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Pursuit of a Scandalous Lady
Book 1 of the "Scandalous Lady" trilogy
Every gentleman is
wondering: Who is
the beauty in the
scandalous nude portrait hanging in one of
Julian Delane, Earl of Parkhurst, has a good idea. So good, in fact, that he's willing to make a wager on it. If only the bet were all that's at stake…Determined to clear the family name from a scandal that claimed his father's life, Julian believes the ravishing model will lead him to answers. Rebecca Leland—spirited, adventurous, with a bit of a wild streak—is just as determined to evade his questions. But when Julian finally corners his quarry, he may find Rebecca well worth the pursuit.
"...The hero and heroine are engaging,
making this a pleasantly spicy early beach read."
"...One outstanding book!"
Coffee Time Romance
4 1/2 Stars and A Top Pick!
"With her latest trilogy Callen introduces three remarkable women who defy society's rules to find passion and love. This is Callen's forte: entangle readers in a tale that's delightfully sexy, fast paced and filled with engaging characters who hold your interest until the end."
RT BookReviews Magazine
"Callen neatly matches up a sharp-witted heroinewith an irresistibly sexy hero to create a romance composed of equal measures of lively intrigue and potent passion."
"A talented writer who has crafted a well-plotted story that will keep the reader wanting more."
"As always, Ms. Callen creates exquisite trilogies that are stand alones as well. Ms. Callen once again does NOT disappoint…she entraps her readers with extraordinary characters in a saga that’s witty, mysterious and most definitely sultry hot!"
"In Pursuit of a Scandalous Lady is good fun!"
Romance Reviews Today
"Gayle Callen has started her next trilogy with a bang, funny, exciting
and a thrill that will keep you turning the pages."
"Callen's characters are alive, forceful when neeeded yet tender and caring with each other...Readers will enjoy this gem of a story!"
"Gayle Callen rocks the historical romance!"
(The following is the property of the author and Avon Books, and cannot be copied or reprinted without permission.)
Setup: Julian Delane, Earl of Parkhurst, and his two
seen the nude painting hung in their club. The model, rumored to be a
woman of the ton, is wearing a diamond stolen from his family ten years
before. The men are playing cards late at night in the empty club.)
At the next creak of the stair, someone hushed someone else out in the hall. The gazes of the three men met and held, even as their smiles died.
Julian reached and turned down the lamp until they could barely see. “So they won’t notice us when we open the door,” he whispered, then got to his feet.
When the two men crowded drunkenly behind him, he had to push them back, the gloom too great for them to see his warning frown. Very slowly, he opened the door, grateful that the hinges were well oiled. He could see little at first, his eyes yet unaccustomed to the gloom, except for the tiny bobbing flame from a single candle. But the cavernous hall, with the staircase rising up through the center, was lit from below by a single lamp.
It illuminated the cautious steps of three figures just reaching the first floor. They wore dark trousers, coats and hats, but were slight enough that Julian whispered over his shoulder, “They’re boys.”
He turned back to peer out, feeling his friends crowding behind him. They all watched the youths creep toward the main saloon and disappear within.
Julian gestured and emerged from the card room, the other two trailing behind him. They made no sound, which was amazing for three men well into their cups. Large hunting portraits covering all the way to the ceiling of the hall were silhouetted in the gloom, a spark of light occasionally catching a golden frame.
Julian, Leo and Peter reached the doorway to the saloon and cautiously peered in. The three young intruders stood with their backs to the door, facing the nude portrait.
“Boys will be boys,” Leo whispered.
Julian glared at him and Leo rolled his eyes.
The boys whispered among themselves, then separated along the length of the painting, put their hands on the frame, and attempted to lift.
Those were not the rough hands of boys, but were slim and delicate.
Julian stepped into the room, knowing that the meager light of a single candle would barely illuminate him. “Caught in the act,” he said, his deep voice cutting into the silence.
He heard several gasps. The painting frame banged against the wall, but hadn’t been dislodged. The three figures seemed frozen.
