Once More, My Darling Rogue – Lorraine Heath

From the Journal of Drake Darling I was born Peter Sykes, the son of a murderer, the son of a woman murdered, a heritage that has always haunted me. I do not know how many lives my father may have taken, but I do know that he killed my mother because she sought to give me a better life. Unbeknownst to anyone, I attended his hanging. I was eight at the time. The crowds jostled me but I managed to make my way to the front. He wept, my father. He soiled himself, he begged for mercy. Words I’d heard my mother utter, words that had done her little good. Neither did they serve my father well, for they slipped the noose about his neck and released the trapdoor. All that I saw and heard after that I buried in the darkest recesses of my mind, but I could never bury the stain of his blood coursing through my veins. Nor the anger that simmered just below the surface—his legacy to me, one I feared I was destined to embrace. For it was always there, hovering, wanting to be let loose. My mother had entrusted me to the care of a Miss Frannie Darling, who eventually married Sterling Mabry, the Duke of Greystone. They took me into their home, raised me as one of their own. As Miss Darling no longer had use of her surname, I took it in an attempt to wash of the sins of my father.

One night the duke pointed out the constellation Draco and in the stars, I saw the fierce dragon that nothing could touch. I became known as Drake, once more attempting to separate myself from my past and the destiny handed to me by my father. With the duke’s family, I traveled the world, saw amazing creatures and creations, experienced wonders beyond imagining. But no matter how far I journeyed, I could not escape my sordid beginnings. I could not be anything other than what I was born to be. Chapter 1 London 1874 At times Lady Ophelia Lyttleton found herself quite disgusted with those of her gender. Tonight, unfortunately, was turning out to be one of those occasions. The young ladies—the old ones as well for that matter—were making spectacles of themselves as they all vied for the attention of one of the most notorious gentlemen in attendance at this evening’s ball. Drake Darling didn’t often frequent Society’s elite functions, but the gentlemen’s club overseer could not very well have avoided this affair when its purpose was to celebrate the marriage of Lady Grace Mabry to the Duke of Lovingdon. After all, Darling had been raised within the bosom of Grace’s family even though he was not related to them in any manner, not a distant cousin or long-lost nephew.

Nor was he of the aristocracy and his blood most certainly did not run blue. Yet the ladies tittering about him and dangling their dance cards in front of his nose seemed to have forgotten those little facts. He would not elevate their standing in Society. He would not pass on a title to his firstborn son. He would not sit in the House of Lords. The only thing he could be guaranteed to achieve was turning ladies’ minds to mush. It was his smile. The sublime way his lips parted ever so slightly to reveal straight white teeth, and then one corner of his luscious mouth hitching up a little higher to form a tiny dimple in his right cheek that winked with the promise of wickedness. It was his eyes. The manner in which they, black as midnight, sparkled knowingly as though he could not only decipher a lady’s dearest wish but deliver it to her in a manner that would far exceed her expectations.

It was his hair, so black as to look almost blue when captured by gaslight. The rebellious way he kept it longer than fashionable, the inviting manner in which it brushed against the collar of his blue jacket, tempting fingers to ruffle through the curling strands. It was the breadth of his shoulders and the width of his chest that hinted at solace offered to any woman who rested her cheek there, his height that put him half a head taller than most of the men in the salon. It was his laughter, the ease with which he gifted it to one lady after another. It was his courteous bow, his incredible solicitousness, the seductive manner in which he lowered his head to hear more clearly, leaned forward to whisper in the delicate shell of an ear. He made them fall in love with him. So effortlessly. Without care. Without considering consequences. She hated him for it.

They would follow him into gardens where he would kiss them senseless. She had once caught him doing exactly that with a young servant at the duke’s estate. Behind the stables, the girl had been fairly clambering up the long length of him striving to capture all his mouth had to offer. While she’d been only eight, Ophelia had been disgusted by the display, had known it was wrong, sinful. She didn’t think they’d seen her, but even as she ran away she heard his low laughter, and loped all the faster. She knew his sort, knew he had no regard for a woman’s reputation. Thus far this evening he’d danced with a dozen ladies. Not that she was keeping count. She’d had her fair share of attention from earls, viscounts, marquesses, and dukes. From men who held courtesy titles but would one day hold far more, and from those who had already ascended to their proper rank.

She hardly needed to beg for notice like the silly chits who surrounded Darling every time he came off the dance floor or returned from fetching a bit of refreshment for some ogling miss on the verge of a swoon. He certainly played the role of gallant well, was master of it. He made them all forget what he was, from whence he’d come. A man of coarse origins. “They make such fools of themselves, fawning over Darling as they do,” she muttered. Standing beside her, Miss Minerva Dodger gave a start. “You can hardly blame them. He’s a curiosity. I don’t think he’s attended a ball since Grace’s coming out.” He’d dared to ask Ophelia to dance that night, but she had ignored his invitation.

