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Perfection is in the eye of the beholder…

Proud of his reputation as a rogue, Justin Sterling intends to be the first to bed “the Unattainable”--the Season’s most luscious debutante--and win the wager that’s the talk of the ton. However, he never expected the enchantress in question to be Arabella Templeton, who once stole his heart and owns it still. Now the notorious scoundrel will have to prove to her that his intentions are honorable…while protecting her virtue from every other rascal in London.

Arabella will marry only for love--and she does not need her childhood nemesis to act as her self-appointed guardian! Though the arrogant cad seems sincere, she is well aware of his rakehell history and won’t be swayed by his considerable charm and disarming good looks.  For it would be pure madness for Arabella to ignore the voice of reason that whispers “beware!” and heed instead a traitorous heart that insists Justin Sterling would make…

A Perfect Bride

DECEMBER 2004
Avon Books
· ISBN 0-060-5027-97


A Perfect Bride

Authors are often asked, "Of all the books you've written, what's your favorite?" Some authors really don't have a favorite. Or maybe it's the one they're currently writing. Or maybe the one most recently on the shelf. As for me . . . well, I have a confession. A Perfect Groom is definitely one of my favorites, if not the favorite.

Some books are harder to write than others. Naturally it follows that some books are easier to write than others. I'd have to say that for me, A Perfect Groom falls into this category, so maybe that's why. So, for those readers who've written to say they can't wait to read Justin's story, I have another confession. I had a tough time restraining Justin. All the while I was writing A Perfect Bride, I couldn't wait to write more about him. I had to rein him in so that he didn't steal the show! In fact, when I was working on A Perfect Bride, I originally wrote a scene where Sebastian recalls the circumstances of Justin meeting Arabella when they were younger (much to Sebastian's delight). My editor and I decided we should save this for Justin's book (and no, they definitely weren't childhood sweethearts!).

A Perfect Groom is the second book in the Sterling family trilogy which began with A Perfect Bride, and continues with A Perfect Hero. My original title was Never a Gentleman.

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A Perfect Groom is a NATIONAL BESTSELLER! WOW! #32 on the New York Times expanded bestseller list, #83 on the USAToday's bestseller list, and #8 on Waldenbooks mass market list.

A Perfect Groom receives TOP PICK status! Four and a half stars!

"Justin and Arabella's emotions leap from the pages as [Samantha] James recaptures the glory of love and the pain that comes with it. James is a master at creating heartfelt love stories that linger. This is a story to cherish and a keeper to read when you need to believe in the power of love."

--Kathe Robin
Romantic Times BOOKclub
(posted 11.30.04)

Read more about Samantha in Romantic Times BOOKclub

(August 2004 issue)

Click here or on small image at right to see it larger. Click here to download a PDF.

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A Perfect BridePrologue

He always knew he was wicked.

Despite the fact that the Sterling children were of the very same parentage and grew up in the very same household, they were, in point of fact, all quite different.

His elder brother Sebastian was the responsible one, steadfast and dependable, studious and thoughtful and ever proper. His baby sister Julianna was possessed of a sweet, bubbly nature.

But Justin . . . He was every bit his mother's son.

Ah, yes, he was the most like his mother, not only in resemblance—he had inherited the crystal clarity of eyes that shimmered like the finest of emeralds, the exquisite artistry of features that were in perfect balance, her fine dark hair—but in . . . well, other ways as well. Indeed, he was convinced, in every way . . .

He still remembered those first few years after Mama ran off with her lover. Mama had many lovers, he suspected. Of course it was one of those things that no one talked about openly, but it was discussed in hushed, quiet whispers. And despite the fact that he wasn't bookish, Justin was a precocious little boy who absorbed every last word of the servants' gossip—the dark glances that signaled their pity over the way the marchioness had abandoned her three children—perhaps it was a good thing she'd died!—leaving them in the care of their father, a man who gave every impression he was at odds with the world at large. After all, it wasn't as if Papa liked anyone. Not Sebastian. Not even sweet, adorable Julianna, whom everyone loved. And especially not unruly Justin.

