Today, HJ is pleased to share with you Manda Collins’ new release: Good Earl Gone Bad
Audacious, extravagant, indulgent-the Lords of Anarchy live at top speed, with nothing to chase but pleasure…at every imaginable cost.
Marriage? To a gambler? You must be joking! Yet Lady Hermione Upperton has never
backed down from a challenge. When her spendthrift father offers her at the gaming
tables, she is given a difficult choice-wed the Earl of Mainwaring, an infamous gamester with no respect for her skills with the reins, or face charges for the murder of a member
of the infamous Lords of Anarchy. Either way she’ll have to clear her name. Can she count on her husband’s help the way she has begun to count on his kisses?
All Jasper Fawley, the Earl of Mainwaring, wanted was a night of cards. But by the end of the evening he’s walked away with a fortune-and a bride who’s suspected of murder.
Jasper knows Hermione is passionate about her unorthodox membership in the Lords of Anarchy, but he’s certain she would never kill to keep it. Can he protect his headstrong
wife from prosecution and a ruthless killer without endangering both their hearts in the
Read an exclusive excerpt from Good Earl Gone Bad:
Damn me, Mainwaring,” an aggrieved Mr. Percy Edgerton groused, throwing his cards to the table. “I should have known better than to bring my winning streak to any table that included you as a player.”
But Jasper Fawley, the Earl of Mainwaring, had heard it all before. With a shrug, he scooped up his winnings and began methodically counting them into his purse. “You cannot say you weren’t warned, Edgerton,” he said when he was finished. “By me and others. And it’s not as if you cannot afford to lose it.”
Percy, the wealthy heir of Viscount Edgerton, per- sisted in the delusion that he was something of a vir- tuoso at the tables. From what Jasper could tell, he wasn’t all that bad when his opponents were on his level. Hence the earlier winning streak. But the Earl of Mainwaring was accounted to be the most skilled player in the ton and as such had proceeded to an- nihilate Percy trick by trick until the other man was left with only a few coins on his side of the table.
“Come now, Percy,” said the blowsy widow at the young man’s shoulder, her rouged lips close to his ear. “I’ll have my cook prepare you a nice supper to make up for it.”
Despite his winnings, Jasper felt an unaccountable stab of envy. A warm woman and a nice supper sounded damned inviting.
What did he care that a scapegrace like Percy Edger- ton was destined for a more comfortable night than his own? Clearly he’d had too much brandy.
It wasn’t as if he couldn’t find a willing woman if he wanted one. His dark hair and handsome face had served him well with the ladies since he was a half- ling. He wasn’t a vain man, but he knew that regular bouts at Jackson’s and fencing at Angelo’s had honed his lean frame into something more than one woman had found pleasing to the eye—and the touch.
But he’d begun to feel bored of late when it came to the practiced wiles of that kind of woman. Perhaps he’d been on the town for too long. Been the recipi- ent of too many come-hither looks and calculated smiles. Or it could very well be that seeing his friend Freddy—Lord Frederick Lisle—settled down with a woman who had more to recommend her than bed- room skills and a fine bosom had given him an itch for something more permanent than the sort of rela- tionships to which he’d become accustomed.
Whatever the reason, he was happy enough to go home alone if it meant avoiding the sort of liaison that would leave him temporarily sated but ulti- mately empty.
Before he could bid farewell to the unhappy game- ster and his mistress, however, the Duke of Trent stepped up beside him.
“I think there’s something you should see in the back room,” Trent said, his naturally saturnine face even darker than usual.
Why had Trent even come to Mrs. Wallingford’s hell tonight? Jasper wondered as he followed the other man through the throng toward the rooms re- served for high-stakes games. Trent never seemed to enjoy himself when he played, and he lost more often than he won.
Even so, years of long friendship had led Main- waring to accept the other man’s presence on such occasions without question. At the very least they could both avoid matchmaking mamas in such estab- lishments, which was a high recommendation in and of itself. And when necessary, the duke did what he could to extricate especially reckless young pups from the clutches of sharps.
“It’s not young Lord Dalrymple again, is it?” Jas- per asked in a low voice as they wended their way through the crowded card room. “I vow I’ve stopped his skiff from going over the falls so many times I’m beginning to think he should give his bloody family estate to me.”
But Trent shook his head before extending an arm for Mainwaring to precede him through a narrow doorway into a room that was even more crowded than the card room.
When he reached the edge of the crowd nearest the table, he saw at once why Trent had brought him.
