Seduced by a Scoundrel - By Barbara Dawson Smith

Chapter One

Lady Alicia Pemberton braced herself to commit an act of desperation.

Holding tightly to the wrought-iron balustrade, she subdued her inner agitation and followed the butler up the grand staircase in Wilder’s Club, St. James’s Street. Their footsteps echoed through the soaring entrance hall with its tall white columns and dark green walls, decorated with paintings and statuary. The place might have been a mansion in Mayfair.

But she knew it to be a glorified gaming hell.

To her left loomed a spacious salon, the groupings of leather chairs empty save for a portly man engrossed in the Times of London. In the vast room to the right, a pair of gentlemen played billiards. A crack resounded as a yellow ball shot across the green baize and disappeared with a muffled thump into a hole in the corner of the table. The players were so intent on their game, they never even noticed a lady had invaded their exclusive club.

It must be too early yet for drunken revelry.

The elegant decor made Alicia aware of her own drab appearance, the outmoded spencer with its sadly frayed cuffs, the blue muslin gown gone pale from many washings, the bonnet with its girlish cluster of white ribbons more suited to the frivolous debutante she had once been.

She entombed her regrets. Those carefree days were gone. Dreams were for starry-eyed girls, not a mature woman with a family to protect. A family in dire trouble.

The butler stopped before a gilt-trimmed door. “Ye don’t look the usual sort,” he said in a gravelly Scottish burr.

His voice jolted Alicia out of her dark thoughts. “I beg your pardon?”

“Wilder’s sort.” A giant of a man with a leather patch over one eye, he stuck his grizzled face down to her level and subjected her to an unservile scrutiny. “If ye want a bit of advice, miss, ye should run along home and back to yer needlework.”

Alicia thought he was the one who needed advice—in manners. “I have business with Mr. Wilder.”

“Business, ye call it? He doesna pay for his pleasure, if that’s what ye’re thinking. Never has, not with the females swarming ’round him like ants to honey.”

Her stomach clenched despite her resolve to numb her emotions. Was her purpose so obvious?

She schooled her features into an expression of aristocratic dignity. “Mr. Wilder is expecting me. You may show me in now.”

The butler shrugged. “Have it yer way, then.” He swung open the door with his ham-fisted paw and motioned her inside.

Determined to get this loathsome interview over with and done, Alicia marched past him. The impertinent servant went out. The door clicked shut.

She was on her own.

The dim antechamber smelled faintly of expensive leather and musky cologne. Above a half-moon table hung a painting of some wild, rocky landscape. A patterned carpet in crimson and blue muffled her footsteps. She kept her gloved hands at her sides, her posture erect. It seemed perversely important that she maintain a ladylike demeanor.

Going through an arched doorway, she entered a large room lit by a silver branch of beeswax candles. The draperies were closed to the late afternoon sunlight, and a mahogany desk dominated the chamber. On the polished surface, a ledger lay open, and beside it a gray-feathered quill stood in a silver inkpot.

She scanned the marine-blue walls and wine-dark leather chairs, the bookcases filled with volumes. It might have been a wealthy banker’s office—except for the pair of ivory dice scattered on the desk. Shuddering, she turned quickly from the sight.

The coal fire hissed into the silent air, a counterpoint to the tension inside her. She had sent up her calling card with the nosy butler. So where was Drake Wilder?

She had taken a chance on finding him here. Leading a heathen life, he’d probably been gambling until dawn. He would sleep during daylight hours while decent, hardworking folk went about their duties. And if he deliberately meant to make her wait, let him. She was well acquainted with games of power. She had, after all, once been the toast of society.

Too restless to sit, she perused the titles on the shelves. The books must be for decoration only. A man who owned the premier gaming club in London could have no interest in the philosophy of Plato, the plays of Shakespeare, the intricacies of Euclidian geometry. Drake Wilder exploited the hopes of gullible gentlemen, nurturing their dreams of glory, then fleecing them of their wealth. He spared not a qualm for the disaster he caused to their families. Or