His eyes fastened on the fisted fingers she raised. In agonizing slowness, she opened her hand. There, gleaming like fire, rested the fifth golden ring. He was now two hundred pounds richer.
“I suppose I shall have to marry you now,” she whispered, lifting her head.
And just like that, the money slipped from his grasp, but somehow it ceased to matter. He still wanted her. Forever.
Heat prickled his skin. Her voice sounded different—warm, trusting. He raised his gaze from her palm, meeting the shocked mien of—Lady Philipa Swann.
She couldn't be more shocked than him, Or thrilled. He lost himself in those blue eyes and pulled her back into his arms, a wild reckless grin consuming him. “Yes, I suppose you shall,” he whispered, and kissed her again.
Editor: Ally Roberts
Look for the sixth installment of My True Love Gave To Me tomorrow
...six geese a laying...
...six geese a laying...