Nothing But a Rakehell – Deb Marlowe

Colm Newland, Lord Keswick, stood up from the card table—and promptly swayed on his feet. “Well, damn, Kes, but you’ve gone bosky.” The Earl of Chester frowned up at him. Keswick blinked. “Nonsense,” Lord Whiddon objected. “He’s just a trifle disguised, at best.” Keswick left off staring at his friends and frowned down at the cards he’d left on the table. He’d stood up with a purpose. What had he meant to do? “I think we’re all sunk beneath the mahogany,” Mr. Barrett Sterne declared. “But perhaps only a few inches.” “No. Keswick’s bosky,” Chester insisted. “Completely bosky. Damned if I ain’t, too.

” “Don’t know what else you’d expect,” Keswick finally spoke up. “Dayle keeps a damned fine cellar. And he’s not too stingy to share it, either.” He frowned—and his stomach rumbled. Oh, yes. That’s what he’d meant to do. Pillage the buffet table. A bit of food would be the just the thing to soak up some of Dayle’s excellent wine. “I’ll bring back enough for the lot of us.” “Be careful out there,” warned Sterne.

He gestured toward the door, through which music and laughter drifted. “Aye. I saw the Vernon girl eying you the same way Chester does a fine chop at Lapwell’s.” Whiddon laughed loudly at his own joke. “A chop does sound just the thing,” Chester mused. “Or perhaps a nice, thick beefsteak.” “Perhaps we should all go with you, Kes,” Sterne offered. “The debutantes are thick out there and the wine is sure to have dulled your reflexes.” “Nonsense!” Keswick took offense. “My reflexes are more than—” He winced as a coin bounced off of his forehead.

“See?” Chester announced in triumph. “Bosky!” Keswick gathered up the shards of his dignity. He would show them. He turned and made his way out of the card room, growing steadier with each step. Perfectly normal. He turned toward the ballroom— “Oof!” He collided full on with someone emerging into the passage from another room. Flailing, he reached out for support and found himself gripping a thin shoulder. “Lord Keswick!” It was Miss Vernon’s shoulder and her shrill gasp ringing in his ear. He let go at once, and made his apology, but the girl looked triumphant instead of scandalized. Instantly wary, he bowed and turned to leave.

“An accident. Again, I offer my apologies. Please, do excuse me.” But the girl reached out and grasped his arm. “I will forgive you only if you will dance with me, my lord.” Still a little befuddled, Keswick worked desperately to scrape his wits together. He’d seen the predatory look in this girl’s eye. Lord knew, it had to be noticeable for Whiddon to have remarked upon it. The last thing he needed was to engage her in this . condition.

“Alas, that’s a pleasure that must be delayed, Miss Vernon. I am on a mission and cannot indulge myself.” “Surely you can postpone your errand for a short time, sir. Just long enough for a stroll on the patio, perhaps?” He saw her glance toward the room she’d just left. Following her gaze he saw her particular friend, Miss McNamara, give her a slight nod. It smacked of conspiracy and sent a surge of clarity up his spine and into his brain. “Alas, it is an urgent matter.” Carefully, he disengaged his arm. “Another time, I hope.” Stepping away, he moved into the ballroom.

A glance over his shoulder showed the two girls whispering and turning to follow him. Exasperation stiffened his posture. For a moment, he was tempted to scold her for the relentless flirt she was—but he’d had a substantial amount to drink and she was sober and on the prowl. He couldn’t risk her and her friend maneuvering him into a compromising position and forcing his hand. He cast about the crowded room, but the only exit he could see was across the dance floor and onto the patio. Too dangerous by half. He moved through the room, squeezing through the throng. They followed in his wake. Ah, salvation ahead, in the delectable form of Chester’s former mistress. She was a merry widow with notably lax morals and an infamously generous bosom.

Keswick bowed low over it and grinned up at her. “Save me, my dear, and I’ll owe you a favor?” She looked over his shoulder, then raised a brow at him. “Don’t you already owe me five guineas, Keswick?” “Waltz me away from the determined virgin and I’ll double it,” he vowed. He held out his hand and she took it. They both ignored the protest of the gentleman she’d been talking with. Keswick pulled her closer than was strictly necessary and swept her onto the dance floor. Her bosom bridged the gap between them and rubbed against his waistcoat. She looked down. “I should charge you extra,” she told him as the flow of the dance took them around to the other side of the room. “Worth it,” he said with a laugh.

“She’s circling around after us,” his partner reported. “Gracious, she’s a dogged one, isn’t she?” “In the most disagreeably Machiavellian manner,” he agreed. “Which is why I am going to abandon you once we reach the next corner. The crowd should prevent her from seeing us clearly.” “I’ll expect your payment tomorrow, Keswick,” she warned. “You shall have it.” He maneuvered them so that several other couples danced between them and his pursuers, then pulled his partner abruptly off of the dance floor, bent low over her hand, and as she turned away, he used her as cover and slipped behind a thick pedestal set in the corner of the room and surrounded by lush greenery and flowers. Glancing about to be sure no one watched, he ducked down and sat, back propped against the stone, legs tucked up. Several long moments passed while he breathed deeply. His head still spun a bit.

