Rake’s Redemption – Beverley Oakley

“ARE you asking to be ruined, Fanny?” It was a reasonable question for her scandalised cousin to put to her but Fanny was beyond caring. Jostled by crowds of merrymakers wearing all manner of costumes at tonight’s masquerade in Vauxhall Gardens, she was not yet ready to go home. Indeed, she had pressing reasons why she should not, in fact, be required to dance to Cousin Isadora’s tune. “No one will miss me.” Fanny lowered her voice with a glance at their chaperone, Lady Harwood, though she needn’t have worried. The old woman was all but deaf. And, lack of hearing aside, Lady Harwood was only interested in the retainer Fanny’s mother paid her to escort Fanny and her sister and cousin to the entertainments she thought most likely to yield a decent match for one of the girls. Isadora continued to look disapproving as she started to walk towards the line-up of carriages waiting to convey the guests home. Her thin mouth was pressed together, making her look even more prim, Fanny thought. It was incredible to believe they were related, though admittedly it was distant and through the least attractive side of the family. “You can’t meet Lord Alverley alone, Fanny,” Isadora said, stopping by the path so that Antoinette could catch up. “You know you can’t.” “But he’s waiting for me, Isadora. Here in the gardens. He said he wanted to meet me.

He’s going to make me an offer, I know it.” “Then let him make it in the morning. Like a gentleman.” “You don’t understand.” Fanny had stepped back beneath an elm tree and now she put her hands on her hips and directed a pointed look at her sister to highlight what she perceived as a great injustice. For there was Antoinette, a little distance away, talking to a young man Fanny had never seen. Flirting with him was a better description, the way she tossed her golden head and her little gloved hands made patterns in the air as she described something to her rapt audience. A rapt audience with a decidedly rakish gleam in his eye. And Lady Harwood didn’t even seem to mind. “Look at my sister.

” Fanny nodded at Antoinette, barely able to contain her outrage. “It’s her first evening ever at an entertainment like this and her behaviour hasn’t even been remarked upon.” “That’s because Lady Harwood and I can see Antoinette,” said Isadora firmly. “The moment you disappear the worst will naturally be assumed. You know the rules. I’m surprised you should even think I’d agree to let you dash off, even for a minute.” “You are not my keeper, Isadora.” “I may well be in a year or two.” A shuttered look crossed her cousin’s face and, despite her frustration, Fanny felt sorry for her. Isadora was twenty-five and unmarried after the man to whom she’d been betrothed for three years had died of fever the year before.

Since then she’d been shuffled between various family members depending on who most needed the services of a pliant nurse, it seemed. And this was Fanny’s greatest fear; a horror that quite feasibly awaited her if she did not secure a decent marriage offer. For, despite the fact that Fanny was an acknowledged beauty who’d garnered a great deal of interest during her first season the previous year, she came with no dowry. And now they were well into her second season with one odious offer to consider. One that, if she didn’t take, meant she might well be condemned to a situation as deplorable as Isadora’s. The thought of having to accept the man her mother was so keen she wed breathed added energy into her quest to secure the offer she truly believed was forthcoming from the slavishly adoring Lord Alverley. “Tell me, Fanny” — Isadora’s gentle doe-like eyes looked suddenly fierce. “Does this gentleman make your heart beat wildly?” Fanny crinkled her nose. Not because the question seemed so unlike anything Isadora would normally ask but because Fanny thought Lord Alverley rather stupid, actually. “Or does his pocket book make your heart beat faster?” While Fanny weighed up her response, Isadora said with a note of triumph, “Then he is not worth losing your reputation over.

Not that any man should be. And one who truly loved you — as you would want to be loved — would never risk putting you in such a position, either.” She turned abruptly, calling out over her shoulder, her voice betraying her sudden weariness.“Come along, Antoinette! You need your beauty sleep as much as I do.” Then, turning back to Fanny, Isadora raised her pointed little chin with an obvious effort at looking imperious as she indicated the landau, for all the world like a maiden aunt two decades older. “We’ve both had a lovely evening but all good things must come to an end.” Fanny took a resigned step towards the now open door, Isadora’s dire words ringing in her ears. Why must all good things come to an end? she wondered when suddenly she heard herself being being addressed in a high, reedy voice. A wonderfully familiar voice that warmed the cockles of her heart as its owner’s tones dripped with dismay. “Surely lovely Miss Brightwell is not going home at such an early hour?” Fanny stepped back from the open door of the carriage and sent a dazzling smile at the man who might just possibly become her saviour tonight if she played her cards right.

“How delightful to see you, Lord Quamby.” She sighed. “But, yes, I’m going home because my chaperone insists upon it.” She sent him a tragic, beseeching look, adding, “Even though I could dance all night if I only had someone respectable to keep an eye on me.” “And would your chaperone consider an aged peer and his even more aged mother sufficiently respectable?” Fanny bit her lip as she waited hopefully for the response from Isadora, and from Lady Harwood who’d already shuffled into the carriage and seemed like she had no idea what was going on. Surely, they couldn’t refuse? Not the request from Fanny’s unlikely friend and ally, crippled Lord Quamby who was seated in his comfortable landau with his wizened old mother bundled up in the corner like an ancient porcelain doll. It was well known that the eccentric earl took his mother everywhere. She seemed insensible half the time but what did that matter? Especially if she was taking on the duties of a responsible chaperone. “I shall deliver Miss Brightwell back to her home before the clock strikes two,” Lord Quamby promised. After making the requisite show of deference to the earl, and with a resigned shrug of her shoulders and a nod at Fanny, Isadora shepherded a pouting Antoinette into the landau and pulled the door sharply closed behind them.

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