The rogue’s temptation would be her undoing…
Gemma Haverford knows exactly who she will marry: James Randolph, the man she’s had a secret understanding with for the last eleven years. With every letter written between them while he's been off at sea, their love has grown. Now they will be reunited with his return to England.
There’s just one problem. The man whose words she'd fallen in love with isn’t James at all…
Jasper Holland, a gentleman rogue of the first order, is trapped. Talked into a scheme by his best friend, he pretended to be James for eleven years as he wrote to Gemma, even though he'd promised James he’d break it off. But now with his return to England, his secret will come out – and he’ll lose the one woman he can’t live without.
What began as a game of words, now becomes a game of hearts, and Jasper will pay any price to call Gemma his.
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This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is coincidental.
Copyright © 2015 by Lauren Smith
Edited by Melinda Fulton
Excerpt from Wicked Designs by Lauren Smith
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ISBN: 978-0-9962079-1-1 (ebook edition)
ISBN: 978-0-9962079-2-8 (print edition)
To my wonderful Street Team, you guys are some of the best fans and friends there are! Your support and dedication to my stories makes living this wonderful dream possible.
Wicked Designs Chapter 1
Wicked Designs Chapter 2
Wicked Designs Chapter 3
About the Author
Other Titles By Lauren Smith
White and pink roses formed spots of striking color against the dense green hedges as Gemma Haverford walked through the gardens of her home. She let her fingertips touch the petals of the roses as she headed toward the center of the garden. Twilight was her favorite time of day. Birds began to quiet their singing, the sunlight softened, giving everything a soft glow. Gemma took a seat on a cool marble bench at the center of the maze of hedges and rosebushes. Her hands trembled as she smoothed out her skirts. She was anxious enough that her knees knocked together too, but she couldn’t banish her nerves.
It wasn’t every day that she wore her best gown, an almost sheer sky blue silk, for a secret garden rendezvous. Everything needed to be perfect. She’d gone to great effort to have her lady’s maid tame the wild waves of her hair and help to slightly dampen her gown to cling better to her form, which bore only the veiled protection of a single filmy shift.
She had to look her best tonight. At twenty-five she was past the age where most women found it easy to marry. One of her distant cousins had callously remarked earlier that year that she was so far back on the shelf that she was collecting dust. Gemma, feeling a little too irritated at the remark, and having one too many cups of arrack punch, had sneezed at him as though he was the one covered in dust. Not her finest moment, she had nearly dissolved in a fit of unladylike giggles at his horrified expression when he’d struggled to find the handkerchief in his waistcoat to wipe his face.
There was a very good reason she hadn’t married, but she couldn’t tell anyone, not even her parents why she’d turned down more than one suitor over the years. For eleven years she had kept herself out of the hunt for husbands, believing, knowing that she would marry one man, James Randolph, her childhood sweetheart.
He and his best friend, Jasper Holland, had enlisted in His Majesty’s Navy as young midshipman. James had been fourteen and Jasper, half a year older, had been fifteen. For eleven long years the two men had been gone, making their fortunes on the high seas, but now they set to return home, to marry and settle down. She’d not seen them in all that time, but she knew in her heart of hearts, that James was coming for her. His letters to her had been steady and filled with reassurances of his affection and his intent to marry her as soon as he came home. And now it was time.
What would he be like after so many years? Had he changed like she had? Grown taller, more muscular, more handsome than the wild young man who’d dashed off to sea? Would he be stern as a husband after commanding men and war ships? Or would he be gentle with her after so many hard years at sea, and want nothing more than a quiet country life full of friends and family within an easy walk of one’s home? It was what she’d always wanted. She’d never cared for London and the fast pace of the city. She adored the country, the birds, the green lands, the sheep, even the garden parties that her neighbors threw often were an amusement she enjoyed. Would James want the same thing?
Gemma nibbled her bottom lip, glancing about the gardens. Wisteria hung over trellises to the entrance of this particular part of the garden, the thick blooms almost like wildflowers strung on green vines over the white painted wood. How lovely it was here tonight. How perfect too. She couldn’t resist smiling.
Just that morning she had received James’s latest letter, telling her he would seek her out in the gardens tonight, for a private audience, away from the eyes of parents and chaperones.
