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Rogue's Lady

· HQN Books
· November 2007
· ISBN 978-0373772230

·  Reviews
·  Trailer
·  Excerpt
·  Extra chapter

· Available as an e-book at Amazon, B&N and Harlequin.com

HQN®, and Harlequin® are registered trademarks of the publisher, Harlequin Enterprises Limited. All cover art for the publisher, including special "flashes" and back cover copy, is copyrighted by Harlequin Enterprises Ltd. All rights are reserved by the publisher.

 

An Infamous Gentleman…

Dangerously handsome, rakishly charming, William Tavener never planned to settle down—yet with his estate in ruins, the impoverished lord's only hope is to wed an heiress. But to his dismay, the one lady who stirs his ardor and excites his mind is a penniless musician's daughter…

A Scandalous Lady…

With her dubious lineage and humble dowry, Allegra Antinori knows Society deems her no great prize. Still, she hopes marriage to an honorable gentleman will secure her future—particularly if the groom is Rob Lynton, the family acquaintance she's always adored. So why does the entirely unsuitable Lord Tavener keep teasing her senses—and bedeviling her heart?

A Perfect Match…

Knowing they should part, can an incurable rogue and a forsaken lady resist the passion of a lifetime?

 

 


“With characters you care about, clever banter, a roguish hero and a captivating heroine, Justiss has written a charming and sensual love story.” 

— Joan Hammond, Romantic Times BOOKreviews Magazine

“A fantastic novel whose characters will defiantly capture your attention.”
— Emily at Publisher’s Weekly Behind Her Book.

 

 



 

 

CHAPTER 1

Standing at the library window, staring numbly at the bare late-winter garden below, Allegra Antinori scarcely registered the footsteps approaching from behind her.

“So this is where you’ve been hiding.”

Wincing at the breathy, little-girl voice—so at odds with the venomous tone in which the words had been uttered--Allegra reluctantly turned to gaze into the hard blue eyes of Uncle Robert’s wife.

Twitching her expensive, jet-trimmed black shawl into place, the young woman continued, “Poor Robert might have been too ill these last few months to prevent your lounging about, but it’s more than time you made yourself useful. Cease your sniveling and go help Hobbs bring the trays of meat and cheese up to the dining room. The mourners will be arriving shortly.”
After weeks spent at her uncle’s bedside as he slowly slipped toward death, Allegra was too drained and forlorn to challenge, as she would have otherwise, the woman’s petty tyranny.

“Very well, Aunt Sapphira.”

Those gentlemen-bewitching blue eyes shot her a look that would have frozen the Thames. “It’s Lady Lynton to you now, wench. I may have been forced to humor Robert and take you in after your parents died last fall, but you’ll stay on my terms now. Regardless of the airs you like to give yourself, you’re not really a member of the family and I will not tolerate your pretending otherwise.”

Devastated as she was by the loss in quick succession of the three people dearest to her, Allegra could not allow that claim to go uncontested. “Uncle Robert may not have been my uncle, but he was my mother’s dearest cousin—no matter how much you’d like to deny it,” she said.

“Perhaps by birth, but everyone knows Lady Grace’s whole family disowned her when she married your father. An itinerant musician—and a foreigner, no less! I suppose she learned some grasping Italian ways from her husband, for she certainly managed somehow to keep a hold over Robert. Letting her family run tame in his house whenever they came to London! But he can intervene for you no longer. If you wish to keep a roof over your head, you’ll abandon those pretensions or I’ll send you packing, see if I won’t! Now, go about your work.”

Smoldering fury momentarily overwhelming her grief, Allegra vowed she would be thrown out on the street tonight before she would curtsey to this female barely older than herself or call her “Lady Lynton.”

“I should be happy to help provide for the guests…Aunt Sapphira,” she replied, holding her ground and staring directly into the eyes of the woman who had beguiled her uncle into marriage a mere six months after the death of his beloved first wife.

Apparently realizing she could push Allegra only so far—or not wishing to lose a free extra servant when she expected a houseful of guests--Sapphira looked away first.

“Make sure you do whatever else Hobbs needs,” she said, turning to inspect herself in the library mirror. “And I’d better not see your dark face in the parlor while the guests are here. Why Robert acknowledged any connection to a chit who looks more like a gypsy than a proper English girl, I’ll never understand.”

With that parting shot, Sapphira smoothed her blond curls off the porcelain perfection of her brow and walked out.

Her meager strength drained by the confrontation, Allegra sank down on the sofa. She’d rest for a few moments and then go help Hobbs.

For the hundredth time she deplored the susceptibility of the male species to rosebud-pink lips, gentian blue eyes and golden curls above a well-curved figure. She only hoped that in the year her uncle had been married to Sapphira, he’d never learned how selfish and ruthless was the heart under that outwardly perfect form.

Suddenly released by her uncle’s death yesterday from the sickroom that had been her focus for weeks, Allegra had been drifting in a fog of lassitude and despair. Better to have something, anything, to fill the empty time now heavy on her hands, since she was still too weary and heartsick to decide what she should do next.

For a moment, the sense of being utterly alone in the world overwhelmed her. How she wished Uncle Robert’s son Rob had made it home to see his father one more time before his death! To share with her the agony of his loss, as with elder-brother affection he had befriended her during her childhood visits.

But the cousin Rob she had always—and secretly still—idolized was Captain Robert Lynton now, gone these three years with Wellington’s army. Having survived the slaughter of Waterloo, he was presently on staff duty in Paris.

Surely when the news of Uncle Robert’s death reached him, Wellington would let him come home, she thought, her spirits brightening.

Not that it would make much difference to her future. Much as she loved her uncle, only the sudden death of her parents at a time when papa’s finances had been in unusually dire straits had forced her to London to beg his assistance. She’d never intended her sojourn at Lynton House to be more than temporary. But Uncle Robert had already been ailing when she arrived, putting plans to move elsewhere on hold while she tended him--his beautiful new wife, she recalled with a curl of her lip, having professed a horror of the sickroom. With a roof over her head—however precariously, given the rancor in Sapphira’s eyes—and time to prepare, she would far rather find some other way to support herself than remain here on the new Lord Lynton’s charity—and at Sapphira’s mercy.

Not when she’d grown up in a family worthy of the name. Staring into the cold hearth, Allegra smiled. There might have been lean times, but so remarkable was her father’s musical talent that another patron, or a commission for a new ballet, concerto or sonata, always turned up in time to avert disaster. For the virtuoso and the beautiful wife he called his muse and inspiration, being together was worth every trial. Raised in the circle of their love, Allegra had never given a thought to her status in the wider world.

She would need to give it a great deal of thought now. Sapphira had just made it perfectly clear that, having resented every kind word and every morsel of food her uncle had provided during Allegra’s six months at Upper Brook Street, she intended to transform Allegra into an unpaid servant.

But deciding how to avoid that fate would have to wait until later. For now, Allegra thought as she hauled her weary body off the sofa, she would serve her uncle one last time by helping Hobbs and the staff prepare the meal for the mourners who were coming to honor the late Lord Lynton.
 


Hours later, Allegra was carrying a load of empty platters down to the kitchen when Hobbs returned from escorting out the last of the guests.

“I’ll take those now, Miss Allegra,” the butler said, hastening over to relieve her of her burden. “’Twas good of you to lend us a hand. Me and the staff be right sorry for your loss. Lord Lynton were a fine gentleman.”

