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His Wicked Reputation
4 1/2 Stars!
“Hunter. . . pits a sexy hero against an independent spinster, mixes in mystery, humor and wonderful banter, and gifts readers with a keeper.” —Kathe Robin RT Book Reviews
“Hunter spins the intrigues of an enterprising bastard son and a resourceful artist to delightful effect in this excellent launch of the Wicked series of Regency romances.” —Publishers Weekly starred review
“With her usual aplomb, Hunter seamlessly marries seductive wit with smoldering sensuality in her latest impeccably written Regency romance.” —Booklist
FROM NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLING AUTHOR MADELINE HUNTER
She was a sensible woman.
He was a man who could drive a woman senseless with desire.
Gareth Fitzallen is celebrated for four things: his handsome face, his notable charm, his aristocratic connections, and an ability to give the kind of pleasure that has women begging for more. Normally he bestows his talents on experienced, worldly women. But when he heads to Langdon’s End to restore a property he inherited—and to investigate a massive art theft—he lays plans to seduce a most unlikely lady.
Eva Russell lives a spinster’s life of precarious finances and limited dreams while clinging to her family’s old gentry status. She supports herself by copying paintings while she plots to marry her lovely sister to a well-established man. Everyone warns her of Gareth’s reputation, and advises her to lock her sister away. Only it is not her sister Gareth desires. One look, and she knows he is trouble. One kiss, however, proves she is no match for this master of seduction.
Eva hitched her clumsy bundle higher under her arm. A snapping breeze threatened to unveil the object shrouded in old burlap. She stopped to tuck the coarse fabric closer all around the heavily sculpted plaster frame. When she had chosen this painting, she had failed to consider how hard it would be to hide and carry it.
While she fussed with her burden, she kept one eye on a figure moving on the road. Another stranger. With nearby Birmingham’s growth, and with all the people displaced by the failed harvests, strangers moving through the countryside hardly merited note. Yet this one raised a tiny alarm, for reasons she could not name. Maybe he moved too slowly for a man with someplace to go. In fact, it looked as if he had actually slowed so he would not pass the house’s drive before she reached its end.
This was not the first time she found herself wondering about a stranger. Last week there had been another one, this time in town. Only she was sure she also saw him later, on the lane near her house.
She scolded herself for inventing ghosts. Her current mission made her nervous, that was all. She should not have this painting, and guilt made her overcautious.
She walked on. She glanced back at the house she had just left as she approached the point where its drive met the road. Years ago, before half the trees lining this private lane died, most likely one could not see much besides chimneys from this spot. Now the derelict condition of the building was visible to all. More a large hunting lodge than a proper manor house, it consisted of stone wings attached to a rustic Tudor core. Thirty years ago it might have been considered haphazard in design. Now the taste makers would think it charming.
Each time she visited, more damage could be seen. Today a whole section of garden wall had vanished, its stones no doubt pilfered to build some outbuilding on one of the nicer properties of Langdon’s End. She expected to round the bend in the road one day and discover nothing more than a heap of rock.
She turned onto the road, fussing with the stupid frame, trying not to keep looking back at the man now walking behind her. Suddenly she heard something that froze her fingers. A horse approached. From the sound of its hooves, it was galloping toward her and nearing the bend in the road ahead that would bring her into view.
She quickly examined her burden to make sure nothing showed, then walked forward with long strides, hoping she appeared to be a woman going about her day’s perfectly honest, completely legal, not the least untoward business. In seconds a huge black horse, its head strained against its reins and its teeth bared like a stallion out of hell, bore down on her. Hooves clamoring, breath snorting, that devil head grew larger fast.
It passed that point where its rider should have slowed upon seeing someone on the road. It just kept coming. Alarmed, she jumped aside to make way, damning the rogue who had carelessly risked her life to his whim. At that the horse reared up. Its front hooves pawed the air, and the beast let out a long, furious whinny.
Cool moisture gathered around her feet and ankles. She looked down to see she had stepped right into a deep puddle. She cursed again. Her shoes would probably be ruined.
“My sincere apologies.” The voice came from on high while she lifted one foot to determine the damage. Soaked. Ruined for sure.
“It is a little late for courtesy,” she snapped. She concentrated on placing her feet in such a way as to exit the puddle without stepping in it yet again. The burden she carried did not make it any easier. She could barely see over it. Perhaps if she lifted it above her head . . .