His tutors pronounced him hopeless. Undisciplined and disruptive. Inattentive and unruly. He didn't excel at his studies like studious Sebastian. From the time he was very young, he was well aware it was a good thing Sebastian had been born first—Justin knew he'd have made a horrible Marquess of Thurston once Papa was gone. Somehow, he was always doing things he shouldn't. Thinking things he shouldn't. Saying things that were perhaps better left unsaid . . . especially to Papa. Little wonder that he was ever at odds with his father. He couldn't sit still for hours at a time. He squirmed and fidgeted in his chair. He stared out the window and heartily wished himself elsewhere.

Justin disliked his studies from the very first day he'd joined his brother in the schoolroom. One day he simply decided he'd had enough. After the noonday meal, he slipped out of the schoolroom without telling anyone. Perhaps he should have expected that their tutor Mr. Rutherford would immediately tattle to Papa when he failed to return to the schoolroom. Perhaps he had.

He was never quite sure he'd expected that Papa would deign to remove himself from his study.

Of course, to an eight-year-old boy, it was vastly amusing to see everyone searching for him. Perched high in the branches of a tree in the orchard, Justin peered down while the servants ran frantically to the stables, and all about the grounds of Thurston Hall. He snickered when Papa paced to and fro before the tree. But all at once Papa paused . . . and looked up.

That the marquess was not pleased with his second son was evident in the sizzle of his father's gaze.

"Why aren't you in the schoolroom?" demanded the marquess.

"Because I'm here," retorted the little boy. "Is it not obvious?"

"Come down here now, you vile little wretch!"

The little boy stopped tittering. His jaw firmed. Green eyes flashed. "No," he said. His father's hands balled into fists. "Come down this instant, I say!"

His father's rage did naught but inspire the little lad's mutiny. Stretching out a thin arm, he caught the knobby branch above. Higher he climbed, too caught up in the moment to hear the creak beneath his foot. Exultant now, he glanced down through twirling leaves at his father's upturned countenance.

The branch gave way. Justin tried to break his fall and landed hard upon his wrist. He heard the snap as fire stabbed through him—a hot, sizzling streak like a dozen knives resounding in every part of him. For one paralyzing instant he couldn't move. He couldn't even breathe. The pain was so intense he thought he might lose consciousness.

At last he rolled to his back. His father stood over him, his features dark and livid. The marquess bent low. "On your feet!" he ordered. Curling his fingers roughly around the lad's other arm, he hauled his son upright.

At his side, Justin's wrist was cocked at an odd angle from his hand. It throbbed so abominably he wanted to retch. Bravely he swallowed the bile rising in his throat. He clenched his jaw against the pain and glared at his father.

"Don't!" came his father's familiar bark. "Don't!"

"Don't what?" The boy's calm did naught but infuriate the marquess.

"Don't look at me like that!"

A Perfect Bride"Like what?"

"The way she did!"

Something was rising inside the little boy, a festering resentment, a twisted swirl of emotion he couldn't control—nor did he want to. In that moment, he hated his father. Hated him for the harsh control he exerted over his brother Sebastian. Hated him for the way he turned a blind eye to little Julianna. He didn't care if Papa took the birch to his backside.

He hated his father . . . as he sensed his father hated him.

"Who?" he inquired icily. "Do you mean Mama?"

Sheer rage flamed in his father's eyes. "Shut up, boy! Shut up!"

He struck the boy hard across the face.

The blow felled Justin to the ground once more. This time he shot upright of his own power. Through glittering green eyes, he regarded his father. "I won't!" he cried. "She didn't like you any better than I do, Papa, any better than Sebastian . . . or anyone, for what matter! Perhaps that's why she left!"

The marquess snapped. "How dare you speak to me so! Wicked, that's what you are, boy. Wicked!"

Vile curses spewed from his lips.

It wasn't the first time his father had called him names—it wasn't to be the last either. Names that . . . well, names that he'd never confided to anyone, not even Sebastian.

