"What we really need is a virgin."
Nicholas Pryce, Viscount Somerton, tossed out the comment as easily as he discarded the seven of clubs in his hand. Through a haze of alcohol fumes, he watched the card skid across the perfectly polished surface of the mahogany table that had been delivered from G. and R. Gillow & Co. only that morning, so intent on his game, he did not notice the sudden silence that fell over the small but fashionable assembly.
Nick took another drink and waited for Arthur Hexam, who was seated next to him, to play a card. Only when Hexam failed to do so did Nick bother to look up.
He found Hexam staring at him, his eyes red, his gaze slightly out of focus, his mouth agape. A quick look around told him Hexam wasn't the only fellow struck speechless by the offhand remark.
Across the room, the billiards game came to an abrupt and unceremonious halt. Roger Palliston, whose turn it was to shoot, missed the ivory cue ball completely. His stick scraped the wool table covering and Nick heard the ominous sound of tearing cloth.
"Damn!" Palliston swore under his breath and slapped his stick against the table, but there was no sign of annoyance in his expression, and certainly no trace of guilt. When he spun toward Nick, Palliston's bleary eyes were lit with unabashed admiration.
Near the tall French windows that overlooked the gardens of Somerton House, Deware Clifton, the young Duke of Latimer, had been part and parcel of a raucous discussion of the problem at hand. How he'd managed to hear Nick over the din was quite as much a mystery as how he was able to keep on his feet after the quantity of spirits he'd consumed. Latimer raised one unsteady hand, signaling for silence, and even before the echo of Nick's suggestion faded against the crystal chandeliers and the damask draperies, he turned his gaze in Nick's direction.
So did every other fellow in the room.
Nick was as surprised as they were by the words that had tumbled from his mouth, but he wasn't about to admit it. He was foxed enough to think himself quite the genius, and canny enough to take full credit for the notion even though he had no idea where it might have come from. As pleased with himself as he was with the turn of events, he finished the claret in his glass and signaled to Newbury for another. He looked from Latimer to Palliston, and from Palliston to Hexam, and from Hexam to the other stylish and in-the-altitudes young bucks who lounged around the room, and if his own hospitality had not been so generous and his own cellar not so well stocked, the scene might not have spun before his eyes quite as much as it did.
"Well, what do you think?" Nick looked from man to man. "It seems a simple enough solution."
"Simple?" Palliston, whose visage was usually florid, was so little able to contain himself that he was more flushed than ever. He hurried across the room to clap Nick on the shoulder. "It's positively marvelous! Better than marvelous. It's bloody brilliant!"
"They won't be expecting it, that's for certain," Hexam added on the end of a loud hiccup.
"A virgin?" Bracing himself against the wall, Latimer repeated the word as if he wasn't quite sure what it meant, and from what Nick knew of the lad, he could well imagine that he did not. "It's an interesting suggestion, to be sure." Latimer burped. "But does it qualify? What I mean is, we have to through this think...think this through. We wouldn't want to be disqualified on a techi...techni...cality. Will it satisfy the Blades?"
Nick raked his fingers through his close-cropped, honey-colored hair. "Damn the Blades!" he said. "I refuse to let them best us."
"Not like last time."
Nick wasn't sure who'd ventured the comment, but when every other man in the room chuckled, he could hardly help himself. He had to laugh, too. It was a fault he had. He had the singular ability to remember his humiliations better than most and along with the rest of the ton, he had the capacity to laugh at them.
Even if he didn't, he knew these fellows, who called themselves the Dashers, would hardly let him forget. At the time of the incident, the Dashers were in the midst of a long and delightful house party at the country home of the Duke of Weyne. They weren't the only guests, of course. Also present were members of the Blades, a group of friendly but determined rivals. Not one, but any number of them -- men of impeccable character and incontestable honesty -- assured Nick that a particularly appealing and eager young widow would be spending the night in a certain room. Her window, they told him, would be unlocked.
As far as Nick could remember -- and thankfully, he was too cup-shot, now and then, to remember too much -- he was as anxious to deepen his acquaintance with the lady as she was to encourage his attentions. She had told him as much with a fluttering look before dinner and a casual comment or two afterward. She had more than hinted at it later in the evening when she retired for the night, brushing so close to him on her way out of the room that he could feel every delicious curve of her body against his.
Damn him for an idiot, but he never questioned her motives.
When he climbed through the window of said lady's room, buck naked and as randy as a rabbit, it was only to find every last member of the Blades there waiting for him, laughing like loons at the success of their ruse.
