THE RAKE TO RUIN HER
· Harlequin Historicals
Once a rake...
Known as "Magnificent Max," diplomat Max Ransleigh was famed for his lethal charm until a political betrayal left him exiled from government and his reputation in tatters. He seems a very unlikely savior for a well-bred young lady.
Except that Miss Caroline Denby doesn't want to be saved...she wants to be ruined! To Caroline, getting married is tantamount to a death sentence, and meeting the rakish Max at a house party seems the answer to her prayers... Surely this rogue won't hesitate to put his bad reputation to good use?
Where these notorious rakes go, scandal always follows...
“Justiss begins a new series about a group of cousins known as the Ransleigh Rogues, notorious rakes followed by scandal. Book One is outrageous and refreshingly inventive, with a lady in distress, an available rogue, and a marriage of convenience for all. Justiss encapsulates the period, language and mores of the Regency era with great skill.”
Vienna, January 1815
The distant sound of waltz music and a murmur of voices met his ear as Max Ransleigh exited the anteroom. Quickly he paced toward the dark haired woman standing in the shadowy alcove at the far end of the hallway.
Hoping he wouldn’t find on her more marks of her brother’s abuse, he said, “What is it? He hasn’t struck you again, has he? I fear I cannot stay; Lord Wellington should arrive in the Green Salon at any moment, and he despises tardiness. I would not have come at all, had your note not sounded most urgent.”
“Yes, you’d told me you were to rendezvous there; that’s how I knew where to find you,” she replied. The soft, slightly French lilt of her words was charming, as always. Lovely dark eyes, whose hint of sadness had aroused his protective instincts from the first, searched his face.
“You’ve been so kind. I appreciate it more than I can say. It’s just that Thierry told me to obtain new clasps for his uniform coat for the reception tomorrow, and I haven’t any idea where to find them. And if I fail to satisfy my brother’s demands…” Her voice trailed off and she shivered. “Forgive me for disturbing you with my little problem.”
Disgust and a cold anger coiled within him at the idea of a man, nay, a diplomat, who would vent his pique on the slight, gentle woman beside him. He must find some excuse to challenge Thierry St. Arnaud to a boxing match and show him what it was like to be pummeled.
Glancing over his shoulder toward the door of the Green Salon, the urgent need to leave an itch in his shoulder blades, he tried not to let impatience creep into his voice. “You mustn’t worry. I won’t be able to escort you until morning, but there’s a suitable shop not far. Now, I regret to be so unchivalrous, but I must get back.”
As he bowed and turned away, she caught at his sleeve. “Please, just a moment longer! Simply being near you makes me feel braver.”
Max felt a swell of satisfaction at her confidence, along with the pity that always rose in him at her predicament. All his life, as the privileged younger son of an earl, others had begged favors of him; this poor widow asked for so little.
He bent to kiss her hand. “I’m only glad to help. But Wellington will have my hide if I keep him waiting, especially with the meeting of plenipotentiary officials about to convene.”
“No, it wouldn’t do for an aspiring diplomat to fall afoul of the great Wellington.” She opened her lips as if to add something else, then closed them. Tears welled in her eyes. “I’m so sorry.”
Puzzled, he was about to ask her why when a pistol blast shattered the quiet.
Thrusting her behind him, Max pivoted toward the sound. His soldier’s ear told him it came from within the Green Salon.
Where Wellington should now be.
“Stay here in the shadows until I return!” he ordered over his shoulder as he set off at a run, dread chilling his heart.
Within the Green Salon, he found chairs overturned, a case of papers scattered about, and the room overhung by the smell of black powder and a haze of smoke.
“Wellington! Where is he?” he barked at a corporal, who with two other soldiers was attempting to right the disorder.
“Wisked out the back door by an aide,” the soldier answered.
“Is he unharmed?”
“Yes, I think so. Old Hookey was by the fireplace, snapping at the staff about where you’d gotten to. If he had not looked up when the door was flung open, expecting you, and dodged left, the ball would have caught him in the chest.”
“I knew where to find you…”
Those French-accented words, the tears, her apologetic sadness slammed into Max’s gut. Surely the two events couldn’t be related?
But when he ran back into hallway, the dark-haired lady had disappeared.
Devon, Fall 1815
“Why don’t we just leave?” Max Ransleigh suggested to his cousin Alastair as the two stood on the balcony overlooking the grand marble entry of Barton Abbey.
“Dammit, we only just arrived,” Alastair replied, exasperation in his tones. “Poor bastards.” He waved toward the servants below them, who were struggling to heft in the baggage of several arriving guests. “Trunks are probably stuffed to the lids with gowns, shoes, bonnets and other fripperies, the better for the wearers to parade themselves before the prospective bidders. Makes me thirsty for a deep glass of brandy.”
