A Rogue So Wicked (Star Frost Lovers Book 3)
A Rogue So Wicked (Star Frost Lovers Book 3)
Miss Philippa Barnes followed her heart and it lead her to ruin. Her family has sent her to the farthest reaches of England, the island of Star Frost, to bear the consequences alone. Only one thing can save her, but that one thing is not what she expects.
Wayne Stoke, selfish bachelor and wealthy hotelier comes upon a woman delivering a babe in a meadow. He takes charge, saving her from certain death. But what he doesn’t expect is to become so smitten with this mysterious young woman and her baby. A fierce protective emotion takes hold, and Wayne can’t fight it.
But what neither of them could predict is their bond runs far deeper. Money, secrets, and ex-lovers seek to destroy this precious link that forms between a new mother and a perpetual bachelor. What blooms isn’t only lust, it’s something far stronger that will change them forever.
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London, January 29, 1812
Wayne Edgar Stoke, owner of the illustrious and exclusive Waynestoke Hotel, held a marginal dislike for the aristocracy, though they made him very rich. So rich, his filthy common blood was deemed welcome into their pure circles, but Wayne rarely partook of polite society, simply because he wasn’t very polite.
Wayne rhythmically tapped his fingers on the desk while Lord Johns-
Stone bleated on and on about the attributes of his daughter. Wayne had already forgotten her name.
“Touring churches, she is. She is no bluestocking, but she has a great appreciation for the Church of England. She will be an excellent wife. We’ve received many proposals already, but of course, my Philippa will only have the best. Rest assured she will marry well, and I can repay you with interest.”
Ah yes, the old selling of one’s daughter to cover one’s debts. Through marriage, of course, women of Philippa Barnes’s pedigree were literal goods of trade. These aristocrats liked to apply a gilded façade to make it seem on the up and up, but the origins were the same. Sons inherited, and daughters brought in new money through husbands. Rich husbands.
But only beautiful daughters succeeded. Wayne had never seen nor met Philippa Barnes. And why should he?
He was himself, a lowly commoner. And filthy rich. Which is why desperate men like Lord Johns-Stone sat before his desk and asked him for money. Discreetly, of course. No one must know how hair-thin most pompous aristocrats lived. Which is why Lord Johns-Stone, Viscount of Aldbury, avoided a proper bank where men of his ilk might see him begging for coin and whisper behind his back.
Enter Wayne, elusive, wealthy, and still ousted among the elite circles of the ton, despite his riches and connections. Why? Well, put simply, Wayne couldn’t be bothered to behave himself. No matter how he bent the lords of the land to his financial will; it would be the stout wives who held the invitations.
Not that Wayne wanted invitations, but it would be nice to be recognized and appreciated for his benevolence upon the upper classes. After all, between his hotel, his gaming halls, and his investments, many of them had him to thank for their continued luxuries.
But instead, he received nothing in return. If he saw Johns-Stone on Bond Street, the man would pretend Wayne nothing more than a lamp post. To be ignored and not bumped against because—gasp!—he might be dusty.
Wayne smirked to himself.
“Do you have proof of your daughter’s fine marriage qualities?”
“Proof? As I said, she is not yet in Town for the Season. She is—”
“Yes, yes, pious and all that is holy. How beautiful is she? Her only real value is her face, and form, and purity.”
Lord Johns-Stone pressed his mouth into a flat line. His cheeks reddened. “Why I’ll—”
“Do what? Ignore the obvious truth? You’re using her to extend your wealth, like I will use you to extend mine. This is business. Marriage is business. You claim she will marry well? Prove it? Show me the goods.”
Lord Johns-Stone curled his lip, but as he did, he yanked a folded tabloid from inside his coat and threw it down on Wayne’s desk. “Page four, in the fashionable section. A credible likeness if I do say so myself.”
Wayne chuckled at Johns-Stones blustering as he picked up the paper, snapping the pages taught as he flipped to page four.
“Miss Philippa Barnes, an angelic sight in pure white Belgium lace with fur-lined bonnet and muff,” he read aloud.
Wayne studied the illustration. She was a beauty, if this artist was to be believed, but she didn’t seem real, not on paper in black and white. “Anything other than a fashion rag? A portrait?”
“You don’t believe me?”
“I require proof, not speculation. This is pure speculation.” Wayne tossed the paper down.
Lord Johns-Stone stood. “I will send the portrait with haste.”
“Do that.” Wayne picked up his glass and took a sip as Lord Johns-Stone took his leave without a backward glance. No respectful parting words, no by your leave, or even a nod.
Wayne was not his equal. Wayne was just money. Business was cold, but it rankled Wayne, which made it easier to ruin these same buffoons when they could not pay their debts. Even now, three new estates were being liquidated to repay him. Should Wayne mourn for them? He would not. They would live and die by their entrenched ideas that reduced him to hardly a human, and so would he.
Maybe then they would learn to respect him.
Three hours later, as Wayne enjoyed a fresh sandwich on his balcony overlooking the city, his man, Theodore, arrived with a tall rectangular package.
“Open it,” Wayne bid.
Theo tore a corner of the paper revealing a portrait. The woman’s face stared back at him with angelic innocence. Silvery blue eyes, a swath of pale gold ringlets piled on her head. A dress so white it glowed in oil paint. She held a small dog to her breast, and a sly smile parted her sweet pink lips. Young, but blooming with womanhood. The artist took special pains to highlight her perky breasts, demure and yet invitingly full. Her dress curved around a lush hip. This was a painting to entice a future husband. Probably presented at her coming-out ball.