“It’s a pretty little estate,” the Earl of Upperton, Lady Hermione Upperton’s father, said, running a finger beneath his cravat. “It’s unentailed so it would be yours free and clear, Saintcrow. It’s a valid stake.”
Earlier that year Jasper and Lady Hermione had been thrown together thanks to the marriage of her dearest friend to his. Though they hadn’t always dealt amicably with one another, Jasper had a great deal of admiration for the lady’s spirit—and if he were honest, for her sharp wit and shiny dark curls that seemed always to be escaping their pins. He certainly had no wish to see her embarrassed or impoverished by her father’s profligate time at the tables.
Before he could speak, however, Upperton’s oppo- nent, Lord Saintcrow, a man whom Jasper knew to be a skilled card player, cleared his throat. “I don’t know . . .” he said, drawing out the last word.
It might have been a ploy to make Upperton add more to his wager, but it might also have been sin- cere discomfort at the stake the older man offered. Jasper didn’t know Saintcrow well enough to say.
But clearly Upperton had been spooked by the other man’s reluctance. When Jasper glanced at the pile of IOUs on the table before them, he saw why. The two men had been playing for some time appar- ently. And like many gamblers before him, at each loss, Upperton had reupped the stakes in order to win back what he’d lost. If he was offering up his unen- tailed property, the play had been deep indeed.
“My daughter’s matched grays,” Upperton said, his voice sharp with anxiety. “You know she’s re- nowned for her appreciation of horseflesh. They are worth fifteen hundred at least.”
Saintcrow, who had not seemed particularly inter- ested before now, sat up straighter. “The ones I saw her driving in the park last week?”
It was well-known around town that Lord Saint- crow was in the market for a coaching pair, and had even applied to Tattersall’s to search out a team for him. But it was an expensive way to acquire horses, and there was no denying that there was a certain allure in the idea of gaining a well-matched set of horses over the course of an evening for a few hun- dred quid instead of after months and a couple thou- sand pounds.
Upperton, however, was not so knowledgeable about horses as his daughter was. “I suppose they’re the same ones,” he said with a shrug. “I haven’t seen them myself, but since she got them I’ve been ap- proached by any number of chaps with offers to buy them.”
I’ll bet you have, Mainwaring thought with a grimace. Any man of sense would know Upperton was short of the ready and might be eager to sell off any valuable possessions. Even if they didn’t, strictly speaking, belong to him. He recalled quite clearly that Hermione had purchased the pair with her own funds since her father—notorious for his objections to her fondness for driving—had refused to buy her a pair with his funds.
Saintcrow, however, had no notion of the horses’ true ownership, and his eagerness was apparent in the way he leaned forward at the table. “I’ll accept the pair as your wager, my lord. And the Lincolnshire estate.”
Jasper exchanged a quick look with Trent. He could, knowing the truth about the horses, speak up, but to declare it openly in front of witnesses would be tanta- mount to calling Upperton a liar and men had been called out for less. Plus, the scandal would damage Hermione’s reputation irrevocably. Something he’d avoid if he could help it.
Once the terms were set, the game itself was short and sweet—at least for Saintcrow, who at the end of play found himself the proud owner of a pair of finely matched grays, named as Jasper had heard Hermione say, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, because their original owner had been fond of Shakespeare. He only hoped that the end of this particular drama was happier than that of Hamlet.
“You may collect the horses at your convenience, Saintcrow,” Upperton said with a shrug, indicating that the loss of his daughter’s prized possessions was not of particular interest to him. “Though I must in- sist you give me the opportunity to win back my losses sometime soon. That estate has been in my wife’s family for generations.”
“Clearly it is weighing heavily on you, my lord,” Jasper said with irony as the earl rose from his place at the table.
He would have pulled Hermione’s father aside to chastise him in private, but was forestalled by the appearance of Upperton’s mistress, the widowed Countess of Amberly.
“Have you been a naughty boy, Upperton?” she purred, slipping an arm into the earl’s.
“My dear lady,” Upperton said blithely, “I have lost nothing that you will miss, I can assure you. And I always win back my losses. You will see.”
And any chance Jasper might have had for discuss- ing Upperton’s losses with him was lost as the two lovers disappeared into another part of the house.
“That went well,” Trent said dryly. “Though what we could have done to stop things short of leaping into the flames ourselves I have no idea.”
“It’s a damnable thing when a man can wager his daughter’s belongings without a by-your-leave,” Jas- per groused as he and Trent stalked from the card room and toward the door to the street.