“He was indeed,” Allegra said, touched and grateful for the deference the butler continued to show her, despite the fact that by now the staff must know their mistress was trying to relegate Allegra to a position among them.

“You been at the master’s bedside near without pause these last weeks. Why don’t you go up and rest?”

Truly, she was so tired she was swaying on her feet. “Thank you, Hobbs. I believe I shall.”
As she started toward the main stairs, Mrs. Bessborough, the housekeeper, put a hand on her arm, her face creased in concern. “Excuse me, Miss, but…” she exchanged a distressed look with the butler. “Oh, Miss, I’m powerful sorry, but her ladyship directed me to move your things out of the blue bedchamber.”

Allegra stopped and exhaled a sigh. Despite the press of guests today, Sapphira certainly hadn’t wasted any time enforcing Allegra’s change of status.

“It’s all right, Bessie.” She patted the arm of the woman, who, like Hobbs, had known her since she’d first toddled into Lynton kitchen clutching her mama’s skirts some twenty years ago. “Would you show me to my…new accommodations?”

“Yes, Miss. Follow me.” Shaking her head and clucking her displeasure, the housekeeper preceded Allegra up the service stairs.

As Allegra expected, the housekeeper did not stop until they reached the attic rooms where the female servants slept. “She told me to put you in with the maids, but there’s this nice storeroom under the eaves that held the late Lady Lynton’s trucks. Sam helped me move them so we could get a bed in. I’m afraid ‘tis a bit cramped, Miss, but you’ll have privacy.”
The woman’s kindness brought tears to Allegra’s eyes. “Are you sure, Bessie? I don’t wish to get you into trouble with Aunt Sapphira.”

The housekeeper sniffed. “Seeing as that one don’t never set her dainty foot to any stairs but the ones to her bedchamber, she’ll never know. And to think, the poor master’s not yet cold in his grave! I never thought I’d live to see such a thing. What do you mean to do, Miss?”
Allegra walked over and sank gratefully onto the bed. “I’m not sure yet.”

“You play the pianoforte and the violin just as beautifully as your pa ever did, God rest his soul. Might you be a musician like him?”

“Were I married to a musician, we might play together, but as a lone woman, I’m afraid ‘twould be nearly impossible to establish such a career.”

“Might you go on the stage? When you was a girl, you used to chatter on about all the theatres you’d visited.”

During her father’s occasional stints as a musician in theater orchestras, the family had struck up an acquaintance with a number of actors and theater managers. But while she could envision becoming a musician with enthusiasm, neither dancing nor acting held any appeal.

“No, I don’t think I have the talent to become a Siddons—or,” she added, chuckling, “the desire to display my legs in breeches roles, like Vestris.”

“Well, I should hope not!” the housekeeper exclaimed, looking properly shocked. “The best thing woulda been to find a fine young gentleman to marry you, which we all was hoping the master would do. But then he fell sick…” The housekeeper sighed, her voice trailing off.
Mrs. Bessborough might never have set foot in a Mayfair ballroom, but she knew very well that with Allegra’s mother discredited by her runaway marriage, entering the aristocratic world into which her mother had been born, difficult enough a feat for Allegra with Lord Lynton’s backing, would be impossible now in the face of Sapphira Lynton’s opposition.

“I doubt Uncle Robert would have arranged a match, even had he lived.” Nor, Allegra added silently, had she any desire to insinuate herself into the closed, self-important world that had rejected her mother simply for marrying the man she loved.

“I don’t suppose you know some nice young gentleman musician?” the housekeeper continued hopefully.

Allegra’s thoughts flew back to an incident eight months ago, just before her parents fell ill. Mama had called her aside to confide that a handsome young violinist in her father’s orchestra had requested permission to pay his addresses—and been refused.

“You mustn’t think Papa is not concerned with your feelings, rejecting Mr. Walker without even consulting you,” Lady Grace had assured her. “More than most parents, we believe loving the partner you marry is of absolute importance! Had we any suspicion that your affections were engaged, Papa would have told Mr. Walker to proceed. But since we did not, with Napoleon now banished to St. Helena for good, Papa has other plans for you.”

Gratified as she was to learn of the musician’s admiration, Allegra quickly confirmed that she was more curious about her future than disappointed that Papa had spurned her suitor. But though she pressed Lady Grace to say more, with a laugh and a kiss, her mama told her Papa would speak to her himself when the time was right.

Allegra smiled sadly. Whatever Papa’s plans had been, a virulent fever had carried off both him and her mother before the “right” time arrived. Leaving Allegra unwed, unattached and alone.

“I’m afraid there’s no one,” Allegra replied, swallowing hard at that forlorn truth.

Where in the world was there a place for Allegra Antinori? she wondered. But fatigue overwhelming that despairing thought, she lifted a hand to smother a yawn.

“Shame on me!” the housekeeper exclaimed. “Here I be rattling on when I expect all you want to do is fall into that bed and sleep for a week. Things will look better tomorrow, I daresay. Now, let me help you out of that gown and let you rest. I’ll send Lizzie up in the morning with your chocolate.”

“Thank you, Bessie,” Allegra said, gratitude again bringing tears to her lashes as she turned to let the woman undo her stays. Once tucked into bed, she pulled the covers over her head and went instantly to sleep.
 


Allegra awoke to pale sunlight making a faint warm square on the quilt covering her. Disoriented, she stared up at the small, high window though which the sunlight was streaming before recalling where she was and why.

The pain of remembering Uncle Robert’s death exceeded her sadness in being evicted from the blue and gold brocaded bedchamber that had always been hers and her mother’s when they visited here. Shivering in the cold, she got up quickly and dressed in a plain round gown she could manage on her own, then grabbed the lap desk Hobbs had set on Aunt Amelia’s trucks and climbed back on her bed, wrapping the quilt around her. Now, before Sapphira woke and sent for her to perform some task, she should ponder what she meant to do.

Though she had as yet only a hazy idea what that might be, she did know that she could not remain at Lynton House. She refused to jump at Sapphira’s bidding, nor did she wish to endanger her friends on the staff by making them choose between supporting her and obeying their mistress.

So what did she wish to do?

More than anything she would like a settled place to call her own…not a dreary succession of rented rooms with their mismatched and tattered furnishings which, using imagination and careful economy, her mama made into a home, only to begin all over again when Papa’s work took them to the next town and the next. Her mother might have been born a viscount’s daughter, but Lady Grace prided herself on how well she’d learned to deal with the most unprepossessing of accommodations, to direct a handful of servants when times were good, to cook, clean, mend and entertain without assistance when times were lean. Along with music, dancing, literature, needlework and the deportment required of a lady of birth, she’d made sure Allegra acquired those more practical skills, too.

Yes, Allegra thought, she’d love to have a permanent home and a position in which she could exercise her talents, perhaps provide some useful service.

Suddenly she recalled the visit she and her mother had paid years ago to Lady Grace’s former governess. After a career serving the children of the viscount’s family, that lady had retired to a snug cottage on a small parcel of land surrounded by a large kitchen garden and an orchard.
Ah, that would be security indeed, to possess a sturdy house on land of one’s own, something that did not depend upon the whims of society, that no disapproving relation could ever take away!

Perhaps she should seek work as a governess. A governess at a country estate with an extensive library and fine pianoforte, where she might spend her nights playing or reading after instructing her young charges in music, dance, literature and geography. Where she might set the little girls on her lap, as her mother had done with her, and teach them to embroider and mend, or help with the babes in the nursery. Since it was nearly certain, she thought with a deep pang of regret, that she would never marry and have children of her own.