The Dashers and the Blades were sworn to secrecy as to the identity of the unfortunate wretch who'd made such an extraordinary gudgeon of himself that night, of course. But as it always did, word of the escapade traveled through the Society in seven league boots. More often than not these days when Nick walked into a room, the men looked at him with a mixture of pity and awe and the women twittered behind their fans and blushed mightily.
Setting aside the stinging memory, Nick slapped the arms of his chair and stood, and when the room tipped slightly, he leaned against the table to steady it. "You may laugh, gentlemen, but I will not let the Blades get the better of us. Not this time. Newbury!" He looked toward his butler who, having anticipated his master's wishes, stood at his elbow, a silver tray in his hands. There was a single folded piece of paper on the tray and nodding his thanks, Nick reached for it.
He shook open the paper. "Shall I read the challenge again?" Nick forced his eyes to focus and read through the dispatch that had been delivered to his home no more than two hours earlier.
"It bears today's date, March 28, 1816, and is signed..." Holding the message at arm's length, he squinted. "It is signed, 'Respectfully, the Blades.' "
"We know all that!" Latimer waved away the formalities. "Get to the meat of the thing, man. Exactly what does the challenge say? Will this idea of yours satisfy their requirements?"
Nick cleared his throat. "It says...'To those who call themselves the Dashers, Gentlemen: You are hereby issued a challenge to commence upon receipt of this message and to be fulfilled at midnight this night.' "
Instinctively, Nick checked the tall floor clock that stood in one corner of the room. It was only a bit after eight and reassured, he went on. " 'Knowing that it is your custom to meet at Somerton House on Thursday of each week and this being Thursday, we challenge the Dashers to produce at said meeting place and at exactly midnight, something so singular and extraordinary as to astound and amaze us. We will be bringing something particularly remarkable ourselves, gentlemen, and we invite you -- if you are able and clever enough to do it -- to eclipse our offering. Upon producing such object, you do hereby agree that the group that presents the most unique and surprising item will receive from the other one thousand pounds to be paid immediately.' "
Reading so much made a man's throat remarkably dry, and while the import of the message settled in, Nick took another drink and glanced around the room. "I think you'll agree, my initial proposal is not only suitable but deucedly clever. They challenge us to produce something unique. Something odd and unusual. Something the likes of which neither the Dashers nor the Blades have seen in a good long while. Gentlemen, I do believe there is only one solution. What we really need is a virgin."
A cheer went up. Nick's back was thumped, his hand, shaken. He accepted the accolades in stride, smiling and nodding. After all, it was a hell of a plan. Nick knew it and so did the other Dashers. It was a scheme that was certain to confound the Blades no end, and as such, it deserved to be toasted.
Nick called for drinks all around and once Newbury had refilled the glasses, he raised his own glass and waited for silence.
"Then it is settled." He looked from each of his chums to the other, his chest puffed with pride inside his white waistcoat. "Tonight, finally, we shall have our revenge."
"If we can find a virgin."
His glass halfway to his mouth, Nick paused. It was Hexam who had spoken and Nick looked at him in wonder. Hexam was hardly older than Nick's thirty years, but his hair was nearly gone. He rubbed one pudgy hand across his balding pate. "Do you know one?" he asked Nick before he looked at their companions. "Do any of you? For I can tell you, I am certain I do not."
The reality of the situation dawned and the mood in the room plummeted. Young gentlemen of their station and fortune were not supposed to know virgins, at least not until they were willing to go shopping at the marriage mart.
They knew the ladies of the Polite World who married for money, provided their husbands with heirs, then went through a series of lovers to amuse themselves and while away the boring hours between social calls.
They knew the Cyprians who plied their trade in the better houses near Regent Street.
They knew the charming actresses at Covent Garden and Drury Lane and the delightful and quite accommodating opera dancers. They knew the prettiest of the orange girls who sold their fruit -- and sometimes themselves -- out in the streets, and any number of ladybirds.
Not one of them knew a virgin.
It was a singularly devilish problem.
"There has to be someone." Nick's voice was tinged with exasperation. "Palliston, what about that pretty housemaid at your mother's home on Great Stanhope Street? Not the dark-haired one with the hearty smile. The other one. You know, the yellow-haired beauty with that little skip to her step that makes her hips sway so delectably."
"Too late for that one." Palliston hardly looked contrite, but he did, at least, have the decency to look embarrassed. His cheeks shot through with color. "Too late for both of them, I'm afraid."
"But the Blades don't have to know that."
