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Authors: Cari Hislop

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Redeeming a Rake

BOOK: Redeeming a Rake
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Redeeming a Rake

Copyright 2008 Cari Hislop

Smashwords Edition, License Notes

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Books by Cari Hislop can be read online at
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Other books in the Regency World of Cari
Hislop include:

Lucky
in Love

A
Companion for Life

The
Hired Wife

The
Invisible Husband

Taming
the Shrew

Redeeming a Rake

An
Unlikely Hero

Introducing Smirke

 

Redeeming a Rake

 

Chapter 1

August 1815

Vacant pale blue eyes shrouded by long
strands of greasy black hair stared out of flesh the colour of
soured milk at the flickering flames in the grate. Geoffrey Lindsey
Grayson, the thirteenth Duke of Lyndhurst, sat enthroned in a
shabby wingback chair in a small room at the front of a narrow
medieval house in a forgotten corner of London where a few timbered
buildings had survived the Great Fire of 1666. The parlour, a dark
dingy room, stank of its single occupant who’d become so accustomed
to the stench of his unwashed linen he could no longer smell it. At
the age of thirty-seven, after seventeen years of debauchery,
Geoffrey had become one of the living dead. The ruthless seething
rage that had propelled him from one physical pleasure to the next
had been snuffed out. Nothing aroused him. Nothing brought him
pleasure. His favourite dishes were like infants’ pap, tasteless.
Out of sheer indifference he would have deprived his body of all
sustenance until his heart stopped beating, but twice a day his
servants would put a tray of food in front of him and sing sickly
love ballads off-key until he finished eating. They were retaining
their positions by keeping the Devil’s Corpse alive. Being alive,
however, was no consolation for the man who finally felt as dead as
he looked.

Resting a gaunt cheek against one propped up
hand, Geoffrey ignored his aching back and nether regions as his
thoughts drifted like mental storm clouds over a sea of glass. How
long had he been sitting there? It seemed pointless to count the
months. Nobody cared if he was alive or dead as long as their bills
were paid. No one had written. No one had called. His lips curled
into a faint sneer as he consoled himself with the fact there was
no frigid thirteenth Duchess or miserable offspring to ruin his
life, but then the odds of having legitimate offspring weren’t in
his favour. A man who had difficulty convincing hungry prostitutes
to share his bed was unlikely to find a worthy lady willing to take
on the frequent conjugal duties of a wife. He’d committed the ton’s
one unpardonable sin, he’d become visually unpalatable marriage
material.

He’d be buried a friendless corpse. No one
would miss him. Not a single tear would be shed. The thought almost
pierced the nothingness. His secret longing to be loved had been
ravished along the road to depravity. The possibility of happiness
was little more than a haunting memory of large trusting eyes and
the smile of an angel. How old would she be he wondered…
twenty-three? He’d lost count of the years. The half starved girl
was probably dead. The thought of her living sunlight entombed in
the earth tore through the nothingness making his heart sink as he
shifted in his chair trying to prolong the sensation. He could have
learnt her parent’s names. He could have purchased her freedom.
Child brides had gone out of fashion, but weren’t unheard of. He
would have sent her to live with his mother and wooed the girl from
a distance with letters and gifts until he owned her heart. She
would have married him over an anvil at sixteen and filled his
darkness with innocent sunlight. Seeing that smile every day would
have given him a reason to be kind, a reason to live.

One more dream swept up with the dust and
thrown away with the ashes. It was too late, lost dreams didn’t
matter when one couldn’t feel disappointed. He could see no escape
from the darkness wrapped around him like an endless winter. It
would choke the dregs of goodness from his heart until the beating
organ turned to stone. His unhappy thoughts were disturbed as the
parlour door creaked open.