Of course, a governess could be dismissed just as quickly as an unwanted relation, nor could one count on obtaining a pension and a house, even after a lifetime of service. She’d have to choose her position carefully.

She would begin a list of her qualifications and start looking for an employment agency immediately, she decided.

Allegra had just begun her list when, after a knock at the door, the maid Lizzie burst in.

“Oh, Miss, ‘tis so exciting! Hobbs said a letter just come from France and the young master—that is, the new Lord Lynton, be on his way home!”

Rob was coming home! A frisson of joy penetrated the grief lying heavy in her heart. “When?” she demanded.

“Hobbs didn’t say, Miss, but the staff thinks ‘twill be soon.” Setting down her tray, she added, “Mrs. Bessborough said to tell you to take heart, ‘cause things was gonna be different around here!”

After thanking Lizzie and assuring her she need not come back to fetch the tray, Allegra gestured the maid out.

Rob would soon be here. Allegra closed her eyes and savored the thought, as comforting as the scent of the hot chocolate. Warmed by the first good news she’d heard since her parents expired what seemed a lifetime ago, Allegra sipped the frothy beverage, a wistful smile on her lips as she remembered her last visit with Rob Lynton.

Blonde, handsome, five years her senior and very much on his dignity as an Oxford man, he’d discouraged her from trailing after him as she had when they were both younger, saying it was past time for her to tidy her hair, modulate her voice and behave like a proper young lady instead of a hot-tempered hoyden who argued with him at every turn. Though he’d refused her pleas for a renewal of the fencing lessons begun on her previous visit, he’d unbent enough to challenge her at chess, trounce her at billiards and allow her to ride with him in the park in the early morning when no one of consequence might observe his ramshackle cousin trotting at his heels.

The ache in her heart sharpened as she recalled that moment in the park when the romantic—and admittedly hoydenish--sixteen-year-old she’d been had suddenly decided her dearest wish was for Rob to realize she was a proper young lady—and the only lady he wanted. Casting covert, adoring glances at him as they rode, she’d envisioned him galloping up to her father’s lodgings, leaping from the saddle, declaring his undying love, and swearing his life would be meaningless unless she agreed to become his wife.

That had been…six years ago? Though she needed a gallant knight’s rescue now more than ever, she’d long outgrown that adolescent dream. Still, just knowing Rob was coming home sent a bubble of excitement and anticipation rising in her chest.

The young Rob she remembered would be a man now, a seasoned soldier who had survived desperate battles and gone on to keep the peace in a restive Paris. Decisive and commanding, he would be more than capable of prying the reins of his household from the clutches of his stepmother.

Bonaparte had just made his break from Elba, sending Rob racing to Belgium to coordinate the gathering of Wellington’s forces, when Sapphira began her assault on his father’s sensibilities, so Rob had never met the late Lord Lynton’s young bride. What would he make of his new “mama?” Allegra wondered.

Send her to the rightabout immediately, pouty pink lips, gilded hair, jutting bosom and all, Allegra devoutly hoped. But though Rob wasn’t elderly or grieving for a beloved wife’s touch, he was a man. She couldn’t be certain he would prove any more immune than Uncle Robert to Sapphira’s charms.

She should go forward with her plans to find employment elsewhere, Allegra concluded as she finished her chocolate, firmly banishing the stubborn relics of her old romantic dream. Though she would stay and see Rob established here as Lord Lynton before she embarked on a new life, the nauseating possibility that Sapphira might succeed in cozening Rob as successfully as she had beguiled his father made Allegra determined to have alternative plans for her future in place by the time Rob returned.

With one last sigh over the handsome countenance she so vividly remembered even after all these years, Allegra set aside her cup, took up her pen and went back to her list.


CHAPTER 2

On the other side of town, a knock at the door of his Chelsea parlor distracted William Tavener from his reading. Glancing up as the door swung open, he discovered his cousin Lucilla, Lady Domcaster, standing on the threshold, hands on hips as she surveyed the small, untidy space. In her elegant ruby pelisse and bonnet, she looked as out of place in his shabby sitting room as her expression of distaste proclaimed her to feel.

Covering his shock—and a surge of gladness—at seeing his favorite childhood cousin after a gap of two years, he rose from his chair and drawled, “Lucilla, my dear, what a surprise! Not a wise move coming here, you know. Leave immediately and I shall swear I never saw you.”

With a sniff, Lady Domcaster advanced into the room. “Oh, rubbish, Will. And you may save that forbidding look to intimidate your boxing opponents; you know it won’t frighten me. Gracious, what a dingy set of rooms!”

Realizing with perhaps too great a sense of relief that Louisa wasn’t going to allow him to scare her off, he gave an affected sigh and gestured languidly to the sofa. “Come in then, if you must. My apologies that the accommodations aren’t up to your standards. Though I’d still advise you to reconsider this call.”

“If you’d answered either of my two notes,” Lucilla replied as she seated herself, “I wouldn’t have to do something as scandalous as visiting my bachelor cousin in his rooms.”

Will brought one hand up over his heart. “Dear me! My wicked reputation. Is Domcaster likely to call me out?”

“Oh, I can handle my lord husband,” Lucilla assured him, a sparkle in her eye. “Besides, the on-dit says you only seduce married ladies in their own boudoirs or in love nests of their providing. Now, since I’ve already committed the impropriety of coming here, you might as well offer me refreshment—if there’s any to be had?”

“Give me a moment and I’ll see if Barrows can scare up some wine.” After delivering her a courtly bow, which she waved off with a grin, he entered his chamber to hail his valet, friend and man-of-all-work.

Barrows stepped back so abruptly, Will knew he must have been listening at the door. “Quite an astounding development!” Barrows said in an undertone. “Shall I fetch wine or stay to play chaperone?”

“Wine,” Will replied softly. “The better to send her on her way more quickly.”

“Excellent point,” Barrows replied and headed toward the back exit.

The errand gave Will a moment to trap the joy his cousin’s unexpected visit had surprised from him and bottle it back under the urbane, bored demeanor he affected.

“Wine is forthcoming,” he announced as he walked back in. “So, to what do I owe the honor of this highly irregular visit?”

“Did you not even read the notes I sent?” Lucilla asked with a touch of exasperation.

As if he would not have immediately devoured the contents of the first correspondence he’d received from any relation in nearly two years. But afraid, if he called upon her as she’d bid, he might not be strong enough to resist the temptation to renew the friendship they’d shared in their youth—a liaison that would now reflect no credit upon an otherwise respectable matron—he’d chosen not to go to North Audley Street.

Warmed as he was by her persistence in seeking him out, it would still be best for her if he rebuffed any attempts to renew that connection. Not correcting her mistaken impression of his indolence, he gave her instead a lazy grin. “Refresh my memory.”

“After being buried in the country producing offspring for years, now that Maria and Sarah are old enough to acquire a bit of town bronze and with Mark reading for Oxford, Domcaster agreed to my having the Season in London he’s long promised.”

“Your many friends must be ecstatic. Why contact me?”

Lucilla shook her head. “Don’t try to cozen me. When I walked in, before you put your mask-face back on, I could tell you were as pleased to see me as I am to see you. I’ve missed you, Will!”