All the while the lad proudly stood his ground. He never flinched—never even blinked—though every word pummeled his heart, his very soul. When at last a heavy silence descended, he merely tipped his chin.

"I trust, sir, that you are finished?"

Disdain dripped from his tone, a frigidity that should have been far beyond his years, far beyond his experience. A snarl twisting his lips, the marquess drew back his fist once more.

Suddenly Sebastian was there. He thrust his way between them. "Papa, stop!" cried the eldest. "Look at Justin's wrist. . . there's something dreadfully wrong!"

And indeed, there was.

A physician was summoned. Inside the house, Justin lay on his bed. The physician cocked a brow.

"'Tis broken," he announced. "I believe I can set the bone back into place, lad, but I must be honest. It's going to hurt like the very devil. So if you feel the need to howl . . . "

The marquess hovered directly behind the physician.

Justin's gaze collided with his father's. There was a lump the size of an apple in his throat. His eyes burned . . . his father's image wavered, then righted into focus.

It was then he glimpsed his father's satisfied little sneer and he realized . . . his father expected him to cower and wail and weep. His mouth compressed. Mother hadn't. Sebastian didn't. And he wouldn't.

Sebastian squeezed his shoulder. "Justin," came his whisper, "do you hear? It's all right if you—"

"It is not," the boy refuted fiercely. His gaze locked with his father's. "I won't cry. I will never cry!"

The physician gave a nod and stepped over him.

There was a sickly crack as the bone slipped back into place. Justin's thin body jerked. His back arched off the bed. The thin fingers of his free hand wound into the sheets. When it was done, he lay white-faced and panting.

But he did not cry. No hint of sound whatsoever passed his lips . . .

The marquess gave a snort of disgust. Without a word, he turned and stalked from the chamber.

Wicked.

As often as he could, whenever he could, the marquess taunted his second son. He shouted it. He screamed it. He whispered it, when no one else was about.

Not once, in all the years of his youth, did Justin Sterling chance to glimpse his father's chest swell at his accomplishments or his eyes shine with pride.

He was well aware there was little point in trying. The marquess held his son in disdain.

Time marched on, and the spindly-legged boy grew tall and straight and handsome. His attendance at Eton was marred by numerous incidents and letters to the marquess. His father's disapproval multiplied, in perfect parallel with Justin's defiance.

Ah, yes, his mother had put the blight on the family name, while he was the bane of it. His deeds were atrocious, his behavior appalling. If it displeased his father, it pleased him.

And he reveled in it.

He drank. He gambled. He whored. And if his father knew it, well, all the better.

One warm June night, the summer of his seventeenth year, he stumbled into the house just before dawn. He'd just spent a very pleasurable evening with a bottle of port and the miller's daughter, and the combination had left him deuced exhausted. Faith, but the girl was creative in ways he'd never expected. Ah, but she had a talent with her mouth that—

"Where the devil have you been?"

The marquess barred his path.

A slow smile curled Justin's lips. "What, my lord, you wish an account of the night's activities?" He didn't bother with a form of address. He'd stopped calling him Papa years ago. Now he wouldn't even deign to call him Father to his face.

He gestured grandly toward the door of his father's study, which stood ajar. "Perhaps we should be seated. This could take some time, for the evening's entertainment was interesting, shall we say. I give you fair warning, though, it's altogether possible you may be shocked—"

"Cease!" hissed the marquess. "I've no intention of listening to your filth!" His gaze raked Justin from head to toe. "Christ, you're drunk, aren't you?"

In the face of his father's sneer, Justin executed a courtly bow, as courtly as he could manage given his sotted state. "An astute observation."

His father's lip curled in disgust. "God, but I wish you'd leave. I wish you'd leave and never return!"

Justin's mocking smile remained. "All the reason to remain."

The marquess clenched his fists. "By God, I could make you. I have the power to make certain you never show your face here again!"

"Ah, but what would that say to the world? You drove Mother away, while you threw me out. But you needn't put up with me but a while longer. I'm off to Cambridge at the end of summer, remember?"

