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Authors: Anne O'Brien

Rake Beyond Redemption

BOOK: Rake Beyond Redemption
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‘Here. Drink this,’ Zan ordered.

The girl sighed, accepted the glass, then sipped.

Zan tossed back a glass of brandy himself before he turned to her. To his amazement his temper heated, rapid and out of control, then bubbled up to spill out in hard words. ‘What were you thinking, madam, getting yourself trapped by an incoming tide? Did you not see what was happening?’

The soft summer blue of her gaze sharpened, as did her voice. ‘No, I did not see. Or I would not have been trapped, would I?’

She had spirit. He’d give her that. Zan raised his brows as his irritation began to ebb. ‘Now what do I do with you?’

‘You do nothing with me.’ Her eyes flashed. ‘I am very grateful that you rescued me, of course, but I am perfectly capable of returning home on my own. You are at liberty to ride on your way.’

Zan simply stood and looked at her, torn between amusement and frustration. She sat and looked back at him, mutiny in her face.

And there it was. The sword of Damocles fell.

RAKE BEYOND REDEMPTION
Anne O’Brien

www.millsandboon.com.au

ANNE O’BRIEN
was born and has lived for most of her life in Yorkshire. There she taught history, before deciding to fulfil a lifetime ambition to write romantic historical fiction. She won a number of short story competitions until published for the first time by Mills & Boon. As well as writing, she finds time to enjoy gardening, cooking and watercolour painting. She now lives with her husband in an eighteenth-century cottage in the depths of the Welsh Marches.

You can find out about Anne’s books and more at her website: www.anneobrien.co.uk

To George, as ever, with love.

AUTHOR NOTE

COMPROMISED MISS ended with Luke and Harriette finding true happiness together. But two of the characters in COMPROMISED MISS, both of them dear to my heart, were left under a dark cloud. Marie-Claude de la Roche from France, young, unhappy, widowed with a small child to raise, might have been rescued from physical danger, but was now dependent on an unknown family in a new country. And then there was Alexander Ellerdine, unscrupulous rake and smuggler, his character ruined beyond redemption, guilty by his own admission of any number of terrible sins and cast off by his family.

Both were alone and, for different reasons, without hope.

Were they to remain so? I decided I could not abandon them, and RAKE BEYOND REDEMPTION came to be written. Marie-Claude needed a new life, and the chance of love to replace the one she had lost. Could it be with the disreputable rake Alexander Ellerdine? It would seem to be completely beyond belief with a man of Alexander’s black and vicious reputation. How could the immoral villain of COMPROMISED MISS possibly be reinstated into Polite Society?

But perhaps…

Read on to discover how Alexander and Marie-Claude find their destiny together against all the odds. I’m certain you will love the grief and passion, the pain and the eventual fulfilment in their story as much as I enjoyed writing it.

Chapter One

June 1818

Lydyard’s Pride, a rambling manor house on the cliffs above the smuggling village of Old Wincomlee, Sussex

‘H
ow can you not be happy? What more can you possibly want from life than what you have? Considering everything, you should be deliriously content!’

Alone in her bedchamber overlooking the cliff top and endless succession of sprightly waves, Marie-Claude Hallaston, her French accent more pronounced than usual, raised her chin at her own sharp reprimand and continued to draw patterns with her fingertip on the grimy, salt-encrusted pane. Leaves and scrolls bloomed around her artistically executed initials, becoming more flamboyant as she replied with a cross frown, ‘I really don’t know what I want. I’ve no idea what’s sunk my spirits, that’s the problem.’ She added another swirl of vegetation to the pattern on the glass, before regarding her begrimed finger with distaste.

Perhaps it was the remnants of the fever that had laid
her low in the spring months and had robbed her of all her spirits, the reason she was now here at Lydyard’s Pride, to enjoy the benefits of sea air and restore her to health. Perhaps. Or, Marie-Claude added with a sigh, ‘Perhaps it’s because I see myself as a widow for the rest of my life, wearing black, high-collared gowns and lace caps!’

And Marie-Claude breathed on the glass to obliterate the leaves before, rather wistfully, drawing the outline of a little heart.

Then impatiently swiped the heart away with the heel of her hand.

This was no good. Rather than simply standing at the window and looking at the view, wallowing in wretched self-pity, she’d go and walk off her megrims. At least here at Lydyard’s Pride she had no need to take a maid or one of the servants to escort her. No one knew her here. No one would think her immodest or in need of a chaperon. Besides, as a widow of long standing—six years!—she had earned the right to do as she pleased.

On which note of defiance, Marie-Claude tied the satin ribbons of a plain straw bonnet—very suitable for a walk along the cliffs—and put on a dark blue velvet spencer over her gown of celestial-blue silk with its intricate knots of ribbon and ruched hem—not suitable at all for striding along the beach, but what matter. She exchanged her silk pumps for a pair of ankle boots, stalwart but still elegant on her narrow feet, and set off down the steep path to the cove and the village of Old Wincomlee. The light breeze was gentle, the sun dipping towards the sea, glowing on an enticing patch of shingle at the base of the cliff where the inlet narrowed to the first row of cottages, turning the stones
a soft pink in the light. Little waves, lace-edged, frilled on to the pebbles. That’s where she would go with no one to please but herself.

