Once A Rakeby Rona Sharon
<CENTER>Irresistible Seduction Only Leads To. . . </CENTER>
War had scarred the Earl of Ashby's face...and perhaps his soul. Before being wounded in the Napoleonic war and shunning society, the dashing lord had been a notorious rake. Now, Isabel Aubrey, a proper lady, dares to approach the masked, reclusive nobleman for a large donation/b>… See more details below
<CENTER>Irresistible Seduction Only Leads To. . . </CENTER>
War had scarred the Earl of Ashby's face...and perhaps his soul. Before being wounded in the Napoleonic war and shunning society, the dashing lord had been a notorious rake. Now, Isabel Aubrey, a proper lady, dares to approach the masked, reclusive nobleman for a large donation to a worthy charity--and decides she must save him from his self-loathing. She begins to flirt. He responds. She invites him to a masquerade ball. He accepts and dazzles her with a kiss.
<CENTER>The Most Scandalous Passion. . . </CENTER>
But Isabel already has a fiancé and despite her attraction to the earl she knows she must reject him. Yet no force on earth is greater than the passion that leads her into his bed; nothing she has ever experienced is more exciting and erotic. Now he asks her to stay with him although it will mean her ruin. Isabel must not say yes--and the smitten earl cannot let her say no. To win her body and her heart, he initiates an outrageous scheme that only a rake would devise--and no woman can resist.
<CENTER>Praise for Rona Sharon and My Wicked Pirate</CENTER>
"A rich, sweeping, passionate read." --New York Times bestselling author Rosemary Rogers
"My Wicked Pirate is wickedly fun." --Booklist
"A passionate debut. . .the action never stops." --Romantic Times
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ONCE A RAKE
By Rona Sharon
ZEBRA BOOKSCopyright © 2007 Rona Sharon
All right reserved.
Chapter OneLike to a hermit poor, in place obscure, I mean to spend my days of endless doubt, To wail such woes as time cannot recure, Where none but Love shall ever find me out. -Sir Walter Raleigh
Isabel Aubrey drew a fortifying breath and climbed the front steps of Lancaster House. The Earl of Ashby's private residence was situated on Park Lane, the finest street address in Mayfair. For years she had passed by his home, aware he was somewhere on the Continent, risking his life fighting against Napoleon. Then two years ago, soon after Waterloo, he had come back.
Her heart beat wildly as she tapped the brass knocker against the door and waited. A rotund butler answered the door. "Good morning, miss. How may I help you?"
Isabel smiled. "Good morning. I'm here to call on his lordship."
The butler shook his bald head ruefully. "His lordship doesn't receive callers, miss. My apologies, and a good day to you." The door closed softly in her face.
Drat. Isabel stepped back, churning with disappointment. She'd been so preoccupied with tamping her emotions upon coming to see him that it hadn't occurred to her Ashby might refuse to see her at all. Yet it was not her in particular he refused to see-it was anyone.
"Shouldn't we return home now, Miss Isabel?" her maid inquired from the sidewalk, where she dutifully kept watch for passersby. Isabel glanced back. Except for a fruit cart, the street was empty. It was yet early for the haut ton to crawl out of its soft beds, but she still had to watch out for the demented early risers who went riding in the park. "We'll get into a lot of trouble, should anyone spot us on the Gargoyle's doorstep," her maid added fretfully, glancing right and left.
"Please don't call him so, Lucy," Isabel berated her maid. "His lordship deserves our pity, not our ridicule." Yet Lucy had a point. If word got around that she'd paid a personal visit to the Gargoyle-when it was a very strict rule that no unmarried lady with magnificent prospects ever called on a gentleman except upon a business or a professional matter-her mother would have a fit, and her elder brother, Viscount Stilgoe, would marry her off to the first single gentleman she waltzed with at Almack's on Wednesday. She'd exhausted every possible excuse for misconduct when she had turned down five eligible beaux, declaring that none of the fellows would do.
Think! she ordered herself. There had to be a way to approach the earl. Gnawing on her lip, an idea entered her head. It was somewhat bold, but it seemed to be her only recourse. She fumbled in her reticule and took out a pencil and an elegant calling card, which in addition to her name stated her active role as Chairwoman of the Widows, Mothers & Sisters of War Society. She wrote a short message on the back of the card. Before she lost her nerve, she knocked again.
