Viscount's Wager – Novel
Gambling on Love series, Book #3
Regency-set D/s M/M erotic romance
Release date: August 10, 2015
Word Count: 102,000
Publisher: Carina Press
Deleted Scene – read a deleted scene from the book
You never forget your first love, but is a second chance worth the gamble?
Anthony, Viscount Rawling, knows exactly what he wants in life and he isn't above having a look about London for it. When he spots recently widowed Gabriel Tilden at a ton function, he thinks he might have found love...again.
Gabriel is as gorgeous and reserved as he was when he broke Anthony's heart seven years ago. But they were only adolescents then...surely Anthony won't hold the incident against him. And especially not when the attraction between them is stronger than ever.
Gabriel came to London in search of distraction, and a teasing Anthony is impossible to resist. As Anthony introduces Gabriel to the pleasures that can be found in the city—and in his bedchamber—their bond deepens into something more. Yet both men are hiding secrets that could pull them apart forever...
Note: This book contains explicit sexual content, graphic language, and situations that some readers may find objectionable: male/male sexual practices.
© Ava March
"Good evening, my lord," Anthony's butler said as the man closed the front door of the town house. "The ladies are upstairs at their toilettes."
"But of course. Perfection takes time, after all."
To which Markson merely blinked, obviously uncertain how to respond. One would think after so many years in service to the Hawkins household that Markson would have adjusted to the family by now. The man took his job too seriously. Still, it was fun to rattle him on occasion.
Anthony took pity on the elderly man and gave him a smile. "No slight intended on the ladies. I'll wait for them in my study."
Taking off his white evening gloves, he made his way up the staircase. As he took a right at the first-floor landing, he collided with his younger brother. Reaching out, Anthony briefly grabbed Simon's shoulder to keep the boy from falling back onto his arse. At barely five feet eight inches in height, his brother had the same slight build as their sister and mother.
"Apologies, Anthony." Simon wasn't dressed in evening blacks, but in a plain brown coat and tan waistcoat.
Not that Anthony had expected Simon to accompany them to the musicale tonight. Even though Simon was nineteen years of age and old enough to play the role of escort for their mother and sister, he avoided social functions whenever possible. The leather gloves on his hands, though, indicated he wasn't merely going down to the kitchen for a bite to eat. "No need to apologize. Going somewhere?"
"Yes." Chin tipped down, Simon adjusted his waistcoat, straightening it beneath his coat. "Meeting a friend."
That was good to hear. Simon spent too much time ensconced in his bedchamber with his nose in a book. "Well then, have a good evening."
"You, as well...or as good of an evening that you can have at a musicale." Satisfied he'd righted his waistcoat, Simon looked up only to roll his eyes. Then he sidestepped around Anthony. "And be sure to tell Penelope and Mother they look lovely," he said as he went down the stairs.
"I always do."
Anthony proceeded on to the study and found the fire lit in the hearth—at least one of the maids had anticipated that the planned seven o'clock departure had simply been a fantasy. But no bother. The musicale wouldn't begin until after eight. It wasn't as though he was eager to attend, but his mother preferred to arrive before the musicians—and Anthony used that term lightly—picked up their instruments.
He tossed his gloves on the console table and flexed his right hand. His knuckles were still sore from his sparring match at Gentleman Jackson's earlier that afternoon. But it was a good sort of sore, and his gloves would cover the bruise he'd sustained while knocking his friend Stoddart to the floor.
Before settling in on the couch, he crossed to the little-used desk, where a neat stack of letters awaited him on the silver tray. Without bothering to even flip through the stack, he shoved the letters in a drawer to join their unopened fellows, then poured a glass of brandy and made himself comfortable on the couch.
Another evening of polite conversation was ahead of him, but it made his mother happy when he escorted his sister, Penelope, and her to functions on occasion. Given it was something he could do for his mother with some degree of proficiency, he readily agreed whenever she asked for his arm.
As the minutes ticked by, Anthony occupied himself by making plans for the morrow. This afternoon's rains had kept him indoors. If tomorrow didn't hold a repeat, then he could take a ride about Hyde Park. He nodded to himself. Yes, that's what he would do. A gallop amongst the trees. Then maybe after, a stop in at Angelo's Fencing Academy.
The light tap of feminine footsteps approached the study, then his mother walked through the open door. Setting his glass on a side table, Anthony got to his feet.
