One Night with an Earl
Book I, Daring Ladies Series
Ana Gardner is determined to lose her virginity before her thirtieth birthday. She’s no stranger to fake identities, having posed as a chaperone since the scandal that destroyed her titled family. So she dons a mask, changes into a low-cut red gown, and attends the city’s most elite brothel, the Silver Chalice.
Oliver Bedford, the imposing Earl of Drake, is only at the Silver Chalice to appease his debauched friends—until he spots Lady Scarlet. She’s refreshing...and a complete mystery. Certain she’s a lady in disguise, Oliver is determined to learn her identity, but she eludes him at every turn.
The night with Oliver was unforgettable. But when he arrives at her employer’s home, she’s horrified to discover her lover is the Earl of Drake, the son of the man responsible for her father’s death and subsequent family ruin. And that he’s there to court her young charge.
Oliver never had any interest in the debutante, but he is drawn to her chaperone—a woman he soon realizes is his Lady Scarlet. Now that he’s found her, she claims she wants nothing to do with him, even though her kisses say otherwise. Fortunately, Oliver is not one to give up when he finds something he wants...and he wants Ana. In his bed, and in his life. Forever. But first, he must persuade her to trust him—and to believe that one wild, passionate night can turn into forever.
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London, May 1817
Miss Ana Gardner was determined to lose her virginity that night.
And yet, as she stood outside one of the salons of the elite brothel, her courage threatened to fail her. Even though no one could possibly recognize her in the shockingly daring red gown and half mask, a tight knot formed in her stomach.
Could she do this? Could she spend a night with a strange man?
A rustle of silk reminded her she was not alone. “A woman must be in charge of her own pleasure.”
“How?” Ana’s heart beat wildly as she glanced at the woman beside her.
Madame Crescent owned the infamous establishment known as the Silver Chalice. A woman in her early fifties, she had a slender waist, fair hair, pale blue eyes, and few wrinkles. If Ana had met the madame at a ball or garden party, she would assume she was a titled lady or a rich merchant’s wife. She was still surprised the proprietress of sin had agreed to her proposition.
One night. One man of her choosing. No names.
“Confidence is as alluring as beauty. It will allow you to be in control,” Madame said.
Panic rioted within Ana. Confidence? Any second now, she’d turn and sprint for the front door.
She took a deep breath. She needed to distract herself. Taking a deep breath, she studied her surroundings.
The elegant salon could have been in any wealthy nobleman’s home. With mahogany furnishings, a pale gold-and-blue striped sofa, gilt mirrors, and blue velvet curtains, it was fashionably decorated.
But one had only to look closely to note differences.
A small marble statue on a dainty end table portrayed an amorous couple entwined in each other’s arms.
A painting above the fireplace exhibited a blonde woman reclining on a settee without a stitch of clothing except for her white silk stockings tied with red bows at her plump thighs. Her legs were sprawled across the arm of the settee, one hand covering a breast while the other shockingly rested between her legs. Her eyes were heavy-lidded with passion.
Ana wanted to experience that passion.
At twenty-nine years of age, she was not entirely ignorant of what occurred between the sexes. She’d overheard the servants’ gossip about their own amorous encounters at Malvern Manor, where Ana was employed as a chaperone to Lord and Lady Malvern’s daughter. Her position was little more than a step up from one of the servants.
A position that offered little hope of ever having an amorous encounter of her own.
Her circumstances had led her to the Silver Chalice, the most elite brothel in London. The owner, Madame Crescent—which Ana doubted was her true name—had agreed to meet her when she’d knocked on her door. Madame sat across from her in a private sitting room and, without a hint of judgment in her eyes, listened to Ana’s request: she desired to spend a night with a lover before her looming thirtieth birthday.
Life was passing her by, and she wanted something for herself. She was proud that she’d taken this much control over her situation, but now that she was observing the men in the room, the composure she’d spent years perfecting was but a fragile shell around her.
According to the madame, a nobleman, Lord Elton, was to marry in a week and had brought along his friends to celebrate.
What might Elton’s fiancée think if she were to see her betrothed now?
No one yet had noticed her or the madame, and she had a chance to observe the room’s occupants. Half a dozen men were drinking, laughing, and enjoying the charms of the demimondes who strolled about the room. Each of the women was beautiful—one blonde, one brunette, and one red haired.
