The Spinster and the Rake

The Spinster and the Rake
Anne Stuart

August 2016 $15.95
ISBN: 978-1-61194-709-0


 
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The Spinster: As a maiden aunt, Gillian Redfern lives as an unpaid servant to her demanding family. Little wonder she finds the attentions of a rake distracting, and even less wonder that her usual good sense begins to unravel when Lord Marlow takes her in his arms.

The Rake: Ronan Patrick Blakely, Lord Marlow, is a man of great charm and little moral character, a gambler, a womanizer, and handsome as sin to boot. He has no qualms about placing a wager on the virtue of one small, shy spinster.

But Lord Marlow is about to discover that Miss Redfern is more siren than spinster. She amuses him, arouses him, and, much to his dismay, makes him a better man. Gillian will discover, in turn, that Lord Marlow possesses the power to turn her into a very wicked woman. The rake and the spinster are poised to find a love that neither could have imagined.

If only someone weren’t out to destroy them both . . .

Anne Stuart recently celebrated her forty years as a published author. She has won every major award in the romance field and appeared on the bestseller list of the New York Times, Publisher’s Weekly, and USA Today, as well as being featured in Vogue, People Magazine, and Entertainment Tonight. Anne lives by a lake in the hills of Northern Vermont with her fabulous husband.


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Chapter One

THERE WAS A heavy rain falling on the dusty, dry road between Winchester and London. The parched, rutted road drank the moisture in thirstily for a few moments, then tired of the bounty and sullenly gave over the potholes to the rapidly collecting rain. A crack of thunder, a jolt as the ancient landau hit a water-filled rut, and the dark-clad woman was thrown roughly to the side of the carriage. She was traveling alone, as she had for the past two years, and allowed herself the luxury of a good, solid, English "damn.”

It had been a long day for Gillian Redfern, a spinster one month shy of thirty years of age. She usually alternated her days between the house­holds of her two sisters and her elder brother. She was between siblings at the moment, traveling from her sister Pamela’s house outside Winchester back to her brother’s formidable mansion in Berkeley Square.As Pamela’s husband, the ill-mannered and impossibly boorish Baron Sinford, was as purse-pinched as he was lecherous, Gillian had been allotted a very poor carriage indeed, usually reserved for transport­ing under-housemaids to the tooth-drawer, Gillian told herself with grim amusement, putting a hand to her aching head. Surely the thing must have been designed to accentuate all the bumps and lumps in the British roadway system. It wouldn’t have been quite so bad if Pamela had allowed her to leave in decent time, instead of holding her back with all sorts of last-minute deputations to brother Derwent and then sending her off with a positively lethargic coachman and four of the laziest slugs that ever attempted to pass as decent quality horseflesh. It was no won­der they were hours late already, and Gillian’s stomach was rum­bling ominously. Pamela hadn’t thought to send a picnic hamper either, and Gillian hadn’t asked.

The youngest of the four children of a wealthy but unimaginatively proper gentleman, Gillian had long since decided, with a great deal of persuasion from the aforementioned siblings, to immolate herself on the altar of duty, having a great deal of family feeling and a dislike of being useless. Therefore, despite what amounted to an easy competence left to her by the good graces of a bluestocking maiden aunt and her mother’s last defiant gesture, she spent her days chasing around after a singularly ill-assorted parcel of nieces and nephews, ran errands for her sisters, made up a fourth at whist though she despised the game, partnered the most tedious of necessary gentlemen guests at dinner, and listened to her brother’s pontifications concerning the desperate state of the world, all brought about by a lenient attitude toward the Corsican monster and a preponderance of liberal-minded, wishy-washy bleeding hearts who hadn’t the sound business sense or pride in their country.... At this point Gillian invariably allowed her thoughts to drift.

The rain was coming down in earnest now, pelting the sides of the car­riage and making the slippery roadway even more treacherous. The coachman, who had heretofore been adamant in setting a snail’s pace, must have decided that he didn’t care for rain running down his collar, for the landau sped up with a jerk that sent Gillian tumbling back against the threadbare seats once more, uttering a second, satisfactory "damn.”