He tipped it back to rest against the pedestal. Behind him, the ball whirled on, but he’d found an oasis of peace. He allowed it to settle into him—until he heard Miss Vernon’s sharp whisper. “Where has he gone? He cannot have disappeared into thin air.” Damnation, they were right behind him. “Perhaps he went outside and around the house to call his carriage,” Miss McNamara suggested with a sigh. “I don’t know why you are pursuing him so vigorously, at any rate. My mama says that Lord Keswick is nothing but a rakehell.” “I’d chase him around the house for the sake of that square jaw alone, but despite his rakish ways, he has many desirable qualities.” “Yes.

Tens of thousands of them a year, or so I hear. But really, Alice, could you not find someone as rich, but more . manageable?” “Perhaps I could, but you have snapped up the last titled gentleman of the Season who is both doting and doddering,” Miss Vernon retorted. “You will be a widow soon enough after you are a bride. If I have to take on a younger man, then I want one who looks like that.” Keswick rolled his eyes. “You will have to behave,” Miss McNamara warned. “At least until you give him an heir.” “Yes, and it would be so with any titled nobleman. I might as well enjoy what I can of it.

But once the succession is assured . ” she let her words trail away. “Well, Keswick is unlikely to settle down, despite his marriage vows.” He bristled. Really! The pair of brazen hussies assumed too much. He would never don a leg shackle. Once he’d finally aged out of his father’s pernicious grip on him, he’d vowed he’d never let anyone hold sway over him again. Particularly not a manipulative jade like this one. “Of course he won’t. His taste for ladies of low virtue is legendary,” Miss Vernon declared.

“But it will only mean that he’ll have no room to reprove me if I have my own . fun.” “I suppose not,” her friend agreed. “But you’ll have to catch him, first.” “Let’s slip outside, as well,” Miss Vernon suggested. “I have an idea.” The young ladies wandered off and Keswick let his head drop down onto his knees. What a ghastly girl. He must avoid her completely during the rest of the Season. The thought exhausted him.

Truth to tell, he was already tired. Always tired, he should say. Tired of the frenzy of the Season, tired of aimless pleasure-seeking that steadily felt less pleasurable, tired of the same faces day in and out. Except for his friends, of course. He never wearied of them and their unfailing loyalty. He was . just . so . tired. “Keswick!” someone said in a harsh whisper.

He jerked awake, scrambling away from the pedestal. How long had he been asleep? “There you are.” Sterne peered down at him through the foliage. “Oh, hell and damnation, Sterne. You scared me. I thought you were her.” “Her?” Sterne’s brow lifted. “Oh. The Vernon girl caught you?” “Nearly.” “Well, you’ve been gone an age.

We couldn’t find you anywhere. Then I remembered the time we played faro all night—and couldn’t find you in the morning. Eventually we found you curled up asleep behind the ferns.” “I had to hide,” Keswick told Sterne, taking his hand and rising to his feet. “Too much wine sloshing about in my brainbox—and the girl has set her sights on me. She thinks I’ll turn the other way and let her have her fun after we marry.” “Good heavens,” Sterne grimaced. “That McNamara girl has surely been influencing her. You need to keep away from them both, then. Come on, now, though.

The ball is winding down. It should be safe. There’s been no sign of her while I’ve been looking for you.” “Where’s the rest of the lot?” “Gone off to Lapwell’s. Chester’s had a bee in his bonnet since someone mentioned chops. I said we’d come after them. You brought your carriage tonight, did you not?” “Aye. I’ll ask for it to be brought around.” “You know,” Sterne mused as they left the house. “It might be a good idea for you to leave London for a bit.

Give that Vernon girl a chance to set her sights elsewhere.” They strode down to the street as Keswick’s carriage drew closer in the line. “What? You want me to allow that chit to run me out of Town?” He recoiled, as he always did when he thought of leaving London to return home. “I only need to avoid her. I’ll just stay away from the events of the Marriage Mart. There is still plenty else to get up to.” Sterne, sterling friend that he was, understood his reluctance. “No, I don’t mean you’d have to go back to Devonshire. Don’t forget, Tensford has invited us all to his house party towards the end of the Season. I’d wager he wouldn’t mind if you head down early.

I’ve half a mind to go with you.” Keswick was shaking his head as his carriage rolled up. A footman opened the door and Keswick stepped up—and froze, halfway in. Miss Vernon lolled inside, one shoulder of her gown pulled low. “Lord Keswick,” she said with a smile. He sank back onto the pavement as Sterne peered over his shoulder. “What’s the delay?” The girl’s smile faded. “Mr. Sterne.” Sitting up, she straightened her frock.

“Goodness. Whatever are you gentlemen doing, climbing into Miss McNamara’s carriage?” Wordlessly, Keswick took the door from the gaping footman’s hand. He closed it and eyed his family crest with a raised brow, then looked at Sterne. “Where is Miss McNamara?” the girl asked, her tone growing shrill. The coachman, craning his neck at the delay, heard her voice come from within and blanched white. “I’m sorry, my lord! I had no idea!” Keswick stepped away from the carriage. “It’s all right, Dobbs. Take the lady home. Berkely Square, I believe.” He turned to Sterne.

“So, Tensford’s place. We are for Gloucestershire, then, are we?”

.

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