Amy Hardwick has one last Season to shake off her wallflower image and make a love match. If she can't, she'll set aside her dreams of romance and return home to a suitor who can provide security-if little else. What she doesn't count on is the inappropriate-and irresistible-attention lavished on her in a darkened library by rake extraordinaire Will "The Devil" Darcett . . .
When Will is caught in a tryst with the ton's shyest miss, he knows he must offer for her hand. Yet Amy is not the shrinking violet she seems to be. Passion lies beneath her prim exterior and Will is eager to release it. But winning Amy isn't simply a matter of seduction; first, Will must convince her that he's mended his wicked ways . . .
About the Author
When she's not writing, Vicky enjoys reading, films, concerts, and, most of all, long lunches with friends. A native Texan, she holds degrees in English literature and marketing.
You can learn more at: VickyDreiling.com Twitter: @vickydreiling Facebook.com/vickydreilinghistoricalauthor
Read an Excerpt
How to Ravish a Rake
By Dreiling, Vicky
ForeverCopyright © 2012 Dreiling, Vicky
All right reserved.
This season would likely be her last.
The orchestra played a lively tune as Amy Hardwick followed her friend Georgette through the Beresfords’ packed ballroom. The lively tempo pulsed through her veins, and she walked along to the energetic beat of the music. The heat in the crowded room accentuated the fruity aroma of numerous potted orange trees. Garlands of ivy adorned two cream-colored Ionic pillars and the gilded ormolu marble mantel as well. Everywhere Amy looked ladies in filmy white gowns flitted about the room like butterflies.
To her, the spring season represented a beginning and a last chance to blossom—to thrive—to be merry and carefree. A chance to break free of her doubts and feelings of inferiority. A chance to dance, flirt, and laugh without reservation. A chance to be the woman she’d always dreamed of being.
She dodged a footman in a powdered wig carrying a tray of bottles and hurried to catch up to her friend. “Lady Beresford must be thrilled. Her ball is a veritable squeeze,” Amy said, raising her voice.
Georgette drew closer and pitched her voice a bit louder. “We’re too close to the orchestra to talk. Let us find our friends.”
As they wended their way past numerous groups of people, Amy recalled the first time she’d entered this ballroom when she was seventeen. On that evening, she’d spun girlish dreams of being the belle of the ball, but she’d been intimidated because she knew no one there. In comparison to all the ladies dressed in sophisticated gowns, she’d felt like a country mouse. Her simple white gown had hung sacklike on her spare frame, because she’d been too nervous to eat properly for a fortnight prior to her debut. She’d sat on the wallflower row, watching all the gaiety and keeping hope alive, but not a single gentleman had requested her hand for a country dance.
Only once in the intervening years had anyone asked.
Five unsuccessful seasons later, she’d set her expectations much lower. Plain, shy ladies like her didn’t attract the notice of gentlemen. But this year, she meant to shed her wallflower reputation.
Amy lifted her chin and straightened her posture, even though she imagined doing so made her look like a giraffe. She glanced down at Georgette, wishing she could be as petite and dainty.
“Oh, look, there is Sally with some of the other ladies,” Georgette said. “They are coming this way.”
Amy recognized them. Sally, Catherine, Charlotte, and Priscilla all wore excited expressions. No doubt they intended to impart gossip. Catherine and Charlotte were particularly fond of tittle-tattle.
Sally reached them first. Her expression looked awed as her gaze swept over Amy’s white gown. “You look like a goddess.”
Warmth suffused Amy’s face at Sally’s absurd exaggeration. Amy expected the topic to turn away from her, but Charlotte fingered the white fabric of Amy’s skirt. “It is crepe,” she said with a touch of admiration in her voice. “The emerald ribbons flowing over your shoulders are so striking.”
“Turn round,” Catherine said. “Slowly, if you please.”
Georgette grinned and twirled her finger, indicating Amy should comply. With a deep breath, Amy slowly turned—to the accompaniment of gasps.
“It is beyond beautiful,” Charlotte said in a breathless voice.
“The red silk roses are impressive,” Catherine said. “How very clever to feature them on the back of the gown. Everywhere you walk, others will be compelled to follow you with their eyes.”
Amy lowered her lashes and murmured her thanks. While she was a bit abashed, she was also secretly pleased by their praise.
“You must tell us who your modiste is,” Priscilla said. “I simply must have something equally lovely.”
“I agree,” Catherine said. “Your gown is bound to be all the rage.”
Georgette gave Amy a speaking look. “Will you tell or shall I?”
Once again, Amy blushed. “I confess I drew the design for a local modiste back home.” On a whim, she had bought fabric and trims in London at the end of last spring, because she couldn’t resist them.
The other ladies, with the exception of Georgette, stared at her. Was it because she’d revealed her dress was not made by one of the foremost dressmakers in London?
“You drew the design?” Charlotte said in a shocked voice.
Amy nodded. “I’ve always enjoyed drawing. It is a pleasurable way to pass the time.”
Catherine’s jaw dropped. “Georgette, does Amy have any idea how talented she is?”
“No, she is too modest about her accomplishments,” Georgette said. “Her talents go beyond mere drawing. Amy has an eye for fabrics and trims, too. I would never have thought to put the trim on the back of my gown.”
At one time, Amy had possessed little knowledge of fashion, but two years ago, she’d befriended Georgette and Julianne and had asked them for advice. While shopping with them last spring, she had taken suggestions from a premiere modiste in London. She’d asked Madame DuPont questions about the fabrics and trims. The modiste had taken Amy under her wing and showed her which colors enhanced her appearance. She’d also demonstrated with pins how the perfect fit in both the gown and stays made a critical difference in how the gown draped her figure. When Amy had viewed herself in the long mirror, she’d gasped at her reflection. The beautiful gown had transformed her from a badly dressed wallflower to an elegantly dressed lady. In that moment, she’d seen the potential to change the way she viewed herself and the way others perceived her. While she’d always believed that inner beauty trumped everything, she’d learned firsthand that everyone, particularly women, were judged by their appearances.
“But where did this talent come from?” Sally asked.
“I studied the latest styles in La Belle Assemblée, and then I started to envision walking gowns and ball gowns as well. One day last summer, I drew what popped into my head for amusement.”
“Oh, my, that is truly amazing,” Charlotte said. “Did you have a drawing instructor when you were younger?”
She nodded. “My governess encouraged me.” After seeing Amy’s drawings and watercolors, her parents had praised her accomplishments. While Amy enjoyed their compliments, she’d taken them in stride since they could hardly be objective.
While perusing fashion plates, she’d realized her designs were unique. A few weeks prior to leaving for London with Georgette, she’d commissioned a local dressmaker to make up a few of her designs, according to her specifications. The dressmaker had been impressed and had told Amy she had a singular talent.
