Read Lady Rosabella's Ruse Online

Authors: Ann Lethbridge

Lady Rosabella's Ruse

A lady never reveals her secrets...

None of the women at an “anything goes” house party catches Garth Evernden’s jaded eye. The only one worth noting is a covered-up lady’s companion with an intriguing hint of exotic beauty the eighth Baron Stanford would like to
un
cover...

Does she?

Rose is in fact posing as a widow to find her inheritance—without it, she and her sisters will surely perish! The baron is known for his generosity, and he is so
very
handsome!

A new solution springs to Rose’s mind...surely becoming mistress to this rake would bring definite advantages?

Garth bowed. “I beg your pardon, madam. I did not see you.”

He glanced at Lady Keswick for an introduction and she waved an indolent, pudgy hand. “Mrs. Travenor.”

Married. Garth didn’t quite believe his instant flash of disappointment.

“My dear, meet the worst scapegrace in London,” the old lady continued. “Mrs. Travenor is my companion.”

A widow, then. He cheered instantly. Illogically.

He inclined his head. “A pleasure to meet you, Mrs. Travenor.”

A shaft of sunlight released by a passing cloud gilded the young woman’s warm-colored skin, illuminating the quiet purity of her expression. A virginal widow? Hardly likely. But a woman best avoided.

She was the kind of woman who expected the parson’s mousetrap at the end of the day. He had walked that path once already. He didn’t want a wife. The thought made him shudder.

“Enough, Stanford.”

Garth realized he was still staring at the widow and dragged his gaze back to Lady Keswick.

The elderly woman smiled at her companion fondly. “Rose doesn’t deserve your kind of trouble.”

* * *

Lady Rosabella’s Ruse

Harlequin® Historical #1078—February 2012

Author Note

When I first met Garth in
The Rake’s Inherited Courtesan
I just knew I needed to write his story. He popped up again in
The Rake’s Intimate Encounter
(a Harlequin Historical® Undone! ebook) to remind me of my promise. As all bad boys do, he finally got his way. I do hope you enjoy learning more about him and Rose as much as I did.

If you would like to know more about me and my books you can find me at my website, www.annlethbridge.com. Drop me a note, I love to hear from readers. If you would like to join me as I explore Regency England on my blog you can find me at www.regencyramble.blogspot.com.

Lady Rosabella’s Ruse

Ann Lethbridge

Available from Harlequin® Historical
and ANN LETHBRIDGE in ebook format:

The Rake’s Inherited Courtesan #941
Wicked Rake, Defiant Mistress #992
*The Gamekeeper’s Lady #1041
*More Than a Mistress #1045
Captured for the Captain’s Pleasure #1073
Lady Rosabella’s Ruse #1078

*Rakes in Disgrace

and in Harlequin® Historical Undone! ebooks
The Rake’s Intimate Encounter
The Laird and the Wanton Widow
One Night as a Courtesan
Unmasking Lady Innocent
Deliciously Debauched by the Rake

and in Harlequin® Historical ebooks
**Princess Charlotte’s Choice

**Royal Weddings

I would like to dedicate this book to the bad boy
in my life, my husband Keith, who knows
beyond any shadow of doubt he is the model
for all of my heroes.

I would like to thank Joanne Grant, my editor, and all the wonderful staff at Harlequin Mills & Boon for their help and support, for without them there would be no book.

And finally a big thank you
to the readers who keep reading.

Chapter One

T
he weight of tedium hung heavy in the air. After only one hour at Lady Keswick’s Sussex mansion, Garth Evernden, eighth Baron Stanford, was bored. Summer house parties were all the same, deadly dull or wildly hedonistic and utterly predictable.

As he prowled in the wake of his hostess’s butler along a corridor lined with every Greek god known to man, he wondered why he hadn’t gone to Brighton. A fleeting thought of Prinny and his cronies produced a yawn.