Tonight. The one word held such promise. Enclosed in James’s letter was a soft strip of black gauzy cloth embroidered with silver stars. The letter instructed her to wait until twilight, and then blindfold herself for his arrival because he wished to surprise her.
A wave of heat flooded her cheeks at the thought of being so vulnerable and alone with him in such a manner, but another part of her heated in strange, unfamiliar places. She knew meeting him here like this wasn’t proper and if anyone found out, she’d be compromised. But this was James, her James. The man she trusted more than anyone else in the world, except for her father. The temptation to meet him here, even in secret, was irresistible.
What would he do when he came upon her? Remove the blindfold? He might touch her face, her hair, her neck…Gemma trailed her own fingertips over her neck, wondering how different it would feel to have a man’s hands there, ones worn with callouses from years of working the ropes while tacking the sails of a great ship.
A shiver rippled through her and she hastily dropped her hands back to her lap, feeling a little foolish. It was so easy to get carried away when thinking of James. When she first read the portion of the letter that told her to meet him like this, being compromised was her first fear, but James was a good and noble man. He was not the sort to ruin a lady, especially not when he intended to marry in good standing.
Even though she had not seen him since he set off eleven years ago, she had faith that he would not damage her virtue with this garden rendezvous. He would be a gentleman, wouldn’t he? Gemma was all too aware that she knew little of the hearts of men, or how deeply they could fall prey to their desires.
Perhaps I ought to go back inside and wait for him to call upon me tomorrow morning? That would be the proper thing, after all.
Proper yes, but she wanted to see James alone and didn’t want to wait another moment, even one night. If she were to be caught in a position that sorely injured her reputation, well, her father would demand a marriage immediately, James would comply, and all would be well.
Yes, all would be well enough. We need to be married, and mayhap it matters little how the deed comes about?
Perhaps that was what James intended, a certainty of compromising her so he could ensure they would be married. It was indeed a little unorthodox, but that might be his intent. To conquer her like he’d conquered his enemies upon the seas, swiftly and surely. If that were the case, then he was certainly a rogue. Another little smile twisted her lips.
Am I to marry a rogue?Wouldn’t that be… She giggled unable to stop herself from thinking of how wonderfully wicked that would be. It would be scandalous, but if it was James, he would be her rogue.
So with that reassuring thought, she pulled the blindfold out, carefully put it over her eyes, and tied it into a small bow at the back of her head. She fiddled with her hair, tugging the loose untamable ringlets a little so they coiled down against her neck. Mary, her maid had done her best to fix it, but they both knew it would always look a bit wild. James would have to forgive her for appearing a little unruly. At least her gown had turned out well.
With the blindfold secure, she found she could see the vague outline of shapes through the thin gauzy cloth but her eyes were, for the most part, shielded from any clearer perceptions. Gemma smoothed her gown again, shifting restlessly as her stomach flipped over and over inside her. What if James had met with some delay, for he was not officially due to arrive in Midhurst until tomorrow where he and Jasper would be toasted and celebrated at Lady Edith Greenley’s country estate garden party.
Gravel suddenly crunched close by as someone trod along the garden path leading straight toward her. She held her breath, sitting very still. It had to be James. Her heart fluttered so wildly that her ribs hurt from the hammering beat.
Jasper Holland cursed for the thousand time as he fumbled his way through the maze of the Haverford Gardens. It was a bloody mess, this whole situation. It was James who should be here, not him, yet he was the one who was trapped in the situation of compromising a thoroughly decent young lady because his best friend was acting like a cur. Straightening his blue naval coat around his waist, he took another right turn, facing a dead end.
“Who designed this damnable thing? I’ll likely lose my way and be eaten by a Minotaur,” he muttered, stumbled back and took a left down another path. Someone should have drawn him a map to this—
He heard a feminine giggle some distance away and halted. The sound was light, a little husky, and it had the strangest effect on him just then. He could almost picture a woman beneath him in bed, just as he was about to enter her and ride her to their mutual pleasure making that sound. It was the best sort of sound in the world and one he hadn’t heard in a long time. On the sea, there were often chances to visit the docks when in port, and pay for a night at a brothel. James had done that often enough, but Jasper never liked it.