Of course, her mother had expressed delight, but when Amy had shown her designs to Georgette earlier today, her friend had literally gasped. Amy would never forget Georgette’s words. Your designs put every fashion plate I’ve ever viewed to shame. Then her friend had begged her to design a special ball gown for her.
“Amy, I would love to see your sketches one day, if you are willing to share them,” Sally said.
“Of course,” she said. “I value your opinion.”
Georgette’s cheeks dimpled as she whispered to Amy. “I knew you would be popular this year.”
Amy thought her friend’s words rather overblown, but she was pleased that others had admired her gown. She would never be beautiful, but she could dress elegantly.
Catherine looked out at the crowd and gasped. “The devil is here.”
Amy exchanged a knowing look with Georgette. The scandal sheets had saddled Mr. William Darcett with that moniker. By all accounts, he had earned his notorious reputation. Amy did her best to maintain a serene expression, but she did not welcome the news that Devil Darcett was present. She’d met him at her friend Julianne’s wedding last summer and preferred to forget that mortifying encounter.
Charlotte clasped her hands to her heart and sighed. “He is so beautiful I think I shall swoon.”
Amy rolled her eyes. Why did women make cakes of themselves over rakes?
“I am determined to flirt with him,” Catherine said.
Priscilla smiled slyly. “Not if I get there first.” She lifted her skirts and walked away. The other ladies laughed and followed in her wake.
When Sally hesitated, Amy made an exasperated sound. “Sally, do not be one of the herd. Charlotte and the others will make fools of themselves ogling him, but you have better sense.”
Sally pouted and then laughed. “You must admit he is gorgeous.”
“He is well known for his high-stakes gambling and wild parties,” Georgette said. “But Amy, you cannot disagree that he is uncommonly handsome.”
“His looks are unimportant,” Amy said. “He is an indolent rogue who spends all of his time engaged in vice and depravity.”
Sally beckoned them closer. “I heard he can charm a lady out of her petticoats in five minutes flat,” she said under her breath.
“Ladies of questionable virtue, you mean,” Amy said.
Sally lifted on her toes and surveyed the room. “Julianne is coming this way.”
Julianne looked as slender as always, though she had given birth to her first child only two months ago. When she arrived, Amy kissed the air by her cheeks. “You look radiant.”
“Thank you, but look at you, Amy. Everyone is talking about your elegant gown,” Julianne said. “I love it.” She leaned closer and whispered. “This will be your year.”
Amy met her gaze and dared to hope her friend’s words would come true. “I’ve missed you.”
Julianne smiled. “I’ve missed all of you as well. We had such fun last season. My husband has never let me forget all of the trouble I caused. He is still suspicious of all of you and believes you influenced me—especially you, Amy.”
“Me?” She laughed. “I always tried to caution all of you.”
Julianne grinned. “He is convinced that you instigated the worst schemes. He believes you hid it all behind your quiet façade.”
Georgette grinned. “Amy, you often have this look in your eyes, as if the cogs and wheels are spinning like a roulette wheel.”
“I do not,” she said.
Sally shook her head. “It’s true, Amy. While everyone else is chattering like monkeys, you look as if you’re plotting something.”
“I’m not plotting; I’m thinking.”
“Now there is a euphemism if I ever heard one,” Georgette said.
Julianne and Sally burst out laughing.
“Amy, you had better prepare yourself, because everyone wants the name of your modiste,” Julianne said. “Charlotte told me you had a local seamstress make up your dress from a drawing you made.”
“It’s true,” Amy said.
Julianne smiled. “I think you should show your sketches to Madame DuPont. She would be very impressed. Perhaps she would even make up one or two. We could hold a little gathering of ladies at Ashdown House and display your sketches.”
“That is a wonderful idea,” Georgette said. “Would you considerate it, Amy?”
Excitement raced through Amy. She was proud of her designs, and tonight she’d received confirmation of her talent. The idea of other ladies admiring and perhaps even wearing her creations made her pulse quicken. All the years she’d spent sitting on the wallflower row, she’d felt inferior to the prettier belles. She’d felt she could never measure up to them, but she was confident of her gown designs and wanted to share them with others. “Yes,” she said a little breathlessly. “I would love it above anything if Madame DuPont is amenable.”
“If the rest of your sketches are as unique as the gown you’re wearing, I know she will be interested,” Julianne said. “In one night, you have become the fashion darling of society.”
“Her designs are truly exceptional,” Georgette said.
“Then it is settled. Let us call at Madame DuPont’s shop on Thursday,” Julianne said. “Amy, be sure to bring your sketches. Now I must return to my husband. We cannot stay long, because I must return home to nurse Emma.”
“I cannot wait to see your daughter,” Amy said. “I’m sure she’s beautiful.”
Julianne laughed. “According to my husband, she’s the most beautiful bald-headed lady in London.”
After Julianne left, Amy meant to suggest they take a turn about the ballroom, but Lord Beaufort and Mr. Portfrey approached. Instinctively, Amy lowered her lashes. Her heart beat a little faster as she desperately tried to think of something interesting to say, but her brain froze as it always did when she felt pressed to respond.
“Miss Shepherd, if you are not presently engaged, would you honor me with the next dance?” Mr. Portfrey asked.
“Thank you, I will,” Sally said.
By now, Amy’s heart was pounding. She knew what was coming and tried to force herself to raise her eyes, but she couldn’t make herself do it. She feared her anxiety would show on her face.
“Lady Georgette,” Lord Beaufort said. “Will you consent to partner with me?”
Amy’s face burned. All of her hopes that this season would be different shattered like broken glass. She found herself wishing that she’d stayed home. Why had she thought anything would change?
“Oh, I thank you, Lord Beaufort, but perhaps we could talk instead.” Georgette sounded flustered.
Georgette meant well, but Lord Beaufort undoubtedly knew the reason for Georgette’s request, and that only made the humiliation worse. Amy couldn’t bear it. With every ounce of strength she possessed, she forced herself to lift her chin. She did her best to pretend nonchalance, but she could not control the blush that undoubtedly made her face blotchier. “Please go ahead. There is s-someone I wish to see,” she said.
Before Georgette could reply, Amy bobbed a quick curtsy and walked away. She applied her fan as she skirted the perimeter of the ballroom. All the while, she darted glances into the crowd, hoping to see someone she knew. At that moment, she felt as awkward as she had at seventeen.
She kept walking through the packed room. As she neared the chairs where the dowagers sat gossiping, Amy saw the familiar faces of her oldest friends. Eugenia, Bernice, and Cecile watched the dancers with undisguised yearning. Amy knew all too well how they felt.
She remembered how they had shared amusing observations of the ton. They had laughed and called themselves the invisible belles.
