Read an Excerpt
How to Seduce a Scoundrel
By Dreiling, Vicky
Forever Copyright © 2011 Dreiling, Vicky
All right reserved.
A Scoundrel’s Code of Conduct: Virgins are strictly forbidden, especially if said virgin happens to be your friend’s sister.
Richmond, England, 1817
He’d arrived late as usual.
Marc Darcett, Earl of Hawkfield, twirled his top hat as he sauntered along the pavement toward his mother’s home. A chilly breeze ruffled his hair and stung his face. In the dwindling evening light, Ashdown House with its crenellated top and turrets stood stalwart near the banks of the Thames.
Ordinarily, Hawk dreaded the obligatory weekly visits. His mother and three married sisters had grown increasingly demanding about his lack of a bride since his oldest friend had wed last summer. They made no secret of their disappointment in him, but he was accustomed to being the family scapegrace.
Today, however, he looked forward to seeing that oldest friend, Tristan Gatewick, the Duke of Shelbourne.
After the butler, Jones, admitted him, Hawk stripped off his gloves and greatcoat. “Are Shelbourne and his sister here yet?”
“The duke and Lady Julianne arrived two hours ago,” Jones said.
“Excellent.” Hawk couldn’t wait to relate his latest bawdy escapade to his friend. Last evening, he’d met Nancy and Nell, two naughty dancers who had made him an indecent proposition. Not wishing to appear too anxious, he’d promised to think over the matter, but he intended to accept their two-for-the-price-of-one offer.
The fastidious Jones eyed Hawk’s head critically. “Begging your pardon, my lord, but you might wish to attend to your hair.”
“You don’t say?” Hawk pretended to be oblivious and peered at his windblown locks in the mirror above the foyer table. “Perfect,” he said. “Mussed hair is all the rage.”
“If you say so, my lord.”
Hawk spun around. “I take it everyone is waiting in the gold drawing room?”
“Yes, my lord. Your mother has inquired after you several times.”
Hawk glanced out at the great hall and grinned at the giant statue next to the stairwell. “Ah, my mother has taken an interest in naked statuary, has she?”
The ordinarily stoic Jones made a suspicious, muffled sound. Then he cleared his throat. “Apollo was delivered yesterday.”
“Complete with his lyre and snake, I see. Well, I shall welcome him to the family.” Hawk’s boots clipped on the checkered marble floor as he strolled toward the cantilevered stairwell, an architectural feat that made the underside of the stone steps appear suspended in midair. At the base of the stairs, he paused to inspect the reproduction and grimaced at Apollo’s minuscule genitalia. “Poor bastard.”
Footsteps sounded above. Hawk looked up to find Tristan striding down the carpeted steps.
“Sizing up the competition?” Tristan said.
Hawk grinned. “The devil. It’s the old married man.”
“I saw your curricle from the window.” Tristan stepped onto the marble floor and clapped Hawk on the shoulder. “You look as if you just tumbled out of bed.”
Hawk wagged his brows and let his friend imagine what he would. “How is your duchess?”
A brief, careworn expression flitted through his friend’s eyes. “The doctor says all is progressing well. She has two more months of confinement.” He released a gusty sigh. “I wanted a son, but now I’m praying for a safe delivery.”
Hawk nodded but said nothing.
“One day it will be your turn, and I’ll be the one consoling you.”
That day would never come. “And give up my bachelorhood? Never,” he said.
Tristan grinned. “I’ll remind you of that when I attend your wedding.”
Hawk changed the subject. “I take it your sister is well?” His mother planned to sponsor Lady Julianne this season while the dowager duchess stayed in the country with her increasing daughter-in-law.
“Julianne is looking forward to the season, but there is a problem,” Tristan said. “A letter arrived from Bath half an hour ago. Your grandmother is suffering from heart palpitations again.”
Hawk groaned. Grandmamma was famous for her heart palpitations. She succumbed to them at the most inconvenient times and described them in minute, loving detail to anyone unfortunate enough to be in the general vicinity. Owing to Grandmamma’s diminished hearing, this meant anyone within shouting range.
“Your mother and sisters are discussing who should travel to Bath as we speak,” Tristan said.
“Don’t worry, old boy. We’ll sort it out.” No doubt his sisters meant to flee to Bath, as they always did when his grandmother invoked her favorite ailment. Usually his mother went as well, but she’d made a commitment to sponsor Julianne.
A peevish voice sounded from the landing. “Marc, you have dawdled long enough. Mama is waiting.”
Hawk glanced up to find his eldest sister, Patience, beckoning him with her fingers as if he were one of her unruly brats. Poor Patience had never proven equal to her name, something he’d exploited since childhood. He never could resist provoking her then, and he certainly couldn’t now. “My dear sister, I’d no idea you were so anxious for my company. It warms the cockles of my heart.”
Her nostrils flared. “Our grandmother is ill, and Mama is fretting. You will not add to her vexation by tarrying.”
“Pour Mama a sherry for her nerves. I’ll be along momentarily,” he said.
Patience pinched her lips, whirled around, and all but stomped away.
Hawk’s shoulders shook with laughter as he returned his attention to his friend. “After dinner, we’ll put in a brief appearance in the drawing room and make our escape to the club.”
“I’d better not. I’m planning to leave at dawn tomorrow,” Tristan said.
Hawk shrugged to hide his disappointment. He ought to have known the old boy meant to return to his wife immediately. Nothing would ever be quite the same now that his friend had married. “Well, then, shall we join the others?”
As they walked up the stairs, Tristan glanced at him with an enigmatic expression. “It’s been too long since we last met.”
“Yes, it has.”
The last time was Tristan’s wedding nine months ago. He’d meant to visit the newlyweds after a decent interval. Then Tristan’s letter had arrived with the jubilant news of his impending fatherhood.
Hawk’s feet had felt as if they were immersed in a bog.
After they entered the drawing room, Hawk halted. He was only peripherally aware of his sisters’ husbands scowling at him from the sideboard. All his attention centered on a slender lady seated on the sofa between his mother and his youngest sister, Hope. The candlelight gleamed over the lady’s jet curls as she gazed down at a sketchbook on her lap. Good Lord, could this delectable creature possibly be Julianne?
As if sensing his stare, she glanced at him. He took in her transformation, stunned by the subtle changes. In the past nine months, the slight fullness of her cheeks had disappeared, emphasizing her sculpted cheekbones. Even her expression had changed. Instead of her usual impish grin, she regarded him with a poised smile.
The sweet little girl he’d known all his life had become a woman. A heart-stopping, beautiful woman.
The sound of his mother’s voice rattled him. “Tristan, please be seated. Marc, do not stand there gawking. Come and greet Julianne.”
Patience and his other sister Harmony sat in a pair of chairs near the hearth, exchanging sly smiles. No doubt they were hatching a plot to snare him in the parson’s mousetrap. They probably thought he was as besotted as the numerous cubs who vied for Julianne’s attention every season. But he was only a little taken aback by her transformation.
Determined to take himself in hand, he strode over to her, made a leg, and swept his arm in a ridiculous bow last seen in the sixteenth century.
When he rose, his mother grimaced. “Marc, your hair is standing up. You look thoroughly disreputable.”
He grinned like a jackanapes. “Why, thank you, Mama.”
Julianne’s husky laugh drew his attention. He set his fist on his hip and wagged his brows. “No doubt you will break a dozen hearts this season, Julie-girl.”
She regarded him from beneath her long lashes. “Perhaps one will capture my affections.”
Helen of Troy’s face had launched a thousand ships, but Julianne’s naturally raspy voice could fell a thousand men. Where the devil had that foolish thought come from? She’d grown into a stunning young woman, but he’d always thought of her as the little hoyden who climbed trees and skimmed rocks.
Hope stood. “Marc, take my seat. You must see Julianne’s sketches.”
He meant to make the most of the opportunity. For years, he’d teased Julianne and encouraged her in mischief. After sitting beside her, he grinned and tapped the sketch. “What have you got there, imp?”
She showed him a sketch of Stonehenge. “I drew this last summer when I traveled with Amy and her family.”
“Stonehenge is awe-inspiring,” the countess said.
He dutifully looked on as Julianne turned the page. “Those are some big rocks.”
Julianne laughed. “Rogue.”
He tweaked the curl by her ear. When she swatted his hand, he laughed. She was the same Julie-girl he’d always known.