“The house distracted me. I know coming upon you so fast was inexcusable, but it appeared no one was about.”
“If you had been watching the road, you would know it appeared no such way.” She looked behind her to point to the other person on the road. Only he was gone. Perhaps he took a shortcut through the woods.
Her skirt proved too narrow for the long strides she needed. She had no choice except to slosh through the puddle to its edge.
A hand jutted in front of her face, grabbing for the painting. “Allow me to relieve you of this so you do not drop it.”
She smacked the hand away and made her way to dry grass.
The horse panted and quivered, probably deciding whether to take a bite out of her. She looked up its considerable flank and the long legs and handsome boots that gripped it. She looked higher, up the dashing garnet riding coat to the casually tied cravat. Finally her gaze rose to the face of the man who had addressed her.
Her fury momentarily left her. It lasted no longer than a three count, she was sure, but in that tiny pause, not only her anger ceased. Her breath did, too, and the movement of the leaves in the breeze, and perhaps even the revolution of the earth.
The rider was beautiful. No other word would do. Handsome would be too vague a description. Attractive would be inadequate. Thick black hair, dark eyes, and eyebrows that arched perfectly, all graced features both regular and precise. The only flaw, a rather wide mouth, could hardly be called a disadvantage, seeing as how it gave the man both expressive possibilities and an undeniable sensual quality.
Then again, he did not need the mouth for that. His air and manner, the very way he sat on that horse, announced he would be nothing but trouble for a woman. Of course, most women would find him too delicious to resist. She suspected he knew that. How could he not when fools like she stared gape-mouthed upon seeing him?
Those dark eyes scrutinized her as surely as she did him, only with much more amusement than she experienced in her own study. He had probably noticed that three count. She doubted he found it a novel reaction to himself.
“I have ruined your shoes. I insist that I pay for another pair.”
It had been his fault and he should pay, but she reacted badly to the offer. She resented that he noticed she could ill afford the loss of the shoes. She hated that he sought to subject her to his charity.
“The only payment I ask is that you not gallop that horse on this road while you are admiring architecture. You are too easily impressed by the latter, if that house distracted you.”
He turned to look at the house. “I think it handsome.”
She rearranged her bundle in her arms. “On the outside, perhaps it would appeal to those who favor sentimentality over sophistication. Inside it is derelict, however. No one has lived there in my memory, and its owner does not maintain it. It is a haven for vagrants and thieves, and the people of the local town would be glad if it burned down. Perhaps one day it will.” She hoped not. That house had been very useful to her the last five years.
Hitching up her painting again, she began walking down the road. She heard the horse move. Then she felt its breath on her shoulder. She started, and almost jumped aside again.
“Won’t you allow me to help you carry that? Or better yet, give you a ride to where you are going? It looks to be a heavy package, and those shoes must be uncomfortable now.”
She looked back over her shoulder, up at the stunning face now marked by a winning smile. No, that mouth was no flaw. Masculine and firm, it turned him from merely beautiful to seductive. He gazed down at her warmly. Perhaps a little too warmly. That should have alarmed her anew. Instead little flutters beat inside her. It was all she could do not to blush and mew.
“No, thank you. I will manage.”
“You do not have to be afraid. I promise to behave myself. I am utterly harmless.”
His expression, most amused by his own words, put the lie to his reassurance. Come with me and I will show you the most wicked delights, those teasing eyes promised.
“I am not afraid of you, sir. Your horse, however, terrifies me. Could you keep back a bit more?”
He held back, but still followed. “Are you going to the town? It is some distance. At least a mile.”
“I would not accept a ride with you, even if I had five miles to walk. Please, be on your way, and I will be on mine.”
A nod of acquiescence. He turned the black beast, trotted down the lane, then halfway up the drive to the house. He then sat there looking at it. He had given up the game because something interested him more than dallying with her.
Eva looked back one more time before the bend in the road took the rider out of her view. He appeared magnificent, with the breeze blowing back his hair so his fine profile cut the sky, his gaze absorbed and pensive. If she were a good artist and not just a middling copyist, she would feature him in a grand composition full of dashing action. Instead, she painted his image on her memory.
Her ruined shoes did not bother her on the half mile to her family home. Nor did the clumsy weight of the painting. She smiled all the way. How bad can a poor spinster’s day be when the most beautiful man she had ever seen in her life flirts with her?
His Wicked Reputation, copyright © 2015 Madeline Hunter