Scoundrel for Sale

Scoundrel for Sale is part of the Wicked Widows’ League- a multi-author series about widows who are single and looking to mingle with some of England’s most notorious rakes! It will be available on May 2, 2023.

He swore he would never touch her…

As his best friend lay dying on the battlefield, Gabriel Davenport made a pair of promises:

  • One, that he would make sure Hart’s little sister, Abigail, married another man.
  • And two, that Gabe, a notorious rake with a reputation for being a magnificent lover, would never lay a hand on her.

Four years later, Gabe has inherited his great-uncle’s estate, and along with it, his great-uncle’s astronomical debts. He needs to marry an heiress, but there isn’t time to find one. If he can’t produce five hundred pounds immediately, his great-uncle’s creditors are going to seize everything, including his poor great-aunt’s wedding ring.

A scandalous solution…

Gabe can only think of one way to come up with the blunt: put himself up for sale in London’s most notorious bachelor auction. He’ll have to spend the night pleasuring the highest bidder… no matter who it might be.

But what will Gabe do when the unthinkable comes to pass, and the winner of his auction is Abigail, Hart’s now-widowed little sister? It’s his worst nightmare… but also his dream come true. What’s a notorious rake to do?

Read on for a sample! I do hope you will excuse any typos, as this book is still in the editing process.

Prologue

Salamanca, Spain

July 1812

            The first catastrophe came in the form of a letter.

            The second took a more familiar shape, at least for a lieutenant in the King’s Own Regiment of Foot.

            A bullet.

            The bullet didn’t strike Gabriel Davenport, although he would’ve preferred that it did. The reason he would’ve preferred it was because the person it did strike was Captain Alexander Stapleton, also known as Viscount Hartlebury, or ‘Hart’ to his friends.

            Gabe thought of Hart as more of a brother than a friend.

            The annoying thing was that the battle was all but over. Their regiment was driving the retreating French toward the forest when Hart bit out a curse and clutched his thigh.

            Gabe hurried to his side. “What is it?”

            “Bullet,” Hart said through clenched teeth.

            “Let’s have a look, then,” Gabe said, prising Hart’s fingers from his leg. It was a clean shot, through and through, and Gabe had thought his friend fortunate at first. The leg was one of the better places to get shot, all things considered.

            “Come on,” Gabe said, pulling Hart’s arm over his shoulder, “let’s get you to the surgeon.”

            They made it all of ten steps before Gabe noticed that Hart’s face was losing its color. He glanced down and started at the sight of his friend’s trousers, which were bright red and soaked with blood.

After two years in the army, Gabe could speak with a certain amount of expertise regarding bullet wounds, and this one was bleeding like the dickens.

            “Shit,” Gabe said, pulling Hart to a stop. He lay his friend on the ground and began digging through the satchel he used to carry his powder and shot. “That needs a tourniquet.”

            “G-Gabe,” Hart said through clenched teeth.

            Gabe carried a length of string in his satchel for precisely this situation. Why the hell couldn’t he find it?

            That was when he remembered—he’d used it three days ago on a seventeen-year-old boy from Cornwall who’d taken a bullet to his arm while besieging the fort.

            He’d used it, and he hadn’t remembered to replace it.

Gabe started yanking at the knot of his neckcloth. “Steady, Hart. I—damn this thing—I’ve got you.”

            Finally ripping his cravat off, Gabe knelt beside his friend. Hart gave a painful hiss as Gabe lifted his leg to slide the neckcloth underneath. “It’s about A-Abbie.”

            “This is going to hurt,” Gabe cautioned as he pulled the cravat as tight as he could.

            “She’s—all alone now,” Hart gasped.

            This had been the nature of the first calamity, the one that arrived via letter: that Hart’s parents, the Earl and Countess of Pennington, had been killed by a swift and sudden fever. Strictly speaking this meant that Hart was no longer Viscount Hartlebury; he was the new Earl of Pennington, but that wasn’t the point.

            The point was that his nineteen-year-old sister, Abigail, was now all alone at the family’s Berkshire estate with only servants to look after her.

            Given the circumstances, the Earl of Wellington himself had granted Hart leave to return briefly to England, to bury his parents and arrange some sort of chaperone for his sister.

