Authors: Caroline Linden
“Celia, you don’t know what you’re doing,” he began to say, but she interrupted.
“I know enough.” She tilted back her head to look up at him, a movement he felt more than saw. “But I shall leave if you don’t want me to stay.”
“Celia,” he rasped, clinging to his sanity and honor with great difficulty, “I must tell you—”
“I know who you are,” she whispered. “I’ve known for some time, Anthony.”
His name fell like an absolution on his ears. She knew. There were still reasons why he shouldn’t do this—many, many reasons—but they fell aside under the weight of those words and the others she had said:
I want you.
Slowly, reverently, he bent his head and brushed his lips against hers, once, twice. She stood quietly, her face raised to his, her hand still on his chest. He trailed one hand down the back of her neck, a feathery touch that made her lips part in a silent gasp against his. He deepened the kiss just a little, wanting to savor every moment, every bit of her….
What a Woman Needs
What a Gentleman Wants
What a Rogue Desires
A Rake’s Guide to Seduction
Published by Kensington Publishing Corporation
Kensington Publishing Corp.
For Ruth and Lucas:
I miss you both.
Anthony Hamilton was born scandalous, and his reputation did not improve as he grew.
He was the only son of the earl of Lynley, but it was almost a proven fact that he was not Lynley’s own child. Lady Lynley, a much younger woman than her husband, had not borne a child in the first ten years of her marriage and then, out of the blue, gave birth to a strapping, handsome lad who didn’t look a thing like Lord Lynley, nor any of the Hamiltons for that matter. Lynley had not repudiated his wife or the child, but the fact that Lady Lynley and her son spent most of their time away from Lynley Court seemed proof of…something.
Mr. Hamilton had been a thoroughly wild boy as well. He was asked to leave no fewer than three schools—mostly for fighting, but once for cheating a professor at cards. He had finished his education at Oxford in record time, then set himself up in London to begin a life that could only be called, in hushed tones, depraved and immoral. That was when he had stopped using his courtesy title as well; he no longer allowed people to call him Viscount Langford, as befitted the Lynley heir, but insisted on being plain Mr. Hamilton. That, combined with his regular appearances at high-stakes gaming tables and the steady stream of wealthy widows and matrons he kept company with, painted him blacker than black, utterly irredeemable, and absolutely, deliciously fascinating to the
There was the time he wagered everything he owned, including the clothing he was wearing at the time, at the hazard table and somehow walked away with a small fortune. There was his infamous but vague wager with Lady Nicols—no one quite seemed to know the precise details—that ended with Lady Nicols handing him her priceless rubies in the midst of a ball at Carleton House. There was the time Sir Henry Milton accused him of siring the child Lady Milton carried at the time; Mr. Hamilton simply smiled, murmured a few words in Sir Henry’s ear, and within an hour the two men were sharing a bottle of wine, looking for all the world as if they were bosom friends. He was rumored to be on the verge of being taken to the Fleet one night, and as rich as Croesus the next. He was a complete contradiction, and he only inflamed the gossips’ interest by being utterly discreet. For such a wicked man, he was remarkably guarded.
Celia Reece had heard all the stories about him. Despite her mother’s admonitions, Celia had developed a fondness for gossip in her first Season in London, and all the best bits seemed to involve him in one way or another. Although Anthony Hamilton might not be—quite—the most scandalous person in London, he was the most scandalous person she knew, and as such she found his exploits hugely entertaining.
He had been friends with her brother David for as long as Celia could remember and had often come to Ainsley Park, the Reece family estate, for school holidays. As he had grown more and more disreputable, he had stopped visiting—Celia suspected her mother had banned him from coming—but she still remembered him fondly, almost as an extra brother. He had tied her fishing lines and helped launch her kites, and it gave her no end of amusement that he was now so wicked, young ladies were afraid to walk past him alone.
Naturally, his reputation meant that she was never to speak to him again. Celia’s mother, Rosalind, had drummed it into her daughter’s head that proper young ladies did not associate with wicked gentlemen. Celia had restrained herself from pointing out that her own brother was every bit as wild as Mr. Hamilton, but she had obeyed her mother for the most part. She was having a grand time in her first Season and didn’t want to do anything to spoil it, particularly not anything that would get her sent back to Ainsley Park in disgrace for associating with wicked gentlemen.
Fortunately, there were so many other gentlemen to choose from. As the daughter and now sister of the duke of Exeter, Celia was a very eligible young lady. The earl of Carrick sent her lilies every week. Sir Henry Avenall sent her roses. The duke of Ware had asked her to dance more than once, Viscount Graves had taken her driving in the Park, and Lord Andrew Bertram wrote sonnets to her. It was nothing less than exhilarating, being courted by so many gentlemen.
