Never Trust a Rake

By: Annie Burrows

Chapter One

Ye Gods, he’d known it would not be easy, but he hadn’t expected them all to be quite so predictable.

Lord Deben strode out on to the terrace, deserted since the night air was damp with drizzle, made it to the parapet and leaned heavily on the copingstone, where he drew in several deep breaths of air blessedly unadulterated by perfume, sweat and candle grease.

First to run true to form had been tonight’s hostess, Lady Twining. Her eyes had practically popped out of her head when she’d recognised exactly upon whose arm the Dowager Lady Dalrymple was leaning. He had only ever once before had anything to do with a come-out ball, and that had been his own sister’s—a glittering affair which he’d hosted himself some four years ago. He could see Lady Twining wondering why on earth he had suddenly decided to accompany such a stickler for good form to such an insipid event, held in the home of a family who would never aspire to be part of his usual, racy set.

While they had slowly mounted the stairs, he’d watched her rapidly working out how to deal with the dilemma his attendance posed. She could hardly refuse to admit him, since she’d sent his godmother an invitation and he was evidently acting as her escort. But, oh, how she wanted to. She clearly felt that letting him in amongst the virtuous damsels currently thronging her corridors would be like opening the hen-house door to a prowling fox.

But she didn’t have the courage to say what she was thinking. And by the time he’d arrived at the head of the receiving line, it was all what an honour to welcome you into our home, my lord, and we did not think to have such an august presence as yours...

No. She had not actually said that last phrase, but that was what she’d meant by all that gushing and fluttering. The presence of a belted earl was such a social coup for her that it far outweighed the potential danger he posed to the moral tone of the assembly.

And as for those assembled guests—his lip curled in utter contempt. They had divided neatly into two camps: those who reacted solely to his reputation by clucking and fluttering like outraged hens in defence of their precious chicks and those, he grimaced, with an eye to the main chance.

He’d felt their beady eyes following his progress into the house. Heard the whispered swell of speculation. Why was he here? And with Lady Dalrymple, of all people? Was it a sign that this Season he was at last going to do his duty to his family and take a wife?

On the outside chance that the most notorious womaniser of his generation, the most dangerous flirt, was actually going to look about him for a woman to take her place at his side in society, as his legally wed countess, the most ambitious amongst them had promptly begun elbowing each other aside in their determination to thrust their simpering charges under his nose.

The fact that they’d guessed correctly didn’t make their approaches any less repellent. Which was why he would have to attend more events such as this and endure the vapid discourse that passed for conversation and the gauche mannerisms...and sometimes even the spotty complexions. How else could a man be absolutely sure that his first child, at least, was of his own get unless he married a girl who’d only just emerged from the schoolroom? And the duty he owed his proud lineage made that an absolute imperative.

But did they really think he’d propose to the first chit he met, at the first event he attended since he’d made up his mind it was time, and past time, he knuckled down to the fate his position made inescapable?

He leaned back and tilted his face to the rain. It managed to cool his skin, even if it could do nothing to soothe the roiling bitterness churning in his guts. Nothing could do that.

Unless... He stilled, as the most fantastic thought occurred to him. He didn’t think he could face many more such events as this. And what was there to choose between all those pallid, eager, young females, after all? Why the hell shouldn’t he just propose to the very first chit to cross his path when he went back inside? That would at least get the whole unpleasant business over and done with as quickly and painlessly as possible.

What would it take—a year out of his life? Propose to one of those girls who’d been paraded before him like brood mares at Tattersalls. Get the banns read, go through the travesty of a ceremony, bed her, then keep on bedding her until he could be certain she was increasing. Hope that the child was a boy. Then, with the succession sorted, he could return to his carefree existence and she could...

He sucked in a short, sharp breath, bowing his head again as he considered what his wife would get up to, left to her own devices.

Anything. Anything and everything. Nobody knew better than he just how far bored young matrons would go in the pursuit of sexual adventure.