“If you’d bothered to write that you were coming home, we might have altered the date of the house party,” a feminine voice behind them said reproachfully.
Max turned to find Mrs. Grace Ransleigh, mistress of Barton Abbey and Alastair’s mother, standing behind them. “Sorry, Mama,” Alastair said, leaning down to give the petite, dark-haired lady a hug. When he straightened, a flush colored his handsome face; probably chagrin, Max thought, that Mrs. Ransleigh had overhead his uncharitable remark. “You know I’m a terrible correspondent.”
“A fact I find astonishing,” his mother replied, retaining Alastair’s hands in a light grip, “when I recall that as a boy, you were seldom without a pen, jotting down some observation or other.”
A flash of something that looked like pain passed across his cousin’s face, so quickly Max wasn’t sure he’d actually seen it. “That was a long time ago, Mama”.
Sorrow softened her features. “Perhaps. But a mother never forgets. In any event, after all those years in the army, always throwing yourself into the most dangerous part of the action, I’m too delighted to have you safely home to quibble about the lack of notice – though I fear you will have to suffer through the house party. With the guests already arriving, I can hardly call it off now.”
Releasing her son’s hands with obvious reluctance, she turned to Max. “It’s good to see you, too, my dear Max.”
“If I’d know you were entertaining innocents, Aunt Grace, I wouldn’t have agreed to meet Alastair here,” Max assured her as he leaned down to kiss her cheek.
“Nonsense,” she said stoutly. “All you Ransleigh lads have run tame at Barton Abby since you were scrubby schoolboys. You’ll always be welcome in my home, Max, no matter how…circumstances change.”
“Then you are kinder than Papa,” Max replied, trying for a light tone while his chest tightened with the familiar wash of anger, resentment and regret. Still, the cousins’ unexpected appearance must be an unpleasant shock to a hostess about to convene a gathering of eligible young maidens and their prospective suitors – an event of which they’d been unaware until the butler warned them about it upon their arrival half-an-hour ago.
As he’d just assured his aunt, had Max known Barton Abbey would be sheltering unmarried young ladies on the prowl for husbands, he would have taken care to stay far away.
He’d best talk with his cousin and decide what to do. “Alastair, shall we get that glass of wine?”
“There’s a full decanter in the library,” Mrs. Ransleigh said. “I’ll send Wendell up with some cold ham, cheese and biscuits. One thing which never changes – I’m sure you boys are famished.”
“Bless you, Mama,” Alastair told her with a grin, while Max added his thanks. As they bowed and turned to go, Mrs. Ransleigh said hesitantly, “I don’t suppose you care to dine with the party?”
“Amongst that virginal lot? Most assuredly not!” Alastair retorted. “Even if we’d suddenly developed a taste for petticoat affairs, my respectable married sister would probably poison our wine were we to intrude our scandalous presence in the midst of her aspiring innocents. Come along, Max, before the smell of perfumed garments from those damned chests overcomes us.”
Thumping Max on the shoulder to set him in motion, Alastair paused to kiss his mother’s hand. “Tell the girls to visit us later, once their virginal guests are safely abed behind locked doors.”
Max followed his cousin down the hallway and into a large library comfortably furnished with well-worn leather chairs and a massive desk. “Are you sure you don’t want to leave?” he asked again as he drew out a decanter and filled two glasses.
“Devil’s teeth,” Alastair growled, “this is my house. I’ll come and go when I wish, and my friends, too. Besides, you’ll enjoy seeing Mama and Jane and Felicity – for whom the ever-managing Jane arranged this gathering, Wendell told me. Jane thinks Lissa should have some experience with eligible men before she’s cast into the Marriage Mart next spring. Though she’s not angling to get Lissa riveted now, some of the attendees did bring offspring they’re trying to marry off, bless Wendell for warning us!”
Sighing, Alastair accepted a brimming glass. “You’d think my highly-publicized liaisons with actresses and dancers, combined with an utter lack of interest in respectable virgins, would be enough to put off matchmaking mamas. But as you well know, wealth and ancient lineage appear to trump notoriety and lack of inclination. However, with my equally notorious cousin to entertain,” he inclined his head toward Max, “I have a perfect excuse to avoid the ladies. So, let’s drink to you,” Alastair hoisted his glass, “for rescuing me not only from boredom, but from having to play the host at Jane’s hen party.”
“To evading your duty as host,” Max replied, raising his own glass. “Nice to know my ruined career is good for something,” he added, bitterness in his tone.
