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The Dutiful Rake
By Elizabeth Rolls
Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.Copyright © 2004 Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.
All right reserved.
Chapter OneBeguiling green eyes glimmered up into cold light grey as Lady Hartleigh circled the crowded floor in the powerful arms of Marcus Langley, Earl of Rutherford. That tall, lithe figure seemed perfectly indifferent to the sylph-like form in its sheath of gold silk. Not the most censorious of Almack's patronesses could have found anything to cavil at in the way they danced. His lordship kept a proper distance at all times, his thighs did not brush against her ladyship's skirts, his hand remained just above her waist as was considered decent and they chatted unconcernedly without gazing passionately into each other's eyes.
For all that, several haughty dames cast outraged glances in their direction, albeit surreptitiously. After all, if the rumours were true and Marcus really was considering marriage at long last, then the last thing anyone wanted to do was offend him. He was one of the richest prizes on the Marriage Mart and it was not only his positively indecent fortune that made him so eligible.
There was the title as well - one of the oldest and most illustrious in the realm. Add to that his lordship's undeniable good looks, prowess as a sportsman and his elegance of dress and it was no wonder that so many lures should have been thrown out to him overthe years since he'd returned from serving with Wellington's forces. Lures which had been totally ignored. Until now.
At five and thirty the Earl was marked as a confirmed bachelor. No one could ever remember him showing the slightest interest in any marriageable female. He preferred to live a life of hedonistic pleasure when in the capital, which was only during the spring anyway. The rest of the year he seemed quite happy to spend largely on one or another of his estates, which were scattered around the country.
Tales had drifted back to town about house parties held at those mansions. House parties at which no respectable female was to be seen. For it was not to be thought that his lordship had no interest in women. Quite the opposite. He was a most dangerous and accomplished rake. Husbands might well look to their errant wives when he was around, although, to his credit, it was said that he had no interest in seducing the young and innocent, nor would he pursue any lady whose husband was likely to take a dim view of the matter. Widows, of course, were considered fair game.
Those more cynical, or better acquainted with his lordship, averred that his avoidance of innocent young things sprang not from motives of chivalry, but from a complete lack of interest coupled with a well-developed instinct for self-preservation. He had absolutely no desire to find himself trapped into marriage with one of the fashionable society virgins launched on the Polite World each spring.
Nevertheless, despite his appalling reputation, his title, looks, charm and above all fortune rendered him an eminently acceptable suitor to the highest of sticklers. So to see him dancing with Lady Hartleigh, a widow of somewhat dubious reputation and scanty jointure but unbounded ambition, was enough to send ripples of conjecture eddying around the assembly rooms.
Lord Rutherford's elder sister, Lady Diana Carlton, viewed her brother's interest in the lovely widow with extreme disapprobation.
"Oh, for heaven's sake!" she said in tones of vexation to Jack Hamilton, who was sitting out the dance with her. "What next will he do? Surely he doesn't intend to marry her!"
Hamilton held his tongue but Lady Diana knew her brother's best friend too well to be deflected by his silence.
"Jack, you must know what he intends!" said Lady Diana. "You even have some influence with him. Which is more than anyone else can boast. Say something!"
Jack Hamilton looked down at her in some amusement and said, "Oh, I wouldn't say that, Di. After all, you and Lady Grafton managed to get him as far as thinking of marriage. Quite an achievement, that."
The grey eyes, so like her brother's, snapped fire at this innocent-seeming disclaimer. "You know perfectly well that Aunt Regina and I never meant him to consider Althea Hartleigh as his wife."
"Precisely," said Hamilton drily. "Which is why I have every intention of keeping my mouth shut. Unless, of course, Marc happens to raise the subject with me. If he asks me what I think, then I'll tell him. Otherwise I shall mind my own business."
There were very few people from whom Lady Diana would have taken that. Fortunately for himself, Jack Hamilton was one of the privileged few.
She sighed. "I suppose you mean that he is doing this just to vex us. Do you happen to know how far he means to go?" A delicate hand was laid on Hamilton's sleeve. "You know, Jack, the title must not be allowed to pass to our cousin Aubrey. He is a dear, but quite unsuited to the responsibility. And he doesn't even desire it. Marc must marry! You know he must."
Hamilton nodded. "He knows it too. But he has no desire to wed for any other reason than to beget an heir. I fancy he hoped Aubrey might prove a suitable heir. Lord knows the lad's steady enough, but all he wants to do is remain in Oxford with his books and fellowship. Frankly, if I were you, Di, I should leave well alone," He hesitated and then went on. "The reason I have some influence with Marc is because I ... er ... don't beat him over the head with it."
Lady Diana stared up at him. "But ..."
He nodded. "Leave it alone, Di. He knows he has to marry. He knew that without you and Lady Grafton descending upon him to demand he secure the succession!"
She grimaced. "That was Aunt Regina's notion. She favours the direct method."
"Mmm. Rather like a brace of nine-pounders," agreed Hamilton.
The grey eyes glared at him unsuccessfully and then twinkled ruefully. "Thank you, Jack. Your compliments have always the charm of originality."
He grinned and said comfortably, "Naturally. That's why I'm still a bachelor," He turned his head as a tall, exquisitely garbed gentleman joined them. "Hullo, Toby! What the devil are you doing here? Dancing's a little energetic for you, isn't it?"
Sir Toby Carlton, Lady Diana's husband, shuddered artistically. "Perish the thought! Really, Jack - it's exhausting enough just watching Marc whirling Lady Hartleigh around. Let alone hearing Di cursing about it," He cast his wife an affectionate grin. His lazy, effete pose was just that - a pose. One that amused everyone, himself included.
He viewed his brother-in-law and his fair partner critically. "Shouldn't have thought he was any more interested in her than any other female he's bedded over the years. Less, possibly."
"True," said Jack thoughtfully. "But if I'm not much mistaken, that is precisely the danger. He doesn't want to care - doesn't want anyone that close."
Excerpted from The Dutiful Rake by Elizabeth Rolls Copyright © 2004 by Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.. Excerpted by permission.
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