There was something sad about the painted faces and the quiet resigned looks of the prostitutes that betrayed the way they felt about the manner in which they earned their living. More than once Jasper would pay to simply talk to them and then leave for the night, unsatisfied. After that, he’d taken to staying on the ship, leaving James to cavort on his own.
It still amazed him that after all these years he and James were friends. Many men were separated at sea and went years without seeing anyone. Losing touch often resulted in friendships waning. However, that hadn’t happened with him and James. They’d been assigned to the same frigate, the HMS Neptune as midshipmen after attending a naval college. They’d both been promoted to first lieutenants and by the time they were ready to leave service, they were both still on the same ship.
Due to the influx of men joining the service, the waiting list to be promoted to captain was extensive and neither he nor James had enough peerage connections to curry favor for a quicker rise in officer status. Ergo they’d both agreed the time was good enough to leave service and return home. James had always been a bit of a rakehell, even as a young man before they’d left for the sea, but time had hardened both him and Jasper in different ways. He’d been more hesitant than Jasper to return to Midhurst and even the day before was talking about moving to London once he’d selected a pretty wife, one he could easily tire of and take mistresses later if he so chose. London was much better for mistresses than a little town like Midhurst.
“Love is for fools. Lust is what keeps a man going.”
It was something James always said, something he’d taken to believing after so many years at sea. The women in ports had turned James into a jaded man and he’d abandoned dreams of marrying Gemma Haverford, the sweet little country gentleman’s daughter he’d left behind.
“Jas, do a man a favor, write Gemma and break it off,” he sneered under his breath in imitation of James’s plea all those years ago.
It had started out so simple. A favor for a friend.
“And I’m the fool who took over writing those bloody love letters,” Jasper growled in self-directed frustration.
He’d written one letter to Gemma, doing his best to imitate James’s poor handwriting, but the words to end things…well they just hadn’t come out on the page. Instead he found himself sharing details of his day, thoughts and impressions he had of the islands they’d visited, the strange lands and natives they’d encountered, the battles they’d faced. His fears, his hopes, his own dreams. And he’d signed that first letter with a single letter J. Not as James, but Jasper, the man he was. He hadn’t wanted to deceive her any more than he had to. Her response to his first letter had been almost immediate. A letter back to him found him so quickly through the post that he had to assume she’d written it the second she’d received his letter.
The Gemma he’d met through her letters had fascinated him, amused him, and changed the way he thought of Midhurst. The little girl with ginger hair had changed so much. She’d become a woman worth knowing. Her stories and descriptions of the town, the village, the countryside, everything that was so easy to forget at sea, had kept him grounded and reminded him of home. It was no longer a place he’d escaped from to live a life of adventure, but become a wonderful place of refuge for him, a sanctuary to someday return to when his service was over.
But the game was now at an end.
James had found out on their last week aboard ship that Jasper hadn’t broken off the secret engagement and that he’d continued to write to Gemma for the last ten years. James had been furious to learn that Gemma was now fully under the impression James was going to propose to her and that she’d saved herself for him and him alone. Jasper had read every letter where she’d detailed the passing London Seasons and how she’d felt a little pressured to marry, but had insisted she loved him and would wait. For James. Not him. The thought summoned a black cloud over Jasper’s thoughts, but it wasn’t going to change what he had to do tonight. He had to end it with Gemma while pretending to be James. Compromise her so that tomorrow morning when she met with James, he could discover she’d kissed another man and break it off with her forever.
Yes, it would ruin her, but Jasper had every intent of making things right, of marrying her himself. He would just have to convince her of that once the dust settled from James crying off. Jasper could wait, would wait for as long as he had to for Gemma to be his wife, his lover, his world. His only fear was that she would despise him for his deception all these years, but it was a risk he would have to take. He’d led her to believe he would marry her in his letters and he’d meant every word. If only he hadn’t hidden behind the facade of being James.
I should have confessed my identity from the start, before I wove this tangled web, but ‘tis too late now.
A bitter taste coated his tongue. Scowling, he peered through the nearest bush. He could just make out a feminine figure seated on a bench. It was a sight he’d never forget. The woman was lovely. She had a full figure, hips just the right size for a man’s hands, and the perfect indent of a narrow waist. From where he stood, he couldn’t see her front, but the twilight highlighted the riotous ginger colored waves of her hair that were escaping the nest of pins atop her head. She looked like a delicious little minx ready for a tumble into the nearest bed.