Before he could divine her intent, she came over and seized him in a hug. Shocked anew, he allowed himself just a moment to fiercely return the pressure of her arms before setting her gently aside. “Lucilla, you unman me.”;

“Oh, do drop that irritating manner and let us speak frankly. I expect you believe that my being seen with you can do my reputation no good, but what I propose will change all that. Fortunately, there is still time for you to make a recover before you succeed in isolating yourself permanently from good society.”

He’d suspected she wanted to quietly resume their friendship, interrupted by their both coming of age and her marriage. Surprised once again, he said, “That sounds foreboding. I tremble to think what you intend.”

“I intend to put a period to your career as a sometime gambler and full-time beguiler of ladies no better than they should be! Though I might have been buried in Hertfortshire raising a family, my dear friend Lydia here in London has kept me fully informed. Domcaster said one must expect a young man to sow some wild oats, but really, my dear, you’re nearing thirty now. ‘Tis past time you settled to something more useful than fleecing lambs at whist and seducing other men’s wives.”

“They were not all of them wives,” he pointed out, amused. “’Twas a fair number of widows sprinkled in.”;

“A good thing for your health. I understand some not-so-amenable husbands of several of your paramours almost insisted on grass for breakfast.”

“Since I was always able to persuade the injured party to swords rather than pistols, there wasn’t much danger. You know how good I am with a blade. Honor upheld, no one hurt.”

“Heavens, Will!” Lucilla exclaimed, laughing. “Trust you to leave both the lady and her husband satisfied.”

Will reached down to pick a speck of lint off the sleeve of his best jacket. “One must have a little excitement in one’s life, Lucilla.”

“Indeed.” Lucilla shook her head. “Although I should think your bouts at Gentleman Jackson’s—yes, Lydia has kept us informed about your boxing career!--would satisfy that desire! You’ve always been such a scrapper, I never understood why Uncle Harold refused to purchase you a commission. You could have been decimating the ranks of French cuirassiers instead of setting your lance at every loose-moraled woman in London.”

A vivid memory flashed into mind…his uncle impatiently dismissing Will’s plea to buy a set of colors, replying he had no intention of wasting his blunt sending Will where he’d only get his worthless carcass skewered by some Polish lancer. Though Will should have expected that, even with a war on, Uncle Harold would not consider the army in dire enough straits to require the dubious services of his late sister’s troublesome orphan..

“Someone must care for the poor unloved ladies,” he said after a moment.

Something like pity flickered briefly on Lucilla’s face. “You would know about the unloved part! I still think it atrocious the way Aunt Millicent—“

Will put a finger to her lips before she ventured into territory he’d rather not examine. “Enough!” He smiled, letting his affection show through this time. “You were ever my champion, even when we were quite young. Though what you saw in a grubby urchin who was always spoiling for a fight, I do not know.”;

“Courage. Dignity. A keen sense of fair play,” she answered softly. “Or maybe,” she added with a grin before he could act on the compulsion to defuse her praise with some witticism, “it was just that, unlike Uncle Harold’s obnoxious son, you did not believe yourself above riding and rousting about with a mere girl.”

“What a pair we were!” Will chuckled. “You, at least, overcame your wild youth. I do appreciate your loyalty, you know.”

A knock indicated the return of Barrows, who entered to serve the wine before quietly bowing himself out again.

“I wasn’t able to do anything useful for you when we were children,” Lucilla continued after sipping her wine. “But I vowed that someday, if I had the chance, I would. As the wife of an earl—who just happens to be related to two of the Almack patronesses--I have an unassailable position in society, a whole Season in which to wield my power, and I’ve decided it’s time you assumed the place to which you were born.”

Will spread his arms wide. “Behold me occupying that position! Baron Penniless of Wrack-and-Ruin Manor.”;

Ignoring the bitterness in his tone, she nodded. “Exactly. You are still a baron. Uncle might have shamefully neglected the property put under his guardianship, but Brookwillow still possesses a stout stone manor house situated on a fine piece of land. Both need only an infusion of cash to put them to rights. You merely need to leave off pursuing light-skirted matrons and start looking for a wealthy bride. And I intend to help you find one.”

The idea was so preposterous, Will could not help laughing. “My dear, you are a dreamer! I hardly think I would be of interest to any respectable woman—unless she’s attics-to-let. Even should I manage to charm some tender innocent, no papa worth his salt would countenance my suit.”;

“Nonsense,” Lucilla returned roundly. “You speak as if you were steeped in vice! You’ve only done what most young men do--game and seduce women all too willing to be seduced—albeit with a bit more flair. Indeed, I suspect Uncle Harold is proud of your reputation, though he’d never admit it. However, as head of the family, he will support your efforts to become established in good society.”

“He told you that?” Will asked, astounded..

“Why should he not? Since to do so,” she added dryly, “costs him neither time nor blunt. With your breeding and family connections, charming an innocent shouldn’t prove much of a challenge. You’re quite a handsome devil, you know, and what girl can resist the lure of a rake’s reputation?”

He stared at her a moment. “Given my ‘rake’s reputation,’ what does your lord husband have to say about your running tame with me?”

“You know Marcus always liked you, even when you were milling down every boy who whispered behind your back at Eton. He agrees that you ought to assume the responsibilities of your rank.” Lucilla giggled. “And knowing how he detests London, you may easily understand why he was happy to agree that you stand in for him as my escort to every party, ball and rout I chose to attend.”

“He trusts me that much—in spite of my reputation?”

Lucilla’s face grew serious. “He knows you would never do me harm—and so do I. Besides, the girls and their governess are with me, so we shall appear quite the family. Now, what we need to find you is a gently-bred lass from the lower ranks. Despite Uncle Harold’s support, with your…limited means, ‘tis best not to aspire to the hand of a duke or earl’s daughter. Perhaps a chit whose family wishes her to acquire a title…especially if she had a nabob grandfather to leave her his wealth!“

Holding up his hands, Will shook his head. “Lucilla my dear, I appreciate your kind intentions, but spare me! I’ve no desire to become a tenant for life.”

“What would you become, then? ‘Tis past time to cease drifting as you have since leaving Oxford. Would it be so bad to find a kind, sensible girl to care for, who will care about you? One whose dowry will allow you to repair the manor house, refurbish your land and begin living as befits a Lord Tavener of Brookwillow?”

She gestured around the room. “You’ll never convince me you’d be sorry to give up this. Only think! Instead of a rented room--which hasn’t even a pianoforte!--you might recline in your own music room at Brookwillow. Become a patron of the arts, sponsor musicales and theatricals. Write music as you once did. Fill the library with all the rubbishy books you used to bring home from Eton and Oxford.” She giggled again. “Much to the horror of Uncle Harold.”

Will smiled. “The only thing more awful to our uncle than a nephew who wrote music was the idea of one becoming a scholar. I once choused him out of 200 pounds by threatening to accept a position as a don at Christ Church.”;

“Did they really offer you a post?” Lucilla asked, diverted. “I think you might have been a good one.”

“No, I was wise not to accept it, even if I was angry at the time with Uncle Harold for not buying me that commission.” And despairing of what his future could offer, with a crumbling estate, no money and no chance to harness his few talents to earn any. “There wouldn’t have been any married ladies of wealth there for me to pursue.”;

“True. But you’re bored with that now.”

He raised his eyebrows. “Am I?”

“Yes. Lydia reports you’ve not been involved in any new scandal for months. I understand you even rebuffed Lady Marlow’s quite flagrant lures.”

“Please, I beg you will not repeat that. Only consider my reputation!”

