Tempting the Scoundrel – Tracy Sumner

T he girl captivated him from first sight, fascination a delightful little shiver along his skin. As she had every night he’d been in residence, she huddled in the veranda’s dark corner, book in hand, an oil lamp illuminating the page she brought close to the tarnished glass globe. A housemaid, she read in secret. And hungrily. He could feel her determination, her daring, from his perch one story above. Determination matching his own. Christian Bainbridge braced his hands on the ledge of his bedchamber window and leaned into a spill of moonlight, releasing a half-laugh at his foolishness. There was nothing poetic about this night, this house, or his circumstances. The air reeked of coal smoke and charred meat, rotting vegetables and the Thames, familiar even in its wretchedness. Cousin to the Earl of Tavistock, whose home Christian currently occupied, he was stuck in the slender crack between the aristocracy and the middling classes, welcome in neither. The loneliest place to wedge oneself, he’d come to find. After the recent death of his beloved brother, Christian was alone in the world except for the earl, a man rumored—and, regrettably, the rumors were true—to have several significant deficits of character. To Christian’s mind, the worst being that he failed to maintain his timepieces. Christian glanced back to the pocket watch parts spread across the desk, candlelight dancing over metal coils, serrated wheels, the blunt edge of a screwdriver. You could tell much about a person from the way they tended their treasures.

The earl tended his poorly. Tavistock had little care for his belongings, his tenants, his staff, or his hapless fifteenyear-old cousin. Leading Christian to make the rash decision to accept an apprenticeship he’d been offered with a prominent watchmaker in Cambridge. He had another term at Harrow to complete, but there were no funds, not one farthing left to sustain further education. And Christian was not willing to accept additional charity from a man he’d come to loathe. The situation was actually as it should be because Christian had never been interested in anything but the art of repairing timepieces. And when he was ready, designing his own. Before this girl, only gears and coils and springs had captured his attention. He’d asked a groom, a footman, and finally, the housekeeper for her name, because he’d felt he must learn it before leaving the estate at dawn. Raine Mowbray, he’d been told.

A young woman who now held a unique position in his universe. Love at first sight did that to a boy. There was something elemental about his reaction to Raine, more extraordinary than mere appreciation for her loveliness. Lust, he supposed, but it felt like more. He had little experience with women, so he couldn’t accurately categorize his response. He’d only seen her once up close, no words exchanged, no eye contact made, as she rushed through the walled garden and into the kitchens, the aroma of roses overpowering until the subtle scent of lemon and lavender clinging to her skin swept in and knocked all else aside. Blew every thought from his mind and left him stranded, like a withered leaf dangling from a limb. It sounded melodramatic, but his heart had raced inside with her. While she hadn’t paused or blinked or seemed to notice him at all. Which was a good thing.

Christian was leaving, he was destitute, lacking in funds, family, or friends. Too young to matter, too old to indulge. His future, which was going to be bloody brilliant he pledged to himself right there in the cloying twilight, lay in Cambridge, not London. He was going to make his way on his own, his awful cousin be damned. The girl on the veranda moved the book into the light, turned a page with a delicate shift of her wrist, smiled softly at a twist in the story. He wished with everything in him that they’d been able to talk, he and Raine Mowbray. Even once. For a moment. About anything. Her voice was a mystery to him, and for that, he was genuinely sorrowful, because she looked as lonely as he felt.

Willing himself to turn away, Christian returned to his cousin’s watch and his promise to restore the neglected timepiece before he left London. When repaired, it would provide an accurate accounting for a man who didn’t deserve precision. But such was life. Christian placed the loupe against his eye and plunged into his task. Preparing to walk away from one fascination and toward another. Chapter 1 A morning long after love had been forsaken… Hartland Abbey, Yorkshire June 1818 Raine stared out the duchess’s drawing room window, the oilcloth in her hand forgotten. Her intention to dust the sashes and neat white frame forgotten. There was something unusual about the tall, strikingly handsome man who’d arrived at the estate and now stood on the crushed-stone drive talking with Lord Jonathan, the Duke of Devon’s eldest son. She gave the baseboard a punishing buff, searching her memory. He seemed familiar, which was absurd.