“A temporary set-back only,” Alastair said. “Sooner or later, the Foreign Office will sort out that business in Vienna.”
“Maybe,” Max said dubiously. He, too, had thought the matter might be resolved quickly…until he spoke with Papa. “There’s still the threat of a court-martial.”
“After Hougoumont?” Alastair snorted derisively. “Maybe if you’d defied orders and abandoned your unit before Waterloo, but no military jury is going to convict you for throwing yourself into the battle, instead of sitting back in England as instructed. Some of the Foot Guards who survived the fighting owe their lives to you, and headquarters knows it. No,” he concluded, “even Horse Guards, who are often ridiculously stiff-rumped about disciplinary affairs, know better than to bring such a case to trial.”
“I hope you’re right. As my father noted on the one occasion he deigned to speak with me, I’ve already sufficiently tarnished the family name.”
It wasn’t the worst of what the earl had said, Max thought, the memory of that recent interview still raw and stinging. He saw himself again, standing silent, offering no defense as the earl railed at him for embarrassing the family and complicating his job in the Lords, where he was struggling to sustain a coalition. Pronouncing Max a sore disappointment and a political liability, he’d banished him for the indefinite future from Ransleigh House in London and the family seat in Hampshire.
Max had left without even seeing his mother.
“The earl still hasn’t come round?” Alastair soft-voiced question brought him back to the present. After a glance at Max’s face, he sighed. “Almost as stubborn and rule-bound as Horse Guards, my dear uncle. Are you positive you won’t allow me to speak to him on your behalf?”
“You know arguing with Papa only hardens his views – and might induce him to extend his banishment to you, which would grieve both our mothers. No, it wouldn’t serve…though I appreciate your loyalty more than I can say--” Max broke off and swallowed hard.
“No need to say anything,” Alastair replied, briskly refilling their glasses. “’Ransleigh Rogues together, forever,’” he quoted, holding his glass aloft.
“’Ransleigh Rogues,’” Max returned the salute, his heart lightening as he tried to recall exactly when Alastair had coined that motto. Probably over an illicit glass of smuggled brandy, sometime in their second Eton term after a disapproving master, having caned all four cousins for some now-forgotten infraction, first denounced them as the “Ransleigh Rogues.”
The name, quickly whispered around the college, had stuck to them, and they to each other, Max thought, smiling faintly. Through the hazing at Eton, the fagging at Oxford, then into the army to watch over Alastair when, after the girl he loved terminated their engagement in the most public and humiliating fashion imaginable, he’d joined the first cavalry unit that would take him, vowing to die gloriously in battle.
They’d stood by Max, too, after the failed assassination attempt at the Congress of Vienna. When he returned to London in disgrace, he’d found that, of all the government set that since his youth had encouraged and flattered the handsome, charming younger son of an earl, only his fellow Rogues still welcomed his company.
His life had turned literally overnight from the hectic busyness of an embassy post to a purposeless void, with only a succession of idle amusements to occupy his days. With the glorious diplomatic career he’d planned in ruins and his future uncertain, he didn’t want to think what rash acts he might have committed, had he not had the support of Alastair, Dom and Will.
“I’m sure Aunt Grace would never say so, but having us turn up now must be rather awkward. Since we’re not in the market to buy the wares on display, why not go elsewhere? Your hunting box, perhaps?”
After taking another deep sip, Alastair shook his head. “Too early for that; ground’s not frozen yet. And I’d bet Mama’s more worried about the morals of her darlings than embarrassed by our presence. Turned out of your government post or not, you’re still an earl’s son – ”
“- -currently exiled by his family - ”
“ – who possesses enough charm to lure any of Jane’s innocents out of her virtue, should you choose to.”
“Why would I? I’d thought Lady Mary would make me a fine diplomat’s wife, but without a career, she no longer has any interest in me, and I no longer have any interest in marriage.” Max tried for a light tone, not wanting Alastair to guess how much the august Lady Mary’s defection, coming on the heels of his father’s dismissal, had wounded him.
“I wish I could think of another place to go, at least until this damned house party concludes.” With a frustrated jab, Alastair stoppered the brandy. “But I need to take care of some estate business, and I don’t want to nip back to London just now, with the fall theatre season in full swing. I wouldn’t put it past Desirée to track me down and create another scene, which would be entirely too much of a bore.”
“Not satisfied with the emeralds you brought when you gave her her congé?”
Alastair sighed. “Perhaps it wasn’t wise to recommend that she save her histrionics for the stage. In any event, the longer I knew her, the more obvious her true, grasping nature became. She was good enough in the bedchamber and possessed of a mildly amusing wit, but ultimately, she grew as tiresome as all the others.”