Temptation gripped her. She wanted to see her friends. She wanted to sit in a safe place where no one would slight her or pass her up for prettier girls. She wanted to sit in a place where she felt she belonged.
She took a step in that direction, and fear clawed at her lungs. If she ventured to the wallflower row, she knew she would never be brave enough to leave again.
With a deep breath, Amy turned and made herself stroll away. Regardless of how difficult it was for her, she was determined to overcome the curse of being shy. Yet, as she surveyed the crowd, the idea of approaching a group intimidated her. She’d always found it difficult to converse in large groups, but when she grew anxious, she found it almost impossible to think, let alone converse.
All she needed was a few quiet moments to regain her composure. She thought of going to the ladies’ retiring room, but she didn’t want to face a crowd of ladies there. Instead, she would find her way to the garden for a bit of air. The breeze would cool her heated face quickly.
After she left the ballroom, she walked through a crowd on the landing. As she approached the stairs, she noted a tall gentleman with black, tousled hair speaking to a “lady” with painted cheeks. Something about him seemed familiar. When the man leaned back against the stairwell rail, Amy winced. It was Devil Darcett.
He was the last man she wanted to encounter tonight.
She scurried down the stairs before he caught sight of her. Upon reaching the marble floor, she turned right and treaded along an unlit, deserted corridor, hoping to find her way out to the garden. She trailed her hand along the wall to feel her way in the darkness. Then she came upon a door that was slightly ajar. The dim room beckoned her. She looked left and right, but no one was about. Promising herself she would stay only a short while, she slipped inside, closed the door, and waited for her eyes to adjust. Although the objects in the shrouded room remained indistinct, she could make out tall shelves along one wall. Obviously, this was Lord Beresford’s library.
She padded across the plush carpet and collapsed on a sofa. Amy clasped her hand to her bosom as she waited for her heartbeat to slow. Thank goodness Devil Darcett had not seen her. She knew he would relentlessly tease her, the same way he’d done last year.
Amy blew out her breath, relieved to have escaped his notice. She wondered how long she should remain here before returning to the ballroom. Of course, she wouldn’t have to worry if she hadn’t left. She ought to have forced herself to stay, but she’d felt so uncomfortable. No matter how hard she tried, she could not be at ease with approaching a group and joining the conversation. She became tongue-tied when others spoke all at once. Often, she spent hours in her room, because she needed to be alone in order to think.
Now she had nothing else to do except twiddle her thumbs in a dark library. She sighed, wondering if she’d made a mistake by coming to London. Amy’s parents had offered to bring her. She knew they did not share her fondness for the city, but her father had insisted she deserved to have another season in London. Amy had thought of all the years she’d failed miserably. Her wonderful parents would do anything for her, but she couldn’t bear to disappoint them again. They would not view it that way at all, because they loved her, but she couldn’t stand to fail them.
She’d told them she had no wish to go and had informed her friends. Then one day, she’d received a letter from Georgette, begging her to spend the Season with her. Georgette had said she had looked forward to seeing her all winter and would be miserable without her. In truth, Amy had missed Georgette and Julianne very much. She had read their letters again and again, always recalling their adventures of the last two years. After a great deal of thought, Amy had decided to accept Georgette’s invitation, but a complication had arisen in the month prior to her journey to London, one that still unsettled Amy.
A light tap startled her out of her ruminations. When the door opened, she cringed. To her utter horror, a man walked inside and shut the door. In the darkness, she couldn’t see his features.
“Alicia? I thought you were going to the retiring room first,” he said as he shut the door.
Oh, dear God. She knew that voice. It was the devil himself. He’d come here for an assignation. “Wrong woman,” she said.
His low chuckle irritated her.
He strode across the carpet, sat beside her, and stretched out his long legs. “Red? This is an unexpected pleasure.”
Drat it all. He’d recognized her voice. “My name is Miss Hardwick, and the pleasure is all yours, I assure you. Now if you will excuse me, I must leave.”
“Not so fast. Why are you hiding in here?”
He’d caught her off guard. “I’m not hiding.”
He leaned closer to her, threatening her peace of mind. The scent of him, something she could not identify, curled inside her like a dangerous elixir. He was close enough that she could hear the sound of his breathing. His face was in shadows, but she sensed he was watching her as if he were the predator and she his prey.
“You’re either hiding or you’re waiting for someone. Which is it?” he asked.
She owed him no explanation. “My reason for coming here is none of your concern.”
“I promise not to reveal your secret,” he said, chuckling.
“You may go to the devil,” she said.
“You do have a temper, don’t you? I’m only teasing,” he said.
“I got my fill of your teasing at your brother’s wedding,” she muttered.
“Are you still miffed? It’s been nearly a year.”
Her mother had warned her about the consequences of having a long memory, but Amy was in no mood to forgive the rogue who had embarrassed her. “You spilled punch all over me.”
“Yes, I got you wet,” he said, chuckling in a wicked manner.
She would never forget how the cool punch had pooled inside her bodice. Everyone had stared. “If you were a gentleman, you would not mention that incident.”
“Ah, but I’m the devil, and as I recall, you bumped into me.” He paused and added, “I did try to apologize for the mishap.”
“You made a jest of it,” she said.
“I thought it would put you at ease if we both laughed about it,” he said.
At the time, she’d thought he meant to poke fun at her, but that did not matter. She could not stay alone in a dark room with a rake. “I would say it has been delightful, but I don’t like to lie. Now, you will excuse me,” she said.
When she rose, he stood as well. She was tall, but he was half a head taller, and for reasons that made no sense, that intimidated her.
She lifted her skirt and took a step back. He stepped forward.
She stepped sideways in an effort to evade him.
She couldn’t help laughing. “Stop that.”
His wicked chuckle reverberated all along her spine.
She’d thought herself impervious to rogues, but despite her poor opinion of him, he’d managed to make her laugh with his antics. “You are determined to bedevil me.”
“I think you like it,” he said, his voice a little husky.
A warning clanged in her head. He had no doubt learned his seduction techniques from Satan’s mistresses. “Mr. Darcett, I must leave now.”
“Yes, I can see that I’m too much temptation for you.”
“It was a jest, Miss Hardwick.”
She thought better of answering him, because it would only delay her escape. Amy turned, took one step, and halted at the sound of a rap on the door.
He grabbed her hand and pulled her behind the sofa. Then he crouched beside her. Amy’s legs trembled, but she mustn’t move or her rustling skirts would give away their hiding place.
A feminine voice called out, “Will?” After a moment of silence, she added, “Are you here?”
Amy’s heart beat madly. She squeezed her eyes shut and prayed for deliverance. If they were discovered alone in the dark, she would be ruined.
Footsteps padded across the carpet. “Will?”
