Writing the Rake – Ellie St. Clair

COME HERE.” “No!” she giggled as she ran just out of his grasp, along the path of the lush gardens that backed Wyndham House, a centerpiece of Mayfair. Alice and Benjamin had been playing this game for months — a back-and-forth that had started as a fun flirtation but was now becoming a slow smoldering fire that begged to burn something fierce. Alice had slipped away from the dance and Benjamin had followed. A few words had led to a few touches, and now she was running away from him, a literal game of chase. Only, she had no wish to evade him. “Alice,” he called, his voice a song, “where are you?” She said nothing, standing as still as the tree beside her, but he was an efficient hunter, and the next thing she knew a hand clamped down upon her arm. She gave a bit of a shriek as she jumped, but before she could move, he was around the tree, pinning her back against it. “Caught you,” he said, his voice low and deep in her ear, sending shivers down her spine to her toes, which had become rooted in the ground. “What do you propose to do with me now?” she asked, hearing the breathlessness in her voice. “I’m going to claim you as my prize,” he growled. The next thing she knew, his lips were on hers, claiming them, caressing them, crushing them to him, an explosion of all that had building between them. It was fast, it was fiery, it was fierce, and Alice thought she might have lost all footing had he not been holding her tightly against him. When he broke away from her, she could barely breathe. She looked up at him, her heart racing, her vision hazy.

Finally, she understood what it meant to be kissed with such passion, such purpose. She had always disdained a rake like Benjamin, but one thing could be said — the man knew how to kiss. Perhaps it was worth the ruination. The only problem was that she wanted more than he could give. She wanted love, romance, marriage. And Benjamin wasn’t interested in any of those things. Of that, she was well aware. Which was why she shouldn’t be here, with him. But she couldn’t keep herself away. Even she, a woman who always wrote a happily-ever-after, knew there was but one way this could end.

Disaster. “I C H A P T E R 1 sn’t she beautiful?” Alice leaned over to whisper in the ear of her sister-in-law, whose brilliant red hair tickled her nose as she did. While Celeste didn’t respond, a few other heads turned her way with some consternation written upon their faces. Alice slunk back into the pew as though she could become one with it, ducking her chin as she did her very best not to look guilty. It had been hard to keep her wonder to herself, however. Madeline was absolutely stunning in her long light-blue gown, her blond hair hanging down her back in silky curls, bilking the trends of the day, the gossamer lace veil sitting on her head like a crown while the material trailed down to grace the floor. Alice wished she could see her friend’s face as she stood before half the curious ton and married the charming, handsome earl who had recently appeared in society and had swept her off her feet — quite literally. It was the perfect match, as far as Alice was concerned, and she could hardly wait to write Madeline’s story, for it was a love that most women would give anything for but only a few actually achieved. “Alice,” Celeste hissed into her ear, her hand on her elbow, “time to stand.” Alice collected her thoughts and twisted her head from side to side, seeing that she had, in fact, missed the cue.

She stood along with the rest of the congregation, clapping as Madeline and Lord Donning turned to the crowd. Madeline beamed up at him as she linked her arm through his, and when she passed by Alice, she winked at her as she reached out and squeezed her hand. “You’re next!” she called out, but Alice just shook her head as they followed everyone else out of the church. She would love to be next — truly she would — but for now, she had to be content with creating love stories, for the real thing was proving far too elusive. She was proud of herself for not looking across the church, over toward the pew where he sat. Alice hadn’t so much as seen him but had sensed him from across the spacious church. Anyone would, she reasoned. He had that way about him, a presence that overtook every room he entered. It was certainly not unique to her, she was sure, for she was one of many women — too many women — who had experienced much the same life-changing kiss. Life-changing because he had ruined every other kiss that would ever come again in her future.

Damn the man. No, she told herself decidedly as she held her head as high as her short stature allowed her to. Benjamin Luxington was not for her. He was a rake, a rascal, and she wished she had never laid on eyes on him. But she had learned her lesson. And she would never be taken in again. “THAT WAS LOVELY,” Benjamin’s sister-in-law, Fredericka Luxington, Lady Dorrington, said as they entered their carriage following the ceremony. Instead of the traditional small wedding breakfast, Madeline’s father, Ezra Castleton, was holding a grand affair to celebrate the marriage of his beloved only daughter to the newly discovered and decreed Earl of Donning. “I think Donning did well for himself,” Benjamin opined as he sat across from Freddie, as all knew her, and his brother Miles. “The earldom was floundering when he gained the title, and Miss Castleton brings with her a vast dowry.

