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Too Hot For a Rake
By Pearl Wolf
ZEBRA BOOKSCopyright © 2010 Pearl Wolf
All right reserved.
Chapter OneWednesday, April Fools' Day, 1818 London
Lady Helena Fairchild shivered in anticipation as she stole across the lawn. The night was misted in fog. Only the dim glow of the street lamps pierced the gloom. She paused in the shadows of the familiar oak tree and stopped to listen. When she heard no sounds from within or without the town house, she gathered her silk gown, tucked it into her pantalets, turned and climbed the tree.
With customary ease, she slithered along a sturdy branch that led to the balcony. Her hands and feet found purchase on the ornate grillwork and she let go of the tree limb. It snapped back with such a loud crack, she froze, waited a heart-stopping moment, and then eased herself over the balustrade. The door was ajar. She stepped into Darlington's chamber and waited for her eyes to adjust to the dark.
She followed the sound of gentle snores coming from the bed a few steps away. The drapes were not drawn, for the night was warm, one of those rare April nights that made the air feel as if it were already the middle of May. Her fingers trembled as she loosened the ribbons of her bodice. She pushed both sleeves off her shoulders and shifted her gown to undo the back buttons. It slipped from her hips and fell to the floor. She removed herchemise and her pantalets. A shock of cold air bruised her nude body. An irregular mountain of discarded clothing rested on the Aubusson rug.
There was no turning back now. She lifted the quilt and climbed into his bed. A small smile curved her lips when she noted that he favored the right side of the bed when he slept. That was a good sign, for she favored the left.
Though the erratic pounding of her heart seemed too loud to her ears, Chris didn't stir. She touched him. His arm was strong and warm and firm. How muscular he had become since she had seen him last. Was it only a year? His brawny body filled her with wonder. He turned, pulling the quilt with him. It slid to the floor on his side of the bed. Her eyes widened in astonishment, for he wore nothing. Where is his nightshirt?
She hesitated, trapped between panic and curiosity. Curiosity won. She dared to stroke his back with a feathery touch. Her hand trailed down to his buttocks and came to rest on one dimpled cheek. He sighed. She pulled her hand away, caught between fear of waking him and hope. She waited a few seconds and touched again, astonished at her own boldness.
She hadn't expected the spark of electricity that tore through her. When a beam of moonlight ran across his body, she raised herself on one elbow and rested her chin on her hand. She studied his body, unable to believe her good fortune. Once scrawny, the boy she fell in love with when she was still in the schoolroom had grown into a powerfully built man.
Darlington turned and flung an arm across her chest, sending her flat on her back. His hand came to rest on one breast, causing her nipples to pucker. When the rhythm of his breathing gentled and her heart ceased its knocking, she lifted his wrist and placed his arm by his side. The moon skittered behind a cloud, plunging the room into darkness.
Helena dared to spread her fingers through the curled hairs on his chest, her fingers trailing down to his navel. She steeled her resolve and explored further. Her hand wandered down to the mound of hair below his waist. She stopped when he threw one leg over her thighs and pinned her to the bed with one arm. His head settled on one breast as if he'd found his pillow. After allowing herself a moment of bliss, she moved his head away and resumed her exploration of his body.
She touched something soft and allowed herself a tiny smile. When his manhood began to engorge, she started to jerk her hand away, but his shot out and kept hers where it was. If he woke now, surely he would willingly seduce ...
The door to the hallway flew open and a blinding light transformed the chamber into bright daylight. They had been discovered! Chris would be forced to marry her now. She had but a moment's regret. They hadn't had time to complete their lovemaking.
"Have I woken you? What's wrong, Waverley? I heard a noise."
Chris? But who's this in his bed? Helena hid her head under the pillow. A voice fogged in sleep said, "That you, Darlington?"
Darlington banged the door shut behind him and set the candelabra down. "Have you lost your senses, my lord? How dare you seduce one of my maids. I never expected a guest in my home to behave in such a fashion."
Desmond sat up and rubbed the sleep from his eyes. "Maid? What maid?"
"Get out of bed, lass, and return to your room at once."
She whimpered at the anger in his voice.
"Oh, for heaven's sake, don't cry. Do as I say. I promise not to sack you."
Christopher Darlington wore his dressing gown, having had no time for proper attire in the middle of the night. His blond hair was uncombed and lay limp, a few strands pasted to his forehead. Myopic gray eyes squinted at the bed's inhabitants.
Helena drew in her breath, lifted one corner of the pillow, and said meekly, "I'm not a maid, Chris. It's me."
Thundering silence met her words. Darlington's gray eyes squinted at her, for he was nearsighted and far too vain to use his spectacles except when absolutely necessary.
His hand shook as he fumbled in his pocket for his spectacles. When he jammed them on his nose, he found his voice and said, "Helena? What are you doing here? Cover yourself, for heaven's sake!"
The marquis felt as if he were a spectator at a melodrama. The leading lady enchanted him, for she had the body and the face of an angel. Her skin was bronze, her eyes shone like two obsidians, and her hair bounced in a crown of dark, burnished curls.