Alastair paused, his eyes losing focus as a hard expression settled over his face. Max knew that look; he’d seen it on Alastair’s countenance whenever women were mentioned ever since the end of his ill-fated engagement. Silently damning once again the woman who’d caused his cousin such pain, Max knew better than to try to take him to task for his contemptuous dismissal of women.
He felt a wave of bitterness himself, recalling how easily he’d been lured in by a sad story convincingly recited by a pretty face.
If only he’d been content to save his heroics for the battlefield, instead of attempting to play knight-errant! Max reflected with a wry grimace. Indeed, given what had transpired in Vienna, he was more than half inclined to agree with his cousin that no woman, other than one who offered her talents for temporary purchase, was worth the trouble she inevitably caused.
“I’ve no desire to return to London either,” he said. “I’d have to avoid Papa and the government set, which means most of my former friends. Having spent a good deal of time and tact disentangling myself from the beauteous Mrs. Harris, I’d prefer not to return to town until she’s entangled with someone else.”
“Why don’t we hop over to Belgium and see how Dom’s progressing? Last I heard, Will was still there, looking after him.” Alastair laughed. “Leave it to Will to find away to stay on the continent after the rest of us were shipped home! Though he claimed he only loitered in Brussels for the fat pickings to be made among all the diplomats and army men with more money than gaming sense.”
“I don’t know that Dom would appreciate a visit. He was still pretty groggy with laudanum and pain from the amputation when I saw him last. After he came round enough to abuse me for fussing over him like a hen with one chick, he ordered me home to placate my father and the army board.”
“Yes, he tried to send me away too, though I wasn’t about to budge until I was sure he wasn’t going to stick his spoon in the wall.” Setting his jaw, Alastair looked away. “I was the one who dragged the rest of you into the army. I don’t think I could have borne it if you hadn’t all made it through.”
“You hardly ‘dragged’ us,” Max objected. “Just about all our friends from Oxford ended up in the war, in one capacity or another.”
“Still, I won’t feel completely at ease until Dom makes it home and…adjusts to life again.” With one arm missing and half his face ruined by a saber slash, both knew the friend who’d always been known as “Dandy Dominick,” the handsomest man in the Regiment, would face a daunting recovery. “We could go cheer him up.”
“To be frank, I think it would be best to leave him alone for awhile. When life as you’ve always known it shatters before your eyes, it requires some contemplation to figure out how to rearrange the shards.” Max gave a short laugh. “Though I’ve had months and am still at loose ends. You have your land to manage, but for me—“ Max waved his hand in a gesture of frustration. “The beauteous Mrs. Harris was charming enough, but I wish I might find some new career that didn’t depend on my father’s good will. Unfortunately, all I ever aspired to was the diplomatic corps, a field now closed to me. I rather doubt, with my sullied reputation, they’d have me in the church, even if I claimed to have received a sudden calling.”
“Father Max, the darling of every actress from Drury Lane to the Theatre Royal?” Alastair grinned and shook his head. “No, I can’t see that!”
“Perhaps I’ll join John Company and set out for India to make my fortune. Become a clerk. Get eaten by tigers.”
“I’d feel sorry for any tiger who attempted it,” Alastair retorted. “If the Far East don’t appeal, why not stay with the army- -and thumb your nose at your father?”
“A satisfying notion, that,” Max replied drily, “though the plan has a few flaws. Like the fact that, despite my service at Waterloo, Lord Wellington hasn’t forgotten he was waiting for me when he was almost shot in Vienna.” The continuing coldness of the man he’d once served and still revered cut even deeper than his father’s disapproval.
“Well, you’re a natural leader and the smartest of the Rogues; something will come to you,” Alastair said. “In the interim, while we remain at Barton Abbey, best watch your step. Mrs. Harris was one thing, but you don’t want to get entangled with any of Jane’s eligible virgins.”
“Certainly not! The one benefit of the debacle in Vienna is that, with my brother to carry on the family name, I’m not compelled to marry. Heaven forbid I should get cornered by some devious matchmaker.” And trapped into a marriage as cold as his parents’ arranged union, he thought with an inward shudder.
Picking up the decanter, Alastair poured them each another glass. “Here’s to confounding Uncle and living independently!”
“As long living independently doesn’t involve wedlock, I can drink to that,” Max said, and raised his glass.
“No, no, you foolish creature, shake out the folds before you hang it!”
Caroline Denby looked up from her comfortable seat on the sofa in one of Barton Abbey’s elegant guest bedchambers to see her stepmother snatch a spangled evening gown from the hapless maid and give it a practiced shake.