The blonde trailed her fingertips across the shoulders of a man’s jacket and leaned forward to whisper something in his ear. From his wide grin, he appeared quite receptive to whatever she’d suggested.
The brunette bent low as she served a gentleman a tumbler of whisky, the tops of her rouged nipples revealed to his hungry gaze.
The red-haired courtesan sat on a man’s lap and wrapped an arm around his neck as he slipped a finger inside her bodice to fondle a breast. Her eyes slid half closed, and she sighed as if enjoying each stroke.
Oh my God.
“As I told you when you first came to me, a clever woman holds much power,” Madame said.
Power. It was something Ana had never had in life. If anything, she’d struggled simply to survive. Her downward spiral had begun after her mother’s death. Her grief-stricken father, a baron, had gambled away the family home to an unscrupulous peer, the tuition needed for her younger brother’s schooling, and her own dowry. The fickle men of the beau mode had quickly turned their attention elsewhere once they learned her father had gambled most everything away.
Then her father committed the ultimate betrayal by taking his own life, leaving Ana to pick up the pieces. The scandal had ruined the family name. Any lingering hopes Ana had of marriage and a future were lost.
In the ten years since, she’d changed her name, her identity, her very essence to obtain employment and survive. No longer Miss Anahit Woodbridge, daughter of an English baron and a wealthy Middle Eastern woman—she was now Ana Gardner, a companion to society’s daughters.
Her employment as a chaperone was not exciting, but it was an honest living. It also allowed her to provide additional funds for her younger brother, Adam. She’d sold her mother’s jewels to pay for his boarding school, but she regularly sent the school all additional income she could spare. Adam was only fifteen years old and still needed clothes, shoes, books, and everything else growing boys required.
“As promised, your identity will be kept secret,” Madame Crescent said.
Ana reached up to touch the half mask. Madame had given her the scarlet dress and mask and had advised her, in a detailed and crude manner, how the girls that worked here prevented unwanted pregnancies.
As for the other women in the room, Ana was aware of all her differences. She had grown to look more like her Middle Eastern mother than her English father. Her thick, oftentimes unruly hair was vastly different from the fine hair of many English ladies. Their chignons and buns were shiny and smooth while her dark curls battled her efforts to tame them. The frequent rain and humidity in London caused stray wisps of curls to spring free of even her tightest buns. She was also conscious of the way her skin easily bronzed beneath the summer sun, but she’d grown proud of her heritage. Her mother’s voice was never far away.
You are special, Anahit. You come from a long lineage leading back to Arabian sheiks and Armenian kings, both existing well before the reign of any English monarch.
“Do you see anyone you’d like to do the honor?” Madame Crescent asked.
The honor. She meant take her virginity. A woman of Ana’s age was viewed as a spinster. Correction. By society’s standards, she was considered an old, moldy book on the lowest shelf. Her life as a chaperone was dull and duty-bound. She liked her young charge, but the girl’s parents, particularly her mother, Lady Malvern, were insufferable.
Anna studied the men in the room. Which one? Definitely not the ruddy-faced, intoxicated groom. She had already decided to dislike him. The others were a rowdy bunch enjoying the women’s charms.
The Earl of Moore. The Viscount Sutherland. The Marquess of Elton. She recognized them from when she’d chaperoned her young charge to her first balls and routs around Town. From where she stood, she could hear them clearly.
“I’m eager to head upstairs. Madame Crescent said there’s a chit with breasts the size of large melons in the Green room,” Moore said.
“Keep your cock in your pants and have another drink with us, Moore.” Sutherland reached for a nearby decanter and poured amber-colored alcohol into both of their glasses. Some missed and splashed on the cuff of his ruffled shirt. He didn’t seem to notice.
Elton grasped the blonde around the waist and tugged her close. “I agree with Moore that we should head upstairs.” He squeezed her tight, and she giggled. “This won’t take long, Sutherland.”
“I’m sure it won’t,” Sutherland said, then threw back his head and laughed.
Elton’s eyes narrowed. “Speak for yourself. From what I heard, you didn’t perform last time.”