To make the wretched situation complete, a leak had developed in the faded roof of the carriage, directly above Gillian’s aristocratic Redfern nose. Large drops were descending with cheerful regularity, soaking her sober felt bonnet and trickling down the front of her navy wool spencer.

Gillian Redfern, usually a gentle and conciliatory creature, had a tem­per when aroused, and a hearty dislike of carriage accidents. She reached out a well-shaped, unjeweled hand and rapped sharply on the roof. "Slow down!” she shouted through the pelting rain. A sharp crack of the horseman’s whip was the only answer vouchsafed, and the veloc­ity in­creased. Gillian knocked more sharply. "Slow down!” she cried out. "We’ll have an accident!”

With those fateful words barely out of her mouth an especially large pothole presented itself beneath the left leader’s hoof. The horse stum­bled, righted itself, and with a great deal of expertise never evinced be­fore or after in his professional life, the coachman was able to lessen the rocking and swaying of the ancient landau. He had almost succeeded in getting the cumbersome thing under control when another, smaller carriage appeared out of nowhere, traveling at a tremendous pace, and chose just that moment to try to pass the Redfern carriage.

It was too much, for the frightened and exhausted horses, the over­taxed coachman, and the landau’s rear axle. The first reared, the second dropped the reins, and the third snapped, sending the abused carriage with its unfortunate occupant hurtling off the road, landing on its side in the ditch.

The coachman, being in actuality one of Baron Sinford’s more ex­pendable grooms, immediately forgot about his passenger and looked first to the condition of the horses. Despite the animals’ ages Baron Sinford disliked any of his possessions suffering harm, and it was with great relief that, upon closer inspection, the hapless coachman ascer­tained that the four seemed to have suffered more from fright than any actual damage.

"Are you all right, man?” A well-bred voice came out of the dark­ness, followed by its owner, who was nothing more than an extraor­dinar­ily tall shadow in the pelting rain.

"Fine, sir.”

The first gentleman was joined by another, smaller shadow, and three pairs of hands released the horses’ reins with deft speed.

"Now, my good man,” the taller of the two said in a pleasant drawl, "you might tell me what the bloody hell you mean by driving all over the road like that! A glass or two to warm you on a damp night like this is all well and fine, but not when you’re traveling the king’s highway and endangering other travelers as well.” This was all delivered in a mild tone, which didn’t prevent it from being a blistering attack. And the coachman’s very correct suspicion that his censor had also been imbib­ing with a free hand that evening didn’t help matters. Ah, but it didn’t do to argue with the gentry, and he had been taking a few too many sips out of his flask that Bessie had so thoughtfully provided, knowing full well that Mr. Derwent Redfern would begrudge a poor, weary groom a drop of something to warm his chilled bones.

"It’s a lucky thing for you,” the gentleman continued in that same gentle, pleasing voice, "that my coachman is such a damned good driver, and that you weren’t carrying any passengers. Heaven knows what—”

"Oh, my God,” the coachman gasped, staring transfixed at the si­lent bulk of the upended coach. "But I was.

At that moment the carriage door was pushed open from beneath, and a dark, bedraggled figure appeared in the pouring rain like a drown­ing jack-in-the-box. "Coachman?” she inquired in slightly sub­dued tones.

"Good heavens, it’s a lady,” the shorter gentleman exclaimed. "Who would have thought it, my dear Marlowe? You have all the luck. No doubt she’ll be a stunner.”

"Do shut up, Vivian,” the taller figure said pleasantly, reaching the side of the carriage. "May I help you alight, ma’am? I trust you aren’t injured?”

Gillian stared down at the pair in the darkness, trying to make out their faces in the pelting rain. By their voices they were well-bred, but in truth she had no option, other than standing half in and half out of a lopsided carriage in the pouring rain. A sharp crack of thunder decided her. "No, I’m not hurt, sir. Merely a trifle shaken up. I would appreciate some assistance in quitting this wretched landau.”