“You can’t run,” Julian continued. “We are between you and escape. Now why don’t you turn around, so we can see the thieves who dare attempt to steal the club’s painting?”
They seemed to share an unspoken communication, then slowly turned around, heads lowered, their faces shadowed beneath the brims of their caps. The single candle wavered on a table beside them. The “boys” slumped, shoulders rounded, hands in pockets, scuffing booted toes on the floor.
“We were just looking,” one said in a low, husky voice.
“As you lifted the painting?” Leo asked in amusement. As he used their candle to light a lamp, they all backed up against the wall, shoulders brushing the painting. “I didn’t know I was so threatening,” he added dryly.
“They should feel threatened,” Julian said. “We’re witnesses to their crime. It’s a shame they can’t induce us to forget that this happened.”
There was a pregnant pause.
Peter sighed loudly. “Shall I awaken the proprietor?”
“Wait!” one of the thieves called, voice desperate—and an octave higher.
“Take off your hat,” Julian commanded.
Again the thieves seemed to commune as they glanced at each other. The one who’d spoken stepped forward, shoulders back, and removed the cap. Dark brown hair gleamed where it wound about her head. One lustrous curl slid slowly to her shoulder. Julian inhaled swiftly.
Rebecca Leland, the woman who’d revealed herself without qualm for a public painting, taking the chance that she would forever ruin her reputation.
In the low light, her eyes glittered, full of pride and defiance. Her complexion glowed in her heart-shaped face, her lips taut but full. She didn’t betray her nerves by licking them, but something dark inside Julian wished she would. He mentally shook himself, irritated that he was distracted by a pretty face. And he never usually overindulged in drink either. The latter was surely why he noticed that the open collar of her shirt showed the delicate lines of her throat. The loose fit of her coat could not hide the roundness of her breasts. He well remembered the way such lushness had framed the heart-shaped diamond.
But the diamond and her indiscretion were all on display, bold as life, filling the wall behind her head like an invitation to sin. What did she think of her erotic exhibit? Was she embarrassed? Did her companions even know the truth?
As the tension in the room escalated, filling the air with the heaviness that usually preceded a thunderstorm, the other two women bravely followed their leader, removing their hats.
“Ladies, we have not been formally introduced,” Julian said, feeling as if he were speaking only to Rebecca.
“Susanna—” Peter began, but stopped himself.
The women all glanced at Peter with a trace of chagrin. He was evidently on more familiar terms with the young ladies.
Leo chuckled. “Lord Parkhurst, you are making the acquaintance of the Leland sisters, Susanna and Rebecca, and their cousin Lady Elizabeth Cabot, sister of the duke.”
Julian knew that the duke was half Spanish, so he deduced that the black-haired woman was his sister. That left the redhead for Rebecca’s sister. He thought he saw a resemblance to Rebecca beneath the spectacles Susanna wore. They had the same delicate nose and bold cheekbones. But Rebecca by far had the lushest mouth.
“I can think of only one reason that three ladies of Society would dare to invade a gentlemen’s club,” Julian said slowly.
Crimson splashed across Rebecca’s cheeks; but then he could not imagine that she was innocent.
“We dared each other,” she said.
He arched a brow and sauntered closer. He knew he was too big, too broad-shouldered for a Society gentleman. He had the body of a boxer, and he saw the flicker of apprehension in Susanna’s eyes as he approached.
But Rebecca only glared up at him, obviously unimpressed by his intimidation.
“You dared each other to steal this particular painting?” he countered.
She didn’t look to her compatriots for confirmation. “Of course not. We could hardly expect to steal such a thing. We wanted to play a prank and hide it.”
“So you knew about this painting?”
“No! But how could we not choose it, once we arrived? I dare say, men as a species are rather vulgar.”
Said the woman who’d posed nude, Julian thought with a trace of amusement. “I think there is another reason you targeted this painting,” he said. “The artist, Roger Eastfield, claims the model is a young lady of Society. So which of you is it?”