"Beautiful as always, Mother." With her pale blond hair pulled back into a chignon and a violet silk gown draping her trim figure, she was the epitome of elegance. And he was certain he didn't just believe that because she was his mother. The Dowager Viscountess Rawling was truly a beautiful woman. It was no wonder his father had been besotted the moment he'd laid eyes on her.
"Why thank you, Anthony." She presented her cheek to him, which he dutifully kissed. She smelled of roses and lilacs, a scent he'd forever associate with her. "Penelope should be down shortly. And you look quite smart tonight. So distinguished and dapper. I'm so fortunate to have such a handsome son."
She beamed up at him, the pride she had in him radiating from her. Yet her pride felt so false lying across his shoulders. A cloak he shouldn't be allowed to wear. He fought to keep from glancing toward the fire in the hearth, and instead fell back onto his preferred tactic to cover discomposure.
"That's what all mothers say to their sons," he said with a deliberate smirk. "Before you're allowed to pop one of us out, you have to agree to believe we are handsome. Requirement and all."
She gave him a light tap on his forearm with her closed fan. "Anthony Albert Hawkins. You shouldn't speak with such vulgar language."
Vulgar? He gave his head a little bemused shake, but decided it best not to argue the point. He might be three-and-twenty, but he still didn't relish the idea of inciting her disappointment.
"And it's not a requirement," she continued. "Lady Westhill's eldest is a homely fellow, and even she can see it. Whereas you are a handsome man." Her gray eyes grew soft. "You remind me so of your father when he was younger."
Please, no. Not the comparison with his father again. He wasn't half the man his father had been. He might look like his father, but that was where the similarities ended. His father had been intelligent, responsible and an astute businessman. All things Anthony was not. For what seemed like the thousandth time, he wished his father hadn't waited until he was forty-three before he'd married, for then his father would still be alive. Still be managing the viscounty and still be in Anthony's life.
Anthony forced his lips into a smile. "Well, it's good to know I don't remind you of him when he was older. My ego couldn't withstand being compared to a sixty-four-year-old man."
That comment earned him another tap of her fan, but this time the remonstrance was more in jest. "Oh, do stop, Anthony," she said, with a very unladylike roll of her eyes.
He couldn't help but chuckle. She was fun to rattle too. "Would you care for a glass of Madeira while we wait for the illustrious Miss Penelope to grace us with her presence?"
As he poured her a glass from the decanter on the console table, she launched into a discussion of the evening's upcoming function. He nodded whenever she paused to take a breath and added a "You don't say?" when she relayed a bit of gossip surrounding the harpsichord player.
"Indeed. Fancying a son of a solicitor with her being the daughter of an earl. And one of the Tilden brothers is newly arrived in Town. You were good friends with one of them at Eton, spent a summer at their country house, did you not?"
"Yes. Pearce, the youngest Tilden son. I was sixteen that summer." The summer of hell. Then he gave himself a mental shove to the shoulder for being ridiculous. That had been seven years ago. Really, he had moved past it.
A tiny frown touched her mouth. "Was Pearce married?"
"No, he hasn't married yet." While Anthony was no longer close friends with Pearce—Pearce lived in Wiltshire and they had drifted apart once his old friend had gone off to Oxford—he hadn't heard the man had married.
"This one was married. His wife passed away earlier this year." She pursed her lips in thought.
It couldn't be Stephan, as Stephan was in the Commons and lived in London. Anthony's pulse picked up. An echo of the old pain glanced his heart. He knew what his mother would say before the name was out of her mouth. There were only three Tilden boys, after all. Even Anthony could apply the process of elimination.
The name echoed in his ears.
Had that been his own voice?
"Yes, Gabriel, like the archangel," she said, her expression brightening, as he offered the name. "Gabriel Tilden is in London keeping his sister, Mrs. Sarah Blackwell, company while her husband is away on business. Very kind of him. They were invited to the musicale this evening."
Gabriel would be at tonight's function. The knowledge slammed down onto Anthony.
"Did you know Gabriel Tilden?" his mother asked, all innocent query.
There had been a time when he thought he knew Gabriel, but apparently he had been wrong. Anthony cleared his throat. "I was acquainted with him." He kissed me, yet he chose another. "He was Pearce's brother, after all, and also attended Eton."
As casually as he could, Anthony crossed to the side table, picked up his glass of brandy and took a long swallow. Then another swallow.