The butler was quick to respond. "Kindly give his lordship my card and ask him to read the line on the back," she instructed, before he shut the door in her face a second time.
The butler's kind eyes softened sympathetically. "You are not the first young lady who has come calling, miss. He wouldn't see any of them. I am sorry."
Isabel stiffened. "I am not one of his ... lady friends. His lordship was my brother's friend, and his senior officer. He will see me. Please give him my card."
The butler's scrutiny shifted between her and the demure maid standing a few steps behind her. He took the card. "I shall inquire." The door closed again.
Isabel kneaded her hands. What she would never have been able to imagine, even in her worst nightmares, was the formidable Earl of Ashby-Colonel Lord Ashby, Commander of the 18th Hussars-resigned to the sad state of a recluse. That a battle wound should force him into a self-imposed isolation was ... inconceivable. The Ashby she so well remembered was a force of nature: Sharp, charming, strong, and godlike handsome, he was also fabulously wealthy, which in and of itself was enough to entice the ton to forgive a facial disfigurement, severe though it may be. Yet apparently his countless virtues were not enough for Ashby to forgive it.
The butler reappeared. "Do come in, Miss Aubrey. His lordship will see you."
He remembered. Pleased with her triumph, Isabel walked inside. Lancaster House was a grand, silver-and-blue palace, with a shimmering chandelier hanging from a two-story ceiling. So this was where he lived, she gazed about excitedly, where he had been hiding from the world for the past two years. She couldn't help wondering, though, how one-particularly a man as vigorous as Ashby-occupied his time caged inside a house all by himself. She'd be scaling walls within a week, and she hadn't spent years charging on horseback beneath an open sky.
Leaving Lucy in the foyer, she followed the butler into a front sitting room. A collection of sculptures set on a glass shelf caught her attention: Little monkeys skillfully whittled of wood. One of them, she noted with amused horror, bore a frightful resemblance to Wellington. Another was the spitting image of Lord Castlereagh. "The Gargoyle is an artist." She smiled, lifting a plump ape which reminded her of Prince George. "And he has a very wicked sense of humor ..."
"The Gargoyle doesn't appreciate strangers poking at his personal effects."
Isabel jumped. Prinny was snatched from her hand and put back on the glass shelf.
"You wished to see me?" A gangling, grim, gray-haired man stood before her. He bore no resemblance to the devil-may-care hussar Will had brought to dinner years ago.
Her heart sank. Good God. "What hap-?" Clamping her mouth shut, she curtsied politely. Had the war done this to him? Or had her mind glorified his image over the years? Even his rust coat was too large for his frame. Morosely, she searched his face for a scar. He had none.
The earl regarded her circumspectly. "Is there anything I may do for you, Miss ...?"
"Aubrey, my lord. Will's sister." He didn't recognize her. Then what made him open his door for her when he wouldn't do so for anyone else, not even for his lady friends?
"Aubrey ... Major William Aubrey? Oh, yes, of course I remember him. Please accept my deepest condolences for the loss of your excellent brother, Miss Aubrey. He was a fine officer."
Isabel frowned. Something was terribly amiss. Will had been his best friend for years and this was all he had to say? "Did you ... read my card, my lord?" she asked delicately. No one but Ashby would understand what she'd so boldly alluded to in the message on her card.
Her host, however, seemed utterly clueless. "Your card?" He blinked.
The truth hit her as a thunderbolt: This man is an imposter. Why else would he invent an injury which did not exist other than to justify his withdrawal from Society? It meant one thing: Ashby was dead, buried somewhere in a cold field in Belgium alongside her brother, while this villain assumed his identity and lived off his estate! She had to get out of there. Someone needed to be informed of this. "Thank you for seeing me, my lord. Alas, I've just remembered I had a previous engagement. It's been a pleasure." She hurried to the door.
The double-doors opened to reveal the butler. He read her expression and instantly stepped in, shutting the doors behind him. "Miss Aubrey, we are his lordship's servants," he said quietly.
"Oh, Phipps, you bloody idiot," the imposter ranted at the butler. "We may hang for this, you know. You and your asinine ideas."
