Rules for a Rogue – Christy Carlyle

He always searched for her. Call it perversity or a reckless brand of tenacity. Heaven knew he’d been accused of both. Pacing the scuffed wooden floorboards at the edge of the stage, Christopher Ruthven shoved a hand through his black hair and skimmed his dark gaze across each seat in the main theater stalls of Merrick Theater for the woman he needed to forget. Damn the mad impulse to look for her. He was a fool to imagine he’d ever find her staring back. The anticipation roiling in his belly should be for the play, not the past. Finding her would be folly. Considering how they’d parted, the lady would be as likely to lash out as to embrace him with open arms. But searching for her had become his habit. His ritual. Other thespians had rituals too. Some refused to eat before a performance. Others feasted like a king. A few repeated incantations, mumbling to themselves when the curtains rose.

As the son of a publishing magnate, Kit should have devised his own maxim to repeat, but the time for words was past. He’d written the play, and the first act was about to begin. Now he only craved a glimpse of Ophelia Marsden. The four years since he’d last seen her mattered not. Her bright blue eyes, heart-shaped face, and striking red hair had always distinguished her from other women, but Kit knew they were the least of the qualities that set her apart. Clever, stubborn to the core, and overflowing with more spirit than anyone he’d ever known—that’s how he remembered Phee. But looking for her wasn’t mere folly; it was futile. She wouldn’t come. He, after all, was the man who’d broken her heart. As stagehands lit the limelights, Kit shaded his eyes from their glare and stepped behind the curtain.

The thrumming in his veins was about the play now, the same giddiness he felt before every performance. Hunching his shoulders, he braced his arms across his chest and listened intently, half his attention on the lines being delivered on stage, half on the pandemonium backstage. He adored the energy of the theater, the frenetic chaos of actors and stagehands rushing about madly behind the curtains to produce rehearsed magic for the audience. Economies at Merrick’s meant he might write a play, perform in it, assist with scene changes from the catwalk, and direct other actors—all in one evening. Tonight though, beyond writing the words spoken on stage, the production was out of his hands, and that heightened his nerves. Idleness made him brood. Behind him a husky female voice cried out, and Kit turned to intercept the woman as she rushed forward, filling his arms with soft curves. “There’s a mouse!” Tess, the playhouse’s leading lady, batted thick lashes and stuck out a vermillion-stained lower lip. “Vile creatures. Every one of them.

” “Tell me where.” Kit gently dislodged the petite blonde from his embrace. “Scurried underneath, so it did.” She indicated a battered chest of drawers, sometimes used for storage, more often as a set piece. Kit approached the bulky wooden chest, crouched down, and saw nothing but darkness and dust. Bracing his palms on the floor, he lowered until his chest pressed against wood and he spied the little creature huddling in the farthest corner. The tiny mouse looked far more frightened of him than Tess was of it. “Can you catch the beast? We can find a cage or give it to the stray cats hanging about the stage doors.” “Too far out of reach.” He could move the chest, but the mouse would no doubt scurry away.

Seemed kinder to allow the animal to find its own way to freedom. Kit knew what it was to be trapped and frightened. To cower in darkness covered in dust. His father hadn’t shut him up in a cage, just a closet now and then, but Kit would be damned if he’d confine any creature. Tess made an odd sound. Of protest, Kit assumed. But when he cast a glance over his shoulder, her gaze raked hungrily over his legs and backside as he got to his feet. “The little thing will no doubt find its way out of doors, Tess. Not much food to be had here.” Tess took his attempt at reassurance as an invitation and launched herself into his arms.

She was an appealing woman, with tousled golden curls, catlike green eyes, and an exceedingly ample—Ah, yes, there they are—bosom that she shifted enticingly against his chest, as if she knew precisely how good her lush body felt against his. Without a hint of shame or restraint, she moved her hands down his arms, slid them under his unbuttoned sack coat, and stroked her fingers up his back. “Goodness, you’re deliciously tall.” Kit grinned. He found female praise for his awkward height amusing, since he’d been mercilessly teased for his long frame as a child. In a theater world full of handsome, charming actors, his stature and whatever skill he possessed with the written word were all that set him apart. “You’re like a tree I long to climb,” she purred. “Feels so right in your arms. Perhaps the gods are telling us that’s where I belong.” Tess wasn’t merely generously built.