Anthony hadn't been the only person to stumble upon Gabriel's rendezvous with Charlotte in the rose garden that day. If gossip could be believed—and in this case Anthony had had no reason to doubt it—Charlotte's uncle had come upon the pair at some point after Anthony had darted away, and Gabriel had offered for her on the spot. It had been the scandal of the house party. Whispers of it had flooded the corridors and every corner of the house. Anthony hadn't been able to escape the constant reminders that Gabriel had given his heart to another and would soon be married to the flirting, pretentious Charlotte Dunlop. What had Gabriel seen in her? Anthony had been stuck at the estate for three more days until the party had officially ended and he'd been able to return home. And not once during those three long days had Gabriel said a word to him.
The summer of hell, indeed.
For a moment, he debated conjuring some excuse to avoid the musicale. Maybe the roast mutton he'd had for dinner at White's wasn't sitting well. His mother wouldn't push him to attend if he wasn't feeling up to it. But...
He had already gone through the effort of donning appropriate clothes for an evening function, including tying his cravat in a neat Mathematical. Gabriel was in London, and Anthony would likely bump into him at some point. Might as well get the moment over with. And it wasn't as if Gabriel meant anything to him anymore. Definitely not.
And they had been but adolescents at the time. It had happened seven years ago. Clearly Anthony had read far more into that night at the pond than Gabriel had intended. Maybe Gabriel had simply been confused about his desires, and had tested out a slight attraction to men with Anthony. Really, he shouldn't hold the incident against Gabriel. And it wasn't as if Gabriel was the only man to have kissed him then chosen another. Anthony had kissed—and done much more than kiss—quite a few men since he'd moved to London five years ago. He well knew a kiss wasn't akin to a promise of forever.
Resolved, Anthony turned from the side table, almost-empty glass in hand.
"Since he's newly arrived in Town, perhaps you could offer to show him around or introduce him to some of your friends," his mother said, ever kind and helpful to others.
Anthony gave a noncommittal nod and drained the last of his brandy. It would be the kind thing to do, would show he held no ill feelings toward Gabriel, and he doubted Gabriel had developed a fondness for social functions over the past seven years. The man likely would be uncomfortable at the musicale, and the least Anthony could do would be to take pity on him so he wouldn't be standing off by himself all evening.
Yes, he would do the right thing and show Gabriel some kindness.
"And when you have a moment, could you please talk with Simon?" his mother asked. "He has made a few comments of late that led me to believe he does not want to return to Oxford for Michaelmas term."
Anthony nodded absently. Would Gabriel still be as gorgeous as ever, or had he turned into one of those portly country gentlemen, the type who was rife about the countryside?
He couldn't decide which he'd prefer—an adult version of the too-gorgeous eighteen-year-old, or a portly fellow who bore no resemblance to the adolescent object of his infatuation.
"Anthony?" she prompted, jolting him to the present.
He focused on her expectant face, then ran his mind back to her last question. "Yes, I'll speak with Simon."
"He really should return to university."
"I agree." Anthony might have bypassed university, but his younger brother was an intelligent boy. And as the Rawling title would someday pass from Anthony to Simon and his future son, it really was best for Simon to complete his education and not follow in his older brother's footsteps. "Simon's left for the evening. Said something about meeting a friend. I'll stop by tomorrow morning, speak with him then."
His mother gave him a smile. "Thank you, Anthony."
The light tap of feminine footsteps approached the study once again.
"Shall we depart?" Penelope stood in the open doorway. "We don't wish to be late."
"Did that concept just occur to you?" Anthony asked, setting down his glass and picking up his gloves.
"Why yes, Anthony, it did." She threw him a cheeky grin. Heaven help the man who won her heart—the fellow had better be prepared to be on his toes at all times. Clad in a pale pink gown, his twenty-one-year-old sister was a replica of their mother. Beautiful and elegant...and proving damned picky. Three Seasons, and she was still unwed. But regardless of the expense of yet another London Season in the spring—an expense he wasn't completely certain his bank account could bear—he would rather her wait for true love than to settle on the first man who asked for her hand.
As he followed his mother and Penelope down to the front door, one thought rose above the mass in his head—Gabriel was no longer married.
* * *
"I was so sorry to hear about your loss." Pity pulled at the older woman's features.
Pity that hit him square in the gut.
Gabriel tipped his head. "Thank you for your kindness, Lady Westhill. If you'll excuse me, I should seek out my sister to see if she has need of anything. I do not wish to be remiss in my duties as escort."
