JUST WHAT MUST A GENTLEMAN DO TO PROVE HE'S A NOTORIOUS RAKE?
Stranded in London at the mercy of strangers, Miss Kathlyn Parkland was mistrustful of Lord Chase's sympathy, surprised by his hospitality . . . and positively shocked by his outrageous offer: He wished to pay her to appear with him in public!
It seemed His Lordship wanted to counter the virtuous reputation that had branded him an oddity in the ladies' eyes. But Chase assured Miss Parkland that it would just be a ruse, for he strongly believed that if a bride was expected to enter marriage with her honor intact, so should the groom.
Miss Parkland needed the money; he needed a mistress. Several strolls on his arm would be enough to establish his character as a roguish connoisseur and complete rake. But, of course, love had a scheme of its own. . .
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Snow, damn it!
"Blast! I knew we shouldn't have driven so far afield today," said Courtney Choate, Viscount Chase, frowning at the white stuff swirling around his precious matched bays. "At least we should have taken the heavier traveling carriage and team."
"Oh, pooh, then we would have needed the driver and the groom, and I would have had to bring my maid along with us in the closed coach. We wouldn't have any time to be alone, Courtney, only the two of us." The sweet suggestion in Miss Adelina Marlowe's voice should have melted his annoyance, if not the snow, but Lord Chase's brow stayed furrowed. He'd driven his valuable cattle miles over rutted country roads just to spend an interminable hour making small talk and balancing a teacup on his knee.
"I don't think your parents meant for us to be alone in a curricle, more than two hours from your house, during a blizzard."
"Fiddle, it's merely a flurry. Besides, we had to visit Sukey Fanshawe today. She and her sisters are all leaving for Bath tomorrow, remember?" Adelina scooted her rounded posterior along the cushioned bench until her softness was pressed against his thigh, which would have warmed his blood if not for his greatcoat and her fur-lined pelisse and the freezing wind that was doing its best to play chaperone. "And I had to show off my new fiancé, didn't I?"
It was a measure of man's vanity that Courtney forgot about the snow, forgot about his horses, forgot that his better judgment had been overridden. This Diamond, this Toast, this perfect embodiment of young English womanhood, was his--right down to the droplet of moisture on the end of her aristocratic nose. And she was pleased enoughwith her bargain that she wanted to gloat over him!
Courtney knew he was a prize on the matrimonial market--a nobleman with reputation, fortune, and teeth all still intact couldn't be anything else--but the beautiful Miss Marlowe had been turning down eligible partis for the three years since her come-out. Courtney never dreamed for a moment that she'd toss her bonnet at him. As a matter of fact, he never dreamed of getting leg-shackled so young. He was just twenty-three, after all, and the only contemporaries of his who were married were those who'd needed to mend their purses with their wives' portions. Courtney Choate, Lord Chase, had no such need.
He did have other needs, though, which Miss Adelina Marlowe would satisfy delightfully with her silky, enthusiastic femininity. Yes, he'd come to agree with his grandfather that marriage was a fine idea. He also had come to agree with His Grace, the Duke of Caswell, that Adelina was a fine choice. A baron's daughter, she brought a handsome dowry, excellent connections, and a familiarity with the polite world that a younger female wouldn't have. Any of the simpering debs Lord Chase knew would be all atwitter right now. They'd be complaining of the cold, worrying about their complexions in the breeze, panicking at the thought of being overturned into a snowbank. Sukey Fanshawe with her high-pitched giggles and fluttering eyelashes would be in tears. Not his Adelina. She merely tucked a wayward gold curl back under her hood, then tucked her little gloved hand into the crook of his arm. He smiled down at her, trying to ignore that drip on her nose.
Unfortunately, his lordship's lack of concentration permitted his outside horse, Castor, to shy at the wind-driven snow, which caused the inside horse, Pollux, to lose his gait, which rocked the carriage from side to side until Courtney had them back under control. Miss Marlowe was smiling gamely, but Pollux was limping.
"Blast!" Lord Chase got down and inspected the animal's leg. "He'll have to be walked," the viscount reported when he regained the driver's bench. "Confound it, I knew we should have taken your father's carriage."
"Oh, but Sukey's beau only drives a gig."
He ignored that, too.
What he couldn't ignore was the snow, falling even faster and heavier, obscuring the uneven roadbed and making the horses' steps more difficult and more dangerous. "I'll have to lead them."
