Romancing the Rake Collection – Tammy Andresen

RAİTHE, the Baron of Balstead, watched as his last two victims walked through the door. Good. They were all here. He’d carefully chosen this cast of characters, his soon-to-be house guests. He needed them for a very particular purpose, though he had no intention of telling them what that purpose was. This was a situation where it was best to lie. He found many situations were that way. Not all of them, of course. But here, at his gentlemen’s club, where drinking and gambling were the primary activities, it was all about the bluff. Just to his right sat three friends. Lord Dashlane, Lord Crestwood and Lord Craven. They were his first three potential…guests. Craven was one of the few men in England that actually frightened him a bit. Quiet and sullen, he was also tall and well-muscled. He looked quick as a snake and equally as deadly.

Then there was Dashlane, Blond with a flashing smile, he was a charmer to be sure. Crestwood was dark-haired and handsome. All three liked their fair share of women and liquor but he’d seen them defend a group of harlots that another band of ruffians had attempted to rob and that put these gents on his list. “Are you going to tell us what this is about?” Dashlane asked, bringing his whisky to his lips. “In a minute,” he answered, holding up a finger. A wide range of patrons/guests crowded the club tonight, seats limited, which worked for him. His last two players had entered the club but hadn’t picked him out the crowd yet. The Duke of Rathmore made his way through the mash of people and stopped directly in front of Raithe. Rathmore turned to his cousin and best friend, Lord Hartwell. “Don’t you love the smell of leather, cigars, and good whisky?” Hartwell rolled his eyes.

“I prefer brandy and thank goodness we missed the speaker,” he quietly announced as he brushed back his rich brown hair. “I’ve no appetite for politics today.” Rathmore raised his brow. “What’s gotten into you?” “Charlie.” Hartwell grimaced, his mouth tightening. Raithe’s insides tightened. Charlie was short for Charlotte, Lady Charlotte Rainsville. She was Rathmore’s cousin and Hartwell’s sister. As vivacious as she was beautiful, she’d come out the season before. Fearless and outspoken, many had said she should have been born a man.

Not that her strong personality stopped her from garnering male attention. In fact, Charlie had been the premiere debutante last season with droves of men following her about but she’d yet to choose a husband. Raithe had not been one of those men. He stayed away from respectable girls as a general rule and Charlie in particular. Something about her beauty made her difficult to even look at. A man might lose his head and he couldn’t afford to do that now. “Are you worried for the upcoming season? I know you were beating men off with sticks and clubs.” Rathmore chuckled. Hartwell’s grimace turned into a full-on spasm. “Worried doesn’t begin to cover how I feel.

And sticks and clubs were the least of the needed weapons. I had two incidents that involved a sword and one that required a pistol.” Chase clapped his cousin on the back. “I’ll help you.” Hartwell gave him a light shove. “You said that last year too. But we both know you’re too busy to help me keep Charlie out of trouble.” “Busy doing what?” Raithe asked, a light grin playing at his lips. He knew full well what sorts of illicit pastimes the duke engaged in that kept him occupied. Both men turned to look at him.

Hartwell appeared leery while Rathmore crossed his arms over his chest. “Don’t sneak up on me like that.” “I didn’t sneak.” His grin broadened. “I’ve been sitting here the entire time. Isn’t that right, Dashlane?” “Are they who we’re waiting for? Can we get on with it then?” Dashlane cracked his knuckles. “I’ve got a lovely brunette waiting for my attention.” Rathmore frowned at the other fellow. “Must you be so indiscrete about your indiscretions?” Crestwood quirked a brow. “How else should a man be? We are young, single, titled.

Seems perfect to me.” “It’s tawdry. It’s one thing to participate in such behavior but another to speak so openly about it.” Rathmore frowned and Raithe realized he should get this conversation moving before the men began to squabble. That could come later. “Gentlemen,” he started, clearing his throat. “I’m having a party at the end of next week. You are the premier guests on the list.” Crestwood slapped the table, his attitude completely changing. “Now we’re getting somewhere.

” Craven continued to grimace; his face a complete mask. “What sort of party?” “The sort men of your kind would like.” He winked. Raithe had a particular sort of reputation for having parties filled with women and liquor. That wasn’t what this was going to be and so he wouldn’t outwardly promise such delights. It would give him plausible deniability later. Rathmore dropped his arms to his sides. “Next week? I couldn’t possibly.” Raithe tried not to frown. The duke, once a notorious rake, had hardly been seen at the gaming hells or at parties of ill repute.

Coupled with his comments to Crestwood, that made him the most important candidate of them all. Hartwell stepped forward. “We’re headed to the coast to check in on some of our properties.” Excellent. He tightened his grip around his glass. “Then you’ll be close to my home. Surely, you can spend a few days with us.” Hartwell shook his head. “My sister will be travelling with me. I seriously doubt she is suited to one of your parties.