So much for his hopes for a diversion. Already six matrons had offered him their condolences this evening. He really did not need more reminders that he was a widower. He had jumped at the opportunity to keep Sarah company while her husband was on the Continent and had left Derbyshire to escape such reminders, after all.
Doing his best to avoid another sympathetic matron, he wound through the crowd in the large drawing room. Chairs were positioned in neat rows before the harpsichord and three music stands, waiting for their hostess to give the word that the performance would begin. He spotted Sarah's brunette head in the midst of a small pack of other women. With a glass of wine in hand, his sister appeared happy and content. She didn't need his presence at the moment, so he found a spot along the wall, near a potted palm and not near the door so it wouldn't appear as though he was trying to make his escape.
The palm was too short to do much good at hiding him, but hopefully the other guests would pick up the hint that he didn't wish to be drawn into an idle conversation laced with heavy doses of pity.
He pulled out his pocket watch, glanced at the face and managed to hide the groan. Not even an hour had passed yet. The performance would take some time—Gabriel didn't know how much time, but at least a few pieces' worth—then Sarah would wish to chat afterward with friends. A good couple of hours stood between him and walking out the door of the stately town house on Grosvenor Square.
He had known before he had left Sarah's house that the evening would likely include a few kind words in regards to his late wife's death. He had steeled himself and prepared the appropriate polite response. But he hadn't expected that every person he was introduced to would bring up Charlotte. Why did people feel they needed to say something to him about her? Why couldn't they just let him be? She had passed six months ago. If their condolences came from a sense of social obligation, then they needn't bother. And if by chance it came from actual kindness, then the true kindness would be in avoiding the topic. He couldn't fathom how anyone who had experienced a loss—be it a loved one or a distant relation—would wish to have it put before them over and over again.
And what did they expect him to say in reply? Certainly not the truth.
Thank you for your condolences, but I'm relieved to be free of my marriage.
A wave of guilt coursed through him.
He should have known better than to accompany Sarah tonight. Should have known his late wife's death would be the topic of every conversation. Then again, it wasn't as if he could have bowed out tonight. His excuse for coming to London had been to escort Sarah to functions in her husband's absence.
Another check of his watch confirmed he still had hours left at the musicale. Once he saw Sarah home for the evening, perhaps he would go over to Cheapside again. The sounds of dice and cards, the shouts of victory and defeat, the anticipation as the roulette marble clacked around the wheel did wonders to muffle the guilt. And maybe luck would shine down on him tonight, as it surely hadn't the past few nights.
With nothing better to do with himself, he cast his gaze over the crowd before him. Would the musicians ever perform? He let out a sigh at the sight of two more ladies and a gentleman walking into the drawing room. Obviously the musicians were not planning to take up their instruments anytime soon if guests were still—
Gabriel's heart lurched in his chest.
Seven years had passed, but he would recognize that carefree smile anywhere.
He couldn't stop himself from staring, from soaking up every detail, as Anthony Hawkins made his bow to their hostess. Gone was the gangly frame of an adolescent, in its place the body of a man. Broad shoulders, strong arms and powerful legs, indicating Anthony didn't spend all his time ensconced behind a desk. The once-fair blond hair had darkened a shade to a sandy blond. The strands around his ears still curved up in a way that made Gabriel's fingers itch to trace those curls. In a crisp black coat and a white waistcoat, Anthony was...too handsome for words.
A sense of acute loss radiated through him, like a physical force. Gabriel's breaths stuttered, as though he had been punched. Not a day had gone by since he'd last seen Anthony when his thoughts didn't stray to Anthony at least once, when his heart didn't give that squeeze of regret. Still, he hadn't realized just how much he had missed Anthony until he laid eyes on him again.
He had lost the opportunity to watch Anthony grow into that handsome man. Lost seven years with him.
Seven years of smiles and teasing laughter. Seven years' worth of kisses. A lifetime of happiness.
And it had all been his own doing.
What he wouldn't give to take back that afternoon. To go back to his younger self and scream at him not to be a coward. To do anything but hurt Anthony.
Yet he had done that very thing.
As their hostess spoke to the two women who had arrived with Anthony, he turned his head in Gabriel's direction. Gray eyes caught Gabriel's.
The hum of the many conversations in the room evaporated to nothingness.
Gabriel's heart gave a fierce wrench.