"Certainly, ma’am.” Before she could reach back into the carriage for her reticule an exceedingly strong pair of hands reached up around her, caught her elbows with a masterful grip, and pulled her out of the carriage with remarkable dispatch. As he set her down on the rain-soaked road, she stumbled slightly, and he reached out to steady her, his face shrouded by the wide-brimmed hat he wore. He was quite monstrously tall, she noticed, and couldn’t help but be glad of it, consider­ing that she stood five feet eight in her stocking feet.

"Good gad, you’ve plucked yourself a handful,” the second gentle­man observed with malicious cheer. "How do you manage, my dear Marlowe?”

Gillian was soaking wet, and aching in places a lady wouldn’t admit existed. She spoke up with some asperity. "He obviously manages better than you do, sir, but I take leave to tell you that I’m no stunner, as you so charmingly put it. I am merely an extremely wet female seeking nothing so much as my home and my bed.”

"Yes, ma’am.” The gentleman accepted his reprimand with good hu­mor unimpaired, his cheery voice somewhat slurred. "I beg pardon, miss. Hadn’t meant to be offensive. Ask Marlowe there, he’ll tell you. Harmless, I am, completely harmless.”

"A complete fool is more like it. And the least we can do is see that Miss...” The tall gentleman waited for Gillian to supply the missing name, and when she failed to do so continued smoothly, "that Miss Incognita reaches her home and bed in short order. Madame, my coach awaits.” He gave a courtly little bow, just slightly ironical, and Gillian considered him in the pouring rain.

Normally the very idea of accepting a ride alone in a carriage with a pair of strange gentlemen would be unacceptable. But surely, at a few weeks short of thirty, she was being tiresomely missish even to hesitate. It wasn’t as if she were just out of the schoolroom, for heaven’s sake.

"You are very kind,” she accepted in what she hoped was a brisk, businesslike tone of voice. "If you’re sure it will be no trouble?”

"No trouble at all,” the tall gentleman said, his strong, possessive hand reaching under her left elbow and steering her toward his waiting carriage. "But I’m afraid you’ll have to give up your anonymity. We can hardly convey you to your home if you don’t tell us where it is.”

"Berkeley Square,” she said briefly, allowing him to help her into the small, light carriage. He and his companion followed her, and in the dim lamplight Gillian and the tall man referred to as Marlowe surveyed each other.

She was a fairly unprepossessing sight in the twilight of the small, well-sprung carriage. Past her first youth, without question, and never more than passably pretty in the first place, with that pale, narrow face shaded by the damp, unfortunate bonnet. The eyes were large and quite good, Marlowe thought impartially, and he suspected the mouth could curve up in an enchanting smile when she was feeling more at ease. To be sure, the nose was a trifle aristocratic for his tastes, since he had a partiality for snub noses, and she was too tall for fashion. But there was something indefinably appealing about her. He found himself wonder­ing if her eyes were blue.

The coach started forward smoothly, without the jerk Gillian had be­come accustomed to with the constant succession of inferior coach­men that had been her recent lot in life. "Where in Berkeley Square?” Marlowe probed gently. "Come now, don’t be worried. I don’t think your employer will be too terribly harsh with you. After all, it was his fault you were out on a night like this.”

Gillian stared covertly at the two gentlemen, wishing she’d had time to get a good look at them before the coach had started on this break­neck pace. She might have thought twice about her precipitous decision.

The shorter man, Vivian, Marlowe had called him, was bad enough. His round, cheery face was a bright red, the eyes bloodshot and watery and quite sly, the pate prematurely bald, revealing a high domed fore­head wreathed with wrinkles. There were deep pouches beneath the eyes, a double chin, and a positive leer on the loose lips. He could have been anywhere between twenty and sixty, and he smelled strongly of brandy. And yet, of the two, he filled her with less trepidation.