“No doubt ‘twas your reputation as a lover that led her to pursue you.” She gave him a wicked look. “Employ those talents to charm your well-dowered maiden and you will both be happy! Marriage can be much more than a dreary arrangement based on wealth and position, as I can attest with great satisfaction.”

Hoping to throw her off, he gave her a lascivious look. “You certainly have the offspring to prove it.”

“’Tis another benefit of wedlock,” she replied, not at all embarrassed. “You might have a son.”

Will shuddered. “I can’t imagine anyone more ill-suited for the role of father. With my parents dead since I was a lad, what do I know about it?”

“You certainly know what not to do. Now, once the Season begins, I’m hosting a dinner for Lydia’s niece Cecelia, after which we will proceed to Lady Ormsby’s rout. You can make your first appearance then.” She cast a discerning eye over his attire and frowned. “It will give you enough time to get to the tailor and have some new garments made.”

“I am attending this rout, am I?”;

Her face softened and she reached over to take his hand. “Dear Will, forgive me! I know I am terribly managing—which, I suppose, is what comes of running a household that includes a score of servants and three active children! I just want you to be happy, living in a place and a style worthy of you. I want you to have a chance to find the family you were robbed of as a child. I can’t make up for the lack of the commission or change the standards that forbid a gentleman from pursuing a career as a musician or scholar, but I can do this. Won’t you at least try to become respectable? If we don’t find an heiress to your liking, you can always go back to living the way you are now. What can you lose?”

“Several months of pursuing willing widows?” he suggested. But Lucilla was right. He was bored with the emptiness of his life, dissatisfied, restless, yearning for some indefinable something more.

He was by no means sure that acquiring a wife would satisfy those longings, however. “I doubt I have the temperament for matrimony,” he objected. “I’ve lived on my own so long, I don’t know that I could tolerate having a woman about all the time.”;

“You’ve always enjoyed my company, haven’t you?”

He grinned. “Ah, but I don’t live with you day in and day out.”

“Well, married couples needn’t live in each other’s pockets either. Indeed, much as I adore Domcaster, with his duties on the land and in town and mine with the house and children, we often go for days seeing each other only at dinner…or at night. Among all the young ladies on the Marriage Mart, surely you can find one who would be that congenial.”

“Perhaps,” Will temporized, not really putting much credit in that happy prediction. Certainly he had no illusions of tumbling into some great love match, as his cousin had. Save for Lucilla, the one relative who had inexplicably taken into her heart the fractious boy everyone else rebuffed, he knew about as much about familial affection as he did about fathering.

Indeed, the people to whom he was closest, he thought with a wry grimace, were neither of his own kin nor class. Barrows, now his valet and companion, a scruffy gutter rat he’d rescued when they were both boys. Maud and Andrew Phillips, the elderly caretakers of what was left of his crumbling estate, who’d shown him all he knew of parental affection. A pang of guilt pierced him that he’d not made the trip to Brookwillow to visit them in months.

Perhaps, if he could tell them he’d acquired the means to restore his ravaged estate and make easy their declining years, he might not be so reluctant to make the trip..

Even as he told himself it was highly improbable that Lucilla’s scheme could achieve that result, he heard himself say, “Very well, send me a card. I’ll make myself presentable and attend.”

“Wonderful!” Lucilla rose and gave him another hug. “Come for dinner next week. Domcaster is looking forward to talking with you.” As he walked her to the door she added, “I should have thought the last rich widow you dallied with would have kept a better kitchen. You look half-starved. You don’t need any money for the tailor—“

“No,” he interrupted, feeling heat flush his cheeks. Since his luck at the tables had been out of late, her comment about his ability to provide himself with food and raiment cut a bit too close for comfort. “My dear, my time with Clorinda was spent dining on delights far more arousing than any a chef could devise.”

She batted his arm. “If you’re trying to put me to the blush, you’re all out. Domcaster says I have no sensibility at all. Very good! I’ll send you the invitation.”

He bowed. “As you command, my lady.”;

“Stuff!” she said, making a face at him. “No, you needn’t see me to my carriage,” she added as he opened the door and made to walk her out. “My maid Berthe is waiting.” She pointed down the hall to a young woman who stood by the staircase, a livried footman beside her. “Until next week, then. It is good to see you again, Will,” she added softly before she turned to stroll away.

“You, too, Lucilla,” he murmured, returning her wave before she disappeared down the stairs.

Slowly Will reentered his room and sat back down in his chair. Lord Tavener of Brookwillow Manor. Could he really become such a man? Restore his house, revive the land, take up his music again, build a true scholar’s library? Find someone who wished to share that life?

It seemed too good to be true…but in the last nine years, he’d not found any other way to achieve that dream. He discovered quickly enough after leaving Oxford that gaming, the only source of income open to a gentleman of no resources who wished to remain a gentleman, provided too irregular an income to facilitate the restoration of his birthright, nor after meeting his basic needs was there ever enough left to invest in some capital-generating venture. Nothing less than a substantial influx of cash—the sort that could be provided by the richly-dowered bride Lucilla proposed to find him--could accomplish the task.

Already in poor condition at the time of his father’s death, Brookwillow had been too modest a property and too needful of time and serious investment to set it to rights to induce his uncle and guardian, the Earl of Pennhurst, possessed as he was of so many grander and more extensive lands, to bother with it. The last time Will had visited his estate, rain was dripping through the dining room roof and birds nested in the upper guest chambers. The Phillips managed to keep the servant’s quarters and kitchen habitable, but could do little with the rest.

As for the land, a few tenants still worked small plots around their cottages, but there weren’t nearly enough acres under cultivation to produce a saleable crop. Not that, after spending his youth at boarding schools, he had any idea how to go about transforming the estate into a productive agricultural property..

In short, his indifferent uncle’s provision of the bare modicum of a gentleman’s upbringing had left Will with few resources and no useable skills. His only innate talent, beyond music, scholarship and a way with cards and horses, seemed to be the ability to beguile bored women into his bed. Though at first, that unexpected aptitude had amused him and kept loneliness at bay, of late, even this facility had lost its charm. And no matter how many sessions he battled every contender who dared challenge him at Gentleman Jackson’s, he could no longer box away the sense of emptiness inside.

While he was pondering the possibilities, Barrows walked back in. “So to what did we owe the honor of Lady Domcaster’s most improper visit?”

Will smiled. “It seems I am to become a respectable member of the gentry, Barrows. Leave off gambling, shun immoral women, and find a tender bud of an heiress who will embrace me willingly, love me madly and hand over her fortune so I can restore Brookwillow.”

Picking up the glass Lucilla had left, Barrows drained the last of the wine. “Do you know anything about charming a respectable maid?”

“About as much as I do about farming. But Lucilla insists I have naught to lose by attempting it. Perhaps ‘twill be entertaining to attend some ton parties.”

“You’ve always derived enjoyment from your cousin’s company,” Barrows pointed out. “And I have perceived of late that you seemed disinclined to accept some of the lures cast at you. Why, Lady Marlow practically—“;

“Not you too,” Will groaned.

“If pursuing the improper sort of female has left you dissatisfied, attempting to entice the other sort might at least add a spice of variety to your life.”

“I expect we shall see. Count how many coins we’ve set aside, won’t you? It seems I must visit the tailor. I’m to make my grand entrance soon at Lady Ormsby’s rout.”

“At once, m’lord.” Raising the glass to him, Barrows walked out.