I'm so sorry I hurt you.
For the longest moment, Anthony's expression was utterly blank. Gabriel braced himself for a well-deserved cut, for a refusal of his silent apology.
Yet when he received that cut, it hurt far more than he could have ever anticipated, the pain slamming into him. Ignoring Gabriel as if he hadn't laid eyes on him, Anthony turned his attention back to their hostess. His lips moved as he spoke to her. Then he gave her another half bow, turned and began walking directly toward Gabriel.
Anthony hadn't been giving him a cut? Had he only been extricating himself from their hostess?
That had to be the case, because Anthony was definitely coming over to him.
What felt like an iron band wrapped around Gabriel's chest, constricting his lungs. His hands tightened into fists. He wished he had grabbed a glass of wine from one of the servants' trays. His arms felt awkward hanging at his sides. He needed something to do with his hands. And he needed a drink. Something to fortify him, to give him the courage to face the man he had once so horribly betrayed.
With a small smile on his lips, Anthony stopped before him. "Pleasant palm you have there."
Gabriel blinked, confused both by Anthony's words and by the lack of anger in his voice.
Anthony tipped his head toward the potted palm at Gabriel's right side. "Does it make nice company?"
Gabriel blinked again, and then his brain clicked into motion. Anthony was teasing him.
That acute sense of loss radiated through him anew.
He cleared his throat and answered Anthony's question. "The palm's quiet."
"Ah, an admirable trait in a companion at such affairs. Would you care to add another who promises no such claims?"
Flexing his hands, Gabriel nodded. How he longed to reach out, to touch Anthony. Just a glance of his fingertips along Anthony's coat sleeve would be enough for him. Something. Anything. Yet he kept his arms locked to his sides.
Anthony made to take a step toward Gabriel's unoccupied left, but stopped. "First, though..." He looked behind him. "I shall return shortly." Then he turned on his heel.
Gabriel watched as Anthony disappeared into the clusters of other guests. Where was he off to? Perhaps the necessary? But Anthony had just arrived at the function. And Gabriel still couldn't fully wrap his head around the fact that Anthony was here at the musicale.
Yes, Anthony lived in London, but he was now a viscount. Lord Rawling, to be exact—something Pearce had mentioned to him a while back. His mother was a dowager. The possibility of seeing Anthony while squiring Sarah about hadn't occurred to Gabriel. Well, it had occurred to him, but Gabriel had pushed aside the notion as highly improbable. But apparently Sarah moved in more vaunted social circles than Gabriel had realized.
And Anthony didn't seem upset to see him. There had been no anger, no cold fury. Not a trace of the hurt that had filled Anthony's eyes during those last few days of the house party. Anthony had walked right up to him and teased him, as if they were merely old friends who hadn't seen each other in an age. As if Gabriel had never pressed his lips to Anthony's then turned his back on him barely twelve hours later.
The guilt and the shame, the self-loathing so thick he could taste it, swamped him again.
He should leave. Now. He didn't have the right to spend even another moment in Anthony's presence. Yet he was tied to this drawing room, tethered there by his sister, who was still happily chatting with acquaintances.
Maybe Anthony would come to his senses while he was...wherever it was he'd gone. Maybe Anthony wouldn't return shortly. Maybe someone would pull him into a conversation and occupy him for the rest of the evening. Yet as Gabriel's mind worked over scenario after scenario that would result in him standing alone for the next two or so hours, his eyes continuously swept over the crowd of guests, searching for a distinct sandy blond head, his soul begging for Anthony to return to him.
Anthony must have heard that plea, for he emerged from behind a small group of gentlemen and walked directly back to Gabriel. He held out one of the two glasses in his hands. "For you. Always makes these performances more palatable."
"Thank you." Gabriel took a sip. Whisky, and a nice vintage. "I thought the footmen were only offering wine?"
"Need only to ask, and wait a moment or two for them to grab a decent bottle from a cabinet."
Gabriel would have never thought to impose by asking, but clearly Anthony was well accustomed to making himself comfortable at such affairs. Then again, Anthony could make himself comfortable most anywhere. He never seemed to worry about what others would think of him, while at the same time, he never came off as rude. How Gabriel wished he had just a drop of the easy self-confidence that radiated from Anthony.
Though something felt...off. As Anthony positioned himself beside Gabriel, his shoulder brushing Gabriel's, Gabriel identified that something. Anthony wasn't only broader and stronger than when last Gabriel had seen him. He was also on eye level with him. The man had to be within a quarter-inch of Gabriel's own six feet.
