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He hates to lose. Especially to a man who’s not.
One move to win ten thousand guineas in a chess competition. One move to marry her fiancé. Another to face the most merciless man in London across a pair of duelling pistols. For Splendor, former skivvy to the London’s premiere jewel thieves, it’s all in a day’s work. But when one wrong move leads to another, can she win and keep her heart intact, against the one man in London with the potential to bring her down? Especially in a chess game where the new wager is ten thousand guineas against one night with her.
The Endgame to end all Endgames
One move to pay back his ex-mistress. One move to show the world he doesn’t give a damn he’s been beaten in every way. The ton’s most ruthless heartbreaker, bitter, divorcee, Kendall Winterborne, Earl of Stillmore’s, pet hates are kitchen maids, marriage and losing. Knowing Splendor has entered a male chess competition under false pretences, he’s in the perfect poison to extort her help, regardless of the fact she’s engaged to someone else. He just doesn’t bank on having to face up to his pet hates. Certainly not over the kind of skivvy who ruined his father.
As one move leads to another, one thing’s for certain though. He’s going to have to move fast if he wants to keep the ‘Cinderella’ he’s fallen for. When the clock strikes twelve, which man will she choose?
Splendor Chapter One.
There was nothing wrong with pistols at seven paces at dawn. Except dawn was at eight o’clock tomorrow, and Splendor had a dressmaker’s appointment then. Three thimbles and the scissors had smacked into the back of the Chinese dressing screen the last time she’d wandered in ten minutes late. Madame Renare had said these were meant for her assistant, that paying customers, even those who were behind with their bills, were sacrosanct. Splendor knew she lied, that Lady Haskins, who always had the next appointment, would depart wearing Splendor’s guts for garters if she were late again. And if she didn’t bring the money to pay the bill.
Worse than not being able to do that, she was going to be shot at dawn. Or rather, eight o’clock.
Checkmate. If she’d known that one word was going to cause all this trouble, would she have said it?
When she’d promised Gabe she wouldn’t do anything to draw attention to herself, too.
“My second, Your Grace?” she asked, speaking in carefully lowered tones as if duels were things she was challenged to fight every day of life–by the best shot in London too.
“Yes, boy,” Kendall Winterborne, the third Earl of Stillmore, snarled. “Your second. Who’s it to be? Well?”
Maybe her spectacles, which weren’t hers any more than the clothes on her back, rendered her blinder than a belfry of bats, she dragged her gaze from the shining blur of silver buttons on his waistcoat and peered through them at the blur that was his face.
Young, handsome, divorced, a rake and killer in every way, in the bedroom, on the chessboard and the dueling field. Or so her sources had said.
Impatient, foul tempered, drunk, and a conniving fiddler, who couldn’t play chess for toffee, was more accurate.
“Well … I … Well. You see, Your Grace … About that. I was really hoping that you
and I might—. That is, where duels, indeed, where seconds are concerned … We might, we might come to an … an– ”
“Oh, hang it all to hell and back. Chasens!”
His terse huff was followed by a terser finger snap. Please God, not another brandy to add to the lake the drunken earl had already drowned himself in and it not even two o’clock in the day.
The man standing behind him, a smudge in black, snapped to attention. “Yes, sah.”
“You might as well fetch me some paper and ink to go along with that snifter. Then I can pen my autobiography while I’m damn well waiting.”
“Splen …” Gabe tugged her aside. “If you think for so much as one solitary second you can rope me in to being your second, I ain’t doin’ it. Maybe it’s escaped your notice, but every borin’ old clod-pate in here is glarin’ holes in what just happens to be my coat what I was good enough to let you wear.”
True. Even the grandfather clock in the nearby alcove appeared to be holding its breath midtick, the potted palms to have frozen. Silence stretched from window to window, slipped between the heavy crimson drapes, wound around the yellow tassels, hung from the poles, all the way to the entry salon on the ground floor of Boodle’s Gentleman’s Club, which was why she wished he wouldn’t haul her aside and argue the toss like this.
“I know that, Gabriel. At least I suspect that, but—“
“No buts. We leave now, do you hear me? Ain’t I the one what told you and told you, stick to enterin’ the ladies tournament? But would you listen? You never listen.”
“Well, how could I when the prize money was so much less. Nine-and-a-half thousand pounds? What kind of a discrepancy is that? Now, will you shut up and let me do–-?“
“What? Get yourself arrested for fraud? ‘Cos you know where you’re headed next, if they find you out, don’t you? And I ain’t talking the cemetery. Either way, ten thousand bleedin’ pounds ain’t no bleedin’ good if you ain’t around to spend it.”
A voice cut across the hall. “Would someone mind telling me what the devil is going on at table number seven?”
While she couldn’t see who spoke for the spectacles, her heart almost sprung through the bindings around her chest. The tournament organizer, the Duke of Brampton.