Add a spice of variety to his existence. Yes, entering the ton should do that. After a lifetime of being an outsider, the child not wanted, the student left behind at school during term breaks, he had no expectation that Lucilla’s experiment would do anything more.

 


Extra Chapter!

In honor of the March 2009 UK release of ROGUE’S LADY, I’ve added to the ROGUE’S LADY bookshelf an “extra” chapter written for the now-defunct Amazon Short program. Entitled “The Rogue Entices,” this episode, available for the first time, takes Will and Allegra on a visit to Astley’s Amphitheatre, a famous entertainment venue founded by a former cavalry man that featured dazzling displays of equestrian skill. While Will and Allegra watch the horsemanship under the eye of Allegra’s chaperone, both try to ignore the budding friendship that enhances their physical attraction and remind themselves they each need to concentrate on trying to make respectable marriages—to someone else. Enjoy!


"The Rogue Entices"

With a sense of exuberant expectation, Allegra Antinori peeped out the heavy drapes of her blue bedchamber.  As if sharing her optimism, bright morning sunlight filled Upper Brook Street with dappled shadows.

Her long-cherished dream might become reality after all!  Though Rob Lynton, her distant cousin and defacto guardian, had chastised her for driving to view the Elgin Marbles in the company of the rakish Lord Tavener, he had also been unusually attentive last night.  He’d lingered in the parlor before going to his club, chatting with her and her chaperone Mrs. Randall, admiration in his eyes as he complemented her on the new coral dinner gown that showed her brunette locks and dark eyes to best advantage.

Ah, Rob.  Her eyes went misty and she sighed as she pictured him, tall, blond and commanding in his red Guards uniform.  A uniform, which, after covering it with distinction, he was soon to exchange for civilian dress.  Though she was certain he’d look no less appealing with his handsome form encased in formal black evening wear, a snowy cravat at his throat.  A little quiver of attraction fluttered in her breast at the thought.

Oh, if only she could bedazzle him!  Nothing would assuage the bitter loss of first her parents, then Rob’s father this past year.  But if she could manage to entice her childhood hero into recognizing that the hoydenish companion of his youth had grown into a fascinating, attractive woman, one he admired, one he wished to marry, some of the pain in her sorely-troubled heart would be eased.

In addition, her future, at present precarious in the extreme, would be secured.  Marriage to Rob would reestablish her among the ton her mother had abandoned when she ran away to marry the man she loved—an Italian musician of neither stature nor standing.

But what a love her parents had shared!  Never had her mother regretted throwing away the advantages of her birth to follow the man she adored.  Raised in the circle of that devotion, until their deaths from a virulent fever left her suddenly friendless, alone and nearly indigent, Allegra had never questioned the wisdom of her mother’s choice. 

More than anything, Allegra longed to find such passion…but with Rob, a man of impeccable birth and position.  As his wife, she could treasure the memory of her unconventional childhood without ever again worrying about having a roof over her head or a place to belong.

A sudden movement on the street below interrupted her daydreams.  A hackney carriage pulled up at the steps of Lynton House and paused to discharge a single passenger.  One glance at the whipcord lean gentleman who alighted, sun gleaming on the lock of dark hair that brushed his forehead, the slightly crooked nose, the sensual lips, and shock raced to every nerve.

Will Tavener!  Of course, when he’d escorted her back after their drive yesterday, he’d announced his intention to call again, but she hadn’t thought he would return so soon.  And how like him to arrive early, well before usual calling hours.

Rob’s stern reprimand echoed in her ears:  Unfortunately, since Lord Tavener is cousin to Society leader Lady Domcaster and has entrée everywhere, it is impossible for you to cut the man completely.  Acknowledge him at balls and routs, even dance with him if no acceptable excuse to decline presents itself.  But with your acceptance by the ton still questionable, you absolutely must sidestep any invitations that might place you in his sole company--as you were during that ill-considered drive today!

Rob did pay more attention to her when Tavener was near, which was why she’d encouraged the rake’s attentions from their first meeting at Lady Ormsby’s rout—was it just two days ago?

Well, not the only reason, she acknowledged with a tweak of conscience.  One glance into those mesmerizing blue eyes and she’d had no trouble imagining how he’d earned that rogue’s reputation.  She’d even, for an instant, conceived the ridiculous notion that he could look straight into her soul. 

Absurd, of course.  Even more dangerous was the masculine allure he radiated, that made her want to move closer to him, feast her gaze upon his face and bask in the intensity of that feral gaze.  His skill as an amateur boxer must be responsible, she thought, for the slight air of menace that hung about him, both enticing and alarming her.

And though she might never face him in the ring, he posed no less a peril to her than he did to the adversaries he was said to have bested at Gentleman Jackson’s.  Will Tavener was a rogue of the first stare, something she would probably have known intuitively at first glance even had she not had the benefit of Molly’s sage counsel. 

A young actress whose company Allegra’s strict parents would have forbidden her had they ever discovered how close an acquaintance the two had struck up, Molly had befriended Allegra one summer when Papa directed the orchestra of the theatre at which Molly was performing.  By observing Molly’s amours and from the actress’s frank answers to her eager questions, Allegra had gained a wary appreciation for a rogue’s charm—and the heartache due any woman who succumbed to one.

A little shiver passed over her skin as she recalled the way Tavener’s gaze had roved her body, lingered at her lips, her breasts.  Something stirred deep within her.

And his conversation!  The little quiver in her belly intensified as she recalled how he’d likened her to Aphrodite arising from the sea.  How, after she’d responded that a gentleman did not compare a respectable maiden to an unclothed goddess, he’d disarmed her reproof and charmed her by apologizing even as he complimented the depth of her knowledge of classical mythology. 

‘Twas no wonder, as he’d confessed that night at the rout, that he flustered the shy innocents in their first Seasons to whom Lady Domcaster introduced him. 

In fact, ‘twas in response to his plea that she teach him to converse with propriety that she’d agreed to see him again.  If eligible young maidens fled at his approach, he’d told her wryly, he would never manage to entice an heiress of good birth into matrimony, as he frankly admitted he must do.

The front door below opened to admit Tavener.  Allegra stood at the window irresolute, one hand still clutching the brocaded curtains.

Rob had been not just attentive, but seriously annoyed by her drive with Tavener.  How could she expect the ton to accept her as a well-brought-up young lady of good character, Rob argued, if she allowed herself to be seen in the company of that rogue?  Basking in the glow of Rob’s undivided, if aggrievated, attention, she’d promised to be more circumspect in future. 

Perhaps she ought to have the butler tell Tavener she was not receiving.

On the other hand, she had promised to help Tavener with his conversation.  The intensity that had come over his face—an intensity that had nothing sensual about it—as he spoke about the crumbling estate he’d inherited and his determination to restore it had struck a responsive chord in her.  Like Allegra, Tavener sought a settled home and an established place in society.  How could she not wish to help him?

Surely it would be acceptable to receive him in Rob’s own drawing room with her chaperone Mrs. Randall in attendance.  And if she must redirect more of his deliciously improper conversation, she would gird herself to the challenge.  A flutter of anticipation warmed her at the thought.

Besides, knowing she had received a morning call from Tavener would keep Rob’s attention focused on her.

Wasn’t that what she wanted?

Her decision made, Allegra paced to her wardrobe.  No reason, while she tutored Lord Tavener, not to look her most attractive, she thought, firmly steering her mind from imagining an appreciative glow in Tavener’s feral blue eyes.

