Restless Rake – Scarlett Scott

HE WAS POCKETS TO LET AND HE WAS BLOODY WELL TİRED OF WHORİNG HİMSELF for the well-to-do ladies of the Marlborough House set. Drinking seemed an excellent course of action for the moment. “Lord Ravenscroft, you’ve a visitor.” Julian finished pouring his brandy before flicking a glance to his grim-faced butler. Osgood’s expression was one of distaste, as though a fly had flown into his mouth and his august bearing wouldn’t allow him to spit it out. Osgood was a relic of the previous earl’s days. A gargoyle made of stone, guarding against evil spirits and indiscreet late-night apparitions with unsavory intentions. Oh, this wasn’t the first time an unexpected visitor had made her way to Julian’s front door. Nor, he suspected, would it be the last. It was a certainty that the visitor was female. They always were. Osgood was far too loyal a retainer to make his thoughts about such callers known. He was a third generation butler who had served the Earls of Ravenscroft for the entirety of his life, and he was above reproach. But Julian could read him like a bad gambler. No face for vingt-et-un on that one.

Indeed, Julian thought as he sipped his brandy with great care, eying the old fellow, no face for much of anything save being a wilted stickler for propriety. Even if his employer was living on credit and bad debts, every sign indicating that he ought to flee the proverbial sinking ship like a rat. But Osgood wasn’t a rat. And Julian wasn’t in the mood for visitors, especially not the unexpected variety. He frowned at his butler. “I’m not at home. I believe I made that known.” The butler cleared his throat. His expression remained suitably dour and pinched. “Yes, my lord, of course.

Forgive me, but the visitor in question refuses to leave. Would you care for me to have a footman brought round, my lord, to extricate her?” Some devil in Julian rather enjoyed watching Osgood squirm. After all, with ruin so certain a future, this may well prove his final opportunity to needle the man. He took another sip of brandy, enjoying the burn down his throat. Damn it, he wished it was enough to numb him. It never was. “Such persistence ought to be rewarded.” His tone was careful and mild. “Do you not think so, Osgood?” Osgood remained immovable, however. “I do not presume to think, my lord.

” “No?” Julian was feeling perverse tonight, dredged in the freeing wickedness of a man about to lose everything. “Terrible shame, that. Not to think. Or perhaps it’s a lie, Osgood? Surely it cannot be said that a man does not think. You must have an opinion. Tell me, should I be at home to this creature who dares to call so late at night?” His butler paled, clearly not relishing the untenable position of being forced to comment on his disreputable master’s social niceties. “My lord, I’m certain I will be pleased to follow your instructions, whatever they may be.” Ah, perhaps it had been a whimsical notion on his part to believe he could wrangle a concession from the block of ice before him. “Bring her in, then, Osgood. The night grows late and I’m in need of diversion.

” His butler’s expression didn’t alter, but Julian could sense the disapproval like a clap on his back. No matter. Disapproval had haunted him his entire life. He wore it like a mantle rather than a shroud. Osgood bowed and disappeared. Julian took another long sip of brandy and contemplated the visitor who wouldn’t leave. He wondered, for a brief, fanciful moment if it was Lottie. Not Lottie, his instincts told him, for Osgood would have recognized her. It hadn’t been that long ago. What, a year? Not a great deal of time when one considered the span of a lifetime.

The door to his study opened. His butler did the pretty. A feminine figure entered, clad in a luxurious pelisse overtop a promenade gown that was, unless he missed his guess, a Worth. His visitor was petite but curved in all the right places. Her nipped waist, visible even beneath her layers of fabric, emphasized her generous bosom. An ostentatious hat adorned with a stuffed bird and veil hid the woman’s identity from his view, but he scarcely cared. He’d find out who she was soon enough. He stood. “Thank you, Osgood. That will be all.

” The door had only just snicked closed before he bowed to her. He wondered what lay beneath that veil. The little he could discern of her features appeared even, unremarkable. “Madam, if I may be so bold, please be seated and make the reason for your unexpected visit known.” Her steps did not denote confidence. Rather, they were mincing. Hesitant. As though she feared him. She stopped a notable length from his desk. “My lord, I’m here to make you an offer.

