Excerpt Counting On a Countess

Warily, Tamsyn approached the card room. Masculine conversation rolled out, borne aloft on fumes of healthily imbibed brandy. A handful of ladies’ voices joined in, sopranos to the basses, but overall the room sounded occupied mostly by men.

Her heart made a hard, unsteady beat as she contemplated what she was about to do. She’d never deliberately set her cap for a man, laying out all the pretty little traps women were supposed to cunningly employ to ensnare suitors.

She wasn’t afraid of men by any means. At home in Newcombe, she often worked long hours side-by-side with the roughest of farmers and fishermen. She believed they tempered their words in consideration of her gender and status. Yet sometimes a barrel would crash down, spilling its contents everywhere, and colorful, profane curses were employed. She came from the countryside, too, where talk was likely more honest, more coarse than how people spoke in London.

Tamsyn hadn’t had the luxury of being sheltered. But that also meant that she never truly learned the art of simpering or coquetry.

Yet somehow, she was supposed to attract Lord Blakemere’s notice, enough to let him know that she was interested.

She exhaled ruefully. She’d spent many a moonless night standing in freezing seawater, hauling crates of fabric and half-ankers of brandy, knowing that the custom officers might discover her at any moment—and yet the task of flirting with a handsome, eligible man made her palms damp.

“Are you going to enter?” a young woman asked, fanning herself as she stood beside Tamsyn. “I’m not certain I want to go in. It’s so dull everywhere I turn.”

“I don’t know what you plan on doing,” Tamsyn said to the woman beside her, straightening her shoulders, “but I feel the need to gamble.”

Taking a deep breath, she stepped into the card room.

It was far more elegant than any of the card and dice games she’d seen played in taverns. Instead of seamen and farmers crouching around games played upon a coarse stone floor, fashionable men and women sat encircling polished mahogany tables. Rather than rough hands clutching battered cards, the guests wore gloves and played using cards so clean they had to be new, or rolled dice made of shining ivory. Everything here spoke of privileged leisure, so different from what she’d known.

Tamsyn’s gaze skipped quickly from table to table. Her heart jumped when she finally spotted Lord Blakemere in a corner, playing cassino.

God help her, he seemed to have grown more handsome in the half an hour since she’d seen him last. No wonder women—both respectable and otherwise—were drawn to him. She felt pulled in his direction, lured by carnal potential.

Look at me.

But the earl was too absorbed in the game to notice any newcomers, and she tried not to feel disappointment that he didn’t look up when she entered the room.

Trying to appear as nonchalant as possible, Tamsyn slowly made her way around the room, pausing at different tables, pretending to watch the play. She applauded when one of the guests won their hand, but all the while, she was acutely aware of Lord Blakemere’s nearby presence.

What was she going to do once she reached his table? She couldn’t very well throw herself across his lap and cry, “Marry me, my lord!”

She needed to be crafty and calculating, perhaps even more so than she was when storing smuggled French spirits in the caverns beneath her family’s ancestral home.

Finally, she reached Lord Blakemere’s table and found herself struck by the clean angle of his jaw and the hedonistic curves of his mouth. She barely noticed that one gentleman acted as dealer while the other players—another man, the earl, and a dowager in ropes of pearls—studied their cards.

Tamsyn positioned herself behind an empty chair opposite Lord Blakemere, but her target didn’t look up from his hand. It wasn’t until the round was over that he glanced in her direction.

His gaze met hers, and she felt a hot jolt travel the length of her body. Her breath left her in a sudden rush.

Forcing herself to inhale and exhale slowly, she smiled at him. Gradually, he smiled back. It wasn’t a gentleman’s polite smile, but one that seemed to promise wicked things leisurely done under cover of darkness.

Another bolt of electricity moved through her. She’d had men look at her with sexual interest before, but none of those looks held the seductive power of Lord Blakemere’s sultry smile.

He asked, “Would you care to play, Miss…I’m sorry, please remind me of your name.”

“Pearce,” she said breathlessly. “Tamsyn Pearce.”

“Odd name,” muttered the dowager. “Tamsyn.”

Tamsyn’s cheeks heated with a flare of temper. Back home, hers was a commonplace name. But she wasn’t one of the thousands of Annes or Catherines or Marys that seemed all the rage in London.

“A charming sobriquet,” the earl corrected the dowager. “Cornish, yes?”

“That’s right.” A point for the earl for not dismissing her as a country mouse.

“Never been to Cornwall,” Lord Blakemere said, “though I hear it’s lovely.”

“And a smuggler’s paradise,” the other gentleman at the table added.

Tamsyn forced herself to laugh, and it came out a little shrilly. “The tales of Cornwall’s criminal side are exaggerated by ballads and print-sellers.”