More raucous laugher. Had she not heard them speak with her own ears, Ana never would have believed these gentlemen could behave in such a fashion. She cringed just thinking of any of them with her fresh-faced charge.
“I had no idea,” Ana whispered.
“Ah, you are shocked by their talk. Men do not behave in the same fashion with ladies as they do with their friends. Still, there must be someone,” Madame Crescent said.
And then Ana saw another, sitting in the back of the room. She hadn’t seen him at first. Dark-haired and striking, he had a sculpted mouth and tanned face. Even in this group of noble-born men, his presence was compelling. Each of the women had eyed him, and some of the men had made an effort to speak to him. He wasn’t the most handsome man in the room; that distinction fell to Elton. But it wasn’t entirely his looks that caught her attention. Rather, an air of isolation surrounded him, and he gave the impression that he was unaware of any stir he made, nor did he care what others thought of him. She didn’t recognize him from her duties as she did the others. He kept himself separate from the rest but still within hearing distance, as if he was there but did not want to be.
Aloof, alert, and to her—intriguing.
As Ana watched, he unwound himself from the couch, strode to the sideboard, and poured himself another drink. He was tall, a few inches over six feet, and lean. He moved like an athlete, and his steps were too sure to be intoxicated like his friends. A divot in his chin caught her attention. From where she stood, she couldn’t see the color of his eyes. He had an innately captivating presence.
The red-haired courtesan wasted no time sidling up to him with a sensual smile. His lips tugged in a grin, but he shook his head. She pouted, then left to entwine her arm with one of the others.
“I see you’ve selected. A wise choice for a lady’s first,” Madame Crescent said.
“Who is he?” She had not heard any of the others address him by name.
“Names are not important here. Just as you guard your identity with your mask, you should not inquire as to his.”
Of course. She didn’t want to know anyway. One night. One time. That’s all she sought. Then she’d send the rest of her years as a spinster.
Oliver Bedford, the Earl of Drake, was not in a good mood. The last establishment he wished to attend tonight was the bordello known as the Silver Chalice. When he woke that morning, he anticipated an undisturbed evening going over the many ledgers of his estates in order to meet with his stewards later that week.
Instead, he had been dragged from his home by a group of dandies whose company he scorned. The men of fashion were his brother’s friends, not his.
Oliver could use a good bout in the boxing ring. He’d learned the best way to ease his frustration and grief was in a roped-off ring with gloves, skill, and a worthy opponent. Then he could return to Drake House and focus on his duties.
Instead, he had to take his brother’s place. Not only had he inherited his earldom, but somehow, he’d inherited his friends.
Damn you, Henry, for dying.
The news had upended his world. Overnight he’d had to leave the country where he’d been spending extended time meeting with stewards at each of his family’s estates to return to town.
“Would you prefer a different drink? If not whisky, we have anything else you desire.” The blonde courtesan had approached. She was beautiful, with honey-colored curls, a heart-shaped face, and lush breasts. Her painted lips were curved in a seductive smile, and he knew she offered much more than simply fine spirits.
How had she managed to extricate herself from Moore’s clutches?
He politely declined her offer of liquor and more. Oliver wasn’t interested in what she offered. He was only here to celebrate the Marquess of Elton’s last night of freedom before he was shackled in matrimony to the daughter of a duke. Elton had been Henry’s best friend, and Oliver now would take his brother’s place at the wedding, as well as all the celebrations—which was why he was at the Silver Chalice.
In Oliver’s opinion, it was another excuse to drink to excess and indulge in self-satiation. Nor would Elton change his ways when vows were exchanged. More likely, he’d bed his virgin wife, then join with his cavorting friends the same night.
Oliver’s father had been no different. His brother, Henry, had taken after his sire.
And they both were dead.
Oliver did his best not only to avoid his brother’s friends, but their haunts—the clubs, gaming hells, theaters, private parties which lasted until dawn, and bordellos with an endless stream of smooth-speaking courtesans.
He didn’t hold it against his brother’s friends. They could have their fun tonight. He just wanted nothing to do with the Silver Chalice.
But if he couldn’t avoid tonight, he at least could drink himself into a stupor, then stumble to his home and forget the evening.