“Miss Philippa Barnes, how do you do?” Wayne said, a little more breathless than he intended. If this painting was any sort of proof… “Who painted it?”
Theo ripped away the rest of the paper. There in the bottom corner were the strokes of a famous portraitist, Mr. Solohough. Well known and honest in his renditions.
“Well, I’m certain that Miss Barnes is as exquisite as her father claims.” His stomach knotted. He couldn’t look away from her face. “Write to Johns-Stone, tell him I will fund his loan.”
Wayne bit his tongue, on the verge of requesting to meet this Miss Barnes of perfect beauty, but no. Johns-Stone would never let a man like him be in the same room as his precious daughter.
“And the portrait?”
Wayne wiped his mouth. “Have it hung in my room.”
Wayne looked up at Theo. “Oh, I’m keeping her.”
Theo hid a smirk. “Yes, sir.”
Wayne turned his gaze back to the city. It was the only way he could ever have her. His stomach knotted again, but this time not with arousal but with bitter anger.
If he squinted just enough, he could see the steeple of the church where his mother used to beg for scraps. The clergyman could be just as ruthless as the aristocratic ladies whose maids bore armfuls of roughhewn, poorly repaired clothing to donate, thinking themselves benevolent and superior.
Wayne stretched out his hand. There were times when his fingers still ached from those cold wintry days when he would sit beside his mother, face dirty and tearstained, watching the people pass by, pointedly not looking their way. Either ashamed or barely clinging to their own wealth. Did they think poverty was contagious? Father Arthur always said the impoverished were a plague on society while looking into Wayne’s sunken, malnourished eyes. Each time, Wayne had felt the weight of those words. As if he, in his little frail body, was the only one at fault. For the death of his father, for their fraught life, for the disdain the world heaped upon them. What had he done?
But as he grew and as he fought for every bite of food, whether it be from the gutter, or stolen from an unattended plate, from behind a store proprietor’s back, Wayne no longer cared how they judged him. He was an animal, and animals survived, no matter the cost. Father Arthur could preach, Father Arthur could condemn, Father Arthur could judge all he pleased from his pulpit. Draped in warm robes with an ever-growing belly of fat.
Wayne found nothing redeemable in any of them. Few people ever cared enough about him to give a coin for a hot meal, and it wasn't Father Arthur or those benevolent women of means. It was his mother who did literally anything to keep him alive. It was Mrs. Fawn, a poor widow who gave whatever she could find to cover his meager body in the blistering cold. On the most unforgiving nights, she would even take in Wayne and his mother to keep them from freezing to death.
By the time Wayne became a young man, he could box, he could cut a purse without notice, he could charm any woman of any station, and a man for that matter, into a game so crooked even the devil would weep. Wayne had learned one thing from Father Arthur. One could be ruthless or one could be good.
Good people starved to death.
So, Wayne became ruthless to survive. Mrs. Fawn had died, and the landlord took a liking to his mother. It was their one chance to have a permanent home, and his mother married to secure a roof for them. With her new husband’s help, his mother turned Mrs. Fawn’s home into a boarding house to help other downtrodden women with children. His new stepfather, Mr. Stoke, treated them fair, but Wayne was never his son, more like a house boy.
Still, Mr. Stoke taught Wayne a great deal about how to earn money and how to intimidate those who didn’t want to pay, without violence. How to accrue property, how to use every advantage one could find. Which is why, even though Wayne didn’t know his actual surname, and Mr. Stoke died long before Wayne accrued his massive wealth, Wayne named his hotel Wayne Stoke, and took the name Stoke for his own. Stoke had no previous children and not a soft bone in his body, but he gave Wayne the foundation for what he had today.
His mother died long ago, but Wayne continued to live, if only to thwart every person who’d passed them by, not even bothering to watch them suffer. Wayne made his living however he was able, building his wealth, his name, his reputation, into that of a man so formidable even the king owed him a debt.
Not one Wayne intended to collect.
He’d framed the note and kept it in his bedroom in a frame of pure gold. His gaming club St. Anna, named after his mother, God rest her determined soul, was the most exclusive in town, but that was only one of his means of income. Wayne had too many to name without becoming bored.
“A letter from Star Frost.”
“Excellent.” Wayne had been meaning to visit his friend, Will Hunter. With a new babe in the house, Will was unlikely to leave his island home and his beautiful wife Phoebe for some time. Wayne would have to take himself there to do his duty as favorite uncle, since Will had no brothers to fill the role. He had competition in the form of their other friends. But Wayne always won.
He scanned Will’s letter with a smile, realizing quite a bit more time had passed since the birth. Damnation, it had been a year since his last visit? He’d seen the baby already and sent many gifts, but time had got away from him. He’d been too busy keeping men like Lord Johns-Stone knee-deep in crippling debt where Wayne could control them.
“Theo, I wish to make an extended visit to Star Frost.”
“You’ve many meetings sir, including a trip to France to secure your new holdings there.”
“Damn. That will take time.”
“Your summer schedule is more flexible, sir.”
“Keep it that way.”
Wayne penned a reply to Will, informing him of his intent for a longer stay than usual. Wayne would never have children of his own, but the idea of spoiling someone else’s amused him.
He stilled, a pang of sadness rocking him. His chest felt strange, hollow. What the devil? He didn’t want a child. What kind of father would he be? He didn’t know. He had no reference. He paid for plenty of children, but none of them had been his own blood. He made sure of that. There were enough unwanted children; he wouldn’t add to their miserable ranks.
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