The tick, tick, tick of the clock seemed to go on forever, though only a moment could have passed.
“That sorry rake,” the woman muttered.
Amy squelched the hysterical urge to laugh, even though there was nothing funny about her predicament. Oh, Lord, please let the woman leave.
The woman’s skirts swished as her footsteps retreated. Then mercifully the door slammed.
The devil rose and offered his hand. She took it gratefully, because her legs felt a bit wobbly.
“Well, that was a lark,” he drawled.
She stared at him. Though his expression was hidden in the dark, she heard amusement in his voice. “Do you realize what would have happened if we’d been caught?”
“I suspect Alicia would have grabbed the nearest makeshift weapon and thrown it at my head.”
How could he be so cavalier about a near disaster? “You do realize the servants would have come running to investigate the disturbance. You may think it funny, but, unlike you, I value my reputation.”
He chuckled. “Actually, I’m rather fond of mine.”
“Is everything a joke to you?” Why had she bothered to ask when she knew the answer?
“It was rather exciting there for a bit. But if we had been caught by the servants, I would have bribed them,” he said.
“The first time we met, I formed a low opinion of you. I regret to inform you that you have just sunk even further in my estimation.”
“I’m sorry to hear it, but I would have done whatever was necessary to get us out of hot suds. If it had come to that, I imagine you wouldn’t have been so quick to object.”
She refused to admit it. “Good-bye, Mr. Darcett.”
As she marched toward the door, he said, “You intrigue me, Red.”
She halted at the door and looked over her shoulder. “You delivered that line as badly as the worst actors at Drury Lane.” Then she opened the door and sashayed out of the library with a smug smile. Tonight, she’d taken him down a peg or two.
By Jove, she’d dealt him a verbal hit.
He closed the library door, because he didn’t want to risk following too closely behind her.
Curiosity had gotten the better of him. He still didn’t know for certain why she’d chosen to hide in the library, but it didn’t signify. She was a virtuous lady, and he ought to have escorted her to the door the moment he’d recognized her voice. He’d rather enjoyed sparring with her, but he’d detained her a bit too long. There would have been hell to pay if they’d been caught.
He knew the rules, and respected them out of self-preservation. Virtuous ladies were off-limits. He’d always kept his distance from marriage bait, though quite a few had taken to following him around. They were titillated by his reputation and the danger he represented.
He hadn’t lied when he’d told her she intrigued him. Earlier, he’d watched her enter the ballroom in that remarkable ball gown with the green ribbons. Ordinarily, he paid scant attention to women’s clothing, unless he was trying to strip it off. But she’d drawn everyone’s attention, including his.
When he’d first met her at his brother’s wedding, she’d walked past just as he was turning with that cup of punch. She had not accepted his apology and definitely had not appreciated his attempt to make light of the matter. Tonight, he’d thought to charm her and then attempt to apologize again, but she’d made her low opinion of him quite clear.
Ah, well, it didn’t signify. With a shrug, he took a step and noticed something on the carpet. He bent to retrieve it and strode through the corridor. When he reached the great hall, he saw it was a red silk rose. He pocketed the silk rose with the intention of returning it to her, but he glanced up at the crowd on the landing and spotted Alicia scowling at him. He decided to leave this tepid ball for a far more interesting entertainment. His friends had told him about a party given by the demimonde. He might as well live up to his devilish reputation.
Later that night
“Miss, one of the silk roses is missing from the gown,” Lizzy, the maid, said.
Amy’s night rail and robe swirled round her ankles as she walked over to examine the gown.
“I thought they were all secure,” Lizzy said in an anxious voice. “Perhaps you could find another to replace it.”
“It’s not your fault, Lizzy. I’ll probably have to replace all of the roses as I doubt I can find a perfect match.”
“Then you could wear it again,” Lizzy said. “It is such a beautiful gown.”
Amy doubted she would ever want to wear the gown again, because it would remind her of her failure tonight. “Will you braid my hair?”
“Yes, of course,” Lizzy said.
When Lizzy finished, Amy thanked her. Her hair had grown well past her shoulders in the last two years. She wondered if a shorter style would be more becoming. “I’m considering cutting my hair short.”
Lizzy shook her head. “I know it’s the fashion, but keep it long for your future husband. Gentlemen prefer it.”
Amy thought about Mr. Crawford, the vicar back home. He was the first man to express real interest in her, and that thought alone made her lungs feel constricted. She didn’t want to think about the end of the Season and the choice she would undoubtedly have to make. Her stomach clenched. She had so many doubts about him. How could she turn down the only proposal she was likely to ever get?
Her nerves rattled. She didn’t want to think about her last conversation with him or her parents’ unspoken hopes. They had made their approval clear. Her father had said Mr. Crawford was a good man who cared about his parishioners. Her mother had said a man of his stature would surely seek a wife soon. Amy had said nothing at all, because she hadn’t wanted to disappoint them.
“Is something wrong, Miss?” Lizzy asked.
“Oh, no. Thank you, Lizzy.” She appreciated Lizzy’s concern, but this was not a topic to discuss with anyone except her closest friend. Amy had a terrible dilemma. In her heart, she knew what was right, but she had to think of her parents, too.
After Lizzy departed, Amy sighed. Mr. Crawford had not wanted her to leave. She’d told him that she wanted this last chance to spend the Season with Georgette. He’d looked unhappy, and then he’d said he understood. At that moment, she’d wished that he would have made demands or questioned her feelings for him, so that she would feel justified in turning him down, if he proposed. But she knew he meant to do so when she returned.
God help her. She did not want to marry a man who said they were both practical people and well suited.
She knew her parents had expectations, and that kept her awake at night. After so many disappointing seasons, she felt guilty. Amy wanted to please them. She wanted to make them happy, but marrying to secure her future would make her unhappy. The worst part was that she’d not told her parents about her misgivings. She’d waited until the last minute to speak to Mr. Crawford. When her mother and father discovered the truth, they would worry.
They would be far more worried if they knew what had transpired tonight.
She’d vowed to change, but once again, she’d failed. She’d let her humiliation overcome her and had gone to hide in that library. Her momentary victory over that confident rake had dissipated the minute she’d returned to the ballroom. She’d been on her guard the whole time, certain he would beleaguer her. She’d not seen him again, but her anxiety had spoiled the rest of the ball for her. Once again, she wondered if she’d made a mistake in coming to London.
A soft knock at the door startled her. Georgette poked her head in the door. “I’m glad you’re awake.” Her nightgown billowed round her slim figure as she padded to the night table and set her candle on it. “Shall we sit on the bed?”
They sat cross-legged on the mattress. The sheets smelled sunshine fresh, so at odds with Amy’s gloomy mood.
