The Spinster and the Rake

Table of Contents

“I’LL HAVE YOU KNOW I once fancied myself very much in love. Back when I was a green girl. And he loved me!” Gilly said defiantly.

A small smile quirked the corners of Lord Marlowe’s mouth. “But did he ever kiss you?”

She looked up, startled to find herself suddenly so close to him. “Of course not! He had too much respect for me.”

“What a slow-top. It is fortunate I am so lacking in respect,” he said, drawing her unresisting body into his arms, “because it is clearly past time.” His mouth descended on hers with a thoroughness that left in no doubt that he considered she had indeed reached her majority. She could hear his heart beating through the clothing that separated them, feel his arms about her in a way that was positively possessive, as his hot mouth came down on hers. It seemed to brand and search her, and she knew she should fight, scream, or faint, that some resistance was definitely called for. She decided she could always blame the champagne, and entwined her arms about his neck, answering his mouth to the best of her limited experience.

That devastating kiss seemed to go on forever, and yet was far too short. He pulled back, looking down at her with a tender, mocking smile. “Not bad for a first attempt,” he said huskily.

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The Spinster and the Rake

by

Anne Stuart

Bell Bridge Books

Copyright

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons (living or dead), events or locations is entirely coincidental.

Bell Bridge Books
PO BOX 300921
Memphis, TN 38130
Ebook ISBN: 978-1-61194-729-8
Print ISBN: 978-1-61194-709-0

Bell Bridge Books is an Imprint of BelleBooks, Inc.

Copyright © 1982 by Anne Kristine Stuart Ohlrogge

Published in the United States of America.

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without permission in writing from the publisher, except by a reviewer, who may quote brief passages in a review.

A mass market edition of this book was published by Dell Publishing Co., Inc. in 1982

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Cover design: Debra Dixon
Interior design: Hank Smith
Photo/Art credits:
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Couple (manipulated) © HotDamn Stock

:Mras:01:

Dedication

In loving memory of Bill and Hildegarde. For Bill, who taught me so much. And Hildegarde, who gave me shelter from the storm.

Chapter One

THERE WAS A heavy rain falling on the dusty, dry road between Winchester and London. The parched, rutted road drank the moisture in thirstily for a few moments, then tired of the bounty and sullenly gave over the potholes to the rapidly collecting rain. A crack of thunder, a jolt as the ancient landau hit a water-filled rut, and the dark-clad woman was thrown roughly to the side of the carriage. She was traveling alone, as she had for the past two years, and allowed herself the luxury of a good, solid, English “damn.”

It had been a long day for Gillian Redfern, a spinster one month shy of thirty years of age. She usually alternated her days between the households of her two sisters and her elder brother. She was between siblings at the moment, traveling from her sister Pamela’s house outside Winchester back to her brother’s formidable mansion in Berkeley Square. As Pamela’s husband, the ill-mannered and impossibly boorish Baron Sinford, was as purse-pinched as he was lecherous, Gillian had been allotted a very poor carriage indeed, usually reserved for transporting under-housemaids to the tooth-drawer, Gillian told herself with grim amusement, putting a hand to her aching
head. Surely the thing must have been designed to accentuate all the bumps and lumps in the British roadway system. It wouldn’t have been quite so bad if Pamela had allowed her to leave in decent time, instead of holding her back with all sorts of last-minute deputations to brother Derwent and then sending her off with a positively lethargic coachman and four of the laziest slugs that ever attempted to pass as decent quality horseflesh. It was no wonder they were hours late already, and Gillian’s stomach was rumbling ominously. Pamela hadn’t thought to send a picnic hamper either, and Gillian hadn’t asked.

The youngest of the four children of a wealthy but unimaginatively proper gentleman, Gillian had long since decided, with a great deal of persuasion from the aforementioned siblings, to immolate herself on the altar of duty, having a great deal of family feeling and a dislike of being useless. Therefore, despite what amounted to an easy competence left to her by the good graces of a bluestocking maiden aunt and her mother’s last defiant gesture, she spent her days chasing around after a singularly ill-assorted parcel of nieces and nephews, ran errands for her sisters, made up a fourth at whist though she despised the game, partnered the most tedious of necessary gentlemen guests at dinner, and listened to her brother’s pontifications concerning the desperate state of the world, all brought about by a lenient attitude toward the Corsican monster and a preponderance of liberal-minded, wishy-washy bleeding hearts who hadn’t the sound business sense or pride in their country. . . . At this point Gillian invariably allowed her thoughts to drift.

The rain was coming down in earnest now, pelting the sides of the carriage and making the slippery roadway even more treacherous. The coachman, who had heretofore been adamant in setting a snail’s pace, must have decided that he didn’t care for rain running down his collar, for the landau sped up with a jerk that sent Gillian tumbling back against the threadbare seats once more, uttering a second, satisfactory “damn.”

To make the wretched situation complete, a leak had developed in the faded roof of the carriage, directly above Gillian’s aristocratic Redfern nose. Large drops were descending with cheerful regularity, soaking her sober felt bonnet and trickling down the front of her navy wool spencer.