He pointed to the painting, saw all three women look that way. Color rose in their faces, and he imagined they must feel embarrassed. Rebecca lifted her chin, determination flattening her mouth.
But before she could say anything, both Elizabeth and Susanna spoke in perfect harmony. “I’m the model.”
Julian heard Leo chuckle, but he didn’t take his gaze from Rebecca’s face. She grinned up at him, her changeable hazel eyes suddenly twinkling.
“I’m the model,” she said.
He crossed his arms over his chest, saw the way her gaze darted—nervously?—down his body. He could not help his reluctant feeling of admiration at their bravery. They were all protecting Rebecca.
“Now isn’t this a puzzle,” Leo murmured, amusement lacing his words.
“Oh, come now, ladies,” Peter said. “I would not have expected this from any of you. If your brothers knew of this—”
aren’t in town,”
“During the height of the Season?” Julian asked. Now he knew why the women had felt so free to make mischief.
“They’re hunting in—” Susanna broke off at Rebecca’s warning frown.
Leo said, openly rubbing his hands
together. “Hunting in…the country? Another
country? I happen to know the duke
has extensive property in
Julian felt more intense focus than he’d experienced in the ten years since he’d begun to resurrect the earldom. He wanted to demand answers, to shake Rebecca until she told him about the stolen diamond called the Scandalous Lady, and how she’d come to wear it to a ball.
“You have to let us leave,” Rebecca said.
He hoped his direct stare was making her nervous. “No, we don’t. We could report this.”
“Or perhaps we won’t,” Leo said, sauntering forward. “I don’t know you ladies well—”
“But we know of you,” Susanna said with the disapproval of a stern governess to her charge. Her spectacles glittered in the lamplight as if with their aid she dissected him.
Leo put a hand on his chest and bowed. “Then my reputation precedes me. Allow me to prove that I can live up to your beliefs. Gentlemen, I propose a wager.”
Julian didn’t want to be distracted by such drunken foolery, but he forced himself to be patient, an ability that had aided him well over the years. He’d spent his childhood patiently waiting to rescue his family, then his adulthood patiently guiding his investments and businesses, even while patiently seeking the proper bride. Leo’s wager might work out to Julian’s benefit.
“What is it?” Peter asked warily.
Leo smiled. “I propose that we each try to determine the real identity of the model—any way we can.”
A momentary silence grew and held, thick with possibilities and promise.
“This is preposterous,” Rebecca said coolly.
“You do not have much of a choice,” Julian said, thinking how such a wager could lead him to unravel the truth of his family’s tragedy. “You are at our mercy. If you don’t wish to participate, then you’ll have to live with the consequences of your…unveiling. There are many men who’ve seen this painting. I wonder what they would think if they knew…”
“That is blackmail,” Susanna said tightly.
“Why, Miss Leland, that is such an ugly word,” Leo said. “You have put yourself in this situation, and I think you’re getting a decent return for such a daring stunt. We’ll let you go free, and you’ll have to accept our attempts to discover the truth.”
“So you think by ganging up on us,” Rebecca said, “you’ll somehow wear down our resistance? Gentlemen, that will never happen.”
“Your voice is full of challenge,” Julian said. “I like that.”
Her focus came back to him immediately. She betrayed her nerves by licking her dry lips.
And after everything he’d gone through, his single-minded devotion to his family and businesses, his obsession with the Scandalous Lady—one flick of this woman’s tongue had him suddenly thinking dark thoughts. He glanced up at the painting, at the up thrust breasts and the dark shadows between her thighs. Clenching his jaw, he focused his thoughts on the lost diamond and his father’s downfall.
“I think the model is you,” he said to Rebecca in a low, husky voice.
Tension crackled between them like heat lightning on a sultry summer evening.
She tossed her head. “And I’ve already told you it is. What challenge is that?”
“Two of you are lying. But I think you’re not. Leo, what say you?”