Why had he accepted Lady Keswick’s invitation? Ah, yes, now he remembered his purpose. Having delivered Clarissa her
congé
last month, he needed an occupant for his discreet town house in Blackheath. A woman who would entertain his nights and stay out of his days. This gathering of philanderers and fast widows might provide such a woman, but now he was here, hope seemed elusive.

The butler threw back a pair of French doors. ‘The terrace, my lord, where you will find everyone gathered.’

‘No need to announce me.’

The butler grinned. ‘Hadn’t planned to, my lord. No standing on ceremony at The Grange.’

He’d forgotten Lady Keswick’s refreshing informality. Perhaps his stay wouldn’t be so bad.

A group of five or six men in dark coats and women in pastels hung over the terrace’s grey-stone parapet gazing at the lawn.

‘Look at Fitz go!’ one of the men hooted. Hapton. A slender brown-haired dandy of about forty summers, with a penchant for fast women and outrageous wagers. ‘I’ll wager a pony on him.’

The woman in yellow at his right turned her back on the view and laughed up at Hapton. Mrs Mallow made an enchanting picture with her lovely, if somewhat hard, face framed by luxurious chestnut curls and a lavender parasol. ‘My money is on the gardeners. Fitz is all go at the start, but in my experience, he has no stamina.’

General laughter along the rail met the sally.

Seeing Garth, Mrs Mallow waved. Hapton turned to look, grimaced, then swung back to whatever had their attention on the lawn. Taller than most, Garth peered over Hapton’s shoulder. It was a human wheelbarrow race. Two gentlemen against two brawny young men in homespun. Garth sighed. God, they were childish. He hoped this wasn’t the pinnacle of the entertainment to come.

Having not yet greeted his hostess, he turned away from the view and spotted her seated in a chair on wheels in the shade of a cluster of potted yews. A monstrous red wig battled with the purple of a sarcenet gown cut low enough to reveal an expanse of enormous breasts. Struggling to keep his gaze on her face and not the jiggling mass of flesh, he made his bow. ‘Lady Keswick, your servant.’

‘Lord Stanford. Welcome.’ She offered him a lazy smile, her puffy cheeks swelling to melon-sized proportions and practically obliterating her twinkling faded blue eyes. ‘I hope my staff took proper care of you?’

One hand to his heart, he offered his most charming smile. ‘The accommodations are excellent. I congratulate you on your new home.’

‘Good. Very good.’ She eyed him a little askance. ‘I expected you yesterday.’

‘I had trouble tearing myself away from a prior engagement.’

‘I never heard you had trouble bidding a woman farewell. Who was it this time?’

He raised a brow, let the mockery show on his face. ‘I don’t remember.’

A rich chuckle set her bosom trembling like a blancmange carried by a nervous footman. ‘Cheeky rogue. Now I recall why I invited you. You make me laugh.’

She made him laugh, too. Most of the time. He grinned at her. ‘Is everyone here?’

‘All that’s condescended to come.’

He eyed the women speculatively. From this angle, their pink, yellow and blue-clad bottoms were presented in a row like choice desserts on a plate—they looked delicious. Choosing was always interesting.

Tasting could be a disappointment.

A dog, an overweight pug, waddled from beneath the elderly lady’s skirts and growled at his reflection in Garth’s boots.

‘Hello, old chap.’ Garth bent down and scratched behind the dog’s ears. ‘Who are you?’ The dog stared up at him with bulbous eyes.

‘Digger,’ Lady Keswick said. ‘Come, sir. Lie down.’

The dog swaggered back into hiding.

A movement deeper in the shadows of the potted trees brought Garth to his feet. Another woman was seated behind his hostess, her black attire making her almost invisible.

He disguised a sharp intake of breath as he took in the woman’s face. Pale olive skin and dark, almond-shaped eyes gave her perfectly oval face an exotic mysterious look. The raven-black hair swept back and tightly constrained at her nape only added to the impression of reserve. His fingers tingled with the urge to see it fall in luxurious lengths to her shoulders. Her mouth tightened as he continued his perusal and he let his gaze linger on her lips. Set in her Madonna-like face, that mouth was a wonder. Full and lush, it spoke of carnal delights while it pretended disapproval.