 

Mrs. Randall was already in the drawing room with Lord Tavener when Allegra entered some ten minutes later.  Though she thought she’d anticipated it, still the force of the gaze he fixed on her as he slowly inspected her from slippers to the crown of her curls stopped her in mid-step.  All thought suspended and she struggled for breath as the sheer power of his presence washed over her.

Forcing her stuttering mind and paralyzed limbs back into motion, Allegra continued into the room.  She only hoped that Tavener, who’d shown himself previously to possess uncanny powers of observation, had not been able to discern how deeply he affected her.

Before she could steel herself against him, his expression changed from masculine appraisal to the welcoming warmth of someone encountering a good friend.  Despite her wariness, she felt within herself a matching wave of gladness.

“Ah, Miss Antinori, how delightful to see you again!  I’ve just been telling Mrs. Randall how much I enjoyed our outing to view the Elgin Marbles yesterday.”

With difficulty, Allegra pulled her gaze from his.  Telling herself she would be circumspect, just as Rob would wish, she took a seat, motioning him to regain his own.

“Yes, the sculptures were magnificent.  Thank you for taking me to see them.”

“You find me so enthused by that first excursion that I could not wait to propose another.  Although this time, we must insist Mrs. Randall share in our enjoyment, do you not think?”

“Indeed,” Allegra agreed, a bit surprised.  So Tavener had meant it when he told her upon their return yesterday, his usually teasing expression gone suddenly solemn, that since being seen with him without her chaperone might endanger her reputation, in future he would take care to insure Mrs. Randall accompanied them everywhere.

Both grateful for his concern—and secretly disappointed that she would not in future have his titillating company all to herself--she replied, “I quite agree.”

The shy Mrs. Randall blushed under the full force of Tavener’s smile.  “You are both too kind!  Although a drive with Lord Tavener to a place of cultural distinction, in an open curricle for all the world to see, must be accounted quite unexceptional, I am flattered that you wish my company.”

Without conscious volition, Allegra’s gaze rose to Tavener’s.  From his regretful expression, she suspected he’d guessed at the peal her guardian had rung over her for driving out alone with him, no matter how unexceptional such a venture would have been had she been escorted by a gentleman of unblemished reputation.

“Not that I think I should have enjoyed viewing the sculpture quite as much as you both profess to do,” Mrs. Randall rambled on.  “Allegra was quite in raptures over it last night, Lord Tavener, so I do again thank you for inviting her.”

“Then we must devise an excursion more appealing to you, ma’am.  Have you had occasion since your arrival to visit Astley’s Amphitheatre?” Tavener asked her chaperone.  “’Tis a place of entertainment opened by a former hussar which offers wonderful equestrian spectacles.”

“Equestrian spectacles?” Mrs. Randall echoed, her face brightening.  “You mean trick riding and such?  Oh, that sounds delightful!”

“There is a performance every afternoon.  I should be happy to arrange for tickets and escort you ladies later today, if such a visit would not conflict with your other engagements.”

Tavener turned to look at Allegra, his innocent smile taking on a wicked edge.  Amused but also a bit annoyed, she struggled not to smile back.

So much for Tavener’s laudable intentions.  Though the form of the outing he was suggesting was entirely proper, he must know that to accompany him again so soon, before any other gentleman had sought her out for such an honor, would almost surely invite the renewed censure of her guardian. 

Before she could think of some polite objection, he said, “I know it is most unchivalrous of me to steal a march on the visitors who intend to call today.  But if I refrain, I shall soon find myself lost in the crowd of suitors sure to besiege Upper Brook Street once more gentlemen of the ton discover Miss Antinori.  So enjoyable did I find our previous excursion, I am loath to waste any opportunity to repeat it.”

Mrs. Randall murmured her approval of this gallant speech and even Allegra couldn’t help feeling a bit flattered by this fervent avowal of his desire for her company.  But tempering her appreciation was the knowledge that he had just effectively maneuvered her into having to accept his invitation, despite her guardian’s probable objections.  A fact of which, the quirk of his lips and the amused gleam in his eye told her, he was very well aware.

With that perspicacity she’d noted earlier, he’d apparently discerned from Mrs. Randall’s open reception of him that Allegra had not confided to that lady any of the disapproval her guardian had probably expressed over his previous escort.  Allegra could find no compelling reason to object to an outing for which Mrs. Randall had expressed her enthusiasm without revealing Rob’s reservations to that lady.  Which, even if she wished to, would be both improper and impolite to do while in that gentleman’s presence.

Besides, until she knew whether encouraging Tavener would indeed keep Rob’s interest focused on her, she didn’t want to reveal Rob’s strictures to her chaperone and perhaps induce that timid lady to forbid Tavener the house.

Allegra directed a reproachful look at Tavener, to which he responded with a tiny shrug and an apologetic smile that seemed to say “how could I resist?”

For a moment longer, she struggled to hang on to her resentment over his high-handedness.  But it was no use; admiration for the cleverness of his ploy--and a guilty delight at the instinctive, wordless communication they seemed to share—soon dissolved it.  Tavener might be manipulating her into seeing him again, but the sad fact was she was quite willing to be so manipulated.

Not that she intended to let his little victory go totally unchallenged.

“Are you sure such an excursion would not prevent you from receiving your friends today?” Allegra asked Mrs. Randall.  “You mentioned that several of them are in town now.”

“Oh, I expect I shall see them at any number of social engagements.  I should much prefer to visit Astley’s.”

Darting a swift, teasingly triumphant glance at Allegra, Tavener rose and bowed to Mrs. Randall.  “Then I shall take my leave and make the arrangements.  Until later, ladies?”  With a touch of his lips to Allegra’s gloved hand that left her fingers tingling, he exited the room.

 

Several hours later, not sure whether she was glad or sorry Tavener’s strategem to escort her today had succeeded, Allegra found herself seated between him and Mrs. Randall in the huge oval auditorium at Astley’s.  She had to admit that Tavener had been everything gentlemanly, from the time of his arrival in a capacious hackney to bear them to the site near Westminster Bridge, to his escorting them to prime seats with a good view of the sawdust floor, to his procuring of refreshments for their enjoyment during the performances. 

And if Allegra was all too conscious of the masculine aura radiating from his tall form seated beside her, the needles that seem to prickle her skin as his elbow brushed hers or their hands met as he passed her wine and biscuits, that must be accounted her fault, not his.

Much of Allegra’s initial discomfort over his distracting nearness faded as the performances began.  Pony races were succeeded by the spectacle of performing dogs jumping through rings of fire, then a trio of equestrians who rode bareback at a gallop while standing, kneeling, and balancing on their hands.

Her chaperone was even more enchanted.  Her face glowing, Mrs. Randall watched the performances with rapt attention, clapping enthusiastically after each act.  “Lord Tavener, I cannot thank you enough for bringing us!” she told him during a pause while the stagehands rearranged the set.  “The horses in particular are outstanding, as are their riders, of course.  Although I could never aspire to perform such tricks as those, I’ve always enjoyed the activity.  Riding is such marvelous exercise, is it not?”

Lord Tavener’s lips quirked into a mischievous smile.  “Indeed, ‘tis an activity in which I delight.”

“An excellent pastime, don’t you agree, Allegra?” Mrs. Randall went on.  “It both strengthens and relaxes the body.”

Tavener’s smile deepened.  “Ah, yes, I savor both the…strengthening and the eventual relaxation,” he drawled, sending Allegra a wicked glance.