            Hart was planning to go.

            Just as soon as they took Salamanca.

            That was just like Hart, to be unwilling to abandon his men on the eve of battle, and look where it had landed him.

            Gabe bit out a curse. He couldn’t seem to get the tourniquet tight enough. Maybe his hands were too slick, or maybe the cravat was too thick, but no matter how much he struggled and pulled, blood continued to seep from the wound. “She’s not alone,” Gabe said, looping the cloth around his hands for a better grip. “She’s got you.”

            “She—she won’t have me. I’m d—”

            “Don’t you dare say it,” Gabe snapped. “I need a tourniquet!” he shouted, desperately scanning the battlefield. “You, there—Miller! Go! Get help!”

            “Yes, sir!” Miller took off at a run.

            “You’ve got to promise me,” Hart said, his voice a raspy whisper.

            Gabe had managed to get the cravat knotted. It wasn’t tight enough, and blood was still seeping from the wound, but it was the best he could do until Miller returned. He leaned over Hart, looking him in the eye, and clasped Hart’s hand in his. God, his hand was cold. “Don’t talk like that. You’re not dying. Not dying, do you hear me?”

            But it was more a wish than a belief, because Gabe had never seen a man so pale, and Hart was struggling to keep his eyes open. “Abbie—needs someone. To look after her. A husband. Promise me, Gabe—”

            For the briefest instant, Gabe froze. Because he knew what Hart was about to ask him.

He was going to ask him to marry his sister.

            Gabe wasn’t on any of the lists of suitable husbands drawn up by the matchmaking mothers of the ton. He was a gentleman, to be sure, and one of his great-grandfathers had even been a viscount. But his father was the younger son of a younger son and had been a humble army officer, just as Gabe was today. The senior Lieutenant Davenport had left no fortune when he died, and Gabe had always known that he would have to go out into the world and make his own way.

            But, in addition to his lack of title and fortune, Gabe had a reputation for being quite the rakehell. In truth, his conduct wasn’t so different from half the young men of his acquaintance. Hell, Hart had made just about the same number of conquests as Gabe. But Gabe had been labelled a scoundrel, and that label had stuck in a way it hadn’t for any of his friends.

            Maybe it was that he was a little bit too handsome, with his windswept blond hair, striking green eyes, and broad-shouldered soldier’s physique. He just looked like the type of man who would love you and leave you, and people never seemed to consider whether there was more to him than that surface impression. To be sure, Gabe did have a bit of a devil-may-care air about him that came from lacking prospects and knowing it, from expecting that he would never settle down, of believing that no one would ever want him as a husband.

           But Gabe suspected that the main reason his affairs were reported in the gossip pages while his friends’ were not was the fact that he was a better lover than they were. There was nothing he loved more, nothing he found more arousing, than watching a woman have an orgasm, and had therefore carefully studied all the different pleasure points on a woman’s body. He never minded taking the time to worship each one until he found the combination that drove his partner to bliss. This meant that, unlike his friends, who were constantly on the hunt for a paramour, women were the ones who sought Gabe out. A couple of the more scandalous gossip columns even went so far as to hit at his prowess in the bedroom, with one calling him the greatest lover in England.

           And so the same society that excused Hart for sowing a few wild oats wrote Gabe off as an irredeemable rake for taking the same number of lovers. Gabe didn’t feel like his reputation reflected who he really was, but he didn’t let it overly bother him. As consolation prizes went, being regarded as the most skillful lover in England was a good one.

            And so, marriage to a respectable young lady, and the daughter of an earl to boot, wasn’t something Gabe had ever considered.

            But now that he was considering it, he found the idea… strangely appealing.

            That wasn’t quite right. He wasn’t thinking about marriage to any respectable young lady.

            He was thinking about marriage to Abbie.

            By the time Gabe was five years old his parents were both dead, and he’d spent his early years being shuttled back and forth between various uncles and cousins, none of whom were eager to have him.

            When he turned seven, his great-aunt, the current viscountess, finally packed him off to Eton, quite a bit earlier than most boys went, but not unheard of. The viscountess made clear to Gabe that he was expected to stay at his boarding house for the foreseeable future, and he would not be coming home for school holidays.