"It would've been a brilliant idea, if you hadn't been an abject imbecile," Phipps retorted, frothing with exasperation. "All you had to do was discover what she wanted."
"How was I supposed to find that out? What am I-a bloody Bow Street Runner?"
Isabel's sharp gaze shifted between the pudgy butler and his lanky accomplice, her mind spinning on course again. A runner-that's whom she should speak to!
The imposter dabbed a handkerchief at his damp brow. "All she mentioned was her card."
Phipps plucked her card out of his vest pocket and read the short message. "What does it mean?" he asked her, looking vastly intrigued.
"Why don't you ask his lordship?" she replied tartly. Glancing at the doors, she called out, "Lucy! Run to Stilgoe! Tell him to return with a Bow Street Runner! This man is an imposter!"
"Yes, Miss Isabel!" Lucy's muffled reply came from the foyer.
"Do not let her get away!" Phipps ordered his accomplice and ran outside. Detained by the imposter, now manning the doorway, Isabel heard the front door open and close with a bang.
"He's blockading the front door, Miss Isabel!" Lucy cried. "What should I do now?"
"Quick, Lucy!" Isabel exclaimed. "Thrust the tip of my parasol between his ribs!"
"Ouch!" the butler yelped in the foyer. "You nasty little thing!"
"It didn't work!" Lucy announced. "What should I try next?"
Isabel glared at the imposter. He shrugged apologetically. Wishing the pox on his head, she peered beyond his shoulder. "Lucy, I see a flower vase in the corner. Smash it across his skull!"
"Dudley, shut her up, will you?" Phipps begged out loud. "I am being murdered out here!"
As Dudley glanced outside, Isabel flung her reticule, bashing his head. "Hateful villains!" she cried, dashing past him. "You'll rot in Newgate for this!" She saw Phipps cowering at the front door as Lucy took aim with the flower vase. She heard Dudley stumbling behind her. She was almost there when a terrible canine bark froze the lot of them. Lucy dropped the flower vase.
"Down, Hector," a deep, masculine voice commanded from the gallery. Isabel looked up, her breath coming in short gasps. The chandelier blocked her view, but through the sculpted bars of the banister she saw a black-coated retriever sitting vigilantly next to a pair of polished black Hessians. "Dudley, is that my coat you're wearing?" Ashby's voice resonated above them.
Dudley cringed. "Yes, my lord, but I can explain-"
"I should hope so. Phipps, stand aside. Let the women go."
Phipps hung desolate eyes on the daunting form towering over the foyer. "My lord, I-"
"Now, Phipps!" Leather creaked as Ashby turned on his heel.
Isabel shook herself. This was her chance. "Lord Ashby, may I see you privately for a moment? Merely to ascertain that no trickery is played and that you are indeed-"
He halted. Distant eyes perused her through the dappled shimmer of the chandelier. "Wait in the sitting room," he said after a long pause. "I'll be with you shortly." His boot heels pounded the hardwood as he left the gallery, receding deeper inside the house.
Phipps approached her with a contrite expression. "Miss Aubrey, I beg you, forgive me."
"Me, too." Dudley nodded briskly, the overlarge coat hanging neatly on his forearm.
"We had no intention of frightening you-" Phipps continued.
"Or your maid," Dudley inserted. "He wouldn't have seen you unless we did something ..."
"Drastic. We sincerely apologize." They stared at her pleadingly, Dudley rubbing the bump on his head, Phipps hugging his tender ribs.
Isabel eyed the two misfits. "I expect you to apologize to Lucy as well," she bit out crossly.
"We shall do so at once," they promised in unison, bowing humbly.
Isabel returned to the front sitting room. She paced about, anticipation wreaking havoc on her nerves. Confident strides approached the doorway. She held her breath, waiting to see if ...
He walked onto the threshold, and her heart slammed hard against her rib cage. "Ashby."
Wearing a black satin mask, the earl leaned against the doorframe, his arms folded across his broad chest. "What a relief. For a moment I feared I might end up in Newgate." Thick, glossy dark hair tumbled in uneven lengths to his powerful shoulders. A white lawn shirt revealed the pulse beating at the base of his throat and the well-formed muscles shaping his chest. Snug black breeches molded his lean thighs, accenting supple sinew developed through years in a saddle. Tall, strapping, and utterly ferocious, he exuded damn-your-eyes virility.