From the day she arrived, she’d been generous with her affections too. Half the men at Merrick’s were smitten, but Kit kept to his rule about avoiding intrigues with ladies in the troupe. Since coming to London, he’d never sought more than a short-lived entanglement with any woman. He relished his liberty too much to allow himself more. “Perhaps the gods are unaware you’re due on stage for the next act,” he teased, making light of her flirtation as he’d done since their introduction. “Always concerned about your play, aren’t you, lovie?” She slid a hand up his body, snaking a finger between the buttons of his waistcoat. “I know my part. Don’t worry, Kitten.” The pet name she’d chosen for him grated on his nerves. “The music’s risen, Tess.

” Kit gripped the actress’s hand when she reached toward his waistband. “That’s your cue.” “I’ll make you proud.” She winked and lifted onto her toes, placing a damp kiss on his cheek. “You’re a difficult man to seduce,” she whispered, “but I do so love a challenge.” After sauntering to the curtain’s edge, she offered him a final come-hither glance before sashaying on stage. “Already breaking hearts, Kitten? The evening’s only just begun.” Jasper Grey, Merrick Theater’s lead actor and Kit’s closest friend, exited stage left and sidled up beside him. With a few swipes across his head, Grey disheveled his coppery brown hair and loosened the faux silk cravat at his throat. The changes were subtle, but sufficient to signal to the audience that his character would begin a descent into madness and debauchery during the second act.

Having explored many of London’s diversions at the man’s side, Kit could attest to Grey’s knack for debauchery, on and off the stage. “I’m sure you’ll be more than happy to offer solace. Or have you already?” Choosing a new lover each night of the week was more Grey’s style than Kit’s, though both had attracted their share of stage-door admirers and earned their reputations as rogues. Grey’s smirk gave everything away. “Whatever the nature of my private moments with our lovely leading lady, the minx is determined to offer you her heart.” “Bollocks to that. I’ve no interest in claiming anyone’s heart.” The very thought chased a chill up Kit’s spine. Marriage. Commitment.

Those were for other men. If his parents were any lesson, marriage was a miserable prison, and he had no wish to be shackled. Kit turned his attention back to the audience. “Still looking for your phantom lady?” Grey often tweaked Kit about his habit of searching the crowd. Rather than reveal parts of his past he wished to forget, Kit allowed his friend to assume he sought a feminine ideal, not a very specific woman of flesh and freckles and fetching red hair. “What will you do if she finally appears?” “She won’t.” And if he were less of a fool, he’d stop looking for her. “Come, man. We’ve packed the house again tonight. This evening we celebrate.

” Grey swiped at the perspiration on his brow. “You’ve been downright monkish of late. There must be a woman in London who can turn your head. What about the buxom widow who threw herself at you backstage after last week’s performance?” “The lady stumbled. I simply caught her fall.” “Mmm, and quite artfully too. I particularly admired the way her lush backside landed squarely in your lap.” The curvaceous widow had been all too willing to further their acquaintance, but she’d collided with Kit on opening night. Having written the play and performed in a minor role for an indisposed actor, he’d been too distracted fretting over success to bother with a dalliance. Of late, something in him had altered.

Perhaps he’d had his fill of the city’s amusements. Grey’s appetite never seemed to wane, but shallow seductions no longer brought Kit satisfaction. He worried less about pleasure and more about success. Four years in London and what had he accomplished? Coming to the city had never been about indulging in vice but about making his mark as a playwright. He’d allowed himself to be distracted. Far too impulsive should have been his nickname, for as often as his father had shouted the words at him in his youth. “How about the angel in the second balcony?” Grey gestured to a gaudily painted box, high in the theater’s eastern wall. “I’ve never been able to resist a woman with titian red hair.” Kit snapped his gaze to the spot Grey indicated, heartbeat ratcheting until it thundered in his ears. Spotting the woman, he expelled a trapped breath.