“True enough,” Trent said. “But I have a feeling Lady Hermione will not take the news without a fight.” “Even Lady Hermione Upperton cannot interfere in a matter of honor like a wager,” Jasper said, brush- ing a spare thread from the sleeve of his greatcoat.
“Though I should like very much to see her try.”
“You’re sure Leonora and Freddy will be there?” asked Hermione as she negotiated her bright yellow curricle around a narrow turn.
Though Ophelia was not overly fond of riding in the fast carriage, she had agreed to do so that morn- ing for the sake of the occasion. Today was Herm- ione’s first outing as a full-fledged member of the Lords of Anarchy driving club.
“Yes,” Ophelia answered sharply, gripping the side of the carriage with one hand and her pretty bonnet with the other. “Leonora promised me that they would be there to cheer you on. And if they are not I shall be quite put out since I planned to stand with them as we watch the procession.”
It was with a sense of unreality that Hermione had had her beautiful matched grays harnessed to the curricle that morning. She had spent so long apply- ing and being rejected by the most prestigious clubs in London that finally achieving her goal of member- ship was still a little unbelievable.
“Good,” Hermione said with some relief. She wasn’t sure why, but having her friends there to cheer her on was of the utmost importance to her. Perhaps it was because her only family to speak of was her father, and he had proved himself to be indifferent at the best of times. Much better to count on the af- fection of Leonora and Ophelia, who had on more than one occasion shown they were not as fickle as her father was. “I wonder if there will be a crowd. There are only twenty-four club members but I should like to think that a day as pretty as this will command a few onlookers at least.”
“You only wish for the world to see your splendid carriage and even more glorious horses,” Ophelia teased. Since Hermione had spoken nonstop about the pair since she’d acquired them a few months earlier there was little danger Ophelia would for- get them. “Though I must again complain that you really ought to give them to me, considering that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern were clearly destined to be mine.”
“If you had the least inclination of what to do with them, my dear,” Hermione said with a laugh, “then perhaps I would agree with you. As it is, you will have to content yourself with loving them from afar. Or at the very least, safely from the ground, for I am not convinced that you are not terrified now as they convey you through the streets of London.”
Since Ophelia continued to grasp the side of the curricle like a shipwreck victim does a lifeboat, she did not disagree.
Fortunately for her, they were nearing the Queen’s Gate of Hyde Park where club members had been instructed to muster.
To Hermione’s pleasure, quite a number of on- lookers, on foot, by carriage, and on horseback had gathered around the gate to watch the splendidly col- ored carriages. The members of the Lords of Anar- chy were distinguished by the red and yellow striped waistcoats each driver wore. Hermione’s driving cos- tume was a lovely fitted crimson and yellow striped spencer over a sturdy riding habit of light wool. She’d had it specially created for today’s outing and was glad for it as soon as she saw how many curious looks she received as the only female member of the noto- rious club.
“Hermione!” she heard a familiar voice shout from a nearby open barouche. “Ophelia!”
A quick glance to the left revealed Leonora seated beside her husband and waving her handkerchief in the air in order to attract their attention.
Pulling alongside her friends’ carriage, Hermione felt the scrutiny of the newcomers. “What?” she asked with a frown. “Have I got dirt on my face?” She lifted a gloved hand to brush her cheek.
“Nothing like that, you silly creature,” Leonora said with a grin. “I was just taking in the sight of someone who is living out her greatest dream. How does it feel?”
Since her own thoughts hadn’t been too far from her friend’s on the matter, Hermione grinned, too. “It feels wonderful,” she said, barely stopping herself from crying out a huzzah. “Better than I could have possibly expected.”
“You’d better divest yourself of your passenger before you gallop off into the sunset,” Freddy said wryly. “For I fear Miss Dauntry is not experiencing the same sort of bliss as you are at the moment.”
Turning, Hermione saw with a start that Ophelia was indeed looking a bit like she wanted to leap from the curricle and never look back.
“Shall I give you a hand down, Miss Dauntry?” asked Lord Mainwaring, who had ridden up to their little party on a handsome bay, with the Duke of Trent not far behind on his own splendid midnight- black mount.
Before Ophelia could respond, Mainwaring was on the ground, and handing Ophelia down from Hermione’s curricle and up into the Lisle barouche.
“You might have told me you were so desperate to get down, Ophelia,” said Hermione with a frown. Of course it had been Lord Mainwaring who came to her friend’s rescue. He would consider Ophelia’s reluctance to ride in such a fast vehicle as a mark of her true femininity. Whereas Hermione, with her taste for driving and fine horseflesh, was far too unladylike for such as him. She felt a pang of jealousy over the way he looked up at her friend before quickly stifling it. Today wasn’t about attracting the notice of handsome gentlemen—at least not the sort who found the notion of a lady driving something akin to a dancing dog, she thought, paraphrasing Johnson, not that she did it well, but that she attempted it at all.
