Authors: Kathryn Caskie
A Lady’s Guide To Rakes
Copyright © 2005 by Kathryn Caskie
who doesn’t have a rakish bone in his body
(and who will be so relieved that I didn’t include the rest of this sentence)
There are several people I wish to thank for their above-and-beyond assistance with the creation of this story:
Shirley Vaughan of St. George’s Church in Hanover Square, London, England, for assisting me with fact checking.
My dear sister-in-law Lynn Rowlett and author Sophia Nash for their great expertise and unending willingness to answer all of my questions about horses.
Nancy Mayer, whose knowledge of the Regency Era is surpassed only by her boundless generosity. Any historical errors are strictly my own.
Deborah Bamhart and Denise McInerney for taking time from their own busy writing schedules and lives to read and comment on this book before publication.
And finally, Karen Townsend, one of my wonderful readers, who supplied me with a list of amusing names for Mr. Chillton’s cart horse.
Thank you all.
It is inadvisable to approach a rake without first observing him from a distance, where his seductive charms cannot overwhelm a lady’s gentle sensibilities.
The maddening heat from the aged balloon’s fire sent sweat trickling beneath Meredith Merriweather’s corset. Still, she held the lens of her spyglass ever firm and focused squarely on the impeccably dressed gentleman strolling along the bank of the rippling Serpentine, some forty feet below.
“Oh, dash it all, can’t you bring the basket any lower?” she shouted to her pilot as she momentarily lowered the spyglass. “Lookthere, he’s getting away!”
“I’ll see what I can do, Miss Merriweather, but I’ll not be promisin’ a thing,” the Irishman droned, and Meredith was sure she saw him roll his eyes at her.
Movement caught her notice then and abruptly she lifted the glass to watch a sable-haired woman who approached from the north. “Go to it, Giselle,” Meredith urged beneath her breath. “Work your charms.”
Meredith held her breath and waited. Surely the man would not be able to resist the French courtesan’s dark beauty or the seductive sway of her hips. No man could. Giselle’s allure was studied. Perfect.
A huge onion-shaped shadow fell over the gentleman as the balloon passed between him and the sun. He turned and, cupping the edge of his hand over his brow, peered upward, squinting at the balloon’s massive silhouette.
Meredith’s muscles tensed briefly, but then relaxed. Even if he saw her, she reasoned, there was nothing to fear. Balloon ascensions in Hyde - Park were commonplace these days, and seeing a great floating orb, while extraordinary, was certainly nothing to warrant suspicion.
She turned the glass on Giselle once more. “Oh no.” Why was she beckoning him toward the trees? Meredith whipped the spyglass from her eye. Hadn’t she bade Giselle to stay to the footpath—
in plain view!
Meredith jerked her head around to be sure the balloon’s pilot understood the urgency of the situation. “We’re going to lose sight of them! Bring us lower,
The leather-faced pilot stared back at her with his queer, unblinking, insectlike eyes. Why wouldn’t he do as she asked? She had paid him four times his normal fare, after all!
“Beggin’ yer pardon, miss.” He shot a nervous glance over the edge of the basket’s frayed woven lip. “But another few feet and we’ll be sittin’ in the oak tops—or worse. How badly do you need to spy on that bloke? Is it worth crashin’ through the bloomin’ branches?”
Meredith gasped at his effrontery. “How dare you accuse me of spying! I am conducting a scientific experiment—one that you, sirrah, are about to ruin.”
Tipping her gaze over the edge of the basket, she peered at the unfurling leaves on the jutting branches just below, then turned and looked hard at the impertinent pilot. “We have at least six feet to spare. Drop her three,
With a resigned shake of his capped head, the pilot waved to his tether handler, who stood squinting up at them from the ground below, and raised three stubby fingers.
The basket jerked and Meredith’s hip struck the side hard. “Thank you,” she admonished, leveling a narrowed eye at the pilot, who was working quite diligently to conceal the amused grin on his lips.
Spreading her feet wider for balance, Meredith rested her throbbing hip against the foremost corner of the basket. This was the closest she’d ever been to London’s most notorious rake, and even though she floated above the treetops, it was still too close for her comfort. Already a lacy red rash was working its way across her chest, and as she nervously scratched at it, she noticed that her palms were damp too.
Having had her own heart and reputation shattered by one of his ilk just two years past, Meredith knew what sort of damage Alexander Lamont and his kind were capable of wreaking.
She rested her elbows on the lip of the basket rail and raised the glass to her eye, trailing her view down the gentleman’s well-shaped form.
My word, even from this height, the rake’s appeal was plain to her. His jaw was firm, angular and lightly gilded from the sun. He was taller than most men, certainly. His muscular shoulders were broad, his waist trim and—
Swallowing hard, Meredith hurried the spyglass downward so that only his thighs, his delightfully sculpted thighs, were in her sight. She had to admit, without question he was the perfect physical specimen of the human male.
Still, if tearoom chatter was to be believed—and when was it not?—he was also the perfect example of a rogue… and the absolute worst sort at that. His name had been linked with scores of ladies, from society misses to theater chorus girls. This, however, was not what elevated him to the veriest pinnacle of rakedom. Being caught in bed with the young wife of a highly respected minister in the House of Commons had given the rotter that distinction.
Not for a moment did Meredith believe, as others seemed to, that Alexander the licentious Lord Lansing, had given up his rakish ways and truly reformed.
It wasn’t possible. And Meredith would prove it by observing Giselle’s progress in bringing out the rake’s
Lud, now Giselle was leading him toward a bench beneath a massive oak!
just a little lower,” Meredith implored the pilot
He shook his head solemnly. “Not wise.”