“Like this,” Lady Denby said, handing the garment back before turning to her stepdaughter. “Caroline, dear, won’t you put that book away and supervise Dulcie with that trunk while I make sure this girl doesn’t get our evening dresses hopelessly wrinkled?”
“Yes, ma’am,” Caroline replied, setting down her book with regret. Already she was counting the hours until the end of this dreary house party so she might return to Denby Lodge and her horses. She hated to lose almost ten day’s training with the winter sales approaching. The Denby line her father had bred had earned a peerless reputation among the racing and army set, and she wasn’t about to let her stepmama’s single-minded efforts to marry her off get in the way of maintaining her father’s high standards.
Besides, while working in the fields and stables in a daily regiment as comfortable and familiar as her father’s old riding boots, she could still feel the late Sir Martin’s kindly presence, watching over her and the horses that had been his life. How she still missed him!
Sighing, she closed her book and dutifully cast her gaze over at Dulcie, who was currently lifting a layer of chemises, stays and stockings out of a silken rustle of tissue paper. She should be thankful she’d been delegated to supervise the undergarments and leave the gowns to her stepmother. At least she wouldn’t have to cast eyes on hers again until she was forced to wear one.
Better to appear in some hideously over-trimmed confection of unflattering color, she reminded herself, than to end up engaged.
“I’ll help with the unpacking, but afterwards, I intend to ride Sultan before the light fades.” As her stepmother opened her lips, probably to argue, Caroline added, “Remember, you agreed that if I consented to come to Mrs. Ransleigh’s cattle auction, I’d be allowed to ride every day.”
“Caroline, please!” Lady Denby protested, her face flushing. Leaning closer and lowering her voice, she said, “You mustn’t refer to the gathering in such terms! Especially…” she angled her head toward the maids.
Caroline shrugged. “But that’s what it is. A few gentlemen in search of rich wives gathering to look over the candidates, evaluate their appearance and pedigree, and try to strike a bargain. Just as they do at cattle fairs, or when they come to buy Papa’s horses, though I suppose the females here will be spared an inspection of their teeth and limbs.”
“Really, Caroline,” her stepmother said reprovingly, “I must deplore your using such a vulgar analogy. Just as the ladies wish to ascertain the character of prospective suitors, gentlemen want to assure themselves that any lady to whom they offer matrimony possesses suitable background and breeding.”
“And dowry,” Caroline added.
Ignoring that comment, Lady Denby said, “Couldn’t you, for once, allow yourself to enjoy the attentions of some handsome young men? I know you don’t want to spend another Season in London!”
“You also know I’m not interested in getting married,” Caroline said with the weariness of long repetition. “Why don’t you forget about trying to lure me into wedlock and concentrate on making a match for Eugenia? My step-sister is beautiful and wealthy enough to snare any suitor she fancies, and she’s eager enough for both of us. Only think how much blunt you’d save, if you didn’t have to take her to town in the spring!”
“Unlike you, Eugenia is eagerly anticipating her London season. Besides which, though I don’t wish to be indelicate, you are…getting on in years. If you don’t marry soon, you will be considered quite on the shelf.”
“Which would be quite all right with me,” Caroline retorted. “Harry won’t care a fig for that, when he comes back.”
“But Caroline, India is such an unhealthy, heathenish place! Marauding maharajas and fevers and all manner of dangers. Difficult as it is to consider, you must acknowledge the possibility that Lieutenant Tremaine might not come back.” Lady Denby’s eyes widened, as if the notion had only just occurred to her. “Surely he wasn’t so heedless of propriety as to ask you to wait for him!”
“No,” Caroline admitted. “We have no formal understanding.”
“I should think not! It would have been most improper, with him leaving for Calcutta while everything was still in such an uproar after your Papa’s…demise. Now, I understand you’ve known Harry Tremaine forever and are comfortable with him, but if you would but give the notion a chance, I’m sure you could find some other gentleman equally…accommodating.”
Of her odd preferences for horses and hounds rather than gowns and needlework, Caroline silently filled in the unstated words. With Harry she’d had no need to conceal her unconventional and mannish interests, nor did she have to pretend a maidenly deference to his masculine opinions and decisions.
For her dearest childhood friend, she might consider marrying and braving the Curse – though just thinking about the prospect sent an involuntary shudder through her. But she certainly wasn’t willing to risk her life for some lisping dandy who had his eyes on her dowry…or the Denby stud.
Unfortunately, she was wealthy enough that despite her unconventional ways, there’d been no lack of aspirants to her hand during her aborted Season, before news of her father’s sudden illness called them home. Caroline remained skeptical of how “accommodating” any prospective husband might be, however, once he gained legal control over her person, property – and beloved horses. With the example of her now much wiser and much poorer widowed cousin Elizabeth to caution her, she had no intention of letting herself become dazzled by some rogue with designs on her wealth and property.
