Read The Rake's Redemption Online
Authors: Sherrill Bodine
Tags: #Literature & Fiction, #Romance, #Historical, #Regency, #Historical Romance, #Holidays, #FICTION/Romance/Regency
A Division of Diversion Publishing Corp.
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New York, NY 10016
Copyright © 1989 by Elaine Sima and Sherrill Bodine
All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce this book or portions thereof in any form whatsoever.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events or locales is entirely coincidental.
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First Diversion Books edition December 2013
For Jane and Sandra—who believe in us—thank you.
CARSTAIR’S FOLLY, BERKSHIRE 1818
Dominic was bored. He turned away from contemplating the landscape by Constable over the fireplace and propped one shoulder against the mantel to survey the ruin of Carstair’s dining room. Freddie might be his closest friend, his only true friend come to think of it, but still he should not have allowed himself to be convinced about this repairing lease with Carstair. Their idea of rusticating in the country hardly matched his own. When he tired of London, he wanted to be at Culter Towers. But even after ten years he couldn’t go home without calling up bitter memories. So he had come into Berkshire to Carstair’s Folly and found that Freddie had arranged a surprise—Yvette, his current favorite and two other ladybirds were waiting for them. It was not to be fishing and cards, but only the same routine as London.
Now he was the only member of the party still standing. Freddie, spread-eagled in a wing chair, had a wine glass resting upside down on his waistcoat, and their host Carstair, had slipped quietly under the table after they had broached the fourth bottle.
Where were the ladybirds? Focusing none too well, Dominic’s eyes came to rest on two disheveled women, their unbound hair tangled over their faces, curled up at each end of the couch. But where was that minx, Yvette?
Shaking his head, he blinked several times and found with surprise that his gait was slightly unsteady when he walked to the table, lifted the cloth, and peered beneath it. Yes, there she was asleep, one arm flung over Carstair’s chest. He remembered now. She had joined Carstair there on the floor after complaining of Dominic’s neglect.
Shrugging, he let the cloth fall and reached for the half-empty bottle of port. She was right. He had not paid her the slightest heed. He poured port into a glass and tipped most of the contents down his throat. He shouldn’t have come here. He should have gone home to Culter Towers to his grandparents. He missed them. But more than his yearly visit was still beyond him.
Tossing the remainder of the port down, he moved to the windows. It was dawn. Fog blanketed the lawn as it had that other dawn long ago, when he had strained to see through the mists. Suddenly he was there again—Culter Towers—with Jules.
They had stood with heads bent, separated by twin mounds of freshly turned earth, oblivious to the long queue of black-clad figures wending its way down a slight rise toward the massive towers of the stone manor house.
So suddenly and unexpectedly he was the Marquis of Aubrey. He’d been dressed in regimentals, with only two black arm bands to signify his mourning. Unsure of how to control the rage within, he’d stood clenching and unclenching his hands behind his back. “Father,” he’d mouthed silently before lifting his face, eyes stinging with tears to glare across the two new graves unmarked by headstones.
Jules had leaned heavily on a walking stick. He was wearing superbly fitted black mourning clothes, but white bandages swathed his forehead and extended down the left side of his face, hiding any emotion that might be there.
“You’re responsible for this.” He had spat out the words, hate filling the space between them.
Jules stepped back a pace, staggering under the accusation, and turned to go.
“Brother!” His voice filled with menace had stopped Jules’ attempted retreat. “Don’t forget your promise. What has happened here … is buried here.”
A sneer had lifted one side of Jules’s mouth throwing the rest of his face into a grotesque mask. “Oui, mon frère.”
Rage burned in his heart. And hatred for the brother he had once loved. “I leave for the Peninsula tomorrow, and I want you off my lands as soon as you can travel. I never want to see you again!”
“Ah … but, you will see me again, I haven’t forgotten this … Brother.” One long white finger had lifted to fleetingly touch the bandage over the place his left eye should have been…
Dominic shivered, the rage and hatred still burning even after ten years. He’d been so young then—too young and too naive to have to face the secrets he’d had thrust at him the night his parents had died. So he’d fled to war to forget them. He wasn’t naive anymore. Yet, he’d learned that one particular secret could never be forgotten.
The sun’s light burst into the clearing before him. Another night gone. A fortnight of this—too much wine and no real pleasure—and even the familiar boredom of London would be welcome.
Glancing back over his shoulder at the room, sour with the scent of stale wine and cluttered with empty bottles and the remains of plates of food, he suddenly came to a decision.
Carstair’s man, Sylvester, arrived an instant after Dominic rang and behind him, hovering in the hall, he could see both his own valet, Pringle, and Freddie’s Timmings.