           But Eton wasn’t all bad. After all, when he turned eleven, that was where he’d met Hart.

            They’d become friends immediately, but Gabe had still been surprised when Hart had suggested he come home with him for the winter holidays. By then Gabe was quite used to spending Christmas at the boarding house where he lived.

            But he came home with Hart for that school holiday, and the next one, and the one after that. And through some miracle, the Stapleton family more or less adopted him. Hart wasn’t the only one who had been gutted by Abbie’s letter relating the death of the Earl and Countess of Pennington.

            And Gabe knew Abbie. Sparkling, vivacious Abbie, who was quick with a joke, but never the kind that hurt someone’s feelings. Who could turn the tedious sorts of parlor games Hart’s parents might suggest, things like charades or blind man’s bluff, into something fun. Who was your favorite person to be paired with for dinner, because you never ran out of interesting things to talk about with Abbie.

            To be sure, she was six years younger than Gabe and Hart, and there had been times he thought her annoying, especially when she insisted upon tagging along while they were trying to go shooting or were keen to ride hell for leather.

            The last time he’d seen her had been three years ago when she came to see Hart off at Dover. She’d been sixteen years old, and Gabe hadn’t seen her in a year, as they’d been busy training.

            He hadn’t found sixteen-year-old Abbie annoying.

            Sixteen-year-old Abbie was beautiful.

            But more than her pretty face and the very pleasing curves she’d developed, the thing Gabe thought of as he clasped his friend’s hand in that dusty field was of Abbie’s letters. Hart would always read them aloud, and no matter how wretched things were, how exhausted they were from the march, how many good men they’d lost… Abbie’s letters made him forget it all, just for a little while. They were lively and diverting, but more than that, they gave Gabe the feeling that even in whatever shithole he found himself, there was hope. They were a reminder that there was a better world out there, and one day he would return to it.

            In an instant of startling clarity, he realized that marrying Abbie was exactly what he wanted. The rakish young man he’d been was gone. Three years of war would do that to you, would make you realize what you really wanted in life.

           What was truly important.

            And so, in answer to Hart’s promise me, Gabe, the one-time scoundrel squeezed his best friend’s hand. “Anything.”

            “I’ll be able to rest in peace if… if I know she’s married—”

            “I’ll do it. I’ll do it gladly.”

            “—to Dulson.”

            Gabe’s body jerked, a reaction he regretted when Hart gasped in pain. “To… to Dulson?”

            Hart nodded jerkily. “He’ll do it. Always fancied her, Dulson has.”

            George Davies, Baron Dulson, had been at school with them. He hadn’t been in their closest circle of friends, even though his family seat was just a couple of miles from Hart’s, largely because he wasn’t game for the sorts of antics they liked to get up to.

            There wasn’t anything wrong with Dulson. He was a respectable sort of chap—decent fortune, had inherited his father’s baronry at the age of sixteen. And he was a nice enough fellow.

            But Gabe couldn’t wrap his mind around the idea of someone as effervescent as Abbie marrying Dulson, who was, well…

            Dull.

            Below him, Hart gave a wheezing breath. “You’ll make sure of it?”

            “I—yes. Of course.” Gabe’s voice broke, because nobody had come with a goddamn tourniquet, Hart’s leg was still oozing blood, he looked as grey as a gravestone, and Gabe could no longer tell himself the lie that his favorite person on the face of this earth was not dying. “Anything, Hart.”

            “Then make sure she—marries Dulson.”

            “All right.” Gabe realized that the moisture on his cheeks wasn’t sweat or blood, but tears.

            “Promise me.”

            Gabe swallowed. Really, nothing had changed. He’d never expected to marry a girl like Abbie. It was stupid of him to have thought of it, really, stupid to have imagined even for a second that Hart would want his sister to marry someone like him. He wasn’t good enough for Abbie.

           Nobody had ever wanted him, not even his own family.

           “I promise.”

            “One more—one more thing,” Hart gasped.

            Gabe squeezed his best friend’s hand. “Name it.”

            “Abbie will be—vulnerable. All alone. Looking for… comfort.” Hart’s eyes drifted closed, and for a horrible moment Gabe wasn’t sure if he would open them again.

            But open them he did, and he looked Gabe square in the eye as he said, “Swear to me you won’t touch her.”