Raine cataloged his features, trying to solve the puzzle. Square jaw, dark, disheveled hair, tastefully elegant suit of clothing, polished Hessians glinting in the sunlight. A curl of amusement about his lips, lines of delight streaking from his eyes, he looked rather like a man who held a secret close. A hint of mischievousness beneath an almost bookish air. Spellbound, she watched him gesture to a passing footman who’d unloaded a bevy of cases from a landau and was struggling to carry them inside the house, the man’s regard for his belongings—which didn’t look like the customary sartorial fripperies the ton dragged to Yorkshire—possessive and intense. Whatever was in those gleaming wooden cases mattered to their visitor. His gaze followed the boxes up the marble stairs and into the house with the longing one usually reserved for a paramour. “They say he refused a knighthood.” Raine flinched, the oilcloth dropping from her hand to the Aubusson carpet. Ellen Bruce, one of the other housemaids, giggled and winked.

In the duke’s employ since she was a child, Ellen knew everyone and heard everything, while Raine had only been on the estate for six paltry months. Therefore she knew almost nothing. “A knighthood dangled before him for repairing the Prince Regent’s fickle pocket watch,” Ellen murmured with a sly glance cast toward the drive. “Can you imagine such a thing? Royalty be daft, Prinny especially. That’s what I think, if anyone asks me, which they likely won’t.” “Who are you referring to?” Raine stooped to pick up her cleaning cloth, hopefully hiding her curiosity about the intriguing stranger, inquisitiveness that a house servant of a magnificent house such as Hartland Abbey should not have about a guest. “Mister Christian Bainbridge, that’s who. Friendly with Lord Jonathan since his school days, he’s stayed here one or two times in the past.” Ellen pranced over to the grand fireplace and gave the intricate trim a passing swipe with her duster that in no way accounted for housework. She laughed, throwing a playful look over her shoulder, knowing she had a captive audience.

“It’s said he designs the most accurate timepieces in England, and you know the duke cannot stand to be late for any appointment. In this house, nothing but a Bainbridge will do.” Wordlessly, they watched the celebrated watchmaker stroll past the drawing room, his footfalls echoing off marble, providing another brief look that confirmed he was as appealing inside the house as he was out of it. “A most eligible bachelor but a duke’s daughter would be reaching too high. Although he’s here to court timepieces, not unmarried ladies,” Ellen whispered, breathless with delight at the opportunity to impart this much gossip in one sitting. “He has more money than half the peerage what with their silly extravagances and base business sense. And so attractive, too.” She turned, her duster poised like a sword, and gave it a little jab. “He’ll get one look at you, and poof, be smitten! It happened with Nash in seconds flat. You could have knocked him over with a feather after meeting you that first time.

” She sniffed and returned to her half-hearted dusting. “As if you would dally with a groom. Poor besotted Nash. This one, however, is no groom, but a dangerous man. According to the broadsheets, Mister Bainbridge only cares for wenches and watches, so don’t say I didn’t warn you.” Raine held back a spurt of laughter and circled the room to check the water level in the many vases scattered about the charming parlor. It was no wonder the space smelled like one stood in the middle of a rose thicket. Wenches and watches, indeed. She wanted nothing less than to unwittingly capture another man’s attention, for her life to be dictated by his whims, weakness, or unfed appetites. Even if the newly-arrived scoundrel had imparted a slight quiver in her knees, thankfully well hidden beneath her skirt.

For now, she wanted, needed hard work and solitude. And a vast library where she could read to her heart’s content without being accosted. Nothing more, nothing less. Ellen gave the hearth another unproductive bit of consideration. “Our duke likes to rescue people, he does. Give back in reward for his good fortune. Like he did with Miss Abigail, who has a new life. A new husband! Such a lovely conclusion, don’t you think? A merry bit of matchmaking if I do say so myself.” Raine paused by the escritoire desk sitting in a darkened corner. Ah, Miss Bruce had a motive after all.