While Marlowe removed his rain-soaked hat and leaned back against the squabs opposite her, Gillian was busy experiencing a novel situation. From the top of Marlowe’s curly head, black locks liberally streaked with gray, past the cynical dark eyes surrounded by tiny lines of dissipation, and just possibly laughter, the sallow complexion of one who has spent a great many years in sunnier climes than Britain, the strong nose, and cynical, alarmingly attractive mouth, he was truly, wick­edly appealing. Like his companion his age was difficult to judge, alt­hough Gillian estimated he was somewhere about forty. She also guessed, with great accuracy, that she was in the presence of a rake. Having been sheltered from and warned against those wicked creatures all her life, she viewed her deliverer with trepidation not unmixed with fascination.

"Have I grown another nose?” he inquired affably. "I’ve never been stared at so long or so intently before. Have we met?”

"I don’t believe so,” Gillian said, lowering her fascinated gaze hast­ily to her drab navy blue lap. She would scarcely have forgotten such a dangerously attractive face had she seen it.

"I would have been greatly surprised if we had,” Marlowe agreed. "Considering that I’ve been out of the country for the last twenty years, you would have still been in leading strings when I left. Allow me to introduce myself. Ronan Patrick Blakely at your service. This is my friend, Vivian Peacock, who is also anxious to oblige. And you are... ?”

Still Gillian hesitated. This handsome, dissipated gentleman in front of her was doubtless some sort of black sheep, a remittance man come to haunt his aristocratic family like a proverbial bad penny. His friend called him Marlowe, which suggested a title, though the gentleman’s casual manner didn’t substantiate such an idea. She tried to remember what she knew of the Blakelys and seemed to recall a particularly stuffy, ancient marquis named Marlowe. They wouldn’t like the charming repro­bate opposite her, not one bit.

"You needn’t worry that they’ll turn you off without a character, my dear Miss Incognita,” he continued smoothly. "I’m certain after twenty years my scandalous reputation will have paled noticeably. Your employ­ers will scarcely look at me twice.”

"Doing it a little too brown, Marlowe,” Vivian snickered.

Marlowe ignored him. "Come, come. We can scarcely leave you off in the middle of Berkeley Square in the pouring rain, can we? Which house is your destination?”

There was no help for it, Gillian decided, still loath to disclose her ac­tual relationship with the house in question. For one thing, she was hideously embarrassed that she should be mistaken for a governess or whatever it was they supposed her to be; for another, the less these two wicked-looking gentlemen knew about her, the better. "The Redfern mansion on the west side of the square,” she admitted.

Marlowe let out a low whistle. "My dear girl, I am afraid that does complicate matters. Do you belong to the household of Derwent Redfern?”

"I do.

"I was afraid of that. I must confess that Mr. Redfern and I were never very close. A disagreement over a lady.”

"It would be, knowing you,” Vivian piped up. "Though what that dull stick Redfern would be doing in the petticoat line is beyond me.”

"You forget, Viv, that it was twenty years ago.”

"Who won?” Gillian was aghast to find herself asking. Her unruly tongue had caused her more than her share of trouble in the past twenty-nine years, and seemed determined to continue its work. She blushed.

Marlowe smiled at her, his practiced rake’s smile, she told herself sternly, fighting its insidious attraction. "Need you ask?” he questioned without the slightest trace of vanity. "I could hardly expect that you’d be fond of the old boy. A more stiff-rumped cod’s head I’ve never met...

"Beg the lady’s pardon, Marlowe,” Vivian said blearily. "Mustn’t use the term stiff-rumped in a lady’s presence. Though come to think of it, don’t know whether she’s a lady or not. Very tricky situations, these governess-companions. Never know whether they’re servants or gentry. Deuced embarrassing, at times. Especially when you’re trying to give some fetching young thing a slip on the shoulder, and she turns out to be a poor relation. You’d best watch yourself, Marlowe. Redfern might have his eye on her already. A bit long in the tooth, you might say, but she ain’t bad-looking. Ain’t bad-looking at all. Besides, you should see what Letty Redfern’s become. Fat as a pig, and just as smug as her spouse. Yes, you’d best watch yourself with Miss Incognita there. Don’t be getting ideas that could run you into trouble all over again. Need to re-establish yourself. No seducing proper young ladies. Got to be care­ful.” With that last utterance Vivian Peacock succumbed to the night’s brandy and began to snore gently.