Lord, he wanted to be the man to take her to bed, to explore Gemma in a way he’d only fantasized about for years. Of course that had been purely dreams, he hadn’t thought she’d look so tempting in real life. He remembered the little ginger-haired girl that had followed him and James about when they were children. He’d never had much interest in girls, but James had rather enjoyed the way she’d gazed at him with those sweet calf eyes. Adoration, no matter where the source came from had always been something James enjoyed and it had been only too easy for him to woo little Gemma with his smiles and teasing. Jasper had been far too busy to deal with girls at that age, he’d been more interested in exploring the hills and forests of Midhurst and getting in the sort of trouble boys were prone to do.
The woman on the bench sighed touched the blindfold over her eyes. It was made from a strip of cloth he’d found just for her in a little shop in a seaside port only a week ago. It was to be his tool of deception, a way to keep her from seeing him clearly, so she’d look back upon tonight and have to admit it was not James who’d visited her. It was a cruel plan. James’s plan, not his, but Jasper was equally a bastard for going along with it.
“Hellfire and damnation,” he muttered, squared his shoulders and walked around the nearest hedge. The time to compromise an innocent lady had arrived and he couldn’t put it off another moment.
Forgive me, sweet Gemma.
“James? Is that you?” She called out, her heart beating wildly with the excitement of the moment.
Her face warmed with the heat of a blush when she heard a soft intake of breath a few feet behind her. This moment was a decade in the making. She had dreamed of this deep into the night, and she could scarcely breathe with the abundance of joy inside her. Every letter, every anxious day waiting for a messenger to bring her news of him, had finally led to this night. Her life could begin again, this time with James by her side.
“Good god, is that you, Gemma? What a glorious creature you’ve grown up to be!” a low masculine voice uttered breathlessly.
It was curious, she had expected to recognize his voice, to hear it be just the same as the boy’s voice she had carved into her memory, but it was not. The voice that spoke was that of a man, changed to a rich baritone, which rumbled sensually from behind her. She started to turn around on the bench but suddenly a body sat down behind her, arms circling her waist and lips brushing against her ear.
“Don’t turn around,” he whispered. “I want to see you like this, drink in my fill of you.”
The shock of that intimate caress of his lips against her ear sent her jerking forward in panic. Sparks of sharp heat shot down between her thighs. Gemma tried to wrest herself free of his grasp because the way he held her made her feel so…queer.
“James, wait, I want to see you.” Her hands flew to her face to remove the blindfold and get a glimpse of him. James, however, had other ideas. He snagged her arms, securing them at her sides as he jerked her back down against his lap on the marble bench. That forced closeness shot her heart into her throat and made her lightheaded with an unsettling mixture of emotions and physical awareness. He was a little rough, but rather than frighten her, it heightened her awareness of his strength. He touched the bare skin of her arms with his calloused palms.
Why didn’t I wear gloves? A lady always wears gloves. But she hadn’t tonight because she’d wanted to feel him, to touch him without a layer of silk between her fingers and his skin. Now she felt a skin to skin sensation, perfect, arousing. Arousing… yes that’s what she felt. Arousal. Mary had explained it to her in whispered tones when preparing her for tonight, she’d explained a kiss could do strange things to a woman’s body if the man were skilled. It seemed Mary had been right.
James’s arms tightened about her body to keep her from escaping, now were tight in an entirely different way. His breath turned heavy and he snuggled up to her.
“James, what are you doing?” She gasped, trying to pull free again.
“Shh…be still my lovely Gemma, embrace this twilight dream with me…” The words were honey smooth and delivered in such a perfect poetic cadence that Gemma was too entranced by the romance of it, to bother fighting off the amorous embrace of her love.
This was the man from the letters, the one who wooed with his words. Now he wooed her with his hands. She found it easy to relax beneath that soothing voice despite the clearly compromising position of her body fully against his. If no one came upon them, her reputation would be safe enough.
“It is good to hear your voice again, eleven years is such a long time. I was worried you might not find me…desirable,” Gemma said, barely above a whisper. Not a young lady anymore, she was older, a little wiser, and she’d never been one of the prettiest girls in Midhurst, let alone London.
