Early Spring 1824
There were benefits to being the second son.
Indeed, if there was one truth in society it was this: Rake, rogue, or scoundrel—an heir required reformation. He could wreak his havoc, sow his wild oats, and scandalize society with his youthful indiscretions, but his future was cast in stone by the finest of masons: He would eventually find himself shackled to his title, his land, and his estate—a prisoner of peerage alongside his brethren in the House of Lords.
No, freedom was not for heirs, but for spares. And Jasper Arlesey, the second son of Earl Harlow, knew it. He also knew, with the keen understanding of a criminal narrowly escaping the gallows, that—despite having to forgo heredity title, estate, and fortune—he was the luckiest man on Earth to have been born seventeen months to the day after Owen Elwood Arthur Arlesey, eldest child, first son, Viscount Baine and heir to the earldom.
On Baine lay the heavy weight of respectability and responsibility that came with being heir. On Baine rested the hopes and dreams of a long line of Lords Harlow. It was Baine who was required to live up to the expectations of those around him—parents . . . peers . . . servants . . . all.
And flawless, proper, boring Baine lived up to every one of those expectations.
Which was why that evening, Baine had chaperoned their younger sister at her first visit to Almack’s. Yes, Jasper had originally agreed to the task, promising Lavinia that he wouldn’t dare miss such an important evening in her young life. But his promises were more whisper than word—everyone knew that—and so it had been Baine who had done the chaperoning. Living up to expectations, as ever.
Jasper, instead, had been busy winning a fortune at one of London’s wickedest gaming hells . . . then celebrating by doing precisely the kind of thing errant younger sons were wont to do. In the bed of a beautiful woman.
Baine wasn’t the only one who lived up to expectations.
One side of Jasper’s mouth kicked up in a private smile as he recalled the pleasure he’d found in excess that evening, then faded at the twinge of regret he’d felt as he’d climbed from warm sheets and willing arms.
He popped the latch on the rear entrance to the Arlesey House kitchens and crept inside. The room was dark and quiet in the pale grey light of a bitterly cold March morning, dark enough to hide his disheveled clothes, half-tied cravat, and the love bite peeking out from beneath his loosened collar.
As the door closed behind him, a startled kitchen maid looked up from where she crouched, half-inside the hearth, stoking the flames in preparation for the arrival of the cook. She stood, one hand to her lovely, blossoming breast. “My lord! You gave me a fright!”
Jasper tossed her a wicked grin before offering a bow that would make a courtier proud. “Apologies, darling,” he drawled, adoring the blush that flared high on her cheeks, forgiving him.
He leaned past her, brushing close enough to hear the breath catch in her throat, to see the wild pulse at her neck, snatching a hard biscuit from the plate she’d prepared for the rest of the kitchen staff, lingering a touch longer than was required, loving the way she trembled in anticipation.
He wouldn’t touch her, of course; he’d learned long ago that the staff was off-limits.
But it didn’t stop him from loving her just a little.
From loving all women—all shapes, all sizes, all walks of life. Their soft skin and softer curves, the way they gasped and giggled and sighed, the way the wealthy ones played their coy games, and the less fortunate ones looked at him, stars in their eyes, eager for his attention.
Women were, without a doubt, the Lord’s finest creation. And, at twenty-three, he had plans for a lifetime of worshipping them.
He crunched into the sweet biscuit and winked at her. “You won’t tell anyone you saw me, will you?”
Her eyes went wide, and she shook her head instantly. “N—no, sir. My lord, sir.”
Yes, there were definite benefits to being the second son.
With another wink and another stolen biscuit, Jasper snuck from the kitchens into the back hallway that led to the servants’ stairs.
“Where have you been?”
Cloaked in black, Stine, his father’s man of affairs, materialized from the shadows, accusation and something much worse on his long, pale face. Jasper’s heart raced from the surprise though he’d be damned if he’d admit it. He did not answer to Stine. It was bad enough that he was required to answer to Stine’s employer.
The man whose expectations for his youngest son were lower than all others’ combined.
The son in question rocked back on his heels and grinned with practiced affectation. “Stern,” he drawled, enjoying the way the older man’s posture stiffened at the misnomer. “It’s rather early for haunting, isn’t it?”
“Not too early for you.”
Jasper smiled, a cat with a canary. “How right you are. Late, instead. I have had a night, and I would prefer you not ruin . . . the afterglow.” He clapped the other man on the shoulder and pushed past him.
“Your father is looking for you.”
He did not look back. “I’m sure he is. I’m also sure it can wait.”
“I don’t think it can, Lord Baine.”
It took a moment to hear the words. To hear the title. To understand its meaning. He turned, horror and disbelief coursing through him. When he spoke, the words were young and broken, barely a whisper. “What did you call me?”
Stine’s gaze narrowed barely. Fleetingly. Later, it would be that nearly imperceptible movement over cold, black eyes that Jasper would remember.
His voice rose, furious. “I asked you a question.”
“He called you Baine.”
Jasper spun to face his father, Earl Harlow, tall and strong and unbending even now. Even in this moment. Even as his legacy crumbled around him, and he faced his life’s disappointment.
Jasper fought for breath, then for words.
His father found them first.
“It should have been you.”