Once more that devastating smile was directed toward Gillian. "You’ll have to excuse poor Vivian. He drank a bit too much tonight. Of course, he wasn’t to know we’d have the honor of a lady’s company.”

"I thought it was yet to be determined whether or not I was a lady,” Gillian shot back, amazed at her temerity. But if truth be told, she felt completely removed from her normal, humdrum life, bouncing over the nighttime roads in a carriage with the most attractive man she had ever seen in her life, bar none. The pouring rain drumming down on the carriage roof added to her sense of dreamlike isolation, where for once in her life she couldn’t be called to account for her actions. They thought she was some sort of upper servant, and considering the limited circle of her acquaintance nowadays, there was no reason why they ever needed to find out otherwise. She could sit here in the darkness and be as pert as she pleased, as outspoken as she had always longed to be, and the wretched Derwent would never find out and deliver one of his thunder­ing scolds. She met Marlowe’s swarthy face with a smile of her own.

He blinked, startled. She was even prettier than he had anticipated when she smiled like that. A little flirtation would beguile the remainder of the trip, he decided. "Much as it grieves me to admit it, there’s little doubt you’re a lady, born and bred,” he said mournfully.

"Why does it grieve you to admit it?” she inquired curiously.

"Because if you weren’t it would enable me to make all sorts of outra­geous suggestions.”

Gillian smiled. "I wouldn’t have thought you’d let someone’s posi­tion in society stop you.”

"It wouldn’t, if they were married. But I make it a practice not to dally with single young women. I prefer ‘em experienced.” He was busy wondering how he was going to maneuver himself onto the seat beside her.

"Isn’t that rather unfair? How can the poor ladies gain experience if you’re going to be so harsh?” This was dangerous, and she knew it, but exhilaratingly so, and she couldn’t resist.

That was more than enough invitation for a man of Marlowe’s ad­dress. Before Gillian could gather her scattered wits he was sitting beside her, dangerously close, as Vivian slumbered on. "I could always be per­suaded,” he drawled in a beguiling undertone, "to make an exception or two.”

Like a skittish mare Gillian slid out of his grasp, moving to the far side of the coach. Unfortunately she hadn’t far to travel, and even hug­ging the door she was still ominously close. "Or two?” she questioned, her voice a brave quaver, wondering if she could bring herself to kick him.

He surveyed her for a long moment, his eyes alight with something she couldn’t read. "One exception might be quite enough,” he allowed, and reached for her.


 

 

Chapter Two

"MR. MARLOWE...” she stammered nervously, practically cowering, her eyes wide and frightened in the dim light of the rocking carriage.

Vivian Peacock raised his balding head and eyed the two of them owl­ishly, not a trace of surprise at the change in seating arrangements marring his slightly dazed features. "Actually, he’s Lord Marlowe, y’know,” he confided. "Marquis of Herrington, what’s more. Never saw a fellow so surprised when it turned out he was the heir. Thought your demmed uncle would live forever, didn’t you, old boy? Never thought your cousin would pop off like that, either. Damned unhealthy, these wars. Wouldn’t be caught dead in one.” He chuckled softly to himself with pleasure over his little joke.

"Go back to sleep, Viv,” the marquis ordered gently, his eyes still in­tent on Gillian’s face.

"Heavens, no, m’boy. That would be rude,” Vivian protested, pull­ing himself upright. "Forty winks, that was all I needed, and now I feel right as a trivet. As I was saying, Miss Whatchamacallit, here we had Ronan Patrick Blakely, black sheep of the Marlowe family, racketing around the Continent with pockets to let, and what happens? He gets the nod and returns home in triumph. To the bosom of your family, eh what?”

Marlowe had by this time accepted the inevitable with good grace, and he leaned back against the squabs, his broad shoulders inches away from Gillian, the predatory look in his eyes replaced by one of amuse­ment. "I hadn’t noticed any particular warmth in their welcome, Viv. As a matter of fact, you’re the only one who was noticeably glad to see me.”