If she must marry, she’d wait to wed Harry, who knew her down to the ground and for whom she felt the same sort of deep, companionable love she’d felt for her father. Another pang of loss reverberated through her.
Gritting her teeth against it, she said, “In the five years since Harry joined the Army, I’ve not found anyone I like as well.”
“Well, you certainly can’t claim to have seriously looked! Not when you managed to talk your dear father, God rest his soul, out of taking you to London, or even attending the local assemblies, until I managed to convince him of the necessity last year. It’s just not…natural for a young lady to have no interest in marriage!” Lady Denby burst out, not for the first time. “
Before Caro could argue that point, her stepmother’s expression turned cajoling. “Come now, my dear, why not allow Mrs. Ransleigh’s guests to become acquainted with you? It’s always possible you might meet a gentleman you could like well enough to marry. You know I have only your best interests at heart!”
The devil of it was, Caroline knew the tender-hearted Lady Denby did want only the best for her, though what her stepmother considered “best” bore little resemblance to what Caroline wanted for herself.
Her resolve weakening in the face of that lady’s genuine concern, Caroline gave her a hug. “I know you want me to be happy. But can you truly see me mistress of some ton gentleman’s townhouse or nursery? Striding about in breeches and boots rather than gowns and dancing slippers, stable straw in my braids and barn muck on my shoes? Nor do I possess your sweetness of character, which allows you to listen with every appearance of interest even to the most idiotic of gentlemen. I’m more likely to pronounce him a lackwit to his face, right in the middle of the drawing room.”
“Fiddle,” her stepmother replied, returning the hug. “You’re often a trifle…impatient with those who don’t possess your quickness of wit, but you’ve a kind heart for all that and would never be so rag-mannered. Besides, it was your Papa’s dying wish that I see you married.”
When Caroline raised her eyebrows skeptically, Lady Denby said, “Truly, it was! Though I suppose it’s only natural of you to doubt it, since he made so little effort to push you toward matrimony while he was still with us. But I promise you, as he breathed his last, he urged me to help you find a good man who’d make you happy.”
Caroline smiled at her stepmother. “As you brightened what turned out to be his last two years. Knowing how much you did, I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised that, at the end, he urged you to cajole me into wedlock.”
Lady Denby sighed. “We were very happy. I’ve always appreciated, by the way, how unselfish you were in not resenting me for marrying him, after it had been just the two of you for so long.”
Caroline laughed. “Oh, I resented you fiercely! I wished to be sullen and distant and spiteful, but your sweet nature and obvious concern for us both quite overwhelmed my ill humor.”
“You’re not still concerned about that silly notion you call ‘the Curse?’” Lady Denby inquired. “I grant you, childbirth poses a danger to every woman. But when one holds one’s first child in her arms, she knows the risk was well worth it! I want you to experience that joy, Caroline.”
“I appreciate that,” Caro said, refraining from pointing out again just how many of her female relations, including her own Mama, had died trying to taste that bliss. Her stepmother, ever optimistic, chose to see their deaths as unfortunate chance. Caro did not believe it to be mere coincidence, but there was no point continuing to argue the matter with Lady Denby.
Her stepmother’s genuine concern for her future usually kept Caroline from resenting – too much – Lady Denby’s increasingly determined efforts to push her toward matrimony…as long as the discussion didn’t drag on too long. Time to end this now, before her patience, always in rather short supply when discussing this disagreeable topic, ran out altogether.
“Enough, then. I promise I will view the company with an open mind. Now, I must change now if I am to get that ride before dinner.” She gave Lady Denby an impish grin. “At least I’ll don a habit, instead of my usual breeches and boots.”
Caroline was chuckling at her stepmother’s shudder when suddenly the chamber door was thrown open. Caro’s stepsister Eugenia rushed in, her cheeks flushed a rosy pink and her golden curls tumbled.
“Mama, I’ve heard the most alarming news! Indeed, I fear we may have to repack the trunks and depart immediately!”
“Depart?” Lady Denby echoed. With a warning look at Eugenia, she turned to the maids. “Thank you, girls; you may go now.”
After the servants filed out, she faced her daughter. “What calamity has befallen that would require us to leave when we’ve only just arrived? Has Mrs. Ransleigh fallen ill?”
“Oh, nothing of that sort! It seems that her son, Mr. Alastair Ransleigh, just arrived here unexpectedly. Oh, Mama, he has the most dreadful reputation! Miss Claringdon says he always has an actress or high flyer in keeping, or is carrying on a highly publicized affair with some scandalous matron! Sometimes both at once!”