Tonight, for instance, Lord Euston was being very attentive. The handsome young earl was a prime catch, with an estate in Derbyshire and a respectable fortune. He was also a wonderful dancer, and Celia loved to dance. When he approached her for the third time, she smiled at him.
“Lady Celia, I should like to have this dance.” He bowed very smartly. He had handsome manners, too.
Celia blushed. He must know she couldn’t possibly dance with him again. “Indeed, sir, I think I must refuse.”
He didn’t look surprised or disappointed. “I think you must as well. Would you consent to take a turn on the terrace with me instead?”
A turn on the terrace—alone with a gentleman! She darted a glance at her mother, several feet away. Rosalind was watching and gave a tiny nod of permission, with an approving look at Lord Euston. Her stomach jumped. She had never taken a private stroll with a gentleman. She excused herself from her friends, all of whom watched enviously, and put her hand on Lord Euston’s arm.
“I am honored you would walk with me,” he said as they skirted the edge of the ballroom.
“It is my pleasure, sir.” She smiled at him, but he merely nodded and didn’t speak again. They stepped through the open doors, into the wonderfully fresh and cool night air. Instead of remaining near the doors, though, Lord Euston kept walking, leading her toward the far end of the terrace where it was darker and less crowded. Far less crowded; almost deserted, really. Celia’s heart skipped a beat. What did he intend? None of her other admirers had kissed her. Lord Euston wasn’t quite her favorite among them, but it would be immensely flattering if he tried to kiss her. And shouldn’t she have some practice at kissing?
Celia’s curiosity flared to life, and she stole a glance at her companion. He was a little handsomer in the moonlight, she thought, trying to imagine what his lips would feel like. Would it be pleasant, or awkward? Should she be modest and retiring, or more forward? Should she even allow him the liberty at all? Should—?
“There is something I must say to you.” Celia wet her lips, preparing herself, still trying to decide if she would allow it. But he made no move toward her. “Lady Celia,” he began, laying one hand on his heart, “I must tell you how passionately I adore you.”
She hadn’t quite expected that. “Oh. Er…Oh, indeed?”
“Since the moment I first saw you, I have thought of nothing but you,” he went on with growing fervor. “My will is overruled by fate. To deliberate would demean my love, which blossomed at first sight.” He took her hand, looking at her expectantly.
“I—I am flattered, sir,” she said after a pregnant pause.
“And do you adore me?” he prompted. Celia’s eyes widened in confusion.
“I—Well, that is…I…” She cleared her throat. “What?”
“Do you adore me?” he repeated with unnerving intensity.
No. Of course she didn’t. He was handsome and a wonderful dancer, and she probably would have let him steal a chaste kiss on the cheek, but adore him? No. She wished she hadn’t let him lead her all the way out here. What on earth was she to do now? “Lord Euston, I don’t think this is a proper thing to discuss.”
He resisted her gentle attempts to pull free of his grasp. “If it is maidenly reserve that prevents you saying it, I understand. If it is fear of your family’s disapproval, I understand. You have but to say one word, and I will wait a thousand years for you.”
“Oh, please don’t.” She pulled a little harder, and he squeezed her hand a little tighter.
“Or you might say another word, and we could go to His Grace tonight. We could be married before the end of the Season, my dearest Lady Celia.”
“Ah, but—but my brother’s away from town,” she said, edging backward. Euston followed, pulling her toward him, now gripping her one hand in his two.
“I shall call on him the moment he returns.”
“I wish you wouldn’t,” Celia whispered.
“Your modesty enthralls me.” He crowded nearer, his eyes feverish.
“Sweet Celia, make me immortal with a kiss!” Celia grimaced and turned her face away from his. She was never going to dance with Lord Euston again. What a wretched first kiss this would be.
“Good evening,” said an affable new voice just then.
Lord Euston released her at once, recoiling a step as he spun around toward the intruder. Celia put her freed hands behind her, suddenly horrified at what she had done. Goodness—she was alone, in the dark, with an unmarried gentleman—if they were discovered here, she could be ruined.
“Lovely evening, isn’t it?” said Anthony Hamilton as he strolled up, a glass of champagne in each hand.
“Yes,” said Euston stiffly. Celia closed her eyes, relief flooding her as she recognized her savior. Surely he, of all people, would understand and not cause trouble for her.
“Lady Celia. A pleasure to see you again.” He gave her a secretive smile, as if he knew very well what he had interrupted and found it highly amusing.
“Mr. Hamilton,” she murmured, bobbing a curtsy. For a moment everyone stood in awkward silence.