Alone. Always alone
, the voice whispered in her mind. The little racing waves repeated the phrase as they shushed on the pebbles.
Alone.

Marie-Claude’s hands stilled on the ivory handle of her parasol as she prepared to snap open the delicate silk and lace. Would she go to her grave, never again knowing the nearness of a man who was more than brother or friend to her? Would she never have a
lover
? It swept through her, a driving need, an intense heat that raced over her skin. Suddenly her throat was desert dry with a longing, a longing so strong to feel the touch of a man’s hard mouth against hers. To shiver under the determined caress of experienced fingers. To know the slide of naked flesh against hers, slick and hot with desire. To know the possession of a man’s urgent body…

Well! Marie-Claude swallowed. Her breathing was shallow, her cheeks flushed as she finally snapped the parasol open. Such wanton thoughts. She should be ashamed—but found it difficult to be so. Why should she not imagine a perfection of male beauty if she wished to? Even if she was a widow with a five-year-old son. With a little laugh at her impossible dreaming, she twirled the lace parasol so that the fringe danced, and as the sea and shingle beckoned, Marie-Claude strode out down the cliff path, well-worn and distinct for a lady who was neat of foot. Something would happen. Surely there was something in fate’s hand waiting for her.

At the brisk pace she set herself, Marie-Claude was
soon stepping on to the beach. The scrunch of shingle was loud beneath her feet, and made for heavy going, but she persisted until she was at the water’s edge, where she lifted her face to the kiss of sun and salty air. Her hair would curl outrageously but she did not care, her mood revived. How Raoul, her son, at present with Luke and Harriette at The Venmore, would love this. One day she must bring him here. Picking up one of the flat pebbles, she threw it far out, dusting the sand from her fingers, momentarily wishing for a man at her side to teach her son such skills as stone-skimming—perhaps even her mythical lover, she thought wryly—but she would do it just as well.

Her mind more at ease with the pretty scene, Marie-Claude walked slowly along the water’s edge, stepping back as the waves encroached and retreated, encroached again. The tide had turned, she realised. Not that she knew anything about tides.

‘You don’t know much about anything really,’ Marie-Claude commented waspishly, then laughed as a pair of gulls wheeled and screamed overhead as if in reply. ‘And you are undoubtedly a foolish woman!’

But her optimism had returned.

The sun was descending rapidly now towards the horizon, reminding Marie-Claude of the need to retrace her steps. She turned on her heel.

And froze with a little gasp of surprise. And trepidation. In front of her, between her feet and the cliff with its steep track, a fast-flowing channel of water had appeared. How careless she had been. Why had she not had the sense to take note of the path of the incoming sea? Any woman of wit would have done so! But it was no great matter after all. She spun round towards the
village itself. So she would have to make her way up the inlet and into Old Wincomlee, past the old inn, the Silver Boat, then walk around the path on the top of the cliff. A long way, she sighed, but the evening was still fair, the light good.

Her optimism was short-lived. A thread of anxiety encircled her heart, and tightened at what she saw. An expanse of water, little waves chasing one after the other, stretched before her as well as at her side, fast running now, growing deeper by the second. Behind her the first little wave lapped at her boots.

Surrounded!

Mon Dieu!
Marie-Claude took a breath and swallowed hard against the first leap of real fear. No point in being afraid. She’d lived through worse dangers than this in her life. She’d just have to brave the water. It wasn’t too deep yet. No point at all in standing here, frozen in indecision.

Closing the parasol with fingers that did not quite tremble and tucking it beneath her arm, Marie-Claude hitched her skirts and stepped into the water, pushing herself forwards as it suddenly grew far deeper than she could have imagined. For a moment she considered retreating to the little island of shingle, but she knew she must not. Summoning all her courage, she forced herself to take another step and then another. Around her the waves were swirling, overlapping each other. Her boots, her skirts and petticoats were soaked and heavy. The stones beneath her feet sucked and slid, making progress slow and difficult. How had the sunny evening suddenly become so menacing, so threatening? Grasping her skirts tighter, Marie-Claude had to fight to stop panic anchoring her in her tracks.

The cottages of Old Wincomlee and the roof of the Silver Boat suddenly seemed an impossibly long way distant.

Ellerdine Manor: a manor house on the cliff top, a mile west of the smuggling village of Old Wincomlee

A cold sensation trickled through his chest. Alexander Ellerdine, at some half-seen, half-heard command, raised his head, pushed himself upright, hands tightening over the carved arms of his chair, then, with an impatient shrug and a flex of his fingers, allowed himself to settle back. The spaniel at his side subsided with a sigh.

‘Just a goose walking over my grave, Bess.’ The gentleman’s voice was heavily sardonic as he stretched to run a light caress over the dog’s ears. ‘Nothing new in that!’