“And what would you know of high-flyers and scandalous matrons, Eugenia?” Caro asked with a grin.
“Well, nothing, of course,” her stepsister replied, flushing. “Except what I learned from the gossip at school. I’m just relating what Miss Claringdon said. Her family is very well-connected, and she spent the entire Season in town last spring.”
“Poor Mrs. Ransleigh!” Lady Denby said. “What an embarrassing development! She can hardly forbid her son to enter his own home.”
“Yes, it’s quite a dilemma! She cannot send him away, but if any of us should encounter him…why, Miss Claringdon said merely being seen conversing with him is enough for a girl to be declared fast. How enormously vexing! I was so looking forward to becoming acquainted with some of the ladies and gentlemen that I shall meet again next Season in London. But I don’t want to remain and have my reputation tarnished before I’ve even begun.” She sighed, a frown marring her perfect brow. “And that’s not all!”
“Goodness, more bad news?” Lady Denby asked.
“I’m afraid so. Accompanying Mr. Ransleigh is his cousin, the Honorable Mr. Maximillian Ransleigh.”
“Why is that a problem?” Caro asked, dredging out of memory some of the details about the ton Lady Denby had drummed into her head during her short stay in London. “Isn’t he the Earl of Swynford’s younger son? Handsome, wealthy, destined for a great career in government?”
“He was, but his circumstances now are sadly changed. Miss Claringdon told me all about it.” Eugenia gave Caroline a sympathetic look. “It’s no wonder you didn’t hear about the scandal, Caro, with Sir Martin falling ill and you having to rush back home. Such a dreadful time for you both!”
“What happened to Mr. Ransleigh?” Lady Denby asked.
“‘Magnificent Max,’ they used to call him,” Miss Claringdon said. “Society’s favorite, able to persuade any man and charm any lady. He’d served with distinction in the Army and was sent to assist General Lord Wellington during the Congress of Vienna – the perfect assignment, everyone believed, for someone poised to begin a brilliant diplomatic career. But then came the affair with the mysterious woman and the attack on Lord Wellington, and Mr. Ransleigh was sent home in disgrace.”
Caroline frowned, remembering now that Harry had told her before leaving for Calcutta how the English commander, then in charge of all the Allied occupation troops in Paris after Napoleon’s first abdication, had been forced to station a personal guard because of assassination threats. “How did it happen?”
“Miss Claringdon didn’t know the details, only that he returned to London under a cloud. Then, if that wasn’t bad enough, when Napoleon escaped from Elbe and headed to Paris, gathering an Army as he marched, Mr. Ransleigh disobeyed a direct order to remain in London until the Vienna matter was investigated and sailed to Belgium to rejoin his regiment.”
“Did he fight at Waterloo?” Caroline asked.
“I suppose so. There’s still talk of a court-martial, though. In any event, Miss Claringdon says his father, the Earl of Swynford, was so incensed, he ordered his son out of the house! Lady Mary Langton, whom everyone thought he would marry, refused to see him, which ought to have been a vast good fortune for some other lucky female. Except that it’s now said that he has vowed never to marry, and has been going about London with his cousin Alastair, always in the company of some actress or…or lady of easy virtue!”
A glimmer of a memory stirred in Caroline’s mind…Harry, talking about the “Ransleigh Rogues,” four cousins who’d been at school with him before they all joined the army and served in assorted regiments on the Peninsula. Brave, strapping lads who could always be found in the thick of the fight, Harry had described them approvingly.
“Miss Claringdon was nearly in tears as she told me the story,” Eugenia continued. ”She’d quite thought to set her cap at him before he began making up to Lady Mary…but now, with him dead set against marriage and keeping such scandalous company, no well-bred maiden would dare associate with him.”
“An earl’s son, too,” Lady Denby sighed. “How unfortunate.”
“Well, Mama, must we leave? Or do you think we can remain and avoid the Ransleigh gentlemen?”
For a moment, Lady Denby stared thoughtfully into the distance. “Mrs. Ransleigh and her elder daughter, Lady Gilford, are both eminently respectable,” she said at length. “In fact, Lady Gilford is the most influential young hostess in the ton. I’m sure they will talk privately with the gentlemen who, once the situation has been explained, will either take themselves off, or remain apart, so as not to compromise any of Mrs. Ransleigh’s guests.”
“So they don’t inadvertently ruin some young innocent before she even begins her Season?” Caro asked, winking at Eugenia.
“Exactly.” Lady Denby nodded. “Though I’m convinced it will be handled thus, just to make certain, I shall go at once in search of Mrs. Ransleigh and make inquiries.”