"Um. I can explain." Her head swiveled in her search for the quilt, but it was out of sight.
Waverley reached for the fallen cover and threw it over them both. His eyes met hers with a questioning intensity that made her turn red. "I await your explanation with interest, ma'am."
Helena sat up and clutched the quilt to her bosom. Distracted by the sight of his dark, sun-streaked hair and startling blue eyes, she managed to glare at him. "I thought that he was you, Chris. What's this . . . rake doing in your bed?"
The marquis managed to mask his laugh with a cough.
Chris ignored her question. "Collect your clothing and get dressed at once, Helena."
She swung her legs off the bed and attempted to yank the cover with her, but Waverley held his end in a firm grip. "Oh no you don't. Not before my host hands me my dressing gown."
Darlington glanced around him, found Waverley's robe on the back of a chair, and launched it toward the bed as if it were the main sail of a ship.
The marquis let go of his end of the quilt when he rose, and Helena fell off the bed, quilt and all.
"Cur," she grumbled as she wrapped the quilt around her. She said, "Turn your heads!" She held the quilt with one hand, gathered her clothing with the other and sidled across the room toward the dressing screen.
When she emerged a few moments later, she turned her head from Chris to Waverley and back to Chris. She jutted her chin out. "How is it that this rake is occupying your bed chamber?"
"You chose the wrong chamber," growled Darlington. "This is the guest chamber. The Marquis of Waverley is my guest."
Oh dear! Was I in bed with a marquis? Her heart sank at the mortification.
"You owe me an apology, Darlington," Waverley drawled, examining his fingernails. "The young lady is most certainly not one of your maids. Indeed, she woke me from a deep sleep." He turned to Helena and added, "You needn't blush, ma'am. I merely supposed I was in the midst of a delightful dream." He stretched, yawned and ran his fingers through his hair.
"A nightmare, more like!" she said bitterly.
His eyes danced with amusement. "Allow me to assure you, ma'am, that nothing drastic occurred. You were not violated, ma'am. Not by me, in any event."
Nothing drastic occurred? What of your engorgement? What of the heat that seared my loins? You call that nothing, you cad? "Why is the marquis here, Chris?"
Waverley took a step toward her, picked up her hand and kissed it. "Darlington was kind enough to offer me his hospitality, ma'am."
"Don't touch me." She drew her hand away.
Darlington stepped between them. "How did you get in here, Helena?"
She glanced at the open door to the balcony.
"You climbed the oak tree? You're not a child anymore. You might have fallen and broken your neck."
"Would you care to make an introduction, Darlington?"
"Sorry, my lord. This is Lady Helena Fairchild, my betro ... my next door neighbor."
"Pleasure, Lady Helena Fairchild." Waverley made an exaggerated leg.
Helena cast her eyes down. "How do you do, Lord Waverley," she murmured, appalled at what she'd done to this man, at the embarrassing places her hands had been, at how readily he had responded. At how much pleasure she'd felt.
"It isn't polite to stare," said the marquis, his eyes filled with amusement.
"My apologies, sir. For ... for calling you a rake."
Chris interrupted. "I'm waiting for you to give me your explanation, Helena."
"Nothing happened, Darlington," repeated the marquis. "He's right, Chris. I haven't been compromised."
"I beg to differ! The mere act of being in bed with a naked man is enough to be deemed a compromise."
"Is it indeed?" she challenged hotly. "The fault is yours, then, for having driven me to this desperate act." Her breath exploded in anguished bursts. "We need to talk, Chris. In private."
"Lord Waverley will excuse us, I'm sure."
Waverley held the door open for them. "Pleasure to meet you, ma'am."
Before Helena could make some biting retort, Darlington grabbed her by the elbow and attempted to push her toward the door, but she refused to budge.
"No, Chris. The servants ..."
"They've all gone to bed. We'll finish this in the library."
Her heartbeat seemed to her loud enough for him to hear. Finish this? What can he mean? Finish what? Her insides turned cold. They spoke not a word as he led her downstairs, but once inside the library, she broke the uneasy silence.
"Tonight was nothing more than a horrible mistake. I wanted to welcome you on the night of your return home, Chris. Besides, what difference can it make? Are we not to be married?"
Chris paced back and forth, hands clasped behind him. His eyes narrowed as he answered. "You don't know what you've done, do you? You don't even know who the marquis is, do you?"
"If he's a peer, he's a gentleman. He won't breathe a word of this."
"Oh, won't he? Waverley's bounced around Europe for years, ever since he left India. That's why it took me all year to find him. Do you know what they call him there? No. How could you?"
Helena recoiled at his fury. "You needn't shout at me. Well? What do they call him?"
"I found him at Madame Z's bordello, 12 rue Chabanais. A bordello! He chose to live there as a matter of convenience. When I asked for him, she laughed and said, 'Ah, oui. Le roué Anglais.' I found him in bed with three young er ... ladies. You can imagine my shock."