            “I won’t—what?” Gabe couldn’t keep the shock and pain out of his voice.

            Was this what Hart truly thought of him? That he was so low, so shameless, so depraved that he would take advantage of any grieving girl, much less Abbie?

            He’d slept with widows. Actresses. Even married women who’d already produced an heir and a spare, but only if he knew for a fact their husbands didn’t care.

            But he had never debauched an innocent. He wasn’t a monster.

            Didn’t his best friend know that?

            “Say you’ll never—lay a hand on her.” Hart took a gasping breath. “Swear it!”

            In any other circumstance, Gabe would have been furious.

           He would’ve asked Hart what the hell he was suggesting.

           He would’ve had to suppress the urge to take a swing at his friend’s jaw.

           He would’ve demanded an apology.

            In any other circumstance. But as his friend lay on the battlefield with his life bleeding out of him, Gabe did none of those things.

            Instead he brushed his thumb over his friend’s cheek, wiping the spot where one of his own tears had fallen.

            And he whispered, “I swear it.”

            That was when a pair of stretcher bearers came rushing up.

            But Gabe knew they were too late. He’d marked the moment his friend’s features had fallen slack, the sudden peace that came over his face that meant at least he wasn’t in pain anymore.

            He’d let the stretcher bearers take Hart away, but he hadn’t been able to summon the will to follow them.

            Hart wasn’t on that stretcher. Not anymore.

            Instead, Gabe sat alone in that field and cried until darkness fell and the sky was littered with stars.

Chapter One

London, England,
Four Years Later

            You wouldn’t think a man who’d been to war would find a roomful of women so terrifying.

            But this wasn’t just any roomful of women.

            Gabe peered around the red velvet curtain. He was standing just offstage at the Thalia, a theater in Soho. The Thalia was smaller and less prestigious than the theaters of Covent Garden just a mile or so away, and tonight the house wasn’t even close to full, with only about fifty or so in attendance.

            But this particular event hadn’t been intended to attract a large crowd, so much as an exclusive crowd.  

            An entirely feminine crowd.

            A crowd that could keep a secret.

            Gabe saw that most of those assembled had come in quasi-masquerade dress, with masks and dominoes concealing their features. Not that this prevented him from recognizing some of those assembled. The woman with the flame-red hair had to be Mrs. Seymour, an attractive widow of perhaps thirty-five years, and standing next to her was Veronique Lacroix, a successful actress with whom Gabe had had an affair years ago. Veronique never shied away from a scandal and hadn’t even bothered to wear a mask. She and Gabe had ended their affair on good terms and had even exchanged letters while Gabe was fighting on the Peninsula.

           He also recognized the woman in the green dress as Lady Liddell, who was young, pretty, and spoiled. She had been married for less than a year to a man twenty years her senior. Lord Liddell doted on his feisty young bride but seemed to have absolutely no idea what to do with her, and Gabe was certain he would not approve of her presence here tonight.

            Oh, dear—and there in the back row was Lady Walsington, who was old enough to be his grandmother.

            Although honestly, he would prefer Lady Walsington to Lady Liddell. Gabe might be a scoundrel, but he did have some standards, and one of those involved not sleeping with a woman whose husband minded.

           But it looked like he might be about to kiss those standards goodbye, because the reason they were all assembled tonight was for London’s most notorious bachelor auction. The winner of each lot was purchasing one night with their chosen lover.

            And, given his current level of desperation, Gabe had no choice but to enter.

            He stepped back, letting the curtain drop. Not that anyone had been looking at him. Every pair of eyes in the room was fixed upon the shirtless man at center stage.

            The Thalia’s proprietress, Madame Heron, spoke in a voice that carried in the mostly-empty theater. “As I’m sure you know, Tom Talbot is the reigning heavyweight champion. Believe me, ladies, you won’t find another specimen like this! Tommy, love, show us the merchandise, won’t you?”

            Talbot brought his fists up by his head, flexing his arms. This elicited a chorus of oohs and ahs from the crowd. Grinning, Talbot struck a series of poses, each garnering more cheers than the last, until he turned around, showing off his impressive back muscles in a grand finale that Gabe half-expected to incite a riot.