“I should hope so,” Lord Blakemere said darkly.

She didn’t like the grim tone of his voice, so she said in a cheerful voice, “Fishing and mining, that’s how we earn our bread.” She smiled brightly, hoping it might cover up the sheer drivel pouring from her mouth.

Lord Blakemere continued to smile, as well. Their gazes held—with that curious heat unfolding deep within her as she stared into his deep blue eyes—and who knows how long they would have simply stared at each other if the dowager didn’t snap, “Are we playing or napping?”

“Miss Pearce, will you join us?” Lord Blakemere asked. “We can be a partnership.”

Oh, blast. She hadn’t thought about this possibility. “I would very much like to,” she said, then added ruefully, “only I haven’t any cash with me.”

“I’ll stake you,” he offered at once. “Say, three pounds? No, four.” He reached into his coat, pulled out a sizeable wad of cash, and peeled off four one pound notes, which he set on the table.

She felt her eyes widen. Goodness, he really was profligate with money if he offered her—a stranger—the loan of four pounds. That amount of money could feed a dozen families in Newcombe.

The other gentleman at the table and the dowager merely shook their heads, as if familiar with Lord Blakemere’s extravagance.

“That’s kind of you, my lord,” she murmured.

“Sit down, gel,” the dowager snarled, “or I may perish of acute boredom.”

With a Herculean effort not to snarl back, Tamsyn took her seat opposite Lord Blakemere. He winked at her and her stomach fluttered.

Concentrate, Tam. You’re here to snare his interest, not fall all over yourself like a newborn calf.

Everyone anted one pound note. Her pulse hammered at the thought of risking so much money on a game, but people played deeper in London than they did in Cornwall.

“You know how to play cassino?” the other gentleman asked as he dealt each of the players four cards.

“She had better,” the dowager said tartly. “I’m too old to explain the rules.”

Once the hands had been dealt, the dealer laid out four more cards in the center of the table—the queen of clubs, the four of diamonds, the seven of spades, and the ace of hearts. Tamsyn studied her cards.

She’d negotiated more than one shipment of smuggled goods over card games in smoky taprooms. Surely playing against these stiff necks was easier.

The gentleman opened by setting the three of diamonds atop the four. “Sevens,” he announced. Tamsyn remembered that this was known as building.

Next was Lord Blakemere. He laid the two of hearts on the seven. “Nines.”

Clearly, then, he held a nine, and hoped no one would capture it before he had a chance to.

The dowager grumbled as she set down the jack of clubs, unable to build or capture anything with the card.

Now it was Tamsyn’s turn. She set the nine of diamonds atop the earl’s pile of cards. “Nines,” she announced.

He gazed at her with curiosity that gave way to admiration. She could have captured the build, but instead, she left it for him to take. It wasn’t unheard of for partners to assist each other in gameplay, but it seemed evident he was surprised she wanted to bolster him. They would both benefit when it came time to tally points, yet by helping him capture the build, she employed strategy.

And he liked her for it.

The other gentleman captured his sevens, and then Lord Blakemere captured the nines. As he did, he sent Tamsyn a slow-burning look. If we’re this good together at the card table, his gaze seemed to promise, imagine what we’re like in bed.

The cards became slippery in her damp palms. She’d met her share of country scoundrels, braggarts who were crude in their attempts to woo her. It was easy to dismiss their thinly-veiled efforts to get her to lift her skirts because they wanted only their own gratification, she was just a means to an end.

With Lord Blakemere’s knowing looks, however, her blood felt hot, gathering warmth in secret places. She forgot the other people at their table, and in the room.

He offered so much more with just his gaze. He guaranteed not just his pleasure, but hers as well. Hours of it.

God above, but he was a rake of the first water. The men she’d known in Cornwall were mere awkward, fumbling boys compared to him, and it didn’t appear that he was even trying that hard to impress her. He simply was. How intoxicating.

The card game continued, with play following a similar pattern. Sometimes the earl helped her capture a build, and sometimes she came to his aid. They worked together seamlessly, give and take, and every time he gazed at her with greater and greater appreciation. With each look, Tamsyn felt flushed and powerfully aware of herself as a woman. She saw how his eyes lingered on her mouth or the curve of her neck, sometimes dipping even lower to follow the neckline of her gown—as though he was entranced by what he saw.

This is what a siren feels like.

He was clearly too fond of women to believe in fidelity. Perhaps he would be so distracted bringing willing females into his bed that he’d pay his wife no mind. And when the vast fortune was his, he’d hardly notice the cost of buying a rundown manor in Cornwall.

He’d make for a truly terrible husband.

I have to marry him.