“Well? Kendall, why has play stopped? Surely you have not fallen out with your opponent?”
Her gaze froze behind her spectacle lenses. She knew indeed where she was headed next. The place Starkadder had taken her out of. Prison. Even now, despite the thick fug of cigar smoke clouding the high ornate ceiling, that festering stink of prison, of centuries-old dirt, lay loose as a winding sheet on her skin. Gabe was right. Besides, the money was no good if tomorrow was the lateness to end all latenesses.
“You’re right.” She caught his bony wrist. “Let’s go. Hurry.”
“Excuse me.” The Duke of Brampton, blurry in purple and blue, a powdered wig on his head, squeezed between the tables, blocking her way. “Now then, Kendall, everyone is looking. Sufficient to say, yet again it is at you. Be a good fellow and sit down, won’t you?”
The duke pressed his be-ringed hand on Stillmore’s black-brocaded chest and pushed him down into his chair.
She hesitated. She’d thought everyone was looking at her. But if Stillmore was known for being looked at, perhaps they weren’t looking at her at all. Perhaps she could wait one more moment and see? She didn’t just need that ten thousand pounds to get Gabe bought into the clergy. She needed it to pay off Madame Renare—without Gabe finding out. If he found out about her dressmaking bills, he’d kill her.
Win the prize money. Clear her account with Madame Renare. Buy Gabe with his soft dark hair and soulful eyes into the clergy. Marry him. Benefit the poor. Live happily ever after. Stop spending money like water.
This, as her dear papa always said, wasn’t over till it was done. Stillmore could bluster all he wanted about duels. When it came to it, she’d beaten him fair and square, and that was all he could have on her. Not who she was. What she was from.
Stillmore’s chair clattered to the checkered floor. “No, I don’t mind if I don’t. I abhor sitting down.” Crystal clinked on the silver tray floating in her vision. “Especially in the presence of cheats.”
“Well, that’s a great pity.” The Duke of Brampton’s voice was silky smooth. “But perhaps you haven’t noticed this is a chess tournament? In love, in war, challenging a man is all very well. But surely even you can see it’s not the done thing to go around shooting your opponents in a chess tournament?”
“When they cheat, I damn well don’t.”
“Oh, for God’s sake man, have you any idea of how unreasonable that makes you sound?”
“Not half as much as you telling me, me, who’s won this damned thing three years in a row, that I’ve just been beaten in five minutes in the first round by some nincompoop schoolboy in britches. Some … some jackass turkey just out of the nursery.”
Won this thing three years in a row? If this was the standard, then never let it be said that his cheek wasn’t something she couldn’t rise above. When she’d served as the Starkadder Sisterhood’s skivvy, she’d burned holes in petticoats, cinderized the odd stocking or two, and suffered sundry pots, pans, and ladles bouncing off her temples. But she never forgot one thing. To remove the sting from the situation, even if humiliation burned in the very pit of her breast, at having to serve women who were jewel thieves, she’d always smiled. She did that now.
“And what, pray tell, would be the purpose of me cheating, exactly, Your Grace?
“Ten thousand bloody pounds. That’s what.” The growl froze her smile to her teeth backs. “Anyway, I didn’t say you cheated. I said there has been some … ”
He stepped closer. A heady concoction of mint, brandy, and sandalwood tickled her nose.
“Some … ”
Her heartbeat froze. Please God, don’t let her look over her spectacle rims. Tousled black hair, black brows knitted with perfect disdain above coal-black eyes that were coldly leveled on her, sinfully sensuous lips and a dusting of stubble on his jaw that gave him a wolfish air. She had looked over the rims, hadn’t she?
He canted his jaw, drawing his brows together. “Some discrepancy … of play.
Forgive me for saying so, but … ”
Oh God. Her jacket hadn’t burst so that her breasts hung out, had it?
“Your Grace.” She darted her gaze back behind the thick lenses. “I don’t forgive you anything. Certainly not you looking … ” Down her front? Looking more handsome than any man she’d ever seen? “Saying … Saying I’ve cheated you. It was bishop to that square, and you … well, you … ”
Stillmore sniffed deliberately.
Her soap. Essence of Violets. She froze. How, in all the preparations she’d undertaken at Mrs. Hanney’s, binding her breasts, tying her strawberry-blonde hair back with a brown ribbon, had she forgotten that one vital thing? Perhaps she should have kept her mouth shut and let the Duke of Brampton deal with this after all.
“For goodness’ sake, Kendall, sit down, now, before you fall. Or you’ll leave me with no choice but to throw you out.” The duke set the spindle chair back on the tiles. “Everyone here knows you’re foxed over that business with Baxby.”
“Baxby?” Crystal shattered as the stem of the snifter in Stillmore’s hand snapped in two.