“You might as well all come in. You are needed,” he drawled. “Sylvester, your master is under the dining table. Timmings, put Lord Liscombe to bed and when he awakens this afternoon, inform him we leave for London at first light.”
Timmings gingerly removed the glass from Freddie’s waistcoat and carefully examined it for stains before waking his master.
Sylvester summoned three footmen, two of whom crawled under the table to assist Lord Carstair. Having achieved their goal of getting him in an upright position, they handed him over to his long suffering butler. The third went to Timmings’ aid and half carried Freddie from the room.
Pringle stood, his face utterly expressionless, not wishing to disturb his master, until finally he could contain his curiosity no longer. He coughed apologetically and glanced around the room. “Do I understand we are all leaving for town, my lord?”
Yawning, Dominic leaned back against the mantel, shutting his eyes. “A bit boring here, Pringle. Have my curricle ready in the morning. You and Timmings can go ahead with the baggage.”
When Pringle coughed again, it grated a bit upon Dominic’s nerves, but he did not open his eyes. “The … ladies … will they not be returning to London?”
He did open his lids then, staring at Pringle’s impassive face. “Carstair arranged their arrival. He can arrange for their departure. It is of no concern to me.”
Pushing himself away from the mantel, he stepped lazily over his former mistress, tucked a five-pound note into her ample bosom, and strolled from the room.
WENTWORTH PARK, BERKSHIRE
The lady and gentleman seated in the high-ceilinged and airy library of Wentworth Park on an unusually warm afternoon in April were engaged in writing letters. Suddenly Juliana Grenville looked up and cleared her throat to speak in a low, soft voice, “George…”
He appeared not to have noticed her, so she spoke louder, “Brother dear…” Then louder, “George!”
George Vane, fifth Baron Wentworth, continued to write, neither looking up nor betraying by even the smallest sign that he had heard. Indeed, his head of red-gold curls drooped even more intently over the estate papers littering the desk.
Juliana waited a moment more, but when she spied the deep furrow creasing her brother’s youthful brow, she rose to her feet, smoothed the folds of her second-best pink dimity morning dress, and crossed quickly to place her palms firmly onto the rim of the wide dark walnut desk. “George, Aunt Sophia and I are going to London. We plan to open Wentworth House for the Season.”
Still his hand continued moving across the papers, although he did briefly glance up at her. “Wentworth House hasn’t been open since father died two years ago. Old Smithers would turn up his toes if he had to get it ready.” He shook his head, his gaze returning to his desk. “Go shopping in Basingstoke instead, Ju. Always been fond of it.”
Juliana straightened her shoulders and drew up to her full height, which was, she lamented, regretfully short. “George, I have already written Smithers that we arrive in three days. I go to London in search of a husband.”
She had caught his complete attention at last. His head jerked upward and his light green eyes, much like her own, widened in shock. “Good God, Juliana, what nonsense is this? Find a husband, indeed! Anytime these past five years you could have married.” His eyes narrowed, causing fine lines to map his lean face and suddenly he looked much older than his twenty-one years. “Have you formed an attachment unknown to me?”
Juliana recognized the stubborn tilt of her brother’s chin. It reminded her forcibly of their late father, when he had wished to be difficult. It was too soon for George to develop such habits, she thought, and too soon for his young face to show the marks of worry and responsibility. All the more reason why she must carry through with the plan Aunt Sophia had so fortuitously devised.
Juliana faced George across the desk and, although he was now the head of the family, he was younger by three years so had for most of his life accepted orders from her.
Deliberately he sprawled, apparently very much at ease, his fine lawn shirt open at the throat, his legs stretched out before him, and stared into her determined face. “There’s no need to go to London. Soon as I spread the word every eligible man in the county will be on the doorstep,” he drawled.
“You shall not put me to the blush, George. I am already acquainted with all the eligible men in the county. There are none here who suit my needs.”
“Indeed!” Her brother squinted at her, another deep crease forming across his high forehead. “Then there is someone in particular!”
“Yes, I do have someone in mind.” Juliana paused, letting her words sink in slowly as George’s face turned a rich ruby red. Oh, yes, it was more than time to implement the plan! “An older man, I think. A lonely widower with children who need a mother. Such a man would suit my purpose quite well I believe.”
“Damn it, Ju!” he shouted, leaping to his feet. “That sounds like someone to suit Aunt Sophia!”
“Aunt Sophia has said she shall not remarry.”
“I know,” her brother answered without hesitation, “but you’ve said the same thing.”
“I find that my feelings have undergone a change in the last six years. Someday you will wed and no longer need me. I would find someone who does.”