A woman garbed like a nun with the face of a temptress.

He bowed. ‘I beg your pardon, madam. I did not see you.’

He glanced at Lady Keswick for an introduction and was surprised to see an odd expression flicker across the normally placid face. Concern? The look disappeared too fast for him to be sure. She waved an indolent pudgy hand. ‘Mrs Travenor.’

Married. Garth didn’t quite believe his instant flash of disappointment.

‘My dear, meet the worst scapegrace in London,’ the old lady continued. ‘Mrs Travenor is my companion.’

A widow, then. He cheered instantly. Illogically.

Mrs Travenor rose to greet him. Taller than he’d guessed, her eyes were on a level with his chin. Tall and willowy. She made a stiff curtsy, her head dipping briefly. Jasmine wafted up from her skin. A sensual fragrance for a woman who dressed like a crow. A pair of velvety brown eyes dusted with gold at their centres steadily returned his gaze. ‘My lord.’ The soft husky voice raised the hairs on his arms. The jolt of unwanted lust annoyed him. There was nothing about this woman to suggest she would welcome a discreet liason. Then why was he interested?

He inclined his head. ‘A pleasure to meet you, Mrs Travenor.’

A shaft of sunlight released by a passing cloud gilded the young woman’s warm-coloured skin, illuminating the quiet purity of her expression. A virginal widow? Hardly likely. But a woman best avoided.

She was the kind of female who expected the parson’s mousetrap at the end of the day. Had walked that path once already. He didn’t want a wife. The thought made him shudder. He had an heir. His brother. A man who deserved the title of Stanford, and Garth would make sure he got it.

‘Enough, Stanford.’

Garth realised he was still staring at the widow and dragged his gaze back to Lady Keswick. The elderly woman smiled at her companion fondly. ‘Rose doesn’t deserve your kind of trouble.’

Rose. The name seemed too trite for such exotic loveliness.

Lady Keswick waved a beringed hand. ‘Go join your fellow reprobates.’

Summarily dismissed, he joined the party watching the sport on the grass. He didn’t mind being warned off. Indeed, this was where he would find his next source of amusement, not with a woman who eyed him with disapproval even if he had seen a flicker of interest in those extraordinary brown eyes.

‘Stanford,’ Hapton said. ‘I thought you’d gone elsewhere?’ The man sounded less than pleased. He must have his eye on a morsel he feared Garth would steal. Well, that might make things a bit more interesting.

Garth greeted the languid dandy with a handshake and a raised eyebrow. ‘Tracking my movements, old boy?’

‘Hardly,’ the other man said with a glower.

Further along the wall, a woman’s head turned swiftly, her jaw dropping in dismay.

Penelope? His best friend’s wife? His stomach fell away. Disappointment, disgust, anger, followed each other in swift succession. He closed the distance between them with one long stride. ‘Lady Smythe. What are you doing here?’

Her green gaze beseeched him. ‘I—’

Mrs Mallow, her dark eyes gleaming with malicious delight, looped an arm through Penelope’s. ‘She came with me.’

And that was supposed to make it better? Maria Mallow was the female equivalent of a rake and not above leading a new bride astray. Anger curled tight fingers in his gut, despite his calm expression, as he bowed to the ladies.

Mark would be devastated when he learned of her treachery. And to think, he’d actually felt a twinge of envy for his friend’s obvious happiness when he’d attended their wedding a scant two months before.

Or did he have this all wrong? ‘Is Mark with you?’

Auburn-haired and freckle-faced, her flush was painful to watch. ‘My husband is away on business.’ Anger coloured her tone. It sounded like jealousy to his practised ear.

He frowned. ‘Does he know where you are?’

She stiffened and something like pain darkened her gaze. ‘Mark doesn’t care what I do.’