"Why had you sought him out?"
"I was sent to bring him home to England by order of the Regent."
"I see. And the marquis is known as the English rake in Europe? I've never heard of him. Perhaps his reputation isn't known here."
"If it isn't, it will be. Rumors travel like the waves across the English Channel. When it becomes known that you have been in bed with him, your reputation is ruined."
"Then we must marry at once. Make it right. You know I love you, Chris."
"Marry you? Ha! You've rendered that impossible! We're finished."
She turned ashen. "Finished? Am I to understand that you no longer wish to marry me?"
Chris forced a laugh. "How can I marry a woman who disgusts me? You destroyed all hope for our happiness when I saw you naked in bed with Waverley, like a common light skirt."
Helena searched his face. Was this the man she had loved since she was a child? Disillusionment assailed her. She said evenly, "Have you lost your desire to marry me? I cannot believe my ears."
"Believe that I'm done, Helena. You destroyed all hope for my marital happiness when you bedded the marquis. You know my ambition. I mean to become an ambassador for England one day. Your brash conduct has shown me that you can never be a proper wife for a man with a diplomatic career."
Had he battered her with a cudgel, he could not have wounded her more. Determined not to weep, she bit back her tears and said, "What a pretty speech, My Lord Ambassador. How noble of you to think of England before the woman who has loved you all these years."
He ignored her angry words and said, "In spite of what you may think at this moment, I'm a man of honor. I'll call on your father in the morning to inform him it is your decision to cry off. I don't intend to tell him why. Perhaps that will salvage your reputation. The duke is free to announce that it was you who broke it off. That way, you may still marry."
"No, Chris. I shan't ever marry. I won't put myself through the pain of loving and losing again, I promise you that." She whirled around and fled the library.
What a fool she'd made of herself. The man she loved no longer loved her. Her passion disgusted him, he'd said. What was wrong with wanting him that way? Wrong? Nothing, except she'd made love to the wrong man. Why couldn't I make Chris understand that it wasn't lust? I did it for love. How ironic. What made me think I could be so bold? Livy's the adventurous sister. I'm not at all like her. All my hopes and dreams are gone. What is there left for me to live for?
Helena hugged her arms as she flew across the lawn that separated their homes. The cold night air was chilly and damp. It cooled her flaming cheeks, yet nothing could ease the mortification of being discovered naked in bed with the wrong man. Tears formed in her eyes. Her soft-soled shoes skidded on the dew-covered grass and her arms flailed wildly before she regained her balance.
I wish I were dead! Tragically, she envisioned her funeral at the family crypt. The duke held her grieving mother close, his tears mingling with hers. Her brother Edward, grim faced, clasped his hands behind his back. Olivia leaned on her husband, Sebastian. Georgiana, Mary and Jane huddled together, sobbing for their sister's short life and her untimely death. Chris would receive the news and it would tear him apart. Hiccups of helpless rage welled up within her. Serves him right! She tried to think of something else, to rid herself of gloom.
The thought of Lord Waverley's warm body caused her to shiver, but the image faded only to be replaced by a disapproving Darlington, his eyes narrowed. He looked like the very devil.
Helena unlatched the gate and stepped onto her lawn. A single candle in her chamber held vigil in an upstairs window. A Great Dane loped out of the shadows, his tongue drooling as he panted. She bent and stuck out her hand to the pup. In it she held a bit of bacon she'd taken from her pocket. "Good boy. Come here, Prince."
The dog sniffed and snatched the bribe. She tiptoed across the lawn and stepped onto the terrace, her destination the French doors leading into the library. The pup swallowed his treat and sped after her.
"Go away," she pleaded. Prince wagged his tail and waited for her to open the door. "I don't have any more treats, you traitor," she hissed. If she allowed him to enter the library, he would bound inside, bark in triumph, and rouse the whole household.
She made as if to throw a second treat in the opposite direction. "Go get it, Prince." The pup raced after it and the diversion gave her enough time to slip into the library. His ears perked up when he realized he'd been duped and he raced back toward her, but she managed to shut the door just before he could reach it. She tiptoed across the plush carpet and listened at the door, but all was quiet in the hallway.
When she reached her chamber, a lone candle on the mantel guttered. She drew in her breath at the sight of a familiar figure seated next to the fireplace, his forbidding eyes never wavering.
Helena's heart sank. "Father? What are you doing here?"
"It's past two in the morning, Helena. Where have you been?"
Chapter TwoThursday, the Second of April, 1818
The Duke of Heatham intimidated lesser men, if not by his sheer size, then certainly by the power he inherited when his father died. At fifty-one years of age, the head of the House of Fairchild was often described as aristocratic. His grace had broad shoulders and slim hips. An athletic man, he stood six feet tall in stocking feet. His shock of black hair was beginning to gray at the temples and his penetrating brown eyes darkened when he was angry.
Excerpted from Too Hot For a Rake by Pearl Wolf Copyright © 2010 by Pearl Wolf. Excerpted by permission.
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