A flash of red in the doorway caught his eye. A woman in a red silk dress with a half mask entered the salon. He nearly dropped the fine whisky.
She was quite simply stunning. Dark curls were artfully piled upon her head, and a fat lock curled around her chin to frame a stunningly lovely face. Her complexion was dusky, a shade darker than that of most English ladies. The tight dress was designed to display her curves to perfection. A pearl clasp between her breasts drew a man’s eye to the abundance of creamy skin rounded enticingly above her bodice. A slit in the skirt revealed one shapely, silk-clad leg as she walked.
She had the type of mouth that made a man think of carnal thoughts and a desire to suck those plump, pink lips. She was tall for a woman and would just reach his chin and fit nicely against him. Something about her was different from the other women in the room, delectably different. She appeared hesitant, yet confident, a fascinating contradiction of virginal innocence wrapped in a temptress’s body.
His reaction was swift. The thudding of his heart drowned out the coarse conversation in the room. He couldn’t tear his gaze away from her.
Across the room, their eyes met and held, and his cock took notice.
“Good evening, my lords.” Her graceful curtsy revealed the tops of her breasts.
Her voice was not overly honey-sweet and false like the other women, but smooth and smoky, like fine mulled wine. It made him want to hear that voice low and husky as he unbuttoned the red silk to expose more of her skin. She’d be warm, welcoming, and bewitching, just what he needed to forget his burdens.
God, what was he thinking? He didn’t need a distraction, no matter how lovely.
Then she took a step forward in his direction, then another. All rational thought fled.
Others noticed her, too.
“What do we have here?” the Viscount Sutherlandasked.
The Earl of Moore sneered. “Sod off. I saw her first.” Ofthe group, Oliver liked Moore the least. Selfish and crude,he was often the group’s ringleader.
“You have the blonde,” Sutherland protested.
“Why fight? There’s plenty to go around,” the Marquessof Elton said. Well into his cups, with one of the womensprawled across his lap, his bride was clearly not on his mind.
All the while, the lady in red glided toward the back ofthe room, toward him. Oliver willed it with all his might.Maybe it was the whisky, but he was agreeable, no matterwhat she’d offered. God, what was wrong with him?
Moore stumbled to his feet, seeming not to care that hischair crashed to the floor. Alcohol wafted from his pores.Oliver thought Moore intended to challenge his friends, butinstead, he grasped the woman’s arm as she moved past him.
“Just what I’ve been waiting for. We’re going to have agrand time together,” Moore said.
She was closer now. Behind the mask, the woman’s eyeswidened, and the hazel color fascinated Oliver. She didn’twant Moore. It was clear in the stiffening of her spine, thetension in her shoulders, the parting of her lips. Oliver kneweven before she attempted to tug her arm free to speak.
“Not this evening, my lord,” she said.
Like a dog with a tasty bone, Moore was as relentlessas he was intoxicated. His fingers tightened on the woman’sarm, enough to cause a slight gasp of pain from her, and thatwas all it took for Oliver to intervene. He would never forcea woman, and he’d be damned if he would allow another todo so.
He stood and strode to Moore. “She’s mine for theevening.”
Moore glowered. “All the demimondes are free for thetaking at the Silver Chalice. Go back to your corner, mylord.”
Oliver’s fist clenched at his side, and he wanted nothingmore than to break Moore’s bulbous nose. Challenge thebrute in a ring.
He could do none of those things here, but he refused tolet her go to the pompous pig. He tried another way, one inwhich a bull-headed man like Moore would consider. “Shewas sent to me by Madame Crescent herself. Why do youthink I’ve been waiting?”
“He’s right, my lord,” she spoke up.
Moore ignored her and focused on Oliver. “Oh? I didn’tknow you frequented this place or any place where a mancould have fun.”
Oliver narrowed his gaze. “Don’t be an idiot. If youwant to anger the Madame, then by all means do so, butyou’d have to find another bawdy house in the future, andwe all know the Silver Chalice offers the best.”
Oliver reached for the lady, and this time, Moorereleased his grasp. Oliver experienced a searing satisfactionas she unhesitatingly slipped her hand in his. Her perfume,a delicate lavender, wafted to him, and his eyes took in theflawless curve of her cheek.
“Come with me.” He led her straight to the door.