” Her voice was soft and sweet, her enunciation rounded like pebbles worn smooth by a stream. There was beauty in that honeyed voice, and it rolled over his senses like a touch. She was an American, he’d venture to say. Perhaps one of the many heiresses who had exchanged her immense dowry for a title and now found herself ensnared by ennui. Or disillusioned, her girlish dreams of snagging a coronet and living a fairytale dashed by the reality of a balding duke with a paunch and a penchant for bedding servant girls. Julian supposed he shouldn’t be surprised. He frowned. “I fear I’m no longer interested in offers of any sort.” He’d long ago grown tired of playing this role. Of whoring himself to wealthy ladies for enough money to keep from utter penury.

A man could only swallow his pride for so many years before it choked him. She clasped her hands at her waist, the sole indication of apparent indecision. “Perhaps you would care to hear my offer before you so summarily dismiss it, my lord.” Bold of her. Now he could place her accent, the leisurely drawl. A Virginian. Julian closed the distance between them, not stopping until her pelisse brushed his trousers. “I daresay it couldn’t be an offer I haven’t already heard before.” “You may be surprised.” She held her ground, tipping up her chin.

Feisty as well as bold, he thought, studying her with new interest. The veil was an unwanted deterrent that kept him from seeing if her face matched the lilting beauty of her voice. He stepped closer, her skirts crushing against him, and hooked an arm around her waist. She stiffened. “What is it, love? You want me to join you and your husband in bed? You want him to watch as I fuck you? No? Perhaps you want to feel pleasure for the first time. Is that it? You’ve settled for a title but he doesn’t make you come.” Her quick intake of breath told him he’d shocked her. She sounded young. Perhaps she was a novice to this sort of game. He should be merciful and send her on her way, but his mood was dark.

A man on the edge had little to lose, and he needed distraction badly. Here was a plaything, a well- dressed naïf who had landed in his study like a benediction. He reached beneath her veil, cupped her cheek. The contact jolted him. Her skin was smooth and warm, soft. His thumb found her lower lip, lush and full, stroking. Her lips parted. He’d consumed too much brandy tonight, it was certain. Otherwise, why would he feel such heat, such unadulterated attraction for a faceless woman with a Virginia drawl and an atrocity of a hat? She didn’t say a word, just held still, allowing his touch but not reacting. Her breath fanned over his skin, quick and shallow, the only sign she was affected.

Was her lack of response borne of shock? He couldn’t be sure. “You’ve heard I’ll do anything for a price, yes?” His thumb dipped ever so slightly inside her mouth before retreating. “That is why you’re here, is it not?” She swallowed, and he absorbed the ripple in his fingertips that rested lightly beneath her jaw. Then, her drawl, steady and calm, cut into the silence. “Do you think to frighten me into fleeing, my lord?” The lady was even more audacious than he’d supposed. Fine. How far would she take their gamble before she broke? The hand that held her waist slid with unerring precision to the buttons lining the front of her gown. He could undo buttons faster than the most skilled lady’s maid. With one hand, with his teeth, with a knife—whatever the moment and the woman required. He watched his handiwork.

Her pelisse hung open. Her bodice gaped. He could see the elegant embroidery of her corset cover, the white ribbon at the top of her chemise. Her breasts were full and high, straining against the constriction of her tight lacing. She still hadn’t moved. “Are you not frightened yet, love?” Perhaps he would consider her offer after all, if only for the night. “Would it please you if I were?” Her cool question stayed him in the act of removing the final button from its moorings. Damn it, what was he about, practically ravaging some poor sod’s wife merely because she’d appeared in his study? And for what gain? To prove a point to himself? To the enigmatic lady whose face he’d yet to behold? Part of him wanted her to run away into the night and take with her all reminders of the man he’d become. Shouldn’t she be terrified of him, of what he could do to her? Or was she not as innocent as she seemed? Did a depraved heart beat beneath her ivory breast? He had to know. “Does fear excite you?” “No, and neither does your posturing.

” He could so easily make a lie of her words. Julian knew when a woman was attracted to him, and this one was no different than a hundred others before her. She wanted him. He trailed his hand down her throat, feeling tension in the corded muscles. Tenderly, he caressed her as if she were already his lover. Some part of him understood that she would be, that this pull between them was inevitable. If not tonight, another. The time for playing games was at an end. “What is your offer then, love? The night grows late and I’m tired of entertaining my whims.” Her hands remained clasped at her waist, just below the last button he’d yet to undo.