“We did not have a chance to talk last night, because we arrived so late,” Georgette said. “And today, we were busy unpacking and getting ready for the ball. I had only a quick glimpse of your sketches, but I’ll view them tomorrow when the light is better.”
The candlelight cast shadows over Georgette’s face. “I wish you hadn’t left the ballroom.”
Amy didn’t want to talk about her reason for leaving, because it still stung. “Did you enjoy dancing with Beaufort?”
“Well enough. He’s witty and handsome.”
“What is wrong, Georgette?” Amy asked.
“He is so determined,” she said.
“What do you mean?”
“He persuaded me to take a drive in the park twice this week. Tonight, he wanted to know which entertainments I plan to attend this week.”
“It sounds as if he’s smitten,” Amy said. “Do you not return his feelings?”
“I like him, but he is so persistent. A gentleman should not rush a lady. Of course, Mama has taken notice and approves.” She scoffed. “Because he will inherit an earldom,” Georgette said, imitating her mother’s haughty voice.
Georgette’s mother was a forceful woman. Amy didn’t envy Georgette on that account. “Is your mama insisting you marry this year?”
“Yes, she believes it is past time I wed. She cannot bear that other belles have married when I have not. I thought she would relent when my brother married last fall, but she is even more determined. She is constantly comparing me to Suzanne.”
Lord Ramsey, Georgette’s eldest brother, had given up his rakehell ways upon falling headlong in love with Lady Suzanne, now Lady Ramsey.
“Thank goodness my papa stands up for me,” Georgette said. “I won’t marry until I cannot eat a bite and swoon at the mere thought of my beloved.”
Amy laughed. “Where did you get such silly notions of falling in love?”
Georgette grinned. “Well, that’s the way Suzanne described her feelings for my brother. But then, she’s a silly goose, and I am far too reasonable for such nonsense. I shall probably end up a spinster with a dozen cats.”
Amy suspected that Georgette wanted to cling to her girlhood as long as possible. “Georgette, I believe he has developed tender feelings for you. You have known him since last year.”
She hesitated. “We both know he first fell in love with Julianne.”
“People are often crossed in love. His past feelings do not signify. What matters is how he feels now and how you feel about him.”
“I like him very much, and sometimes I feel a rush of excitement when I’m with him. We had a lovely time at his parents’ house party last winter.”
“What is troubling you?”
“I only need more time to sort out my feelings.”
Amy wouldn’t press Georgette. She would work out her feelings in her own good time.
“Enough about me,” Georgette said. “I suspect you have something to tell me.”
“You know me well,” Amy said. “I have inadvertently encouraged a gentleman, and I’m so torn.”
“It is the vicar, Mr. Crawford,” Georgette said. “You mentioned him only in passing in your letters, so I did not think much about it. Then I saw him at your home. He looked unhappy, and I knew something had transpired.”
Amy sighed. “He didn’t want me to leave.”
“We have always entrusted our secrets to each other. Your silence on this subject worries me,” Georgette said.
“When I first wrote to you, I didn’t realize Mr. Crawford’s interest in me amounted to anything more than friendly regard.” He’d approved when he’d seen her taking food baskets to the sick and elderly in the neighborhood, and he’d called her thoughtful when he found her setting flowers on the graves at the churchyard.
“You did not tell me that he has been courting you.” Georgette sounded a bit offended.
“I wasn’t sure what to make of his attentions or I would have written to you about it. He started calling on my father regularly. Then one day he asked me to walk with him. It became a habit, and I didn’t comprehend the significance at first.”
“What are your feelings for him?” Georgette asked.
“Mr. Crawford is a good man. He has devoted himself to the church. Everyone in the neighborhood admires him.”
“I asked about your feelings,” Georgette said.
“I think he is a steady man with flaws like all of us.” He could provide her with a home, children, and security. But there were little things that troubled her. He often asked if he could make a suggestion. While he spoke in gentle tones, his suggestions were actually criticisms. When she’d showed him her sketchbook, he’d frowned and asked if her time might be better spent on charitable activities. Once when they were walking, he’d observed her new bonnet and asked her if it wasn’t too ostentatious for the country. He’d spoiled her pleasure in it, and she’d never worn it again in his presence.
“Amy, you are troubled,” Georgette said.
“He takes his position as a vicar very seriously. I believe he expects me to give up ostentatious bonnets and my drawing.”
“What?” Georgette said in an outraged tone. “No, you will not give up your designs. You are talented, and he has no right to prevent it.”
“He means well. I know he is mindful that some of the parishioners are poor, and he worries that frivolous expenditures would send the wrong message.” On the day he’d criticized her pretty bonnet she’d tried to gather the courage to tell him that he was impertinent and had no right to tell her what to do. Then he’d apologized for making her sad. He’d smiled a little and told her that he understood that young ladies liked to indulge in their pastimes. Mr. Crawford had expressed confidence that once she married, she would give up her girlish ways.
“You have always devoted yourself to charitable activities at home,” Georgette said. “It has never interfered with your drawing.”
Amy said nothing. His insinuation that he intended to propose had alarmed her. Panic had gripped her so hard that she’d barely been able to breathe. But she’d held all of her vexation inside, because she’d not known what to do.
“I detect no tender feelings on your part,” Georgette said. “Am I mistaken?”
“No. I tried to brush away my doubts. My parents have said nothing specific, but I know they are in favor of the match.”
“Amy, are your parents trying to persuade you to marry him?”
“They would never force me to wed anyone.” But the day she’d told her mother that Georgette had invited her to spend the Season with her in London, her mother had frowned. Then she’d asked Amy if she thought it wise to leave “just now.” Her mother’s question had left no doubt in Amy’s mind that her parents held hopes that Mr. Crawford would offer to marry her.
“You look very glum,” Georgette said.
“He believes we are both practical people and well suited.” She suspected he was primarily interested in her marriage portion. Her father was not an aristocrat, but he was a wealthy man. “Mr. Crawford said he would wait for me, but I refused to make a commitment, because I was confused.” He had regarded her with a patronizing smile and said he felt certain she would come to her senses after a week or two in London. Then he’d repeated his intention to wait for her, despite her objection. She’d felt awful.
“You cannot marry him,” Georgette said. “You cannot.”
Amy met Georgette’s gaze. “He may be my last chance to marry.”
“No,” Georgette said, raising her voice. “You deserve better, Amy. I know you want to marry for love.”
“I may not have a choice.” After uttering the words, she felt defeated.
Georgette leaned forward. “You will not settle for a marriage to a man who does not cherish and love you. Amy, you will be miserable. I won’t let you give up so easily.”
You are my dear friend, but you cannot possibly understand, because you are beautiful and vivacious. And you will never have to make the painful choice I have to make.
“You made no commitment to him, so you are free to court others,” Georgette said.