            Madame Heron stepped forward. “As you can see, this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. May I have a starting bid of twenty pounds?”

            A dozen hands shot into the air. Gabe observed the bidding from the wings. Most of those assembled bowed out around the fifty-pound mark, but a pair emerged who seemed determined to claim the prize. One was wearing a hood, probably because the spectacles Gabe could just make out prevented her from wearing a mask. She was short and plump and had a cringing sort of posture suggesting she dearly wished she could sink beneath the carpet, and wore a plain, frumpy dress that buttoned all the way up to her chin and practically screamed, don’t look at me.

           But her only real problem was that she didn’t know how to flatter her figure. Put her in a less dowdy frock and she would be delectable.

           Her competition for the boxing champion was the young Lady Liddell.

           “Seventy-two pounds!” Miss Spectacles called in a voice that shook.

           Lady Liddell shot her rival a smirk. “Seventy-three pounds.”

           “Seventy-four pounds.”

           “Oh, are we going to do this all night? One hundred pounds,” Lady Liddell called.

           The room fell silent. This was the highest bid that had been placed all night, and Lady Liddell’s smile was triumphant.

           Madame Heron had just raised her arm to declare Lady Liddell the winner when Miss Spectacles cried, “Two hundred and fifty pounds!”

           The room fell silent. Lady Liddell’s smirk was transformed into a scowl in an instant. Seeing that the bidding was over, Madame Heron pointed to Miss Spectacles, declaring, “We have a winner!”

           Tom Talbot grinned and jumped right off the stage. He waded through the crowd of women, several of whom reached out to squeeze his arm or stroke his chest as he passed, until he reached his purchaser. He was a good foot taller than Miss Spectacles. Much to her apparent shock, he swept her up in his arms and pressed her high against his chest. “Gonna make it worth every penny, love,” he said loudly enough for the entire room to hear. He proceeded to carry her down the aisle of the theater and right out the door, while those behind him whistled and cheered.

           As the crowd quieted, Gabe heard Lady Liddell declare for the benefit of those around her, “I could’ve bought him if I wanted to. I just wanted to make sure I have enough blunt to secure the man I really want.”

           Gabe groaned. Given that he was the only man left, that didn’t bode well for him being able to stick to his personal code.

           Madame Heron waited for the crowd to quiet. “And now, for our final bachelor of the evening!”

           Gabe swallowed. To have to go out there after the reigning heavyweight champion—talk about a hard act to follow. But there was no bowing out now.

           Desperate times called for desperate measures. And there wasn’t a man in England more desperate than Gabriel Davenport.

           Madame Heron was really working up the crowd. “He’s the one you’ve aaaaaallll been waiting for! One of the most renowned lovers in all of England, a man who can give a woman unimaginable pleasure!”

           “Oui,” Veronique called out from the back of the room. “As I can attest, it is true.”

           Over the titters that filled the room, Madame Heron called, “And it is therefore my pleasure—although the pleasure will soon belong to one of you—to present England’s most skillful lover, Gabriel Davenport!”

           Well, there was nothing for it. Gabe pasted a devil-may-care smile on his face and strode out onto the stage, waving to the crowd.

           As Madame Heron had instructed, he was dressed in nothing but a fine linen shirt which he wore gaping open to his sternum, top boots, and a pair of skintight midnight blue pantaloons. The ladies burst into cheers.

           Madame Heron gave them a moment to settle down. “Now, tonight is more important than you realize. I think most of you have heard the news that London’s favorite scoundrel is now a viscount.”

           Polite applause filled the theater, as if Gabriel had done something to earn this honor. In truth, his great-uncle, the fourth Viscount Fairbourne, had been sailing for Jamaica with both of his sons and their families, hoping to escape his creditors and purchase an estate to restore the family fortunes, when the ship was lost in a storm. In an instant, the next seven men in line to inherit the viscountcy were gone, and Gabe found himself in a situation he’d never anticipated.

           He wasn’t glad the ship had sank even though those on it had been cold toward him when he was a friendless orphan. But he couldn’t help but be glad they hadn’t reached their destination. There was only one way an Englishman made money in Jamaica, and that was by purchasing a slave plantation. No matter how low the family fortunes sank, that was not something Gabe was willing to do.