The knuckles rose in stark relief from her fine-boned fingers, belying the ease with which she spoke. “I thought you were no longer interested in offers.” She possessed a considerable amount of mettle. He smiled, for he thoroughly enjoyed himself now in a way he had not done in quite some time. “Can a man not change his mind?” “Of course. Man is rarely constant, I’ve discovered.” There was a reproach in her words, though whether it was aimed at him or another, he couldn’t be certain. “Your offer, madam. What is it?” “My offer is simple.” She unclasped her hands and reached up to remove the hideous hat and veil.

Good God, the face didn’t match the voice at all. No indeed, it surpassed the mellifluous lure by leaps and bounds. She was beautiful, more exquisite than any goddess splashed across a canvas. Her golden hair was plaited into basket weaves. Her eyes were wide, blue, unblinking. Her mouth full and lush, her cheeks pink, her cheekbones high. She was the most gorgeous creature he’d ever seen. Who was she, and how had he never set eyes upon her before? For he couldn’t have crossed her path. He would have remembered a splendor so rare. “Marry me,” she said.

The silence almost undid Clara. She hadn’t intended to blurt her offer so artlessly. She had rehearsed this moment at least a dozen times in the privacy of her chamber, and never had she faltered. She’d planned a lengthy soliloquy cataloging the virtues of the barter she presented him—his time and name in exchange for a share of her tremendous dowry. But when she had practiced the bloodless listing of facts and reason, she had been alone. No one had stood before her with the looks to rival a fallen angel. No one had touched her, undone her dress, or uttered the most wicked, debauched words she’d ever heard aloud. Dear God, perhaps she had made a mistake in choosing him. This man, tall and muscled as most English lords weren’t, more handsome even than she’d recalled from the handful of times she’d seen him from across a ballroom… This man was not at all what she had imagined, what she had prepared for. And then, he laughed.

Threw back his head and laughed as though she’d just delivered the cleverest joke he’d heard in ages. Clara reached for her buttons, beginning to set them to rights. Humiliation threatened to devour her from the inside out. She was the joke. He thought her offer of marriage so ludicrous, it seemed, that he couldn’t stem the flow of laughter pouring from him. Maybe the earl was mad. He was certainly odd. She hadn’t been able to shake the impression that he was a great cat and she a little mouse, his to toy with, to lure and then strike when she least expected it. If only she could repair the damage he’d done as quickly as he’d accomplished it. She had four buttons back in place and he was still laughing, damn him.

That irked her into saying something else when she knew she likely should keep her peace and go back from whence she came, finding a different way to return home to Virginia. “One hundred thousand pounds is humorous to a man in your dire financial straits?” she asked. That finally tempered his good humor. He sobered, fixing her with that penetrating stare of his. “Who are you?” So he didn’t recognize her, then. They had never been formally introduced, of course. She ought not to be disappointed, but some small, vain sliver of her was. “I am not a woman who should be laughed at, my lord.” “Oh, I wasn’t laughing at you, love.” He grinned, and it did wicked things to her senses, that grin.

“It was the absurdity of the moment. Surely you don’t think to entrap me into marriage by arranging this tableau?” “I didn’t invite you to molest my person,” she reminded him, flushing. Of course, she had—she was ashamed to admit—been enthralled by him. It was as if he’d cast a spell over her with his beauty and his knowing touch. “Of course not, but I must be excused for imagining that my reputation precedes me, and that only a certain sort of woman seeks out my company at this time of night.” His voice was low, suggestive. “That sort of woman seeks pleasure, not wedding vows.” Pleasure. The mere words on his lips sent a frisson of something wanton and altogether alarming settling over her. The things he had said.

Lord almighty, but she’d never heard the like in her entire life. The man was everything she’d heard and, quite probably, worse. “I sought you out for simple reasons, my lord.” She decided to strive for bald honesty in the hopes that she could avoid any further references to matters of the flesh. “Pray forgive me if marriage seems the inherent opposite of simple,” he purred. He was a dangerous man, impossible to read. So beautiful at this proximity that she ached just looking upon him. Hardly any wonder he had bedded half the women in the aristocracy if rumors were to be believed. No woman could look upon him and not melt on the inside. “I’m not looking for a true marriage, my lord,” she explained.

He caught her chin in his thumb and forefinger, holding her still for his unsettling inspection. “What are you looking for then, dear girl? Cease talking in riddles and place all your cards on the table.” “A marriage in name only.” She met his gaze, unflinching. “Ah,” he said softly, stroking her jaw as he spoke the single syllable, drawing it out as though the next moment held great import. “What makes you think I’d sell myself for one hundred thousand pounds? You cannot believe you’re the first to attempt such an arrangement?” She’d been certain she would’ve been the first. His words gave her pause. Clara had thought out this plan with meticulous care. She had researched, planned, chosen the man before her because he’d seemed an indolent voluptuary and was rather infamously pockets to let. An easy sell, she’d been certain.