Foolishly, she’d hoped that would happen, but tonight, she’d faced the truth. No pretty ball gown would transform her into an English rose.
“Something else is vexing you,” Georgette said. “I can sense it.”
“I found out belatedly that Mr. Crawford asked my father’s permission to correspond with me. Now I am obliged to answer his letters.” Her parents had beamed, leaving no doubt in her mind that they were pleased.
“Why did you not tell them that you had made no commitment?” Georgette said.
“They looked so happy. I felt awful and guilty.”
“You cannot marry him to please your parents,” Georgette said. “You must think of yourself first.”
Amy set her feet on the bed and wrapped her arms round her shins. “Mr. Crawford is the first man to seriously express interest in me.”
Georgette smoothed the covers. “Amy, you have so many doubts about him. I understand your concerns, but you do not give yourself enough credit.”
She did have doubts, but it changed nothing
“You have this season,” Georgette said. “I hope you fall madly in love with one of the gentlemen in London.”
“No one will even dance with me.” Only once in five years had anyone asked, and Amy knew Julianne had arranged it.
“I think you’re inadvertently signaling that you do not wish to dance,” Georgette said. “When the gentlemen approached us tonight, you lowered your eyes.”
“It is an ingrained habit.” In truth, she’d known neither of them would ask, because no one ever did.
“You think your shyness is impossible to overcome, but I don’t believe it,” Georgette said. “If you will only allow the world to see the real you, my wonderful friend, you will be so much happier.”
“It doesn’t come naturally to me,” she said.
“You only want practice.” Georgette hesitated. “Of course, you wish others to see you as friendly.”
Amy stared at her friend. Her pulse sped up. “Do others think I am aloof?”
Georgette focused on smoothing her nightgown. “No, absolutely not.”
Amy knew then that it was true. She blinked back threatening tears. It had never occurred to her that others would misinterpret her shyness.
Georgette touched her hand. “I know how clever and witty you are. Break free of your protective cocoon and let others see the Amy I know.”
Her throat clogged. Fearing her voice would break, she merely nodded.
“This year will be different. I promise,” Georgette said with such emphasis that it was as if she believed saying the words would make them true.
Amy didn’t believe her, but she vowed to try harder. In truth, she had nothing left to lose. It was her last season, and she knew she would always regret it if she did not make an effort to come out of her shell.
Sir, you are wanted in the gold salon.”
Will opened his bleary eyes just as his valet drew back the drapes. Sunlight flooded the room. “Argh,” he yelped, shading his eyes.
“I beg your pardon, sir,” Jenkins, the valet, said, his voice devoid of any sympathy.
In all fairness, sympathy was not part of Jenkins’s job. Nevertheless, Will’s mood was not improved by the sudden onslaught of sunlight. His eyes felt as if they were full of sand, and his head pounded. The sour taste on his tongue made him suspect he’d drunk one too many bottles of claret, but his recollection of last night was hazy at best. He vaguely recalled stumbling out of a hackney and lurching to the front door. Obviously, he’d managed to drag himself upstairs and into bed.
He squinted at the bedside clock. “It’s bloody ten o’clock. Jenkins, shut the drapes.”
“Sir, his lordship instructed me to wake you,” Jenkins said. “You are expected for a family meeting.”
Will groaned. Not another one. What now? Was his grandmamma suffering from faux heart palpitations again? Or was that her mysterious sinking spells? Or had Peter, his eldest nephew, pissed on Mama’s hothouse roses for the third time this week? Will loved his family, but they were driving him mad.
Over the past four years, he’d traveled on the Continent and had almost forgotten what it was like to deal with his relatives. He’d actually thought he could escape them in this monstrosity of a house, but no, that was impossible, especially with his busybody sisters and their annoying husbands invading the drawing room three to four times a week. Without fail, there was some new crisis the entire family must discuss in endless detail.
He briefly considered sending word to his brother that he was too ill to attend, but if he did, they would send for a sawbones. Then he would become the latest problem. Visions of his mother trying to feed him broth and toast were enough to prod him to sit up. He glanced down at himself, belatedly realizing that he’d slept in his shirt and trousers. After rummaging among the tangled sheets, he found his wrinkled cravat.
Jenkins’s mouth puckered in obvious disgust. Then he took the mangled neck cloth from Will’s outstretched hand and held it as if it were a dead rodent.
Will scrubbed his hand over his bristled jaw. He’d not spent much time at Ashdown House since returning to England. After his brother’s wedding last year, he’d attended one house party after another with his bachelor friends. He’d spent Christmas with his family, but after the holidays, he’d escaped once again and spent the winter carousing at his friend Bellingham’s hunting box.
Upon returning home a fortnight ago, he’d found himself cooped up indoors far too often. His family expected him to attend balls, Venetian breakfasts, and dinner parties. They insisted he twiddle his thumbs in his mother’s drawing room on her “at home” days while his mother’s friends, all dragons, paraded inside. One day after a long night of revels, he’d nodded off next to Grandmamma on the sofa, a faux pas that had not amused his mother and sisters.
Weariness from a night of carousing overcame him. He flopped onto his stomach and pulled a pillow over his head. He dreamed a woman with long red hair cascading over her breasts crooked her finger at him. He tried to kiss her, but she turned and fled into darkness, leaving him frustrated.
Someone shook his shoulder. With a gasp, he jerked up to find his brother staring at him. “Deuce take you,” he muttered.
Hawk waved his hand. “Egad, you smell like a brew house, and you slept in your clothes.”
“I took my boots off.”
Hawk regarded him with a wry expression. “I commend you.”
“Ha-ha.” Will massaged his aching temples. “Seriously, why should I attend this family meeting? It’s bound to be something ridiculous again.”
Hawk set his fist on his hip. “Actually, the meeting concerns you.”
Will regarded his brother with suspicion. “What about me?”
“We’ll discuss it in the drawing room. Everyone is already gathered. Make yourself presentable and report downstairs in twenty minutes, tops.”
Will pulled a face. “I’m not in any condition to face them, you know.”
“You’ll manage, I’m sure.” Then Hawk quit the room.
When Will walked into the drawing room fifteen minutes later, Montague, his eldest sister’s husband, regarded him with disdain. “It took you long enough.”
Will thought of several choice responses, none of them polite. In deference to the ladies present, he kept his reply between his teeth and sat on the green sofa next to his snoring grandmamma. She had agreed to stay for a short time in Richmond. Every day, she said she would return to Bath soon. He hoped she would remain, because he worried about her health, even though Aunt Hester thought she made up her various ailments for attention.
“William, your eyes are red,” Mama cried. “Are you ill?”
Aunt Hester adjusted the tall feathers on her ugly purple turban and snorted. “Louisa, that boy has been pulling the wool over your eyes for years. The only thing he suffers from is the bottle ache.”