“Post, Your Grace.” Geoffrey listened to his
aging butler shuffle across to his chair. Geoffrey’s pale blue eyes
flickered towards the silver tray held in wrinkled hands, but the
gleam of interest died as he noted the solitary ‘Lyndhurst’
scrawled across the folded piece of paper. His first impulse was to
fling it unread into the fire, but the possibility of feeling angry
was too tempting. Reaching out a pale hand, he picked it up and
broke the wax seal with his overgrown thumbnail. The thick
expensive paper crackled open, smooth and cold to the touch.

“Oh what unspeakable joy…” His voice was
flat, the nothingness suffocating his sarcasm. “The Duchess is
holding another infernal ball this evening at my expense and
demands that I come do my duty and find a wife before I die of some
unmentionable disease.” Normally being summoned to attend one of
his mother’s social events made him foam at the mouth in rage, but
with the nothing pressing down he couldn’t care. Half crumpling the
paper, Geoffrey tossed it towards the fire, but it fell short on
the hearth.

“It might be diverting Your Grace.”

“Diverting from what Howard, death?”

“Death is highly overrated my Lord. You may
be fated to meet a diverting female.”

Pale blue eyes that almost looked
exasperated rolled towards the butler’s face. “Are you trying to
make me laugh? My reflection gives me nightmares. Who would I
meet?”

“A blind woman who longs to marry a wealthy
rake-hell?”

“I might also meet an angel who thinks I’m
beautiful. What are the odds?”

“A trifle long Your Grace, but you might
enjoy the music. Your mother always hires the best musicians…”

“And then sends me the bill.”

“If you were to attend you would at least
get something for your money.”

“Yes, indigestion.”

“Your appearance would irritate a certain
member of your family.”

“True, my sister hates it when I blight her
fantasy that she only has one brother.”

“You might find it diverting to insist she
introduce you to all her friends.”

“I could loudly ask Sophia for a dance. My
beautiful sister would be forced to dance with the hideous Devil’s
Corpse. Geoffrey’s lips curled back from his teeth. “I could ask
her for three dances. People would think I was in love with my own
sister. She’d have nightmares for months…”

“And the Duchess would be livid.”

“The hateful cow might even have to look at
me for ten seconds and remember she gave birth to me. That would
increase her misery. What the hell, I might as well go as sit here
and die.”

The Butler exhaled a loud sigh of relief. At
last the maid could clean the small parlour and remove the chair
which smelled as bad as its occupant. “I shall order a hip bath
Your Grace.”

“Soap and water aren’t going to make me less
hideous Howard.”

“No Your Grace, but they will make you smell
more pleasant.” Geoffrey gave his Butler a long vacant stare. With
the nothing pressing down on his brain Geoffrey couldn’t care that
his servants had become impertinent.

“If I must.”

Chapter 2

Twenty-four pink marble pillars were spaced
around the perimeter of the ballroom, supporting a ceiling carved
into geometrical patterns painted pink, black and white. The
Palladian splendour was a neoclassical relic of the eleventh Duke
of Lyndhurst and his obsession with spending his wife’s money on
refurbishing his townhouse into a palace. With the musicians
returning from a break, the eight hundred guests were gathered into
small groups that organically trailed out the two side doors into
other rooms, leaving the main entrance and the center of the room
nearly empty.

Near the front of the room, the Widow
Spencer was surrounded by laughing people feeling dizzy with
freedom and the pleasure of being a part of such a large crowd. The
formal year of mourning her husband, to preserve the proprieties,
was over. Charles Spencer, an aging rake-hell, had nearly
suffocated her with his possessive jealousy and cruel intimacy.
With a baby son and full control of a healthy estate there was no
imminent need to become another man’s property, but even as she
dismissed the thought of remarriage she scanned the room wondering
if one of the men could be her childhood hero. It was a silly habit
that always brought her pleasure. She knew she’d never find him;
there was no way she’d know him. Her hero had been a kind faceless
shadow in a wingback chair turned away from the direct heat of a
large winter fire. She shouldn’t have gone into the private
parlour, but she thought it was empty until she’d turned away from
the fire to see an elegant hand adorned with a large ruby
protruding from a pale blue velvet sleeve resting on the arm of the
chair.