Shadows began to lengthen in the room as afternoon dipped into early evening. There were still long hours of daylight left to be enjoyed, but the corners of the shabby library in Ellerdine Manor where the sun no longer reached on this June evening were dark and sombre with neglect. Alexander Ellerdine sprawled in a well-worn Chippendale Windsor chair, booted feet crossed at the ankle on the desktop. Before him, leaving careless rings of liquid on a mess of scattered papers, stood a half-empty decanter of superior French brandy, courtesy of the Brotherhood of the Free Traders. In his hand was a half-empty glass of the deep amber liquor. Clearly the focus of his mind was far distant. He did not see the unkempt surroundings. The threadbare carpet, the faded curtains at the windows, the worn upholstery on a once-elegant set of spindle-legged chairs, the undusted leatherbound books that looked as if they had not been taken
down from the shelves any time in the past decade—he did not notice them. Perhaps he was too used to the deficiencies of his library to note the depredations of time and lack of money. And of lack of interest.

Alexander Ellerdine. Gentleman, landowner, expert smuggler.

Wrecker.

A man with blood on his hands.

A man of ruthless energies and dangerous reputation.

Despite the dust and the worn furnishings, he made a striking impression. His home might be shabby, but he was not. Here was a man who had a care for appearances. His topboots were highly polished, his breeches well cut, his white shirt of good quality linen. If there was any carelessness it was the lack of a cravat, his shirt worn casually open at the neck to show his strong throat and the firm flesh of his chest. His hair, dark as to be almost black, was longer than was fashionable, curling against his collar, and disordered from the attentions of restless fingers. His eyes, set beneath similarly dark brows, were the deep blue of an angry, storm-whipped sea, hawk-like in their intensity. Even slouched as he was, it was clear that he was tall and rangy, not heavily built, but with a wiry athleticism that told of a life of action and strenuous activity. The hand gripped around the stem of the old glass was well moulded, fine-boned with long fingers, nails neatly pared. His face would have been formidably handsome, if it were not set in such sombre lines.

Suddenly, again, he turned his head, sharply, eyes and features arrested, at the echo of footsteps in the entrance hall. It was a breathtaking transformation. There was the dark glamour. The breathtaking allure of wild good looks fired with animation. But then the gleam of anticipation
was quenched, hooded beneath heavy lids as the sounds died away. Only his housekeeper, Mrs Shaw…Not the man he was half-expecting, Rackham or one of the other vicious minions of Captain D’Acre, commander of the smuggling gang out of Rottingdean. Not one of the Fly-By-Nights whose hold on the Free Trade along the Sussex coast was becoming more brutal by the month.

Alexander Ellerdine reached for the decanter to refill the glass as the house settled heavily around him, silent except for the creak of old timbers and the rattle of a loose pane of glass in the stiff breeze off the sea. Except that something—that same
something
—no more than a shiver of awareness, but still impossible to ignore, traced an uneasy path down his spine.

Irritated, Alexander lifted the decanter to pour another glass.

And froze, perfectly still. Hand outstretched. Listening. All senses suddenly stretched. Almost sniffing the air. Or sifting through the vibrations of some…What
was
it? That same slither of cold, now from his chest into his belly. A warning? Some presentiment of danger? There was the finger again—now of ice—scratching between his shoulder blades so that he inhaled sharply.

The spaniel at his side sat up.

‘What is it, Bess?’

He stilled her with his hand, but the foreboding did not go away, rather an uncomfortable breath of misgiving tripped across his skin, settled in the marrow of his bones. As he would have been the first to admit, he was not a man given to anxieties over the unseen and the unknown. Alexander Ellerdine was not a superstitious
man, but one who lived by his wits and his own resources. Confident and assured of his own skills, he had no truck with the smugglers’ fears of long-drowned sailors come back to haunt them or the ghosts of murdered excise-men roaming the cliffs. Captain Rodmell, the Preventives’ efficient and oh-so-capable Riding Officer and very much alive, was the greatest of his worries. But now in this empty room his flesh shivered. No idea what or why, Alexander tried to shrug it off, lifting the brandy to his lips.

But there was some
thing
that demanded his attention. Something was amiss. An urge to go and see for himself could not be shaken off and the longer he sat and debated, the stronger, more urgent the strange sense of fear grew…

That was it. Fear. A sense of mounting terror. As Alexander recognised the unusual emotion that jabbed beneath his ribs, he tossed back the rest of the brandy in the glass and pushed himself to his feet. Snatching up a well-cut riding-coat, he shrugged into it with casual but careless elegance. No doubt he was completely misguided and would find no reward for his efforts, but he’d saddle his mare and ride down to the harbour. Probably just a body of opportunistic excise-men lurking on the cliff on the unlikely off chance of tripping over a run of contraband. Alexander grinned with a feral show of teeth. No chance of that tonight, a night that would have a full moon and an abnormally high tide. Or perhaps Captain Rodmell of the Preventives was paying a passing visit to the inn, the Silver Boat, in Old Wincomlee. Nothing dangerous, nothing unusual in either occurrence. And yet…

He collected hat and riding whip, resigned to his
journey. If there was nothing to warrant this irritating sense of danger, well, there was nothing lost, and besides…A faint smile curved his mouth. If he was in the mood he might chance a flirtation with Sally, who dispensed the ale with a provocative swing of her hips and a sharp tongue.

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