Montague snapped his newspaper shut. “Little wonder the papers call him the devil.”
“I’d no idea you were fond of the scandal sheets,” Will drawled.
Hawk held up his hand. “Let us leave off the quarreling. We are family and should not take that for granted,” he said, cutting his gaze meaningfully to Grandmamma.
Will glanced at his grandmother’s slightly parted lips. During his absence from England, she had grown frail. She walked with a cane now and needed assistance on the stairs. She missed her friends in Bath, but he didn’t like to think of her living so far away, with only a companion to look after her.
Hawk stood beside his wife, Julianne, and smiled at their infant daughter. Then he gazed at Will. “I’m glad that you had your adventures, but you were sorely missed. We’re all glad you are home for good.”
Will frowned. Home for good? He drew in a breath to tell his brother that he had no intention of remaining home for much longer, but his mother’s voice forestalled him.
“I am grateful that you are back in the bosom of our family,” Mama said. “I worried every single day that you would meet with harm. Did I not, Patience?” she said to her eldest daughter.
“Yes, you did, Mama.” Patience patted the dowager countess’s hand. “As a mother, I can only imagine how difficult it must have been to have your son away so often.”
They were slathering the guilt on a bit thick, but then his female relatives specialized in exaggerating their feelings, with the exception of Aunt Hester, who spoke plainly and regularly shocked his mother and sisters. Thank God for her.
“Will, we are glad to see you settled now,” Harmony, the middle sister, said.
Hope, his youngest sister, regarded him with a sly expression. “Not entirely settled, but I will gladly assist you with that matter.”
Will rubbed his aching temple. “What matter?”
Lord Kenwick, Harmony’s husband, snorted. “They mean to see you leg-shackled.”
Will reared back. Damn. His sisters thought matrimony the pinnacle of a man’s existence.
Aunt Hester rummaged in her reticule, produced a vial, and nudged Harmony. “Pass the vinaigrette to your brother. He looks ready to swoon.”
“Hope, we will not press him to marry,” Hawk said. “He’s only five and twenty.”
“Six and twenty as of last week,” Will drawled.
The dowager countess cried out, “I forgot his birthday. What kind of mother forgets her son?”
“Mama, you must not blame yourself,” Patience said. “Will has been gone so much of the time that it was all too easy to forget.”
Will rolled his eyes. So now it was his fault that they had forgotten his birthday.
“You must not feel guilty, Mama,” Hope said. “None of us remembered, either.”
Hawk winced. “Will, I’m sorry.”
“It doesn’t signify.” As the youngest of the brood, he’d grown accustomed when he was a child to everyone forgetting about him and had learned to appreciate his freedom. Of course, they’d remembered him when they caught him getting into mischief, but he’d gotten away with far more than they knew.
“How could I forget?” The dowager countess sniffed and dabbed a handkerchief at her teary eyes. “He is my babe.”
Aunt Hester lifted her quizzing glass to inspect Will. “He’s a prodigious big one. It’s a wonder you birthed him.”
Naturally that set off a hue and cry.
His sisters apologized profusely and swore they would make it up to him.
“I don’t care about my blasted birthday,” he said. “If it makes you feel better, I celebrated with friends.”
“We all know you’re accomplished at celebrating,” Montague muttered.
Will’s head throbbed. “Could we possibly get to the point?” he said a bit too sharply.
They all gaped at him.
“Since you insist, I will,” Patience said in her pompous elder sister voice. “Imagine our dear mother’s embarrassment upon learning that you have taken up with that disreputable Mrs. Fleur, if that is even her real name.”
He was tempted to tell them they need no longer worry about Alicia, but he thought better of mentioning it. “My private life is none of your affair,” he said.
“It is hardly private,” Hope said. “You are accounted the worst libertine in England.”
He rolled his eyes. As soon as this foolish meeting ended, he intended to pack his trunks and leave.
Grandmamma awoke with a start. She looked about her with a confused expression.
Will patted her hand and gave her a reassuring smile.
“Did I miss something?” she hollered. Due to her diminished hearing, Grandmamma had a tendency to shout.
“Not a thing,” Will said, raising his voice so that she could hear him.
“William,” the dowager countess said. “How can you say such a thing? You are not taking the family meeting seriously.”
He lifted his palms. “You’re glad I’m home, but you don’t like my reputation. Now that we’ve established those facts, perhaps we can disperse.”
Hawk gave him a warning look. “There is another matter.”
Will groaned. How long would this blasted meeting last?
“Now that you’re home for good, you need an occupation,” Hawk said.
Will held his hand up. “Wait. I never said—”
Grandmamma tugged on his arm. “What did he say?” she shouted.
He raised his voice. “I need an occupation.”
Grandmamma clasped her hands and bellowed, “The church would be perfect.”
Hester scowled at her sister. “Maribelle, the parishioners would revolt. The papers have named him the devil.”
“That isn’t very nice,” Grandmamma hollered. “You go first.”
“Go where?” Hester called out.
“To the devil,” Grandmamma shouted.
Will held his fist to his mouth in an attempt to hide his laughter, but his shoulders shook. Meanwhile, baby Emma Rose chose that moment to squall.
“Oh, she’s hungry,” Julianne said. “I must take her to the nursery.”
Hawk helped her to rise and kissed her cheek. He kept his gaze on his wife until she disappeared. Then he returned his attention to Will. “I have a proposition that I think will suit you.”
Clearly his brother did not understand. All of his relatives assumed he meant to stay home, but if he’d had any misgivings about leaving before, this ludicrous meeting had abolished them. No matter how much he loved his family, he simply could not continue to live with them.
“My steward is retiring. Someone must take over his duties.” Hawk folded his arms over his chest. “What do you say?”
Everyone, even Montague, beamed at him. Will’s cravat felt like a tourniquet. Their expectations pressed upon him like a thousand-pound boulder. For a moment, he felt trapped, pinned down by the weight of their hopes, but it was his life, not theirs. “I appreciate your generous offer, but I’m a rambler. It’s not in my nature to stay in one place for any length of time. I’m planning another trip to the Continent.”
His brothers-in-law exchanged knowing looks. His sisters were trying to comfort his mother, who was mopping up tears again. Even Hester regarded him with disappointment. Only Grandmamma smiled at him, and that made him feel worse, because he knew she hadn’t heard what he’d said.
Hawk released a sigh. “The issues won’t be resolved at this meeting. I will keep everyone informed, but for now, I know you all have other business awaiting you.”
Montague stood. “If you want my opinion…”
Hawk lifted his hand. “Thank you, but I’ll handle the matter. William, let us repair to my study.”