Heavy footsteps thudded outside the drawing room doors. Everyone stood as Lady Rutledge, his great-aunt Hester, lumbered inside. Gray sausage curls peeked out from a green turban with tall feathers. She took one look at Hawk’s mother and scowled. “Louisa, that statue is hideous. If you want a naked man, find yourself one who is breathing.”
Hawk’s mouth worked with the effort not to laugh out loud.
The countess fanned her heated face. “Hester, please mind your words.”
“Bah.” Hester winked at Hawk. “Come give your aunt a kiss, you rogue.”
When he obliged, she muttered, “You’re the only sensible one in the bunch.”
Tristan bowed to her. “Lady Rutledge.”
Hester eyed him appreciatively. “Shelbourne, you handsome devil. I heard you wasted no time getting your duchess with child.”
Hawk’s mother and younger sisters gasped. Patience cleared her throat. “Aunt Hester, we do not speak of such indelicate matters.”
Hester snorted and kept her knowing gaze on Tristan. “I heard your duchess has gumption. She’ll bring your child into the world without mishap—mark my words.”
Hawk considered his wily old aunt with a fond smile. Eccentric she might be, but she’d sought to reassure his old friend. And for that alone he adored her.
He led Hester over to a chair and stood beside her. Her wide rump barely fit between the arms. After adjusting her plumes, she held her quizzing glass up to her eye and inspected Julianne.
“Aunt Hester, you remember Lady Julianne,” Patience said, as if speaking to a child. “She is Shelbourne’s sister.”
“I know who she is.” Hester dropped her quizzing glass. “Why are you still unwed, gel?”
Julianne blushed. “I am waiting for the right gentleman.”
“I heard you turned down a dozen proposals since your come-out. Is it true?” Hester continued.
“I’ve not kept count,” Julianne murmured.
Hester snorted. “There were so many you cannot recall?”
Noting Julianne’s disconcerted expression, Hawk intervened. “Mama, I understand we’ve a bit of a problem. Grandmamma is claiming illness again, is she?”
His mother and sisters protested that they must assume Grandmamma was truly ill. Finally, Aunt Hester interrupted. “Oh, hush, Louisa. You know very well my sister is only seeking attention.”
“Hester, how can you say such a thing?” the countess said.
“Because she makes a habit of it.” Hester sniffed. “I suppose you and your girls are planning to hare off to Bath on a fool’s errand again.”
“We cannot take a risk,” Patience said. “If Grandmamma took a bad turn, we would never forgive ourselves.”
“She ought to come to town where she can be near the family. I offered to share my home with her, but she refuses to leave her cronies in Bath,” Hester said.
“She is set in her ways.” Hawk grinned down at his aunt. “Few ladies are as adventurous as you.”
“True,” Hester said, preening.
The countess gave him a beseeching look. “Will you write William to inform him?”
“I’m not sure of his address at present,” Hawk said. His younger brother had been traveling on the Continent for more than a year.
Montague, Patience’s husband, lowered his newspaper. “It’s past time William came home and stopped raking his way all over the Continent. He needs to choose a career and be a responsible member of the family.”
Hawk regarded him as if he were an insect. “He’ll come home when he tires of wandering.” He’d hoped Will would return for the London season, but his brother hadn’t written in over two months.
Montague folded his newspaper. “He’d come home soon enough if you cut him off without a penny.”
Hawk ignored his least favorite brother-in-law and returned his attention to his mother. “What of Julianne? Her brother brought her all this way. Mama, can you not stay behind?”
“Oh, I could not ask such a thing,” Julianne said. “I can stay with either Amy or Georgette. My friends’ mothers would welcome me, I’m sure.”
“Her friends’ mothers will be too busy with their own girls,” Hester said. “I will sponsor Julianne. She will be the toast of the season.”
A long silence followed. Hawk’s mother and sisters regarded one another with barely concealed dismay. They thought Hester a few cards shy of a full deck, but he knew his aunt was prodigiously clever, if a bit blunt in her manners.
The countess cleared her throat. “Hester, dear, that is too kind of you, but perhaps you have not thought of how exhausting all those entertainments will be.”
“I’m never tired, Louisa,” she said. “I shall enjoy sponsoring the gel. She’s pretty enough and seems lively. I’ll have her engaged in a matter of weeks.”
Hawk schooled his expression. Julianne married? It seemed so… wrong. Even though he knew it was customary for ladies to marry young, the idea didn’t set well with him.
Tristan eyed Hester. “Granted, she’s been out four seasons, but marriage is for life. I’ll not rush her.”
Hester looked at Julianne. “How old are you, gel?”
“One and twenty,” she said.
“She’s of age, but I agree marriage should not be undertaken lightly,” Hester said.
Tristan regarded his sister. “I must approve any serious attachments.”
When Julianne rolled her eyes, Hawk grinned. He didn’t envy any man bold enough to ask Tristan’s permission for Julianne’s hand. The old boy had kept a tight rein on her for years—as well he should.
“Now that the matter is settled, let us go to dinner,” Hester said. “I’m starved.”
After the ladies withdrew from the dining room, Hawk brought out the port. His sisters’ husbands exchanged meaningful glances. Tristan kept silent but watched them with a guarded expression.
Montague folded his small hands on the table and addressed Hawk. “Lady Julianne cannot stay with Hester. Your aunt’s bold manners and rebellious ideas would be a bad influence on the girl.”
Hawk met Tristan’s gaze. “Join me in the study?”
They both rose. When Hawk claimed a candle branch from the sideboard, Montague scrambled up from the table. “Patience will stay behind and look after Julianne.”
“My sister is determined to go to Bath,” Hawk said. “She will not rest easy unless she sees our grandmother is well.” The last thing he wanted was to expose Julianne to his sister’s acrimonious marriage.
“You know very well your grandmother feigns illness,” Montague said. “If your mother and sisters refused to go, that would put a stop to this nonsense.”
Hawk realized Montague had seized the opportunity to keep his wife at home. The man constantly queried Patience about her whereabouts and upbraided her if she even spoke to another man. “I’ll discuss the matter with Shelbourne. Gentlemen, enjoy your port.”
He started to turn away when Montague’s voice halted him.
“Damn you, Hawk. Someone needs to take responsibility for the girl.”
Hawk strode around the table and loomed over his brother-in-law. “You’ve no say in the matter.” Then he lowered his voice. “You will remember my warning.”
Montague glared but held his tongue. Hawk gave him an evil smile. At Christmas, the man had made one too many disparaging remarks about Patience. Hawk had taken him aside and threatened to beat him to a pulp if he ever treated her disrespectfully again.
As he and Tristan strode away, Hawk muttered, “Bloody brute.”
“Montague resents your political influence, your fortune, and your superior height. He feels inferior and engages in pissing matches to prove he’s manly.”
Hawk wished Montague to the devil. The man had campaigned for his sister’s hand and showered her with affection. He’d shown his true colors shortly after the wedding.
When they walked into the study, the scent of leather permeated the room. Hawk set the candle branch on the mantel and slumped into one of the cross-framed chairs before the huge mahogany desk. The grate was empty, making the room chilly. He never made use of the study. Years ago, he’d taken rooms at the Albany. His family had disapproved, but he’d needed to escape his father’s stranglehold.
Tristan surveyed the surroundings and sat next to Hawk. “The study is virtually unchanged since your father’s death.”
He’d died suddenly of a heart seizure eight years ago, closing off any chance of reconciliation between them. A foolish thought. There was nothing he could have done to change his father’s opinion of him.
“Your father was a good man,” Tristan said. “His advice was invaluable to me.”
“He admired you,” Hawk said.
Tristan had single-handedly restored his fortune after discovering his late wastrel father had left him in monstrous debt.
“I envied your freedom,” Tristan said.
“I had an easy time compared to you.” Hawk’s father had never let him forget it, either. Unbidden, the words his father had spoken more than a dozen years ago echoed in his brain. Do you even know how much it will cost to satisfy Westcott’s honor?
He mentally slammed the door on the memory. “Old boy, your sister may prefer to stay with one of her friends, but I advise you to refuse if she wishes to stay with Lady Georgette. I heard a nasty rumor about her brother. Evidently, Ramsey got a maid with child.” No honorable gentleman ever took advantage of servants.