Being able to look to Anthony and not have to tilt his chin down to make eye contact served as a fresh reminder of the years with him that Gabriel had given up.
There was the light chime of a bell. The crowd began moving toward the rows of chairs.
"I see the performance is to start," Anthony said. "Shall we relocate to a more advantageous location?"
He nodded. Even if Anthony wanted to sit in the front row surrounded by others, Gabriel would follow him.
With his whisky in hand, he trailed behind Anthony, who smoothly navigated through the crowd. Anthony tipped his head a few times with a "Good evening" and the individual's name. But that was all. No pausing to chat.
It wasn't until Anthony stopped and settled with his back against the wall that Gabriel noticed where Anthony had led him—not to the rows of chairs, but to a spot a couple of paces from the door.
"But we're farther away from the musicians, not closer," Gabriel said, as he took up a place on Anthony's left.
Anthony quirked a brow. "Is that a complaint?"
"No. Merely an observation. You did say a more advantageous location."
"And this is. I've attended quite a few of these sorts of functions. The only way to make them tolerable is to stay as far away as politeness will allow. And close to a door in case one's ears beg for a respite. Though distance wins in the event a door is in close proximity to the musicians." Anthony lowered his voice. "They aren't ever any good, but it makes the mamas happy to force others to listen to their daughters play. The mamas have this notion that men value women who can play an instrument with some level of skill." He shrugged. "Not something I value, but then again—" he leaned closer to Gabriel, as if letting him in on a joke "—I'm not part of their intended audience."
Anthony's interests were still focused on men. He might as well have just come right out and said it in plain English.
Before Gabriel could stop himself, his fingers stretched out, stretching toward Anthony's white-gloved hand that hung at his side. The brush against fabric made his pulse skip a beat. He swore he could feel the heat of Anthony's body enough through Anthony's gloves and his own. Then Gabriel snatched his arm back tight to his side, closing his fingers into a fist.
His gaze darted over the other guests, but he met not one pair of eyes. No one was paying him and Anthony any mind. But they were in a drawing room, at a ton function. What the hell had he been thinking to make to take hold of Anthony's hand? But beyond that, Anthony wasn't his, and it was the height of dangerous to try to steal a taste of something he could never have again.
His heart slammed against his ribs. He looked to Anthony, but the man was taking a long sip from his glass, as though nothing was amiss. As though he wasn't aware Gabriel had forgotten himself. As though he hadn't even felt that brush of Gabriel's fingers.
Maybe he hadn't. Anthony was wearing gloves, after all.
The idle chatter in the drawing room faded away. There were a few creaks of wooden chair frames, the rustle of fabric. Then silence.
Gabriel pulled his attention from Anthony. The musicians had taken their places, their instruments at the ready. The violist gave a nod, and the quartet began to play what sounded like a concerto. The music that filled the room wasn't awful by any means. The harpsichordist was slightly off-rhythm and one of the two violins was a shade out of tune, but all in all, it sounded as though it would be a decent performance.
"Have you been in London long?" Anthony asked in an undertone.
"Not long. Sarah, my sister—do you remember her?" Gabriel asked, matching Anthony's low tone. At Anthony's nod, he continued, "She married Neville Blackwell, of the Essex Blackwells, about five years ago. He needed to travel for business, and she doesn't like attending functions alone." Not exactly the truth, but he knew if given the choice, she'd prefer an escort. "So I agreed to come down and stay with her."
"That was kind of you."
Gabriel shrugged. He had more offered his services to his sister, but he didn't want to sound so desperate as to admit being alone in Derbyshire had become unbearable. "I heard that you inherited. When did you become Lord Rawling?"
"The town house's butler has been calling me ‘my lord' for almost three years now."
Anthony was two years younger than Gabriel's own five-and-twenty, which meant he'd only been twenty when he'd become a viscount. "You were quite young when you took over the title."
"I had hoped to remain Hawkins for a while longer, but unfortunately my father was not a young man. He married late in life; took him a while to find my mother."
"Yes. She was the love of his life, and he of hers. I can say with absolute certainty the title had no bearing on her decision to marry him." A sort of wistful longing passed over Anthony's handsome features. Then he turned his attention to the performance.