She curtsyed, her sky blue eyes wide with awe. Years ago they said women swooned when he walked into a ballroom, and that he was the only gentleman ever in need of a dance card. She hadn't quite understood it as a girl; she did now. Even masked, his dark allure had the effect of a magnet. This was a man who could have anything-and anyone-he wanted.
Watching her through a pair of eye-slits, his gaze traveled the length of her, from the pretty yellow bonnet framing her sun-golden curls to her matching yellow morning dress. When he met her gaze, she realized her memory had deceived her in one respect: His eyes were not blue-that must have been a trick of his blue uniform-they were, in fact, an unusual shade of light marine green. Abruptly he disengaged from the doorframe. "State your business and be off."
Isabel merely gaped at him.
"I see." His sensuous lips curved cynically beneath the mask. "Well, now that you have ascertained whatever it was you needed to and satisfied your curiosity at the same time, I bid you farewell." He crossed the room in five long strides, his black dog loping after him. With a snap of his wrist, he drew the heavy curtain over the street-facing window, throwing the room into semi-darkness. She dreaded to imagine what he faced each day in the mirror. It had to be terrible indeed, for Ashby to shut himself away from the world.
Isabel pulled herself together. "Lord Ashby, I represent the Widows, Mothers & Sisters of War Society. We are a charity organization, working in aid of destitute women who've lost their male providers in the war. Shopkeepers, blacksmiths, farmers, they've left dependent relatives, women and children, behind. Today these poor souls have no one. Our goal is to help them-"
"I don't give a damn about your goals, madam. Good day." He headed for the door.
As he sauntered past her, she gripped his arm. Steely muscles bunched beneath her fingers. "You ought to, my lord," she asserted. "They concern the families of the men you commanded, your brave soldiers who died on the battlefield."
His gaze slid along his arm and returned to her eyes. "And your point is?"
She released him. "You were responsible for these women's deceased loved ones. Don't you think your men might expect you to do something-anything-to help their kin?"
Moving closer, he pinned her in his glinting gaze. "My duty was to destroy. I'm done."
She caught a whiff of his shaving soap; the cool scent made her think of forests and glades. Refusing to back down, she sustained his glare. "Perhaps if you knew my brother's name-"
"I know who you are, Isabel."
Her heart lurched. "You do?" she asked, suddenly unable to breathe. She hoped he found her ... somewhat attractive, if only for the sake of her female pride. She was half-mad for him as a girl, while he was known to be very wicked at the time. A notorious rake, gambler, and pursuer of women, the wags tagged him, but Will claimed that most of the heavy attention his friend attracted was due to his coming into his title so early in life. It was Isabel's personal opinion, though, that it was Ashby's unique character which set him apart from the ton's pack of rakish young bloods.
"You grew up," he murmured. "The last time I saw you, you wore short blue skirts and had bouncing curls."
A hot flush crept up her cheeks. "That was seven years ago." The last time she'd seen him, he sported his regimentals: white breeches, a blue dolman jacket with silver bars stretching over his chest, a similar fur-lined pelisse dangling from one shoulder. He was magnificent. She made a complete fool of herself over him then. She was fifteen years old. "You kept Hector," she said.
"I promised you I would." The black satin mask concealed most of his face, but it revealed his hard jaw, chin, and mouth-which she happened to know felt as soft as it looked.
Tearing her gaze away, she sank to the carpet and gave a soft, melodious whistle. The large dog sat up, his ears twitching. Deciding to investigate up close, he came over to sniff her hand.
"Hello, Hector. Do you remember me?" She buried her fingers in his shiny coat, rubbing and stroking. "We were excellent friends once, when you were a tiny pup." He barked, wagging his tail happily. She laughed. "My, you've grown. You're so beautiful and big and strong." She lifted her eyes, seeking Ashby's inscrutable gaze. "I see you've been well taken care of."
"I have," Ashby replied, though they both knew she had spoken to the dog. "Hector saved my life twice. We're practically brothers." He offered her his hand.
Excerpted from ONCE A RAKE by Rona Sharon Copyright © 2007 by Rona Sharon. Excerpted by permission.
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