Tristan’s face showed his revulsion. “Good Lord. He’s disgusting.”
“If you prefer, take your sister to Amy Hardwick’s mother.”
“No, your aunt is right. Mrs. Hardwick should concentrate on her own daughter.” Tristan frowned. “I cannot impose.”
Tristan probably felt a bit guilty because Amy and Georgette had devoted their entire season last year to his unusual courtship. “My aunt is a cheeky old bird, but she’s harmless enough. Hester will enjoy squiring Julianne about town.”
Tristan glanced sideways at Hawk. “I’ve a favor to ask.”
A strange presentiment washed over Hawk. He’d known Tristan since they were in leading strings, because their mothers were bosom friends. At Eton, he and Tristan had banded together to evade the older boys who liked to torment the younger ones. Hawk knew his friend well, but he’d no idea what Tristan intended to ask of him.
Tristan drew in a breath. “Will you act as my sister’s unofficial guardian?”
Hawk laughed. “Me, a guardian? Surely you jest.”
“As soon as the fortune hunters discover I’m out of the picture, they’ll hover like vultures over Julianne. I won’t feel easy unless a solid man is there to protect her from rakes.”
“But… but I’m a rake,” he sputtered. Of course, she’d blossomed into an uncommonly lovely young woman, but she was his friend’s sister. Even among rakes, it was a point of honor to avoid friends’ sisters.
“You’ve watched my sister grow up the same way I have,” Tristan said. “She’s almost like a sister to you.”
He’d never thought of her that way. To him, she was simply Julie-girl, always ready for a bit of mischief. He never grew tired of daring her to do something unladylike, but she’d never once backed down. “Old boy, you know I’m fond of her, but I’m not fit to be anybody’s guardian.”
“You’ve always looked out for her,” Tristan said.
Guilt spurted in his chest. His own family thought him an irresponsible rogue, with good reason. He didn’t even know how to locate his own brother. But clearly Tristan had complete faith in him.
Tristan pinched the bridge of his nose. “I should stay in London to watch over Julianne, but I cannot bear to leave my wife. No matter what I do, I’ll feel as if I’ve wronged one of them.”
Ah, hell. Tristan had never asked for a favor before. He was like a brother to him. Damn it all. He couldn’t refuse. “Anything for you, old boy.”
“Thank you,” Tristan said. “There’s one more thing. You’re not going to like it.”
He lifted his brows. “Oh?”
Tristan narrowed his eyes. “You will give up raking for the duration of the season.”
He laughed. “What?”
“You heard me. There will be no ballerinas, actresses, or courtesans. Call them what you will, but you will not associate with whores while guarding my sister.”
He scoffed. “It’s not as if I’d flaunt a mistress in your sister’s face.”
“Your liaisons are famous.” Tristan tapped his thumb on the arm of the chair. “I’ve often suspected you delight in your bad reputation.”
He made jests about his numerous mistresses. Everyone, including his friend, believed his tall tales. While he was a bona fide rake, Hawk couldn’t possibly live up—or was that down?—to the exaggerated reports about his conquests. “I’ll not agree to celibacy,” he said.
“You don’t even try to be discreet. Julianne adores you. I don’t want her disillusioned.”
“I’ll keep my liaisons quiet,” Hawk grumbled.
“Agreed,” Tristan said.
He’d better forget the ménage á trois with Nell and Nancy. It rather aggrieved him, since he’d never dallied with two women at once, but he couldn’t possibly keep that sort of wicked business under the proverbial covers.
Tristan tapped his thumb again. “Write periodically and let me know how my sister fares.”
“I will,” Hawk said. “Don’t worry. Julianne will grow accustomed to my aunt’s blunt manners.”
“When the babe is born, bring my sister home to me.” He smiled. “Tessa already asked Julianne to be godmother. Will you be godfather?”
A knot formed in his chest, but he forced a laugh. “You would trust a rogue like me with your child?”
“There is no one I trust more than you, my friend.”
Hawk cut his gaze away, knowing he didn’t deserve his friend’s regard.
A Lady’s Secrets of Seduction: When in doubt of his feelings, seek advice from your friends.
The next day at Hester’s town house
No one could resist Hawk. Not even the dogs.
Julianne laughed as the two King Charles spaniels abandoned Hester and the bits of cake she was feeding them. The bug-eyed creatures’ tails wagged as they barked and ran circles around Hawk’s feet.
Hester clapped her hands. “Caro, Byron, cease!”
They whined and pawed him. “Mind the boots,” he said. Then he bent to ruffle their long fur. The two spaniels sat on their haunches, panting with doggy ecstasy.
“You’ve managed to charm them,” Julianne said. “I’m quite jealous, you know. They are not nearly so fond of me.”
He looked up and winked. “Ah, but I am.”
His words cheered her. After not having seen him for nine long months, she’d worried that things might prove awkward between them. Yesterday, they had been surrounded by so many others, and then he’d spent most of his time closeted in the study with her brother. Today, however, she felt as if the months had melted like snow.
Hester shifted on a red sofa with two horrid, gilded sphinxes rising up from the armrests. “Well, Nephew, do you not have a kiss for your aunt?”
With a slow grin, Hawk straightened his tall, powerful frame and approached her. Naturally, the dogs followed. After he deposited a smacking kiss on his aunt’s powdered jowl, she tapped him with her fan. “Your cravat is crooked, and your hair is mussed.”
Julianne grinned. Only Hawk could make such careless attire seem boyishly handsome. As always, his unruly mahogany locks looked windblown, a consequence of his tendency to twirl his top hat rather than wear it.
“You’ve not seen my drawing room since I made it over last season,” Hester said. “I’ve developed a passion for the Egyptian style.”
He strolled over to a glass case. Then he regarded Julianne over his shoulder with a devilish expression. “Aunt, is the mummy authentic?”
“It is a reproduction,” Hester said. “But the ornamented scrolls on the ceiling are true antiquities.”
Julianne bit back a smile at the hideous décor. Golden pharaoh statues, pyramids, and urns cluttered the numerous black tables. Many of the furnishings featured enormous clawed feet. Fortunately, Hester had shown her to a sedate bedchamber early this morning. Julianne had almost wilted with relief. Dear God, she’d feared she would have to sleep among mummies.
“Do be seated,” Hester said to Hawk.
The dogs followed him to the sofa where Julianne sat. Hawk regarded the dogs and pointed at the carpet. “Sit.”
The spaniels complied and lolled their tongues.
“You’ve made a conquest of my pets,” Hester said.
He slouched beside Julianne. “Alas, I fear Byron has a prior claim on Caro’s affections. My heart is broken.”
Julianne rolled her eyes, but truthfully, she’d missed his silly jests. During the long months of autumn and winter, she’d held out hope that he would visit her family. He’d never stayed away so long before. She’d agonized over his absence and feared he’d formed an attachment with someone else. Last night, Patience had whispered she hoped to call her sister soon. Julianne’s hopes had soared, knowing his family would approve.
Hawk’s voice startled her. “Your brother left early this morning as planned?”
She nodded. “Your mother and sisters departed at the same time.” Of course, her brother had given her all sorts of dire warnings. But when he’d hugged her, she’d known he’d only lectured her because he worried about her.
Hester eyed Julianne. “Will you serve tea?”
She rose and walked over to the tray. Hawk and the dogs followed. When she sliced a generous portion of cake, he broke off a piece and ate it before she could set it on the plate. “Mmmm. Breakfast.”
“It’s well past noon, you heathen,” she said.
“The usual waking hour for a gentleman of leisure.” He winked as he sucked a crumb off his finger.
She couldn’t breathe. An image popped into her head of Hawk taking her face in his hands. She imagined his lips descending to hers. More than a few of her beaux had tried to kiss her, but she’d never let them. She wanted to save all her kisses for Hawk.
Her thoughts whirled as she poured tea. Although she had no experience, she’d seen her brother kiss his wife, Tessa, swiftly on the lips more than a few times. Julianne had thought their kissing sweet. Once, however, she’d gone back to the drawing room to retrieve her novel and saw Tessa sitting on Tristan’s lap. They were kissing with their tongues. Shocked, she’d fled before they saw her.
Hawk took the teacup from her, drained every last drop, and set it aside. She laughed. “More?”
“No, thank you.”