“It can be wearying,” Mrs. Randall continued, all unaware.  “But ah, the freshness of the air upon one’s skin, the keen appreciation of one’s surroundings, make it worth the attention and effort required.”

“I’m always prepared to devote to it the attention and effort it requires,” Tavener replied promptly.

He was openly grinning now.  Torn between alarm and amusement, Allegra hardly knew what to respond.  Had she not had Molly’s tutelage in carnal matters, she might be as oblivious as the innocent Mrs. Randall of the double meaning of Tavener’s speech. 

As an unwed maiden of good birth, she should be unaware.  Which meant, although he was taking flagrant advantage of poor Mrs. Randall, Allegra couldn’t rebuke him without revealing a knowledge she was not supposed to possess.  By the look in his dancing eyes and the barely-suppressed laughter quivering on his lips as he watched her, she knew beyond doubt that he knew she knew and was forced to remain silent.

Even worse, she couldn’t quite suppress the image his word-play conjured up…his powerful torso, freed from the restraint of jacket, shirt and neckcloth, splayed against the pillows, his hands on her breasts, moving beneath her as she straddled him in the manner Molly had so enthusiastically and graphically described. 

So distracted was Allegra in trying to subdue her rampaging imagination that Tavener’s voice at her ear made her jump.

“You’ve not expressed your opinion on the exercise, Miss Antinori,” he murmured, his naughty gaze fixed on her face.  “Though I suspect you are envisioning it as we speak.  I promise, you would find it…satisfying.  Euphoric, even.”

Fanning her suddenly hot cheeks, Allegra said repressively, “As I have never owned a horse, I have no experience of the exercise.”  Which was not precisely correct, but true enough of the sort of riding he was describing.  “Nor do I expect to attain such knowledge unless I marry and my husband chooses to provide a mount and instruct me.”

Chuckling, Tavener said, “I can assure you he will be eager to do so!  And at the hands of the right teacher, I am certain you will very much enjoy the activity.”

“Oh, indeed you shall, Allegra,” Mrs. Randall inserted earnestly.  “Though you must practice.  At first, unused to the activity, you may find it a bit…chafing, but one quickly becomes accustomed.  And if you wish to perfect your skill more quickly, you might want to ride several times a day.”

Tavener raised his head and shuddered.  “A blessing devoutly to be wished!  I give that recommendation my complete approval, ma’am.”

Allegra glared at him.  “A teacher might find such repeated…demonstrations tiring.”

His full grin reappeared.  “Never could one exhaust oneself in a better cause.”

“Oh, no, Allegra,” Mrs. Randall put in.  “Being himself already an expert, an instructor will be quite used to expending the effort required.  If he is an enthusiast, I’m sure he will find such repetition exhilarating.”

Allegra choked, but somehow Tavener managed to maintain his countenance.  Nodding gravely, he replied, “I imagine he would devote himself utterly to perfecting his student’s skill.  I am equally sure Miss Antinori will prove a very apt pupil.”

Oh, he was insufferable!  But suddenly the ridiculousness of the conversation, Mrs. Randall all unknowingly embellishing Tavener’s randy comments, overcame her.  To her chaperone’s surprise and confusion, Allegra burst out laughing.

To be sure, Tavener was a rogue, but such an entertaining one!  He kept her exhilarated and on edge, never sure what outrageous comment he’d come up with next.  Or what forbidden longing he might inspire in her…

”Indeed you may hope I shall prove apt,” Allegra said drily when she’d recovered from her mirth.  “But the next performance is about to begin.  Shall we devote our attention to the stage?” 

As she turned her face to do just that, Tavener bent toward her.  “You cannot imagine how ardently I hope,” he murmured.

His breath tickled her ear, send shivers down her neck and increased the dull throbbing in her loins.

Alas, she could imagine it only too well.

She must put his suggestive allusions from her mind and focus on her goal, she told herself sternly.  Which was not to get herself tangled in Tavener’s sheets but eventually, and with benefit of marriage, in Rob’s. 

Perhaps Tavener needed a reminder of his own objectives.

“If you hope to salvage your estate, best to focus instead on improving your conversation,” she said.

Eyes on the stage now, Tavener sighed.  “I am duly rebuked, Miss Antinori.  But a man can dream.”

Allegra told herself to ignore the wistfulness in his tone.  He was only teasing, as he seemed compelled to do around her.  She possessed neither the social position nor the wealth that might tempt him to seriously consider her as a wife.  But despite his suggestive banter and Rob’s reservations about his character, Allegra somehow knew with an assurance that went bone-deep that Tavener would never go beyond teasing.  Almost from the moment they met she’d sensed some connection between them, had known he would stand her friend.

If only it were as simple to quiet her aroused senses and persuade her lusty imagination that friendship was all they would ever share.

 

Trying to settle his hammering pulse, Will kept his gaze on the stage while the rest of his body throbbed with awareness of the woman seated beside him.  How easy it would be to lose his head in the cloud of lavender scent surrounding her, the subtle tang of which would be forever associated in his mind with Allegra.  Like her name, she was all grace and lively motion.  She reminded him of the compositions of her father, the musical genius Emilio Antinori:  complex, intriguing, beautiful.

She did well to recall him to his purpose.  ‘Twas harmless enough to derive an unworthy but simple satisfaction by squiring her two days in a row, knowing such a move must irritate her sanctimonious guardian Lynton, a self-consciously superior man who’d looked down on Will since their schoolboy days.  But he mustn’t allow his delight in Allegra’s company to blind him. 

Allegra Antinori must wed a man of sterling reputation, and his estate needed an heiress.  He could only justify being in her company while she helped him toward that goal.  And he’d progressed no further today in amending his conversation after indulging in that delightful duet of double entendre, abetted by the charmingly unaware Mrs. Randall.

He should have ceased before he’d barely begun, but the moment he’d delivered his first irony-laden line and seen her dark eyes widen, her so-kissable lips part in an “o” of surprise, he hadn’t been able to stop.  He was too intrigued by the notion that she’d immediately grasped the bawdy nature of his comment. 

For an instant he’d wondered whether, given the “unconventional” upbringing around the theatre she’d described to him, she might be less than virginal.  But her blushes and her responses, both knowing and prim, convinced him that though she had somehow gained the knowledge, she had no experience.  After years of exchanging seductive banter with women who followed it up with inviting looks and bold touches, he found her innocence as charming as it was unique.

And much more dangerous.  He couldn’t afford to be sidetracked by an intriguing innocent, no matter how much she stirred his mind and excited his senses.  Cousin Lucinda had done him a great favor by offering to assist him in finding a well-dowered wife whose fortune would allow him to escape the hand-to-mouth gambler’s life he detested and return to his land.  He’d do well to heed his cousin’s advice and avoid spending much time with Miss Antinori, who possessed neither the social standing nor the wealth he needed. 

‘Twas difficult to keep that conviction uppermost in his head, though, when the lady in question sat just inches from him, her demure gown failing to completely mask the lushness of her body, the passion promised by her blushing comprehension of his innuendo still echoing in his mind.  Shifting uncomfortably in breeches that were now painfully confining, he tried to wrest his imagination from the thought of taking the reins and leading her into the lesson they’d been describing.  Having her ride him, cradling those glorious breasts close as he moved in her.

Will shook his head as if to clear it.  Allegra Antinori could never be more than an amusing distraction.  No matter how much something deep within cried out for him to seize the chance to win her sensuous body and her nimble mind for his own.

Copyright © 2007 Julia Justiss

 

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