Yet Gabriel ignored the performance. He couldn't have pulled his gaze from Anthony if his life depended on it. I found you, yet was fool enough to let you go. Had Anthony found other men over the years? Did Anthony have a current lover?
That thought did not sit well.
How many other men had kissed Anthony? How many others knew the taste of his soft lips? Gabriel studied those lips, the bottom one slightly plumper than the top. His own lips tingled at the memory of Anthony's mouth opening beneath his, welcoming him. Anthony must have shaved before departing for the evening's function because his jaw appeared smooth and unmarred by the stubble of a beard. And Anthony must not use cologne, because he could detect nothing but the clean scent of a man.
Bringing his glass to his lips, Anthony took a swallow of whisky. A long swallow. In fact, his tumbler was now a splash from empty.
They hadn't been standing along the wall for all that long. Did Anthony usually drink so quickly? Had he developed a fondness for spirits since he'd moved to London? Or...was it Gabriel's presence that pushed him to down the whisky in a few swallows?
Yet Anthony had sought him out. Had teased him, treated him like an old friend. Was behaving as though he wasn't still hurt by what Gabriel had done to him seven years ago.
A flicker pulled between Anthony's dark blond brows.
Oh hell. Anthony's kindness was all just a ruse of politeness. Though his heart begged for him to remain at Anthony's side, Gabriel knew he should take himself off to someplace else in the drawing room, spare Anthony and not ruin the man's evening.
Gabriel opened his mouth, the "good evening and thank you" on his tongue, when Anthony asked, his attention still on the musicians, "Had she been ill?"
He knew exactly what Anthony wanted to know. Curiosity followed closely behind sympathy, though thankfully Anthony had skipped the sympathy portion. Rather than evade Anthony's question as he had done with others who had attempted to pry, he decided to answer with the truth. Get it over and done with, so to speak. "Not until a week before she passed. She took ill with a fever that spread to her lungs. Within days she was gone. It was quite unexpected."
So unexpected he'd been left in shock for a good fortnight. Once the reality of his situation had hit him, once he'd tasted that sweet burst of relief at being free from his marriage, the guilt had slammed down on him and had rightly stayed put.
"I'm sorry," Anthony said, glancing to him. He sounded truly sorry. No jealousy at all, only compassion. And it stabbed Gabriel square in the gut.
The way Gabriel swiftly broke eye contact spoke louder than words that Anthony had made him uncomfortable. Had he loved Charlotte? They'd lived together as man and wife for seven years. From what Anthony had heard, Gabriel had married within a month of the incident in the rose garden and instead of attending Oxford as planned, had relocated with his new wife to a property in Derbyshire.
But Gabriel had touched his hand in the minutes before the performance had started. That touch had felt so familiar—a glance, brief yet deliberate—Anthony had been surprised when Gabriel hadn't taken hold of his hand.
A wagonload of questions swirled in his head, but Anthony didn't give any of them voice. Instead, he took in the stiff set of Gabriel's shoulders and changed the topic. "Is this your first visit to London of late?"
Gabriel nodded, which was the answer Anthony had expected. It was possible Gabriel had paid his siblings who resided in Town visits over the years, but if so, word had never reached Anthony's ears.
"Then will you let me show you about?" After all, he had promised his mother to show Gabriel around London, so he should at least extend the offer. And Gabriel wasn't the type to quickly form friendships. If Anthony didn't take him about, Gabriel's entire stay in London would likely be comprised of staid functions and squiring his sister to shops and calls. The height of boredom. After a difficult start to the year, the man deserved to have a bit of fun. So Anthony should put their past aside and be kind to Gabriel. "Our illustrious city has much to recommend itself."
"More than busy streets and noise?" Gabriel asked, with a dubious glance.
If Anthony hadn't known it already, that question would have declared Gabriel was country bred and raised. But he could understand the man's skepticism. It had taken him some time to grow accustomed to the hustle and bustle of the city, and even then, he tried to get in a ride through the quiet of Hyde Park whenever the weather allowed.
"Though you may be hard-pressed to believe me, yes, there's more than busy streets and noise. There's Vauxhall Gardens, the British Museum, and Gentleman Jackson's for pugilism and the Fencing Academy—if you prefer a bit of activity. And there's Drury Lane Theatre. If you want to take in London, that's the place to do it."
"Really? The theatre? Why?"