She poured a cup for Hester and took it to her. Hester gave her a piercing look. Julianne stiffened, wondering if she’d somehow displeased Hawk’s aunt.
“Come sit with me, Julianne, and let us talk,” Hawk said.
The spaniels followed as Hawk led her back to the sofa. He sat next to her again. The dogs perched at his feet, looking up at him hopefully. He stretched out his long legs, drawing her attention. His tight trousers showed off his muscular thighs.
“Julie-girl?” he said.
Her face flamed. Oh, dear, had he caught her ogling him?
His mouth curved in a lopsided grin. “Did your brother tell you he asked me to act as your unofficial guardian?”
“Yes.” After Tristan had informed her, Julianne had struggled not to reveal her excitement. However, she suspected her mother would object, but her brother had made the decision. As far as Julianne could tell, Tristan did not suspect her feelings for Hawk. Of course, her mother had guessed. Before Julianne had left home, Mama had privately told her to cease her girlish infatuation. According to her, it was a sure path to heartache.
Julianne meant to prove her mother wrong.
“I promised to escort you to balls and other entertainments,” Hawk said. “You needn’t worry. I’ll not interfere with all the cubs who worship at your feet.”
Her stomach clenched. Did he think she preferred the younger men? She must let him know that wasn’t true. “I’ve no interest in boys who stare and stutter.”
“They’re too awed to be dangerous,” Hawk said. “I’ll keep the scoundrels far away.”
“I know you will protect me,” she said. He’d always looked out for her, even when she was a little girl.
Hester regarded her with a warning expression. Julianne bit her lip, fearing Hawk’s aunt thought her a shameless flirt.
Hawk gave his aunt a lazy smile. “Be sure to send me a list of Julianne’s invitations.”
“Ridiculous,” Hester said, her voice overly loud. “There’s no need for you to dog the gel’s heels.”
Julianne inhaled. Oh, no, Hester would ruin everything.
“Ah, but a promise is a promise.” He tweaked the curl by her ear. “You don’t mind, do you, Julie-girl?”
She shook her head and pictured him lying on his side next to her beneath a canopy of trees. He would pull her curl and say, I want to kiss you.
The fantasy popped like a soap bubble at the sound of his voice. “Now, I shall leave you ladies to your tea and tittle-tattle.”
She rose with him. “Must you go so soon?”
“Afraid so. Au revoir.” He quit the drawing room, with Byron and Caro yapping as they scampered after him.
Julianne released a wistful sigh and sank onto the sofa.
“You’ll never catch him if you wear your heart on your sleeve.”
Hester’s voice startled her. “I-I’ve no idea what you mean.”
“Of course you do. You make your tender feelings obvious enough.”
She winced. Mama had said the same thing, but Julianne could not help herself. She loved him.
Hester considered her for a long moment. “What you need are lessons in amore.”
She regarded Hester warily, unsure what she had in mind. “You are too kind, but I would not impose upon you.” She doubted the eccentric Hester would dispense any useful advice and hoped she would forget the matter.
“Nonsense, I shall be happy to instruct you,” Hester said.
As a guest, Julianne could not refuse without giving insult. She reminded herself she was only obliged to listen.
Hester pointed her quizzing glass at her. “If you wish to snag my nephew, you must use your wiles.”
She didn’t know if she had any wiles, but perhaps she should get some.
“First, we must devise a plan of seduction,” Hester said.
Julianne froze. Mama had always insisted she must guard her virtue at all costs. “Er, is that not improper?”
“My dear, I’ve wedded, bedded, and buried five husbands. And I promise you, the way to a man’s heart is through his nether region.”
A bonfire engulfed her cheeks. No wonder Lady Hawkfield had worried about leaving Hester in charge.
“I see your blushes, gel,” Hester said. “Mark me. The only way to tame a rake is to persuade him you’ll keep him happier than a courtesan in the marriage bed.”
She cringed at Hester’s frank speech. “What about love?”
“First comes lust. Then comes marriage,” Hester said.
Julianne lowered her lashes to hide her revulsion. In comparison to her dreams of romance, Hester’s description of courtship sounded, well, sordid.
Surely it was not wrong to yearn for sweet declarations of forever after. She’d become smitten with Hawk at the tender age of eight. That was the year her father had died. Hawk had arrived at her family’s country estate that summer, and his teasing had mended her sorrow. She’d adored him, and then when she’d made her come-out at seventeen, he’d danced with her. She’d fallen madly in love, and every night afterward, she’d dreamed of marrying him.
Hawk had not danced with her since that evening, but she knew he’d thought her too young. He’d waited for her to grow up. She was sure of it, almost positive. And she would not give up her dream. Because the very thought of having anything less than his love scared her witless.
“Now, now. There is no need to look so crestfallen,” Hester said. “The trick is to steadily increase a man’s ardor.”
At the promise of a practical suggestion, Julianne lifted her hopeful gaze.
“Your first task is to practice a come-hither look. Now use those pretty blue eyes to your advantage.”
Julianne took a deep breath, imagining Hawk kneeling on bended knee before her. She saw him in her mind’s eye, begging her to make him the happiest of men.
“Dash it, gel. You look like a lovesick calf. Pretend you’re trying to lure him into the boudoir.”
“But I would never!” Oh, Hester’s advice was very bad. She must not listen to another word.
Hester snorted. “Of course, you are not to act upon it. You must convey with your eyes that you find him desirable.”
Julianne clutched her hands. Her mother would swoon if she knew Hester had advised her to act like a strumpet.
“You suffer from unrequited love. At all costs, you must avoid showing it,” Hester said. “If he is secure in your affections, there is no challenge for him.”
“If I pretend I do not care, he might conclude I am indifferent.”
“You must not demonstrate tender feelings. There is nothing more fearful to a rake than the prospect of matrimony. Rakes value their freedom and their mistresses.”
Julianne stared at her lap, trying to hide the pain lancing her heart. She’d heard the rumors about his mistresses, but she’d refused to believe he was as dissolute as others intimated.
“Your face is like a signpost, gel. My nephew is one and thirty. Did you think him a virgin?”
Misery engulfed her. Of course, she’d known there had been other women, but she’d tried to push it out of her mind. She could not bear the thought of him touching and kissing another.
“Now, now. Men are passionate creatures,” Hester said. “They are made that way. You’ll learn, gel. You need only entice him with the promise of your sensual charms.”
Julianne looked at her. “But I don’t even know if I have any sensual charms.”
Hester chortled. “My dear, your charms are apparent to any man with eyes in his head. But you must endeavor to keep him interested beyond the visual feast.”
“How am I to manage when I’ve no idea what to do?”
“Look at him with desire and tease him. But when he gives chase, you must keep him at arm’s length. Doing so will stoke his fire, if you catch my meaning.”
Julianne couldn’t imagine Hawk chasing her or any other woman for that matter. In truth, women chased him.
“If you play your cards right, you can have him in the palm of your hand,” Hester said, closing her fingers into a fist. “Why, Anne Boleyn kept Henry the Eighth on a lusty leash for years.”
And got her head chopped off in the bargain.
“Well, gel, do you want him or not?” Hester asked.
She would not play horrid games with the man she loved. Hester’s ideas sounded like lessons for a courtesan. Julianne lifted her chin in a defiant gesture, but she wasn’t quite brave enough to voice her objections.
Hester gave her a knowing look. “You’re determined to woo him your way. When you are ready, you’ll remember my advice.”
The next night, Hawk strolled about the cluttered Egyptian drawing room while he waited for his aunt and Julianne. Earlier in the day, Hester had sent him the requested list of Julianne’s invitations for the week.
After much thought, he’d concluded Julianne did not need him to watch her every move. She was a good girl and would never do anything improper. He planned to escort Julianne and his aunt this one night, but in the future, he would make an appearance, ensure all was well, and make a hasty exit.
The drawing room door sighed open. Hester pressed it shut and marched over to him in a billow of purple skirts. Her tall ostrich feathers waved above a gaudy pearl-encrusted turban. “I must speak to you before Julianne arrives.”
“Where is she?” Hawk asked.
“Changing her gown.”
Lord help him. “Why?”
“Because she is a female.” Hester gave him a measuring look. “Her brother says he won’t rush her into marriage, but I’ve given the matter more thought. Everyone knows he is too protective. He still thinks of her as a young gel. I think he’s trying to discourage her because he cannot admit she’s a grown woman.”