A growl pressed through Meredith’s lips as she crouched down to the flooring and removed the last four gold coins from her reticule. Rising, she pressed back her shoulders and made her final plea. “Another guinea per foot you manage to lower this contraption.”
The pilot hesitated for nearly a full minute, but it was clear by the tattered condition of the basket and the way he kept licking his weathered lips that he could already taste the money.
“Oh, very well. Four feet,” the pilot called oat to the man below. “Not a finger more.”
As if hearing the pilot’s instructions, Alexander Lamont looked up at the great red balloon, which now hovered only thirty feet above ground.
Meredith quickly hid her spyglass inside the basket and gazed out over the Serpentine, as If studying the waterbirds on its glistening surface. Suddenly she felt a horrifying scraping sensation beneath her feet.
The basket was descending into the treetops! Her gaze shot upward in time to see a limb gouge the red bulb of fabric, tearing savagely into it. There was a deafening flatulent outpouring of air and the basket lurched and fell. Sharp protruding branches sprouted up around her.
With a frightened squeal, Meredith dropped low and cowered down deep inside the basket, protecting her face with her hands.
“The skin’s been punctured. She’s comin’ down.” The pilot’s voice was thin with fear, heightening her own terror. “Hang on!”
“Hang on?” Meredith whipped her hands from her eyes and frantically searched the innards of the basket. There was nothing to grip. “To what, sir?”
“The rail, you twit. The rail!”
Crawling on her knees toward the pilot, Meredith slid her hands up the rough-hewn wicker side, scrabbled for the rail’s lip and clung to it.
But the shift in weight was too abrupt. The basket, already deep inside the tree canopy, tipped to the side, pouring her out of its pot like a last drop of tea.
Her back struck a thick limb and pain sucked the breath from her lungs. She gasped for air as she slipped from the branch and plummeted downward at a horrific speed, branches tearing at her gown and scraping her tender skin.
Meredith registered the wide-eyed shock in Alexander Lamont’s eyes as she careened toward him.
Heaven help me!
She squeezed her eyes shut.
His ribs were cracked. Maybe his spine too.
At the very least his new blue cutaway coat was ruined. He was lying in the dirt, after all.
What in Hades had happened?
Alexander lifted his head from a clod of grass and focused his eyes on a most intriguing sight—a pair of bare female thighs traversing his middle.
Damn it all.
No sooner had he vowed to remain celibate, to remain the veriest picture of decorum until marriage— or his father’s passing—when women bloody well started dropping from the sky.
Lying flat on his back, Alexander shoved a heavy branch from his shoulder and blew at the dew-dampened leaves sticking to his cheek. Every muscle smarted.
Slowly he raised himself onto one elbow and marveled at the shapely woman who lay across his body in a crumpled mass of dark blue silk.
She wasn’t moving, and for a clutch of seconds, Alexander was quite certain that she had gone and died right there atop him. But then he noticed the rapid rise and fall of her chest, and was able to breathe easier himself.
“Miss?” He gave his hip a bit of a bock. Still, she didn’t budge. “You’ve cut off the flow of blood to my legs. I say, can you move?”
No answer. This was looking worse by the moment.
He raised his right hand and found it caught in a fine web of copper ringlets. Unable to disentangle himself, he finally wrenched his fingers through the hair, but his golden signet ring caught and snagged a long tendril.
He heard a groan, and suddenly he was looking into the bluest eyes he’d ever seen. Glaring blue eyes, the color and hardness of polished sapphires.
“Sir, do you intend to rip every strand from my head, or might you leave me a few?”
He didn’t reply. He knew better, for there was no right answer. Women were shrewd that way.
Besides, her delicate hands, the color of sweet cream, were already working to free her hair. When finally liberated, she pushed up from his chest—with unnecessary force, Alexander decided, for at once unbelievable shards of pain knifed through his ribs.
Leaning back on her boot heels, she stared down at him, wincing ever so slightly as she bit into her pink full lower lip.
Framed by vibrant flaming hair, her oval, face seemed unnaturally pale, save a scarlet scrape traversing her left cheek.
“Can you stand?” Her voice was soft with concern now and she lifted a hand to him. But there was anger in her eyes. Indeed, as well as something more palpable. Loathing?
Planting his freed palm in the soft earth, Alexander raised himself to a painfal sitting position, willing himself not to grimace.
A look of relief eased across the young woman’s delicate features. “I… I thank you for… cushioning my fall.” As she spoke, she rested her thumbs at either side of her waist and from the tentative movement of her hands, he realized she was pressing her fingers to her spine. She sucked in a pained gasp. A twig snapped and she raised her eyes to a point behind Alexander’s head. Then he heard his new French acquaintance’s lilting voice: “You and your pilot are lucky to have been spared,
Look at the balloon.”
Alexander glanced up into the guts of the oak, where he saw a large wicker basket skewered by a thick limb.
There was a sudden thrash of leaves and a weatherworn pilot dropped down from a wide branch and thudded down oato a patch of damp earth nearby.
A burly fellow with a coil of rope looped around his shoulder and armpit, whom Alexander took to be the man’s tether handler, rushed forward through the trees, panting with exertion. “Is everyone w-well?”
“Aye, but we were just damned lucky.” The pilot turned an angry gaze on the fiery-haired lass. “I told ye we were too low,” he snarled, then shook a wild finger at the basket and the deflating balloon blanketing the tree’s soaring canopy. “And look at my
now! Ye owe me, miss, owe me quite a lot!”