The unlikely proposition came from Julius Monteford, a young fellow new to the Dashers. The man came highly recommended by Latimer and it was only that connection that kept Nick from crossing the room to dislodge the smug grin from Monteford's face.
Every man in the room saw the danger. Except for Monteford. Monteford went on smiling broadly, remarkably pleased with himself for having thought of so clever a scheme.
At Nick's right, Hexam held his breath. At his left, Palliston locked his knees and curled his hands into fists, ready to come to Nick's aid if the need should arise, even though he recognized as surely as Nick did, that no man in the room was unscrupulous enough to give the plan a second thought.
No man but Monteford.
Holding on to the thought as surely as he held tight to his temper, Nick strolled over to where Monteford stood. "That would hardly be honorable," he reminded the fellow, his teeth clenched around a smile that would have been warning enough had Monteford known him better. "We may be a high-spirited bunch, Monteford. We may even be a bit mad. But we are not dishonorable, and if you think we are, or if you yourself are, I would suggest that you find someone else's claret to drink and someone else's fire to warm your arse."
His warning delivered, Nick spun around and raised his voice, his anger skillfully concealed behind his usual good humor. "No. We need a woman whose virtue is unquestionable. I know you all agree." He tossed Monteford a final look. "There's my cousin, Lynnette, of course. She's always in for a lark. But she is off in Bath and damn!" Nick grumbled, slapping one hand against his buff-colored, doeskin trousers. "I cannot think of another one."
He did a turn around the room, sipping his drink while he pondered the problem with a clarity that could only be attributed to the excellence and the amount of the spirits he'd ingested. After a full five minutes, he had to admit that he was completely flummoxed. As were his companions. Just when it seemed all hope was gone, Latimer spoke up.
"There is my sister, Beatrice," the young duke said, his nose twitching the way it always did when he thought himself decidedly resourceful. "We could ask her. She's a bit bird-witted, but she is a good sort and may be willing to go along with the plan."
Nick was nothing if not tactful. It was inbred. Tact. Diplomacy. Discretion. They were qualities the English valued in their aristocracy, and along with Greek, Latin and a smattering of fashionable French, they had been drilled into him all the while he was growing up. They were qualities that had served him well any number of times in any number of situations. Qualities that had charmed his betters, delighted his peers and sometimes astonished his friends.
But even he was not adept enough to listen to Latimer's suggestion and not react. He gagged on his drink. "Beatrice!" Nick coughed out the name and, try as he might to be circumspect, he could not help but notice that he was not the only man in the room who met the suggestion with raised eyebrows. Even if Latimer did not realize the truth about his sister, the rest of them knew about Beatrice. If not from gossip, then surely from experience.
Nick scrambled to salvage the moment as well as the young lady's reputation. At least in the eyes of her brother. "Beatrice is a diamond of the first water, but surely we cannot bother her with so foolish a scheme."
"That's right," Palliston chimed in, coming to Nick's aid. "Besides, she is off to some concert or another with my younger brother tonight," and when he added "Lucky devil" under his breath, it was for Nick's ears alone.
"Then it seems we have no choice." Sighing, Latimer slumped against the wall. "We shall simply have to park ourselves here until we come up with another idea. That, or pay the Blades a mountain of guineas."
"Park." The word sparked something inside Nick's brain but, damn him, he could not think what it might be. He mumbled it, trying to put together the pieces of the curious puzzle, and it wasn't until he'd said the word a dozen or more times that the significance of it hit him full force.
"Park!" Nick laughed. "That's it. Park. Hyde Park!"
The other Dashers looked at him as if he were mad, and Nick could hardly blame them. Reining in his excitement, he tried his best to explain.
"I crossed Hyde Park this afternoon," he said, so pleased with himself, he could not keep from toasting his own cleverness. "And I came upon a crowd gathered around a preacher. Hannibal Something-or-Another. Culligan...Culter...Cul -- "
"Culpepper!" Palliston stepped forward, beaming. "That's the fellow's name. Reverend Hannibal Culpepper. Famous in his own way. One of those bombastic old goats who believes no one is right unless they think the way he does. He's taken it upon himself to convert the world from its wicked ways!" As if to prove those ways were alive and well, at least in the confines of Somerton House, Palliston raised his glass in silent salute to the aforementioned man of the cloth. "He operates missions, or so I'm told. In India or some such place. My aunt Agatha is enamored of the man. Says he'll lead us all to salvation, of which I say, I most assuredly hope not."
"You're not suggesting that we ask the good Reverend Culpepper to provide us with a virgin, are you?" Latimer asked, his tone of voice as droll as the roll of his eyes. "I for one hardly think he'd be of much help."