The fear that he’d replace her with someone new, a more beautiful woman was a fear she didn’t want to admit, but it was there, clawing at her heart, making it hard to breathe. Would she be enough for a man like James? Or would he find her lacking? She’d never measured her worth in looks before, and certainly had never valued herself by a man’s affections. That hadn’t changed. But if James didn’t want her, it would hurt. Deeply. The eleven years she’d spent in their secret courtship through letters would have been a waste, and the decent, eligible men she had turned down now were all married with wives and babes of their own.
Lightheaded with the sweet swell of heat in her body and the slow growing ache between her legs, she bit back a moan when James slid one hand down from her waist along her thigh. Struggling to catch her breath, she tried to paw his hand away in an effort to ease the effect it had on her senses. James slid his hand off her thigh, to cover her own protesting hand and guided it down to her own leg. With this simple switch of hands, she felt a little more in control. He led her hand downward onto the smooth tenderness of her inner thigh, stroking the silk against her skin. He made her caress herself, in the way she had only ever done when alone in her bath.
Her head spun and little tingles skittered beneath her skin just knowing that he wished to touch her there, to explore the hidden skin of her legs. She leaned back against his chest, and he stretched his fine long legs out on either side of her own. He surrounded her, enfolding her completely in his embrace. She resisted the urge to touch him back, even though she wanted to feel him and ensure he was real. Gemma put her other hand tentatively on his right thigh. The heavy muscles, strong beneath her grasp, sent slow ripples of heat through her and her heart jumped in her chest. The muscles beneath her hand tensed, and he shifted a little behind her.
“Not find you desirable? Gemma, you are breathtaking!” He pressed his lips on her throat in a kiss.
Then he laughed softly, and he moved his other hand up to caress her breasts. Her flesh tightened beneath his touch and Gemma drew in a deep breath. James pulled her back harder against him, and she felt something hard, his arousal against her backside. That, too, Mary had warned her about, how a man’s groin area would stiffen when he was ready to take a woman to bed. The idea had been laughable at the time, but now Gemma’s lungs burned and her hands shook at the thought. Would he want to take her to bed? Would he try tonight? Did she want him to?
Gemma was not a wanton woman, but she was tempted by this…rogue. The way he handled her, the way he knew just how to make her body flood with heat and desire.
Jasper’s hand on her thigh started to coil her gown, raising it past her calves, up over her knee until bare skin was revealed. If he touched her any more this way, she would surely faint, fall right off the bench and ruin her best gown…but if he stopped, she was sure she would die from unfulfilled yearnings.
“James…I don’t think we should…” she tried to speak but he caught her chin with his hand and angled her head to the side so that he could kiss her on the lips.
It was Gemma’s first real kiss. She remembered James kissing her once, long ago, when they’d been children. He’d caught her by the back door to the kitchens of Haverford and pressed his lips to hers. A brief flash of a smile later and he’d run off, leaving her to stand alone and confused by his actions. She hadn’t much liked that kiss, but what respectable girl of ten years old would? Now though, everything had changed and James’s kisses had too it seemed.
This was a true kiss, with melting fire and the sweet taste of passion’s first bloom.
His warm mouth on hers was a fascinating sensation. Soft lips that coaxed and teased, sending shivers through her in places she didn’t know could tremble. When his tongue parted her lips and teased her own tongue, something deep in her belly twisted and clenched and a flash of heat shot through her like a fire in a pan. Quick, startling, making her gasp. She gripped his leg tighter, feeling the taut muscles of his thigh beneath her when she strained to kiss him harder. It would be so easy to lose herself in his arms, to the feeling of his mouth on hers. His lips twisted upward and he smiled between kisses.
“You taste divine, Gemma,” he whispered huskily, as his hand drifted higher up her leg, straying close to dangerous areas.
She knew she should have tried to close her legs to prevent him from going further up. When his hand abandoned hers, it moved steadily onward beneath her gown, lifted her petticoats as though they weren’t even there.
“Oh!” Gemma gasped when he stroked the tight coils of the dark triangle hidden between her legs. Tingles of pleasure shot up her spine, yet she squirmed a little at that touch, afraid of the mounting tension in her lower body. James caught her mouth with his, absorbing the little gasp, still smiling as he did so.
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