” Raithe didn’t respond. This gathering would be perfectly appropriate for such a lady but he wasn’t about to tell them all of that. Besides, Charlie was the last woman he wanted in his house, under his roof, near his bed. “That doesn’t mean Rathmore can’t attend. For a few days at least.” He leaned forward. “Tell me you’re not craving something different.” He saw the flicker of indecision in the other man’s eyes. Victory roared in his blood. “Count me in,” Crestwood crowed.

“What about you, Dashlane?” Dashlane took a sip of his drink. “Why not? I could use a change of pace. Craven?” The third man frowned. “I suppose.” Raithe didn’t care if Craven attended or not. In fact, he’d prefer he didn’t but the three were often together making Craven a necessary evil. “Rathmore?” “I’ll think on it,” Rathmore shrugged, staring at the far wall. “I’ll attend,” another voice called from the corner. Raithe turned, his jaw clenching when he’d seen who spoke. His Grace, the Duke of Danesbury sat, partially obscured by shadow.

The man was rarely seen out, his face having been scarred on one side from some accident or another. Raithe’s eyes widened to see the man here on such a busy night. “Your Grace?” he asked. Strictly speaking the man was not invited but as a duke, he’d be difficult to refuse. “I’ve heard of your parties, Balstead. I’ll come if you’ll have me.” Raithe swore softly under his breath. This was not one of the carefully chosen men. He didn’t know what sort of man Danesbury was and didn’t wish to find out. “Of course, Your Grace.

” Raithe sat back in his chair. He had five men after all. Not the five he’d originally set out to invite but still… that ought to give Cassandra some choices… C H A P T E R O N E CHASE, better known as the Duke of Rathmore, stared out the window of his carriage, watching the darkening sky with a narrow-eyed glare. The clouds suited his mood. One might argue that he should be happy. He was on his way to a summer house party that was likely to be the event of the season. At least for lords with power, money, and a proclivity for fun. And by fun, he meant drinking, gambling, and sex, likely in that order. The Baron of Balstead, was known among most men to be a deviant. He liked lavish parties with high-powered men and lowly women.

Chase had been invited before. But somehow, Balstead had managed to convince him to attend this time. As an unmarried duke who regularly showed up in the clubs, gaming hells, and even a few high-end brothels, he was exactly the sort that Balstead would want to attend. This was just the first time that Chase had ever accepted. He wasn’t sure why he’d decided to go this time. Perhaps it was the nagging feeling that had set in of late that something more meaningful was missing from his life. He’d become duke at the tender age of sixteen when his parents had died while crossing the English Channel during a storm. When he’d recovered from his grief, he’d set about enjoying all the benefits of being a young duke. But that had been ten years prior and the things he’d enjoyed had lost their shine. And so, he’d decided the only answer was to search out even more ruckus fun in the form of Balstead’s party.

If he were honest, however, he wasn’t certain the idea sat right in his mind. And so, he’d set out two days later than he’d planned. And he’d taken his time surveying several properties on the trip. And now, it looked as though he’d be delayed again as a fat plop of rain landed on the roof of his carriage. Perhaps, he shouldn’t go at all. The road he travelled followed along the coast, giving him scenic views of the ocean beyond. At least that’s what some people would think of water. Right now, it was a dark, ominous grey that looked, to him, like a death trap. He slapped his hand against his knee as more rain began to fall. He wasn’t going forward or turning back tonight.

Rapping on the carriage wall, he called to his driver. “Is there somewhere we can stop for the night?” “Aye, Yer Grace,” the driver called back. “We can keep travelling along this road and get to a little village called Seabridge Gate. It’s quaint and quiet but it’s our best bet for a night’s reprieve from the storm.” “Sounds good,” he called back, settling into his seat, the knot in his chest unfurling a bit. At least for today, the decision had been made not to go on. But that feeling of relief only lasted for a bit as the rain pummeled the carriage, the wind driving the water near sideways. Another five minutes passed as Chase watched the ocean, the waves growing large and furious as they beat against the shore but soon the rain dulled even the view of the ocean’s anger. “Yer Grace,” his driver hollered over the beating wind. “I see a home up ahead.

Should we stop and seek shelter?” He grimaced. The notion of asking a complete stranger for help filled him with dread. Who knew what he would find? “How much longer until we reach the village?” “I don’t rightly reckon,” the driver answered. “But we’re getting near soaked out here.” Chase sighed. “You’re right. Let’s stop.” His valet and footman were also in attendance and while the footman was used to such conditions, his valet, Mr. Wendel, was not. Besides, no man should be out in a storm like this.