Will walked about the study and sent the standing globe for a spin as he passed by. “Sorry for the misunderstanding, but you know I’m not one to put down roots.” He turned round and smiled at his brother. “This time, I’m planning to venture to Switzerland.”
When Hawk remained silent, Will added something he hoped would placate his brother and the other members of the family. “Perhaps in a few years, I’ll be ready to settle down in one place.”
He gritted his teeth and took a chair in front of his brother’s desk.
Hawk fiddled with the beads of an abacus. “You do realize you’ve dealt a severe disappointment to our family.”
“They’ll grow accustomed to my absence soon enough. It’s not as if I’ve spent much time at Ashdown House.”
“I heard a great deal of grumbling over your frequent absences,” Hawk said. “I promised our mother I would speak to you about a career. Your intention to travel to the Continent for an extended period leaves me with the devil of a dilemma.”
He lifted his palms. “How so? I’m the one leaving, not you.”
Hawk met his gaze. “Without your quarterly allowance, you’ll not have the means to undertake another journey.”
Will’s heart beat faster. “What?”
“I’m responsible for the dispensation of your quarterly funds. If I withhold them, you will no doubt resent me. That’s understandable. On the other hand, if I fund your journey, I will disappoint our mother and likely alienate the rest of the family. They already believe I was too lenient about your extended travels.”
“Ridiculous,” Will muttered.
“You traveled for four years. That’s far longer than most young men on their grand tours. Since your return, you have spent very little time with our family. If I provide the funds for another journey, they will rightly feel that I have paved the way for you, thereby giving my tacit approval.” He moved two beads over and then met his brother’s gaze squarely. “Tell me, Will. What would you do if you were in my situation?”
The question startled him. “How am I to answer? You know my wishes. They’ll not change because others disapprove.”
“Perhaps that will give you some understanding of my predicament,” Hawk said. “No matter what I decide, someone will be unhappy. And I’ll be honest. I think it is in your best interest that I don’t fund this journey. Right now, your life consists of nothing but revelry, and I blame myself for it. I’d hoped when you returned to England that you would give up the carousing. But it has gotten worse. Last night, you were so drunk that you slept in your clothes. You regularly come home in the wee hours of the morning and disturb the servants. It’s not fair to them, Will. They work hard, but you don’t seem to notice or care. Then I realized you would never give up your carousing unless I insisted you take up a career.”
“You were no saint,” Will said.
“I made plenty of mistakes, and I regret them. But I never completely abandoned our family, and I took my responsibilities in Parliament seriously.”
“I won’t allow the family to dictate what I do.” Anger rose up inside him, but he knew better than to let it show. His brother would respect only rational responses.
“They don’t think of it that way, and neither should you,” Hawk said. “When you stated your intention to leave, our family members felt as if you were abandoning them again.”
“Rubbish. I’m not abandoning anyone.”
“If they didn’t care about you, they wouldn’t give a rat’s arse if you disappeared forever. But they missed you. I missed you.”
“I’ll send letters regularly.”
“Given your previous history, I’ve my doubts on that score. The only time you wrote was when you needed funds.” Hawk frowned. “I am to blame for not calling you home sooner. You’ve become almost a stranger to us.”
“For God’s sake, Hawk. I enjoyed my journeys.”
“You grew too attached to traveling.”
Will inhaled deeply and let his breath out slowly. “You don’t understand. There’s a whole world out there that I want to explore while I’m still young enough to enjoy it.”
“I allowed your traveling to go on too long. You were very persuasive, and I had the responsibility of our sisters. It was easier to let you continue to travel.”
“I saw far more of the world than most people ever will in a lifetime. There’s no reason for your regrets,” Will said.
Hawk shook his head. “You’ve had too much freedom and insufficient responsibility.”
“I’m responsible for myself,” he said, unable to keep the edge from his voice.
“Sometimes, you have to sacrifice for others,” Hawk said. “And this is one of those times.”
“What are you saying?” Denial rose within him, but he knew.
“I can’t fund your journey without creating a lasting rift in our family. No one, least of all our mother, will accept it. I’ve only recently made amends with the family. And I have Julianne, our daughter, and our son to think of as well.”
“Let’s compromise,” Will said. “Give me six months to purge the wanderlust out of my blood.”
Hawk folded his hands on the polished mahogany surface. “I’m sorry, Will, but I can’t do it.”
“I can’t sit at a desk all day. I’ll go mad.”
“Some of your duties will involve inspecting the property for needed repairs, new construction, and ensuring there is sufficient drainage. You’ll also be responsible for the rent collection.”
“I’m unaccustomed to living my life in a cage.”
“Will, this is hardly a cage.”
“It will feel like one to me. Everyone in the family constantly noses into everyone else’s affairs. I’ll be a lunatic within a month.”
“That brings to mind another issue. For the sake of our female relatives, be more discreet with your liaisons. You need to take their tender sensibilities into consideration.”
Will glared at Hawk. “That is precisely why I stay away. There is no privacy. Everyone meddles in my life.”
Hawk met his gaze. “You have a family who loves you. Does that mean nothing to you?”
“Of course, I care, but I’ve every right to live my life on my terms. That is not negotiable.”
“You’ve lived independently too long and have forgotten that you should take your family’s needs into consideration.”
Deuce take it. He couldn’t believe this was happening.
“Take the steward position for one year,” Hawk said. “Set aside a portion of your earnings each quarter. In a year’s time, you should have sufficient means to fund another journey. Since it will be money you’ve earned, there can be no question about your right to do with it as you wish.”
Will was breathing harder and trying to control the resentment building inside him. “In other words, I’ve no choice.”
“It’s only for a year, Will.”
A muscle in his cheek twitched. The next twelve months would feel like a prison sentence. His family would mark every move he made and constantly question him about his whereabouts. They would expect him to attend their dinner parties and make appearances at balls. If he didn’t show, someone would be sure to chide him. When he was younger, they had pushed and prodded him to conform to their expectations—when they remembered his existence. Now, they were doing it again, and this time, they would win. How could he bear a year of their constant interference?
Hawk sighed. “I will ask the others to respect your privacy, but if you continue with your flagrant liaisons and wild parties, they will object.”
Will scowled. “In other words, I must surrender my autonomy to please them.”
“That’s an exaggeration, and you know it. All I ask is that you use discretion and attend some of the family events, without having to be prodded. You make the decision about which events are important. Some will not be up for discussion. You need to attend church with the family.”
He pulled a face. “Right. I can see it in the scandal sheets now. The devil went to church.”
Hawk’s shoulders shook with laughter. “Just placate our mother and sisters. Attend a ball or two with them. Dine with the family a little more often. Take our mother to a play. You would make her very happy.”
Excerpted from How to Ravish a Rake by Dreiling, Vicky Copyright © 2012 by Dreiling, Vicky. Excerpted by permission.
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