"And I shall be glad, for every day you are here is a living hell!"

A Perfect BrideJustin inclined his head. "A sentiment, I daresay, I return in full measure."

"Look at you, so drunk you can hardly stand!" the marquess burst out. "And you reek of cheap perfume! God, but you are so very much your mother's brat! She shamed me, the witch! She shamed my good name, as you shame me! And all these years I've had to look at you, staring back at me with her eyes, with her smile. Reminding me what she did, what she was—a whore who would spread her legs for any man who would have her. And you are no better. Your blood is tainted," he raged, "as she was tainted. No decent woman will ever have you, boy No decent woman will ever want you!"

Justin's eyes glittered. In that instant, he wanted only to strike out, to strike back, to wound his father as he had wounded him.

"If Mama was such a whore," he stated cuttingly, "how then do you know your children are not your own—"

All at once Justin broke off. He stared hard at his father.

"Sweet Christ," he whispered, the words but a breath. "You don't, do you?"

The marquess made no answer. The silence was suddenly stifling.

Justin's mouth twisted. "Oh, but that's rich! The Marquess of Thurston . . . abandoned by his wife, killed with her lover on her way to France . . . and forever saddled with her children! And he must ever wonder if any of them are his own! And of course you couldn't foist us off on anyone else, could you? You had to claim us, because you just didn't know."

The marquess was livid. "Shut up, boy."

Justin began to laugh. And once started, he couldn't seem to stop . . .

"Shut up!" roared the marquess. Malice glittered in his eyes. He took a threatening step forward.

Suddenly everything changed. The marquess made a choking sound. His eyes bulged. He clawed at his cravat . . . and slumped to the floor.

Justin couldn't tear his gaze from his father's figure, lying prone on the polished marble floor. For one horrifying instant, he couldn't move.

Then sanity returned and he rushed to his father's side, falling to his knees. He stretched out a tentative hand. "Father?" he whispered.

The marquess stared toward the ceiling, through sightless eyes.

Justin began to shake. A horrible, sickly sensation seized hold of him. He lurched upright. And then he was running, running toward his chamber, as if the devil himself were at his heels . . .

The marquess was dead. Dead.

Justin would never tell anyone about what transpired this night between the two of them. He would keep it a secret locked deep in his being. No one would ever know that he had been present . . . that he had killed his father.

 

A Perfect BrideChapter 1

London, 1817

The atmosphere at White's was not particularly different than any other evening. A number of well-dressed gentlemen circled the hazard table. The air was thick with the pungent smell of brandy and cigars. His long frame stretched out in a green velvet chair, Justin Sterling idly scanned the day's newspaper, as if he hadn't a care in the world—and indeed he did not. His long legs crossed at the ankle, his pose was one of redolent ease.

"Upon my soul!" intruded a mocking voice. "So you've at last deigned to grace us with your presence again!"

Justin glanced over the top of the paper, his green eyes meeting those of his friend Gideon.

Gideon eyed the empty chair beside him. "May I sit?"

"What, you're asking?" Justin laid aside the newspaper. Gideon was a man known for doing what he pleased, when he pleased and where he pleased—a man after Justin's own heart, to be sure.

"Well," Gideon said, "given the beastly frame of mind you were in when you departed the country, "I thought I'd better."

It was true. Even his sister-in-law Devon had commented on his wretched mood before he'd left. Why, it was so, Justin didn't know. He didn't lack for companionship, neither female nor familial. He had anything he could possibly want at his disposal. Indeed, what more could a man possibly want?

He didn't know. That was the crux of it.

To that end, he'd decided three months earlier that a change of scenery was in order, so he'd removed himself to the Continent. To Paris, Rome, Vienna . . . He'd traveled to his heart's content, indulged himself to his heart's content.

Now he was back.

And he was no more content than before.

Justin reached for his brandy. "And greetings to you, too," he murmured dryly.

"Oh, all right then. I daresay, you are looking singularly well." Gideon eyed the perfect fit of snug wool across his shoulders. "Must be your tailor. Weston, I presume?"