The lady’s hair shone in appealing russet waves in the gaslight, but she wasn’t Ophelia. Phee’s hair was a rich auburn, and her jaw narrower. At least until it sharpened into an adorably squared chin that punctuated her usual air of stubborn defiance. “No?” Grey continued his perusal of ladies among the sea of faces. “How about the giggling vision in the third row?” The strawberry blonde laughed with such raucous abandon her bosom bounced as she turned to speak to her companion. Kit admired her profile a moment, letting his gaze dip lower before glancing at the man beside her. “That’s Dominic Fleet.” Kit’s pulse jumped at the base of his throat. Opportunity sat just a few feet away. He’d never met the theater impresario, but he knew the man by reputation.

Unlike Merrick’s shabby playhouse, known for its comedies and melodramas, Fleet Theater featured long-running plays by the best dramatists in London. Lit entirely with electric lights, the modern theater seated up to three thousand. “What’s he doing slumming at Merrick’s?” Grey turned to face Kit. “Did you invite him?” “Months ago.” Kit had sent a letter of introduction to Fleet, enclosing a portion of a play he’d written but been unable to sell. “He never replied.” Yet here he was, attending the performance of a piece that revealed none of Kit’s true skill as a playwright. Merrick had demanded a bawdy farce. In order to pay his rent, Kit had provided it. “You bloody traitor.

” Grey smiled, his sarcastic tone belying his words. “You wouldn’t dare abandon Merrick and set out for greener fields.” “Why? Because he compensates us so generously?” Though they shared a love of theater, Grey and Kit had different cares. Grey possessed family money and worried little about meeting the expenses of a lavish London lifestyle. Kit could never take a penny from his father, even if it was on offer. Any aid from Leopold Ruthven would come with demands and expectations—precisely the sort of control he’d left Hertfordshire to escape. “You belong here, my friend.” Grey clapped him on the shoulder. “With our band of misfits and miscreants. Orphans from lives better left behind.

” Belonging. The theater had given him that in a way his father’s home never had. Flouting rules, tenacity, making decisions intuitively—every characteristic his father loathed were assets in the theater. Kit had no desire to abandon the life he’d made for himself, just improve upon it. “We came to London to make something of ourselves. Do you truly believe we’ll find success at Merrick’s?” Kit lifted his elbow and nudged the dingy curtain tucked at the edge of the stage. “Among tattered furnishings?” “That’s only the backside of the curtain. Merrick puts the best side out front. We all have our flaws. The art is in how well we hide them.

” Grey had such a way with words Kit often thought he should be a playwright. “Would you truly jump ship?” “I bloody well would.” Kit slanted a glance at his friend. “And so would you.” Merrick paid them both a dribble, producing plays with minimal expense in a building that leaked when it rained. Cultivating favor with the wealthiest theater manager in London had been Kit’s goal for months. With a long-running Fleet-produced play, he could repay his debts and move out of his cramped lodgings. Hunger had turned him into a hack writer for Merrick, but he craved more. Success, wealth, a chance to prove his skill as a writer. To prove that his decision to come to London had been the right one.

To prove to his father that he could succeed on his own merits. “Never!” Tess, performing the role of virginal damsel, shrieked from center stage. “Never shall I marry Lord Mallet. He is the worst sort of scoundrel.” “That’s my cue.” Grey grinned as he tugged once more at his cravat and dashed back into the glow of the limelights. Just before stepping on stage, he skidded to stop and turned to Kit. “You’d better write me a part in whatever play you sell to Fleet.” With a mock salute, Kit offered his friend a grin. He had every intention of creating a role for Grey.

The man’s acting skills deserved a grander stage too. Kit fixed his gaze on Fleet. He seemed to be enjoying the play, a trifling modernized Hamlet parody Kit called The King’s Ghost and the Mad Damsel . He’d changed the heroine’s name to Mordelia, unable to endure the sound of Ophelia’s name bouncing off theater walls for weeks. Months, if the play did well. After his eyes adjusted to the stage-light glow, he pointlessly, compulsively scanned the crowd one last time for a woman whose inner beauty glowed as fiercely as her outer charms. He wouldn’t find her. As far as he knew, Phee was home in the village where they’d grown up. When he’d come to London to escape his father, she’d insisted on loyalty to hers and remained in Hertfordshire to care for him. All but one of his letters had gone unanswered, including a note the previous year expressing sorrow over her father’s passing.