Leo rubbed his chin thoughtfully, even as he walked a circle about the women, examining them. They twitched uneasily like fillies up for auction at Tattersall’s. “I can see you are all related, at least by the shapes of your bodies. With so many garments on—and male garments at that—it is difficult to see a true difference. So we cannot go by that.”
“You are being vulgar,” Elizabeth said, her voice haughty with generations of noble blood.
“And you are being scandalous, Elizabeth,” Peter said in a low voice. “All of you. I cannot believe—”
“You cannot believe that one of these women would dare so much?” Julian said softly. “Ladies of Society have so little to do before they’re married.” He saw their looks of outrage, but ignored them. He’d been doing meticulous research on ladies this past year. “A certain type of woman might become…bored.”
“Don’t pretend you understand any of us,” Rebecca snapped.
“Perhaps I don’t now, but I intend to know you very well.”
The alcohol was making him lose his vaunted control. He could see her jaw clench. Damn, but she was beginning to intrigue him almost as much as the diamond.
Leo stopped before Susanna, the spectacled Leland sister. She met his gaze, hers full of a withering disdain.
“Peter,” Leo said, “tell me you believe Elizabeth is the model, because I want this one.”
Susanna’s brave front faltered as she stiffened. “How dare you, sir! I should not think you capable of discerning the truth. Your reputation speaks of a poor intellect.”
“I haven’t seen you out and about much, have I?” Leo said slowly. His eyes lit. “You’re the bluestocking, aren’t you? You dabble in art, I believe?”
“Dabble?” she echoed in a frosty voice.
“I do believe that makes you more likely to pose for a fellow artist. What fun! Peter, what say you?” Leo didn’t take his eyes off the woman, as if she might escape if he didn’t pin her into place with his gaze.
Peter sighed. “Rebecca, Susanna, your brother is my friend. He has helped me in so many ways I cannot recount them all. I cannot believe you guilty of such a thing, regardless of what you say.” He studied Elizabeth. “Then it has to be you.”
She smiled cheerfully. “I told you it was.”
Peter leaned toward her, smiling back. “And I’ll enjoy proving it.”
Her smile faltered.
“There we have it, gentlemen,” Leo said, his voice full of good-natured ease. “This wager will be enjoyable as is, but I think a monetary reward might give us further incentive.”
“My, what big words you use,” Susanna challenged.
Julian gave a tight smile.
Leo laughed, then glanced with speculation at Julian and Peter. “Shall we say…five hundred pounds?”
Nodding, Julian knew the sum was no problem for him, but Peter was only the youngest son of a squire and not in the best financial straits.
Peter gave a brusque nod. “Done.”
Julian said nothing about his knowledge of the jewel. A wager was a wager, and every man had to use his own advantages.
For a moment, he couldn’t believe his search for the truth of the lost diamond could be so close to fruition. He’d spent his adult life resurrecting the respect his title deserved, saving his property and his people. He’d never set one foot outside the bounds of propriety, approaching even the smallest investment with caution and forethought, including even his search for a bride.
Now here he was, dazzled by Rebecca Leland’s nudity, lured by the diamond that had contributed to his father’s downfall—challenged by the woman herself, who faced him down as if what she’d done were a grand adventure instead of the terrible risk it really was. He didn’t understand her at all. But he would learn.
“This is useless,” Rebecca said, hands on her hips.
She should not draw attention to her feminine roundness, not when it was so boldly painted behind her.
“We could settle this right now,” Leo responded. “You could each remove your clothing and let us see the truth.”
The women blushed, their gazes boring into Leo disdainfully.
But Julian didn’t really want the truth revealed so easily. He needed the cover of the wager under which to make his inquiries.
“I’m looking forward to the challenge of discovering the truth—and your motives,” Leo said. “That intrigues me most of all.”
Rebecca pulled her cap back on her head, hiding the rich sable of her hair. “Now that you’ve had your amusement, step out of our way.”