Today was about pleasing herself and herself alone. She was preparing to make her good-byes before driving to take her place in the crowd of other club members’ carriages, when Mainwaring, back in the saddle, addressed her.
“I take it these are the remarkable grays I’ve heard so much about,” he said, nodding toward where Ros- encrantz and Guildenstern had begun to stamp their hooves in restlessness.
Hermione couldn’t help but notice that Main- waring’s seat on his own horse was quite good. In buff breeches that outlined the strong muscles of his thighs and a bottle-green coat that looked as if it had been sewn onto his wide shoulders, he looked every bit the dashing nobleman. It didn’t help that his keen blue eyes were watching her.
Shaking off her unwanted attraction to the man, she held his gaze. “They are, indeed. My pride and joy, and as much the reason for my presence here today as any skill on my part, I’d wager.”
Her self-deprecation must have surprised him, for he frowned and said, “I sincerely doubt that. I’ve seen you drive, Lady Hermione, and while I might wish you had chosen a safer pastime, even a nondriver like my- self has to admit that you are skilled with the reins.”
The unexpected praise made her blink, and to her shame, she felt a blush creep into her cheeks. Since when did Mainwaring pay her compliments? “I . . . that is to say . . .”
Before she could finish stumbling through her awkward thanks, another rider approached to stop beside Mainwaring.
From the scowl on Mainwaring’s face it was evi- dent he was not pleased to see the newcomer.
“Lady Hermione,” said the dark-haired man, who had intruded on their conversation. “We haven’t been formally introduced. I am Saintcrow. And I’m afraid we’ve got a bit of a dilemma.”
Hermione blinked. “I don’t understand, Lord Saintcrow. We are not acquainted so I do not know how there might be any sort of trouble between us.”
“Might you not wait until after the meeting of the club has finished?” Mainwaring asked the other man through clenched teeth. Clearly there was no love lost between the two men, but what had provoked such a response from Mainwaring? “There is no need to cause a scene.”
“A scene about what?” Hermione asked, her stom- ach clenching at the possibilities as to what a public scene might pertain. “I assure you, gentlemen, I should rather know sooner than later.”
“The long and short of it, dear lady,” said Saint- crow with a shrug that seemed to convey he was not to blame, “is that your father wagered these splen- did horses of yours at the gaming table last night and I was lucky enough to win them.”
As if the crowd had been waiting with bated breath for the announcement, a gasp wafted through the assembled onlookers. For the second time that day Hermione felt a sense of unreality—though this time it was because the circumstances were so horrible that she could not believe them to be truly happening.
“I don’t believe you,” she said, her gloved hands clenching the reins, causing the horses in question to shake themselves as if in preparation for flight. “My father doesn’t even own them. They are mine. Purchased with my own funds.”
“My dear girl,” Saintcrow said without much sym- pathy, “that is something you will need to work out between yourselves. I only know that he offered them to me as a fair wager and I accepted them. Though as your father, he doubtless does own everything you think of as your own. From that pretty confection of a hat to the gloves that you wear on those soft hands.”
“Can this be true?” Hermione asked Mainwaring, who had moved his horse to stand alongside the cur- ricle, a show of protection that she was grateful for despite her usual annoyance with that sort of high- handedness. “Does my father truly own them despite the fact that I purchased them with my own funds?”
“I don’t know,” Mainwaring said in a low voice. “But it is possible. We both know that the law is not particularly forgiving when it comes to ladies’ prop- erty. Unless it is dispersed in marriage settlements or the like. And you did not inherit them from your mother’s marriage portion, did you?”
Of course she hadn’t, Hermione thought with frus- tration. She’d bought them from the funds she’d in- herited from a distant aunt. But it was quite possible that her father could very well claim the funds for himself.
“You know I did not,” she said, panic welling as she realized that this stranger—no matter whether he was in the right or not—would take Rosencrantz and Guildenstern from her on the basis of her father’s word alone. “But they are mine.”
“I’m afraid that’s no longer true, Lady Hermione,” said Saintcrow, who gave a gesture with his hand, and soon was giving orders to a trio of grooms to take possession of Hermione’s curricle. “Now, be a good girl and let these men take your grays along with the curricle. I will see to it that the vehicle is re- turned to your mews as soon as the horses are de- posited into my own stables. You would not wish them to come to harm without any sort of harness, would you?”