Someone had to maintain the high ground, had to adhere to socially acceptable standards. Her father had beat that fact into her often enough. Her lineage could be traced back to William the Conqueror. She was not even allowed to dance with the spares, let alone any sons who came after. She was expected to do him and her ancestors proud, to carry on the noble tradition of marrying well. If she did not obey his strictures, her impressive dowry would be forfeit, and along with it any chance she had for happiness. She was dependent upon what the fortune in her trust would eventually provide: freedom. “He’s a commoner,” she reminded her friend. Minerva arched a brow. “As am I.

” Ophelia released a quick huff of air. “Your mother is nobility.” “My father is of the streets.” And one of the wealthiest men in Christendom. “He made something of himself.” “Could not the same be said of Drake?” “Can one truly ever escape his past?” “You can’t have it both says. You can’t on the one hand acknowledge that my father escaped his and then not give Drake the same consideration.” She could, she did. Her father had been an incredibly moral man. Since their father’s passing, her brother had strayed a bit from the straight and narrow, spending far too many nights lost in gambling and drink, but she felt an obligation to honor her father’s teachings.

Sin was drawn to her, and if she did not remain ever vigilant, it would have its way with her. She’d never told anyone that ugly truth about herself. Her father would have been terribly disappointed, might not have provided her with a dowry, might have left her to her own means. “My father has no complaints with the way Drake manages Dodger’s Drawing Room,” Minerva continued on, referring to the infamous gentlemen’s club as though she had Ophelia’s undivided attention. “Being raised by the Duke and Duchess of Greystone and garnering the same devotion that they give their sons, I daresay he could have avoided working altogether if he wished. I think he’s to be admired.” She’d been unwise to mention anything at all as Minerva couldn’t possibly understand how Ophelia managed to see Drake Darling for exactly what he was: beneath them all and not to be wellregarded in the least. He was no gentleman. He encouraged sin, tempted ladies with that wicked, wicked smile. “He always manages to bring out the worst in you,” Minerva mused.

“I’ve never understood that.” “Don’t be ridiculous. I give him no thought whatsoever.” “Yet here we are discussing him.” “No, actually, I was pointing out the ladies’ improper behavior, how badly it reflects on all of us.” “My father has told me countless times that we are not a reflection of others’ behavior, only our own.” But when that behavior touches us . She broke off the thought, shoved it back into its hidey-hole, would not dignify it with voice. Although she did have to admit that Minerva had the right of it. Darling brought out the worst in her.

Always had. Sin called to sin. Just that morning she had been the envy of every female in London because Darling had escorted her down the aisle of St. George’s following the ceremony that had united Grace and Lovingdon. She had served as Grace’s maid of honor while Darling had stood as Lovingdon’s best man. But on the long stroll from the altar to the vestry, she’d spoken not a word to him, and he’d barely acknowledged her. He hadn’t bestowed upon her his remarkable smile. His eyes hadn’t twinkled. She knew he wished to be with anyone other than her just as she wished to be with anyone other than him. The ladies were dancing with the devil as he led them merrily into temptation.

It was time someone put an end to the charade, that someone reminded them—and him—of his place within their ranks. At that precise moment Drake Darling wished to be anywhere other than where he was, but he was well aware that in life one did not always get what he wished for. On occasion, he didn’t even get what he deserved. So he relied upon what he’d learned during his formative years about deception and he pretended that he was positively delighted, beside himself with joy, to be the center of attention. He much preferred the shadows to glittering ballrooms. He was most comfortable when not noticed, but he was at best a chameleon. He knew how to blend in even when the blending in took place within a room with mirrored walls, gaslit chandeliers, and the finest personages the aristocracy had to offer. The one thing he was not feigning was his happiness for Grace and Lovingdon. He considered Grace a sister, even though their blood could not have been more opposite. For many years now he had been close to Lovingdon, a confidante on occasion, but more often a hell-raiser of late.

Until Grace had captured the duke’s heart. Therefore, Drake couldn’t very well not attend the celebration of their marriage. Only minutes earlier he’d caught sight of the happy couple escaping the ballroom. Normally the bride and groom didn’t attend the ball held in their honor, but Grace was far from conventional. She’d wanted to dance with her father one last time. The Duke of Greystone’s eyesight was deteriorating, although only the family was aware of his affliction. Another reason Drake was here: to acknowledge his debt to the man and woman who had given him a home. His presence was expected, and so he gave no outward sign to the six young ladies surrounding him that he wished to be elsewhere. He always did whatever was required to ensure the duke and duchess had no regrets about taking him in. They were so young, the ladies who smiled and batted their lashes at him.

Even the ones who were on the far side of five and twenty were too innocent for his tastes. They were all light and airy as though burdens were unknown to them, as though life encompassed nothing more than enjoyment. He preferred his women with a bit more seasoning to them, savory, spicy, and tart. “Boy.” An exception to his preference for the tart had arrived. The haughtiness of the voice set his teeth on edge. He should have known he’d not escape her notice for the entire evening. That Lady Ophelia Lyttleton was one of Grace’s dearest friends was beyond his comprehension. He didn’t understand why the sister of his heart associated with such an arrogant miss when Grace was the sweetest, gentlest person he’d ever known. Stubborn to be sure, but she hadn’t a mean bone in her body.