"Well, of course, old man. We’ve been friends forever. It was the least I could do,” Vivian said benignly, his bleary eyes going from the amused face to the nervous expression of their guest. "I say, did I inter­rupt anything?”

To Gillian’s intense discomfiture Lord Marlowe laughed. "Nothing at all. I was merely about to demonstrate to Miss Incognita the differ­ence between Derwent Redfern and my humble self.”

"Didn’t I warn you about toying with the lower orders? Especially this damned bourgeois class,” Mr. Peacock reproved. "If I were you, Miss Thingummybob, I wouldn’t get my hopes up. Lord Marlowe, I regret to inform you, is a rake.”

"No!” cried Gillian in tones of mock amazement, having gathered her courage and her wits. "Surely you are too harsh.”

"No, I swear.” He leaned forward in drunken earnestness. "He may seem the jolliest of fellows, and indeed he is. Can’t think of anyone I’d rather share a tipple with, or place a wager, or do just about anything. But he’s a ladies’ man. They all take one look at him and the world’s well lost. Don’t know how he does it, but you mark my words.” He squinted at her in the darkness. "Now I know that you’re not at all in his common line. But that doesn’t mean you’d be safe. Believe me, Miss Thingum­mybob, he’s—”

"She believes you, Viv,” Marlowe drawled pleasantly. "And now that my character has been sufficiently blackened, I was hoping we might persuade our unwilling guest to disclose her name. Considering that we are now stopped outside the Redfern residence and an extremely angry gentleman is peering at us from the front door, we might—”

"Oh, merciful heavens!” Gillian said ruefully, scrambling for the door handle. A large, strong brown hand closed over hers, and she felt a thrill not unlike a shock as together they opened the door. Before she could leap out he moved, climbing down from the carriage with a grace illuminated by the streetlight, and reached out to help her down. The streetlights also illuminated Derwent Redfern’s discontented, peevish face from the wide oak doors, and for a craven moment Gillian consid­ered denying all knowledge of the house and requesting her rescuers to drive on. But there was no help for it, and sighing, she placed herself in those immeasurably strong hands that lingered just a touch too long at her slender waist. When he finally released her, she looked up, way up, into his face and was surprised by the amused understanding there.

"He’s waiting for you,” he said gently.

"I know.” Her voice sounded unhappy to her own ears. "Perhaps you’d better just leave, and I’ll explain...

"I wouldn’t think of it.” He took possession of her arm and led her reluctant figure up the broad front stairs that were still slippery from the rain. "Not that he’ll be particularly happy to see me, but despite Viv’s aspersions on my character, I do not escort a lady home”—there was a sweetly mocking emphasis on the word—”and then leave her on the street. You get delivered into Redfern’s hands, much as I think it a wretched fate.”

The expression on her brother’s face was enough to give pause to stouter souls than Gillian. But somehow the strong arm beneath her hand, the tall presence by her side lent her courage, and she lifted her head bravely and met Derwent’s horrified eyes as they reached the top steps.

"Good evening, Redfern,” Lord Marlowe greeted him smoothly, with just a trace of irony in his voice. "I have returned something to you.”

With a curt nod Derwent acknowledged the taller man’s greeting. "Marlowe,” he said coolly. "I heard you were back in town.” His tone of voice made it obvious that he hadn’t greeted that news with any particu­lar delight.

To Gillian’s intense discomfiture he turned his chilly, condemning at­tention to her as she cowered beside Marlowe’s tall, protecting figure. "And I might ask, my dear Gillian, how you happened to find yourself alone and unchaperoned with a gentleman of Lord Marlowe’s reputa­tion?”

"Derwent!” she exclaimed, so astounded by his rudeness that she failed to remember that Marlowe thought her an upper servant. She felt Marlowe’s interested gaze on her flushed face, and cursed her too-ready tongue.

"There’s no use looking so shocked, my girl,” Redfern snapped. "If it got around that my sister was alone with a man like Ronan Blakely...”

"At no time at all was your sister alone with me, my dear Redfern.” Marlowe seemed to take the relationship in stride. "If you would care to stroll down the front steps, you will find Vivian Peacock awaiting me in the carriage.”