“Aunt, she’ll wed when she’s ready,” Hawk said.
“Obviously you are unwilling to help,” Hester said. “The task must fall to me.”
“What?” Oh, Lord. His aunt fancied herself a matchmaker.
Hester tapped her chin. “I imagine she would prefer a young cub with an agreeable nature, but I fear she would find him disappointing. A gentleman with a bit of savoir faire would suit her best. The young ones don’t know what is what. They tend to fire too soon, if you take my meaning.”
The devil. “Aunt Hester—”
“Oh, hush, you know it’s true. Of course, her intended should not be above nine and thirty. The older ones tend to wither.”
He really could bear no more of his aunt’s bawdy speech. “Perhaps you should check on Julianne’s progress.”
The door opened, letting in a draft. Relieved at Julianne’s timely appearance, he said, “Ah, there she is now.”
“Forgive me. I am terribly late,” Julianne said.
A sheer fabric covered her girlish pink underskirt. She looked every inch the virtuous young lady. He crossed the room and bowed over her gloved hand. When he glanced up at her, she blushed.
He intended to discourage his aunt’s matchmaking scheme. Julianne was a woman, but a very young one. She’d turned down multiple proposals, and he suspected she enjoyed being the belle of the ball. Hang society. She had every right to enjoy her youth as long as possible.
Julianne fingered a locket nestled just above her bodice, drawing his attention.
“A new bauble?” he asked.
“My father gave it to me long ago.” She unclasped the locket.
He swallowed hard as she showed him the tiny miniature of her father, the father who had ignored her because she wasn’t the long-hoped-for spare heir. The wastrel had occasionally bestowed kindness upon his wife, son, and daughter. Just often enough to make them hope he’d changed. It had never lasted long.
“I’ve only worn the locket once before,” she said, her eyes downcast.
At that moment, he wanted to give her the most costly jewel to replace that crumb her father had doled out years ago.
“She is an incomparable beauty, is she not?” Hester said, her voice booming behind them. “I predict all the gentlemen will fall at her feet.”
Julianne closed the locket. Her eyes twinkled as she regarded him. “I shall try not to tread on their prostrate bodies on the way to the dance floor.”
Hawk chuckled. She was the same merry Julianne he’d always known. “That’s my girl.”
My girl. His words echoed in Julianne’s mind all during the carriage ride. She continued to savor them as they walked inside the Beresford’s Palladian mansion and made their slow way upstairs. While they filed through the receiving line, Hawk smiled at her, making her heart melt. Afterward, Hester claimed weariness and ambled toward the chairs occupied by the matrons and wallflowers.
As Hawk led Julianne along the perimeter of the ballroom, dozens of people marked their progress. A sidelong glance assured her more than a few ladies were watching with curled lips. Let the jealous cats scowl. Tonight she was on the arm of the most handsome gentleman in the ballroom. And before this night ended, she hoped to make him yearn for her as much as she yearned for him.
She glanced at him. In profile, his dark brows and prominent cheekbones gave him a roguish appearance. She knew his face so well, and yet each time she looked at him, she found herself mesmerized.
As he returned her gaze, his full lips curved with the hint of amusement, and then he looked out at the crowd once more.
She’d attended more balls than she could count, but tonight, magic filled the air. Usually she paid scant attention to the décor, but now she noticed every detail. A row of rising shelves covered in crimson serge held dozens and dozens of crystal vases filled with hothouse flowers. Yards of scarlet draperies floated across the mantel and fell in a waterfall across the gold wall sconces. She vowed always to remember the romantic ambience.
Julianne tightened her fingers on his arm. The heat of his body seeped into her. She felt all warm and wobbly inside.
Please let him propose soon.
As they neared the dance floor, she caught her breath, hoping he would request her hand for the next set. An enormous gilt mirror reflected the couples twirling and parting in intricate patterns. Above them, candlelight twinkled starlike among the teardrop crystals in the enormous chandelier. She hoped he would stop to watch the dancers, but he led her over to an alcove displaying a large bust of Lord Beresford.
Hawk glanced at a lanky young man passing by. The skinny boy looked at her and almost tripped over his huge feet.
“There’s a perfectly harmless cub,” Hawk said. “Let me take you to him. I’ll hint he should ask you to dance.”
Her face heated. “I do not need your assistance.”
“You do not wish to dance?” he asked in a teasing tone.
Clearly he had no intention of asking. Offended, she released his arm. “I’m off to find my friends.”
She’d taken only a single step when he caught her arm and pulled her back to him.
“Not so fast,” he said. “Tell me what I’ve done to vex you.”
She refused to look at him. “Obviously you think no one but clumsy boys will dance with me.”
He scoffed. “From the moment we entered the ballroom, I’ve seen dozens of gentlemen looking at you. Some of those men have bad reputations. Stay away from them.”
He’d spoken in a gruff manner. Perhaps he was jealous of those other men. “I will,” she said.
“What? No argument?” He released her and pretended to stagger.
His antics confused her. He’d sounded perfectly serious earlier. Then all of a sudden, he’d made a jest. Of course, he always made a joke of everything. She told herself it was his nature and part of his charm, but an uneasy sensation settled in her chest.
Someone called her name. Her friends Amy Hardwick and Lady Georgette Danforth were approaching. Georgette’s eldest brother, Lord Ramsey, followed close behind. Julianne inhaled. She would ask her friends for their opinions as soon as she could speak to them in private.
When her friends reached her, she kissed the air by their cheeks. “Oh, it’s been ages since last I saw you.”
“I’ve missed you,” Amy said. “Letters are a poor substitute for being together.”
Georgette’s blue eyes sparkled as she beckoned them both aside. “You have made a conquest of Hawk.”
“Not exactly,” Julianne said in an undertone. “He is to be my guardian for the entire season.”
Her friends gasped.
“Oh, this is wonderful,” Amy murmured.
Georgette leaned closer. “I saw the way Hawk looked at you. I predict he will dance attendance on you all evening.”
“He’ll propose this year. I’m sure of it,” Amy said.
Georgette grinned. “How could he resist you?”
Julianne glanced over her shoulder at Hawk. Ramsey said something to him. Oddly, Hawk gave him a freezing look and focused his attention on three other gentlemen. Julianne shrugged off his strange reaction to Ramsey and turned back to her friends. “I need your advice.”
After she described Hawk’s confusing behavior, Georgette’s dimples showed as she smiled. “I think he inadvertently revealed his tender feelings.”
Julianne worried her hands. “But why did he pass it off as a jest?”
“He is unsure of your regard, and so he resorted to teasing you,” Amy said.
Julianne realized Amy was right. “He’s teased me for years. Perhaps all this time he’s waited for a sign from me.”
“You must show him you welcome him as a suitor,” Amy said.
Georgette shook her head. “No, she must make him even more jealous by dancing with other gentlemen.”
“I disagree,” Amy said. “It would be cruel to wound him. He might conclude she does not care for him. All would be lost.”
Georgette released a loud sigh. “Oh, why must matters of the heart be so complicated?”
“Because love makes one vulnerable,” Amy said. “We all want to protect our hearts. I think it doubly hard for gentlemen because of their pride.”
“It is a wonder anyone manages to wed,” Georgette grumbled.
Julianne glanced at Hawk again. She started to turn away when Ramsey looked at her. His eyes gleamed as his gaze dipped lower. The horrid man was ogling her bosom.
She averted her gaze, only to realize she’d missed part of her friends’ conversation.
“She should express interest in Hawk and ask him questions so she may get to know him better,” Amy was saying.
Julianne frowned. “I’ve known him forever.”
“I doubt he has told you his deepest secrets,” Amy said.
Georgette scoffed. “What deep secrets? Hawk is a charmer and a rogue. Nothing troubles his mind. Do you not agree, Julie?”
“I’ve never seen him brood over anything. Even after his father’s funeral, he tried to cheer up everyone else.” She sighed. “He has a wonderful ability to make everyone laugh even during trying times.”
Amy’s green eyes widened. “Watch out. Lord Ramsey is coming this way,” she said in a stage whisper.
Julianne winced. Oh, she could not bear to look at him after she’d caught him ogling her bosom.
Georgette groaned. “Papa made him escort me. I think he meant to punish Henry. Of course, Mama would not tell me why he was in trouble.”