Gillian Redfern, usually a gentle and conciliatory creature, had a temper when aroused, and a hearty dislike of carriage accidents. She reached out a well-shaped, unjeweled hand and rapped sharply on the roof. “Slow down!” she shouted through the pelting rain. A sharp crack of the horseman’s whip was the only answer vouchsafed, and the velocity increased. Gillian knocked more sharply. “Slow down!” she cried out. “We’ll have an accident!”

With those fateful words barely out of her mouth an especially large pothole presented itself beneath the left leader’s hoof. The horse stumbled, righted itself, and with a great deal of expertise never evinced before or after in his professional life, the coachman was able to lessen the rocking and swaying of the ancient landau. He had almost succeeded in getting the cumbersome thing under control when another, smaller carriage appeared out of nowhere, traveling at a tremendous pace, and chose just that moment to try to pass the Redfern carriage.

It was too much, for the frightened and exhausted horses, the overtaxed coachman, and the landau’s rear axle. The first reared, the second dropped the reins, and the third snapped, sending the abused carriage with its unfortunate occupant hurtling off the road, landing on its side in the ditch.

The coachman, being in actuality one of Baron Sinford’s more expendable grooms, immediately forgot about his passenger and looked first to the condition of the horses. Despite the animals’ ages Baron Sinford disliked any of his possessions suffering harm, and it was with great relief that, upon closer inspection, the hapless coachman ascertained that the four seemed to have suffered more from fright than any actual damage.

“Are you all right, man?” A well-bred voice came out of the darkness, followed by its owner, who was nothing more than an extraordinarily tall shadow in the pelting rain.

“Fine, sir.”

The first gentleman was joined by another, smaller shadow, and three pairs of hands released the horses’ reins with deft speed.

“Now, my good man,” the taller of the two said in a pleasant drawl, “you might tell me what the bloody hell you mean by driving all over the road like that! A glass or two to warm you on a damp night like this is all well and fine, but not when you’re traveling the king’s highway and endangering other travelers as well.” This was all delivered in a mild tone, which didn’t prevent it from being a blistering attack. And the coachman’s very correct suspicion that his censor had also been imbibing with a free hand that evening didn’t help matters. Ah, but it didn’t do to argue with the gentry, and he
had
been taking a few too many sips out of his flask that Bessie had so thoughtfully provided, knowing full well that Mr. Derwent Redfern would begrudge a poor, weary groom a drop of something to warm his chilled bones.

“It’s a lucky thing for you,” the gentleman continued in that same gentle, pleasing voice, “that my coachman is such a damned good driver, and that you weren’t carrying any passengers. Heaven knows what—”

“Oh, my God,” the coachman gasped, staring transfixed at the silent bulk of the upended coach. “But I was.”

At that moment the carriage door was pushed open from beneath, and a dark, bedraggled figure appeared in the pouring rain like a drowning jack-in-the-box. “Coachman?” she inquired in slightly subdued tones.

“Good heavens, it’s a lady,” the shorter gentleman exclaimed. “Who would have thought it, my dear Marlowe? You have all the luck. No doubt she’ll be a stunner.”

“Do shut up, Vivian,” the taller figure said pleasantly, reaching the side of the carriage. “May I help you alight, ma’am? I trust you aren’t injured?”

Gillian stared down at the pair in the darkness, trying to make out their faces in the pelting rain. By their voices they were well-bred, but in truth she had no option, other than standing half in and half out of a lopsided carriage in the pouring rain. A sharp crack of thunder decided her. “No, I’m not hurt, sir. Merely a trifle shaken up. I would appreciate some assistance in quitting this wretched landau.”

“Certainly, ma’am.” Before she could reach back into the carriage for her reticule an exceedingly strong pair of hands reached up around her, caught her elbows with a masterful grip, and pulled her out of the carriage with remarkable dispatch. As he set her down on the rain-soaked road, she stumbled slightly, and he reached out to steady her, his face shrouded by the wide-brimmed hat he wore. He was quite monstrously tall, she noticed, and couldn’t help but be glad of it, considering that she stood five feet eight in her stocking feet.

“Good gad, you’ve plucked yourself a handful,” the second gentleman observed with malicious cheer. “How do you manage, my dear Marlowe?”

Gillian was soaking wet, and aching in places a lady wouldn’t admit existed. She spoke up with some asperity. “He obviously manages better than you do, sir, but I take leave to tell you that I’m no stunner, as you so charmingly put it. I am merely an extremely wet female seeking nothing so much as my home and my bed.”

“Yes, ma’am.” The gentleman accepted his reprimand with good humor unimpaired, his cheery voice somewhat slurred. “I beg pardon, miss. Hadn’t meant to be offensive. Ask Marlowe there, he’ll tell you. Harmless, I am, completely harmless.”

“A complete fool is more like it. And the least we can do is see that Miss . . .” The tall gentleman waited for Gillian to supply the missing name, and when she failed to do so continued smoothly, “that Miss Incognita reaches her home and bed in short order. Madame, my coach awaits.” He gave a courtly little bow, just slightly ironical, and Gillian considered him in the pouring rain.