“She is Lady Hermione,” said Mainwaring before Hermione could object, “and you will speak to her with the respect to which her rank and position entitle her.” She could see from the way Saintcrow flinched that he did not much care for the tone the earl had taken with him, but that didn’t stop him from offering an apology.
“Of course, my regrets, Lady Hermione,” the vis- count said, his dark eyes narrow with annoyance. Clearly he did not wish to make an enemy of Main- waring, no matter how he might resent the other man’s interference. “I am, of course, obliged for your grace during this difficult situation.”
It was at this point that the members of the Lords of Anarchy seemed to notice the disturbance. Though she had never been particularly fond of Lord Payne, Hermione felt a stab of relief when the big man steered over to get a better look at the situation.
“Is there a problem, Lady Hermione?” the club president asked, his own highly polished black and red equipage shining in the sunlight. “Is this fellow bothering you?”
She might be the first female member of the Lords of Anarchy, but that did not mean she was any less a member. And the club took care of its own.
“It seems that there is some misunderstanding be- tween my father and Lord Saintcrow,” she said with what she hoped was enough of a damsel-in-distress look to earn more of Lord Payne’s pity. She was not overly fond of manipulation as a form of getting things done, but her instinct was that Lord Payne would respond better to a soft word than bombast. “He thinks they belong to him now, which is patently false, since I purchased them myself with my own money.”
“False or not,” Saintcrow said showing his teeth, “I have your father’s vowel from last night here. Which I would have shown you, Lady Hermione, had you been patient enough to wait for it.”
“Saintcrow,” said Mainwaring before Lord Payne could respond. “I should think that in the circum- stances a gentleman would give the lady the benefit of the doubt. One does not wish, after all, to be thought boorish.”
Hermione waited with her heart in her throat to see if the combination of Lord Payne’s brawn and Mainwaring’s brains would convince Saintcrow to give up his claim.
But, it would appear, she was doomed to disap- pointment.
“Far be it for me to disagree with Mathematical Mainwaring,” said Saintcrow silkily, “but even a man as skilled at the tables as yourself should be able to see the way this particular game will end. I have her father’s IOU, which you yourself saw him give to me last night. The rest we will simply have to let the courts decide. In the meantime, I will take possession of my new horses.”
“Perhaps it’s best to do as the fellow says for now, Lady Hermione,” Lord Payne said with a frown. “The drive is about to begin and this business has delayed our procession for long enough. I feel sure that as soon as this is sorted out, you’ll be able to ride out with us at our next meeting.”
All the good will Hermione had felt at having the club president by her side dissipated at his words. She might have known he’d abandon her at the first sign that her trouble would interrupt the club’s revelry.
With a sigh, she handed the reins of her curricle to one of the burly grooms who’d accompanied Lord Saintcrow.
“Be sure to give them fresh oats,” she instructed as Mainwaring took her by the waist and lowered her to the ground beside her carriage. “And Rosencrantz is prone to strain in his left foreleg. A lineament of mint and rosemary can be made up without much trouble.”
She was grateful for Mainwaring’s strong arm as he ushered her over to the Lisle carriage, and when he lifted her up to sit beside Ophelia, she couldn’t help but notice he smelled pleasantly of bay rum and man. She closed her eyes at her own foolishness. Leave it to her to be diverted from losing her beloved grays by an attraction to a man she found at most times to be more maddening than a thunderstorm at a picnic.
“I believe this situation calls for a fortifying cup of tea,” said Leonora. “Let us repair to Craven House.” And before she could even glimpse the procession of curricles get under way, Hermione found herself being spirited away from what had begun the day as a happy occasion. And more importantly, in the
opposite direction of her precious coaching pair. She hoped Leonora intended to fortify the tea with
something stronger than just boiling water. She’d earned it.
Excerpt. ©Manda Collins. Posted by arrangement with the publisher. All rights reserved.
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Meet the Author:
Manda Collins spent her teen years wishing she’d been born a couple of centuries earlier, preferably in the English countryside. Time travel being what it is, she resigned herself to life with electricity and indoor plumbing, and read lots of books. An affinity for books led to a graduate degree in English, followed by another in Librarianship. By day, she works as an academic librarian at a small liberal arts college, where she teaches college students how to navigate the tangled world of academic research. A native of coastal Alabama, Manda lives in the house her mother grew up in with two cats, sometimes a dog, sometimes her sister, and more books than strictly necessary.