” “Not only the dowry,” Freddie added, holding up a slim, pointed finger, “but she is a businesswoman in her own right.” Benjamin nodded. Freddie was right. From what he knew, Madeline Castleton spent as much time at her family’s business as her own father did, if not more. “I’m surprised Donning is fine with it,” he mused. “How did you become acquainted with him?” Miles asked, his brows furrowed with his question as he studied Benjamin. “Through Chesterpeak,” Benjamin responded with a wince. Chesterpeak was one of his deceased father’s favored friends. He was owner of The Nomad, and his home was a site of much gambling and other vices, with which Miles would be displeased. Miles’ disapproval of the connection made sense, as their father had attempted to have Miles considered a lunatic due to his deafness, and then had him nearly killed in the process.

Benjamin should have prevented it. But he had been blind to it all, and he had never forgiven himself for it. “Was Donning acquainted with Father?” Miles asked after reading Benjamin’s lips and crossing his arms over his chest, the leather of the seat squeaking as he leaned back against the squabs. Benjamin nodded. “Somewhat. He was better friends with Thomas Chesterpeak. Then Chesterpeak was the one who introduced me to Donning.” “I see,” Miles said, but from the tight press of his lips against one another, Benjamin was rather concerned with just what he saw. Miles was likely already judging Donning before he had even met him. “He’s not a bad sort,” Benjamin defended him.

“Nor is Chesterpeak. He has all of the connections, it seems. I’ll tell you, the people I’ve met through him—” “People?” Miles interrupted. “Or women?” Benjamin decided he was done with this conversation. Yes, Miles was right. But the way he said it, with such judgement in his tone, caused Benjamin to only want to defend himself — and for what? He had done nothing wrong, and he didn’t see why he needed to argue with Miles over simply enjoying himself with women from society — women who welcomed his company. He shrugged. “There is nothing to be concerned about, Miles.” Miles snorted. “You’re too trusting, Benjamin,” he said.

“You have to learn to see the truth in people, and not only what you like to see in them.” “I—” Benjamin was saved from the conversation, however, as they approached the entrance of the Castleton household. “Behave yourself, Benjamin?” Miles said with a raised eyebrow, but Benjamin said nothing in response. Once they had all departed the carriage, he allowed his brother and his wife to go ahead, while he stayed a step behind. He would enter alone — which was always for the best. “OH, LOOK!” Alice said from where they stood at the outskirts of the elaborate gilded drawing room. “There are Lord and Lady Lovelace. I heard there was some scandal involved in their marriage, but I have not determined just exactly what it is yet. And oh, there is Lord Ingersoll. He is ever so handsome, and I heard, Celeste, that he was actually interested in your friend Jemima, but of course, she married the valet.

Her story has been on the tongues of many, and I think it is utterly romantic. I do hope to speak to her about it one day.” She looked hopefully at her sister-in-law, but Celeste’s green eyes flashed uncertainly. “I’m not sure that Jemima would be interested in having her story told,” she said, biting her lip. “I doubt that Archie would be in favor.” Alice sighed, although she nodded in understanding. “I suppose I could change it enough so they didn’t realize I was writing their story. What do you think?” Celeste took a sip of her drink, cringing at what Alice determined must have been the sweet tartness of the lemonade. “I am fairly certain that most would realize just who the actual protagonists were based upon.” “Which is exactly what I would like to speak to you about,” Oliver said from behind her, and Alice jumped slightly at his presence.

“Ollie,” she greeted her brother, pretending they were talking about something entirely different as he was not the biggest fan of her work. “It is lovely in here, is it not? I must ask what shade of pink those flowers are.” Oliver rolled his eyes at her, although there was affection held within their depths. “Alice,” he said slowly. “I could hear you from halfway across the room. You have to be more careful.” “Why?” she questioned. “Should I not be proud of my work? You should understand.” “That’s different,” he said, looking at her with consternation. “We study the skies.

You study other people.” “For inspiration only,” she qualified, but he had that arched brow that told her that he was not pleased. “People are beginning to suspect that you are the infamous Lady Love.” “Careful,” Alice said, looking around to make sure there were no eavesdroppers nearby. “You calling me out in a crowd is not going to help matters.” “Nor is asking questions about the relationships of everyone in the room.” “Oliver,” Celeste interjected, placing her hand on her husband’s arm. “Alice does have much to be proud of. Her stories have been entertaining half of London since they began appearing as serials. Everyone wants to know the latest love story.