“He’s almost here,” Amy said
Upon reaching them, Ramsey bowed. “Lady Julianne, you are as dazzling as the sun.”
“I hope you are not seeing spots,” she muttered.
Ramsey’s rumbling laugh reverberated all along Julianne’s spine and made her ill at ease. Then his gaze drifted lower as if he were mentally undressing her. Her ears grew hot.
“May I have the honor of the next dance?” Ramsey asked.
Just as Ramsey made the request, Hawk appeared at her side. “Julianne, I believe this is our dance,” he said.
Our dance. She smiled at her friends and relinquished her fan to Georgette. As Hawk escorted her to the dance floor, she felt as if she were walking on air.
Hawk gritted his teeth as he led Julianne away. He’d wanted to smash his fist into Ramsey’s face after catching the scoundrel eyeing Julianne’s body.
He’d had no choice but to rescue her from the lecherous man. Ramsey was six and thirty, much too old for an innocent like Julianne. And Hawk knew too much about Ramsey’s bad character to let him near her.
As they stepped onto the wooden floor, the orchestra struck up the opening bars of a waltz. Julianne’s lips parted.
Hawk looked into her stunned blue eyes. “I suppose you’re familiar with the steps.”
She shook back her glossy curls. “I am.”
He lifted his brows. “And your brother approves?”
“He would not object to you waltzing with me.”
Hawk wasn’t entirely sure of that, but it was too late to back out now. He took her gloved hand and clasped her slender waist. When she just stood there, he murmured, “Put your other hand on my shoulder.”
She winced and complied.
“You’ve never waltzed,” he said.
“My brother is overly protective. It is ridiculous.”
The music started with a flourish. He kept the steps small for her sake and caught her watching her feet. “Look at me.”
She lifted her lashes and regarded him with a mischievous smile. “You are being conservative because you fear I will disgrace you.”
“Is that a dare?” Before she could answer, he whirled her round and round in dramatic circles.
A breathless laugh escaped her. “Oh, this is wonderful.”
He’d waltzed with more women than he could recall. All of them had told him he danced divine. Not one of them had ever expressed such sincere exuberance. But this was Julianne’s first waltz, and she would find it special, unlike the jaded women he ordinarily danced with.
Her flowery perfume drifted to him. He looked into her shining blue eyes and found himself hoping she would never succumb to the cynicism so common among the ton.
“A penny for your thoughts,” she said.
He let out a dramatic sigh. “I’m crushed you think my thoughts are so worthless.”
“Until you tell me, I cannot be certain,” she said.
Her naturally husky voice never failed to captivate him. “I might shock you.”
She gave him a saucy grin. “You may try.”
He enjoyed teasing her. “You would have to pay me a king’s ransom for my current thoughts.”
“How much is a king’s ransom?”
“A thousand pounds.”
“Oh, it must be very shocking indeed.”
“That is why I named such a high price.” Because I dare not admit I find you utterly enchanting tonight.
Her eyes lit with mischief. “What if I call your bluff?”
“In that case, I had better quadruple the price.” Then he whirled her round and round again. When he neatly evaded a near collision with another couple, she laughed.
He winked at her. She’d always been a bit saucy, and naturally her family claimed he was a bad influence. But her sweet excitement over her first waltz tugged at him.
The couples whirling past blurred. Her blue eyes softened, and he found himself mesmerized by her long lashes. Gradually, her smile faded, and her lips parted a little. He became all too aware of the soft curve of her waist beneath his hand, and something inside his chest shifted.
As the music wound down, he slowed his steps until the very last note. His blood hummed in his ears. Unable to let her go just yet, he held on to her. He was dimly aware of others walking past. His heart knocked against his chest as he gazed at her lush mouth.
The air between them heated and crackled like the calm before a summer storm. A forbidden thought struck him like lightning.
I want you.
An unnatural silence descended over the ballroom, alerting him. He glanced beyond Julianne to the mirror. In shock, he realized all the other couples had exited the dance floor. The back of his neck prickled as he turned his head. A huge crowd had gathered around. Everyone was staring at Julie-girl and him.
Wild applause broke out.
A Scoundrel’s Code of Conduct: To avoid the parson’s mousetrap, lie through your teeth.
In a daze, Hawk led Julianne off the dance floor. His heart still thumped hard. What the devil had happened?
He’d lost his head over Julie-girl.
The crowd pressed closer. Everyone spoke at once and at considerable volume as they squeezed past.
“Did you see the way he looked at her?”
“Dear God, I thought he would kiss her.”
“I almost melted into a puddle watching them.”
“Oh, my,” Julianne said, her voice breathless.
“Keep walking,” he muttered. Bloody, bloody hell. Half the damn ton had witnessed him clutching Julianne and gazing into her eyes like one of her many besotted beaux. Damn, damn, damn.
In all her innocence, she’d managed to bewitch him. He’d fallen under a spell. That was the only explanation for his idiocy. No, it was worse. Far worse. Desire had flooded his veins—for his best friend’s sister. For God’s sake, he was her guardian. She was forbidden.
He glanced at her sideways. Her dreamy expression made him feel like a cad. Obviously, she was still caught up in the magical experience of her first waltz and probably didn’t realize the significance of what had happened.
If the damned scandal sheets hinted at an engagement, they would both find themselves in hot suds. How the devil would he ever explain it to Tristan?
Stupid, bloody fool.
He had to do something to turn the tide. When he spotted his aunt sitting by the wall, he knew he must leave Julianne with her. Then he’d make himself scarce in the card room and laugh off any gibes from the other gents.
Heads turned as he led her through the crowd. He gritted his teeth and did his best to ignore the stares.
He’d not gotten far when Amy Hardwick and Lady Georgette waylaid them. Their excited expressions spelled trouble.
“Everyone is talking about your waltz,” Georgette gushed.
“My heart nearly stopped when everyone applauded,” Amy said.
He considered leaving Julianne with her friends, but Ramsey cut a swath through the crowd.
“Ah, there you are, Lady Julianne,” Ramsey said. “I’ve come to claim the dance Hawk stole from me.”
Hawk stared daggers at him. “She does not wish to dance.”
Beside him, Julianne stiffened. Her friends watched with wide-eyed expressions. He didn’t care.
Ramsey frowned. “And who are you to answer for the lady?”
Ramsey laughed. “Famous. The hawk is guarding the henhouse.”
Hawk gave him a freezing look. “You accuse me of having improper designs on the lady?”
Hawk narrowed his eyes. “Lest you or anyone else harbor the wrong idea, I will set the record straight. Lady Julianne is practically a sister to me.”
All around them, heads turned. Several gentlemen chuckled and regarded him with amusement.
Ramsey lifted his sandy brows. “Yet you object to her dancing with other gentlemen.”
“I object to you.” He’d heard another disgusting rumor recently that Ramsey and six of his dissipated friends had sneaked a prostitute into one of the private rooms at the club and taken turns with her. There was no way Hawk would let the vile fiend dance with Julianne.
Ramsey bowed. “Lady Julianne, I must withdraw my request. Your guardian objects.”
After Ramsey left, Hawk blew out his breath. As the tension slowly drained from his body, he realized Julianne’s fingers were trembling on his sleeve. With alarm, he saw her face had turned pale. “Julianne, are you unwell?”
Her lips parted, but she said nothing.
“I had better find you a chair. Can you walk?” Hawk asked.
Amy Hardwick took her arm. “We will escort her to the retiring room, my lord.”
He thought Julianne looked ready to faint. “She is ill. I’ll fetch my aunt and take Julianne home.”
“No.” Georgette glared at him. “We will take care of her. She is like a sister to us.”
Amy shook her head at Georgette. Then she addressed him. “My lord, we will send for your aunt if Julie does not recover quickly.”
As they retreated, Hawk frowned. Damn Ramsey for vexing Julianne. Obviously he had offended Georgette by refusing to allow her rakehell brother to dance with Julianne. Too bloody bad.
Lady Julianne is practically a sister to me.
In a cold daze, Julianne thrust the horrible thoughts from her mind and stumbled as she entered the lady’s retiring room. She could hardly recall walking there.
Amy steadied her. “Have a care.”
“There are no chairs available,” Georgette said. “She must rest.”
Julianne stared about the room, so numb she could barely feel her limbs. Three maids bustled around the women, repairing dangling curls and torn flounces. High-pitched giggling sounded from the window seat. None of it seemed real to her.