Raine would have liked to argue that she hadn’t needed rescuing, but she was nothing if not practical. She could admit the truth if only to herself. If not for the Duke and Duchess of Devon, she’d still be working at Tavistock House, living under the wicked, abhorrent thumb of the earl. Shoving a bureau in front of the attic door each night to keep him out. “My eldest brother is acquainted with Thomas Kingston, the duke’s footman, and he recommended me for the vacant maid’s position. The earl was reducing his staff due to financial constraints. It’s as simple as that.” Of course, it wasn’t, but why discuss an unfortunate situation when a resolution had been so generously offered? A resolution humbly but promptly taken. Ellen stilled with a reluctant release of breath, her gaze going molten, her tears apparent from across the room. “Whatever your story, you’re safe now.

This is the finest household in England. The most generous of families to serve.” Raine sighed and turned to gaze out the window, noting Mister Bainbridge’s landau was still parked in the drive. What color are his eyes, she wondered. How did one design a watch to be the most accurate in the country? And why had she felt as if she recognized him the moment he stepped from his carriage? * * * Christian unpacked his tools in the paneled study the Duke of Devon had graciously assigned to him, the niggling hint of unease he’d experienced since arriving decreasing with each treasured instrument he touched. Some items he’d purchased years ago when he’d had to decide between a new screwdriver or food for the week. Tweezers, pliers, oilers, files, calipers. A small, French wheel-cutting engine. The velvet-lined box of crystals sat at the bottom of one case. He breathed a sigh of relief; he hadn’t forgotten them.

Devon had mentioned a cracked face in one of his messages. Christian wasn’t used to traveling with his equipment. He rarely made home visits— but the man was a duke. And he, Christian Bainbridge, could have been a knight, which verified the insanity said to roam the halls of Carlton House. He prayed he didn’t have to visit Prinny again this year. Gordon Pennington, his trusty partner, stumbled into the room, swearing beneath his breath, and kicking the study door shut behind him. “Did you truly need all of these? Enough gadgets to repair every device in Yorkshire. Didn’t we discuss learning to work with less?” He deposited a trunk to the floor with a thump and a groan, then sent Christian a look that said, don’t say a word. “Some business associate you are,” Christian murmured with a smile he made sure to cast away from the man who was, in reality, his best friend. His only friend.

“I’m a guard, Kit, not a business associate.” With a grunt, he went to his knee, produced a knife from his waistcoat pocket, and proceeded to pick the trunk’s lock. Christian rolled his eyes. “I have the key, you know. And remember, Penny, to the ton, you’re my valet.” Although broad-shouldered, ham-fisted Penny looked like no valet Christian had ever seen. “No need for a key. Your valet trained in the back alleys of Whitechapel in preparation for his duties protecting the most expensive timepieces in Christendom. And the watchmaker who created them. Thievery, lockpicking, forgery.

Gordon Pennington, at your service.” He snapped the knife shut and slipped it in his pocket. “I’m ill-used in this role, to put it plainly. But the pay is ample, the attire first-rate, and the danger slight. Women like the valet title, too, I’ve found. Makes me seem refined.” Christian laughed and situated his tools in a neat row on the duke’s rather imposing mahogany desk. “I thought it a good idea after you saved me from being gutted on the docks all those years ago to repay the favor and offer you a more enviable position. Plus, weren’t we both surprised to find that you’re the best bookkeeping in the city? Larceny certainly fostered a talent for addition and subtraction. I’d be lost without you.

” He shifted to remove a folio from his satchel, unwittingly releasing a hint of jasmine. A strong enough presence to brush aside the aroma of leather and bergamot currently occupying the study. Katherine liked to scent her letters, and he’d crammed one in his bag as he rushed from his Berkeley Square townhome. “By the by, did you have the necklace delivered?” Penny snickered and collapsed into an armchair, sending his long legs into a sprawl before him. “Your typical parting gift with me as solemn messenger, you mean? Then, yes, I did. Lady Wheaton was composed but furious. Slammed the door in my face. After snatching your expensive settlement from my hand.” He yawned and stacked one glossy boot atop the other. “Why not give them a watch when you’ve decided enough is enough? I’ll allow you a steep discount and even have it engraved for free.

