The Wager
Captain Dylan Blake has spent the last decade fighting for his country. Desperate for a little peace,
he sells his commission and returns to England, but soon finds himself angry and adrift in London
society, searching for something to fill his empty days. When an old nemesis challenges Dylan to a
wager - he must get Lady Natalia Sinclair to dance with him twice in one evening - he is willing to
play along.

Lady Natalia Sinclair fears her enormous dowry is the only thing that draws her many suitors. But
heroic Captain Dylan Blake seems different. Unfortunately, she soon realizes his smile is false, his
interest superficial.

Dylan sees Natalia’s rejection as a challenge and the stakes increase when he discovers his father has
ordered his older brother, Michael, to win Natalia’s hand. Passed over for Michael far too many
times, Dylan needs to prove he can be first in someone’s heart.

As the lines between the wager and attraction blur, can Dylan and Natalia find the courage to take
the biggest gamble of all - love?
Excerpt - Chapter One

London— 1867

The Earl of Warren’s London townhouse stood in fashionable Grosvenor Square. The Palladian monstrosity
with its imposing white columns had been in the Blake family for generations. On this particular May evening
every window blazed with light, even though dawn would break in a matter of hours.

Dylan Blake, the earl’s youngest son, paid the driver of the hired hack and alighted from the vehicle with a
jaunty step. His black velvet cloak whipped in the chill spring breeze, and the solid weight of his dress sword
bumped against his thigh. He strode toward the red brick mansion, which had never felt like a home, with rebellion
in his heart.

Half a dozen footmen in deep blue livery waited on the front steps, their handsome faces impassive as they
shivered in the cold. One of the young men bowed deeply and hurried to open the door. The festive sounds of
laughter and music drifted out into the night.

Dylan grinned at the lad as he crossed the threshold. The midnight supper had ended, but plenty of guests
remained for the dancing. His timing couldn’t have been better.

The butler, Wadsworth, lifted a disapproving brow as Dylan entered, but the old man was far too well trained to
chide his employer’s son for his late arrival. “Shall I announce you, sir?”

Dylan nodded, his blood pounding with the thrill of having managed to thwart one of his father’s plans.
Childish, he knew, to continually provoke the man, but sometimes he couldn’t help himself.

Surrendering his cloak to one of the footmen, Dylan followed the aging butler up the grand marble staircase
with its intricately carved banisters, then down the long hall that led to the ballroom. Dressed for effect tonight in
scarlet military regalia, his medals and gold epaulettes flashed in the candlelight. They passed several
aristocratic guests along the way, but Dylan ignored their stares and whispers.

The heady scents of beeswax and roses assaulted his senses as he entered the ballroom. The laughter and low
buzz of conversation indicated the earl’s privileged guests were having a good time.

Dylan scanned the crowd, his smile widening. He hadn’t been to one of these affairs in more than a decade,
but nothing had changed. Society belles in elaborate gowns still whirled around the parquet dance floor on the
arms of suitable young gentlemen. Titled matrons still schemed and plotted from the corners as the older men
congregated in small groups, looking suitably bored.

When the last notes of the current waltz faded away, Wadsworth cleared his throat. “The Honorable Captain
Dylan Blake.”

For a moment utter silence reigned. Scores of interested nobles craned their necks for a glimpse of the
earl’s prodigal son, home at last after twelve long years of dedicated service to the Crown.

Dylan met his father’s furious gaze. He smiled, then turned his back and skirted the gleaming dance floor. Let
the old bastard come to him, he thought with grim satisfaction. His days of seeking the earl’s favor were long
past.

After an awkward pause, the music started up again, as did the whispers.

Lord Basingstoke, Dylan’s only friend in this nabob crowd, approached. Dressed in austere black, as usual,
the earl’s eyes glinted with welcome. “Blake! Where the hell have you been?”

Dylan shrugged, amused by the knowledge that everyone else wanted to know the same thing. “I had a
prior engagement.”

Basingstoke stared at him for a moment, then chuckled in admiration. “You were with Cassandra,
weren’t you?” He shook his head in astonishment. “Has there ever been a woman you couldn’t get, once you set
your mind to it?”

“Never.” Dylan grabbed a glass of champagne from a passing waiter and took a long, appreciative drink. “It’s
the uniform. Besides, I’m making up for lost time. I was in the Army for a bloody long time, you know.”

Basingstoke laughed, then sobered and nodded in the earl’s direction. “Well, I hope she was worth it. Your
father was furious when you didn’t show up for dinner. Threw off the whole thing. Uneven number, and all that.”