Her Knight in pale blue velvet was most
likely married with children or dead. The thought made her eyes
water. Just because she’d prayed every day since that fateful
evening that she’d one day find the mystery man to thank him for
his kindness, didn’t mean she’d ever learn his identity or that
he’d desire her friendship. She gently coaxed the dream back into
its special corner of her heart and smiled at the rainbow of silk
dresses weaving through the maze of prominently black and white
clothed gentlemen many who bowed on catching her eye. Every smiling
man made her want to twirl in joyous circles; she was no longer
chained to a miserable husband who’d beat her for accidentally
smiling in the direction of another man. She let out a deep sigh of
relief; Charles Spencer’s one kind act had been to fall off his
horse while hunting and break his neck.

She was looking for her next partner when
the tuning orchestra screeched off-key into silence and a hush
rolled over the ballroom. Following the gaze of the other guests,
Mrs Spencer turned towards the open double doors, her skin tingling
with inexplicable excitement. A tall thin man dressed in pale blue
silk stared back at the silent crowd through a ruby encrusted
monocle hanging from a pale blue ribbon around his neck. There was
only one reason the servants would have allowed the terrifying man
into the house, he could only be the never mentioned Duke of
Lyndhurst. Dark purple bruises encircled hollow eyes in a face like
sun bleached parchment that accentuated blood red lips. His slender
frame wasted away to skeletal proportions, his clothes hung loose
as if they belonged to another man. Even pale blue silk stockings
draped from his knee caps. Long black hair pulled tight off his
face was plaited and wrapped in an old fashioned pale blue queue.
He looked like a parody, a living character from one of
Rowlandson’s prints mocking the over bred aristocracy.

***

Sneering at the dumbstruck crowd with serene
contempt, Geoffrey’s roving gaze settled on a skirt of pale blue
that could have been cut from the same bolt of cloth as his own
coat and breeches. His cynical thoughts swept up over generous
curves, flawless porcelain skin, and… He didn’t have time to note
the woman’s plain features. Meeting benevolent excited eyes, he
blinked and in that eternal moment he was pleasantly stunned until
a sharp stab of pain hammered through his forehead into the back of
his skull. Wincing, he missed a corresponding look of astonishment
on the woman’s face. As the sensation faded he held his head high
and stepped into the room. The shroud of nothingness ripped open,
he could feel blood pumping through his veins as he impulsively
moved toward the young woman, but the crowd closed around her
forcing him to retreat to the other side of the room. Frustration
squeezed into his heart like sweet drops of rain ending a drought.
For the first time in six months he could feel something.

Leaning against one of the pink marble
pillars, he studied the plain debutante through his eyeglass. White
blonde hair, coiled on top of her head was plaited with pale blue
ribbons and held in place with ruby encrusted combs. His heart
pumped heated blood through his body; who was this woman wearing
his colours? Had no one thought to tell her they declared her
attached to a devil? She seemed strangely familiar, but with his
cursed excellent memory he would have remembered her. Irritation
joined frustration as the milling crowd screened her from view
every few seconds. Clenching tongue between his teeth he resisted
the mad impulse to order people to get out of the way. Misery
pressed down on his lungs making it hard to breathe until she
glanced in his direction. Once again able to breathe, his heart
pumped boiling blood through his cold limbs urging him to push his
way to her side and rudely introduce himself. Dropping his
eyeglass, he folded his arms and forcibly leant back against the
pillar. He knew what would happen; she’d be horrified by his
presumption and his person and he’d hate himself for revealing a
weakness. She was probably a silly short-sighted debutante excited
to see the infamous Duke and hadn’t yet been advised not to wear
his colours. She probably couldn’t see he was hideous. It seemed
wise to leave it that way.

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