Your jeweler is robbing you blind with these tokens of lost affection.” “Not going to happen,” Christian said and perched his hip against the desk, the folio spilling open in his hands, Katherine Wheaton’s letter peeking from behind a bent page to mock him. His watches were personal; he’d poured his whole bloody existence into their creation. It was like giving a part of himself away when he sold one, which he realized was ridiculous for a man of trade. The first time he’d taken a watch apart and put it back together had been the only time, aside from the girl on the veranda who’d knocked the breath from him years ago at Tavistock House, when his heart had wholly ruled his mind. When he fell in love, if he ever fell in love, his wife would wear one of his watches. Which would mean more to him than any ring ever could. He would wait to find the woman who would understand that. Who would know without him having to tell her. He slammed the folio shut, feeling the sting of dissatisfaction.

That was not happening as he’d given up on love. At the moment, his loneliness was palpable but hidden, thriving despite the adoring mistresses he surrounded himself with. He’d tried, repeatedly, but there seemed little point in searching for what was not there. Had only been there that one time, a spark he’d extinguished by leaving before he even spoke to the girl. “You’re getting that sullen look again,” Penny murmured from the chair, his lids low, close to sleep if Christian had his guess. “And we have no women, not yet, to lift you from your melancholy.” Christian shook himself from his stupor, slipped a letter from the folio, and flipped it between his hands. “I’m worried about the translations, which I’d hoped to work on during my time here,” he lied, tapping the envelope against his palm. “A German watchmaker I’m in contact with tried to build a detached escapement caliber, but it failed, and he sent me details on the design in the event I’d like to have a go. But German’s not my area of expertise, and English not his.

Parts of the missive are incomprehensible, at least to me.” “I took care of it, whatever an escapement caliber is,” Penny said with another yawn. “I discussed your dilemma with Miss Miller, the housekeeper, upon our arrival. A lovely thing with the bluest eyes you’ve ever seen. Like the sky in the middle of summer. Delightful. But back to the problem. There’s a maid, new on staff, talented with languages.” He settled his linked fingers over his belly and stretched his shoulders. “Assisting the governess with those subjects or some such.

Unusual skill for a housemaid, isn’t it? I guess this one loves to read and taught herself several languages. Imagine, a bluestocking residing in the wilds of Yorkshire.” He toed one boot off, then the other, preparing for the kind of serious slumber only Penny could fall into, anywhere, anytime. “Starting tomorrow morning, nine sharp, you have a translator. One hour per day for the duration of your stay if you need her. You’re welcome in advance.” “What an amazing valet you are, Penny.” “It’s a gift.” Christian dipped his finger beneath the flap of the envelope and broke the wax seal. “Does the bluestocking have a name?” “Mowbray,” Penny whispered, definitely on the edge of sleep.

“Miss Mowbray.” The name danced through Christian’s consciousness, sending goosebumps zinging along his skin. He forced his hand from its punishing clench on the envelope. “Her first name, do you know it?” Penny opened one eye, a lazy blink. “Raine. Is that French? I only remember because of Miss Miller’s eyes. Like rain falling from the clouds. Isn’t that poetic? I may try to use that.” Christian’s breath caught, the letter sliding from his grip to bounce off the toe of his Hessian. “Whose house did Miss Mowbray recently arrive from?” Penny dropped a bent arm over his face, shrugged.

“An earl’s, I believe it was. A household going through a spot of trouble. A reprobate.” “Holy hell,” Christian breathed, his heart kicking into a swift rhythm. There could be no one else with that name working for an earl with an appalling reputation. The coincidence was simply too much. It was the girl he’d spent the summer watching. The summer dreaming of but never talking to. Years cursing himself for not trying, at the very least, to make her acquaintance. To be her friend when it seemed neither of them had been so lucky as to have one.

Her image, faded like it had sat too long in the sun, rotated through his mind. Hair the color of a shiny gold coin, dark eyes, shy smile. Slender and lovely and connected to him in a gut-sure way he couldn’t explain. Had never been able to explain. He turned to gaze at the verdant slice of lawn outside the study’s window, his chest tig h t , his fin g e r tip s tin glin g. Tomorrow morning, he w a s fin ally g oin g t o m e e t t h e w o m a n h e ’d b e e n in lo v e wit h fo r t e n y e a r s.

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