"More help than you imagine." Warming to the idea, Nick went on. "When I came upon him, Culpepper was preaching to a sizable crowd and what's more to the point, he had his entire family with him. He introduced them one by one. A whole flock of Culpeppers, large and small."
"That leaves out Mrs. Culpepper!" Hexam observed with a laugh.
"It does, indeed," Nick agreed. "Though now that you mention it, I did not see a Mrs. Culpepper. Nonetheless, it does not leave out the reverend's daughter."
He had the interest of the Dashers now, even Latimer, and Nick knew it. They gathered around him, eager to hear more.
"From what I could tell, the daughter is the oldest of the lot," he explained, casting his mind back to the afternoon. "Her name is Wilhelmina, if memory serves me right, and she stood behind her father like one of those gargoyles you might see atop a church. Stone-faced and as somber as hell. Stiff as a poker and as righteous-looking as any three country curates. She was dressed as if for a funeral. All black and dreary. Sleeves down to here." Nick indicated the middle of his hand. "Neckline up to here." He tapped one finger against a neckcloth he could have sworn had not hung so loose earlier in the evening.
"It was gloomy, you remember, but even if the sun had been shining like a sovereign, she would have looked like a thundercloud." Recalling the young lady's expression, Nick shivered.
"She was a pretty enough bit of baggage," he admitted, realizing for the first time that he'd thought as much the moment he saw her. "Ginger-haired, if the bit of a curl that escaped from her plain-as-ashes poke bonnet meant anything. Gray-eyed. All the right curves in all the right places, it seems, though it took some imagination to picture them beneath the shapeless mantle she wore." He quirked his eyebrows, confessing with a look that just as they all would have done when confronted with a woman of even limited appeal, he had done his level best to picture what might lie beneath the yards of black cloth.
"But curves or no curves, eyes like starlight or not, she was a perfect Devil's daughter, I can tell you that much. Icy as the Thames two winters past. Unbending as the stoutest willow. Surely there isn't a man who could get within ten feet of her and live to tell the story." Nick thumped his fist against the table. "I'm certain of it! If ever there was a virgin in all of London, it is Wilhelmina Culpepper!"
The Dashers cheered and might have gone on saluting Nick's brilliance had not Monteford waved his hands, calling for silence.
"That's all well and good," the newest of the Dashers proclaimed. "But I don't see how it helps us."
The others were obviously not so lackwitted. Already, they were heading for the door. As was his habit, Newbury appeared as if by magic and started handing around gloves and capes and tall top hats. Hexam stowed the appropriate supplies, one bottle of claret in each of his pockets. Palliston tucked in reinforcements.
"Monteford, Monteford, Monteford." Sympathetic both to the man's naïveté and the fact that he was so new to the Dashers as to be oblivious to the lengths they would go to top the Blades in any and all mischief, Nick clapped him on the shoulder and wound one arm through his, hauling him toward the door.
"The answer is simple," Nick told him. "We will go around to this church of the Reverend Culpepper's and collect the pious miss. We'll bring her back here and when they arrive, we will present her to the Blades. After which we will collect the one thousand pounds."
"But...but..." Monteford spluttered. "But if she is anything like you say she is, I cannot believe she would participate. What if she doesn't want to come with us?"
Naïveté was too kind a word.
Nick threw back his head and laughed, grabbing for a wine bottle on his way out the door.
"Of course she won't want to come with us," he said matter-of-factly. "And that leaves us only one choice, doesn't it? We will simply have to abduct her!"
The Viscount's Bawdy Bargain
BUT WHAT IF THE PRIZE IS MORE THAN HE BARGAINED FOR?
There's nothing Nicholas Pryce, Viscount Somerton, and his friends like more than an outrageous wager. And there's nothing Wilhelmina Culpepper, daughter of an overbearing evangelist preacher, wants more than to get away from her father. When Wilhelmina becomes the unwitting victim of a jovial kidnapping caper by Nick & company, she decides to hatch a plan of her own -- one that causes her disgraced father to promptly disown her.
Nick soon realizes the trouble he's caused, and he offers to take Willie in, even make her his wife. But Willie, a true romantic, laughs off his proposal: after all, how could two people thrown together because of a prank ever really fall in love? But with nowhere else to turn, Willie volunteers to stay on as Nick's housekeeper...and soon their affection for each other becomes more than just a lark. Could it be that a little tomfoolery is just what it takes to make the perfect match?
Connie Lane's Regency-era romance is a sparkling adventure in the wise and witty ways of true love!