Justin inclined his head. Weston was the premier—and most expensive—tailor in the city. "You presume correctly."

Nearby came a raucous burst of laughter.

"Two thousand pounds to the man who can take her!"

Justin glanced over just as Sir Ashton Bentley executed a wobbly bow. Justin was not surprised; Bentley's predilection for drink somehow always managed to surpass his tolerance.

"Raise the stakes and make it worthwhile," boomed another fellow.

The voices came from a group of men, gathered just a few paces away from White's bay window where Beau and his cronies usually gathered, though they were absent this night. It appeared the discussion was growing quite animated.

There was a loud guffaw. "No one's seen her muff or likely to, lest it be on her wedding night!"

"She'll never consent to a bedding before marriage!" hooted another. "Ask Bentley!"

"Ha! It damn well won't take marriage, or even an offer to make her mine. She'll be green-gowned by the end of the season or my name isn't Charles Brentwood!"

A Perfect BrideAnother man chortled. "Her? Tumbled on the grass? Not bloody likely."

"Two thousand says I can mow her down!" boasted Patrick McElroy, second son of a Scottish earl. "And her husband, should she ever deign to choose one from the buffoons courting her, will never know he wasn't the first!"

"And just how will we know the deed has been done?" came the inevitable inquiry. "To lay claim to it is one thing, to succeed is quite another."

Indeed, Justin's mind had been pondering that very point.

"He's right," came the shout. "We'll need proof!"

"A trophy!" someone cheered. "We need a trophy!"

"A lock of hair ought to do the trick! There's not a soul in England with hair the color of flame!"

No doubt it was some young debutante who had captured their fancy. Trust the Scotsman McElroy to be vulgar. And Brentwood had no finesse when it came to the fairer sex. Justin almost felt sorry for the poor chit, whoever she was.

Justin's gaze hadn't left the group. "A randy lot, it would seem," he murmured to Gideon. "But I confess to an abounding curiosity . . . Who is this woman with whom they're so fascinated?"

Gideon offered a mocking smile. "Who else? The Unattainable."

"The what?"

"Not what, but who. You've been gone too long, my friend. Since she turned down three offers of marriage in a fortnight—Bentley among them—she's become known as The Unattainable. She's quite famously in vogue, you know. The toast of the Season thus far."

Justin's gaze lifted heavenward. "Just what London needs. Another drab, boring, insipid debutante."

"Not precisely a debutante. She's almost one-and-twenty, though I don't believe she's ever had a formal coming-out. And she's hardly insipid." Gideon erupted into laughter. "Ah, but that is the last word I should use to describe The Unattainable."

"And what word would you use to describe her?"

Justin lifted his glass to his lips, while Gideon pursed his lips. "Hmmm. Do you know, one simply will not do! She's truly quite delectable, but—oh, how shall I say this? She is not a woman of convention, yet she's all the rage. She is most certainly never boring, and she's hardly drab. I don't believe I've yet to see her dressed in white. And her hair is indeed the color of flame." He nodded toward the group. "A fitting trophy indeed."

"She hardly sounds the usual diamond of the first water."

"And she's not the usual debutante. But perhaps that's the lure. She is a woman of . . . how shall I put this? A woman of statuesque proportions." Gideon gave a dramatic sigh. "She has all the grace of a fish out of water. And she cannot dance to save her soul."

A perfectly arched black brow climbed high. Justin lowered his glass to stare at Gideon incredulously. He pretended a shudder of distaste. "The chit is a giant, a bumbler, nearly on the shelf, yet she's entertained three proposals?"

"Quite so," Gideon affirmed lightly, "and not even a fortune to commend her."

"My God, have all the men in Town gone mad?"

Gideon laughed softly. "Yes. Mad is what they are. Mad about her. Mad for her. I should estimate . . . oh, perhaps half are ensnared. Enamored. Entranced, falling at her feet and declaring themselves instantly in love with her. The other half are here at White's—" Gideon waved a hand "—seeking to slip beneath her skirts, as you can hear."