The cap shadowed her face, leaving her full lips highlighted in a slash of light. Julian found himself far too aroused. Before he could do something foolish—like claim her with a kiss before everyone—he stepped aside.
But instead of marching past him, she led her sister and cousin back to the painting.
“What do you think you’re doing?” Julian demanded in disbelief as they put their hands on the frame.
“Taking what is ours,” she answered without looking at him.
“The club purchased the painting from the artist quite legally,” he pointed out.
“It wasn’t meant to be here at all,” Elizabeth said, frustration evident in her frown.
“You meant it to be in a private collection,” Peter said slowly. “That makes sense, Elizabeth, with your brother being who he is. But you miscalculated.”
“You all miscalculated,” Julian amended.
“Susanna, spell that for me,” Leo called.
She ignored his drunken teasing.
“Surely you do not want every man to see this during your wager,” Rebecca said. “What if others hatch similar ideas?”
“You should have thought of that before you posed.” Julian wondered if anyone else had recognized the diamond from the portrait—or from around her exquisite neck one night at a ball. Or perhaps no one cared any longer about a maharajah’s gift, he thought bitterly. It gleamed above both of them now in the lamplight. Why had she been so foolish as to wear it in public?
Because she’d thought her secret well hidden in France.
With a toss of her head, Rebecca demanded, “And what do we get if none of you can determine the truth?”
“So you’re going to play an active part in our wager?” Julian asked, intrigued by the possibilities. Why was he so eager to see this young woman—and she was surely several years younger than he—openly participate in something that could surely ruin her?
But of course, she’d already risked all of that, posing nude for endless hours. He found himself envying the artist and wondering at their relationship. Tamping down his interest, he reminded himself to focus on the diamond.
“Why, you’ll win the painting, of course,” Leo responded before Julian could.
Julian couldn’t imagine surrendering it, but it was too late.
“Let me understand this,” Rebecca said, eyes narrowed. “The three of you are wagering with each other over who the model is. If you cannot discover the truth, then we win the painting.”
“Correct,” Julian said, his mind continuing to calculate the best way to use this ridiculous wager to his advantage.
“Surely we must include the element of time.” Rebecca glanced with speculation at her friends, and then at the men. “You have a week to name the true model, gentlemen, presenting substantial proof and not just a guess.”
“Ridiculous,” Leo scoffed. “A week is not nearly enough time. We need until the end of the Season.”
“No,” she countered. “I’ll counter with one month, but nothing more.”
Julian exchanged a look with his two friends, and then bowed his agreement. It would give him enough time to follow the clues to the Scandalous Lady and clear his father’s name. But it couldn’t bring his father back from the dead, Julian thought grimly.
The three women marched past them. Sharing a glance, the three men followed, then leaned over the balustrade as the women descended to the ground floor and out the door.
Leo grinned. “Now that was an enjoyable evening.” He glanced at Julian. “You surprise me, old friend.”
And they were friends, Julian thought, even as he shrugged. Julian had been forced to leave Eton at ten years of age, when his father could no longer pay the tuition. Though he was a future earl, his poverty had many boys—and then men—ignoring him, until he’d made himself into a man who couldn’t be ignored.
But Leo hadn’t cared about money. He’d still invited Julian home with him at holidays and had still visited him, putting up with the chaos of Julian’s too-large family. Peter’s friendship had come later, when Julian had sensed that the man needed help finding a place for himself as a younger son with little to recommend him. Peter had taken giant strides in learning to invest, and had become a partner in several of Julian’s railways.
They had felt connected, and now they were so again by the risky challenge of three women who seemed determined to skirt the boundaries of ruination.
Leo clapped them both on the back. “May the best man win.”
Julian felt as if a spring breeze had blown through his life, awakening him from a dark winter, challenging him in a way he’d thought long in his past.
Thanks to Rebecca Leland, he would solve a family mystery, clear his father’s name—and spend time seducing the secrets from a beautiful woman.
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