           But along with his great-uncle’s title, Gabe had inherited the man’s debts, which were in excess of seventy thousand pounds. After Waterloo, Gabe had transferred to a different regiment and had been stationed on Malta at the time of his great-uncle’s death, so it took some weeks for him to receive word of his unexpected inheritance, and then another month for him to arrange passage back to Britain.

           By the time Gabe returned three days ago, the sharks had been closing in. Thanks to his new status as a peer, Gabe couldn’t be thrown in debtor’s prison, but his creditors could ransack all of the family homes and seize anything that wasn’t nailed down.

           Including, as his Great Aunt Matilda, the sole member of Gabe’s family who had not made that fateful voyage, had tearfully told him, her wedding ring.

           Great Aunt Matilda happened to be the one who’d packed Gabe off to Eton at the age of seven. But he wasn’t so hard-hearted that he would shrug at a seventy-seven-year-old woman who had just lost her husband, both of her children, and all of her grandchildren wanting one memento to cling to. He was going to do his damndest to help Great Aunt Matilda keep that ring.

           What Gabe needed was a spectacularly rich heiress who was willing to marry him for his title, and he needed her in a hurry. Gabe was optimistic that he could find someone. In spite of the estate’s debts, he was now a viscount, and a young, handsome one to boot. Seventy-year-old earls with debts similar to Gabe’s managed to marry twenty-year-old coal heiresses every year. If they could do it, then he certainly could.

           But between his uncle’s debts and the repairs that were needed at both his new country estate and London town house, he needed a bride with a fortune in excess of one hundred thousand pounds, and those weren’t exactly thick on the ground.

           Unfortunately, his uncle’s debts were coming due next week.

           He’d managed to strike a deal with the creditors. If Gabe could come up with five hundred pounds as a show of good faith, they would delay claiming possession of the estate’s effects for one month. Great Aunt Matilda could keep her precious wedding ring, and Gabe had just enough breathing room to locate and marry a suitable heiress.

           All he had to do, he mused, gazing out over the crowd of women in the theater below, was convince someone in this room that a night in his bed was worth five hundred pounds.

           Madame Heron continued her speech. “Now, I’m sure that most of us are aware that the new Lord Fairbourne here is on the hunt for a wealthy bride.” She paused, a gleam in her eye. “But I know something that I believe will come as a shock. This very evening, Lord Fairbourne told me that once he marries, he intends to be faithful to his bride!”

           Wails of protest filled the gallery below. Madame Heron held her hands up for silence. “That’s right, the person with the highest bid tonight might very well be the last lover Lord Fairbourne ever takes! The last woman, save for his new bride, to ever experience the exquisite pleasure that only he can give.”

           Gabe affected a sheepish smile and an apologetic shrug. But really, this had been an easy decision. The world thought he was a complete and total scoundrel.

           Hell, he thought, recalling Hart lying in that field, warning Gabe off his sister. Even his best friend thought he was irredeemable.

           But that wasn’t how Gabe saw himself, nor was it who he wanted to be. All of his past antics had taken place before he turned twenty-three. They were youthful follies, nothing more. He’d hardly been in the country for the last seven years, for Christ’s sake, and opportunities to have a torrid affair had been thin on the ground during his dusty deployments. But his reputation as this legendary rakehell somehow refused to die.

           He knew he needed to choose a rich bride, but Gabe also hoped he might find someone he could… not love. There was only one woman he thought he could truly love, and in a cruel twist of fate, she happened to be the one woman he could never have. But he wanted to give his marriage a chance, and that meant he wasn’t going to be hopping in and out of every bed in Mayfair.

           Madame Heron continued, “So keep that in mind as you’re considering how much you want to bid.” She turned to Gabe. “Lord Fairbourne, if you would be so kind as to show these esteemed ladies what they’re bidding on?”

           Gabe grinned, trying to look carefree, as if he were enjoying himself, and in one smooth motion peeled his shirt up over his head. As one, the crowd of women made an appreciative sound, something between a sign and a moan.