Lady Ophelia could not claim the same. Her presence at his back proof enough. The ladies who had been gifting him with their attention blinked repeatedly and went silent for the first time in more than two hours. Because they were there, because he was striving to give the appearance of being a gentleman, he would spare Lady Ophelia the embarrassment of ignoring her. Even though he suspected he would pay a price for his generosity. He always paid the price. The lady was quite adept at delivering stinging barbs. Slowly he turned and arched a brow at the woman whose head failed to reach his shoulder. And yet in spite of her diminutive size, she managed to give the appearance of looking down on him. It was her long, pert, slender nose that tipped up ever so slightly on the end.

She had been a constant aggravation whenever she visited with Grace and crossed paths with him. But devil’s mistress that she was, she was very careful to slight him only when Grace wasn’t about to witness her set-downs. Because he loved Grace too much to upset her—and she would be appalled to know he and her friend were not on particularly pleasant terms—he had borne Lady Ophelia’s degradations, convinced that he was walking the high ground while she was slogging along in the muck. It made no sense to him that such a beauty could be such a resounding termagant. Her green eyes with the oval, exotic slant were challenging him with a sharpness that could slice into one’s soul if he weren’t careful. While he was twelve years her senior, as she had grown toward womanhood, she had mastered the art of making him feel as though he were a dog living in the quagmire of the gutters again. Not that others among the aristocracy hadn’t made him feel the same from time to time, but still it irked more so when she was the one responsible for the cut to his pride. “Boy,” she repeated with a touch more arrogance, “do fetch me some champagne, and be quick about it.” As though he were a servant, as though he lived to serve her. Not that he found fault with those who served.

Theirs was a more noble undertaking and their accomplishments far outstripped anything she might ever manage. She, who no doubt nibbled on chocolates in bed while reading a book, without thought regarding the effort that had gone behind placing both in her hand. He considered telling her to fetch the champagne herself, but he knew she would view it as a victory, that she was hoping to get a rise out of him, wanted to prove that he wasn’t gentleman enough not to insult a lady. Or perhaps she simply wanted to ensure that he knew his place. As though he could ever forget it. He bathed every night, scrubbed his body viciously, but he could not scrape the grime of the streets off his skin. His family had embraced him, their friends had embraced him, but he still knew what he was, knew from whence he’d come. If he told Lady Ophelia the truth about everything that lurked in his past, she would no doubt pale and the moonbeams that served for her hair would curl and shrivel in horror. From the ladies circling about, he sensed their anticipation on the air, perhaps even the hope that he would put her in her place. He’d never understood the cattiness that he sometimes witnessed between women.

He knew Grace had received her share of jealousy because her immense dowry had made men trip over themselves to gain her favor. But Lady O for all her dislike of him had remained loyal to Grace, had served as his sister’s confidante, had been a true friend. She didn’t deserve his disdain or a set-down in front of ladies who might have wished Grace less attention. He tilted his head slightly. “As you desire, Lady Ophelia.” He turned to the others. “I’ll be but a moment, ladies, and then we can continue our discussion regarding the most alluring fragrances.” For some reason they had devised a little game that resulted in his striving to name the flower that scented their perfume. It required a lot of leaning in along with inhaling on his part, and soft sighs on theirs. Lady Ophelia had arrived on a cloud of orchids that teased and taunted, promising forbidden pleasures that in spite of his best attempts to ignore, lured him.

Of all the women, why the devil did she intrigue him? Perhaps because she offered such a challenge, had erected walls that only the most nimble could scale in order to gain the real treasure behind them. He was adept at reading people, but for the life of him he’d never been able to read her. Twisting on his heel, he headed to the table where champagne and sundry other refreshments were being poured. He was acutely aware of her gaze homed in on his back. He suspected if he looked over his shoulder, he would see her whispering with the other ladies, warning them off. Little did she realize that she would be doing him a favor if she could ensure that he was left in peace. He had committed to three more dances, and wouldn’t disappoint his soon-to-be partners by heading to the gaming salon before he’d completed his obligations. Nor was he going to give Lady Ophelia the satisfaction of ruining his evening by sending him on errands. One glass was all she’d garner from him. He didn’t know why, two years ago at Grace’s coming-out ball, he had asked Lady Ophelia to dance.

He had thought she had grown into an exquisite creature, and she was Grace’s friend. While she had often looked down her nose on him, she’d been a child then and he’d assumed she’d outgrown childish things. He couldn’t have been more wrong. With a horrified look, she had given him a cut direct. Turned her back on him without even responding to his invitation. It had not spared his pride to realize that others had witnessed the rebuff.

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