“What about Sir Lionel? Been dangling after you forever. He needs you to run the Grange. Never seen a man who wanted more help,” George answered swiftly.
Juliana took a deceptively casual turn about the elegant room. She was prepared to argue her point, having considered and rejected every possible man in the county in previous discussions with Aunt Sophia. She stopped to gaze at the forbidding portrait of her father over the mantel. He’d not have allowed that connection, but Sir Lionel was George’s friend, so she must be careful.
“Yes, George. Lionel does need an estate manager. However, I do not feel I could be a good wife to a man who lisps.”
“By Gad. You’re right, Ju! Forgotten that.” He squinted across the room at the Reynolds portrait of their mother on horseback. “How about Jonathan Long? No lisp there and a very pretty seat. In fact, I’ve heard you say Courtney Manor is the prettiest place you’ve seen bar Wentworth.”
“A delightful boy, George, but two years my junior. Since his return from London, I find him very difficult to converse with. He can’t seem to turn his head for the height of his shirt points.”
“But Jonathan is in the height of fashion, he says. You’re always wanting me to go to London and be part of the
“I fear that shall be my fate instead, for I’ve considered all my acquaintances and no one seems to answer. Aunt Sophia assures me that a Season is the perfect solution. After all, her engagement to Uncle Corny was announced before her first Season ended. I’m quite determined that I will no longer be a burden to you. I must leave Wentworth Park and get on with my life, and Aunt Sophia says London is just the place to do so.”
Moving quickly, George placed his slender hands on her shoulders, his face once again young and engaging in his eagerness. “Don’t be a goose, Ju. You’ll always be wanted here. Wentworth Park is as much your home as mine. No need to sacrifice yourself on the marriage mart. Parson’s Mousetrap ain’t for me. Like things just as they are. Plan to go on like this forever!”
Juliana laughed, reaching up to place a kiss on her brother’s chin before moving away to the open French doors where a slight breeze ruffled the curtains. The afternoon air was light and soft with fluffy clouds that allowed the sun to warm the earth in pale golden streams. The lawns of Wentworth Park stretched before her as smooth as green velvet. The scent of flowering peach trees filled the air, and in the distance she could see Zeke, the gardener, lovingly bending over tender spring blooms.
How could she bear to leave this? All of her memories were tied to this one place: warm but vague memories of a sweet-faced mother, happy memories of a carefree childhood, tender memories of the sweet torment of Will’s courtship. Those weeks of living for a glance of him, elation when he appeared and despair when he took his leave.
How young they had been! Perhaps too young to have married. But that brief month of their marriage before he left for the Peninsula was the dearest memory of all. She clung to it as she did this place.
Yet now, finally, it was time to let go. She and Aunt Sophia had talked long about George’s future. He had been left the responsibility for the Park too soon and had taken his duty so seriously he had immersed himself in the running of the estate. He had learned quickly, so that now all the hours he spent worrying and fussing were only habit. Aunt Sophia was firmly convinced that the only way to draw George away from his devotion to the Park so that he could take his place in the
was to lure him to London on the pretext of finding Juliana a husband. It was not in Juliana’s nature to lie, but she was prepared to do so for her brother’s sake.
Taking a short, strengthening breath of the fresh spring air, she turned to face George, forcing her mouth to curve in a smile. “It is hardly a sacrifice to place myself on the marriage mart and come away with a prize. I hope I have not become such an antidote that I cannot find a husband.”
Her words brought a derisive snort from her brother before he grabbed her hand and pulled her laughingly across the room to a large gilt mirror hung over a highly polished cherry wood chest. He stood behind her, his fingers curling over her shoulders.
They were much alike, the same thick, vibrant auburn curls, slanting spring green eyes set over high cheekbones, but George was tall and lean, whereas she was small and softly rounded.
Their eyes met in the glass.
“When you were seventeen and married Will, all my friends were calf-eyed over you.” Her brother’s voice was low and gentle. “They still are. Every eligible man in the county has told me you’re beautiful.” Suddenly he grinned. “Don’t get missish, Ju. You’re no antidote and you know it.”
She caught his grin, twining her fingers through his where they rested on her shoulders, confident now that her scheme would work just as she and Aunt Sophia had planned. “Please understand, George dear. I find that I want what other women want. A husband … and … and a family. Lady Grenville has made it abundantly clear that even though I am a widow, propriety demands I have a female chaperon, which is why Aunt Sophia has remained here.”
George threw back his head in a hearty laugh. “Aunt Sophia, a chaperon! Why, she won’t keep tabs on you at all.”
“Yes, George, I know,” Juliana interjected quickly. “That’s why it’s most important for you to come to London and lend me countenance. Your assessment of character would be a great help in weeding out potential suitors.”