“We should return to the ball.” Lord Euston extended his hand to her, pointedly not looking at the other man.
“No!” Celia exclaimed without thinking. Euston froze, startled. She flushed. “I shall return in a moment, sir,” she said more politely, grasping for any excuse not to go with him. “The air is so fresh and cool.”
“Yes,” said Euston grimly. He didn’t look nearly so handsome anymore. “Yes. I see. Good evening, Lady Celia.”
Celia murmured a reply, willing him to leave. “Good evening, Euston,” added Mr. Hamilton.
Lord Euston jerked, darting a suspicious glance at Mr. Hamilton. “Good evening, sir.” He hesitated, gave Celia a deeply disappointed look, then walked away.
Celia swung around, bracing her hands on the balustrade that encircled the terrace. Good heavens. That had not turned out at all the way she had expected. Why had her mother approved of him?
“That,” said Mr. Hamilton, leaning against the balustrade beside her, “may be the worst marriage proposal I have ever heard.”
She closed her eyes and took a deep breath. It didn’t work. The giggles bubbled up inside her and finally burst free. She pressed one hand to her mouth. “I suppose you heard everything he said?”
“I suppose,” he agreed. “Including the part he stole from Marlowe.”
“No! Really?” Celia gasped. He just smiled, and she groaned. “You mustn’t repeat it to anyone.”
“Of course not,” he said in mild affront. “I should be ashamed to say such things aloud. It would quite ruin my reputation.” Celia laughed again, and he smiled. “Would you care for some champagne?”
“Thank you.” She took the glass he offered, and sipped gratefully.
He set the other glass on the balustrade and leaned on his elbows, surveying the dark gardens in front of them. “So you weren’t trying to bring Euston up to scratch?”
“Don’t be ridiculous.” She snorted, then remembered she wasn’t supposed to do that. “I would never have walked out with him if I’d thought he meant to propose.”
“Why did you, then?” He glanced at her, his expression open and relaxed, inviting confidence. Celia sighed, sipping more champagne.
“He’s a wonderful dancer,” she said.
“And a dreadful bore,” he said in the same regretful tone. Celia looked at him in shock, then burst out laughing.
“That’s dreadful of you to say, but—but—well, perhaps he is.”
“Perhaps,” he murmured.
“And now he is probably telling my mother.” She sighed. Walking out with Lord Euston, with her mother’s permission, was one thing; lingering in the darkness with a man—let alone a notorious rake her mother strenuously disapproved of—was another. “I really should return.”
“Did you want him to kiss you, then?”
She stopped in the act of turning to go. He was still facing the gardens, away from her, but after a moment had passed and she said nothing, he glanced at her. “Did you?” he asked again, his voice a shade deeper.
Celia drew closer. He turned, now leaning on one elbow, his full attention fixed on her. She didn’t know another gentleman who could appear so approachable. She had forgotten how easy he was to talk to. “You mustn’t laugh at me, Anthony,” she warned, unconsciously using his Christian name as she had done for years. “I—I’ve never been kissed before, and it seemed like the perfect night for it, and…well, until he started demanding to know if I adored him, it was quite romantic. It
” she protested as his mouth curved. “We can’t all be disreputable, with all sorts of scandalous adventures.”
His smile stiffened. “Nor should you be.”
“But you should?” She grinned, glad to be teasing him instead of the other way around. “Every gossip in London adores you, you know.”
He sighed, shaking his head. “I’m neither so daring nor so foolish as they like to think. Perhaps you, as a pillar of propriety, can tell me how to escape their pernicious notice.”
“Why, that is easy,” she said with a wave of one hand. “Find a girl, fall desperately in love with her, and settle down to have six children and raise dogs. No one will say a word about you, then.”
Anthony chuckled. “Ah, there’s the rub. What you suggest is more easily said than done, miss.”
“Have you ever tried?”
He shrugged. “No.”
“Then how can you say it’s so difficult?” she exclaimed. “There are dozens of young ladies looking for a husband. You must simply ask one—”
He gave a soft
“I couldn’t possibly.”
Celia’s eyes lit. “That sounds almost like a challenge.”
He glanced at her from the corner of his eye, then grinned. “It’s not. Don’t try your matchmaking on me. I’m a hopeless case.”
“Of course you’re not,” she said stoutly. “Why, any lady in London—”
“Would not suit me, nor I her.”
“Miss Weatherby,” said Celia.
“Lady Jane Cranston.”
“Too…” He paused, his gaze sharpening on her as he thought, and Celia opened her mouth, ready to exclaim in delight that he could find no fault with Lucinda Alcomb, who was a very nice girl. “Too merry,” he said at last.