"There’s not much to choose between the two of you,” Derwent sniffed.

Marlowe sighed wearily. "If I had the time, my dear boy, I would love to teach you some manners. However, I really do dislike making a scene on the front steps with the servants around. And I resent your insulting attitude toward your sister, and most of all, I resent your pompous presence on this earth, but I doubt I’ll bother doing anything to remedy the situation. Not tonight, at least.” He took Gillian’s chilled hand in his and brought it to his lips. "Your servant, Miss Redfern.

With a trace of defiance toward her sputtering brother, she met Marlowe’s enigmatic gaze with a polite smile. "Thank you for rescuing me, Lord Marlowe. I am certain when I acquaint my brother with the details of this evening he will both apologize and thank you himself.”

"All the details?” he questioned in a laughing under-voice that just missed Derwent’s sharp ears. "I may have to meet him after all.”

For some reason, despite her brother’s ferocious glower and her intense dislike of scenes, Gillian found she could laugh. "Good evening, Lord Marlowe,” she said emphatically, giving him a gentle shove in the direction of the carriage.

"Your servant, Redfern.” He bowed and ran down the steps two at a time. As he reached the carriage a very drunken Vivian leaned out and waved blearily at the couple in the doorway. The result was not quite felicitous, but Gillian, taking her brother’s unwilling arm in hers, said brightly, "You see, we were ably chaperoned the entire time. And if it weren’t for Pamela’s husband being so abominably pinchpenny as to send me out in a carriage that was falling apart, with the most wretchedly inept coachman and the saddest team of horses you have ever seen, I would have been fine. You are lucky I am not lying dead in some ditch between here and Winchester.”

Derwent closed the door behind them, his narrow, unpleasant face full of condemnation. "Have you ever heard the phrase, dear sister, ‘death before dishonor’?”

Handing her rain-soaked felt hat and pelisse to an avidly listening servant, she stripped off her gloves. "I have hardly been dishonored, brother dear, and no one would be likely to think so if you would only desist in these dire predictions.”

Against her will Gillian found her elbow grasped in Derwent’s rough grip, and she was thrust into the drawing room. The door slammed shut behind her. Despite the dampness of the spring evening it was quite warm, but Derwent, who always complained bitterly of drafts, had caused a roaring fire to be built. The result was something closer to the tropics than London on a spring evening. Gillian’s wool dress began to steam gently.

Taking a seat well away from the blaze, she eyed Derwent with an air of resigned expectation that just bordered on irritation. For some reason she felt less willing to deal with Derwent’s moral posturings than usual.

"Do you have any idea,” he began, placing his stubby fingertips together in a meditative pose, "just how bad Lord Marlowe’s reputation is?”

"Mr. Peacock was good enough to enlighten me,” she replied flippantly. "What would you have had me do, Derwent? The rear axle on the carriage broke. It was dark and raining. Should I have stayed in an overturned carriage till morning instead of accepting Lord Marlowe’s very civil offer of help?” she demanded with a certain amount of heat. "And you haven’t even thought to ask me whether I’ve taken any harm from the mishap. You’ve been too busy ranting on about my precious reputation to care for any bodily ills. As if such fustian would matter with a woman my age. I may remind you that I am not a helpless schoolroom chit. I am a spinster of advanced years, and hardly the easy prey of a... a...”

"A rake,” Derwent supplied, staring at his sister in surprise. "I must say, Gillian, this attitude of yours astounds me. You’ve always trusted my judgment in these matters before. Lord Marlowe is doubtless a very appealing fellow. Most rakes are. But the Redferns have also been rather high sticklers, and it wouldn’t do for us to associate with all the riffraff prevalent in the ton nowadays.”

"You call a marquis ‘riffraff’?”

"This particular one I do. To be sure, the Blakelys are an old, respected family, almost as old as the Redferns. But the current incum­bent is nothing more than a wastrel. He was sent abroad by his family when he was no more than twenty. Something to do with a female, of course.”

"What about a female?” she asked curiously.