One of the maids finished tidying an elderly lady’s coiffure and turned her attention to Julianne. The maid’s eyes widened.
Georgette beckoned her. “Is there somewhere private we may sit?”
“Yes, my lady. Follow me.”
The maid found a candle and led the way. She opened a door to a bedchamber next to the retiring room. Julianne leaned on Amy’s arm as they followed the maid. While the maid lit a candle branch with the taper, Julianne sank onto a settee. She clutched her gloved hands in an effort to stop them from shaking.
Amy sat beside her. “All will be well,” she whispered.
No, it would not.
The maid dipped a curtsy and addressed Georgette. “Shall I get her something? Poor gel looks sickly.”
“Wine,” Georgette said. “For all of us.”
The maid nodded and left the room quietly.
After the door shut, Amy huffed. “Wine for all of us?”
“I need something to soothe my nerves, too.” Georgette sat on Julianne’s other side. “Dearest, tell us what we can do to help?”
Julianne covered her face. Despite her gloves, her fingers felt icy. The numbness started slipping away. Hawk’s words echoed in her ears again. Lady Julianne is practically a sister to me. Oh, God, he did not love her.
“It’s natural to cry,” Amy said.
“I cannot.” Julianne’s throat felt thick. “I don’t want him to see my splotchy face. Then he will know.”
Georgette chafed her arm. “How could he be such a brute?”
“Not now,” Amy hissed.
“Well, I am angry on her behalf,” Georgette said. “He treated her abominably.”
The threatening tears welled in Julianne’s eyes. She tried to hold them at bay, but it was no use. Her entire body shook as she wept.
Her friends remained silent until she’d spent her tears. When Julianne shuddered, Amy gave her a handkerchief. “Lean on me,” she whispered.
Julianne rested against Amy’s thin shoulder and swiped at her damp cheeks.
“Georgette, there is a pitcher and bowl on the washstand,” Amy said. “Will you wet a cloth and bring it?”
Julianne closed her eyes, but his words kept creeping into her thoughts. He didn’t even know he’d crushed her. She ought to be grateful, but pride wasn’t much of a salve for her wounded heart.
Water splashed into the china bowl. “I shall never understand men,” Georgette said. A clinking sounded, likely the pitcher. “He was so attentive on the dance floor, and then suddenly he insisted Julianne was a sister to him.”
Julianne started gulping air. She jerked upright. Panic clawed at her chest with every short breath.
“Slowly,” Amy said. “Take one breath at a time. I am right here beside you.”
Don’t think. Breathe. Don’t think. Breathe.
Georgette’s skirts swished as she approached. “Amy, I’m frightened. She is gasping for air.”
“Julie, focus on one breath. Just one,” Amy said.
Julianne yanked at the gold chain holding the locket. She had to get it off. Now.
“Hold still,” Amy said. “Georgette help me.”
Georgette knelt and took Julianne’s hands. “Be still so Amy can unclasp the necklace.”
As Amy fumbled at her neck, Julianne bent her head. When the locket fell onto her lap, Georgette scooped it up. “Amy, put it in your reticule for safekeeping.”
She never should have worn it. Never should have shown him.
“Lean back,” Georgette said. When Julianne complied, Georgette dabbed the cool, damp cloth over her face and laid it across Julianne’s eyes. “This will help reduce any puffiness.”
“I wish it would take away her pain,” Amy murmured.
Julianne only wished for numbness.
None of them said anything. Julianne appreciated their silence. For now, it was enough to have them beside her. She would not be able to bear being alone.
After an interminable amount of time, she became aware of an aching in her neck. She removed the cloth and lifted her head.
Georgette took it to the washstand. When she returned, she let out a long sigh. “Better now?”
A hysterical laugh escaped her. “Oh, yes. All my dreams are dashed, but I’m perfectly content.”
Her friends exchanged worried looks.
“He was only trying to put my brother off the scent,” Georgette said. “Hawk would not admit his feelings before telling you.”
Julianne huffed. “Are you deaf? He did tell me his feelings.” Then, realizing her harshness, she winced. “Forgive me, please.”
“You are wounded,” Amy said. “We understand.”
“I refuse to believe he isn’t halfway to falling in love with you,” Georgette said. “When he danced with you, he could not tear his eyes away.”
“Georgette, it is no use.” Julianne shuddered. “He teased me tonight, the same way he’s teased me since I was a little girl.”
“Where is your spirit?” Georgette laid her hand on Julianne’s shoulder. “You cannot give up so easily.”
“Easily? I’ve waited four years for him. Nothing I do will change his feelings.” She hung her head. “I gambled on him. And I lost.” She’d convinced herself she could make him love her. The same way she’d tried so hard to win her father’s love.
What was wrong with her?
The maid returned bearing a tray with a decanter of wine and three glasses. Amy rummaged in her reticule. Coins clinked in her hand as she followed the maid over to the table, speaking softly. After the maid handed round the glasses, she left the room.
“Her name is Meg,” Amy said. “I gave her a shilling.”
“Oh, I didn’t think of it,” Georgette said. “You are always so thoughtful, Amy.”
The three of them sat silently, drinking wine. After the first few sips, Julianne felt a tiny bit better. Each time thoughts of Hawk entered her head, she drank some more. After several minutes, she tipped the glass to her lips and frowned. It was empty.
“More?” Georgette asked.
“I’ll get it.” Her legs trembled a little, but the wine numbed her. She refilled her glass and returned to the settee. “I suppose I shall live.” Despite her brave words, sorrow flooded her heart.
Georgette sniffed. “You will make him sorry.”
“Georgette,” Amy admonished.
Julianne contemplated her glass. “He is a swine.”
“Amen,” Georgette said.
“Let us talk of something else,” Amy said.
Georgette gulped her wine. “All men are swine.”
“They all take mistresses,” Julianne said, remembering what Hester had said about Hawk. “Even some of the married ones.” Like her late father.
Georgette sighed. “Sometimes I think mistresses have all the fun.”
Amy made an exasperated sound. “They are poor women who have no choice but to sell their bodies. It must be very frightening to be so dependent.”
“But we are dependent,” Julianne said. “Men control our lives. They have all the power. We wait and wait for them. All the while, they dally with bad women and put off marriage. We pin all our hopes on them, and then, poof, they dance away because they do not want to give up their raking.”
“You are right,” Amy said. “But do we not give them the power?”
“This conversation is depressing my spirits.” Georgette rose. “I need another glass of wine. Amy, I’ll pour more for you as well.”
“But I’m not done with this one.”
“I’ll top it up.” Georgette snatched Amy’s glass, spilling a bit on her skirt. A red stain spread, seeping into the cloth. “Oops.”
“You had better dab that damp cloth on the stain,” Amy said.
“But then my skirts will be wet.” She giggled. “Oh, they are already wet.”
They all burst out laughing.
Georgette walked to the decanter and refilled the glasses.
“We should take care not to become inebriated,” Amy said.
“Oh, why not?” Georgette gulped her wine. “All the gentlemen are sure to be three sheets to the wind by now.”
“But we are ladies,” Amy said.
Georgette snorted. “We are foxed ladies.”
“Not foxed enough.” Julianne sipped her wine. “How shall I hurt him?”
Georgette returned with both glasses and handed one to Amy. “We could put a curse on him.”
Amy set her glass aside. “Silly. We don’t know any curses.”
“I do.” Julianne smirked. “Damn.”
“Bloody hell,” Georgette said, lowering her voice in a bad imitation of a man.
“The devil.” Amy snickered.
The three of them planned various, ridiculous tortures for Hawk that included the rack and chains. A few minutes later, Georgette poured the dregs of the decanter into her glass. “Julie, I am still convinced he is in love wish you,” she said.
“No, he isn’t.” A hiccough escaped her.
Amy regarded her with a frown. “Julianne, everyone in the ballroom remarked upon the way he looked at you on the dance floor. He continued to hold you even after the music stopped. I think his actions speak louder than his words.”
Julianne stilled. He’d teased her, and then he’d gazed at her longingly. “Amy, you’re right.” She hiccoughed again. “He made me believe he cared. But when he realized everyone was talking about our waltz, he got cold feet. How dare he—hic—toy with me?”
Georgette smirked. “We will find a way to make him pay.”