Had the blush of happiness faded so quickly? He found it hard to believe. Yet here she was, at a house renowned for high jinks among the guests.

Mrs Mallow patted Penelope’s hand. ‘What is sauce for the gander…’ She raised a brow. ‘Surely that is your motto, Forever?’

Forever was a nickname he’d earned years before. He ground his teeth. It was not his motto, though others here would claim it. Hapton, for example. Or Bannerby.

Damn Penelope. The girl was as bad as the rest of these women, but he couldn’t let it go. Pretend it was of no consequence. Damn it all.

In hindsight, his earlier boredom was a hell of a lot more inviting than the prospect of persuading a recalcitrant wife to go home.

Certainly not a role he’d ever played before.

He glanced back at the mysterious Mrs Travenor and caught her frowning gaze and his blood rose to the challenge.

Fiend seize it. Two women under one roof, likely to give him nothing but trouble.

Outwardly composed, inside, Rosabella Cavendish trembled like an aspen. For the first time in her life, she didn’t know what to think. One glance from those dark, coolly insolent eyes and her heart had drummed so hard and so loud her body shook. Why? He was no different from the rest of Lady Keswick’s male guests. Rakish. Confident. Handsome. All right, perhaps he was more handsome than the rest, with his lean athletic body and saturnine aristocratic features. His smile when he bent over the dog had been heart-stoppingly sweet.

None of that was what had sent her blood pounding in her veins, though. It was the way he had looked at her. Really looked at her. Most of them presumed her a poor widow forced to earn a living as a paid companion and their gazes moved on. He’d looked at her as if he saw her innermost secrets. She had the feeling that for the price of his smile, she’d tell him anything he wanted to know. Clearly the man was downright dangerous.

‘Striking-looking devil, ain’t he?’ Lady Keswick said, watching him shake hands with the men and greet the ladies to their obvious pleasure.

‘I hadn’t noticed,’ Rosa said, breathing deeply to settle her heart into its proper rhythm.

‘Don’t look at me with those innocent brown eyes, my dear. You’d have to be dead not to notice Stanford. Be warned, though, he’s an out-and-out rogue. Never settles on one woman when two will do.’

Facing Lady Smythe and Mrs Mallow, his spare elegant form in a dark coat and buff unmentionables a foil for their pastel gowns and fluttering ribbons, she sensed a wildness about him, a hard edge. Rosa’s insides fluttered with what could only be fear.

Sensible terror.

It certainly was not envy of the two beautiful ladies so obviously entranced by his company.

Beside the fashionable lush-figured Mrs Mallow in primrose, Lady Smythe looked ethereal in a gown of pale leaf green, the scalloped hem finely embroidered with flowering vines and her face framed within a leghorn bonnet adorned with a profusion of roses at the crown. The ruffled lace at her throat gave her an air of modesty out of place among Lady Keswick’s flashy company. A pearl among diamonds who, according to Lady Keswick, had been snapped up in her first Season by a man destined for political greatness. Every man at the house had been paying her attention from the moment she had arrived this morning. A woman who already had a husband, too.

A stab of something sharp in her chest stopped her breath. Surely she didn’t envy the young woman her attentive male court? A bunch of rakes and Stanford the worst of them?

The
grande dame
narrowed her eyes. ‘He seems to have got Lady Smythe all of a fluster. I won’t have him upsetting my guests.’

Lady Smythe did indeed look a little panicked, the colour in her cheeks a bright flag. Perhaps she wasn’t so charmed by the rake after all.

Despite the gossip, Lady Keswick ensured nothing happened under her roof that both parties didn’t want. It was a point of honour with the hostess to the wickeder element of the
ton
. As she’d earlier explained, a woman needed some freedom in her life. Freedom without consequences for widows and women who had married for convenience. Women like Lady Smythe, Rosa assumed.

Her heart ached for the delicate-looking lady. A marriage without love was no marriage at all, her mother had always said.

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