"Really, Gillian, I am not about to sully your ears with such a sordid tale. Take my word for it, the lady in the situation was married, but Marlowe, or Ronan Blakely as he was then, was old in the ways of sin, despite his lack of years. And it was not his first offense. His poor family had no option but to pension him off. It is most unfortunate that he should have come into the title, most unfortunate indeed. We shall have to be polite, of course, but that is as far as it will go, Gillian. Tomorrow I shall draft a very polite note thanking him for his assistance to my sister, and that will be the end of it. I do realize, my dear,” he continued in a kinder tone that set Gillian’s nerves on edge, "that despite your maturity of years you are still quite innocent. As it should be in a maiden lady. In lieu of a husband it is my duty to stand as protector to you, to warn you from undesirable acquaintances and to keep fortune hunters away.”

"I am entirely able to choose my own acquaintances, Derwent,” she said in a mild tone.

"Of course, you are,” he agreed with an indulgent laugh. "And I know I can trust your good judgment in being guided by me in these matters. Come, don’t let us argue any further. It is good to have you back. Letty and Felicity missed you, and the children were impossible. I do not understand why they refuse to mind anyone but you. You have been sorely missed.”

A pair of mocking eyes slowly faded from Gillian’s wistful memory, as she prepared to face her next round of duties. "And I have missed them,” she said dutifully, if with slightly less enthusiasm than she usually showed.

In the meantime Ronan Patrick Blakely, Lord Marlowe, the sixth marquis of Herrington, was making abstracted answers to Vivian Peacock’s whiskey-laden inanities as they barreled through the rain-soaked, deserted London streets toward Blakely House on Bruton Street. Had they been traveling directly, they would have been home in less than a minute, Blakely House being adjacent to the Redfern town house. But by carriage the path was particularly convoluted, giving Mr. Peacock more than enough time to observe his lordship’s distracted air.

"See here, Marlowe, you ain’t interested in that bit of muslin, are you? She hardly seems in your line at all,” he protested.

Lord Marlowe gave his companion his singularly sweet smile. "You mistake the matter, Viv. Miss Incognita was none other than Derwent Redfern’s sister.”

This was surprising enough almost to sober Mr. Peacock. "Gammon! I’ve met both his sisters. One’s a great horsey creature in Kent, the other’s a regular out and outer. This one doesn’t fit either description.”

"I gather this is a third sister. One who never married.”

"An ape-leader, eh? I warned you she’d be trouble if you trifled with her, Ronan, my boy.”

Lord Marlowe was leaning back against the cushions, eyeing the dark sky with the rain clouds scudding fitfully about. "I have no intention of trifling with her, Viv,” he said mildly, apparently engrossed in the view.

"That’s not to say.... Well, perhaps I should keep my mouth shut,” Vivian said. "But I wonder...

"What do you wonder?”

"Whether she could fall under the fabled Marlowe charm? Do you ever fail, Ronan?” he asked with simple curiosity.

"Not if I put my mind to it.”

"It would be entertaining if you were to have Derwent Redfern’s maiden sister infatuated with you. Rather nice revenge, don’t you think?”

"No, I don’t think so,” Marlowe replied sharply.

"But it was Redfern who managed to get you sent away so long ago. He spread that particularly foul rumor about, didn’t he?

"It was. Derwent Redfern, not his innocent sister, Viv.”

Vivian cocked a sly eye at him. "Are these scruples I hear coming from my old friend? I know the problem. You doubt your infallible charm. You know there’s no way you could bring a Redfern under your spell.”

Marlowe hesitated for only a moment, having imbibed a great deal of brandy himself not too long ago, and being disturbingly haunted by a pale face and a beguiling smile. "Would you care to place a wager that I couldn’t?”

"What amount were you thinking on?”

Marlowe smiled seraphically. "A thousand pounds, Viv?”

"Done! I have little doubt it’ll do the poor girl good. Imagine having Derwent Redfern for a brother!” Vivian shuddered. "But I’m counting on her to hold out. I’ll watch your progress with interest, my boy.”

Marlowe smiled a slow, sensual smile. "So shall I, Viv. So shall I.”


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