Behind the Rake's Wicked Wager - By Sarah Mallory

Chapter One

‘Well, well, Lord Markham, have you ever seen such a bonny child?’

Jasper Coale, Viscount Markham, looked down at the baby lying in its crib and was at a loss for words. Thankfully, his sister-in-law came to his aid.

‘Fie now, Lady Andrews, when was a man ever interested in babies? I suspect the viscount is merely glad that his little godson is not screaming the house down, as he was doing during the ceremony.’ Zelah gazed down fondly at her baby son. ‘Fortunately the journey back from the church has rocked him off to sleep.’

The christening of Dominic and Zelah’s second child had been a major event and the little church at Lesserton was crowded for the ceremony. Afterwards, Dominic laid on a feast at the White Hart for the tenants and villagers to enjoy, while family and close friends were invited to Rooks Tower for an elegant and substantial repast. Zelah had the satisfaction of seeing her rooms overflowing with guests, despite the threat of snow which was always a concern during the early months of the year. She suspected no small part of the inducement to the local families to leave their firesides was the knowledge that no lesser person than Viscount Markham would be present.

Jasper had been unable to attend the christening of his niece Arabella some eighteen months earlier, but Zelah and Dominic had asked him to stand godfather for their new-born son, and only the direst winter weather would have kept him away.

The fires at Rooks Tower were banked up, the table almost groaned with the banquet it was required to support and the wine flowed freely. Jasper was sure the neighbourhood would be talking about the Coales’ hospitality for months to come. Most of the guests were gathered in the yellow salon, but Jasper had wandered across to join Zelah in the study where the baby was sleeping, watched over by his devoted nurse. Sir Arthur and Lady Andrews had followed him into the room, brimming with good humour thanks to the abundant quantities of wine and food.

‘I admit I have nothing but praise for my godson while he is sleeping,’ said Jasper, glancing down into the crib.

‘It makes me quite broody,’ declared Lady Andrews, causing her husband to guffaw loudly.

‘Now, now, my dear, our breeding days are well past, thank the Lord!’

‘I am well aware of that, sir.’ The lady turned her

bright gaze upon Jasper. ‘But what of you, Lord Markham? I am sure, seeing your brother’s felicity, you must envy him his happy state.’

Jasper’s smile froze. Glancing across the crib, he saw the sudden alarm in Zelah’s dark eyes. He must respond quickly, lest they notice how pale she had grown. But even as he sought for the words his sister-in-law recovered with a laughing rejoinder.

‘Having spent the past two weeks here with his niece and godson, Lord Markham is more likely to value his freedom!’ She tucked her hand in his arm. ‘If you will excuse us, Sir Arthur, Lady Andrews, I must carry the viscount away now to speak to my sister before she leaves us...’

‘I commend your quick thinking,’ he murmured as they crossed the hall.

‘I had to do something,’ she responded quietly. ‘I did not want you to snub them for their impertinence. They are good people, and mean well.’

‘Mean well—!’ He smothered an exclamation and after a moment continued, ‘I beg your pardon, but it seems these days the whole world is eager to marry me off. I cannot look at a woman without her family hearing wedding bells.’

She chuckled. ‘Surely it has always been thus. ’Tis merely that you are more aware of it now.’

‘Perhaps you are right. I thought by leaving London I should have some respite from the incessant gossip and conjecture.’

Zelah gave a soft laugh and squeezed his arm.

‘You are nigh on thirty years old, my lord. Society considers it time you settled down and produced an heir.’

‘Society can go hang. I will not marry without love, and you know you are the only woman—’

Zelah stopped. ‘Hush, Jasper, someone may hear you.’

‘What if they do?’ He smiled down at her. ‘Dominic knows you refused me, it matters not what anyone else thinks.’

Zelah shook her head at him, trying to joke him out of his uncharacteristic seriousness.

‘For shame, my lord, what of your reputation as the wicked flirt no woman can resist? It would be sadly dented if word got out that you had been rejected.’

He looked down at her, wondering how it