After an hour, Courtney knew they were lost. They should have reached the crossroad to Marlowe Manor twenty minutes ago. Whatever lightness the day held was quickly fading, and there was nothing to be seen except snow. And more snow. Courtney walked back to the curricle.
"'Twould be idiocy to continue in the dark. Lud knows your father will have my hide and your mother will have hysterics, but we'll have to find shelter for the night."
"La, they won't worry. They won't even know. Papa will assume we decided to stay on at Sukey's."
"But Sukey will know, and her sisters. Your reputation will be in tatters, my dear."
Adelina just shrugged, sending a small avalanche of snow off her shoulders and down onto his, at the curricle's side. "The Fanshawes will all be in Bath, silly, and besides, we're engaged. No one cares about a betrothed female's reputation."
His grandfather cared. "I suppose we could move the wedding date forward if there is any talk,"
"Now that would send Mama into spasms for certain. You must know she's reserved St. George's in Hanover Square for the first week in June. And my dress couldn't possibly be ready, nor all the invitations changed. Why, who would come to a wedding in the middle of the winter?"
While Miss Marlowe was going on about flowers and bridal attendants, Courtney was following a trail of cow droppings. Where there were cows, there might be a barn, a farmstead, a farmwife to play propriety and provide a hot meal.
"Did you say 'cowslip'? Mama thought roses, but I have a partiality for orchids...."
By the time Courtney and the horses trudged through the snowdrifts to the barn, night had fallen. He couldn't see lights from the farm or a path, if there was one nearby. But the barn had a good roof and the cows provided warmth, and there was hay and grain for his horses. By the light of the coach lantern, Courtney mounded some straw into a bed for Adelina and covered it with the carriage blanket. "I'm sorry, Addie, but this is the best we can do."
She sniffed. "Adelina, if you please." Her smile returned when he proffered the silver flask from his greatcoat pocket. "Oh, brandy, how exciting! Don't you think this is the most romantic thing ever? We're warm and dry, and we're together. Of course, my poor toes are still numb. Do you think you could...?"
He was the one who'd been slogging through the snow, but Courtney wasn't about to refuse a damsel in distress, so he knelt by her side in the straw and pulled off her only slightly dampened boots. Then he massaged her feet in their silk stockings.
"Oh, that feels good, but I'm still cold."
So he lay beside her and rubbed her back. What happened next was inevitable. It might have been inscribed on the very first snowflake of the afternoon, so predictable and preordained was the outcome. Not that Courtney meant to be anything less than a gentleman, of course. He intended to kiss Adelina good night, cover her with more straw, blow out the lantern, then make a nest for himself nearby with his greatcoat for cover. His good intentions lasted about as long as the lantern light. As the temperature and the level of the brandy fell, so did inhibitions.
The good-night kiss turned into several, each deeper and longer and more intense than the one that went before. Hands began to wander, searching for buttons and tapes and bare skin. Lord Chase and Miss Marlowe forgot the cold and the meager tea they'd partaken of hours ago. They forgot the hard ground, the barnyard smells, the rustling of creatures in the loft. They almost forgot they weren't married yet. Almost.
"Lud, we better stop while we can."
"Not yet, darting. Not yet. Who's to know?"
"But no one expects the same restraints in engaged couples, remember? And isn't this better than freezing to death apart? Doesn't this feel good? And this?"
Good? Heaven should feel so good. Still, "It isn't right, my dear. We've waited this long. We can wait for our wedding night."
"I'm so tired of waiting. Aren't you?"
"You want me, don't you? I can tell by how hard you're breathing that you do."
"Of course I do, but I can wait."
"Till June?" was the tortured reply. "If you loved me, you'd prove it to me tonight."
"Please, my dear, we have to be strong."
"But why? It's not such a big thing. I mean, it's not as if it's the first time or anything."
"Bloody hell." Courtney jumped up, dumping Adelina over onto the bare dirt floor. "It is for me!"
She peered up at him in the barn's gloom, her mouth hanging open. "You mean you're a virgin?"
"You mean you're not?"
What could she answer now? "But ... but what about that house you keep in Kensington?"
He had turned his back, to straighten his clothes. He faced her again. "What do you know about my house in Kensington?"
"Everyone knows you visit there. Mama says every gentleman has outside interests that it's a wife's duty to ignore."