The carriage pulled up the drive, long and sweeping, rising up a hill. Not only would they be safe from the wrath of the ocean, they’d likely have excellent views. Soon, a stately manor house appeared and in moments, staff flooded out the doors to greet the unexpected guests. Stepping down from the carriage, he followed a well-trained butler into a large entry. A portly but jovial fellow dressed in an immaculate evening coat swept down the stairs. “Welcome,” he called as if Chase were an expected guest. “Welcome to Highland Manor. I am the Honorable Thomas Moorish. Whom do I have the honor of addressing?” Chase gave a slight bow of his head, putting on his best dukely façade. “The Duke of Rathmore, at your service.

” The man’s eyes widened. “Your Grace,” he breathed. “What brings you to my humble home?” Chase’s eyebrows lifted, giving the grand entry a sweep of his gaze. “Your home is lovely and the storm has stopped my travels, at least for the night. I wondered if I might be able to weather its wrath here and impose upon your fine hospitality.” The other man nodded. “We’d be most delighted to have such a guest.” Chase nodded again as he noted the we in the sentence. Did the man have a wife? Children? Then something wonderful caught his gaze. At the top of the stairs, one, two, three, four, five ladies appeared.

Dressed in a rainbow of pastels, two brunettes, two blondes, and one redhead gazed down at him. At least that’s how it appeared from his spot near the door. He couldn’t quite make out any of them individually but the effect of all five was staggering. Had he wanted to keep driving? Damn fool. This was the perfect spot to weather a storm. MİSS OPHELİA MOORİSH stood at the top of the stairs and gazed down at the young duke. He was the stuff of fairy tales and romances and… She stopped, realizing she was getting carried away. As a longtime lover of all books, she tended to cast herself as the heroine in the pages and make the people who surrounded her characters in her own story. It had gotten her in trouble on more than one occasion. For example, last year she’d discovered a gelding that had gotten trapped in the sea grass that stretched for miles when the tide was out.

She’d imagined herself the animal’s great rescuer. Instead, it had nearly trampled her in its fear. She had gotten the horse safely out, but she’d suffered a broken arm from the experience. Drawing a deep breath, she looked at the duke again. He’d removed his hat and dark hair waved back from his forehead and down over his ears. She couldn’t see the color of his eyes, but his jaw was square and his shoulders broad. Her heart hammered in her chest again. He really was like a prince from a story. And she could swear his gaze followed her every move. Was that her imagination again? She wasn’t certain but her pulse accelerated even more.

“Girls,” her father called from the bottom of the steps. “Come down and meet our guest.” One of her sisters, likely Bianca, giggled hysterically while Juliet fluttered her hand in the air. Ophelia pursed her lips. Apparently, she wasn’t the only sister who had noticed the handsome duke. As the eldest, however, she was most entitled to seek his attention. She was nearly two and twenty and still had yet to participate in a proper season. Without a mother and with five sisters, her father hadn’t been able to step away from his business and family in order to take her. Adrianna, her youngest sister, was about to turn eighteen. Her father threatened to unleash them all on London at once.

Not conventional, but potentially necessary. Ophelia sighed. She understood and she agreed. When their mother had passed, she’d taken up the role of mother figure with her young sisters and she didn’t regret it a bit. But lately, she’d begun to wonder about her own future. Would there ever be time for her to find her own husband and have her own family? And what about the adventure of a season? The opportunity to live her own fairy tale before she settled into a future? She had to confess, she loved children. Even when they cried or acted naughty. Caring for her sisters had been a blessing and she’d gladly do it again. Her sisters stepped back, allowing her to make her way down the steps first. Gently, she lifted the front of her skirt, giving His Grace her best smile.

He smiled back, and she nearly gasped with awe. He had the sort of flashing green eyes that made her heart race in her chest. His nose had a bit of a crook, but that only made him more masculine, while his mouth was full and completely…well…kissable. His shoulders were just as broad as she’d imagined and his skin-tight breeches left little question to the narrowness of his hips and muscles of his legs. His boots were polished to a high shine and she admired them for a moment before she realized she’d just given him a head to toe perusal. Her gaze snapped back up to his eyes and he quirked one eyebrow as his smile broadened into a knowing grin. Heat flamed in her cheeks. “Your Grace, this is my eldest daughter, Miss Ophelia Moorish.” She dipped into a deep curtsy, her cheeks still radiating heat as she murmured, “Your Grace.” Her father went down the line by age.

“My second eldest, Juliet. Then we have Cordelia, Bianca, and lastly, Adrianna.” Each woman curtseyed in turn but Ophelia noted that the duke’s gaze returned to her the moment the introductions finished. Heat spread through her body at his sparkling emerald eyes. “It’s a pleasure, ladies.” He subtly skimmed his gaze down her frame and Ophelia stared at the wall attempting not to blush again. She had a trim waist but she was fuller in her hips and bosom than most of her sisters. Then he looked to her father. “You sir have been blessed with a beautiful brood of daughters.” Her father chuckled.

“I was handsome enough in my day and my wife, God rest her soul, was a beauty to be certain.”

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