“We are not the only ladies who suffer because of those rogues who evade marriage,” Amy said. “There must be some way for all the ladies to take the power into their hands.”
“How?” Georgette said.
Julianne grabbed Amy’s arm. “You are brilliant.”
Amy blinked. “But I have no solution.”
Julianne grinned. “I do. Thanks to Hester. She told me how to entice a rake, and—hic—I foolishly ignored her.”
“But do we want to entice rakes?” Amy asked. “Should we not concentrate on the nice gentlemen?”
“What nish gentlemen?” Georgette grumbled. Then she polished off her wine.
Amy frowned. “The younger ones are agreeable.”
Julianne covered another hiccough.
Georgette scoffed. “The cubs can barely utter a word without twipping over their tongues.”
“You are both missing the—hic—point,” Julianne said, revenge on her mind. “We can entice the gentlemen by making them think we desire them. And then we will drop them like hot coals.”
“We won’t remember this tomorrow,” Amy said. “Julianne, you have a terrible case of the hiccoughs. You had better stop drinking.”
She hiccoughed again and nearly spilled her wine while setting the glass on the floor. “I remember every word Hester said and will write it down for the two of you.”
“If we are to succeed, we need all the single ladies to join us,” Georgette said. “Then the gentlemen will notish.”
Julianne frowned. Georgette was slurring her words.
“We will have to sw-swear all our sisters to silence,” Georgette said. “I wager all the other girls are as disguised with the gentlemen as we are.”
“You mean disgusted,” Julianne said, noting the glassy look in Georgette’s eyes.
“But will we not drive the gentlemen into the arms of those hussies who troll the theaters? Or worse, those married women with no scruples?” Amy asked.
Julianne gave her friends a smug look. “We will be—hic—like Anne Boleyn.”
“What?” her friends cried out in unison.
“She kept Henry the Eighth on a frustrated leash for years. If she could do it, so can we.”
Her friends burst out laughing.
The door opened.
“Meg, you’re jush in time,” Georgette said. “Will you bring more wine?”
“It appears you’ve had quite enough.” Hester strode past Meg.
Julianne hiccoughed and clapped her hand over her mouth.
Hester glanced at the empty decanter and turned to Meg. “Everyone is filing downstairs for the midnight supper. Do not let the girls leave. I shall return directly.”
Hawk slouched in his chair at the card table. He assumed Julianne was well enough. Amy Hardwick was a responsible girl and would have alerted his aunt if Julianne had taken a turn for the worse. He wondered about Julianne’s sudden illness. Was it his confrontation with Ramsey or had the overheated ballroom made her ill? Hawk had never thought Julianne one of those delicate female creatures, but the devil knew his sisters complained incessantly of mysterious ailments.
Despite his preoccupation, he’d automatically memorized the cards previously played. He visualized the remaining ones, an easy task given that he need only recall by a single suit, in this case hearts. Across the table, Ramsey frowned at his hand, hesitating. The reprobate had joined the game at the last minute. Over the years, Ramsey had taken every opportunity to needle him. Hawk had ignored him for years. Tonight, Ramsey had forced a confrontation.
Hawk covered a yawn, growing bored with the tedious delays. Ramsey made a stupid play. With a smug grin, Hawk threw down his queen, winning the trick and the rubber, in this case, the best three out of five games.
His partner, a young cub with a blade of a nose, crowed. “You’re a wizard,” Eastham said. “It’s almost as if you could see through the discards.”
Hawk said nothing. Long ago, he’d learned to calculate the odds at cards.
“The devil.” Ramsey’s partner, Durleigh, gathered the cards and shuffled.
Eastham leaned across the table, his intent gaze on Hawk. “Do you have a talisman?”
“No.” Most gamblers were superstitious and kept all sorts of lucky charms on their person while playing. Far too many lost fortunes and called it capricious luck. He’d amassed a considerable fortune simply by leaving the table when he was ahead. When he’d attempted to use his winnings to pay for a mistake he’d made long ago, his father had refused to take the money. The memory still burned, but he shoved the useless thought aside.
At the approach of a footman, Hawk frowned.
“Lord Hawkfield, your aunt requests you attend her in the ballroom,” the servant said. “She asked for Lord Ramsey as well. The matter is urgent.”
Hawk’s heart drummed in his chest as he shoved his chair back. Julianne could be dangerously ill, and he’d wasted precious time. He strode from the card room, fearing the worst. Ramsey followed close behind.
Hester waited near the door. Hawk noted the other guests were leaving the ballroom, probably for the midnight supper.
“Where is Julianne?” Hawk asked his aunt.
“With her friends in a bedchamber adjoining the lady’s retiring room.”
Hawk envisioned Julie-girl shivering on the bed. “My God, how bad off is she?”
“All three girls are in a shocking state,” Hester said.
Ramsey stiffened. “I’ll find Beresford and have him send for a doctor immediately.”
Hester shook her head. “That would be unwise.” She looked about her as if checking to be sure no one listened. Then she leaned toward them. “They drank an entire decanter of wine.”
Silence reigned from the retiring room next door.
“Everyone has gone downstairs for the midnight supper by now,” Amy whispered.
“Oh my God, I cannot let my brother see me foshed,” Georgette said.
“You mean foxed.” Julianne hiccoughed again. “I will have to convince Hawk to say nothing to Tristan. Otherwise, my brother will make me return home.” The very thought made her stomach roil.
“I have a plan,” Georgette said. “We will disappear until their tempers cool.”
Amy made an exasperated sound. “Hiding will only postpone the inevitable and make everyone angrier with us.”
“Hah! You’re not the one who must face the f-firing squad.” Georgette lurched to the door and opened it. “Meg, come inslide.”
“She means inside.” Julianne hiccoughed.
After the maid entered, Georgette spoke. “We need to go to the water cl-closet.”
Meg looked uncertain. “You had better wait for the lady to return.”
“I cannot wait,” Georgette said. “Tell Lady Rut-Rutledge to meet us downstairs if we mish her.”
“My lady, you’d better stay put,” Meg said. “The wine has gone to your head, it has.”
“No.” Georgette motioned to Julianne and Amy. “Come.”
Julianne hesitated. “Georgette, we’d better not.”
“I’m going,” Georgette said. She walked unsteadily out into the corridor.
Amy rose. “Julianne, we must stop her.”
They hurried to the door. “Georgette, come back here,” Julianne hissed as her friend weaved the wrong way down the corridor.
Meg followed them to the door. “My lady, come back. The stairs are the other way.”
Georgette giggled and continued on.
“I’ll fetch her,” Meg said.
“Meg, I fear she’ll not listen to you,” Amy said.
Julianne took Meg’s candle. “We’ll return quickly, I promise.” She cupped her hand around the candle flame, but it went out as they hurried along.
Georgette’s white gown was like a beacon. At the end of the corridor, she stopped and stared at a door.
When they reached her, she swayed on her feet. “There was a noise.”
“Come, let us return,” Amy said, tugging on Georgette’s arm to no avail.
Something started thumping rhythmically against the door. Julianne hiccoughed and stared in horror, fearing whoever was in there would fling it open.
A man grunted again and again.
Georgette frowned. “Is he ill?”
The door thumped harder. A woman started making repetitive high-pitched noises, sounding like a squealing pig.
Julianne frowned. “What are they—hic—doing?”
“We must leave,” Amy whispered.
The thumping turned into banging, and the man’s grunting grew louder. “Feel my mighty sword.”
“He has a sword?” Georgette asked.
The woman behind the door screamed.
Georgette gasped. “He killed her.”
“I’m coming,” the man said.
“Not inside me,” the woman said in a curt voice. “I don’t want a brat.”
Julianne dropped the candle and clapped her hand over her mouth. She’d thought a bed was required. As she stared at the door, she tried to work out how the amorous couple had managed, but she failed.
“We must go,” Amy hissed. “Now!”
The three of them lifted their skirts. Shrieking with laughter, they hurried down the corridor. Julianne sprinted ahead and looked over her shoulder.
“Look out!” Amy cried.
Julianne plowed into something big and male. She gasped as two large hands caught her by the shoulders.
“You are in deep trouble,” Hawk growled.
Excerpted from How to Seduce a Scoundrel by Dreiling, Vicky Copyright © 2011 by Dreiling, Vicky. Excerpted by permission.
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