But the earl she’d watched these last few weeks, the man who flirted with other men’s wives and drank too much at balls, who courted scandal at every turn, that earl was nowhere to be seen on this dark night in the privacy of his study. For the real Earl of Ravenscroft had a wit as sharp as a Bowie knife and the personality of a coiled rattlesnake. She’d ventured where she didn’t belong. Had imagined him to be a different person entirely. But she’d come this far, hadn’t she? Her father and stepmother and their legion of servants were not easily fooled. Sneaking out with the aid of a bribable driver her father had recently hired had taken an endless amount of daring and tenacity. She’d made it here, into his study, past his sour-faced butler. She couldn’t simply turn tail and go home. “I may not be the first to present you with such an offer, my lord, but I believe my offer to be the best.” There.

She could brazen it out. She could make him see reason. She hadn’t a choice. Ravenscroft was her only hope of escape now, for if word of her failed attempt at freedom reached her father, he’d change the terms of her marriage settlement as he’d threatened, leaving her with nothing and no recourse. No way of ever returning home. “I understand that you’re in need of funds. You have sisters in desperate want of a season. I neither want nor need anything from you. A great deal of wealth shall be settled upon me after I marry, and I’m willing to give you a hundred thousand pounds of that wealth unencumbered so long as you allow me to return to Virginia.” “I thank you for the offer, my dear, but the answer is a resounding no.

” His fingertips skimmed down her throat. Such a light caress, barely even there, and yet the effect was maddening. “It’s a damn shame you aren’t someone else’s wife. I could have shown you so much.” He had refused her, yet he hadn’t released her. He touched her with a familiarity she hadn’t ever known, not even with Henry. Now she understood the whispers. Understood why ladies spoke about him behind their fans and sent him longing glances. He could make a woman feel as if she were the most desirable woman in the world, even as he was telling her no. “Will you not even consider it?” she asked him.

“I believe that one hundred thousand pounds could solve a great many of your problems.” He smiled without mirth, watching his fingers as they settled in the hollow of her throat and then swept lower still, across the bare expanse of her breast that he had revealed with such skilled ease. “Not the biggest problem, I’m afraid. But that is neither here nor there. How much longer will you stay, love? I cannot in good conscience encourage you to linger. If I ruin you tonight, I won’t go to your father in the morning begging for your hand. It really is in your best interest to go. Now.” But his fingers skated a path of fire near her nipple even as he warned her, and he lowered his head so that she could smell his cologne and feel his hot brandy-scented breath upon her lips. Would he kiss her? It didn’t matter.

She forced her mind back to the task at hand, convincing him of the wisdom of his capitulation. “Wouldn’t you like to see your sisters have the seasons they deserve? You must love them very much. You could see them settled forever. You could return your estates to their former glory, and I would barely require anything from you for your cooperation.” “There is only one way in which I’d like to offer my cooperation at the moment, and it is this.” He cupped her face with his other hand and that quickly, his mouth was upon hers. The kiss was not anything like Henry’s had been. It was masterful, a revelation. His lips angled on hers, his tongue sweeping the seam of her lips before coaxing her to open. He tasted of brandy and sin.

His fingers slipped from her cheek to her hair, loosening the heavy plaits, holding her in place. His other hand slid beneath her chemise and corset, finding her hardened nipple without err. She gasped at the sensation, arched into his hand. His kisses slowed. He nipped at her lower lip then sucked on it gently. He pressed a kiss to the corner of her mouth, to her ear, his tongue darting out to trace the shell and lick the sensitive area she hadn’t known existed just behind her earlobe. “Why did you come here, little dove?” he whispered into her ear. “Tell me what you want.” He had turned her mind upside down. She couldn’t think.

His shoulders were broad beneath his waistcoat and shirt. She hadn’t even realized she was touching him, but she opened her eyes now and stared. This had not been her plan. Not at all. He was never meant to touch her, and yet he was sucking the tender flesh of her throat, kissing a path to the curve of her shoulder, nipping her with just enough pressure to send an unwanted flood of something primitive and wholly foreign straight through her veins. Her pelisse was somehow on the floor, her bodice partially shucked. Lord God in heaven. What manner of scrape had she gotten herself into now? “My lord, will you not see reason?”


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