Caroline laughed. “Goodness, Stepmama, how are you to phrase such a question? ‘Excuse me, Mrs. Ransleigh, I just wished to make sure your reprobate son and disgraceful nephew aren’t going to hang about, endangering the reputation of my innocent girls!’”
Eugenia gasped, while Lady Denby chuckled and batted Caroline on the arm. “To be sure, it will be a bit awkward, but I’ll word my question a good deal more discretely than that!”
“Perhaps she will lock the gentlemen in the attic - or the wine cellar, so none of the young ladies are at risk of irretrievable ruin,” Caroline said.
“Caro, you jest, but it is a serious matter,” Eugenia insisted, a worried frown on her face. “A girl’s whole future depends upon her character being thought above reproach! A ruined reputation is irretrievable, and I, for one, don’t find the discussion of so appalling a calamity amusing in the least…especially after Miss Claringdon told me Lady Melross arrived this afternoon.”
Lady Denby groaned. “The worst gossip-monger in the ton! What wretched luck! Well, you must both be extremely careful. Lady Melross can winkle out a scandal faster than a prize hound scents a fox. She’d like nothing better than to uncover some misdeed she can report back to her acquaintances in Town.”
“Very well,” Caroline said, sobering at the sight of her stepmother’s agitation. “I shall behave myself.”
“And I shall go make discrete inquiries of our hostess,” Lady Denby said. “Eugenia, let me escort you to your room, where you should remain until dinner, while I…acquaint myself with the arrangements.”
“Please do, Mama. I shan’t stir a foot from my chamber until you tell me it is safe!”
“You’d best make haste,” Caroline said, anxious to see them out the door before her stepmother recalled her intention to ride and forbade her to leave her room. She didn’t intend to let adherence to some silly Society convention get in the way of riding the best horse she’d ever trained.
The two ladies safely dispatched, Caroline tugged the bell pull to summon Dulcie to help her into her habit. Extracting the garment from the wardrobe, she sighed as she thought of the much more comfortable breeches and boots she’d snuck into her portmanteau. Though she was sensible enough not to don them when her hostess or the guests might be about, she did intend to wear them on her daily dawn rides.
Might she encounter one of the scandalous Ransleigh men this afternoon? If Mrs. Ransleigh was going to banish them from the house, the stables were a likely place for them to retreat.
Despite Eugenia’s alarm, Caroline felt no apprehension about encountering either Alastair or Max Ransleigh. She doubted either would be so overcome by her charms that they’d try to ravish her in the hay loft. As for having her reputation ruined merely by chatting with them, Harry would consider that nonsense, and his was the only opinion besides her own that mattered to her.
A knock at the door heralded Dulcie’s arrival. Caroline hurried into her habit, anxious to be changed and gone before her stepmother finished her errand and returned, possibly to ban her from riding for the duration.
She didn’t slow her pace until she’d escaped the house and made it safely down the lane leading to the stables. Curious now, she looked about the grounds as she walked and peered around the paddock, but saw no sign of anyone besides the groom who saddled Sultan for her.
She enjoyed the ride tremendously, thrilled as always to order Sultan through his paces and receive his swift and obliging responses. As she turned him back toward the stables, she had to admit she was a bit disappointed she hadn’t caught so much as a glimpse of the infamous Ransleigh men.
It would be interesting to come face to face with a real rogue. Her stepmother, however, would be aghast if she were to converse either of them, given their terrible reputations and the fact that Lady Melross was now in residence. Were that woman to observe her exchanging innocuous comments about the weather with either Mr. Ransleigh, she probably find herself branded a loose woman by nightfall.
Although, Caroline thought with a grin as she guided Sultan back into the stable yard, being pronounced “ruined” in the eyes of Society might be positively advantageous, if it relieved her of having to suffer through another Season and made her unacceptable as a bride to anyone save Harry.
The idea struck her then, so audacious that her heart skipped a beat and her hands jerked on the reins, causing Sultan to toss his head. Soothing him with a murmur, she took a deep breath, her pulse accelerating. But outrageous as it was, the idea caught and would not be dislodged.
For the rest of the way back to the stables and from there to her chamber, she examined the idea from every angle. Stepmother would probably be appalled at first, but soon enough, she and Eugenia would be off to London, where Caro’s small scandal would be swiftly forgotten in the excitement and bustle of Eugenia’s first Season.
By the time she’d summoned Dulcie to help her change out of her habit into one of the unattractive dinner gowns, she’d made up her mind.
Now all she needed to do was track down one of the Ransleigh Rogues and convince him to ruin her.
Copyright © 2013 Julia Justiss
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