Baxby, whoever he was, apparently inflamed the earl almost as much as being checkmated. But so long as the Duke of Brampton didn’t mention him again, this was going to be fine. It was Gabe’s dearest dream to become a clergyman, and it was down to her to see he succeeded. Then there was the little matter of the dressmaking bill. That was down to her too. Benefitting the poor was all very well. But sometimes, to do so you had to look the part. Spend in order to receive. Papa had always said so, although he had liked to spend money he didn’t have, as well.
If the earl shot her tomorrow at Blackfield Heath, it would certainly solve her bill problems, though.
“You think this is about Baxby?” The earl’s voice held notes of the darkest modulation. “That it’s of any consequence to me that the sneaky, damn, bastard son-of-a-whore is here? Dancing on my grave?”
“We’re hardly in the cemetery. But yes. Baxby.” More glass tinkled. What had she thought about the duke not mentioning that name again? “And a certain lady with whom you are the talk of London, my boy. So if you want to continue making a damned fool of yourself, please don’t let me stop you.”
“I’m not your boy unless my mother was as big a whore as that certain lady. And even if I were your boy, do you think familial loyalty would stop me from calling you out for that?”
Splendor’s breath tightened. Did the earl descend from wolves? Growling, trigger-happy, pistol-toting ones who thought nothing of calling half the hall out at dawn? What if he shot the Duke of Brampton who couldn’t seem to shut up about Baxby? She’d hoped Brampton would but perhaps Gabe was right, and they should leave now?
The earl drained the contents of another glass down his lace-clad throat. “If you must know, this has nothing whatsoever to do with Baxby and Lady Langley.”
“Well, then, if it isn’t, you will see that this boy here—”
Splendor’s heart hammered as if a boa constrictor had slithered across the polished floorboards, climbed her leg, and wrapped itself around her rib cage. At all costs she couldn’t afford to sink to the floor. Imagine the sensation it would cause if she did and someone loosened her, or rather Gabe’s shirt?
The Duke of Brampton shifted beside her, obviously perusing the board. “Kendall, now tell me if I’m wrong, but from where I’m standing the last move was this bishop here to that square there— “
“I don’t give a bull’s toss whether the last move was the Archbishop of Canterbury to that square there. The Archbishops of York and Durham too. Every damned archbishop in the country to that square. I know what I saw. Exactly what I saw.” The earl jabbed a finger into her chest. “Now boy, find yourself a second. And be on Blackfield Heath at eight. Don’t waste time with a physician; by the time I’ve finished with you, an undertaker is all you’ll need.”
A story of lies, secrets, sex, love, and misunderstandings. The heroine is bold and determined, which makes this story interesting to follow. Splendor and Kendall’s journey together will be filled with plenty of surprises and romance. I will definitely watch for her third story in this series.’
Nicole Laverdure Books and Benches
‘You can always rely on Shehanne Moore to create a heroine with grit, wit, determination and an unfailing ability to get herself into more scrapes than it would seem possible for one woman. Addictive reading. This is a gutsy, authentic, rollicking Georgian romp and I loved it. ‘
Catherine Cavendish author of The Pendle Curse. https://t.co/yP5DDMvrTn
With shades of Shakesperean cross-dressing comedy and scenes that reminded me of Audrey Hepburn in My Fair Lady and Confessions of a Shopaholic as Splendor by turns participates in a men’s chess tournament and then tries to pose as an aristocrat at high society balls, this novel had me laughing out loud throughout. Carolee Croft, author of Engaged to the Earl. https://t.co/1LW41LPSai
‘Underneath all the abundant fun and crazy cross dressing there runs a powerful and serious comment on what women have had to face throughout history. In Splendor Ms Moore has created a cracking champion for the female of the species, infinitely more deadly than the male.
Shehanne Moore can spin a tale that is a romance like no other. Savour it.’
‘ Kate Furnivall. Author The Liberation. http://amzn.to/2sBlTIt
‘This is the second novel I have read by the wonderfully entertaining Shehanne Moore. I just love her writing, even though she writes in a genre that I wouldn’t normally read. She has a knack of coming up with impossible heroes (sort of Mr Darcy’s but far worse!) who need taming, although in this story the heroine, after whom the novel is named, is impossible, too.‘
Sarah Potter author
Resa McConaghy https://t.co/3cGqQXITlL
‘Lady Splendor was once the lowest of the low, now she needs to find a way to keep her new lifestyle, and that means a chess competition that only men can enter. There is lots of fun in this story as Splendor risks all to achieve everything she desires.
Kendall Winterborne is a dissolute rake, who dislikes being challenged or made a fool of. Splendor does both and with their history, their relationship is never going to be easy going. Passion escapes, but they are at war, and anything more than physical attraction seems both unwanted and unobtainable.
A thoroughly entertaining, romantic tale, which is full of witty dialogue, sizzling scenes and unforgettable characters, perfect holiday reading,
I received an ARC of this book from the author.’
Jane Hunt First Steps Book Reviews.