Normally the very idea of accepting a ride alone in a carriage with a pair of strange gentlemen would be unacceptable. But surely, at a few weeks short of thirty, she was being tiresomely missish even to hesitate. It wasn’t as if she were just out of the schoolroom, for heaven’s sake.

“You are very kind,” she accepted in what she hoped was a brisk, businesslike tone of voice. “If you’re sure it will be no trouble?”

“No trouble at all,” the tall gentleman said, his strong, possessive hand reaching under her left elbow and steering her toward his waiting carriage. “But I’m afraid you’ll have to give up your anonymity. We can hardly convey you to your home if you don’t tell us where it is.”

“Berkeley Square,” she said briefly, allowing him to help her into the small, light carriage. He and his companion followed her, and in the dim lamplight Gillian and the tall man referred to as Marlowe surveyed each other.

She was a fairly unprepossessing sight in the twilight of the small, well-sprung carriage. Past her first youth, without question, and never more than passably pretty in the first place, with that pale, narrow face shaded by the damp, unfortunate bonnet. The eyes were large and quite good, Marlowe thought impartially, and he suspected the mouth could curve up in an enchanting smile when she was feeling more at ease. To be sure, the nose was a trifle aristocratic for his tastes, since he had a partiality for snub noses, and she was too tall for fashion. But there was something indefinably appealing about her. He found himself wondering if her eyes were blue.

The coach started forward smoothly, without the jerk Gillian had become accustomed to with the constant succession of inferior coachmen that had been her recent lot in life. “Where in Berkeley Square?” Marlowe probed gently. “Come now, don’t be worried. I don’t think your employer will be too terribly harsh with you. After all, it was his fault you were out on a night like this.”

Gillian stared covertly at the two gentlemen, wishing she’d had time to get a good look at them before the coach had started on this breakneck pace. She might have thought twice about her precipitous decision.

The shorter man, Vivian, Marlowe had called him, was bad enough. His round, cheery face was a bright red, the eyes bloodshot and watery and quite sly, the pate prematurely bald, revealing a high domed forehead wreathed with wrinkles. There were deep pouches beneath the eyes, a double chin, and a positive leer on the loose lips. He could have been anywhere between twenty and sixty, and he smelled strongly of brandy. And yet, of the two, he filled her with less trepidation.

While Marlowe removed his rain-soaked hat and leaned back against the squabs opposite her, Gillian was busy experiencing a novel situation. From the top of Marlowe’s curly head, black locks liberally streaked with gray, past the cynical dark eyes surrounded by tiny lines of dissipation, and just possibly laughter, the sallow complexion of one who has spent a great many years in sunnier climes than Britain, the strong nose, and cynical, alarmingly attractive mouth, he was truly, wickedly appealing. Like his companion his age was difficult to judge, although Gillian estimated he was somewhere about forty. She also guessed, with great accuracy, that she was in the presence of a rake. Having been sheltered from and warned against those wicked creatures all her life, she viewed her deliverer with trepidation not unmixed with fascination.

“Have I grown another nose?” he inquired affably. “I’ve never been stared at so long or so intently before. Have we met?”

“I don’t believe so,” Gillian said, lowering her fascinated gaze hastily to her drab navy blue lap. She would scarcely have forgotten such a dangerously attractive face had she seen it.

“I would have been greatly surprised if we had,” Marlowe agreed. “Considering that I’ve been out of the country for the last twenty years, you would have still been in leading strings when I left. Allow me to introduce myself. Ronan Patrick Blakely at your service. This is my friend, Vivian Peacock, who is also anxious to oblige. And you are . . . ?”

Still Gillian hesitated. This handsome, dissipated gentleman in front of her was doubtless some sort of black sheep, a remittance man come to haunt his aristocratic family like a proverbial bad penny. His friend called him Marlowe, which suggested a title, though the gentleman’s casual manner didn’t substantiate such an idea. She tried to remember what she knew of the Blakelys and seemed to recall a particularly stuffy, ancient marquis named Marlowe. They wouldn’t like the charming reprobate opposite her, not one bit.

“You needn’t worry that they’ll turn you off without a character, my dear Miss Incognita,” he continued smoothly. “I’m certain after twenty years my scandalous reputation will have paled noticeably. Your employers will scarcely look at me twice.”

“Doing it a little too brown, Marlowe,” Vivian snickered.

Marlowe ignored him. “Come, come. We can scarcely leave you off in the middle of Berkeley Square in the pouring rain, can we? Which house is your destination?”

There was no help for it, Gillian decided, still loath to disclose her actual relationship with the house in question. For one thing, she was hideously embarrassed that she should be mistaken for a governess or whatever it was they supposed her to be; for another, the less these two wicked-looking gentlemen knew about her, the better. “The Redfern mansion on the west side of the square,” she admitted.

Marlowe let out a low whistle. “My dear girl, I am afraid that does complicate matters. Do you belong to the household of Derwent Redfern?”

“I do.”

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