He looked puzzled for an instant, but then gave her again his charmingly rueful smile. “Perhaps I will. I must confess you’ve taken me by surprise, Ju. I thought you’d never get over your feelings for Will.”
“Of course, I haven’t gotten over them!” The words were out before she could stop them. Schooling her face to reflect nothing of her feelings, she continued with a wistful smile, “Will is always first in my heart. But I am still going to London to find a husband.”
“Aunt Sophia, it went just as you said it would.” Juliana burst through her aunt’s bedroom door to stop in bewilderment at the piles of clothing strewn about. “Why, whatever are you doing? I thought you’d already packed.”
“No need to keep these old things.” Sophia waved her hand vaguely in the air. “I thought I’d leave them for the reverend to distribute. We’ll be getting all new.”
“All new?” Juliana asked quizzingly.
Her aunt crossed the room sprightly to envelop her in strong arms. “It will be such fun. I can’t wait to see you in the latest fashions. You’ll find everything we have is sadly outdated. I want you to cut quite a figure in the
, as I did,” she added dreamily.
Sophia was a pleasant-faced woman of undistinguished appearance until she smiled, and then, as a suitor had once said, “It was like a burst of sunshine,” making her eyes sparkle a silvery gray and causing a small dimple to appear beside her mouth. That delightful smile played across her face now as she clasped Juliana’s hands and danced around the room.
“I suddenly feel quite young again, myself,” she laughed.
A gentle tap sounded and Sophia stopped abruptly.
“Come in, Maitland.”
“No, it’s me, Charlotte,” came the gentle reply from a tall, willowy girl, whose red-rimmed eyes dominated her pale face. Escaping blond wisps of hair tangled in disarray, and her royal blue riding hat hung from its ribbons around her shoulders.
“My dear, what’s amiss?” Sophia darted forward to draw her gently into the room.
“It’s Mama. She says I must spend all my time in London being nice to some old man.” She sniffed.
“What is Lady Grenville about now?” Sophia demanded.
Juliana cast a speaking look at her aunt before patting Charlotte’s arm. “Now, now, this isn’t like you at all. You usually handle your mama quite well,” Juliana soothed.
“Usually, but this time she’s determined to marry me off to some distant, second cousin who’ll be a duke one day.”
“It won’t be so dreadful being in London for the Season,” Juliana smiled intriguingly. “Aunt and I will be there to rescue you. Our plan worked.”
“George,” Charlotte ventured quietly, “George will be in London for my Season?”
Juliana triumphed. “Eventually. He’ll be there as soon as that new strain of wheat takes. He refuses to leave for another fortnight.” She turned to watch her aunt again ruthlessly sorting through the wardrobe. “Aunt Sophia insists that we leave as planned, since we have so much to do before the Season starts.”
Charlotte brightened immediately. “I believe I saw George riding toward the south field on my way here. Our estate agent thinks the new strain is just slow to germinate. Perhaps I should ride out and tell him myself.”
Juliana’s lifted brows registered her surprise as Charlotte suddenly rushed from the room. Turning to Sophia, she remarked, “Why haven’t I realized Charlotte was developing a tendre for George?”
“You have been concerned with other matters,” her aunt stated simply.
“You’re right, dearest. There has been so much tragedy at Wentworth Park. George grew up before I knew what was happening … Will’s death … followed so quickly by his father’s … then my papa’s death.” Juliana shook her head slowly, a hint of moisture on her long lashes, before she caught herself and with a few rapid blinks, smiled. “Listen to me, carrying on like a ninnyhammer.”
“So right, love,” Sophia agreed matter-of-factly, determined to change the subject immediately. She felt Juliana had shed enough tears to last a lifetime. It was the chief reason she’d devised the now-famous plan. “However, I should point out you neglected to mention Lady Grenville in your list of tragedies.”
“Aunt! How can you!” Juliana’s perfectly arched brows rose. “After Will died on the Peninsula, Sir Alfred and Lady Grenville had every right to his estate. After all, Sir Alfred is the last male Grenville.”
“My dear, I said nothing against Sir Alfred. How could I? A more unoffensive man I have never met. One barely knows he is even there. It is his revolting wife I cannot tolerate.”
“I am quite sure Lady Grenville has some good qualities.” Juliana stopped, her cherry lips blossoming into a sudden smile. “She must have at least one good quality, mustn’t she?”
Sophia laughed. “She is Charlotte’s mother, so she must be doing something right—a very unique child.”
“Dear Charlotte! I look forward to seeing her in London. We can only hope Lady Grenville does not make her first Season too tedious.”