He didn’t need to reach into his pocket and unfold the scrap of paper he carried with him everywhere. The five words of Ophelia’s only reply remained seared in his mind. “Follow your heart and flourish.” They were her mother’s words, stitched in a sampler that hung in the family’s drawing room. Kit kept the fragment, but he still wondered whether Ophelia had written the words in sincerity or sarcasm. A flash of gems caught his eye, and Kit spied Fleet’s pretty companion rising from her seat. The theater impresario stood too, following her into the aisle. Both made their way toward the doors at the rear of the house. He couldn’t let the man leave without an introduction. Kit lurched toward a door leading to a back hall and sprinted down the dimly lit corridor.

He caught up to Fleet near the ladies’ retiring room. “Mr. Fleet, I am—” “Christopher Ruthven, the scribe of this evening’s entertainment.” The man extended a gloved hand. “Forgive me, Ruthven. It’s taken far too long for me to take in one of your plays.” Attempting not to crush the slighter man in his grip, Kit offered an enthusiastic handshake. “I want to have a look at your next play.” Fleet withdrew an engraved calling card from his waistcoat pocket. “Bring it in person to my office at the theater.

Not the one you sent. Something new. More like this one.” “You’ll have it.” Kit schooled his features, forcing his furrowed brow to smooth. So what if the man wanted a farce rather than serious drama? He craved an opportunity to succeed, and Fleet could provide it. “Thank you.” “If we can come to terms and you manage to fill my playhouse every night as you have Merrick’s, I shall be thanking you.” Kit started backstage, his head spinning with ideas for a bigger, grander play than Merrick’s could produce. Never mind that it had taken years to grasp the chance Fleet offered.

Good fortune had come, and he intended to make the most of it. As he reached the inconspicuous door that led to the back corridor, a man called his name. “Mr. Ruthven? Christopher Leopold Ruthven?” Two gentlemen approached, both tall, black-suited, and dour. Debt collectors? The instinct to bolt dissipated when the two made it impossible, crowding him on either side of the narrow passageway. “I’m Ruthven.” Taller than both men and broader by half, Kit still braced himself for whatever might come. “What do you want?” The one who’d yet to say anything took a step closer, and Kit recognized his wrinkled face. “Mr. Sheridan? What brings you to Merrick’s?” Kit never imagined the Ruthven family solicitor would venture to a London theater under any circumstances.

“Ill tidings, I regret to say.” Sheridan reached into his coat and withdrew an envelope blacked with ink around the edges. “Your father is dead, Mr. Ruthven. I’m sorry. Our letter to you was returned. My messenger visited your address twice and could not locate you. I thought we might find you here.” “Moved lodgings.” Kit took the letter, willing his hand not to tremble.

“Weeks ago.” “Your sister has made arrangements for a ceremony in Briar Heath.” Sheridan lifted a card from his pocket and handed it to Kit. “Visit my office before you depart, and I can provide you with details of your father’s will.” The men watched him a moment, waiting for a reaction. When none came, Sheridan muttered condolences before they departed. Kit lost track of time. He shoved Sheridan’s card into his coat pocket to join Fleet’s, crushed the unread solicitor’s letter in his hand, and stood rooted to the spot where they’d left him. Father. Dead.

The two words refused to congeal in his mind. So many of the choices Kit made in his twenty-eight years had been driven by his father’s wrath, attempts to escape his stifling control. Now Kit could think only of what he should do. Must do. Look after his sisters. Return to Briar Heath. He’d leave after speaking to Merrick. Any work on a play to impress Fleet would have to be undertaken while he was back home. Home. The countryside, the village, the oversized house his father built with profits from his publishing enterprise—none of it had been home for such a very long time.

It was a place he’d felt shunned and loathed most of his life. He’d never visited in four years. Never dared set foot in his father’s house after his flamboyant departure. As he headed toward Merrick’s office to tell the man his news, worry for his sisters tightened Kit’s jaw until it ached. Then another thought struck. After all these years, night after night of futile searching, he would finally see Ophelia Marsden again.


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