"Your mama was right, you should have ignored the gossip. Who I see in Kensington is none of your affair." He paused in lighting the lantern. "My God, exactly how many affairs have you had?"
"Simply because you're as pure as the driven snow doesn't make me a fallen woman, Mr. Holier-than-thou. There have been only three, if you must know, and the footman wasn't my fault. I was only fifteen and thought we were merely experimenting."
"'Experimenting'? By Jupiter, what would you do in a chemistry laboratory? What of the others?" He had to know, even if it killed him.
"Well, you shouldn't hold the dancing master against me either, for he was French, don't you know. And then there was Peter Fanshawe, Sukey's brother, but I was going to marry him. I decided not to when you started paying your addresses. He's only a squire's son."
Courtney wasn't pulling his hair out, he was removing straw, but Adelina couldn't see that in the dark. She hurried on: "It's not as though I mean to play you false after we're married or anything. I do know all about providing a rightful heir and all that."
"And after? After you bless me with this legitimate token of your affection, what then?"
"Why, then we'd be free to go our own ways, like everyone else in the ton."
"You mean have affairs, slip in and out of bedrooms at house parties, have our names in the on dits columns? Not quite everyone wants that kind of marriage. Miss Marlowe. I don't. I heard my mother's cries too often to put another woman through that hell of infidelity, and I expect the same in my wife. I would not betray the woman I marry after taking our vows; I haven't betrayed her before either."
He might have said he was a Turkish pasha come to gather a harem. Adelina would have found it easier to comprehend. "But ... but how? Why?"
How was easy: cold baths and pure thoughts and keeping one's breeches buttoned. The why was harder to explain. His mother's experience was bad enough, common though it was, but his nursemaid had been abandoned by her husband for a redheaded actress, leaving her penniless and pregnant. Young Master Choate learned all about loyalty and faithfulness, if not with his mother's milk, then with his wet nurse's. A sickly child, he spent most of his time with these women, hearing enough about men's wickedness to give the devil's conscience a pang or two. Ideals forged in such iron are not easily bent. Courtney hadn't bent them yet; he wasn't going to now. He strode to the barn door to look out. When he came back he said, "I believe in the sanctity of marriage. That's what the Church teaches, that's what all the sermons preach. And if a woman's virtue is so highly acclaimed, a man's should be nothing less."
"This isn't the Middle Ages, Courtney, with those pure and perfect knights who wrote ballads and worshiped their ladies from afar. Those paragons only existed in fairy tales, you gudgeon. Real men have appetites, desires."
"They can also have morals and self-discipline. That's what I've required of myself, that's what I require in a bride. I'm sorry, Miss Marlowe, but I cannot marry you."
"You what? You're crying off?" She beat her heels on the ground. "You can't do that! I'll be ruined."
"Why? You said yourself no one will know we spent the night alone. And it's not as if I'm leaving you in any different condition than I found you."
"But ... but a gentleman never jilts a lady!"
Courtney was gathering up their belongings. "I don't think you're in any position to talk about correct behavior."
So she pulled her skirts down and her bodice up. "But I will, you dastard, I will talk. I'll tell everyone you're ... you're..."
"A virgin?" he completed for her. "But who would believe you? And what kind of female speaks of such things? You would be damning yourself in the eyes of society, and if you stooped to blackmail, well ... But you don't have to worry, I'll let you insert the notice ending the betrothal." He started to lead the horses out of their stalls. "The snow has stopped and the moon is out. We can be on our way."
Adelina crossed her arms over her chest. "Papa will never let you toss me over like this. The settlements, don't you know."
"They haven't been signed. But let me tell you, if by some chance you do manage to hold me to this engagement just so you can call yourself Lady Chase, you'll find yourself married and shipped off to my property in Cornwall before the cat can lick its ear. I doubt there's even a lighthouse keeper there you'd wish to seduce. No trips to London, no balls or fancy gowns, no chance of betraying me or disgracing my family name."
No presiding over the ton? She'd rather marry Peter Fanshawe then. Adelina reached for her boots. She also reached for what is more commonly found on barn floors. She waited, then threw a handful of manure at Courtney when he walked past her.
"I take it you now agree that we wouldn't suit." He wiped his cheek, then handed her his handkerchief to wipe her hands. "Oh, and do blow your nose."