Exactly one hundred of London’s most elite and fashionable attended Warren’s annual ball. Because of its
exclusivity, the ton considered an invitation to be the height of social accomplishment. The earl had debated long and
hard about allowing his younger son to attend. By selling out so early in his career, Dylan had taken the place of some
far more deserving social climber. The earl had lectured Dylan endlessly about the importance of the occasion, and
threatened vague, dire consequences should Dylan do anything beyond the pale. For these reasons, and a thousand
more, Dylan took a sinful amount of pleasure in the fact that his late arrival had turned his father’s One Hundred Ball
into a dinner of Ninety-Nine.

There would be hell to pay for this latest transgression, but Dylan was enjoying the moment anyway.

“My father has been furious with me since the day I was born,” he told Basingstoke with a shrug. “I figured I
might as well give him a reason.”

Out of the corner of his eye, Dylan saw his older brother, Michael, confer with the earl then move through
the crowd in Dylan’s direction. As blond and golden as Adonis, Michael had always been the earl’s pride and joy.
Viscount Sherbourne from birth, Michael would one day inherit the earldom and all the wealth and privilege that went
with it. In return, Michael kept his reputation above reproach and obeyed their father’s every command.

No doubt he was obeying one of the earl’s commands right now.

“Let’s go down to the billiard room.” Dylan refused stick around and be chastened in such a civilized manner.
He’d much prefer it if his father made a scene and took him to task for his irresponsible behavior once and for all.

But that would never happen. The earl didn’t care enough about his second son to expend such emotion.

                                                                                   ****

“He’s a disgrace! Honestly, can you believe the nerve? Making a scene and ruining a perfectly lovely ball!” Lady
Amelia Lansdowne fluttered her filigreed fan with unusual vigor, an unbecoming flush on her pale cheeks.

“I wouldn’t call this a scene, Amelia. He merely arrived a little late. I’m sure he had a good reason.” Lady
Natalia Sinclair sighed with impatience over her companion’s melodrama, but her own fan fluttered a bit
faster as she watched Captain Blake chat with Lord Basingstoke.

Captain Dylan Blake, recipient of the Victoria Cross.

Natalia knew all about him. She’d read a hundred newspaper articles touting his courage, but she’d never
actually met him. “He’s dreadfully good-looking,” she mused, as she cast a subtle glance in the captain’s direction.
In his scarlet dress uniform, with confident military bearing and chest full of medals, he stood out in the crowd
of somber lords. His thick, black hair, caught at his nape with a piece of ribbon, contrasted sharply with his light
blue eyes. His high, chiseled cheekbones, square jaw, and clear, sun-kissed skin stole her breath.

Amelia gave a delicate shudder. “How can you say such a thing? He hasn’t a title or farthing to his name.
He’s been in the military for years, serving with the very dregs of society and probably doesn’t know the first thing
about how to act around civilized people.”

“Surely the fact that he fought to preserve our way of life gives him the right to a few eccentricities. He’s a hero,
Amelia.” Natalia didn’t bother to point out that a man’s wealth had nothing to do with his attractiveness. It
wouldn’t do any good. In Amelia’s eyes, money and power did determine a man’s worth.

Unfortunately, Natalia’s father shared Amelia’s opinions, and he would choose her future husband.
Amelia turned up her nose with a condescending sniff. “Well, hero or not, you wouldn’t catch me marrying
such a man.”

“No.” Natalia fought to maintain a civil tone. “I don’t suppose so.” Not that a hero like Captain Blake would
want to marry a little cat like you anyway.

To her relief, Amelia soon drifted away, obviously in search of someone more inclined to share her narrowminded
opinions. Natalia found herself alone for a few moments, free to daydream about Captain Blake.

She wanted to meet him, even though her father would never permit a man like Captain Blake to court
her. It seemed so unfair. What good were wealth and a title, when so many of those who had them lacked even a
hint of character?

Captain Blake had risked his life to save his men. He’d dashed back into the fray three times before he’d
been wounded. The mere thought of his courageous actions sent a shiver down her spine.

Unfortunately, Captain Blake and Lord Basingstoke left the ballroom before she could work up the audacity to
arrange an introduction. Disappointed, Natalia forced a smile as the next young man on her dance card claimed
her for a mazurka.

Lord Roger Densby was the son of a duke. While undoubtedly her social equal, he was at least two stones
overweight and stank of sweat and brandy. He managed to step on her toes twice before he even got her out on the
dance floor and didn’t have a heroic bone in his entire well-fed body.

Densby, or someone like him, was her fate. Still, her entire soul rebelled at the thought of spending her life
with a man who wasn’t interested in anything but the next hunt or glittering party.

What she really wanted was someone like Captain Blake—a man with poetry in his face and courage in his
heart.