Shifting his gaze to the guests who were still taking in the musicale, Anthony smiled. Clearly Gabriel had never been to Drury Lane before, and it would make for an interesting evening to introduce him to the place. The sights and the sounds, the mix of London's inhabitants...there was nothing quite like it. "Agree to attend with me, and you can see for yourself. Are you free tomorrow evening?"
The harpsichordist finished with a flourish of notes. In the brief space of silence before the guests began their polite applause, he heard Gabriel reply, "I believe so."
Not allowing himself to overthink Gabriel's pause, Anthony tucked his glass in the crook of his elbow and added his own few claps. "Excellent. You are staying with your sister, correct?"
"Yes, with Sarah."
In a commotion of fabric and shoes on wooden floorboards, the other guests stood from their chairs. "I'll stop by around six and we can ride to the theatre together." His mother looked over her shoulder. Her little frown at seeing him standing by the door transformed into an appreciative smile. Stepping from the wall, Anthony turned to face Gabriel and held out his free hand. "My sister and mother will want my arm again soon, so I should go play the dutiful escort."
Gabriel stared at Anthony's proffered hand, as if uncertain if he should take it. Had Anthony misread him? Was Gabriel not interested in spending time with him? Should Anthony have heeded his initial instinct to avoid him? By making plans to see Gabriel again, was he setting himself up for the past to repeat—
Gabriel reached out. His hand slipped into Anthony's. Strong, elegant fingers wrapped around his own.
Warmth transmitted up Anthony's arm, settling in his chest.
"It was good to see you again." Gabriel spoke in but a murmur, quieter than he had even during the performance. Yet his eyes captivated Anthony, his gaze intense, the grass-green depths revealing a longing and a need that quite literally took Anthony's breath away...for a moment, at least.
"Tomorrow?" Anthony heard himself say, as if from a great distance.
Gabriel nodded. "Yes."
He forced his fingers to release Gabriel's hand, then cleared his throat. "Good evening, then." And he turned on his heel and went off to locate his mother and Penelope.
As he chatted with his mother's acquaintances, a portion of his mind marveled that he had actually asked Gabriel to go to Drury Lane. His adolescent self would not have dared ask such a thing of Gabriel. But he wasn't an infatuated sixteen-year-old anymore. He had asked other gentlemen to do far more scandalous things with him than go to the theatre, and it was just a visit to the theatre. And that spark, that pull he felt between himself and Gabriel...
Definitely not something he should ignore.
That spark shouted for him to spend at least one more evening with Gabriel, to explore the possibilities now that they were adults.
But if Gabriel was still attracted to him, then why had he chosen Charlotte—
Anthony shoved the question aside. Seven years had passed, after all. Perhaps Gabriel simply hadn't been sure of his preferences back then. Perhaps he'd felt an obligation to marry, regardless of the incident in the rose garden. That was the past, and while it would be prudent not to ignore it completely, Anthony should give Gabriel the benefit of the doubt and focus on the present...which included seeing a devastatingly gorgeous Gabriel again tomorrow.
And if Gabriel thought Anthony's invitation included a quiet evening in one of the Drury Lane's elegant private boxes, well, he'd soon find he was quite mistaken.
"When it comes to the chemistry and sexuality, well, hats off to Ava March… Anthony and Gabriel had a deep honest passion towards one another and the sexuality was simmering bright." —Out of My Head, ARC Reviews
"Anthony and Gabriel’s romance...the feeling was involving, strong and vigorous until the last page, in each touch, each look. It’s that kind of love that touches my heart and makes me believe that the world can be a better place." —The Book Adventures of Annelise Lestrange
"Gambling hells, high speed chases [at 16 miles an hour], the world’s toughest coachman – all the ingredients are there for a classic Ava March romp. ... if you like romance, ooh boy you’ll love this, if you’re there for the bonking well it’s Ava March!" —Sinfully Addicted to All Male Romance
“Viscount’s Wager is a true romance” —3 Chicks After Dark
“I'm a slut for Ava March books; they are the perfect blend of sharp writing, dirty sex, and romantic fluff. ….the HEA was blinding. Anthony and Gabriel's term of endearment for each other had me reaching for a tissue. Total feel-good ending!” —My Fiction Nook
“Ava March writes some of the best gay historical romance I’ve ever read. Her love scenes crackle with emotion and intensity” —Babbling about Books, and More
“This book is a must read!” —Bitten by Love
“The superb writing, romance, characters and a very hard fought HEA all come together to create something quite special. I highly recommend.” —GoodReads