” “Fictional love story,” Alice added helpfully, but Oliver and Celeste both eyed her with suspicion, which made sense, for they were all well aware that her stories — the published ones, anyway — were all based on truth. “Well, I have heard some rumblings,” Oliver said, swirling the amber liquid in his glass. “There are some who are not entirely pleased to know that you have been asking questions.” “Which questions?” Alice said, taken aback. She had thought she was quite discreet. “Questions regarding their connections, their business dealings, how they became acquainted, whether they are after the dowry or the woman,” Oliver said, looking at her pointedly, and Alice colored somewhat at the accuracy of his words. “It helps me tell the story,” she said in defense, but Oliver only sighed. “Please be careful?” he pleaded, but before she could answer, Celeste exclaimed, “Oh, there are Freddie and Miles!” Alice couldn’t stop her head from swiveling toward the door. She could try to tell herself she was not trying to see if he was there. But then she would only be lying.

For there he was. And he was staring straight at her. She turned her back quickly, squeezing her eyes shut for a moment in supplication. Please don’t walk over here, she prayed. Just Freddie and Miles. No need for Benjamin. In fact, if he could just ignore her, that would be ideal. She was easy to ignore. She was well aware of the fact, and the only way a man would want to pay any attention to her was due to his need to conquer every female he became acquainted with. A man like Benjamin Luxington.

“Lord Essex, Lady Essex.” Damn, but he had the most beautiful, smooth voice, like fine new silk. “And Miss Cunningham.” Could she continue staring at the back wall, not turning around, without anyone noticing? Oliver elbowed her in the side, and she realized that she most decidedly could not. She slowly turned around and met Benjamin’s beautiful blue-green eyes. As he lifted her hand and bent over it with a bow, Alice bemoaned the fact that the man turned her entire being into liquid with just one touch. He was too handsome for his own good and far too charming. He attracted every female in the room, and she dearly wished she wasn’t one of them. But, sadly, she was one of the worst. “How are you?” he asked, his gaze burning into her.

She hoped her emotions weren’t written on her face, for that would be the worst of embarrassment. She had no connection to him, no further attraction. All that had occurred between them was for research, and for research only. Or so she tried to convince herself. For she had no desire to lump herself into the grouping of women who fell for his smile and his bewitchery. “I am well,” was all she said, her words stilted, and he nodded, turning from her abruptly. She saw Celeste and Freddie looking upon the two of them with surprise as Benjamin wished them all a good afternoon and went on his way. Which was just as well. For Alice had no need for a man like Benjamin Luxington in her life. No need at all.

“WHAT WAS THAT ALL ABOUT?” Freddie asked as she and Miles followed Benjamin until she tugged on his elbow hard enough that he stopped. “That seemed quite rude,” Miles said with a frown. “Miss Cunningham may not be the type of woman who would be among your usual preference, but she is quite lovely, and I thought that you were, at the very least, friends with one another. To simply drop her hand and run away like that, one would—oh.” Freddie’s visage fell, and Benjamin ran a hand over his face as Freddie and Miles stared at him with matching expressions of disappointment he had come to know far too well. “Benjamin, you didn’t,” Freddie said, tilting her head to the side, her chocolate hair piled on top. “I didn’t!” he said, raising his eyes at the fact that the two of them would so quickly suspect him of such. “And least not… I didn’t ruin her. All right?” Freddie arched a brow, and Miles stared at him, willing him to tell the truth, and finally Benjamin relented. “It was a chaste kiss in the gardens one night,” he said, holding up his hands.

“That is all. She and I are friends — or at least, we were. I never meant for anything further to happen.” “But it did,” Freddie said, placing her hands on her hips. “Oh, Benjamin. Alice is young, and she likely now has fanciful notions toward you, which—” “Which is exactly why I did not allow it to go any further than that,” Benjamin said, though a bit of guilt knocked on his shoulder as he thought of the hope that had entered Alice’s eyes after their kiss. It was why he had immediately left her there — alone — and hadn’t pursued her since then. “We both understand the expectations of one another,” he continued. “Now, if you will excuse me, I am finished with your lectures, and I am going for a cheroot.” “Oh, I really wish you wouldn’t,” Freddie said, but Benjamin was striding across the marble floor before she could finish her sentence.

He had a mother already — in fact, she was on the other side of the room speaking with Alice’s mother — and he had no wish for another. He was a free, independent man. And it was going to stay that way.

.

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