Ever the cynic, Justin quirked a brow. "You sound quite besotted yourself," he observed. "Have you fallen beneath her spell too?"

A laugh was Gideon's only response. But almost ere the sound emerged from his lips, Gideon's eyes slid away for a fraction of a second. Justin had known him too long and too well to see what Gideon chose to hide. Justin gazed at him, in truth no less than shocked. Gideon was hardly the sort to embarrass easily.

"Never tell me," he drawled, "that you were among the buffoons paying court to her."

Judging from his glower, Gideon did not take kindly to his jibe.

Justin couldn't resist teasing. "Set you in your place, did she?"

"Don't be so damned smug," Gideon snapped.

Justin took a sip of port. "Why, I wouldn't dream of it." He contemplated the brew, his mind stirring. He was not fond of red-haired females, and for good reason. They put him in mind of—

"You're looking vastly annoyed, Justin. What is it?"

"If you must know, I was just thinking about a female who gave me a set-down some years ago."

"What, you?"

Oh, but the incident playing in his mind was not one he cared to remember. She'd dealt quite a blow to his pride; granted, it had been a bit inflated at the time. Why the girl had singled him out for her mischief, he had no idea. Of course Sebastian persisted in reminding him of the minx's little scheme whenever he could. Child or no, he'd never quite forgotten—or forgiven!—that wild little hoyden's attempt to demean him.

He offered a tight smile. "Let it suffice to say that perhaps we're not so dashing as we think, either of us." He didn't divulge that the female had been a mere child. God knew Gideon would have gloated to no end.

He steered the conversation back to the subject at hand. "She must be quite something, this chit known as The Unattainable, to send you sniffing about her skirts—and you one of the most notorious rakes in Town."

"Oh, but I do believe that honor is solely yours." Gideon had regained his aplomb and proved himself fully up to par. "However, if you think you would fare better, perhaps you should put yourself into the running." He nodded toward the group where The Unattainable was still being discussed—and in ever more bawdy terms.

Before Justin could answer, Bentley's voice rang out again. "Three thousand pounds to the man who succeeds in deflowering The Unattainable!"

"Ah," said Gideon. "The stakes are rising."

Justin gave a shake of his head. "Good God, Bentley's drunk. Someone should get him out of here before he goes back to the hazard table and loses the very clothes on his back."

"Who is in?" There was a flash of hands, five in all—McElroy, Brentwood, Lester Drummond, William Hardaway—a lad barely out of the schoolroom!—and Gregory Fitzroy.

"'Tis done," came the shout. "Three thousand pounds any man among the five of us who claims The Unattainable!"

A Perfect BrideThere was a raucous cheer, a flash of bank notes, and a footman was sent scurrying for the betting book. Justin was hardly shocked by the subject of the wager, for when it came to the matter of wagers, nothing was sacred here at White's—or any of the gentlemen's clubs, for that matter. They were rakes, one and all, he decided with more than a hint of self-derision, and he and Gideon perhaps the worst of the lot.

Yet almost in spite of himself, Justin found himself pondering what it was about The Unattainable that everyone found so captivating.

His gaze returned to Gideon. It was disconcerting to discover Gideon's eyes already locked on his face. Justin wasn't certain he liked the flare of amusement in Gideon's gaze.

He knew it for certain when Gideon tipped his head to the side.

"Intrigued, are we, Justin?"

Justin shrugged.

Gideon's laughter rang out. "Admit it. We've known each other too long. You are, if not by the fact that the sum is a significant one, then because of the fact that my interest was once piqued by The Unattainable."

An elegant black brow arose. "She must be a veritable ice maiden to resist the likes of you."

Gideon neither confirmed nor denied it. Instead his eyes glinted. "If that is indeed the case, no doubt you think you can thaw her."

"I am not inclined to try," Justin said baldly.

"I confess, you disappoint me—" Gideon affected shock "—you, the man with innumerable conquests. By God, you've gone and gotten almost . . . dare I say it? Almost respectable. You—" came his drawling complaint "—are growing into a dullard."