           Gabe might not be the heavyweight champion of England, but after seven years in the army, he wasn’t hog-wash. He was six foot two, with broad shoulders and strong arms from countless hours spent fencing, shooting, hauling water, and building a camp only to tear it down three days later. His hips were slim from endless days spent riding and marching, and his body was toned and well-muscled, with nary an ounce of fat on it. His torso was a golden tan just a shade lighter than his blond hair from all those afternoons they’d spent sea-bathing while stationed on Malta.

           He wasn’t about to strike a prizefighter’s pose the way Tom Talbot had done; there were some acts a man simply could not follow. But he gave his best rakish grin and made a point to make eye contact with as many of the assembled ladies as he could, even running a hand slowly through his hair.

           Madame Heron clapped her hands. “May I have an opening bid of fifty pounds?”

           Half of those present raised their hands, which was a good sign. But not enough to make Gabe relax. He needed the bidding to get up over five hundred pounds if he was going to delay his creditors. And considering that only one other man had broken the hundred-pound mark, that seemed like a tall order.

           From the gallery, Veronique gave him a nod. She knew his situation and was the one who had suggested the auction to him in the first place. She’d also called in a favor with Madame Heron, and unlike the other bachelors, who had to pay a significant cut of their sales price to the house, Gabe would be able to keep his full proceeds.

           He knew he could count on Veronique to run the bidding up a bit, and she entered the fray with a bid of seventy-five pounds. At that point, there were a dozen women bidding for a night of Gabe’s company.

           When the bidding reached one hundred and fifty pounds, they were down to four.

           When it crossed the two-hundred-pound mark, it was down to two: Veronique, and Lady Liddell.

           Gabe knew he had to maintain his devil-may-care front, but he shot Veronique a speaking look, silently begging her to stay in there. More important than age or attractiveness, he wanted to be purchased by someone who was unencumbered. Sleeping with Lady Liddell, whose husband would be heartbroken by the betrayal… that was the opposite of who he was trying to be.

           Veronique kept bidding, but as Gabe’s price rose, her face became more and more drawn. Finally, when the bidding passed three hundred fifty pounds, she shot Gabe an apologetic look and shook her head.

           Shit. Not only was he going to have to sleep with Lady Liddell, he’d fallen a hundred and fifty pounds shy of the sum he needed to delay his creditors. He was going to have to betray his values, and it wouldn’t even save Great Aunt Matilda’s wedding ring.

           Gabe forced a smile to his lips and turned to face Lady Liddell.

           But then, out of the corner of his eye, he saw her.

           She’d been lingering in the shadows at the back of the room. Unlike most of the ladies, who had dressed for a masquerade, her black silk gown looked like it had been designed for mourning, especially as she had paired it with a black gauze veil she wore draped over a brimmed hat, completely obscuring her face.

           For some reason, as this mystery woman began making her way down the theater’s aisle, Gabe felt the hairs on the back of his neck prickle and stand on end.

           He didn’t know who she was, but he felt a sudden, overwhelming certainty that she was someone.  

           The crowd fell silent as she walked to the front of the room. Gabe could see nothing of her face behind that veil, but he felt certain she was looking him straight in the eye.

           Once she had reached the front of the gallery, she stopped, then said in a voice that was  both certain and tremulous, “One thousand pounds.”

           The room exploded with excited conversation. Lady Liddell’s face looked as dark as the Thames at midnight. Veronique’s relief was visible.

           Madame Heron nodded regally. “One thousand pounds. Everyone, a round of applause for our winner!”

           Gabe dropped his shirt back over his head as he crossed the stage and hopped down before his purchaser. He could still see nothing of her face in the candlelight. He took her hand, clad in an elbow-length white kidskin glove, and bowed over it. “My lady,” he said, as his best guess was that a lady with such regal bearing would be titled. He gestured up the aisle, knowing that Madame Heron had a carriage waiting to transport them to the suite where they would spend the night. “Shall we?”

           She nodded crisply and took his arm. “We shall.”

           And with that, Gabriel led his black-silk-clad savior out of the theater and into the night.

                                

Scoundrel for Sale will be available on May 2, 2023, and you can pre-order a copy today. The Wicked Widows’ League series will be released starting in March 2023. Be sure to check out all the great books in this series!

Excerpt from Scoundrel for Sale Copyright © Courtney McCaskill, 2022. All rights reserved. The moral rights of the author have been asserted. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles and reviews. All inquiries should be made to the author.

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