Now that was laughable.

He was a devil inside, and everyone knew it . . . everyone except, perhaps, his brother Sebastian, who liked to remind him of his occasional lapses into respectability. The way he'd ventured into several business dealings and profited quite fortuitously, for one. Too, he'd left the family townhouse two years earlier and leased his own just prior to Sebastian's marriage. Those were, he supposed, the trappings of respectability.

A pleasant haze had begun to surround him, for he was well into his third glass of port. Nonetheless, his smile was rather tight. "Don't bother baiting me, Gideon," he said amicably.

Gideon gestured toward the group still gathered around the betting book. "Then why aren't you leading the way?"

Justin was abruptly irritated. "She sounds positively ghastly, for one. For another, no doubt she's a paragon of virtue—"

"Ah, without question! Did I not mention she's the daughter of a vicar?"

Justin's mind stirred. A vicar's daughter . . . hair the color of flame. Once again, it put him in mind of . . . but no. He dismissed the notion immediately. That could never be.

"I am many things, but I am not a ravisher of innocent females." He leveled on Gideon his most condescending stare, the one that had set many a man to quailing in his boots.

On Gideon, it had no such effect. Instead he erupted into laughter. "Forgive me, but I know in truth you are a ravisher of all things female."

"I detest redheads," Justin pronounced flatly. "And I have a distinct aversion to virgins."

"What, do you mean to say you've never had a virgin?"

"I don't believe I have," Justin countered smoothly. "You know my tastes run to sophisticates—in particular, pale, delicate blondes."

"Do you doubt your abilities? A woman such as The Unattainable shall require a gentle wooing. Just think, a virgin, to make and mold as you please." Gideon gave an exaggerated sigh. "Or perhaps, old man, you are afraid your much-touted charm is waning?"

Justin merely offered a faint smile. They both knew otherwise.

Gideon leaned forward. "I can see you require more persuasion. No doubt to you Bentley's three thousand is a paltry sum. So what say we make this more interesting?"

Justin's eyes narrowed. "What do you have in mind?"

Gideon's gaze never left his. "I propose we double the stakes, a wager between the two of us. A private wager between friends, if you will." He smiled. "I've often wondered . . . what woman can resist the man touted as the handsomest in all England? Does she exist? Six thousand pounds says she does. Six thousand pounds says that woman is The Unattainable."

Justin said nothing. To cold-bloodedly seduce a virgin, to callously make her fall in love with him so that he
could . . .

God. That he could even consider it spoke to his character—or lack thereof. Indeed, it only proved what he'd always known . . .

He was beyond redemption.

He was wicked, and despite Sebastian's protestations otherwise, he knew he'd never change.

"Six thousand pounds," Gideon added very deliberately. "And worth every penny, I'll warrant. But there's one condition."

"And what is that?"

"She must be yours within the month."

A smile dallied about Justin's lips. "And what proof shall you require?"

Gideon chuckled. "Oh, I daresay I shall know when and if the chit falls for you."

He was drunk, Justin decided hazily, perhaps as drunk as that fool Bentley, or he wouldn't even give the idea a second thought.

But he was a man who could resist neither a dare nor a challenge—and Gideon knew it.

There had been many women in his life, Justin reflected blackly. Having reached the age of nine-and-twenty, thus far no woman had ever captured his interest for more than a matter of weeks. He was like his mother in that regard.

In all truth, what was one more?

And if everything that had been said about The Unattainable was true . . . If nothing else, it might prove an amusing dalliance.

He met Gideon's keen stare. "You're aware," he murmured, "that I rarely make a wager unless I stand to win."

"What a boast! And yet I think perhaps it will be you paying me. Remember, you've the rest of the hoard to fend off." Gideon gestured to Brentwood and McElroy.

Justin pushed back his chair and got to his feet. "Something tells me," he drawled with a lazy smile, "that you know where this beacon of beauty can be found."

Gideon's eyes gleamed. "I believe that would be the Farthingale Ball."

 


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